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.

2014 Premio Strega longlist: Elisa Ruotolo, Ovunque, proteggici

September 24th, 2014 § 2 comments § permalink

Lo chiamavano Blacmàn e immediatamente tutti capivano chi fosse.  Prima ancora del nome o di una fama qualsiasi, veniva quell’aspetto da zingaro quale in fondo era, da prestigiatore da quattro soldi:  un uomo con mani grandi abbastanza solo per suonartele, ma non per prendere la vita come si deve.  Blacmàn era lui senza possibilità d’errore, e avrebbe messo quasi paura se non fosse stato anche il tipo ridicolo che sapevo io:  per i suoi centimetri scarsi quanto quelli d’un ragazzo senza sviluppo, i vestiti attillati e a strisce di colore buoni a dare impaccio piú che allegria, i baffi a manubrio tenuti lisci e rigidi come quelli d’un sovrano senza terra, e i capelli a cespuglio, uguali al pelo degli animali che in calore se lo caricano di lappole nei giardini.  Ridicolo, come forse tutti avevano il diritto di credere tranne io, anche se piú di tutti lo pensavo cosí, vergognandomi d’averne preso il sangue e le ossa.

Blacmàn era mio padre.  E da quando ho cominciato a capire, non ho fatto altro che cercare prove e controprove di un’orfanezza, prima nei centimetri che mettevo, poi nella moralità di mia madre. (p. 12, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Italian writer Elisa Ruotolo’s 2014 Premio Strega-longlisted title, Ovunque, proteggici (Everywhere, Protect is the translated title), is on its surface a family history/mystery.  Set in the aftermath of World War II, the novel details the search of an man, Lorenzo, for clues into his family’s past, especially for his father, who disappeared one day.  While this plot device is rather familiar to readers, Ruotolo does add other elements to it to make it an interesting, worthwhile read.

One strength of Ovunque, proteggici is its ability to take interesting characters and to weave them in and out of the main plot in order to create a fascinating backdrop.  The Girosa family for five generations have striven to make their way in a world that seems to be set against them.  As Lorenzo explores his family’s past in order to understand why his father Blacmàn disappeared during World War II, we begin to see how his ancestors’ pasts have shaped his life.  From a grandfather who went to America to try to ply a trade and to send remittances home to his father becoming a jester of sorts and his mother a runaway, Lorenzo’s family is full of characters who have failed and then started anew, with each permutation of failure and meager success adding to the tale.

With so many fascinating characters, Ruotolo easily could have overwhelmed the plot with flashbacks and backstories.  Yet for the most part, these interesting characters enrich the plot, making Lorenzo’s investigation into his father’s past more than just another bog standard missing father/family history procedural.  By the time the novel concluded, it felt as though Ruotolo had achieved two seemingly divergent things at once:  an intimate novel that also manages to contain universal appeal to those who did not grow up under the oppressive weight of family history.

Although my Italian is a bit rudimentary, I did find Ruotolo’s prose to be relatively easy to follow.  Lorenzo’s first-person account of his investigations is concise, never feeling too distant or grandiose for the narrative.  This results in a narrative that flowed smoothly, telling a fascinating story without ever seeming to get in the way of the unfolding tale.  Ovunque, proteggici is a novel that I will likely revisit in years to come, as I am curious to see what else might be revealed on a re-read, as it seems there are depths to it that I failed to explore on my initial read.

Thomas Ligotti, The Spectral Link (2014)

June 28th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

My instructions were to follow a sequence of absurdly simple acts and to keep the operation secret.  First, I was to make my way into the assigned environment; second, I would depart in the most natural manner, undetected if possible, though that part was not essential.  Such was the basic framework of the dream.  Nevertheless, my sense was that the orders I was carrying out would have repercussions in a far greater scheme.  While feelings of this kind often inhere in night visions, their quality on this occasion seemed of a nature surpassing anything I had previously experienced in the world of sleep. (“Metaphysica Morum”, p. 11)

It has been several years since Thomas Ligotti has received a new collection of stories.  Although his latest, The Spectral Link, contains only two, “Metaphysica Morum” and “The Small People,” it is a strong collection, as each tale, when unpacked, contains as much within them as many larger story collections.  Those who have read Ligotti’s previous work will find certain themes being revisited here, but there is evidence that the shift from physical manifestations of horror to a more metaphysical, almost existential, sort of estrangement that was most evident in his 2010 non-fiction work, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.

“Metaphysica Morum” begins with a narrator reflecting on a past action.  Or is it a dream?  Despite the statement in the middle of the opening paragraph, there is enough fluidity here that talking about dreams as a sort of fictional state of non-being would risk distorting the tale, yet the import of what transpires is perhaps a bit too much for mere “reality.”  One of the more striking elements of this story is its use of the ordinary to upend conceptions of the everyday.  The narrator enters into a sort of showroom, with a “Dealer” who is nearly twice the narrator’s height, offering to show the narrator what he seems to be seeking, saying, “If I understand you correctly, sir, you are in the market for an all-new context.” (p. 12)

Within this too-real dream-reality, the story proceeds to a discussion of “metaphysical mutants,” those who see beyond the frills and trappings of mundane existence, peering into the horribleness that lies beyond.  This concept has been treated by Ligotti before, particularly in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, but here in this story, it takes on new contextual layers, as the story shifts through levels of conceptual reality to arrive at this chilling point:

Those who contest demoralization as the inexorable way of universal deliverance have failed to see what is before them.  They have lagged behind in the evolutionary ideal of our species.  That ideal is a beneficial mutation.  If nothing else, the demoralized are fortuitous mutants.  From the day that marked our kind’s awakening to life, such mutants have borne the common task of attaining for the world its true status and to announce its arrival in a time to come.  Now it has fallen to demoralized mutants to enunciate their closed-off future. (p. 43)

The second story, “The Small People,” contains more explicitly grotesque imagery, especially in the description of the eponymous small people:

I noticed that even if they weren’t moving very fast, they did seem to be moving as fast as they could, as if they were hurrying to get somewhere.  Their arms and legs shifted around in the manner of prosthetic limbs, making them look almost crippled, though not crippled so that you felt sorry for them, I should say, but maimed in a way that made you want to keep your distance, af if they could infect you with some dreadful condition. (p. 66)

This story, like the one before it, works on several levels.  On one, it is a confession of a man to an unseen doctor.  On another, it is a profession of all that we humans do not grasp, especially our futile attempts to conceptualize what is “real.”  As the patient/narrator attempts to gauge what constitutes these grotesque small people, he sees within this a metaphor of sorts, an allegory for our own existences.  Who is the more real, humans or the small people?  Who possesses substance?  And just what might be “the spectral link” between the two?  Ligotti does not provide answers to these questions as much as he forces us to consider whether or not we are ever going to be ready to accept just what those answers about life, the universe, and everything just might be.  That sort of conceptual estrangement is much more chilling and horrifying than mere physical mutilations or psychological torture could ever hope to obtain.

The Great Gatsby (1974 movie)

May 15th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

Cinema is a very different medium from literature, no matter how frequently and how in-depth directors appropriate literary works in creating their cinematic adaptations.  Often films labeled “based on the novel” are wretched, turgid affairs not because the directors fail to be faithful enough to the source material but instead because they are too faithful, at least to the letter of the story and not to its spirit.  This is especially notable when the source material is a classic that has the mass readership comparable to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby.  In the 88 years since its release, four cinema versions (only three are extant – 1949, 1974, 2013 – with the 1926 silent film version being mostly “lost”) and one television mini-series (2000) have been released.  Of these adaptations, I have seen the 1974 and 2013 versions and over the course of two reviews, I plan on noting the ways that both approach Fitzgerald’s novel and the strengths and weaknesses of each.

The 1974 version certainly had some major starpower.  With a screenplay written by Francis Ford Coppola, this film also featured Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan.  With a running time of just over 2 hours and 20 minutes, the film was very faithful to the scenes and dialogue of the novel.  If anything, it tried too hard to replicate the voice of the novel, instead creating a cinematic experience that is often cold and distant from the vibrancy of Fitzgerald’s tale.  The only two characters who stand out are Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston) and George Wilson (Scott Wilson); each of them figures more significantly into the action here than in the 2013 edition.  The rest of the roles are competently if not brilliantly executed by others including Bruce Dern (who played Tom Buchanan) and Lois Chiles (Jordan Baker).

The action mirrors the novel closely; there are very few scenes that do not at least quote parts of the corresponding novel.  At times, the movie feels as though it is close to becoming vibrant and emotional, only to see those traces of livelihood stamped down almost immediately.  Redford, based on his other films of the 1970s, could have displayed a wider range with Gatsby, but instead (possibly directed to do so by director Jack Clayton) his Gatsby is too formal, too polished, too devoid of inner anguish to really engage the viewer.  Likewise, Farrow’s Daisy is an odd character.  While her Daisy at least attempts to speak with a posh Southern accent, there were several instances where Farrow’s Daisy oscillates between capricious love and diffident materialism.  While this oscillation certainly jibes more with the original novel than how the character was portrayed in the 2013 version, it is too jarring here.  Perhaps the point is that Daisy’s vapidness is what makes her character so attractive to some, but Farrow too often overplays it.  Her scenes with Redford feel cold and the emotional lines uttered by both feel as natural as if a Wookie were to start emoting Hamlet.

Yet there are some interesting moments in this film.  Early scenes with Myrtle Wilson and the McKees in the NYC apartment as well as the first seen party at Gatsby’s mansion reveal a more nuanced approach toward the flappers and their rebellion against social mores than does the 2013 version.  Here, there is not the emphasis on spectacle that the recently-released adaptation has, but instead in their dances and in their comments, the young women, major and bit players alike, are not as sexualized here.  Although there certainly are hints of dalliances taking place in this film, the women here are allowed to be slightly more well-rounded than they are in the current release.  Chiles’ Jordan Baker more openly displays her amorality compared to Elizabeth Debicki’s portrayal, as her interpretation of the character is more subtle and yet clear in terms of her refusal to be constricted by rules and regulations.  As noted above, Farrow’s Daisy displays a wider range (albeit a range that sometimes works against the best interests of key scenes) and she is not as apparently besotted with Gatsby as was Carey Mulligan’s interpretation of the character.  The same goes for Karen Black and how her Myrtle Wilson captured more of the class consciousness of the novel than Isla Fisher’s more sex-centered portrayal.

Waterston’s Nick carefully walks the line between being a keen observer and a callow pushover.  His Nick is perhaps slightly better than Tobey Maguire’s simply because Nick plays a more integral part in the 1974 film.  Yet due to his co-stars’ failures to capture the mixture of burning passion and callousness that was present in the novel, Nick’s more memorable lines do not succeed in capturing the depths of his emotional confusion and outrage.  The only character that truly does so is George Wilson.  Scott Wilson’s interpretation captures a man whose simple honesty stands in sharp relief to the capricious games that the Buchanans, Jordan, and others play over the course of the film.  His descent into murderous grief is very believable here because more effort is made to show his inner conflicts.

At nearly two and a half hours, this film felt at times interminable due to the subpar acting performances and focus on showing the glamor of the 1922 Long Island setting at the expense of developing the characters better.  Yet the film suffers not only because it is compared to a great novel, but because its own promise was thwarted time and time again by Clayton’s choice to emphasize the exterior at the expense of the characters themselves.  With few exceptions, the characterizations show glints of greatness that are covered with a thick grime of affected poses and perfunctory nods toward character conflict.  This 1974 adaptation of The Great Gatsby captures the skeleton and most of the skin of the novel, but its heart and soul are withered in comparison.  Not recommended for most viewers.

Flannery Friday: Wise Blood (1952)

February 1st, 2013 § 2 comments § permalink

It is almost impossible to write about Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, especially her 1952 novel Wise Blood, without addressing the issues of religiosity and the depiction of the grotesque.  For O’Connor, the two were often intertwined.  In her 1960 essay, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” O’Connor opines that:

Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.  To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.  That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety.  But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.  The Southerner who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God.  Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive.  They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature.  In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature. (pp. 817-818)

A half-century later, there is certainly much truth still to this observation.  Walk (or rather, drive, as the roads are not conducive for walking any more) down the streets and by-ways of almost any-size Southern town or hamlet and you will likely see signs advertising the upcoming revival or tent meeting.  Perhaps some of the old general stores that were shuttered in the 1970s and 1980s as Walmart invaded like the Zebra Mussel have reopened as storefront churches, with canvas signs stretched over the remains of old mobile electric signage (with the arrowheads, no longer flashing in the night, serving as a relic of a more secular past), advertising a new “man of God” who has come to lead the wayward home before the Rapture comes and the Elect are swept up en masse, leaving the sinners behind to grovel for mercy from an unrelenting Lord.  There is no appearance of joy in places like “The Word Chapel” (former home of a used car dealership) or “The Holiness Fellowship” (where ten years before was a men’s clothing store).  Instead, there is an air of expectant apocalypse hanging in these dark and cheerless former cathedrals to American small business.   The sinners have congregated here in hopes of having the Christ-ghost exorcised from them in meeting halls that are part PTA meetings and part sanitariums where the collective guilt is expiated through thunderous “AMEN!s” and the trembles and shakes overwhelm those who seek a connection, no matter how tenuous, with the luminous.

For those who live outside this environment, such happenings would be beyond strange; they would seem to herald a sort of mass psychosis that perhaps represents a threat to a whole host of social and cultural causes long championed as being just and right for human society.  When one sees the world as a sort of quasi-Manichean struggle between an omnipotent (yes, he saw you sneaking away with that pilfered cupcake!) God and a clever, temptatious Devil who embodied all of our desires and lusts, anything that appears to favor proscribed behaviors is viewed with deep suspicion, if not outright fear and hatred.  Yet this “Christ-haunted” soul (and “soul” is the appropriate word here) rejects the banality of existence.  If there is a God (and by presumption, an Enemy), then it bears consideration that humanity is more than the sum of its Egos, Ids, and Superegos.  It may not be a comfortable worldview for many to consider, but if one is going to understand Hazel Motes and the characters that populate O’Connor’s 1952 novel Wise Blood, then this worldview has to be at least considered on its own terms.

Wise Blood centers around four individuals, each of whom have become disillusioned with life and the faith that imbues local life:  a recently-discharged WWII veteran, Hazel Motes, who has become an atheist in the wake of a crisis of faith; the prostitute/boarding house owner Leora Watts; an 18 year-old zookeeper, Enoch Emery, who has been kicked out of his home by his abusive father; and a local con-artist, Hoover Shoats, who takes Hazel’s ideas and turns them into a new antireligious church movement.  Each of the characters is presented as being at once a modern form of a (heretical) holy person and a fool, with wry observations and black comedy often employed to underscore the (in)sincere craziness of their (dis)beliefs.  Take for instance this passage in Chapter 3, where Hazel speaks of his vision for a church that has no Christ in it:

“My Jesus,” Haze said.  He learned forward near an old woman with blue hair and a collar of red wooden beads.  “You better get on the other side, lady,” he said.  “There’s a fool down there giving out tracts.”  The crowd behind the old woman pushed her on, but she looked at him for an instant with two bright flea eyes.  He started toward her through the people but she was already too far away and he pushed back to where he had been standing against the wall.  “Sweet Jesus Christ Crucified,” he said, “I want to tell you people something.  Maybe you think you’re not clean because you don’t believe.  Well you are clean, let me tell you that.  Every one of you people are clean and let me tell you why if you think it’s because of Jesus Christ Crucified you’re wrong.  I don’t say he wasn’t crucified but I say it wasn’t for you.  Listenhere, I’m a preacher myself and I preach the truth.”  The crowd was moving fast.  It was a large spread raveling and the separate threads disappeared down the dark streets.  “Don’t I know what exists and what don’t?”  he cried.  “Don’t I have eyes in my head?  Am I a blind man?  Listenhere,” he called, “I’m going to preach a new church – the church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified.  It won’t cost you nothing to join my church.  It’s not started yet but it’s going to be.”  The few people who were left glanced at him once or twice.  There were tracts scattered below over the sidewalk and out on the street.  The blind man was sitting on the bottom step.  Enoch Emery was on the other side, standing on the lion’s head, trying to balance himself, and the child was standing near him, watching Haze.  “I don’t need Jesus,” Haze said.  “What do I need with Jesus?  I got Leora Watts.” (pp. 30-31)

In plain yet impassioned words, Hazel lays out a vision in which those who feel guilty over not living up to the high call of Christ can find cleanness through their rejection of an ideology that has segregated them from any possible communion with God.  It sounds ridiculous on the surface and the more one contemplates it, the dafter it becomes.  Yet for those souls who desire peace from the worries of damnation from a divinity that they consciously reject yet subconsciously suspect is hovering right over them unseen yet felt, this is like manna from heaven or water flowing from the rock struck in the desert.  O’Connor here has sympathy for these benighted fools even as she shows, through scenes such as the purportedly blind preacher, Asa Hawks (who supposedly put quicklime in his eyes as a testimony of his faith), removing his shades to reveal that his eyes were not in fact damaged, that there is a hollowness to these new religious movements that seek to grasp the essence of faith without understanding just what it was they were trying to seize.  Her characters, metaphorically (and later, literally) blind to what it was they were reaching for, turn to con games, to meetings that temporarily assuage guilt before despair drives them to acts of lust, greed, and violence.  It is not hard to see these characters as desperate fools, but desperate, sincere fools can generate sympathy from both the author and the reader and for the most part, the sympathies that are engendered through actions late in the novel touch us because we have come to see these acts as extensions of the misplaced yet fascinating (non)faith that the characters have come to embody.

Wise Blood is a strange novel in that black comedy is used to accentuate the foibles of the characters yet the main effect is an odd sort of tragic nobility that envelops (devours?) the characters before their arcs conclude.  It is a shrewd social commentary of a region that even today is viewed askance by outsiders for its peculiar social customs and seeming hostility to modern cultural and social advancements.  Yet the deeper the reader tries to understand the worldviews of Wise Blood‘s characters (and by extension, those of O’Connor’s characters in her other stories), the more moving and disturbing the work becomes.  There is no simple denouement, no easy, pat conclusion to the story.  Instead, the issues raised early in the novel about matters of faith and desire are left suspended in front of the reader, awaiting for us to consider them at our own leisure in our own ways.  That is the subtle beauty of Wise Blood and 61 years after its initial publication, it still is one of O’Connor’s most widely-discussed stories.

Stephen Wright, Going Native

January 29th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

…these disagreeable thoughts, he well understood, were merely that – thoughts – the fleeting vagaries of an unstable moment; later in the day he would welcome the contrary opinion. This life was a merry-go-round in which you passed through the same thoughts, the same feelings again and again until you died. He reached out to switch radio stations… He watched his hand move towards the dial, he glanced back at the road, he watched his hand, and then, without warning, he was invaded by a sensation, it began like an injection of black dye at the base of his spine and it rose swiftly up his back and spread, darkly hooded, out over the top of his head. Who was he? What was his name? Where was he now? Because it had happened before (everything had happened before), he knew enough to ignore the questions and stay with the car, maintain control of the machinery, because when a moment splintered like this into a thousand riddles, every ? was a doorway into another world, and the experienced traveller kept a firm hand on the wheel, secure in the knowledge that eventually he would catch up with himself. Even as a child, he had been subject to such interruptions, accepted their normality, and had come to see these “gaps” as the holes in the sieve of personality through which something important but undefined was being systematically strained.

The disintegration of the self is a very modern problem. The erosion of the communal in favour of the private leads to an isolated existence, and the bombardment we face in every direction from the hyperreality of the mass media and consumerism constantly forces us to question the validity of our identities. Wylie, the protagonist of Wright’s Going Native, can be described using labels we all understand; man, husband, father, middle class, but what do these things really say about any of us? Identity as a concept is something that continues to elude any sort of meaningful classification. What happens when you look in the mirror one day and don’t recognize the person looking back at you? Cannot comprehend the life that you’ve become a part of? Wylie takes one last look at the bourgeoisie dinner party, his wife who is fantasizing about fucking her best friend’s husband, and his sleeping children before vanishing forever without looking back.

Wright is too intelligent a writer to just spoon-feed Wylie’s identity disorder to the reader through a traditional narrative, instead opting to use an episodic structure that gives us an elliptical account of Wylie’s life as he drifts west from Chicago. Each chapter is set in a different place with a different cast of characters, but each examines with full seriousness and very black humour different facets of the American identity; drug abuse, violence, love, pornography, the obsession with stardom. The dark heart of the American Savage. One absurdly funny chapter charts the descent of a successful business into crack addiction, while another takes place at an outrageous porno party with an erotic re-enactment of the crucifixion. There’s also a rather touching chapter set in Nevada about a domestic abuse victim who finds love in the arms of another woman. Into each of these lives, comes Wylie, a different name and a different man every time, but always with the same car, a green Ford Galaxie 500. His influence in the chapters varies greatly, sometimes he only has a passing acquaintance with a character, in others his involvement is a catalyst, or even a direct intervention. As the novel progresses though, each time he appears his spiraling deepens, until it eventually culminates in a ritualistic act of horrifying violence.

By the time Wright allows us to see through Wylie’s eyes, he has hit the Pacific and can run no further. While other popular novels like Ellis’ American Psycho and Palahniuk’s Fight Club deal with the same themes, what makes Wright’s treatment of the subject more convincing is that rather than the ego driven construction of an ultra-masculine identity, Wylie’s identity problem disintegrates into a state of constant flux (incidently, the novel that is resembles the most in its themes is neither, but DeLillo’s 1971 debut, Americana). He travels around Los Angeles having fabricated a number of different distinct identities as if he has some sort of multiple personality disorder, compensating for the fact that his own sense of self has become so fractured that he no longer knows if he has one or not. As Wright writes,

There was no self, there was no identity, there was no grand ship to conduct you harmlessly through the uncharted night. There was no you. There was only the Viewer, slumped forever in his sour seat, the bald shells of his eyes boiling in pictures, a biblical flood of them, all saturated tones and deep focus, not one life-sized, and the hands applauding, always applauding, palms abraded to an open fretwork of gristle and bone, the ruined teeth fixed in a yellowy smile that will not diminish, that will not fade, he’s happy, he’s being entertained.

Not so much American Psycho as America’s Psycho.

Faulkner Fridays to resume in mid-June and other assorted updates

May 23rd, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Been extremely occupied the past month with several things, including the filing of job applications and, starting yesterday, job interviews.  Haven’t had the energy nor the time to devote to reading, much less reviewing, Faulkner’s fiction as I had planned.  It looks like it could be another week or up to another month before things ease up enough for me to resume the weekly series.  I do want to finish it, after getting roughly 1/3 through his fiction, and I do want to schedule it on Fridays, for alliterative reasons, so the best option would be to give myself roughly 3-4 weeks to get things in order in order to recommit myself to a project that is much, much more than just writing short commentaries on his fictions.

Also should note that the planned Mario Vargas Llosa series will be delayed, likely until late 2012 or early 2013, as it would be better for me to just stick with one long review series at a time.  Sorry for anyone reading this who was hoping for those reviews to be posted by now.

Some may have noticed that I touched up some old reviews of books that fit in with the others posted here and reposted them here.  One of those, Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, will be the first of an irregular series (no scheduled days or intervals) of reviews of McCarthy’s fiction.  Hopefully, it’ll be of interest to some here.

So no, Paul and I haven’t closed shop; we were just on an extended little vacation.  More reviews sooner than later.  Some might actually be worth responding to, we hope.

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