2012 National Book Critics Circle Award winner in Fiction: Edith Pearlman, Binocular Vision

February 26th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

Peter paused.  He had been lecturing to Meg, taking advantage of her daughterly attention.  In years spent among self-important high school teachers and garrulous old ladies, he had accustomed himself to the listener’s role.  Now he had found someone who listened as attentively as he did.  If was as if she had inherited the talent from him – or, since that was impossible, had caught it.  And this house of hers – so old, and so fresh – it too seemed to want to hear what he had to say.  “Mrs. Jellyby’s philanthropy isn’t very Jewish, either,” he went on.  “You could make a case that her charity is in Maimonides’ seventh degree – she doesn’t know the names of the people she’s relieving and they’ve certainly never heard of her.  But Dickens meant her to be a figure of fun, and he keeps arguing with me.  He says that Maimonides was talkinga bout charity closer to home, and that Mrs. Jellyby doesn’t qualify at all…I do get a bit carried away, don’t I?

Meg was silent.  Of all the silences he had ever experienced, Meg’s was his favorite.  It was not disappointed, like his mother’s; not bored, like those of the women he had courted; not embarassed, like that of the search committee that had failed to award him the headmastership; not sleepy, like students in late-afternoon remedial classes; and not terrifying, like his mute aunt after her stroke. (pp. 26-27)

Edith Pearlman’s fourth collection, Binocular Vision, which collects the majority of its 18 stories from her earlier three collections in addition to three early pieces and others never collected before, stands out from the other finalists for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction for several reasons.  First, it is the only story collection on this particular shortlist and unlike the others, is comprised mostly of stories that had been published prior to the past year.  While this makes it difficult to review Binocular Vision in a similar fashion to the other finalists, there is much praise that can be heaped on it.

Pearlman’s stories are never quite the same in structure, voice, or theme, yet there is a perceived uniformity to them that transcends these typical categories of assessment.  In this collection, she primarily, but not exclusively, talks about Jewish life, whether it be in Europe, Israel, or in the Americas after the second and third diasporas of the Jews during the late 19th century through the years immediately following the Holocaust and World War II.  Yet her tales are much more universal than that distorting generalization.  In stories such as “Settlers,” Pearlman gives distinct voices to characters such as the Professor Peter Loy and Meg Wren.  She mixes in references to high culture, literature, existential crises, and other assorted odds and ends to craft stories that never feel dull or mechanical.

The characterizations in particular are outstanding.  Story after story, Pearlman manages to create different, fresh personalities and situations that leave the reader dwelling upon the events long after the end is reached and the next story begins.  Although none of the tales are explicitly connected, there are on occasion stories that share sensibilities with one another, if not a commonality in plot or theme.  This creates a flow that often is not evident in story collections, due to the diverse nature of the stories found in most collections, especially those who are cobbled together, as is Binocular Vision, from earlier collections and whose stories’ creations span decades.

Yet it is very difficult to compare fairly even the best of collections against single, unified novels.  I found myself wishing that there were a separate collection category where Pearlman could be compared to tales of similar length and publishing history.  It certainly would be a favorite to win any such category due to the near-universal rate of quality stories compared to the merely adequate tales that often fill out most single-author collections.  However, due to the fractured nature of story collections, it is hard to justify Binocular Vision being compared to the other finalists, each of whom wrote unified novel narratives.  The richness of Pearlman’s stories in this case actually works against her, since many, such as myself, likely would judge the mechanics and execution of short fiction differently than they would longer fictions.  As it is, Binocular Vision is deserving of high praise and merit and I am pleased to see it nominated, but I cannot help but wonder if all might be served better if the fiction award were divided into novel and short fiction collection categories.

2012 National Book Critics Circle Award nominee in Poetry: Bruce Smith, Devotions

February 26th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

I backed away from the revolving door to let the man
stir himself in.  He looked like he had served two-thirds of his time,
(I had worked at Lewisburg.  I knew an ex-con
when I saw one) – and now was on parole, careful to defer to the pushy,
the striving, the vaulting who have inherited the earth since his send up
for his crimes.  He had been, in my mind, among the slightly more vicious,
fraudulent, and unruly, and thank Bush for jails.
quoted from “Devotion:  Changeling” (p. 39)

Bruce Smith’s sixth poetry collection, Devotions, is replete with poems such as “Devotion:  Changeling.”  These opening lines serve to paint a vivid picture of a drifter perhaps, someone who has seen rough times and whose “look” is that of a released criminal who approaches the world and its people in a way different from those who are sitting comfortably in their chairs, reading this short review, perhaps after thinking of their jobs or their studies or something that seems of paramount interest to them.  Yet there are questions overlaying the text here.  Who is the narrator?  How does s/he know what to look for when looking at a possible ex-con?  How is that person’s judgment, of the “slightly more vicious,/fradulent, and unruly, and thank Bush for jails,” come into play here?  The tone is that of someone who has working knowledge of criminals and yet is not one him/herself (I waver on the possible genders of this narrator, as male and female narrators very likely could approach this in different ways, even when using the same words).  Then I read on:

… I looked up at him
who was looking at me, a man my age, my changeling, with a face
come into the face he deserved at sixty, a felonious face shadowed there,
inside the building and wearing clothes I once wore, but shabbier, dingier,
the worse for wear, and around him a caged halo like submarine creatures
have in dense refracted light.

Opinions shift.  Certainly a male now and one has his own past issues.  A changeling, someone who could have been that narrator, yet who now is seen as a fraud, one who is “shabbier” and “the worse for wear,” certainly not what the narrator himself has come to be.  Still mysteries to be resolved, such as the “devotion” the narrator’s father had (stated to be an elementary school teacher) to being small in the world and how this contrasts with the changeling’s hardened ex-con view of the world around.

“Devotion:  Changeling” is but one of about 60 poems that appear in Devotions.  The majority of these poems have a similar free verse structure, where the narrators muse and reflect on their lives, their (and others) devotions to things such as baseball games, car wrecks, dusk, nature, the city of Syracuse (Smith is a professor there), and the Midrash, just to name a few of the topics (and devotions) that he explores.  It is easy to get lost in reflections on that maddening game of baseball, which Smith captures so eloquently in “Devotion:  Baseball”:

Pinetar, a sluice of tobacco, sunflower seeds, and juju.
Lena Blackburne rubbing mud, gum, the glues and salves
for doing things fairly – one out of three
swipes at the ball and a flare to right, a dying quail, a 3-
2 change popped up with a shitfuck, handcuffed, tomahawked
the high hard stuff or took a backwards K when made to look ugly
as we often were:  Humility 3 Arrogance 1 after seven innings.

In “Devotion:  Changeling,” I had only a vague, reflecting musing on the poem’s message, but here in “Devotion:  Baseball,” having grown up in a baseball-loving family (and having suffered miserably for three years from 9-11 playing it before realizing that a bad right eye kept me from seeing the ball’s rotation until it was too late to connect sweetly), something emotional clicks.  I can not just visualize the action, but I am reacting to it, I am thinking of the “please, oh please God, let Gibson on his two bad knees be able to get a hit off of Eckserley” back in October 1988 and the jubilance when he hit that memorable pinch-hit homerun.  Smith captures the triumphs of pitfalls of that cruel game in just a few lines.  “Humility 3 Arrogance 1 after seven innings” – so true.

The other poems are similar in that they take our musings, our vague and sometimes disjointed dreams and yearnings, and they present them in free verse.  Smith’s poems are almost uniformly evocative and they improve upon multiple re-readings.  Devotions will be a collection that I will revisit in the years to come.  Certainly worthy of its nomination for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award.

2012 National Book Critics Circle Award nominee in Poetry: Yusef Komunyakaa, The Chameleon Couch

February 26th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

You wish to know if I cherished a thought
beyond lore & decorum, if a bloodless virtue
like some fury of wings beating in a cage
ushered me beyond paradise.  Unbelievable
as I am, I shall say this:  if I am Beatrice
or Beatitude, muse or pale siren, I am flesh
born to another dream of flesh.  If I am clay,
it is the same merciless clay you are made of,
with a red vein of iron running through it, the same
naked prayer in the dark holding the song together.

– from “Flesh” (p, 68)

Compared to the more overt thematic union of Bruce Smith’s Devotions and Carl Phillips’ Double Shadow, it is not as easy to discern a unifying theme to Yusef Komunyakaa’s thirteenth poem collection, The Chameleon Couch.  Unless perhaps one looks at the various skins Komunyakaa inhabits in his poems (here at the beginning of “Flesh” he references Dante’s muse/idealized love, Beatrice) and sees chameleon-like qualities to the sometimes languid, sometimes frantic poems found in this 115 page collection.  When reading this collection for the first time last week and even more when I thumbed through it earlier tonight, I was reminded of a jazz beat that plays in the background, altering its rhythm from 4/4 time to whatever beat was needed to imbue a poetic piece with its own unique melody.

At times, Komunyakaa reminds me of Walt Whitman in his joie de vivre, particularly in a little line found in “Aubade at Hotel Copernicus”:

A blade of grass in a bottle made me sing
& count footsteps to the hotel.

At other times, for example in the conclusion to “Fata Morgana,” there were echoes of the wistfulness found in several of Emily Dickinson’s poetry:

…I knew beforehand
what surrender would look like after
long victory parades & proclamations,
& could hear the sounds lovemaking
brought to the cave & headquarters.

Yet at no point do Komunyakaa’s poems feel like mechanical reproductions of original verse and meter.  Instead, his poems insinuate that there is a commonality with past masters, but without ever aping the complete style of any particular source.  Komunyakaa references the past, both historical and poetic alike, but he does not linger overlong in any locale or poetic metaphor.  We might see mention of a succubus or labyrinth, but he does not belabor the initial associations we might make with citing “We Shall Overcome,” as he quickly moves on in a poem such as “Green” to say:

I’ve known how “We Shall Overcome”
feels on a half-broken tongue,
but not how deeply sunsets wounded the Peacock Throne.

If a synonym needed to replace the titular “chameleon,” the closest and most apt would be “protean.”  Komunyakaa’s narrators, as well as their themes and references, morph from poem to poem, never staying constant, unless one were to argue that their inherent mutability is the point of these poems and that each interconnects with another to create a thematic mosaic that is more intricately interlocked because of the disparate nature of the poems and their meters.  For some, this might make for a disjointed read, as the reader would need to understand global myths and stories in order to connect most of the narrative dots found in Komunyakaa’s poetry.  But for those willing to put forth this effort to process what s/he is reading, The Chameleon Couch will be a rewarding experience.




Faulkner Friday: Pylon (1935)

February 24th, 2012 § 2 comments § permalink

Pylon (1935) differs significantly from Faulkner’s other novels released in the 1930s.  It is not set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, but rather in a fictionalized New Orleans, New Valois, and rural Ohio during the heyday of the “barnstormers,” acrobatic biplane flyers who would do dangerous (and often fatal) stunts and races for the entertainment of the crowds who would follow them from town to town as they staged their shows.  In addition, Pylon revolves around the interactions of six characters who are part of these shows:  the reporter, whose recounting of events within the flying troupe serves ultimately to divide them; Laverne, the mechanic who is romantically involved with two of the troupe; Jack, Laverne’s son, who is easily angered whenever questions of his parentage arise; Roger Shumann, the main pilot of the barnstormers, who may or may not be Jack’s father; Jack Holmes, the show jumper, who has also been involved with Laverne; and Biggs, another mechanic who quirks and alcoholic binges help fuel the tragedy that concludes Pylon.

Faulkner had long had interest in flying and he himself took part in some air shows in the mid-1930s.  Through many of these characters’ comments, both in their internal thoughts and in their dialogues with others, there often is a connection between the freedom of flying and the attempts of the characters to liberate themselves from the shackles that they encountered when they would land after their last acrobatic feat.  It feels more personal than just an author attempting to get into the skin and discover the soul of the characters.  Certainly the first paragraph tries to capture this quality of freedom juxtaposed with mundane reality:

For a full minute Jiggs stood before the window in a light spatter of last night’s confetti lying against the windowbase like spent dirty foam, lightpoised on the balls of his greasestained tennis shoes, looking at the boots.  Slantshimmered by the intervening plate they sat upon their wooden pedestal in unblemished and inviolate implication of horse and spur, of the posed countrylife photographs in the magazine advertisements, beside the easelwise cardboard placard with which the town had bloomed overnight as it had with the purple-and-gold tissue bunting and the trodden confetti and broken serpentine – the same lettering, the same photographs of the trim vicious fragile aeroplanes and the pilots leaning upon them in gargantuan irrelation as if the aeroplanes were a species of esoteric and fatal animals not trained or tamed but just for the instant inert, above the neat brief legend of name and accomplishment or perhaps just hope.

Faulkner tells the interconnected stories of these daredevils in an episodic, seven chapter format, that moves across time and space.  There is a wealth of detail here, with aural and visual descriptions used to complement and reinforce the thematic connection between flight (and freefall) and human desire to escape fate.  One example of this can be seen in the public address announcer’s description of a show jumper’s fall from the plane:

“–still gaining altitude now; the ship has a long way to go yet.  And then you will see a living man, a man like yourselves – a man like half of yourselves and that the other half of yourselves life, I should say – hurl himself into space and fall for almost four miles before pulling the ripcord of the parachute; by ripcord we mean the trigger that –” Once inside, Jiggs paused, looking swiftly about, breasting now with very immobility the now comparatively thin tide which still set toward the apron and talking to itself with one another in voices forlorn, baffled, and amazed:

“What is it now?  What are they doing out there now?”

“Fella going to jump ten miles out of a parachute.”

There is something terrifyingly beautiful about watching stunts.  Knowing that if anything goes wrong –  even if the timing were off by a split second, that there could be a horrific crash or a body flattened by the ground due to a malfunctioning parachute – adds to the excitement of the viewer (and the participants, of course).  These reckless stunts serve as the perfect metaphor for impulsive, irresponsible relationships such as the ones Faulkner describes here in Pylon.  Just as what happens when the stunts are not executed properly, there are casualties in these type of relationships.  We see it through the belligerence of young Jack, who does not know if Roger Shumann or Jack Holmes is his father (or if anyone else is).  Laverne’s dithering between Roger and Jack (not to mention implied flirtations with others) creates dissension among the barnstorming troupe.  Roger’s unwillingness to settle down and (as it can be inferred although not proven in the text) be a father strikes sparks between him and others close to him.

It is this combination of high-flying stunts and risk-taking relationships that make Pylon a gripping read.  It is hard not to get caught up in the drama unfolding, as the characters seem destined for a messy, explosive denouement. Faulkner does a good job in laying out these characters’ flaws and how they combine to create a tragedy.  Yet there are places in the novel where the dialogue feels a little forced, as if the characters have been slotted into predetermined roles and that outside of Jiggs and the reporter, there is not as much character development as could have been done.  It is as though Roger, Laverne, and the elder Jack have their triangle subsumed into the concrete metaphor of the race and the pylon/tower around which they must make their sharp breaking turns.  The conclusion suffers due to this, as there is not the full, visceral punch to the gut that might be expected from the setup leading into the final two chapters of the novel.  This is despite a very elegant final paragraphs that attempt to show just how tragic the events leading up to the tragedy were.  Faulkner here had the makings of a remarkable novel, but due to the uneveness in the character portrayals, Pylon instead is relegated to a merely good yet lesser novel of his.

Faulkner Friday: “Shingles for the Lord” (1943) and New Orleans Sketches (1925)

February 17th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

In contrast to the past two stories discussed, “Red Leaves” (1939) and Light in August (1932), “Shingles for the Lord” (1943) is, on the surface at least, a lighter tale that does not explore the weighty issues of race and identity.  It contains more comic moments than most of the stories explored to date in this series, yet beneath that comedic exterior lurks a shrewd and cutting portrayal of human behavior, particularly that of individuals who are more willing to invent ways to shirk irksome duties than they are to accept their own shortcomings.  “Shingles for the Lord” is as much a fictional character sketch piece as it is a thematic story and in that it shares some elements in common with some of Faulkner’s earliest prose pieces, first printed in a New Orleans newspaper in 1925 and later collected in the late 1950s, with some edits, as New Orleans Sketches.

Faulkner often utilizes first person point of view to provide a witness’ account of the main protagonists and their ordeals.  Here in “Shingles for the Lord,” we experience the action through the lens of the son of Res Grier, a seemingly shiftless Mississippi farmer who reluctantly takes part in a community repair of the local Methodist church:

So pap told again about how Old Man Killegrew had been off fox hunting all night, and nobody at home to lend him the froe but Mrs. Killegrew and the cook.  And naturally, the cook wasn’t going to lend none of Killegrew’s tools out, and Mrs. Killegrew was worser deaf than even Killegrew.  If you was to run in and tell her the house was afire, she would jest keep on rocking and say she thought so, too, unless she began to holler back to the cook to turn the dogs loose before you could even open your mouth.

“You could have gone yesterday and borrowed the froe,” Whitfield said.  “You have known for a month now that you had promised this one day out of a whole summer toward putting a roof on the house of God.”

“We ain’t but two hours late,” pap said.  “I reckon the Lord will forgive it.  He ain’t interested in time, nohow.  He’s interested in salvation.”

Whitfield never even waited for pap to finish.  It looked to me like he even got taller, thundering down at pap like a cloudburst. “He ain’t interested in neither!  Why should He be, when He owns them both?  And why He should turn around for the poor, mizzling souls of men that can’t even borrow tools in time to replace the shingles on His church, I don’t know either.  Maybe it’s just because He made them.  Maybe He just said of Himself: ‘I made them; I don’t known why.  But since I did, I Godfrey, I’ll roll My sleeves up and drag them into glory whether they will or no!'”

This passage goes right to the heart of the conflicts played out between Res and the others gathered together to repair the church’s roofing.  Res is focused on why he could not do something at the time and place expected of him and the focus of his dialogue with Whitfield (whose surname is that of the famous 18th century minister associated with the Wesley brothers) is on self-justification.  Whitfield, whose comments are later echoed in part by the others gathered together for the shingle making, eschews such justifications.  Results and effort are what matter, not justifications for why someone has failed at a task.

Yet there is more to “Shingles for the Lord” than just this.  Faulkner describes in detail the milieu of these farmers/drafted shingle makers.  Apparently set during the Great Depression, there are references to the “work units” (parodied into “dog units” later on) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) being swapped or bartered as a means of exchanging effort for money in lieu of welfare checks.  Res Grier is a comic portrayal of the sort of person who lives on the margins of society, tolerated by his peers but viewed dimly for his perceived lack of real contribution to society.  However, there is more to Res than just his mishaps and complaints about how he is mistreated and misunderstood.  At the story’s conclusion, after we have witnessed his foiled efforts to do something despite the disparaging remarks of his peers, after we have seen the terrible consequences of his attempt to pitch in, after he has been castigated and cast out (if only for a while) from the group, there is a resolve there in his final comments that take the comedy elements and turn them into something deeper and more complex than just a blustery old fool trying to justify his actions (or the lack of them) to his family.  The reader is left imagining a Res Grier who may prove to be more than just a comically inept character, a personage who may have a bit too much in common with the rest of us for our comfort.

Nearly twenty years before “Shingles for the Lord” was published, Faulkner began the prose phase of his career (he first tried his hand at poetry, with mixed results) by writing a series of sketch stories for a New Orleans newspaper in 1925.  Gathered together over thirty years later as New Orleans Sketches, these short sketches show Faulkner experimenting with the form later expressed so eloquently in “Shingles for the Lord.”  Take for instance the opening paragraph to “New Orleans”:

“I love three things:  gold; marble and purple; splendor, solidity, color.”  The waves of Destiny, foaming out of the East where was cradled the infancy of the race of man, roaring over the face of the world.  Let them roar:  my race has ridden them.  Upon the tides of history has my race ever put forth, bravely, mayhap foolhardily, as my ancient Phoenician ancestors breasted the uncharted fabulous seas with trading barques, seeking those things which I, too, love.  Suns rise and set; ages of man rise and joy and battle and weep, and pass away.  Let them:  I, too, am but a lump of moist dirt before the face of God.  But I am old, all the pain and passion and sorrows of the human race are in this breast:  joys to fire, griefs to burn out the soul.”

In this story the embryonic structures for several of his late 1920s and 1930s novels can be found:  The quick-shifting point of view narratives (the first quoted is “The Wealthy Jew,” followed within a page by “The Priest” before covering other characters from all walks of New Orleans life) seen in As I Lay Dying, the attempt to state in a simple, pithy passage some of the themes found in Light in August, and the sense of sinister, ominous foreboding akin to that of Sanctuary.  Yet what “New Orleans” and the other sketches found in this initial prose period lack is a fully developed voice.  We get a broad sense of the characters and their situations, yet there is not quite the profundity found in these tales compared to even a lesser-known story such as “Shingles for the Lord.” 

New Orleans Sketches, however, is worth reading, if only as a coda tacked onto the study of Faulkner’s mature period of the 1930s and early 1940s.  Despite being his first published prose pieces, these sketches ought not be read before the reader is at least somewhat familiar with Faulkner’s prose and how he developed the themes found within New Orleans Sketches in his later novels and short fiction.  These pieces are a sort of juvenilia, as here the reader can see Faulkner working out how best to deliver the themes that interested him most (particularly issues of determinism and morality in a corrupt world), that point toward the fiction output of the 1929-1939 period.  They are not as polished nor as deep, but they are interesting to read, as much for how Faulkner described the people and situations he witnessed during his time in New Orleans as for how he developed as a writer.  One could even go so far as to argue that most of his most influential and popular stories were character sketches writ large, with a multitude standing in stead of a solitary human being.  In future weeks, this topic may be explored in more depth, as more of his “uncollected short fiction” is added to the discussion queue.

Faulkner Friday: “Red Leaves” (1930)

February 10th, 2012 § 3 comments § permalink

Last week’s discussion of Light in August (1932) explored some of the ways that identity and isolation can be byproducts of racism.  Here in “Red Leaves” (1930), Faulkner explored the problematic issue of American chattel slavery and racism by turning the focus away from blacks and whites toward the Native American tribes, particularly the Chickasaw and Choctaw, who themselves had a complex series of relationships with both groups before their forced removal during the 1930s.  As is often the case with the issues discussed here, Faulkner’s treatment is problematic yet stirring simultaneously.

“Red Leaves” is set sometime before the Civil War, likely in the 1820s or 1830s, before the land that was to become the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi had been completely settled by whites.  The story revolves around two natives, apparently Chickasaw, named Three Basket and Louis Berry, and their search for a slave of their late chief, Issetibbeha, who has run away to avoid the fate assigned to the horse, dog, and manservant of the chief.  Here, as in several other of his stories, Faulkner frequently shifts from the literary present back a generation or more to cover the events that have led to the seemingly inexorable doom that awaits this slave, who is known here only as the Negro.  Below is a key passage that illustrates the effects of this intersection of native culture, white trinkets, and the perniciousness of African chattel slavery, sometime prior to the literary present:

So they cleared the land with the Negroes and planted it in grain.  Up to that time the slaves had lived in a huge pen with a lean-to roof over one corner, like a pen for pigs. But now they began to build quarters, cabins, putting the young Negroes in the cabins in pairs to mate; five years later Issetibbeha sold forty head to a Memphis trader, and he took the money and went abroad upon it, his maternal uncle from New Orleans conducting the trip.  At that time the Chevalier Souer de Vitry was an old man in Paris, in a toupee and a corset, with a careful toothless old face fixed in a grimace quizzical and profoundly tragic.  He borrowed three hundred dollars from Issetibbeha and in return he introduced him into certain circles; a year later Issetibbeha returned home with a gilt bed, a pair of girandoles by whose light it was said that Pompadour arranged her hair while Louis smirked at his mirrored face across her powdered shoulder, and a pair of slippers with red heels.  They were too small for him, since he had not worn shoes at all until he reached New Orleans on his way abroad.

He brought the slippers home in tissue paper and kept them in the remaining pocket of a pair of saddlebags filled with cedar shavings, save when he took them out on occasion for his son, Moketubbe, to play with.  At three years of age Moketubbe had a broad, flat, Mongolian face that appeared to exist in a complete and unfathomable lethargy, until confronted by the slippers.

Before the arrival of whites and blacks into the region, there was no recorded history of Native American chattel slavery in this region.  But in a very short period of time between increased white settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains and the removal of most of the southeastern native nations in the 1830s, some tribes, often labelled as the Five Civilized Tribes of the Southeast (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole), adopted several cultural and social traits from the white settlers:  fashions of dress, ways of farming, the Christian faith, and the practice of chattel slavery.  In passages such as the one quoted above, Faulkner noted these changes (the ill-fitting red-heeled shoes of Issetibbeha is mentioned in several places throughout the story, for example) and the deleterious effects these had on native societies.

However, in telling this story of two natives attempting to carry out a supposed traditional burial practice by tracking down the runaway nameless slave, Faulkner’s language can be troubling to many readers.  From broadly hinting at cannibalistic (as far as can be told, never documented in any verifiable literature) practices among the Chickasaw (with the even more questionable comment that Negroes have “bitter skin”) to Three Basket and Louis Berry musing on the apparent love of Africans “to sweat,” it is very easy to read this as being as much a prejudicial text as it is a commentary on the corrupting influence that the new arrivals had on native culture.  Certainly those racist elements cannot be denied, as they are explicit within the text.  Yet despite this, the main theme of loss of cultural identity still manages to resonate in places.

What makes “Red Leaves” work despite its problematic treatment of race is the story’s tone.  There is an almost palpable sense that the reader, along with Three Basket and Louis Berry, is marching toward a predetermined yet vague conclusion.  As the narrative flows back and forth between its fictional past and present, the reader is presented with this conflict between maintaining traditionalism and accepting the compelling yet insidious corruptions of society induced by new elements introduced by the newly-arriving settlers.  Yet despite sensing that fate is inexorable, the slave at the heart of this tracking down makes a comment, that when placed in context with the paragraphs just prior to it, makes it memorable:

“It struck me here, raking me across this arm; once, twice, three times.  I said, ‘Olé, Grandfather.'”

There is beneath the curtness of his retelling of what had happened to him an undertone of defiance and dignity.  The societies which had led two to track him down and another to be a representative of descendents of captives forced to endure degradations to reach a place where they did not wish to travel come together in a single, poignant moment that is powerful simply because it is the final actions of the three characters and not their words that make the conclusion troubling to read.  Yes, the the narrative is full of racist depictions, but yet beneath that there is the sense that those terms, just like the red-heeled shoes that the recently-dead Issetibbeha wore despite the pain they caused him, are but further symbols of the great tragedy that has unfolded over the past four centuries.  Although this sense of a “curse” is stated explicitly in Light in August, there is a faint anticipation of it here in “Red Leaves.” These two stories, when read in close conjunction with each other, reveal a problematic yet complex portrayal of race relations that few whites were attempting during the early 20th century.  Faulkner’s failures to portray this are at least as important as his successes in showing how this “peculiar institution” and its descendents has had the power to affect individuals of all racial groups in the South (and by implication, elsewhere).  So despite the prejudicial language often used in “Red Leaves,” the story contains elements that are worth bearing in mind when reading more of Faulkner’s fiction.

Faulkner Friday: Light in August (1932)

February 3rd, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

Light in August (1932) read like a nuclear bomb, detonating in my synapses, dispersing vivid, quick, and powerful images as I read this novel over the past two days.   It is perhaps the most troubling and moving Faulkner story that I have read.  Set during the late Prohibition period in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi setting, Light in August addresses issues of isolation, determinism, racism, and sexism in such a fashion that readers may find themselves dwelling upon the import of its scenes and characters for days or weeks after finishing the final page.

There are four main point of view characters in Light in August:  Lena Grove, a young, unmarried pregnant girl who walks from her home in western Alabama in search of her one-time lover, Lucas Burch; Gail Hightower, a disgraced former minister who dreams of the glories of his Confederate cavalry-leading grandfather; Byron Bunch, an industrious thirty-five year old man who fears idleness as much as he does the devil’s other tools; and Joe Christmas, the enigmatic itinerant worker who is haunted by memory of his adoptive parents and the revelation that he contains “nigger blood.”  In each of their stories, Faulkner moves back and forth between the literary present and the past through long, stream of consciousness-filled flashbacks that serve to create a composite image of not just themselves, but of the town of Jefferson and its peoples.  At first, these extended flashbacks distract from readers wanting to know more about why Lena walked alone for days to reach her destination or how Joe Christmas (whose name appears to be one of several possible allusions to the Christ’s sacrifices) came to work in Jefferson and partner up with the mysterious Joe Brown, his driving (and possibly other?) buddy and one time fellow mill worker.  Yet as the story unfolds, connections, both plot and thematic alike, appear between these characters that create a narrative tapestry that is devastating and yet, in some small yet vital sense, optimistic alike.

Hightower serves as the grounding element in this novel.  His cuckholding and the events that follow it have ostracized him from his community.  He dreams of gallantry, yet is acutely aware of the hypocrisies and latent violence in his neighbors.  He is the one who acts as a quasi-guardian to Lena, providing a necessary check on her guileless view of humanity and her wandering lover.  He is also a mentor to Byron, counseling him to be wary of coming too close to Lena, echoing then-prevalent social attitude regarding “impure” women.

In this can be seen a painful echo not just of his own failed marriage, but also that of Joe Christmas’ birth mother (whose identity is revealed late in the novel).  Without directly stating it, Faulkner here appears to be making a withering condemnation of the rigidity of those gender conventions  and the approved violence directed by men (such as Christmas’ adoptive father, his biological grandfather, and even in Christmas’ own relations with women) toward women simply because they choose (or are forced by circumstance) to behave outside of their demanded roles.  Hightower’s warnings are not simply a confirmation of this attitude, but instead are admonitory comments about the sufferings involved in gender relations.

Lena serves more as a symbolic antithesis of Christmas.  She is innocent and trusting, even when her beau has skipped town and moved to another state.  She seeks shelter and understanding, yet is not embittered by the sidelong glances she often received from men who noticed her pregnant state.  Her character complements Byron’s in that while he searches for a “good” woman to marry, she represents the imperfect perfectness of this desire.  Their motivations and actions act in diametrically opposite fashion from that of the shiftless Brown or the vaguely sinister Christmas (an initial reading which may possibly be in conflict with the later plot).

Christmas represent the darker, existential searches for meaning in a world that seems determined to sort people based on the color of their skin and not on the content of their character, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous quote.  He appears to all extents “white,” if one defines that by how one is received by segregationalists.  He is abused as an adopted child (his biological grandfather removing him from the house, with the moniker of “Christmas” being in reference to his approximate birthdate and deliverance into adoption), informed that his mother was practically “a whore” and that he had “nigger blood.”  This triggers a years-long search for identity which expresses himself in violent sexual interactions with women, where he voices his black heritage to white prostitutes when he can’t pay them (in order to outrage them and perhaps lead to his own beating by local toughs) in the South and a role reversal when he wanders out of the South following whatever trade he may find for a spell.  He feels he is cursed and in a flashback sequence with the Carpetbagger-descended Joanna Burden, this curse is shown in a different light, as she recounts what her father told her:

‘Remember this.  Your grandfather and brother are lying there, murdered not by one white man but by the curse which God put on a whole race before your grandfather or your brother or me or you were even thought of.  A race doomed and cursed to be forever and ever a part of the white race’s doom and curse for its sins.  Remember that.  His doom and his curse.  Forever and ever.  Mine.  Your mother’s.  Yours, even though you are a child.  The curse of every white child that was born and that ever will be born.  None can escape it.’

This view of racism as being as much an ‘original sin’ for the whites who demean and maltreat blacks as it is a burden and curse for the blacks who have to endure such evil treatment is revisited later in some of Faulkner’s other fiction.  It is a troublesome topic, because on one hand he does not directly condemn this shameful discrimination while on the other the implications of these words hint at a fatality that conjures images of fire and brimstone looming over this cursed society that has deprived a significant portion of its community of basic human rights based on the color of their skin.  Faulkner elaborates further on this contentious issue when Hightower reflects on the ominousness that lurks behind even worship:

The organ strains come rich and resonant through the summer night, blended, sonorous, with that quality of abjectness and sublimation, as if the freed voices themselves were assuming the shapes and attitudes of crucifixions, ecstatic, solemn, and profound in gathering volume.  yet even then the music has still a quality stern and implacable, deliberate and without passion so much as immolation, pleading, asking, for not love, not life, forbidding it to others, demanding in sonorous tones death as though death were the boon, like all Protestant music.  It was as though they who accepted it and raised voices to praise it within praise, having been made what they were by that which the music praised and symbolised, they took revenge upon that which made them so  by means of the praise itself.  Listening, he seems to hear within it the apotheosis of his own history, his own land, his own environed blood:  that people from which he sprang and among whom he lives who can never take either pleasure or catastrophe or escape from either, without brawling over it.  Pleasure, ecstasy, they cannot seem to bear:  their escape from it is in violence, in drinking and fighting and praying; catastrophe too, the violence identical and apparently inescapable  And so why should not their religion drive them to crucifixion of themselves and one another? he thinks.

As the story unfolds, we see this violence, this bloodlust that masks itself in piety and justice.  As much as Brown and Christmas represent illicit sin and violence, the townspeople, from those who shunned Hightower to those who later do their own version of “crucifixion” to a poor soul, are just as “cursed” to replicate these horrific acts in sanctioned ways.  It is not easy to read; one may find him or herself despondent after reading that passage and the scenes that follow.  Yet there are glimmers of hope, represented in the relationship between Lena and Byron.  They represent, if not quite innocence, charity, toward each other and toward the world around them.  They do not by themselves symbolize the removal of the stain of deterministic racism and sexism in the world, but their characters crystallize within themselves the hope that these evils can somehow be ameliorated.  It is fitting that Light in August closes with them, as they are the metaphoric “light in August,” that fleeting time in which the oppressive summer heat lifts for a moment and memories of coolness and freshness emerge before they are submerged again for a while.  Light in August discusses some rather depressing and harsh truths about human society, yet that germ of hope buried in this soil of suffering, confusion, and hatred provides this weighty novel with just enough “lightness” to make reading it a worthwhile experience.

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