James Shapiro (Ed.), Shakespeare in America:  An Anthology from the Revolution to Now (2014)

June 21st, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…”

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell just as sweet.”

“To be, or not to be, that is the question…”

“Cry Havoc! and let slip the dogs of war…”
“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players,
They have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.”
“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun…”

Chances are, if you are a native English speaker (or one even casually familiar with English-language culture), you could identify the composer of these quotes even though the exact source and context might elude you. Next to the King James translation of the Bible, William Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets are the lodestone of the English language; so much of this language’s idiomatic expressions and metaphors orient themselves to these rich, imaginative text. It is nigh impossible for me to fathom an English-language culture, much less literature, existing in a form similar to today’s without Shakespeare’s Olympian influence. Although there are numerous great writers that have left their own indelible marks on contemporary English-language literature, Shakespeare is that rare talent whose turns of phrase are often quoted, frequently without full awareness of their source, by those who aren’t regular readers of literature of any sort.

Part of this is due to Shakespeare’s writings being almost chameleon-like in their ability to be adapted for almost every situation and need. Although composed mostly before the first English settlement in what is now the United States, in the intervening four centuries, Shakespeare’s work has become as much a central part of American literature as it is the keystone of English literature. In James Shapiro’s 2014 anthology, Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now, there are dozens of selections from writers and politicians, social activists and ministers, from lay people to composers, all of which testify to Shakespeare’s influence on them and their course of action. A fascinating mosaic image emerges when these disparate threads of American social and cultural life are placed in chronological order.

The anthology begins with an anonymous 1776 publication of a Loyalist response to the demands of the First Continental Congress for the colonists to sign an “association” boycotting British goods. Making use of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, it is also, as Shapiro notes in the introductory header, a retort to a pro-colonist screed that began “Be taxt, or not be taxt, that is the question.”:

To sign, or not to sign? That is the question,
Whether ’twere better for an honest Man
To sign, and so be safe; or to resolve,
Betide what will, against Associations,
And, by retreating, shun them. To fly – I reck
Not where: And, by that Flight, t’escape
FEATHERS and TAR, and Thousand other Ills
That Loyalty is Heir to: ‘Tis a Consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To fly – to want –
To want? Perchance to starve: Ay, there’s the rub! (p. 3)

However, in Peter Markoe’s 1787 poem, “The Tragic Genius of Shakespeare,” published in the year of the Constitutional Convention, already there are overt moves to claim the Bard as America’s own:

Monopolizing Britain! boast no more
His genius to your narrow bounds confin’d;
Shakspeare’s bold spirit seeks our western shore,
A gen’ral blessing for the world design’d,
And, emulous to form the rising ase,
The noblest Bard demands the noblest Stage. (p. 12)

And yet as grandiose of a claim as Markoe makes here, the question still remains, over two centuries later: Just what is an “American” view of Shakespeare? It is fitting that our national motto, E pluribus unum, come into play when examining the disparate views presented throughout this collection. For the nineteenth century, with “nation building” (including the horrendous treatment of the various nations that dwelt on contested land and the execrable treatment of African-descended slaves) foremost on their minds, divers writers, poets, and politicians would frequent cite Shakespeare in order to further their ambitions. In 1849, this nationalist rendition of Shakespeare boiled over into a riot outside the Astor Place Opera House in New York City, as partisans of the American actor Edwin Forrest assailed the performance place of British actor William Charles Macready’s performance of Macbeth. Some 15,000 people participated in this riot, leading to the New York State Militia firing into the crowd, killing more than twenty and wounding perhaps over a hundred more. Here is a brief citation from a lengthy anonymous pamphlet published soon after the riot:

The result was, that the constant rivalry of Forrest, though carried on in the most friendly manner, could not fail to injure the success of Macready. A certain degree of partizanship was everywhere excited – for Forrest was everywhere placarded as the “American Tragedian,” – and the tour of Mr. Macready was comparatively a failure. A sensitive man could not but feel this; and whether he made any complaint or not, his friends saw what the difficulty was, and felt not a little chagrined about it; and when Mr. Forrest made his next and last professional visit to England, this feeling among the friends of Macready, in the theatrical press and the play-going public, found its vent. The opposition to him was, from the first, marked and fatal; and, so far as the metropolis was concerned, his tour was a failure. It was only in the provinces – away from London influence – that he met with any degree of success. (p. 67)

It is hard for a twenty-first century reader to fathom this level of outrage over who performed Shakespeare and with what accent it was performed. And yet in accounts like this, coupled with lengthy allusions to him throughout the years, there can be seen a sort of metastasis occurring: Shakespeare’s characters, form, and very language were being assimilated into this growing American culture, being transformed by it as much as it imbued this nascent civilization. Echoes of this can be seen in the mid-19th century literature, especially in the work of Herman Melville. In his “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” Melville not only pays homage to his mentor, but also to what lurks behind any perceived “work of genius”:

In Shakespeare’s tomb lies infinitely more than Shakespeare ever wrote. And if I magnify Shakespeare, it is not so much for what he did do, as for what he did not do, or refrained from doing. For in this world of lies, Truth is forced to fly like a scared white doe in the woodlands; and only be cunning glimpses will she reveal herself, as in Shakespeare and other masters of the great Art of Telling the Truth, – even though it be covertly, and by snatches. (p. 130)

It is interesting to see how observations like this are reflected in subsequent pieces for the remaining 500-plus pages. Shapiro has placed these selections in a fashion where it is easy to discern certain currents of American thought on Shakespeare and his ability to voice deep-seated fears, hopes, and anxieties. “The play’s the thing”, ironically, is where a collision of received cultural understanding of Shakespeare and divergent interpretations of that very same understanding take place. It is the source of contemporary takes on West Side Story and Romeo + Juliet, as well as arguments over just how well (or poorly) Marlon Brando performed in Julius Caesar. Peppered amongst critical (both senses of the word) theatrical articles are allusions made by recent authors who echo and cast back, perhaps a bit distorted, the views of Melville and others of the first half of American socio-cultural history. For Shakespeare does not belong to any one class or nation; he is, as what was later associated with St. Thomas More, “a man for all seasons.” This can especially be seen in Langston Hughes’ 1942 poem, “Shakespeare in Harlem” (there was also a play of that name by him):

Hey ninny neigh!
And a hey nonny noe!
Where, oh, where
Did my sweet mama go? (p. 450)

With pieces like this presented side-by-side with scholarly references and layperson allusions, Shapiro’s Shakespeare in America serves as a good introduction to the Bard’s influence on American culture. It is a rich collection of primary source material that does not overwhelm the reader, but instead provides enough of a framework by which readers can draw their own connections to currents of thought regarding Shakespeare. Certainly it is one of the more enjoyable pieces on Shakespeare that I have read in recent years.

Jean Toomer, Cane (1923)

February 21st, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Men had always wanted her, this Karintha, even as a child, Karintha carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down.  Old men rode her hobby-horse upon their knees.  Young men danced with her at frolics when they should have been dancing with their grown-up girls.  God grant us youth, secretly prayed the old men.  The young fellows counted the time to pass before she would be old enough to mate with them.  This interest of the male, who wishes to ripen a growing thing too soon, could mean no good to her. (p. 5, Library of America edition)

One of the earliest novels of the Harlem Renaissance was a book written by a man of multiethnic descent, Nathan Jean Toomer, who was loathe to identify himself as black or white.  This book, Cane, originally published in 1923, created some controversy and few initial sales as it did not kowtow to either white or black expectations.  Yet for those critics and readers who did read this book, Cane left indelible impressions.  After re-reading it recently, it is one of those fictions that has to be experienced in toto for it to be understood fully; it defies simple, pat descriptions.

Cane is neither beast nor fowl; it moves smoothly and assuredly between poem, short story vignette, and drama.  Toomer himself conceptualized it as being a sort of thematic circle, going from simple to complex, moving from South to North and back South again.  Yet within these intricately woven passages, Toomer narrates the rhythms of black Southern life and the upheavals as some moved north during the Great Migration of the 1910s and 1920s.  Characters, such as Karintha (initial passage quoted above), appear prominently in one vignette, later to disappear and reappear, sometimes in a slight disguise, in another.  And through it all, there are poems narrating life, such as this one, “November Cotton Flower”:

Boll-weevil’s coming, and the winter’s cold,
Made cotton-stalks look rusty, seasons old,
And cotton, scarce as any southern snow,
Was vanishing; the branch, so pinched and slow,
Failed in its function as the autumn rake;
Drouth fighting soil had caused the soil to take
All water from the streams; dead birds were found
In wells a hundred feet below the ground –
Such was the season when the flower bloomed.
Old folks were startled, and it soon assumed
Significance.  Superstition saw
Something it had never seen before:
Brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear,
Beauty so sudden for that time of year. (p. 9)

This poem was of particular interest to me for its combination of traditional couplets (minus two lines, which use alliteration instead to carry the rhythm through to the next couplet) with some daring imagery.  Toomer’s writing, whether it be prose or poesy, is often very impressionistic, with descriptors creating vivid, sharp images from text that is often pared down in order to pack more punch per line.  Cane is as much a Modernist novel as anything that Joyce or Woolf produced and this poem of death and beauty and something else, something a bit daring when “brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear” is parsed a certain way, this poem captures several things eloquently in fourteen lines.

Toomer’s gift for depicting life extends to his prose passages.  Here is one section taken from “Esther,” concerning another major character in his cycle:

Esther begins to dream.  The low evening sun sets the windows of McGregor’s notion shop aflame.  Esther makes believe that they really are aflame.  The town fire department rushes madly down the road.  It ruthlessly shoves back and white idlers to one side.  It whoops.  It clangs.  It rescues from the second-story window a dimpled infant which she claims for her own.  How had she come by it?  She thinks of it immaculately.  It is a sin to think of it immaculately.  She must dream no more.  She must repent her sin.  Another dream comes.  There is no fire department.  There are no heroic men.  The fire starts.  The loafers on the corner form a circle, chew their tobacco faster, and squirt juice just as fast as they can chew.  Gallons on top of gallons they squirt upon the flames.  The air reeks with the stench of scorched tobacco juice.  Women, fat chunky Negro women, lean scrawny white women, pull their skirts up above their heads and display the most ludicrous underclothes.  The women scoot in all directions from the danger zone.  She alone is left to take the baby in her arms.  But what a baby!  Black, singed, woolly, tobacco-juice baby – ugly as sin.  Once held to her breast, miraculous thing:  its breath is sweet and its lips can nibble.  She loves it frantically.  Her joy in it changes the town folks’ jeers to harmless jealousy, and she is left alone. (p. 29)

There is a lot to unpack here.  The dream imagery is remarkable for how deftly Toomer utilizes repetition of phrases to cast and recast descriptions of people and a fire.  There is a rebellion present, yet the reader has to integrate this with other passages to see it clearly.  This dream sequence certainly has a surreal quality to it, with the juxtapositions of the mundane and the “ludicrous.”  But even more so, there is a racial element to it, one that speaks on the divide between white and black perceptions of beauty.  The baby rejected as “ugly as sin,” is transformed through the woman’s love, changing the others’ “jeers to harmless jealousy.”

As the narrative of lives unfolds and revelations made beforehand become more prominent, Cain still sticks to its circle of life motif, exploring, through uneven yet frequently brilliant passages and poems, just what is driving folks to move from South to North, from rural to urban regions.  Toomer does an excellent job in capturing these changes, with very few passages that fail to capture at least a fleeting impression of these peripatetic lives.  Excellent as many individual passages and poems are, it is when this work is considered as a whole that Toomer’s design can be seen in all its glory.  Cane is not just one of the earliest and best works of the Harlem Renaissance, it is also one of the best 20th century Modernist works ever written.  Even 92 years later, it possesses a power to move readers.  It simply is a remarkable masterpiece.

William Wells Brown, Clotel, or the President’s Daughter (1853; revised three times by 1867)

February 19th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

It was late in the day, when the greatest number of persons were thought to be present, that Currer and her daughters were brought forward to the place of sale. Currer was first ordered to ascend the auction stand, which she did with a trembling step. The slave mother was sold to a trader. Althesa, the youngest, and who was scarcely less beautiful than her sister, was sold to the same trader for one thousand dollars. Clotel was the last, and, as was expected, commanded a higher price than any that had been offered for sale that day. The appearance of Clotel on the auction block created a deep sensation amongst the crowd. There she stood, with a complexion as white as most of those who were waiting with a wish to become her purchasers; her features as finely defined as any of her sex of pure Anglo–Saxon; her long black wavy hair done up in the neatest manner; her form tall and graceful, and her whole appearance indicating one superior to her position. The auctioneer commenced by saying, that “Miss Clotel had been reserved for the last, because she was the most valuable. How much gentlemen? Real Albino, fit for a fancy girl for any one. She enjoys good health, and has a sweet temper. How much do you say?” “Five hundred dollars.” “Only five hundred for such a girl as this? Gentlemen, she is worth a deal more than that sum; you certainly don’t know the value of the article you are bidding upon. Here, gentlemen, I hold in my hand a paper certifying that she has a good moral character.” “Seven hundred.” “Ah, gentlemen, that is something like. This paper also states that she is very intelligent.” “Eight hundred.” “She is a devoted Christian, and perfectly trustworthy.” “Nine hundred.” “Nine fifty.” “Ten.” “Eleven.” “Twelve hundred.” Here the sale came to a dead stand. The auctioneer stopped, looked around, and began in a rough manner to relate some anecdotes relative to the sale of slaves, which, he said, had come under his own observation. At this juncture the scene was indeed strange. Laughing, joking, swearing, smoking, spitting, and talking kept up a continual hum and noise amongst the crowd; while the slave–girl stood with tears in her eyes, at one time looking towards her mother and sister, and at another towards the young man whom she hoped would become her purchaser. “The chastity of this girl is pure; she has never been from under her mother’s care, she is a virtuous creature.” “Thirteen.” “Fourteen.” “Fifteen.” “Fifteen hundred dollars,” cried the auctioneer, and the maiden was struck for that sum. This was a Southern auction, at which the bones, muscles, sinews, blood, and nerves of a young lady of sixteen were sold for five hundred dollars; her moral character for two hundred; her improved intellect for one hundred; her Christianity for three hundred; and her chastity and virtue for four hundred dollars more. And this, too, in a city thronged with churches, whose tall spires look like so many signals pointing to heaven, and whose ministers preach that slavery is a God–ordained institution!

What words can tell the inhumanity, the atrocity, and the immorality of that doctrine which, from exalted office, commends such a crime to the favour of enlightened and Christian people? What indignation from all the world is not due to the government and people who put forth all their strength and power to keep in existence such an institution? Nature abhors it; the age repels it; and Christianity needs all her meekness to forgive it.

Clotel was sold for fifteen hundred dollars, but her purchaser was Horatio Green.  Thus closed a negro sale, at which two daughters of Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of Independence, and one of the presidents of the great republic, were disposed of to the highest bidder! (pp. 67-68, Library of America edition)

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is the best-known of the antislavery novels published during the antebellum period, but there was another, relatively obscure novel that perhaps is even better at getting to the heart of the pernicious evils of chattel slavery.  This novel, William Wells Brown’s Clotel, or the President’s Daughter, was first published in Great Britain by a former slave fleeing from the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  Clotel is a remarkable novel for a number of reasons, not least of which being that it is the first known novel published by an African American writer.  Yet for nearly 125 years after the end of the Civil War it languished in obscurity, more a curiosity than anything actively taught or studied by historians or literature professors.  Some of this lack of attention may be due to the end of slavery and the desire to forget, even when it concerns antislavery literature, the particulars of that sordid business, but this does not explain the continued popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  There are two competing reasons remaining:  either Clotel‘s narrative style was not appealing to later generations of readers or there was a growing prejudice against reading works by black writers.  There likely is an element of truth to both of this, but then what explains the recent rise in interest in Brown’s writings?  It may be that as a historical artifact, Clotel is a superior example of not just antislavery literature but also that it captures the espirit du temps of the 1850s even better than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, even if much of its initial impact was not in the United States but across the Atlantic Ocean.

One of the more striking features of Clotel is its didactic tone.  Early 21st century novels very rarely are polemical in nature, so it can be a bit jarring at first to read a novel whose very first lines lays out for the reader the bleak, horrid setting:

With the growing population of slaves in the Southern States of America, there is a fearful increase of half whites, most of whose fathers are slaveowners, and their mothers slaves. Society does not frown upon the man who sits with his mulatto child upon his knee, whilst its mother stands a slave behind his chair. The late Henry Clay, some years since, predicted that the abolition of negro slavery would be brought about by the amalgamation of the races. John Randolph, a distinguished slaveholder of Virginia, and a prominent statesman, said in a speech in the legislature of his native state, that “the blood of the first American statesmen coursed through the veins of the slave of the South.” In all the cities and towns of the slave states, the real negro, or clear black, does not amount to more than one in every four of the slave population. This fact is, of itself, the best evidence of the degraded and immoral condition of the relation of master and slave in the United States of America. (p. 61)

Clotel and her family do not appear until a few pages into the narrative; Brown is more concerned with establishing for his mostly-white audience (at least for this original edition; he extensively edited it later, changing some details, for a more mixed-race American audience in later editions) in Great Britain just how horrible American chattel slavery truly was.  In a sense, Clotel and her family are not as much original characters as they are emblems for what millions of enslaved Americans suffered in the mid-19th century.  It is best to keep this in mind, as some of the narrative elements otherwise might seem too melodramatic.

Clotel’s ancestry is based on the then-rumors about Thomas Jefferson’s children with Sally Hemings but more so than that, it is meant to establish just how deep racial prejudices ran, so that while some fathers of biracial children might dandle a child on his knee, he would be just as likely to whip them or sell them down the river to New Orleans.  Although the fictional Currer, Clotel’s mother, was not the property of Jefferson but instead lent out to him, she and her daughters were sold off with nary a mention of Jefferson himself afterward.  It is a brutal, effective way of establishing the dehumanizing experiences that Clotel and her relatives experience throughout the novel.

Clotel is bought for $1500 (roughly $30,000 in today’s money, or the cost of a well-equipped new car or truck, to put it in the perspective of those who equated African-descended people with labor machines) by Horatio Green, who was earlier struck by her beauty and who desired her as a concubine.  Although Brown does not explicitly label this as rape, showing some reciprocal feelings on the part of Clotel, there is enough to be read between the lines to indicate that there is some level of coercion involved; after all, Clotel is Green’s property.  Yet regardless of whatever attachments, real or feigned, that might have developed between them, according to Virginia law, no slave could marry a white person.  This plays a role years later, when Green enters into a marriage agreement and his new wife forces him to sell Clotel and their daughter, Mary.

Meanwhile, the lives of Currer and Clotel’s sister, Althesa, are little better.  Currer is sold to a preacher and dies of yellow fever before his daughter is able to emancipate her.  Althesa and her new owner also enter into a common-law marriage, as Althesa is able to pass for white, but she and her master, Morton, also die, leaving their daughters to be sold into slavery (one, Ellen, chooses to commit suicide, and the other, Jane, dies of heartbreak).  Their stories, which are permutations of Clotel and her daughter’s experiences, are told with a detached yet highly charged emotion similar to those passionate tales which were the forerunners of late-19th century sensational novel.  Although at times the individual reactions border on the melodramatic, for contemporary audiences it had the effect of a series of blows to the gut.

Clotel has at this point been sold to a planter in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  There she meets and falls in love with another slave, William, and they plan their escape, with Clotel passing as William’s master.  Their escape, based heavily upon the remarkable 1849 escape of Ellen and William Craft, succeeds, and William goes forward into Canada, while Clotel returns in disguise to Richmond in order to attempt the rescue of her daughter.  However, things go awry and forced to choose between death by drowning or a return to slavery, Clotel chooses the former.  Although the novel could have ended effectively at this point, Brown extends it over another ten years, showing how Mary manages to gain both her freedom and a lover she thought she was forced to leave behind.  It is a touching, tenuously hopeful conclusion to a novel that repeatedly batters its readers with its blunt, horrific descriptions of the degradations that Clotel and her family had to experience.

Taking into consideration the differences between mid-19th and early-21st century literary conventions, Clotel is a very evocative novel, one that gains its narrative power not so much from the force of its individual characters but from the polemical nature of the third-person narrator.  There are very few wasted passages; Brown knows exactly what effect he seeks to effect and for the most part, he manages to execute this very well.  The characters themselves, while perhaps not as immediately memorable as a Simon Legree or an Uncle Tom, are also effective in presenting humanity in the midst of degradation; love surviving callous brutality; hope enduring while surrounded by hatred and despair.  While some of the scenes might seem a bit too flashy or sensationalist for modern readers, on the whole they are rendered vividly, leaving a lasting impression in readers’ minds.  Today, Clotel should be remembered not just as the first known African American novel, but also as one of the classics of mid-19th century American literature.  Over 160 years after its initial publication, it still possesses a power to move the hearts and souls of its readers.

William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida (c. 1602)

February 10th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Thersites:  Agamemnon is a fool; Achilles is a fool; Thersites is a fool; and, as aforesaid, Patroclus is a fool.

Achilles:  Derive this; come.

Thersites:  Agamemnon is a fool to offer to command Achilles; Achilles is a fool to be commanded of Agamemnon; Thersites is a fool to serve such a fool; and this Patroclus is a fool positive.

Patroclus:  Why am I a fool?

Thersites:  Make that demand of the Creator.  It suffices me thou art.  Look you, who comes here?

Achilles:  Come, Patroclus, I’ll speak with nobody.  Come in with me, Thersites.

Thersites:  Here is such patchery, such juggling, and such knavery.  All the argument is a whore and a cuckold – good quarrel to draw emulous factions and bleed to death upon.  Now the dry serpigo on the subject, and war and lechery confound all!

Act II, Scene 3

Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida has vexed critics and audiences four centuries since its first appearance between 1602 and 1609.  It is a so-called “problem play”; it is neither tragedy, history, nor comedy, although it contains elements of all three.  Rather, it is a social commentary that utilizes satire and bawdy wit to explore issues such as the impermanence of sworn oaths, whether they be of a political or romantic nature.  Such issues can make for an unsettling experience for an unprepared audience and certainly Troilus and Cressida has had a rocky relationship with its critics for most of the past four centuries.

Troilus and Cressida is set during the tenth year of the Trojan War and it riffs off of Homer’s Iliad and Chaucer’s Troius and Cressida.  There are two parallel plots here:  the tiff between Agamemon and Achilles over the former’s seizure of the latter’s female captive and the budding romance between the Trojan prince Troilus, Priam’s youngest son, and the Trojan lady Cressida.  Shakespeare’s original audience would likely have been familiar with the basic plots of both, as the Trojan War was a popular stage setting in the years prior to this play and Chaucer’s narrative poem had been wildly popular in England for over two centuries at the time of Shakespeare’s play.

What Shakespeare does here is invert certain elements.  Instead of following Homer’s lead on aristos and portray the Greek camp situation as revolving around matters of personal greatness and quality, he portrays the riff between Achilles and Agamemnon, which envelops other leaders such as Ulysses, Diomedes, and Ajax, as a base, political affair.  There is no nobility on display; instead, we see the ugly political machinations that lay bare the falsity of their oaths to unite to fight the Trojans.  As for the romantic relationship between Troilus and Cressida, he does not follow Chaucer’s story either.  Referencing freely the “whore” and “cuckold” elements of the Helen/Menelaus relationship, Shakespeare recasts Cressida’s relationship with Troilus as being at its heart a mirror of that of Helen’s.  There is no true love, there is no true faith.  We deceive ourselves and others, presumably for our own gain.

This is not a pleasant topic for a play or even for a sermon and Shakespeare utilizes bit characters such as Thersites to present these falsities in a crude, bawdy fashion that would get audiences chuckling until they paused later to consider the import of such statements as the one quoted above.  At times, however, the humor feels rather forced, as the ugliness of the situations casts a pall over matters.  It certainly was jarring to read clever turns of phrases from the “fools” after the more notable (and unwitting) fools demonstrated through their actions and perfidies the ridiculousness of their positions.  Yet despite the sordidness on display, Troilus and Cressida is fascinating.  It is certainly a clever play, one which plays upon reader expectations before twisting them and throwing them back in their faces, but it also says much about ourselves that could not be said straightforward in either a comedy or a tragedy.  Troilus and Cressida occupies a nebulous middle ground between those two poles of human drama and its tragic ending does not overshadow its black comic middle, but rather it reinforces that sense of futility we often feel in our own lives.  It certainly is a “problem play” in that it is more than just a commentary on social problems, but also it represents things which trouble us long after the final words are read or spoken.  Certainly a play which I will revisit in years to come.

Jack London, The Call of the Wild (1903)

January 19th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

During the four years since his puppyhood he [Buck] had lived the life of a sated aristocrat; he had a fine pride in himself, was even a trifle egotistical, as country gentlemen sometimes become because of their insular situation.  But he had saved himself by not becoming a mere pampered house-dog.  Hunting and kindred outdoor delights had kept down the fat and hardened his muscles; and to him, as to the cold-tubbing races, the love of water had been a tonic and a health preserver.  (p. 6, Library of America edition)

The story of Buck, a St. Bernard-Scotch shepherd dog, is Jack London’s most famous tale.  In less than a hundred pages, he explores the changes in Buck as he transforms from a symbol of civilized life to the epitome of “savagery.”  Yet this simple description does not hint at the wealth of social commentaries that London makes in this novella.

The Call of the Wild begins in the Santa Clara valley in California in 1897 with a description of Buck before he is stolen away and told to trainers seeking suitably large dogs to haul the dog sleds during the great Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-1899.  The depravities that Buck endures, learning the “law of club and fang,” are vividly described in the second chapter:

He had never seen dogs fight as these wolfish creatures fought, and his first experience taught him an unforgetable lesson.  It is true, it was a vicarious experience, else he would not have lived to profit by it.  Curly was the victim. They were camped near the log store, where she, in her friendly way, make advances to a husky dog the size of a full-grown wolf, though not half so large as she.  There was no warning, only a leap in like a flash, a metallic clip of teeth, a leap out equally swift, and Curly’s face was ripped open from eye to jaw. (p. 15)

In the span of less than ten pages, we witness Buck’s initial transformation.  Exposed rudely to the violent code of kill or be killed through the sudden killing of the friendly Curly, Buck is confronted with a dilemma:  does he try to resist the changes being forced upon him, or does he learn to adapt to this brutal code of life in which there are no such concepts as “fair play” or “equal treatment.”  London does an excellent job of using Buck’s situation to allow us greater insight into not only what the more “civilized” dogs had to face in the harsh Arctic clime, but also how humans themselves had to shed off layers of civilized behavior if they were to able to survive.

London’s prose mirrors the changes in Buck.  At first, there is almost a staid pomposity to Buck’s initial self-description, but as he becomes acclimated to the sled pack and learns how to fight back against the cruel, imperious Spitz for control of the pack, his observations and thoughts become sharper, more staccato in their bursts of activity.  There is lesser and lesser room for introspective thought as the pack makes their way toward Dawson City, the hub of activity during the gold rush.  The focus shifts more to the immediate, materialistic aspects:  will there be enough food to eat tonight?; how shall dominance be shown or rejected?; and how to make shelter against the blistering wintry winds?  This narrative shift occurs gradually, enabling readers to make connections between events and their subsequent effect on Buck’s behavior and thoughts.

It is tempting to describe what The Call of the Wild is about:  a staging of Social Darwinist “survival of the fittest” in the Klondike; a reverse “hero’s journey” through the shedding of layers of civilization to reach a pristine primordial state; or conflicts of an anthropomorphic dog against self, nature, and other dog-men.  There certainly are elements in the story that supports each point of view, especially in how Buck comes to relate to his succession of so-called masters and his increasing unwillingness to follow the “law of club” blindly.  This can be seen in how he subverts Spitz’s authority before dethroning him in a fight to the death that resembles that of Spitz’s savage treatment of Curly; but even more in how he refuses to follow the inept Hal down into certain death in a Yukon about to shed its icy mantle.

However, there is more to The Call of the Wild than these plausible themes.  Although it is rarely stated until the final chapters, there is the condition of affectionate love that is part and parcel of Buck’s transformation from civilized dog to one who ultimately answers “the call of the wild.”  This is most evident in his time spent with the outdoorsman John Thornton and how theirs is a bond that transcends normal civilized niceties (Thornton’s swearing at Buck and Buck’s leaving teeth imprints in Thornton’s hand both are signs of rebellion against “normal” polite signs of affection).  This is most readily apparent in a wager that Thornton makes that Buck, without any cracks of the whip from Thornton, could haul a half-ton sled 100 yards.  When Buck manages to achieve the seemingly impossible, winning Thornton $1600, Thornton is made a staggering offer for Buck:

Every man was tearing himself loose, even Matthewson.  Hats and mittens were flying in the air.  Men were shaking hands, it did not matter with whom, and bubbling over in a general incoherent babel.

But Thornton fell on his knees beside Buck.  Head was against head, and he was shaking him back and forth.  Those who hurried up heard him cursing Buck, and he cursed him long and fervently, and softly and lovingly.

“Gad, sir!  Gad, sir!” spluttered the Skookum Bench king.  “I’ll give you a thousand for him, sir, a thousand, sir – twelve hundred, sir.”

Thornton rose to his feet.  His eyes were wet.  The tears were streaming frankly down his cheeks.  “Sir,” he said to the Skookum Bench king, “no, sir.  You can go to hell, sir.  It’s the best I can do for you, sir.”

Buck seized Thornton’s hand in his teeth.  Thornton shook him back and forth.  As though animated by a common impulse, the onlookers drew back to a respectful distance; nor were they again indiscreet enough to interrupt.” (p. 70)

It is here, and in two scenes at the very end of the novel, where the bonds of affection are shown to be both the last tie to civilization and the first bond to savage, pristine communion with the wild.  Here is the antidote to Buck’s first harsh treatment at the hands of the man in the red sweater, there is the rejection of absolute authority as seen in the futile attempts of Hal to drive Buck into mortal danger.  By building up Buck’s voluntary bond to Thornton, London provides a deeper answer to Buck’s series of internal conflicts:  the shedding of civilized values does not mean a rejection of communal ties but instead a truer reaffirmation of them.  This in turn makes the final scene in The Call of the Wild one of the most powerful moments in American literature and the novella one of the most moving works of American literature.

Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones (1941-1944; 1956 revision)

January 16th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Ficciones is Jorge Luis Borges’ most famous fiction collection.  It is the omnibus of two separate mini-collections, El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan, published in 1941, and Artificios, released in 1944.  Later, in the 1956 revision, three stories (“El fin,” “La secta del Fénix,” and my personal favorite, “El Sur”) were appended to this omnibus collection.

Although I could devote hundreds of words (if not thousands) to each individual story in this collection, what I am going to do is briefly note a few characteristics associated with this collection, followed by more detailed explorations of a few personal favorites.  I will not do any translations for this; in part because English versions are widely available and anything I do on the fly may differ in subtle ways from the available ones from the past 50 years or so.  I will note, however, that Borges’ Spanish is very Anglo-American in style, though, as there is not as much ornateness to it as would be found in the majority of Latin American fictions from this time period.  In fact, that deceptive simplicity in the prose (something that I remember the English translations capturing for the most part, although it’s been years since I’ve read any Borges in translation outside of an odd story or two included in an anthology) is what makes these stories all the more memorable.

Several readers might remember Ficciones for stories such as “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” where through a look at language of a fictitious place/culture leads to a haunting conclusion, or perhaps “The Circular Ruins,” where Time itself seems to bend and twist.  Maybe stories such as “The Library of Babel,” with its infinite qualities are what appeal to readers most (it certainly seemed to appeal to Gene Wolfe and Umberto Eco, who each wrote novels that reference this quality), or possibly “The Babylon Lottery,” where Chance and Fate are revealed in lottery form.  Or could it be “The Garden of Bifucating Paths” that grabs someone’s attention most?

There are so many choices here for stories to examine.  But I am going to limit myself to three:  “Pierre Menard,” “Funes the Memorable,” and “The South.”  Each of these three differs significantly in form, content, and theme from one another, but all are personal favorites of mine because of what Borges accomplishes in each story.  Hopefully, these are favorites of those reading this as well.

“Pierre Menard” reads as a satire of literary criticism.  At first, the pages devoted to outlining a curious list of fake research, conmingled with actual writers and philosophers, may seem to be too much of a conceit.  However, it sets the stage perfectly for Borges to mock those writers, historians as well as literary critics, who desire to discover everything new under the sun, hoping to draw attention to themselves by devising a new way of discussing old matters.  His Pierre Menard, who sets out not just to recreate Cervantes’ Don Quixote but rather to create anew this classic, not only succeeds as a satire, but it also broadens its target.  Each generation has a tendency to reinterpret the old, taking words and expressions from past generations and imbuing them with context and meanings specific to our own.  When Menard creates anew that famous passage from Ch. 9 of Don Quixote talking about History, the interpretative twist given to how the two identical passages now supposedly have two separate and very different intents and interpretations creates a situation where the reader may realize that not only is s/he involved in reading a satire of literary critics who want to reinvent the interpretative wheel every generation, but that this extends to readers as well who choose to reinterpret passages to fit their own time-specific needs.

“Funes the Memorable” is one of the most chilling fictions that Borges has ever written.  In re-reading it, I could not help but to think of H.P. Lovecraft and Horacio Quiroga in how Borges constructed this story of a man injured in a fall and condemned to remember everything in his life.  There is a slow, creeping horror in that tale, as Funes outlines just what it means to have an infallible memory.  Perfect recall, Borges posits through Funes, perhaps is not an ideal situation, considering how much healing can take place in oblivion.  Funes’ tragic end still stick with me, eight years after I first read this story.

“The South” is a multi-layered story.  At first, it reads as a man who wishes to die in a knife knight, gaucho style.  This story references several elements of early 20th century Argentine (and especially gaucho) culture, with the knife fights and machismo.  But there is a second layer, one that isn’t apparent at first, but when read closely, can change the perspective of this story into something more illusory and dreamlike.  The character of Juan Dahlmann (incidentally, I chose this name for the title of my mirror blog, Vaguely Borgesian, because of how much I identified with parts of this character’s personality) adds poignancy to this tale.  Why is he wanting (or dreaming) of going South, away from the City, to fight and die?  What motivates him to push on, to change who he was?  It is this central mystery about the character and if what I read should be taken at face value or questioned immediately that made “El Sur” my favorite Borges story.

But as I noted above, I could have easily discussed each and every one of these stories with individual paragraph(s).  Ficciones is one of the rare few anthologies where even the more relatively obscure stories are stronger than those that would appear in most authors’ “best of” collections.  There is not a single story in here that I did not enjoy greatly.  Borges’ stories made me think, made me puzzle out what is going on, made me question matters of Space and Time, and made me ponder how I read and interpret the stories that I read.  I have re-read this collection probably close to a dozen times and each time I find myself marveling over what Borges has created here.  Ficciones simply is among the handful of books that I would hold up as being wonders of human literary invention.

William Faulkner, The Hamlet (1940)

January 15th, 2015 § 1 comment § permalink

He had quite possibly been a foreigner, though not necessarily French, since to the people who had come after him and had almost obliterated all trace of his sojourn, anyone speaking the tongue with a foreign flavor or whose appearance or even occupation was strange, would have been a Frenchman regardless of what nationality he might affirm, just as to their more urban co-evals (if he had elected to settle in Jefferson itself say) he would have been called a Dutchman.  But now nobody knew what he had actually been, not even Will Varner, who was sixty years old and now owned a good deal of his original grant, including the site of his ruined mansion.  Because he was gone now, the foreigner, the Frenchman, with his family and his slaves and his magnificence.  His dream, his broad acres were parcelled out now into small shiftless mortgaged farms for the directors of Jefferson banks to squabble over before selling finally to Will Varner, and all that remained of him was the river bed which his slaves had straightened for almost ten miles to keep his land from flooding, and the skeleton of the tremendous house which his heirs-at-large had been pulling down and chopping up – walnut newel posts and stair spindles, oak floors which fifty years later would have been almost priceless, the very clapboards themselves – for thirty years now for firewood.  Even his name was forgotten, his pride but a legend about the land he had wrested from the jungle and tamed as a monument to that appellation which those who came after him in battered wagons and on mule-back and even on foot, with fling-lock rifles and dogs and children and home-made whiskey stills and Protestant psalm-books, could not even read, let alone pronounce, and which now had nothing to do with any once-living man at all – his dream and his pride now dust with the lost dust of his anonymous bones, his legend but the stubborn tale of the money he buried somewhere about the place when Grant over-ran the country on his way to Vicksburg. (pp. 731-732, Library of America edition)

One of the more striking features of William Faulkner’s writing is how well he establishes mood and setting with just a few paragraphs.  In this long second paragraph to The Hamlet (1940), he fleshes out the Frenchman’s Bend territory, located at the southern end of Yoknapatawpha Country, and makes its denizens into the hard-scrabble, barely literate heirs to antebellum nobility.  In this seeming-paean to the lost grandeur of a pre-Civil War planter, Faulkner does a clever bit of foreshadowing in hinting at the rise of the common classes with the fall of the established landed gentry.  By creating something almost epic about the movement of the Anglo-Celtic descendents of the Appalachian mountain people into northeastern Mississippi, Faulkner creates an environment in which the decline of Will Varner’s power due to the machinations of Flem Snopes becomes something more than just a changing of the guard; it is in miniature a palace coup in which a plebeian is raised up to become emperor.

Faulkner began developing the shrewd, nefarious character of Flem back in the 1920s, but it is in the 1932 short story “Centaur in Brass” where many of the events later covered in The Hamlet first occurred.  Flem’s accomplishments here, from rising above the shady past of his barn burning father to becoming first Varner’s store clerk and later his boss and son-in-law, do not quite possess the Machiavellian air found in “Centaur in Brass.”  Yet when viewed as a first act in another rise-and-all, Flem’s character here is impressive in his combination of detached coolness and ambitious shrewdness.  This Flem is a more nuanced, fleshed-out character and while he influences much of the events in The Hamlet, he does not overshadow some of the other important characters.

The Hamlet is divided into four sections, with the first, “Flem,” devoted to the Snopes family and their arrival at Frenchman’s Bend.  Some of Faulkner’s finest writing is found here, especially in his establishment of the “horse trading” prowess of the Snopes.  Two important characters, Mink Snopes and V.K. Ratliff, are introduced for the first time.  Mink’s own trading of notes proves to be vital for Flem’s later rise at the store, while Ratliff’s observations about local life serve as a sort of moral anchor against which the Snopes’ machinations twist and tug against.  The narrative is rich with the little details of Flem’s beginnings at the Varner store that enhance reader understanding of latter events.  One example of this is the story that Ratliff tells of the goat scarcity.  It is a humorous piece, a smaller brother of sorts to the “Spotted Horses” story that later formed the nucleus of the fourth part, “The Peasants.”  Yet it also reveals the Snopes’ deviousness without being too heavy-handed with the details; it manages to pull off being a funny interlude and a foreshadowing of future events without the narrative feeling stretched or overworked.

However, it is in the second part, “Eula,” where Faulkner’s skill at characterization truly is on display.  Eula is such an exaggerated caricature of early 20th century Southern femininity that it would be easy to dismiss her as being nothing more than a piece of meat for the local men to drool over.  Yet there is something within this lazy, sexualized woman that transcends the confines of such parodic characters.  Her effortless seduction of a previous schoolteacher, her desire to lose her virginity, and the series of events that leads her to become married to Flem are remarkable in that despite in most cases such events would be too wild to be narrated effectively, Faulkner manages to pull off the great feat of making this seem not only plausible, but also integral to the overall plot (it also contains connections to Eula’s unstated seduction in “Centaur in Brass”).

The third section, “The Long Summer,” is an interlude of sorts, as Flem and Eula are absent due to their honeymoon in Texas.  Yet the scenes involving the idiotic Ike Snopes and his love for Houston’s cow are hilarious, albeit in a slightly unsettling way.  On a more somber note, the Mink/Houston/wife/horse events that leads to Houston’s murder at the hands of Mink is presented in a more tragic, yet still memorable fashion.  Despite the absence of Flem, this section does not falter much in the way of narrative development, as the other Snopes, themselves in their own ways as much a danger to ordered society as Flem is becoming, prove to be interesting characters in their own right.

As noted above, “The Peasants” contains the nucleus of the story of Flem bringing back wild, unbroken ponies from Texas and engaging in a series of horseflesh tradings that enriches him at the expense of others.  Now the owner of the old Frenchman plantation house, Flem’s last exploit involves his manipulation of local legend regarding buried treasure to cement his new position as the new lord of the land.  The story ends with Flem setting off for Jefferson and the events chronicled in “Centaur in Brass.”  It is an effective conclusion to this stage in Flem’s rise to power, as it sets the stage for future events without feeling like the story was ending on a cliffhanger or hadn’t been developed properly.  The Hamlet can function well as an independent novel, albeit one full of references to other stories published both before and after its initial release.  It is not one of Faulkner’s greatest novels, but it certainly is an excellent story in its own right, full of well-developed characters and some of the funniest scenes in any of Faulkner’s fiction.  It sets the stage for several stories to follow, making it a valuable part of Faulkner’s œuvre.

Zoran Živković, Pisac/The Writer (1998)

January 9th, 2015 § 1 comment § permalink

Uključio sam kompjuter.

Prethodno sam, naravno, spustio roletnu.  Bio je to deo jutarnjeg rituala, koji je imao praktičnog smisla za vedrih dana, kakav je bio ovaj, ali ne i onda kada bi bilo oblačno.  Svejedno, ja sam je i tada spuštao, sujeverno težeći jedinstvu ambijenta.  Moja radna soba gleda na istok, a ja sedim za stolom naspram velikog prozora, tako da bi me, bez roletne, sunce zaslepljivalo sve tamo negde do podneva, nagoneći me da čkiljim u ekran.  Ovako nisam čkiljio, ali sam zato, zarad ambijenta, naprezao oči  u nepotrebnoj polutami za oblačnih dana.

Roletna, doduše, nije bila sasvim spuštena.  Zaustavio bih je na petnaestak centimetara od donje ivice okvira, kako bi sunce ipak moglo da dopre tamo gde je svakako bilo dobrodošlo:  do osmostranog staklenog suda, smeštenog u prozoru, joji je nekada bio mali akvarijum, a sada je služio kao saksija za skupinu minijaturnih kaktusa, sa belim i ružičastim cvetićima.  Svetlost je, pored toga, dopirala i kroz tanke proreze ismeđu plastičnih rebara zategnute roletne, gradeći u polumraku sobe titrave arabeske.  Čak i da sam sedeo leđima okrenut prozoru, mislim da bih samo radi ove nestalne igre svetlihi tamnih pruga po površinama stvari držao roletnu stalno spuštenu.  Čudnovatom utisku nestvarnosti, koji je tu nastajao i koji je, ko zna zbog čega, veoma podsticajno delovao na mene, doprinosilo je i lelujanje zrnaca prašine u kosim zracima.  Znam da ima pisaca kojima je sasvim svejedno u kakvom okružju stvaraju, ali ja zasigurno ne spadam među takve.  Za mene je ambijent bezmalo sve. (pp. 5-6)

I switched on the computer.

First I pulled down the Venetian blind, of course.  That was part of my morning ritual, and on sunny days like this one it had a practical function.  Nevertheless, I also pull it down on cloudy days, superstitiously striving to maintain the ambiance.  My study looks to the east, and my desk faces a large window, so that, without the blind, I would have to squint and scowl until noon to see anything on the screen.  This way there’s no need to squint, but on cloudy days, for the sake of maintaining the ambiance, I strain my eyes in unnecessary semidarkness.

Not that I pull it all the way down.  I leave a gap of about fifteen centimeters above the windowsill, so that sunshine reaches the area where it is definitely welcome:  an eight-sided glass vessel, set in the window.  That vessel, formerly a small aquarium, has been converted to serve as a flowerpot for a group of miniature cactuses, the kind with very small pink and white flowers.  Light also slants through the narrow slits between the horizontal plastic bars, creating shimmering arabesques in the dusky air of the room.  Even if I sat with my back to the window, I think I would keep the blind down at such times of the day just to enjoy the transient play of bright and dark stripes on objects in the room.  The peculiar impression of unreality thus created, one which (for reasons unknown to me) I find very stimulating, is enhanced by dust motes floating in the air, caught by diagonal beams of light.  I know that some writers are not at all influenced by their immediate surroundings.  For me, the ambient mood is almost everything. (pp. 3-4, translated by Alice Copple-Tošić)


The beginning to Zoran Živković’s 1998 novella, Pisac (The Writer), is in many ways typical of his writing.  There rarely are flashy, attention-grabbing moments in these introductory paragraphs.  Rather, almost the inverse is true, as he frequently begins with the most mundane of events (here, the simple powering up of a computer) before some peculiar trait of the narrator sends the narrative careening off into something remarkable.  Ambiance, as the anonymous narrator notes, is almost everything when it comes to Živković’s stories and this is especially true for The Writer, the first of a triptych of stories that involves the writer-text-reader semantic triangle.

Plot may not seem to be a primary emphasis, yet The Writer depends heavily upon the intricate placing of narrative developments.  As the writer tries to compose a tale, his dependency upon shades of light and darkness takes on several forms throughout the novella.  His musings about his difficulties (a theme that Živković would revisit in several other stories, each time with a different permutation) are stacked upon each other, creating a catalog of issues that somehow, in their seemingly digressive fashion, manages to suck the reader into considering them at hand.  This meticulous assembly of the conundrums the writer faces may not appear at first to be akin to a crime novelist’s revelations of clues, yet there is a certain familial relationship in how each is presented to the reader.  Živković’s carefulness in parsing out of information related to the writer and his attempts to write pays dividends by story’s end.

Characterization is also surprisingly well-done, considering the paucity of characters (two) and the amount of time devoted to exploring the narrator/writer’s internal thoughts and actions.  With precise wording (the English translation does a good job of capturing the essence of the Serbian original, although at several points the sentence structure had to be broken in order to preserve more of the narrative’s “ambiance”), Živković creates quirky, obsessive characters whose occasional single-mindedness leads to some amusing scenes, such as the pseudo-Freudian interrogation of the writer’s childhood by the writer’s so-called friend (himself a writer of sorts, albeit a possibly deluded one).  These oddball moments add a levity to the narrative that makes it as much a story about humanity as it is about the addictive art of literary composition.

As hinted at above, Živković’s prose, in both the original and in translation, is nearly pitch-perfect.  He is a writer who creates “atmospheric” settings that feel simultaneously plausible and utterly strange.  He never rushes the development of setting, events, or characters, yet his narratives (and this is especially true here, as The Writer is around 30 pages in the omnibus The Writer/The Book/The Reader translation published by PS Publishing) are very compact, with almost no wasted space or energy.  Yet there is a sense of grandness behind this intimate story that belies its brevity.  The result is a story that is simple in its presentation and yet very nuanced in its details.

The Writer, as one of Živković’s earlier works, can almost be seen as an ur-text of sorts for his later writings.  The structure of the narrative, beginning and ending with simple, mundane actions, along with the character type of the narrator, is seen, at least in glimpses, multiple times in his latter works.  Yet here (as well as in most of his other tales), these familiar elements do not equate to staid stories, as there is always some unique element (perhaps a different mental train of thoughts from a common point, or a more or less fantastical component) that makes each story different from each other.  Certainly The Writer is a well-written story in its own right; it is merely a bonus to see certain connections between it and Živković’s latter works that enrich both.

Claire Fuller, Our Endless Numbered Days (2015)

January 5th, 2015 § 1 comment § permalink

Highgate, London, November 1985

This morning I found a black-and-white photograph of my father at the back of the bureau drawer.  He didn’t look like a liar.  My mother, Ute, had removed the other pictures of him from the albums she kept on the bottom shelf of the bookcase, and shuffled around all the remaining family and baby snapshots to fill in the gaps.  The framed picture of their wedding, which used to sit on the mantelpiece, had gone too.

On the back of the photograph, Ute had written James und seine Busenfreunde mit Oliver, 1976 in her steady handwriting.  It was the last picture that had been taken of my father.  He looked shockingly young and healthy, his face as smooth and white as a river pebble.  He would have been twenty-six, nine years older than I am today. (pp. 7-8, e-ARC edition)

Every once in a while, there will be a news item about the abduction of a child by a relative.  Sometimes, the reasons are as mundane as anger over a divorce/custody settlement, but occasionally there is something much more bizarre about it.  Perhaps the relative (often a father or uncle, but occasionally a mother) is involved in a cult, or possibly there is a doomsday survivalist angle to it.  Regardless of the specific details, the stranger stories are the ones that capture the public’s attention, especially when the child escapes or is returned to the wider world after years in seclusion.

In Claire Fuller’s debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, she narrates this abduction story from the viewpoint of a then-eight-year-old girl, Peggy, whose father, James, has taken her from her English home while her German-born mother, Ute, is off on a concert tour.  Moving back and forth in time from the late 1970s to 1985, when she is returned to civilization, Fuller explores just how a young child might adapt to being thrust into a primitive world in which she is told her mother and all of civilization has been destroyed in a cataclysm and that she must learn how to survive with the help of her father.

Fuller does an excellent job in developing Peggy’s character and the situation in which she finds herself, both in her initial exposure to the wild and later in the flash-forward chapters where she is trying to reintegrate herself into modern society.  Fuller utilizes detailed, vivid descriptions to great effect, such as this scene near the middle of the novel in which Peggy’s father takes her out of their “die Hütte” into the greater, snow-covered wilderness deep in a German forest:

I clung to him with my arms and legs and we went outside.  It made me feel strange to think there was no one left to see us emerge from die Hütte into the snow; no one to wonder at this new double creature – a PapaPunzel.  Our two-legged, two-headed body lumbered into the clearing.

“This whole wonderful world is yours and mine, Punzel.  Everything you can see is ours.  Beyond the Fluss, over the hill” – he pointed in that direction – “there’s nothing.  If you carried on over the top, you’d fall off the edge into a never-ending blackness.  Ptarrr!”  He loosened his grip on me.

I shrieked as I felt a lurch with the drop of my body, before he caught me again.

He laughed at my fright and then became serious.  “And the same with the mountain.”  He turned, running his outstretched arm in a semicircle, taking in all the places I knew:  the forest, the clearing, the cabin, and the rocky slope up to the summit.  We both looked up to the sharp line slicing through the white sky.  “On the other side there is only emptiness, an awful place that has eaten everything except our own little kingdom.”

“What’s it called?”  I asked in an awed whisper.

He paused, and I thought it was because even the name must be too terrible to speak.  At last he said, “The Great Divide.  And you must promise never to go there.  I couldn’t survive without you.  We’re a team, you and I, aren’t we?”(p. 187-188 e-ARC edition)

Here can be seen both the daughter’s credulous wonder at this wintry expedition and her father’s manipulations.  Although there are places where the reader can anticipate later plot developments, Fuller does such a good job in laying out Peggy’s inner emotions that even when situations occur much as what one might expect based on the narrative, there really is not an urge to skim through to the “present” sections because the prose is so well-developed that it makes the reader want to linger over certain passages, re-reading them again for the full effect.

There are few weaknesses evident.  Perhaps at times too much is described or, conversely, a few moments that could have used a little more exposition.  These, however, are few in number and they do not affect the overall narrative flow.  As stated above, Fuller excels at writing descriptive prose through the eyes of a child, one who is not aware at first just how traumatized she has become, both by the initial abduction and her eventual return to society.  Peggy’s deceptively complex character provides a perspective to the narrated events that readers might not have anticipated, based on their familiarity with abduction/rescue tales.  Our Endless Numbered Days is a very strong debut, one that readers of various genres should appreciate reading.

Kelly Link, Get in Trouble (2015)

January 4th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Kelly Link has been one of my favorite short fiction writers ever since I read her debut collection, Stranger Things Happen, back in 2003.  There is something about her fiction that is hard to describe as a common thread, yet when reading individual stories, so frequently there comes a moment, often a twist of scene or turn of phrase, that makes that story easily identifiable as “a Kelly Link story.”  Certainly there is a continuation of theme and narrative style across her three previous collection and it does crop up in her latest collection, Get in Trouble (due to be released in February).

Get in Trouble‘s nine stories (oddly, the ninth, “The Lesson,” was left off of my e-ARC) often begin with a sentence that seems so outlandish, so off-center, that the reader is compelled to pay closer attention to what is transpiring.  For example, here is the beginning to “The Summer People”:

Fran’s daddy woke her up wielding a mister.  “Fran,” he said, spritzing her like a wilted houseplant.  “Fran, honey.  Wakey wakey.”

It is an interesting simile, which is immediately contrasted with descriptions of Fran’s suffering from the flu (“head was stuffed with boiled wool and snot”).  There is a deceptively simple narrative style, one that at times feels as though it were being narrated by a precocious child, in which the mundane and the weird are conflated, with no discernible boundaries between the twain.  This certainly is played up to great effect in “The Summer People,” in which a seemingly ordinary, albeit slightly off-beat, father and daughter interaction ends up careening in a new, unexpected direction.  From a child’s perspective, matters of heaven and hell might be as frightening as a thunderstorm or a lightning burst, but for adults reading this story, there are some startlingly frightful moments that seem to have been lurking just beneath the narrative surface before they quickly pop up.  However, what is really striking about “The Summer People,” and by extension the majority of the other stories, is that Link elects to leave several narrative mysteries intact.  On occasion, these lack of narrative resolutions can be a bit frustrating, but in this story and the majority of the tales, these messy conclusions add to the narrative impact rather than detract from them.

A similar pattern can be seen with the second story, “I Can See Right Through You,” which begins with this memorable paragraph:

When the sex tape happened and things went south with Fawn, the demon lover did what he always did.  He went to cry on Meggie’s shoulder.  Girls like Fawn came and went, but Meggie would always be there.  Him and Meggie.  It was the talisman you kept in your pocket.  The one you couldn’t lose.

Yet despite this similarly strange beginning, “I Can See Right Through You” differs in certain key respects from “The Summer People.”  The tale is more risque, slightly erotic, yet this tale of faded fame feels more introspective than anything else.  It could almost be a tale of a woman or man in a mid-life crisis, if it weren’t for the ghosts and demon lover.  Their presence alters the narrative, making it both a reflective tale and a social commentary that references both Perez Hilton and the supernatural.  Link manages to strike a fine balance between the whimsical and the serious here, as each time it seems the story might be getting too silly, there is a sobering reference to addictions or suicide to restore a morose balance.

This mixture of playfulness and direct, forthright accounts of lives altered is present, more or less, in the other stories.  At times, such as in the Wizard of Oz-related “Origin Story,” it almost becomes a bit too odd, although seeing a reference to a superhero called “Mann Man,” with all the powers of Thomas Mann, did crack me up a bit.  The only real shortcomings of Get in Trouble, besides the over familiarity that some readers might have with the narrative arcs, concern the collection’s length.  It just feels like there should have been even more delightfully weird tales here and that perhaps there could have been an even greater variety in narrative styles.  However, this is akin to complaining that a bowl of delicious butter pecan ice cream is lacking because there is no chocolate present and that it isn’t a gallon-full of churned ice cream.  For its relatively short size, Get in Trouble is a testimony to just how reliably good Link is as a writer, as the vast majority of these stories deliver on the promises made with their opening lines.  The year is young, but it may be one of the better collections released in a year that already is full of promising writers’ debut collections.