Thursday, February 5, 2015

Jimmy's Blues, an Excerpt from "Freedom, Knowledge and Power" on the Nation's Arts at the Compulsive Reader

African-American experience and the principal interpretation of that experience go against the dominant myth of America as a free and open society: slavery and hateful discrimination, marked by brutality, exploitation, and ignored petitions for justice; and that difference from preferred myth inspires further difficulties and resistance. Part of the success of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was the appeal to ideals, to inclusion and justice, and the emphasis on a people ready to work and be good citizens. James Baldwin (1924 – 1987), the author of Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953), Notes of a Native Son (1955), Another Country (1962), The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), and Just Above My Head (1979), participated in the civil rights movement as activist and chronicler, and Baldwin spoke of the damage bigotry did to all Americans. In James Baldwin’s fiction and essays, one can find various themes—the centrality of consciousness and choice; the contact of people beyond the confinements of religion, class, race, gender and sexuality; the prevalence of the artist figure as personal and public conduit; the camaraderie of creative work; family as cauldron of conflict, torment, and sustenance; hypocrisy as a sign of weakness and wound; and the inclination of bisexuality: the ability to respond to both women and men with imagination, empathy, and sensuality, with affection, insight, and desire; and the importance of having the courage of one’s emotions and sensuality; the need to give voice to complexity; the amorality of youth; the fatality of police forces; the inevitability of legacy for better or worse—and the haunting of memory. W.E.B. DuBois, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin are but three of many of the intellectuals and writers who worked to move American conscience. In James Baldwin’s Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems (2014), introduced by Nikky Finney, and published by Beacon Press, Finney calls Baldwin the “most salient, sublime, and consequential American writer of the twentieth century” (page ix). Nikky Finney’s commentary is an emphatic, faithful summary of Baldwin’s life and work, a commendation of the honesty that intimidated others. Finney celebrates Baldwin’s poetry for its informality, imagery, counter-metrics, verve, truth, observation, humor, and declared love for others. I do not like all of the poems, but am glad to have them—those I have read before, and those that are new to me. “Imagination / creates the situation, / and, then, the situation / creates imagination,” Baldwin states in the short verse of “Imagination” (page 32). There is strong allegory in “Guilt, Desire and Love,” which turns emotion into a theater happening on the streets, featuring a furtive eroticism. The love and disagreement in families is expressed: “Although you know / what’s best for me, / I cannot act on what you see,” Baldwin admits in “Mirrors,” a poem for his brother David, a poem of fellowship, exasperation, and understanding, of loyalty, trust, and truth (page 58). James Baldwin asks America “Why / have you allowed yourself / to become so grimly wicked?” in “A Lover’s Question” (page 60). It is a poem of history and interrogation, of accusation and tenderness. “Gypsy” is a long poem, dream and story, of domesticity and police threat.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Footnote to Fiction

In writing fiction, a writer tries to identify specific details to create a specific world; and yet characters and actions have a symbolic reality, a symbolic force.


John Maybury's The Edge of Love is a gorgeous film, about Dylan Thomas, his wife and friends, with good performances, especially from Sienna Miller and Matthew Rhys.

2001: A Space Odyssey is a beautiful, brilliant film. Duncan Jones's Moon is a good part of its legacy, featuring Sam Rockwell.

Why are artists and intellectuals compelled to fight old battles again and again? When does learning finally take place?

Away We Go, by Sam Mendes, a funny and smart look at a couple...and at an eccentric, obscure America.

What have Andy Warhol and Joni Mitchell agreed on? That Bob Dylan is a fake.

The Europeans have persecuted the Jews for centuries--but it is the Palestinians who have paid for that persecution.

The charge of anti-semistism has become a tool of censorship. Criticize Israel? Criticize Goldman Sachs? Anti-semite.

White southerners have lacked sympathy when facing the suffering of others, often; when they suffer they want the world to stop and help.

Barack Obama is the most intelligent and well-intentioned American president in decades. Is he too smart for many Americans?

There is spiritual refreshment to be found in the arts and in nature, in quiet and in thought. There is renewal to be found in friends.

We live in a culture of common addictions--fattening foods, cheap liquor, illegal and legal drugs, mindless sports, hypocritical religion.

Some people write "How to" books--some of us are better qualified to write "How Not To" books, based on personal experience and more.

Do most professionals only mentor people who remind them only of themselves, especially people who look as they do?

Scarlett Johansson's acting is controlled and minimal in Girl with a Pearl Earring, and it is stronger for that. Really good performance.

Sam Rockwell's ambisexuality, constant smiles, daftness, and ambition make him weirdly, satisfyingly entertaining in Hitchhiker's Guide.

In the film 3:10 to Yuma, starring Russell Crowe, Ben Foster's mad eyes, self-conscious style, and obsessive devotion are pure subversion.

It is not enough to offer condemnation and restrictions. One has to offer alternatives--alternative values and alternative pleasures.

Decadence is not freedom, but it can seem so to the repressed. Freedom is the pursuit of one's own purpose, not mere self-indulgence.

Why do we often, often, often confuse our vision of the world for the actual world?

Many young men come to homosexuality after being molested as boys by adults. Why deny or rationalize that?

The recent mining disaster reminds us that some people are involved in old, brutal, dangerous work in a world of luxury, technology, ease.

There is nothing more important in America than money (unfortunately); consequently, the financial system's reform is profoundly important.

The Icelandic volcano disruption of air traffic is a reminder of what men do not, and cannot control. Better precaution than recklessness.

Civil rights activist Dorothy Height has died. She was 98. Proof that conviction can be transformative

Some films offer the techniques of interpretation, the tools of illustration, with the primary materials (ideas, stories) found elsewhere.

Have the last 20 years been a golden age for film, featuring diverse, excellent films and many exceptional male and female actors?

I have received news that the journal Philosophia Africana is having trouble finding a new home and is likely to cease publication.

Is a genuine intellectual African-American life possible, without the justification of politics or religion?

Why is it harder to sell intelligent, meaningful work than shallow work? Why is shallow work compelling

The "new" in art is sold as news, as promise, as sensation--not as "quality" itself.

Are unauthorized biographies anything more than ways of exorcising (and exercising) the resentment the mediocre feel for the accomplished?

Does "bohemia" exist any longer? Is a counterculture possible in 2010 America?

What are the opportunities for an independent thinker and creative writer in New York? in Louisiana?

The film The Birth of a Nation: Distorted history. Blackface acting. Klan propaganda. That's a great film?

Virginia's governor celebrates the Confederacy? Is this 2010 or not?

Apparently Justin Bieber has talent, but he seems, also, part of the pandering to youth by the music industry. There are talents over 30...

Singer-songwriter Ke$ha's appropriation of male sexual language is both capitulation and rebellion. The result? Popular success.

Sexual repression often leads to sexual perversion. A cliche? A truth? Witness the scandals involving the Catholic church.

Ideas: the concern of people with minds.

Steve McQueen bio by Darwin Porter. Fiction made out of salacious gossip? Porter recreates long-ago conversations using repetitive language.

Film critic Pauline Kael was a whole person--and consequently wasn't dazzled by abstractions (or intentions) alone.

By his own logic, anti-abortion murderer Scott Roeder should have gotten the death penalty.

Fine writing seems increasingly only an elite concern, unfortunately.

People love their paradigms--even when they are false, especially then.

Is funk music the most free and happiest music made by African-Americans?

Vampire Weekend has more of a punk aesthetic than Bright Eyes or the Decemberists, other critical favorites. Doesn't it?

Is the conservative sensibility dependent on tradition and individual rights or on ignorance, malice, prejudice, and selfishness?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

An Unfinished Score, by Elise Blackwell

Elise Blackwell, An Unfinished Score
Unbridled Books, 2010

Elise Blackwell’s novel An Unfinished Score begins rather simply and slowly—with a radio broadcast announcing a plane crash that interrupts a family meal—and reading that beginning I was not sure that I was going to continue with what I discovered to be a story of love and its betrayal, a story of how lives are made and unmade, one that explores beauty and ugliness in its depiction of a married woman’s uneasy relationship with her dead lover’s widow (the difficult, gifted man the two women have in common is the source of their conflict). The classical music world is much of the environment that the story takes place in, the classical world with its ambition, threatened standards, timeless music, possible innovation, intimate friendships, and irrelevance.

The book, An Unfinished Score, by a south Louisiana writer who now teaches at the University of South Carolina, is good at making dramatic how people misunderstand each other—and the dangerous decisions that come out of that. An aloft husband, Ben, who is a brilliant but obscure composer, is perceived as too indifferent—and his wife, Suzanne, a musician who plays viola, embarks on an affair with a more passionate man, Alex, a once poor but now successful music conductor. It turns out that the husband was careful about his expression of emotion because of a history of suicide in his family—he did not want to frighten his wife—and he is more loving and more grateful than she knew. Suzanne’s best friend Petra, a talented and promiscuous woman, has a deaf daughter whom Suzanne loves even more for having lost her own baby. The novel has several loves and several sources of grief. It gives us a view of struggling artists and of wealthy and successful (and too often arrogant and cruel) people. It is also a detective story—into the heart of the beloved. And, it presents a new glimpse of evil.

It is sad to think that we have less patience for literature than we used to—just as we have less patience for the best music.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
Bantam Books, 1996

...I am reading Crime and Punishment now, and what is most interesting are the observations about society, about the ways of being and living, more than the plot. Dostoevsky notes things that are still true about the difficulties of living in cities...

Dominick Dunne, Too Much Money
Crown, 2009

Obviously, this novel, Too Much Money, is inspired by the writer's observations of the rich and famous; however, the unfortunately thing is that, no matter how accurate the portrayal, the work lacks significant depth. The pride and vulnerabilities of society women are not without their allure, but a writer should be able to suggest why, beyond curiosity, anyone with his or her own life should care.

Charlaine Harris, Dead in the Family
Ace, 2010
The early Sookie Stackhouse novels were good at creating an intimate small-town setting and believable relationships, despite the supernatural events; but, the later books, despite an increasing liberalism that I approve of, are less and less able to do that. I read this one quickly, with a certain thrill, and forgot it just as quickly.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Happy Marriage, by Rafael Yglesias

Rafael Yglesias, A Happy Marriage
Scribner, 2009

Rafael Yglesias’s novel A Happy Marriage, is a love story focused on marriage and death, and it is a work of craft and truth, a work of significant and humbling power; and it may become enduring literature. The novel presents the experience of a long relationship from beginning to end—young, smart people in mid-1970s New York, Enrique and Margaret, and middle-age adults, again Enrique and Margaret, in early 21st century New York, with an end brought about by the cancer that affects Margaret’s digestion and consequently almost everything else in her body. It is a story based on Rafael Yglesias’s own life with his wife Margaret; and I think it is for that reason I hesitate yet to call it art, though I can think of few contemporary novels able to do what this book does. The details of the city are those of a longtime resident, and the details of the relationship even more astute. Cheery young bohemian life, a prominent but still precarious literary career with its attendant financial concerns, family history and idiosyncrasy, all of that gives the novel texture. The details of life and death—and the observations and feelings involved—collect until a significant momentum is created and the story becomes ours too.

Rafael Yglesias’s description of youthful courtship is delightful and vivid—the dance of desire and doubt more fresh than one would expect. The honest, angry, sensitive Enrique and the smart, frisky, beautiful (black-hair, blue eyes) Margaret create nice sparks that turn into fire. Each has a singular integrity and that is not a dull or pious thing. Yglesias’s description of their relationship made me remember being young in New York (the promise of youth being appealing, but the pain of insecurity not). The irritation of interpreting little marks on the page (writing) in an age of immediately communicative photographic imagery has a balm, a reward in the view of a rare sweetness. Of course, sometimes—though not often—the writing has a forced poetry (as on page 155: “for a long time he couldn’t hear the music of her feelings for him without a clanging bell of satire”) and a too emphatic cleverness. Yet, the novel, in which one chapter is about the past, the next about the present, and back and forth, is made by the simultaneous believability and drama of the ordinary life presented, and by the significant acts that can be read as both actual and metaphorical (a husband who finally finds, alone, the right gift for his wife—and the wife who accepts with appreciation that gift—for the first time, at the end of their time together).

Part of what makes A Happy Marriage convincing is its acknowledgement of both profundity and pettiness. Enrique’s short temper and sense of competition with others are basic aspects of his character—as are his genuine infatuation, love, and commitment, and the fact of his early and continuing literary and professional prominence. The mix of remarkable sensitivity and sexual aggression in the young Enrique presents a fairly honest portrait of male character; and the natural quality of Margaret’s sexuality—it is present but not pathological—as well as her intelligence, talent (photography and graphics), humor, and directness, are welcome too. The portraits of Margaret’s self-controlled bourgeois parents and Enrique’s wildly passionate and political parents, with each parental line containing Jews, and all parents being loving despite their neuroses, help to complete our understanding of Margaret and Enrique.

A Happy Marriage offers a really compelling love story, and is more engaging and satisfying a novel than one anticipates. Often marriage is read as a terrible, regrettable compromise, but not here. An irony is that early in Enrique’s marriage, he thought he had made a mistake—after their first child was born he felt alienated by Margaret’s efficient personality and their then sexless life. The care and honesty with which Margaret’s mid-life illness is handled says much about all involved—about who they are and the way they have lived their lives. The novel is not a marriage manual, but I imagine it would be of use to others. The book’s final chapter brings past and present together and the ending is a beginning, and an affirmation; and that seems not only right but good.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Little Bird of Heaven, by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates, Little Bird of Heaven
Ecco/HarperCollins, 2009

“A child is loved but not respected.”
Little Bird, page 233

“Like a mother loves you no matter what and will always forgive you except one day this love can wear out, you’re on your own.”
Little Bird, page 256

Joyce Carol Oates can be an unsettling writer to read, as it is not ever clear in which direction her work will veer—imagination or intelligence or truth or fantasy, or varying combinations of these. She is a fascinating, troubling figure, an eccentric writer who has become a literary establishment icon. Her talent is not in question but it can be hard for the reader to know whether to trust her: flights of fancy and impulse are grounded in convincing detail; and terrible things can seem too likely. In her novel Little Bird of Heaven, the principal subject is the murder of an attractive woman singer (Zoe), who fell from relative respectability and even admiration to a position of scandal and contempt. Two men—her native husband, her caucasian lover—are suspected of her murder, but there is not enough proof to arrest or convict either. The children of the two men circle each other in anger and fear, desire and repudiation. The years pass, poisoned by the unsolved crime; and when the mystery is finally answered, and when reconciliation is possible, they occur too late to do much good.

In Little Bird of Heaven, middle class and working class lives, Caucasian and Native American (Seneca) lives—border each other; and the novel describes, dramatizes, how men and women draw, charm, threaten, and repel each other. The chapters go back and forth—present and past and back again, the kind of formal invention that is not as interesting as it used to be. There are significant scenes of sex and violence in the book, scenes at least equal to the family feelings of love, betrayal, resentment, and regret, that we are shown. Which is most important to Oates, the sensation or the human complexity? I do not know. In addition, the novel contains idiosyncratic punctuation, and also mash-up sentence structures meant to indicate stream-of-consciousness and the grammatical fault of the half-educated. And sometimes, there are inconsistencies, as when Zoe’s husband’s relative Viola in one place is hopeful about Zoe’s career and in another disapproves. Yet, I liked reading Joyce Carol Oates’ novel Little Bird of Heaven.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk, The Museum of Innocence
Knopf, 2009

Istanbul, Turkey: eastern and western, cosmopolitan and provincial, different and familiar. The country of Turkey that novelist Orhan Pamuk writes of in The Museum of Innocence is bourgeois and impoverished, sophisticated and simple, with emotional and moral complexities and conflicts. Men and women are attracted to each other—but feel compelled to maintain discreet mating rituals (maintaining virginity for women is an ideal, an ideal that leads to transgression, pleasure, and shame). People have pessimistic attitudes, yet welcome each other with affection and candor; and they have genuine feelings and passions that they find ways of acknowledging and compromising. The novel The Museum of Innocence recounts the confusion, jealousy, and punishments of immature—and dishonest—loving in carefully constructed, long, thoughtful sentences; in chapters that are rich with descriptions of landscapes, buildings and streets, furnishings, and the social world that takes place among them, haunted by the presence of Europe. Yet, The Museum of Innocence gives us human existence with order rather than chaos.

The Museum of Innocence focuses on a wealthy young man, Kemal, engaged to a Sorbonne-educated Turkish girl, Sibel, and Kemal’s infatuation with a distant relative, a shopgirl, Fusun. It is an infatuation—rooted in sensuality—that wrecks much of his life. The selfishness of Kemal—who lies to both women—and the melancholy that enters Kemal’s relation with Sibel once his affair with Fusun ends reminds me of David and Helen in Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. (After Kemal and Sibel stop having sex, Sibel mentions that she doesn’t think Kemal is homosexual. Bisexuality and homosexuality, or more precisely the unpredictable ways of love and sex, were the subject of Giovanni's Room, by an American author who had lived in Istanbul but wrote little, or little of consequence, about it.) Kemal goes to the family apartment, now a storage facility, where he and Fusun used to meet, and also, separately, to where Fusun’s family used to live for traces of her (he gathers souvenirs for his museum).

When a screenwriter—an intimate acquaintance of Fusun—is introduced into the story, the writer Orhan Pamuk has an opportunity to comment on the mid-70s Turkish film industry (commercial, melodramatic); and to recount outdoor film screenings at cinema gardens. Pamuk balances the dreary, sickening obsessive behavior of Kemal—stalking his former lover—with the evocation of the Turkish film milieu and, secondarily, with the politics of the time, which included battles between nationalists and communists.

There is a lot of drinking in this novel among family, friends, lovers, and strangers; drinking in joy and pain, with restraint and complete abandon; and, often, the drinking of black market foreign liquor. It is one of the things that give the novel—which has large vision, one of intelligence and passion—a documentary aspect...

…In one novel, The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk presents the life of one man but also the life of a city, Istanbul, and of an entire culture, an impressive accomplishment. There are overt similarities within the novel between what happens to its central character Kemal and what happens in other lives, in other stories, and in films (the connections and mirroring are intentional, forming patterns). The novel also includes reference to its author Orhan Pamuk by name and reputation, offering a believable reason (Kemal’s wanting his story told by Pamuk, a text to go with his souvenirs, for his museum).

In The Museum of Innocence, which seems beautifully translated by Maureen Freely, Kemal’s long visits to Fusun’s family home are quite strange: he is both near Fusun and at a distance from her, as all observe a certain formality. (Kemal’s frustrated longing, Fusun’s rejection and alternative commitments, and the family’s mundane reality are a repellent picture of ordinary life. Whatever the comforts of home, that is the kind of life most ambitious or intelligent people hope not to live.) Kemal does teach Fusun to drive (he had failed to teach her math years before, during their affair). The death of Fusun’s father brings them closer; and Kemal and Fusun become engaged to marry on a shared trip by car to Europe. Though they promised not to resume their sexual relationship until married, they break their promise. Fusun is angry about that and drunkenly gets them into an accident the next day. The Musuem of Innocence, about love and sex, about hope and fate, about innocence and its betrayal, is a great novel: if no other Turkish novel existed, Turkish literature would still exist thanks to it.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Tattooed Girl, a novel by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates, The Tattooed Girl
Ecco/HarperCollins, 2003

There are many things that we have valued that turn out not to have as much worth as we had thought; and I have been forced to consider that literature may be one of these things; and yet I have found nothing worth more. And, for that reason certain books come to mean a great deal to me and others do not...

The novel The Tattooed Girl by Joyce Carol Oates is not a book I am likely to recall long or fondly. I note that fully aware that Oates is a writer who is a figure of admiration to a lot of younger writers. Here, however, is a book that offers sensation rather than thought, suggesting her prolific output can be attributed to compulsion as much as inspiration; and it is not technique that is lacking in The Tattooed Girl but rather sensibility: the book is a psychological thriller, but I do not think that it is genuine literature.

The central character of the novel The Tattooed Girl is a gifted but lethargic and rich Jewish writer, Joshua Seigl, who becomes involved with an uneducated bigoted young woman, Alma, and her equally prejudiced and exploitive lover, Dimitri. Early on we are told that "Dimitri hates Jews" (page 33); and also Dimitri thinks of Alma as "female meat" (42). Seigle is a gentleman, though alienated, discouraged, and self-indulgent; and he knows that "Philosophy frees, history enslaves" (49). It might be more interesting if Seigle were a little less admirable, but Oates blends the high-minded and the tawdry in such a way that it could be frightening to think of how imperfect she might have made the professor.

Joyce Carol Oates has a fearless and horrifying imagination; and she can show and suggest terrible things, stupid relentless cruelty and determined evil; and she can be heavy-handed with adjectives and emphasis. Yet, she is good at finding or creating characters who represent something large in the world, a genuine experience, a particular kind of mind.

In the novel The Tattooed Girl, the writer and professor Seigl thinks of the restaurant waiter Dimitri as friendly and helpful and Seigl asks short-time book clerk Alma to be his assistant, not knowing how hateful they are regarding Jews. Seigle is of Jewish ancestry, though not a practicing Jew. The relationships are fraught. I am inclined to value individual personality, always have been, but when writers focus primarily on that I am then inclined to see the limits of this kind of focus (so much seems accidental, circumstantial, trivial).

Another character in the novel is Jet, the sister of Joshua Seigle; and Oates' description of a chess game between calm, intellectual Joshua and half-crazed Jet is marvelous: reason versus insanity and discretion versus vulgarity.

We do have a few of Joshua Seigle lapses when we learn he has gone to prostitutes: and we are told those hookers have a "streetwise wisdom" (page 223), an unnecessary and blatant redundancy (wise/wisdom; as well as a sentimental cliche).

Of course, much of the focus is on Alma. Alma is so hateful, stupid, and wounded that she can be hard to believe as probable, as human: a girl who relishes her malice, grounds glass into her employer's food and sabotages his medicines and spits into the drinks of his guests, is a bit much. That Alma would accept Seigle's claim that he is not a Jew, and finally his kindness, and forget her hatred, her lavish hatred, is an abrupt, swift change. (Oddly, chapters 5 and 6 in the last section of the novel seem inverted: a call warning Alma of a police investigation comes after she has been interrogated by the police.) And the book's ending is crazy in more than one way.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Man Gone Down, a novel by Michael Thomas

Michael Thomas, Man Gone Down
Black Cat (Grove/Atlantic), 2007

Man Gone Down is in the tradition of James Baldwin’s Another Country and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, focusing on an African-American male in a state of crisis:

The lead character is a man, a writer and teacher—call him Ishmael, Sonny, Teddy—who is in financial trouble, and forced to do physical labor—construction work—to establish a measure of financial resource to meet a coming deadline and afford an apartment for his family and school tuition for his children. His family includes a well-born caucasian wife and their children. At work, the protagonist uses his body and his mathematical ability: he is more intelligent than the work requires but he is required to do the rough work. We see memories of his early friendships and glimpses of the personal disasters that have become of his friends. There are rhetorical flourishes regarding what the new world has wrought, and being a social experiment, and love and what it means to fail.

In the writer’s past is a wounding childhood—an abandoning father and a drunken raging mother, as well as sexual abuse that occurs on school grounds. His adult trouble is significant but not the worst that can happen—his wife is with her wealthy mother and he himself stays with a wealthy friend while trying to put his life right. Trouble that does not lead to bad food, bad housing, and bad health is not trouble that most poor people would recognize. It is strange to me that though the lead character recalls his vexing relation to his parents, the sexual abuse is a less recurrent and haunting memory, less influential. His sensibility—isolated and proud and smart and angry—seems fairly and typically male, regardless of race; although race does add specificity of context and event and intensity.

In Another Country by James Baldwin, the central character is a black musician who is imperiled by the indifference if not hostility of society, the misunderstanding of friends, and the volatile rage of his own psyche. The book is a report in fiction of the danger in which some black men live; and it is a warning but it may be a warning that cannot offer protection. It is not easy to accept that the life one is to live is a battleground and that all is strategy. Is such a view realism or madness or both? In such a life, the penalties for a lack of diligence and for failure may be final. There is no time to waste and no opportunity to be taken lightly. Who can live with that kind of vigilance? How many can achieve the near-perfect vision, language, and gesture required? Michael Thomas with Man Gone Down has paid tribute to Baldwin as well as Ralph Ellison and told the truth about much that is still happening in our lives today.

The racist insults that the protagonist suffers in Man Gone Down are petty rather than cruel; and we do not see society at its most destructive or the lead character at his most vulnerable. It could be said that much of the damage is done by what his imagination makes of the insults, that much of the damage is self-damage. It may be arguable that this is the most efficient way that racism works.

The book does not have the dramatic urgency of Another Country by James Baldwin, or the metaphorical richness of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Its strength is in the presentation of a complex, sophisticated mind, full of deliberations, fact, reference. I wish that the urge to finish the novel was inspired more by the story the book presents than personal diligence. Yet, I laughed out loud when the paranoia of the protagonist, a frustrated African-American writer, leads him to think, while riding in a car to a private club to play golf with Marco, a white friend, and Marco's associates, that he has been invited to be the subject of a gun-shooting party, the prey. During the golf game, when he recalls his early childhood abuse, he imagines he is still bleeding, and recognizes the past event as fundamental. It is a golf game his friend Marco has invited him to, he learns later, so that the struggling writer can win money playing golf (how he wins surprises the writer, and the reader); and the money he wins and the money he has earlier worked for are helpful; and the book ends with many practical matters taken care of, and with a family reconnected, though many questions remain.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Great Expectations, a novel by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
(Four Complete Novels:
Great Expectations, Hard Times,
A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities
Gramercy Books/Random House, 1982

When I was much younger I was enamored of the word “vulnerable,” seeing it as the quality of being open, sensitive, willing to experience and to change and to respond, but it does not take even a decade in a world of adult challenges, not to mention three decades in a world of such challenges, to want to have nothing to do with vulnerability—subject to the powers of other beings, facts, and forces. The old masters, such as the British writer Charles Dickens, know how terrifying and transformative vulnerability is: and in Great Expectations, the novel by Charles Dickens, a poor, ignorant boy being roughly reared by his older, resentful sister and her sweet but seemingly weak blacksmith husband (Joe) becomes involved with better-placed people—an old woman, Miss Havisham, whose long-ago broken heart has become a grotesque grief and a desire for vengeance: an adopted girl child, Estella, is expected to deliver the death blows to men.

It is hard to reconcile daily life and profound thought sometimes, but fiction gives us the semblance of both, reconciled. In Great Expectations, we see how shallow hopes give way to mature duties, friendship, love, and wisdom, when the little poor boy Pip gets a benefactor and a trip to London—he assumes Miss Havisham is his benefactor. In London he interacts with idiosyncratic and imperfect men who help him (the men are the lawyer Jaggers, his assistant Wemmick, and a relative of Miss Havisham, Herbert; and luckily, though Pip judges them he does not condemn them—he does not alienate himself from them or them from him, inadvertently harming himself). He has forsaken one world and embraced another as part of his great expectations for himself: and, at one point, when Joe wants to visit him it is a visit he is uncomfortable with because of how Joe will seem to others (a matter of social power and social shame). It is an example of how “…our worst weaknesses and meannesses are usually committed for the sake of people whom we most despise” (149). Pip thinks that when contemplating Joe’s visit—when the too well-dressed Joe brings a message from Miss Havisham that Estella is back; and Joe adds that in future Pip will have to visit him at his forge. Miss Havisham advises Pip to love the now womanly and beautiful Estella beyond reason or sense—which should be a warning to Pip regarding her complete madness and lack of concern for his ultimate safety. Yet, those who surround Miss Havisham and resent Pip are much more crude and predictable in their malice.

The first and last argument that Pip sees between Miss Havisham and Estella is like a mystical ritual—a confrontation of questions and answers, a confrontation of fulfilled and frustrated expectations, a confrontation between mother and daughter, teacher and student, benefactor and heir: between the idol and her maker.

It is devastating when Pip finds out who his benefactor is: it is a crushing rather than emboldening revelation. Both Pip and Estella have been created by others, by flawed elders. Neither quite gets what he expects, but each learns something about who they are, in multiple ways. (It has been a flaw in the vision and efforts of Pip that he had not yet found respectable work for himself, and a way of being that did not depend so much on others.) Pip is further surprised to learn that Estella plans to marry the least attractive of her suitors, a way of ending her life of charm and deception and frustration in society. She has come far from her roots but not far enough. While at dinner with Jaggers and Wemmick, Pip notices the housekeeper’s resemblance to Estella and he believes her to be Estella’s mother; and he later believes that a convict he has come to know, Magwitch/Provis, is her father—which may be too perfect a circle.

Pip’s kindness to Herbert—his secret financial investment in him (and his convincing Miss Havisham to invest also)—is the most selfless and significant thing Pip has done, as far as Pip sees it (Pip later claims something else he does is the best thing: when he is sublimely generous, he identifies that as the best thing). Herbert has a change to help Pip, when Joe’s former helper Orlick and Orlick’s rebellion—and, apparently, long-lived evil—is another surprise in a book of surprises (it may be too much of one, giving the story much melodrama). Orlick’s threat to Pip is off-putting. (It is proof of the power of Dickens that one finds certain developments acceptable.) Herbert’s coming to Pip’s rescue is one more thing that renders their friendship an ideal one.

Great Expectations brought me to tears. It contains genuine love—between men, and between men and women (between Herbert and Clara, between Wemmick and Miss Skiffins) but not between the couple at the center of the story, though Pip and Estella do not part badly. After Pip tries to leave town, after Pip becomes ill and is helped by Joe, after Pip goes into business with Herbert, Pip and Estella meet where they first met and they face their expectations and the facts they must live with.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Long Fall, a novel by Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley,
The Long Fall
Riverhead Books (Penguin), 2009

What do we make of the phantoms that live in our minds? Genre books such as detective stories, fantasy, and horror offer a clear focus or purpose, a sense of momentum, and tone that are entrancing but sometimes do not satisfy on the deepest levels. It’s like indulging in sugar or wine. It is hard to fault Walter Mosley—he knows as much about life or literature as anyone but there are still moments when one feels the thinness of the genre he is working in. In The Long Fall, a novel centered on character, ethics, and redemption, Mosley provides a protagonist who is smart and strong but flawed (a man who did not mind framing people for crimes they did not commit in order to get paying clients out of trouble): a former boxer, the private investigator Leonid McGill is the son of a labor organizer; and Leonid is an appreciator of visual art and music; and he is trying to lead a more honest life at work and home. He has an interesting sensibility and his insights are genuine and his pain is convincing. Leonid McGill, an African-American, is married to a Nordic beauty who has given him several children, only one of which is his (his favorite of the children is not his: a handsome, brilliant boy who might be on his way to being a savior or a master criminal). There are several characters, major and minor, who are the product of different cultures, a la Barack Obama. They are involved in a story that is motivated by an event in the lives of four childhood friends: an accident in which a wealthy white boy dies. What do we make of the phantoms that live in our minds? McGill is asked to track down those four men, to find out who and where they are—and they soon begin to die; and McGill wants to find out why, and at whose command. As McGill does, he interacts with police who distrust him, rich people who either befriend or insult him, criminals who try to bring him back to the dark side, and a building manager whose job it is to evict him from an office suite he is paying little for—although she loves him. We see different sides of McGill, someone others misjudge at their peril.

The Long Fall is an easy though intelligent read, and I appreciated most its view of New York and the many different individuals and classes of people who live there. Walter Mosley offers as accurate a picture of contemporary society as anyone.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Lost Diaries of Frans Hals, a novel by Michael Kernan

Michael Kernan, The Lost Diaries of Frans Hals
St. Martin’s Press, 1994

“The cruelty of good sense” is a phrase of an intuitive and aging parent as he considers how well-intentioned but poor children might decide to handle their increasingly ill parents, a phrase that occurs within the pages of what have been offered as the diaries of seventeenth-century Dutch painter Frans Hals. A boy and his father found old notebooks buried beneath old hay on their property—and the father brought the discovered material to an associate, a well-placed appraiser, who hires a young translator, Peter, to translate the script from Dutch to English and note any factual irregularities that suggest a fake, a hoax. Peter’s translations reveal an enthralling intimate story of Frans Hals’ life and work—the mourned death of his first wife, his lusty second marriage, his struggles to make a living as an artist, his brief financial success, his lasting value as an artist, and the larger world in which Hals moves—including the fluctuations of an early stock market and the dangers of plague.

Peter, the translator, is like a shaggy dog—handsome, charming, messy. His relationship with a smart, rich girl is precarious because of his own forgetfulness (a forgetfulness that taxed the belief of this reader when he goes weeks without thinking of her not long after they have had a significant argument). Peter is drawn to other women very casually (I would liked to have known why: other than for a predicable male lust)—and also drawn to them strategically (they offer shelter). One of the women Peter meets—a waitress who is an artist—produces idiosyncratic popular ceramics and large comic costumes with political implications for participation in parades as part of performance art (which seems odd and trivial in comparison with the work of Frans Hals but the kind of thing that would fit in with the New York art world we know today). Peter has fun at one of her events. He is actually a good, if possibly gullible, translator, and his need of money mirrors that of Frans Hals: money shapes the fates even of those who do not value it most—sometimes, especially those persons. There are freedoms and pleasures that money cannot buy, but without money those are often impossible to sustain.

The novel The Lost Diaries of Frans Hals captures seventeenth century Dutch life and late twentieth century American life in an absorbing, intelligent way. It is admirable to have a writer blend so well the past and the present. There are writers, and artists and intellectuals (who may or may not be writers), who act as cultural bridges, offering language and views that allow us to move across the divisions in time, in society, in ourselves, without falling into an abyss. The possibility that the diaries the novel describes and presents are a brilliant fake—and that Peter does not really care is an accurate, contemporary touch (Peter as a reader and as a man lost in his own life is distracted and seduced by the drama of Hals’ life).

The book reminds me that faith in an artist often arrives not with recognition of his talent, but with the provision of proof of its worldly effects. Although I enjoyed the historic Frans Hals section more than the contemporary scenes set in Manhattan, the private past of the artist depicted is imagined, pure speculation, as the writer Michael Kernan admits in his author’s note. It is interesting how much concern there is for the stresses and strains of an artist’s life as he goes about trying to create his work and sustain himself as an artist, though few choose such a life—and often many feel contempt for those struggles: being submerged in an artist’s biography is a way of seeing choice and courage from a distance. Yet, we must admit that no matter how curious we are, we do not know the private moments of an artist—unless he or she discloses them: and the truest revelations are always in the art.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Wapshot Scandal, a novel by John Cheever

John Cheever, The Wapshot Scandal
Harper & Row, 1964

John Cheever is a wonderful writer, and his novel The Wapshot Scandal contains observed life and imagined adventure, bringing together ancient rituals and bourgeois affections and habits, private desires and deceptions and public reputations, romance called to reconcile a reality that resists, supernatural suspicions that subvert reason, and mournful, surprisingly poetic interrogations, as Cheever examines family and communal life. The novel does not contain stories that offer easy comfort, though their intimate cruelty and sensual pleasure and melancholy do entertain. I am very fond of John Cheever—and it is amusing to consider that the only American writer he reminds me of in The Wapshot Scandal is James Purdy (In a Shallow Grave and On Glory’s Course), an artist with a very different professional profile. These writers deliver unexpected stories in imaginative, witty language; and they refresh our sensibilities.

The Wapshot Scandal focuses on the Wapshot family, specifically on two brothers Coverly and Moses (and their wives Betsy and Melissa) and the brothers’ elderly, eccentric cousin Honora, who has been richly (and pridefully) generous as well as negligent of her tax duties, which gets her in trouble. A limited social life poisons the marriage of Coverly and Betsy, while Melissa, out of mundane boredom and a profound fear of death, stumbles into a more wanton sensuality apart from the attentions of her amorous husband Moses. Sex is a bond that does not always bind two partners in marriage to each other. Cheever is good at offering scenes that demonstrate forms of sexual repression (moral objection) and sexual transgression within and among individuals. Once more, people are always trying to get others to correspond, to conform, to the smallness of petty, presumptuous minds.

John Cheever’s attention to diverse detail—interior spaces and natural landscapes, and thoughtful conversations and moods and arguments as well as silent meditation; the detail of things small and large—creates a warm, vivid sense of world, of life. The quality of writing is impressive—this is an attentive, impassioned talent. When Cheever begins chapter ten in part one of the novel with a description of the hypocrisy regarding the treatment of cancer patients—and the mythologies—surrounding it and other illnesses (years before others attempted a related, rigorous deconstruction of illness as metaphor and meaning), it is clear that the perceptions available to genius may be considered prophetic and practical as much as philosophical. (It is intriguing that Cheever—through a character’s glance—then uses one figure’s stooped posture as an indication or a sign of questionable experience, flawed temperament: it becomes a demonstration of judgment followed by sudden compassion.)

One character, one woman—publicly recognized as a slut—commits suicide. She (Gertrude Lockhart) arrived at humiliation through ordinary degrees and too much liquor. Maintaining an ordinary house—plumbing, furnace, etc.—proves her undoing. In a century that advertises efficiency, good service is hard to buy and one’s own competence may not be at all adequate. Yet, the distant acquaintances who attend her funeral recognize aspects of her dilemma. Suffering comes to all—the intelligent and the stupid, the strong and the weak; and loneliness enters all kinds of lives, even those lives that have been purposely constructed to exile it. Cheever, a restless writer, knows that and his sentences are full to overflowing. His description of a young man’s (Emile’s) sexuality offers a view of sexuality as both impulse and social manipulation; and yet it is a view that is not without poetry or possibility. There is nothing ordinary about that writing. It is possible to read such writing too hungrily, too quickly.

In this novel written decades ago, the character Coverly—his value doubted by his blood family, and his serenity assailed by his wife for her social isolation—works at a missile research and computer center, which has security concerns and a caste system (the employees are identified by their work, their attitudes, their language, and their clothing). It is one of those places that connote both power and mystery. Fearing his own insignificance, Coverly wants to decipher the poet Keats’ technique by doing a computer analysis of Keats’ language. For that purpose, he befriends a talkative coworker, a computer programmer (Griza), at their complicated, mysterious work site. (Coverly meets his colleague Griza’s family, and Griza’s mother’s litany of pest infestation in their old house is of such excess as to be nearly mythic: it is the character’s exaggeration or the author’s indulgence or both.) The two men discover Keats’ verbal patterns, a poetry within poetry. (One assumes the precise explanation to be Cheever’s invention.) The novel itself seems to move closer to fantasy. That is confirmed when cousin Honora goes to Europe as a tax refugee—an elderly woman as adventurous fugitive. There is wildness at the root of John Cheever’s vision.

Part Two of The Wapshot Scandal
Coverly’s meeting an eccentric authority, and being on an airplane that is hijacked is a further elaboration of drama. The appearance of the authority (Dr. Cameron) before an official panel is a scientific and personal interrogation, one revealing shocking family events. Dr. Cameron’s concern for order and his egocentricity presage a lack of imagination and sympathy, and have led to personal brutality. He is chaos. (I wonder what Gabriel Garcia Marquez would make of such remarkable strangeness.) Meanwhile, the married Melissa’s infatuation and affair with a young man bring her erotic pleasure and then confusion, doubt, and lost pride. When she visits a priest, he embodies a sureness of thought that masquerades as insight but which is nothing more than cold judgment, impersonal doctrine. She wants something beyond the rituals of response—but is there anything else? Her choices have brought pain—and devastated her husband Moses: Moses, who has been thought more attractive and likeable than his brother Coverly by many, Moses who has kept score of his own drinking, gives himself more completely to drunkenness.

Part Three of The Wapshot Scandal
In the midst of their different adventures, both Melissa and Honora end up in Rome, each unknown to the other. Melissa works in film, using her voice for dubbing. Melissa’s young lover Emile has an uncle who gets Emile a shipping job—taking Emile also to Europe, and Emile inadvertently enters a strange contest, a new door to eroticism and fate. The much sought Honora leaves Rome for America, where Coverly visits the changed Honora (once sturdy, now thin; once confident, now chastened); and their meeting again is touching. The novel The Wapshot Scandal ends in a familiar season—with tidings of joy and peace and a reality far more complex—and it, the work of a unique writer, John Cheever, is a gift, a gift that inclines one to see art, life, and world differently. How could a man with the imagination and sensitivity of Cheever ever be reconciled to the limitations of society? It is not possible: consequently, we have The Wapshot Scandal.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Silas Marner, a novel by George Eliot

George Eliot, Silas Marner
Everyman Library/Knopf, 1993
(Original publication 1861)

Mary Ann (Marian) Evans writing under the name George Eliot provides a frame for the cloth weaver Silas Marner, a frame of ignorance, superstition, and suspicion in the small but naturally prosperous rural community, Raveloe, he finds himself in, after leaving in sadness and bitterness the town church community Marner was once part of (Marner had been charged with theft and his fiancĂ©e was taken by a man Marner thought a friend). The weaver Silas Marner has the isolation of a stranger in his new dwelling. His knowledge of herbal medicines is thought odd, a kind of witchcraft. When Marner denies any magical ability, the denial is disbelieved and distrust of him increases. It is a remarkable portrait of social misunderstanding, one that is so clear it illuminates current, similar but subtler suspicion of odd individuals in our own world. The money that Marner makes becomes important to him—obvious reward for his work. He is transformed by his isolation, his work, his money, his (often inhuman or at least unsocial) concerns: achieving independence but a spiritual withering.

William Dane, Silas’s former friend—with whom Silas was seen as akin to Jonathan and David—shared a bond without well-founded trust. The same can be said of Square Cass’s sons, Dunstan and Godfrey, with Dunstan abusing his brother’s affection (borrowing money that’s not his, not bothering to pay it back): Godfrey has entered a secret marriage and Dunstan gets what he wants partly out of blackmail. (It is at least a little strange that Dunstan keeps remarking on how good-looking his brother is. Is his mistreatment of his brother—and Dane’s of Marner—a way of repudiating attraction? It can be intolerable for one man to love another, no matter the nature of the love—a kind of enslavement or at least humbling.) Godfrey’s circumstances are making him bitter (a parallel of Silas’s bitterness). Yet, it is shocking when Dunstan steals Silas Marner’s gold. Marner at first suspects the wrong man, a poor but innocent man—Jem Rodney (as he, Silas, was one mistakenly suspected). The true thief remains unknown, and Dunstan disappears.

An aside: Someone in the novel is described as trying to be “cute”—shrewd, smart, witty. An old connotation, sometimes still used. One of the pleasures of reading established literature—seeing the development of language and its survivals. (The Republican leader Michael Steel said recently that his NPR interviewer was trying to be cute—and I heard the clash of two senses of that word: shrewd/attractive.)

George Eliot allows us to know what her characters think of each other—and in allowing us to know what she thinks of them she raises the level of comprehension. “Favorable Chance is the god of all men who follow their own devices instead of obeying a law they believe in,” writes George Eliot, in a passage decrying self-deception, dumb hopefulness (82-83). Eliot lets philosophy and history into the novel, transforms the book from goodness into greatness.

Following his desolation regarding the theft of gold, villagers visit Silas Marner to encourage him to attend church. It’s rather disgusting to me (religious believers, like vultures, often pick the weakest moment in which to descend). Their mundane expectation of conformity is predictable: pain and poverty are expected to break his will, to make accepting common beliefs and habits easier. Although the village people are not fanatic church goers, attendance of some regularity is the convention.

Godfrey Cass, though secretly married, has maintained his infatuation with a decent young woman named Nancy (who disapproves of aspects of Godfrey’s indulgent behavior). The intimacy between pretty Nancy and her plain honest sister, and their candor, are contrasted with the more conceited attitude of town sisters, the Miss Gunns. Godfrey’s wife is near-destitute and not happy about it. “It is seldom that the miserable can help regarding their misery as a wrong inflicted by those who are less miserable,” writes Eliot, after describing the plans for revenge and humiliation held by Godfrey’s poor, secret wife (122). (It is surprising to read of the woman’s opium addiction, but it fits.) The drug-addicted mother falls in the snow. Godfrey’s unacknowledged child crawls into Marner’s cottage; and her golden curls are mistaken for his lost gold. (The child also reminds Marner of his now dead little sister.) Eliot just describes all this—the description alone compels. She doesn’t offer logic as justification or likelihood—her description of events suffices. Marner says of the child, “it’s a lone thing—and I’m a lone thing” (134). Money has been taken from Silas and the child given to him: “the gold had turned into the child” (139).

The importance of religion is brought to Marner again—regarding the child’s moral education and protection. Silas is willing now. The child’s joy becomes his, bringing him closer to others, closer to life, whereas work and money kept him isolated in the past. Silas wants to give the little girl, Eppie, the best that is available in town of Raveloe. Godfrey sees Silas rear his daughter from a distance, expecting that one day he himself may do something for her (Godfrey seems much less attractive now—a lucky, privileged prick).

Part Two of Silas Marner
Sixteen years later, George Eliot shows us people leaving church. We learn that Godfrey and Nancy have married. The son of a woman, Dolly Winthrop, who has befriended Silas and Eppie, Aaron, likes Eppie and wants to be of use to her and her father (Silas and Eppie plan a garden and Aaron volunteers to help); and Aaron wants to marry Eppie. Godfrey has been somewhat generous—helping to enlarge Silas’s cottage, giving some furniture too. I’m not fond of some of the accented country dialogue—as participated in by Dolly Winthrop, but it does remind me that idiomatic (and regional) speech is recurrent in every country, in every age. Most importantly, when a field project drains water from the stone pit near Silas’s cottage, an unexpected revelation is presaged.

The book's ending: Silas and Eppie have been happy together. Godfrey and Nancy have been somewhat less so. Godfrey and Nancy haven’t been able to have children together (making the child he let go, Eppie, more rare). Self-absorbed, self-deceived, Godfrey even considers adopting Eppie from Silas, though Nancy objects (he does not say the child is his; and she figures providence does not want them to have a child). Soon, Godfrey goes out for a walk and returns shocked: after going out to the fields near the stone pit at Silas’s cottage, the long-disappeared Dunstan’s skeleton can be seen in the pit, with Silas’s gold. It is now known that Dunstan robbed Silas Marner. Godfrey confesses his own secret marriage and parentage to his wife Nancy, who says they could have adopted Eppie if she had known she was his child (he misjudged his wife’s ethics and sympathy). Silas is glad the money has been found but not for himself—for Eppie. When Godfrey and Nancy go to claim Eppie for their own—though she is now a young woman, they are rebuffed by Eppie and Silas, who feel themselves a family. Silas goes back for a visit to the town where he once lived—and was betrayed—but that chapel community is gone. (Was the community not sound enough to sustain itself, its wrong judgment of Silas evidence of that?) The novel ends with Eppie’s wedding party and her affirmation of her happiness with Silas and her home and life.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Heroic Measures, a novel by Jill Ciment

Jill Ciment, Heroic Measures
Pantheon Books, 2009

Heroic Measures is a small, seemingly perfect book about a quintessential New York couple—a painter and a retired activity teacher, aging, well-settled in the city but threatened by illness and rising prices. The drama in the fiction is three-fold: the couple’s dog suffers sudden paralysis; the couple’s uncertain apartment sale and search for a new home (they aren’t sure they can live in New York even with a million dollars); and a gasoline truck abandoned in a tunnel that may be part of a terrorist plot. The Montreal-born Jill Ciment, who lives in Florida, captures post-Sept 11 fear in the metropolitan city, and the vulnerabilities of age, and the power of money to subvert moral certainty. Humor comes through in the juxtaposition of drama with mundane detail.

The central characters, painter Alex and retired teacher Ruth, are longtime friends, lovers, and husband and wife. Their honesty, self-knowledge, intelligence, quirks, and fragility draw remembrance of people one has seen. In a city in which markets are fueled by fear and greed as much as information and practicality, Alex and Ruth are challenged but capable participants. It is impressive how smoothly their story moves from beginning to end.

Reading Heroic Measures delivers vivid pictures of ordinary life and a city under siege. It is a masterful portrayal that includes friends, colleagues, family, and the strangers—whether in restaurants or an animal hospital—who come to share part of one’s intimate life in a large city Careful description of the dog’s responses allows the dog, a daschund to become an observant, even conscious, character. The television talking heads monitoring the possible terrorist threat sometimes seem less conscious, having as they do an inclination to say anything at all rather than nothing (even a wise nothing), sometimes presenting authoritative guests who articulate convoluted obscurities or obvious banalities (such a presentation of the news media seems both documentary and hilarious).

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

People of the Whale, a novel by Linda Hogan

Linda Hogan, People of the Whale
Norton, 2008

People of the Whale is a novel focused on a small group of native Americans who have lost many of their ancestral traditions, though some of them try to maintain that connection and try to live with courage, dignity, honesty, as well as practicality. One of its lead characters is a tribesman who went off to Vietnam and returned very much changed, damaged. There are things I do not like at all about this novel—its religiosity, and how many of its characters share the same thought (a communal mind: a lack of individuation)—but the book captures the shame of self-betrayal and how that lost pride and guilt shatters bonds, makes a man cruel.

The novel’s language at times has the simplicity of wisdom literature—as if sentimental assertion were enough. Some of Linda Hogan’s sentences have an almost laughable plainness—but Hogan creates a picture—conveys a vision—that has its own conviction. Yet, bad writing is just that: and, Hogan notes the movement of mountains and in one place writes, “She brushes hair back from his face even though none is there, as if he is her son, or as if they are children again and his mother has just died on the road, in the car, the father drinking, the other car, all the people in it” (page 270). The later evidences a clumsiness an editor should have noticed and corrected: such inelegant, illogical, imprecise language is usually damning.

Linda Hogan is good at evoking the Vietnam village one of the central characters, Thomas, was in, showing how alike and different it was from the community he knew at home and delineating the difficulties and his attempts to make a life with the people there. It’s an unusual story then. In describing the plight of Thomas’s Vietnamese daughter, we see how politics poisons almost all, including childhood.

The book holds a place for things—feelings, relationships—that are not given much public value; holds them up to the light: we think, almost always, that other people’s lives are more simple than they are—simpler than ours—and we forget what we share with them. However, the novel is too long and it asks too much of belief (in animism, in mystical events). Its insistent spirituality is vexing.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Skating Rink, a novel by Roberto Bolano

Roberto Bolano, The Skating Rink
New Directions, 2009

The strength of The Skating Rink, a novel by Roberto Bolano (translated by Chris Andrews), and originally published in Spain in 1993, is probably its focus on character and situation: the story is told from different points of view, among a small group of people who know or know of each other. The workings of a mayor’s office and of lowly street life actually meet (those with power and those without), so that this story can be received as the view of a particular society. The writing is dense, with journalistic detail, and achieves the sound of convincing personal voices. In one case, out of the portrayal of great self-consciousness (showing an excess of self-regard, dismissal of others, and high but delusional expectations), Roberto Bolano creates a picture of a man’s deep disturbance. There are funny and pathetic aspects to different characters’ lives. A couple of the characters are poets who are not writing and it is a surprise when one produces a novel the reader (I) did not now he was working on. In Bolano’s The Skating Rink, there is a murder, and the victim and the guilty party were not who I expected them to be: and the guilty was someone the author had not built much sympathy for (a fact that might be a weakness, too predictable). The Skating Rink, which I liked, did not strike me as wildly imaginative or radical in form or content; and there were no particularly philosophical ruminations, no startling insights.

The Enchantress of Florence, a novel by Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie, The Enchantress of Florence
Random House, 2008

It is hard to know who but Salman Rushdie might have written such a books as The Enchantress of Florence, a tale connecting and contrasting East and West, power and love, reason and religion, fellowship and competition…It is a book that embraces many of the inclinations of fantasy—charismatic, even magical characters, and great adventures—but also the facts of history (Renaissance, Mughal) and the rigors of philosophy. It is a novel that asks, among other questions, how should a ruler relate to the ruled, and how should diverse religions relate to each other? Rushdie’s care involves even the clarification of the origins of words and names. And, while it is surprising that this book includes a bibliography, it is also understandable—the book contains knowledge. It is a tale that touches on international wars (in Persia and Afghanistan), the discovery of America, the famed four musketeers, Savonarola and religious persecution…

The Enchantress of Florence focuses on an attractive young blond man who makes his way East to meet a liberal Mughal emperor in the city of Sikri (the Mongols conquered India, and were called Mughals)—the young man has an unusual story to tell that may make him an important member of the royal family. Rushdie’s narrative demonstrates his prodigious talents—his language facility, his narrative control and invention, and his handling of characters and plot are immense, so that even the summaries of the fates of minor characters are easily acceptable. The sexuality presented—rampant sexuality, often bisexuality—gives a view of the past that suggests something about the future, if not the present (as freedom and repression recur in cycles: one period’s response to another): and, sexuality is a basic human energy, as hard to corral and correct as any; and it can be a rebuke to morality and power. The Enchantress of Florence is an admirable, entertaining work.