2012 National Book Critics Circle Award nominee in Fiction: Teju Cole, Open City

March 8th, 2012 § 2 comments § permalink

Contemporary fiction, especially if it is written in first-person point of view, often suffers from the criticism that it is too introverted and navel-gazing in character.  Sometimes, the lead protagonist is fascinating enough by him or herself alone to warrant almost exclusive focus on their thoughts, their actions, to the near-total exclusion of those people with whom the protagonists interact on a regular basis.  In real life, there are at least as many extroverts as there are introverts, people who want to interact with others and to see what happens when others are asked to open up about their lives and experiences.  Those are the types of novels that I enjoy most, perhaps due to growing up in a large family of extroverts and learning all sorts of wonderful events and viewpoints just from soaking in what they had to say.  It also is a reason why I became a historian, as I found others’ stories, past and present alike, both American and non-American, to be fascinating and I just wanted to know more and learn more.

Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole’s first novel (which just won the Hemingway Prize earlier this month), Open City, is exactly that sort of extroverted novel of experiences that I most enjoy reading.  It is not a classically plotted novel; there is no readily-apparent conflict around which the novel operates.  Instead, it is a looser, more free-form sort of novel that has the feel of an extended series of character sketches, where the people that Julius, the biracial Nigerian/German psychiatry grad student, encounter have short yet powerful snippets of their life experiences to share with a total stranger.  In the hands of a lesser writer, this could result in a muted, distracting affair that would weaken the novel’s development.  However, Cole displays a writing talent that is even more impressive considering that Open City is his debut novel.  Julius is an active, considerate narrator who relates not just what the people he encounters say to him, but also shares his thoughts generated from this contact.  Too frequently, the first-person narrator can be too intrusive or too passive in these situations, but Julius is a near-pitch perfect blend of the two.  Take for instance this scene roughly thirty pages into Open City, where Julius goes from observing a movie about the dictator Idi Amin to reminiscing about an encounter he had with an Ugandan-Indian doctor:

While watching the film, I recalled an uncomfortable meeting I’d had one evening, in an opulent house in a suburb of Madison a few years before.  I was a medical student at the time, and our host, an Indian surgeon, had invited me and a number of my classmates to his house.  After we had eaten, Dr. Gupta ushered us into one of his three lavish living rooms, and went round pouring champagne into our glasses.  He and his family, he told us, had been expelled from their homes and lands by Idi Amin.  I am successful now, he said, America has made a life possible for me and for my wife and children.  My daughter is doing graduate studies in engineering at MIT, and our youngest is at Yale.  But, if I may speak frankly, I’m still angry.  We lost so much, we were robbed at knifepoint, and when I think about Africans – and I know that we are not supposed to say such things in America – when I think about Africans, I want to spit.

The bitterness was startling.  It was an anger that, I couldn’t help feeling, was partly directed at me, the only other African in the room.  The detail of my background, that I was Nigerian, made no difference, for Dr. Gupta had spoken of Africans, had sidestepped the specific and spoken in the general.  But now, as I watched the film, I saw that Idi Amin himself hosted wonderful parties, told genuinely funny jokes, and spoke eloquently about the need for African self-determination.  These nuances in his personality, as depicted here, would no doubt have brought a bad taste to the mouth of my host in Madison.

Cole often used moments like this, the sudden flare-up of ugly resentment and xenophobia, to show the darker side of the “open city” (primarily New York, although Julius does briefly visit relatives in Brussels) that Julius is exploring through his walks and encounters through town.  He notes how New York City is:

…a palimpsest, as was all the city, written, erased, rewritten.  There had been communities here before Columbus ever set sail, before Verrazano anchored his ships in the narrows, or the black Portuguese slave trader Esteban Gómez sailed up the Hudson; human beings had lived here, built homes, and quarreled with their neighbors long before the Dutch ever saw a business opportunity in the rich furs and timber of the island and its calm bay.  Generations rushed through the eye of the needle, and I, one of the still legible crowd, entered the subway.  I wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories.  Somewhere close to the water, holding tight to what he knew of life, the boy had, with a sharp clack, again gone aloft.

This is a striking metaphor for the city that never sleeps and who has seen wave after wave of immigrants pass through its streets.  As Julius travels, he comes to meet with Haitians, Arabs, and other ethnic groups that comprise the latest in the long line of immigrants to step ashore in New York City.  He hears accounts of the sufferings and blessings that they have experienced, their hopes and fears, and the occasional xenophobia they had to endure during their time in the city.  Set in the 2006-2007 period, there is a lingering sense of fear and animosity from the 9/11 attacks, although these references are inferred rather than baldly stated for the most part.

It is easy to get sucked into the easy-going flow of Cole’s narrative.  Julius’ observations are concise and never feel forced or indulgent.  By using indirect quotation style, Cole manages to make the other characters’ observations feel as intimate and as important as those of Julius himself, creating a strong interest in the next little story fragment that may appear.  Open City feels as open as the title, as if we are just observing only a small fraction of an average (yet interesting) person’s life and that there will be future travels, future discoveries to be made long after the book has concluded.  Although some readers may not be satisfied with this approach to storytelling, Open City struck a nerve with me, reminding me of my own encounters walking down the streets of a domestic/foreign city (Miami) and listening to what others were saying, both to each other and occasionally to me as well.  Cole is a very gifted writer with keen insight into people’s motivations for sharing with each other and Open City is so accomplished for a first novel that I cannot wait to see what future stories Cole will produce.  This easily is deserving of consideration for this year’s National Book Critics Circle Award and it is my personal favorite out of the five shortlisted titles.

2012 Pulitzer finalist and National Book Critics Circle Award nominee in Biography: Mary Gabriel, Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution

March 8th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

Marx was proud of Jenny – proud of her beauty, which even amid the celebrated women of Paris was remarked upon, but also of her intelligence.  From the earliest days of their marriage, he regarded Jenny as an intellectual equal, and that was no mere token sentiment:  Marx was ruthless when it came to things of the ind, and he would not have relied on Jenny’s judgment if he did not think she was in fact brilliant.  Indeed, throughout his life Marx held only one other person in a position of such high esteem and trust, and that was his alter ego and collaborator, Friedrich Engels.  But where Engels understood and supported Marx intellectually, Jenny also humanized him.

In private Marx was warm, loving, kind, and generally described as excellent company when he was not plagued by sleepless nights or stricken by disease, both due to anxiety over his work.  In public, however, he was most often fiercely argumentative, intellectually arrogant, and notoriously impatient with anyone who disagreed with him.  His frequent drinking episodes with colleagues throughout the years in Bonn, Berlin, and Cologne often devolved into verbal if not physical fights.  He had little time for social niceties; for someone so conceptually fascinated by the alienation of man, Marx routinely alienated those who encountered him.   (Ch. 5, e-book edition)

Karl Marx the man is difficult to separate from the revolutionary philosopher who still sparks arguments almost two centuries after his birth about just what constitutes Marxism and whether or not Marxism (however it might be understood by the persons arguing) is a viable socio-economic theory in the early 21st century.  There certainly are grounds for exploring Marx the man and Marxism the theory in today’s troubled times, when some of the old criticisms of capitalism are reemerging as a possible explanation for the recessed and depressed masses of the so-called “99% percenters” who are searching for an answer to the difficult problems confronting their societies.

Mary Gabriel, a former Reuters editor, does not try to tackle the Gordian’s Knot of defining Marxism.  Instead, she is much more interested in Karl Marx the husband, father, and friend.  Naturally, Marx’s ideology is going to take up much space in Gabriel’s massive book, Love and Capital, but Gabriel concentrates much more on the private Marx and how his complex personality is tied into his philosophical writings.  However, with as complex of a personality as Marx’s, it is very difficult to separate the wheat of his private life from the chaff of his volatile public activities and writings and there are several places in Gabriel’s biography where Marx the revolutionary takes over and the Karl Marx of modest means retreats with his wife and children to the background.

Unlike most biographers who are interested in Marx from the 1840-1883 period, Gabriel surveys not just his life growing up in the German Confederation but also continues the narrative nearly three decades after his death, when his last legitimate child, Laura, dies in a suicide pact with her husband.  At times, this longer view provides more perspective on Marx and how his ideas were transformed by his self-proclaimed followers into various Marxist ideologies (such as the mutated forms that Lenin/Trotsky/Stalin and Mao utilized to gain control of Russia and China respectively), but at the same time, these chapters are largely devoid of the energy found in the earlier chapters devoted to Marx’s first years with Jenny just prior to the 1848 Revolutions.

Gabriel’s greatest strength is her ability to humanize Marx, to suss out his shy, awkward habits and to center his public outbursts around the pressures he put upon himself due to his discomfort being in the spotlight.   She also for a time helps bring Jenny into the spotlight, illustrating in several passages, such as the one quoted above, how she was more than just the wife and mother to Marx’s legitimate children.  It is during those moments when Love and Capital is at its best, as it provides new insights into Marx’s life and how his private life may have influenced his political writings.

Conversely, Gabriel is weakest whenever she tries to explain Marx’s political philosophy and how it was applied by his followers (and some of his critics) over the years.  While the time is ripe for a new study of Marx’s writings, Love and Capital fails to provide any in-depth understanding of Marx’s positions.  This is especially lamentable when it comes to covering Marx’s thoughts on gender roles.  Not much has been said about this outside of the recent second and third-wave feminist critiques of Marxism and their adaptation of Marx’s epistemological approach to outlining the development and external/internal conflicts inherent within the establishment of gender roles and functions.

Ultimately, Love and Capital is a promising work that falls short in a few key areas.  As a love story, Gabriel covers adequately the Marx family dynamics, yet there is a sense of sketchiness in several areas, particularly during Marx’s latter years.  This likely is due to a paucity of non-Marx family primary sources, but it is worth reminding that for a person as controversial as Marx has been over the past 170 years, the source material is often too unreliable for clear, unassailable opinions on the man and his work.  Unfortunately, this seeming lack of verifiable primary sources outside the Marx letters and Engels’ preserved correspondence makes it difficult to evaluate the veracity of opinions on Marx.  There is still much wiggle room for another biographer or historian to write a new history of Marx and Marxism that could incorporate the strengths of Gabriel’s biography while shoring up the deficiencies of her text.  Love and Capital is certainly a positive contribution to Marxist studies, yet its incompleteness can leave readers wishing there was more to the story than what we were told.

2012 Pulitizer Prize winner in Biography and National Book Critics Circle Award nominee in Biography: Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

March 8th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

On March 17, 1945, Malcolm was arrested and turned over to the Detroit Police Department, charged with grand larceny.  Wilfred posted a bond of a thousand dollars, and for a short time Malcolm found menial jobs at a Lansing mattress maker and then a truck factory.  When his trial was postponed, he decided that his best move was to get out of town.  Sometime in August 1945, he fled the jurisdiction; a warrant was issued for his arrest.

The Autobiography is completely silent about these events.  Undoubtedly, Malcolm was profoundly ashamed about this phase of his past.  He likely felt that the deepest violation he had committed was the humiliation he inflicted on his family through his career as a pretty criminal.  But he may have also dropped these incidents from his history as part of the attempt to shape his legend.  His amateurish efforts at gangsterism in Boston and Lansing – the clumsy theft of his aunt’s coat, the ridiculous armed robbery of an acquaintance – undermined the credibility of his supposed criminal exploits in New York, and even he must have realized that the Michigan arrest warrant, combined with his parole violation from Massachusetts, would follow him across the country.  If he was ever arrested again for even a minor crime, these other violations would be brought against him.

He first returned to New York City and subsequently to Boston, desperately trying to survive through a variety of hustles.  It was during this time that Malcolm encountered a man named William Paul Lennon, and the uncertain particulars of their intimate relationship would generate much controversy and speculation in the years following Malcolm’s death. (Ch. 2, e-book edition)

Even forty-six years after his assassination in February 1965, Malcolm X still remains one of the most controversial figures in 20th century American history.  One of the leaders of the Nation of Islam before his 1963 ouster and subsequent conversion to orthodox Sunni Islam, Malcolm X has sparked all sorts of outrage over his racially-charged speeches decrying integration and his diatribes against the “blue-eyed devils.”  Some see him as a prophet of freedom, others as a vile race-baiting firebrand whose words worsened the racial violence of the late 1950s and 1960s.  Even the Autobiography of Malcolm X, published just after his death and “told to” Alex Haley (of Roots fame), provokes more questions than it answers.  Just who in the world was Malcolm Little/X and why does he spark such diametrically opposite opinions from Americans of all walks of life?

Marable’s biography attempts to fill in the gaps found in The Autobiography of Malcolm X; it also is a critical look at how Malcolm X and his supporters may have distorted his pre-Nation of Islam and NoI time in order to cast him in a more positive light.  Marable’s history of Malcolm Little/X cites extensively from several recent biographies written about him, some of which raise contentious points such as the case of Malcolm’s rumored homosexual acts for pay during his street hustler days in the mid-to-late-1940s.

The passage quoted above is indicative of Marable’s approach.  Marable often begins discussion of important episodes of Malcolm’s life by first concisely presenting the known facts.  He then refers to The Autobiography of Malcolm X to see if such episodes are mentioned before then analyzing these events based not just on the available evidence but also on commentary with former associates and family members whenever possible.  At times, Marable feels compelled to rely upon conjecture, such as the case of Malcolm’s rumored acts with William Paul Lennon.  This approach does open Marable up to criticism from those who either believe what Malcolm told Alex Haley or those who believe rumor and innuendo about Malcolm’s sexual past are calculated attempts to destroy the myth surrounding Malcolm X that has been built up during the 46 years since his assassination.

Reinvention certainly is the focus of Marable’s biography.  He posits that Malcolm was conscious of his legacy and that during the last two years of his life, he made conscious efforts to sanitize certain parts of his life, mostly through omission of facts or details, or, conversely, he set out to create more striking differences between his pre- and post-conversion lives.  The Malcolm X of legend was a gangster who did a complete 180° after he was exposed to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad while he was serving a prison sentence for robbery.  The Malcolm that appears in Marable’s biography is more of a small-timer who hustled in order to live and whose outlook on the world and on race relations did not as much shift radically during his time in prison and his subsequent joining of the Nation of Islam as it gradually shifted over time while maintaining a continuity of outlook that stretched back to his youth in Michigan being raised by parents who were supporters of Marcus Garvey.  Much of Marable’s book is a welcome fact checking and questioning of the Malcolm X legend and this marks an important transition in Malcolm’s life going from a near-hagiography (as found in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and a few subsequent biographies and bio-pics released by admirers such as Spike Lee) or demonized individual (as found in several news articles of the times; see The New York Times‘ obituary article on him) to a more balanced look at a person whose internal conflicts manifested themselves during the most contentious decade of the Civil Rights Movement.

Yet while Marable’s biography is a welcome addition to the conversation about Malcolm X’s life and his influence on others, it is not a perfect book.  There were too many times during the course of the book where Marable took opinion or supposition and stated it, similar to what he did in the passage quoted above, as if it were fact.  Malcolm’s sexuality receives an inordinate amount of time, as the most the tenuous evidence (namely, Malcolm’s telling of a possible fictional friend who did certain acts for pay for Lennon that sounded too much like the creation of an alter ego to stand in place of his actual deeds) hints that he was desperate for money, as the issue is mostly dropped after that single period in his life.  Malcolm’s wife, Betty Shabazz, comes under harsh scrutiny during the book, with lots of descriptions about Malcolm’s apparent fleeing from his wife’s bedside immediately after their children were born and the rumored sexual dysfunction that he suffered while with her.  This information is jarring not just because it feels as though the private life of the biographical subject is being explored in too much detail, but also because these passages do not connect well with what is known of Malcolm’s private and public statements regarding his wife.  This is the weakest part of Marable’s book, as he just does not provide enough supporting evidence to confirm his arguments on an issue that is at best peripheral to the biography.

Malcolm X:  A Life of Reinvention is a well-researched biography, yet its occasional reliance on rumor and hearsay, especially when it comes to Malcolm’s sex life as well as the possible “real murderers,” weaken the biography considerably.  Malcolm X continues to be a fascinating, controversial character and while Marable’s book certainly underscores the difficulties in writing a balanced account of his life and importance, it contains enough flaws in its presentation to leave the door open for more substantive biographies to be written in the future.  It is worth reading, provided one has an interest in the subject, warts and all.

2012 National Book Critics Circle Award nominee in Fiction: Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child

March 7th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

The hardest reviews for me to write are for those novels that, if I were utilizing a checklist to mark off those qualities discovered in the text, would be full of good marks except for the crucial one of actually liking the book itself.  Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child is one of those novels.  It contains an intriguing, generations-spanning plot, well-drawn characters, and the prose for the most part is simply superb.  Yet when I finished reading it a couple of weeks ago, I was left feeling cold and distant from the text.  Sometimes, reviews that explore just why a novel didn’t work for the reviewer but more likely would make a satisfying read for the majority of readers tell more about a text than a laudatory or strictly condemnatory essay.  Perhaps this short essay will help clarify my position and place The Stranger’s Child in an appropriate context.

The Stranger’s Child centers around a fictional, second-rate British poet, Cecil Valance, and his sexual escapades with the Sawle siblings, George and Daphne, during his visit to their modest estate in 1913, which has ramifications that stretch over nearly a century.  Hollinghurst does an excellent job capturing the extant social divides of that time that makes divisions between the bourgeosis and the gentry classes clear even to Americans such as myself who did not grow up in such a class-based society (well, not exactly true, but social class in the American South is a different creature from that experienced in England).  In Cecil’s interactions with the Sawle siblings, there certainly is the deference of the lower to the higher when it comes to sexual activity.  Take for instance the ravishment of George:

“Let’s go a bit further,” said Cecil.  George sighed and followed behind him, rubbing his wrist with an air of grievance.  He saw that this little mime of prudence, air of woodcraft, had just been Cecil’s way of getting on top and taking control of a scene which George for once had planned.  Well, they were dreams as much as plans, memories mixed up with wild ideas for things they’d not yet done, perhaps could never do.  Cecil, under other circumstances, was bold to the point of recklessness.  George let him go ahead, pushing springy branches aside, barely bothering to hold them back for his friend, as if he could look after himself.  It was all so new, the pleasure flecked with its opposite, with little hurts and contradictions that came to seem as much a part of love as the clear gaze of acceptance.  He watched Cecil’s back, the loose grey linen jacket, dark curls twisting out under the brim of his cap, with a momentary sense of following a stranger.  He couldn’t think what to say, his yearning coloured with apprehension, since Cecil was demanding and at times almost violent.  Now they’d emerged by the huge fallen oak that George could have led him to by a much quicker path.  It had come down in the storms several winters ago and he had watched it sink over time on the shattered branches beneath it, like a great gnarled monster protractedly lying down, bedding down in its own rot and wreckage.  Cecil stopped and shrugged with pleasure, slipped off his jacket and hung it on the upraised claw above him.  Then he turned and reached out his hands impatiently.


The squirrel twitched its brown tail, scrabbled up its branch, watched him again.  Perhaps it had watched his whole performance.  It seemed to be applauding, with its tiny hands.  George, still lying in the leaves, watched them both.  He was amazed each time by Cecil’s detachment, unsure if it was a virtue or a lack.  Perhaps Cecil thought it rather poor form of George to be so shaken by the experience.  The tender comedy of George’s recovery, the invalidish wince and protesting groan at his ravishment, were ignored.  Once in college he had been back at his desk within a minute, with a paper to finish, and seemed almost vexed when he turned a while later to find George still lying there, as he was now, spent but tender, and longing for the patient touch and simple smile of shared knowledge.

Hollinghurst does an outstanding job hinting at the divisions between the two furtive lovers.  There is the impatient imperative tone to Cecil’s words and actions, as though he never brooked any dissent.  This is complemented by George’s combination of frustration and submission (one does not get the picture here that the two reversed their sexual roles; master and quasi-servant here) to what is a reciprocated lust but not a returned love.  It is a masterful portrayal, reminiscent of some of Henry James or E.M. Forster’s best writing, especially in how the characters are portrayed within their societies (and in the case of Forster’s posthumous novel, Maurice, likely composed around the same time period where The Stranger’s Child is set, references to homosexual relationships within this rigid social/sexual structure).

But that is the point at which my appreciation for the artistry of Hollinghurst ends and my disconnect with the novel begins.  In scenes such as the one quoted above or later on, when descendents of Daphne Sawle try to pry apart the mystery surrounding Cecil’s connection with their grandmother and great-uncle, Hollinghurst writes eloquently, he depicts carefully and accurately, yet ultimately despite the beautiful prose, the story feels too clinical for my tastes.  There is a lot of great technique, yet there is no real “soul” to this complex, expertly-woven narrative.  I am not one of those readers who have to have “likable” characters be a requisite for enjoying a novel, yet there is nothing for me to latch onto here.  The society depicted is one that I’ve loathed ever since I was an undergraduate history student and had to read detailed social histories of English society from the 17th to early 20th centuries (it also influenced me to switch my research focus to modern German cultural history).  Hollinghurst describes only too well a society whose hypocrisies regarding gender, race, nationality, and class have not endeared itself to me.  It is ironic that in writing about how certain class and sexual customs were repressed in this repulsive milieu that I find some of the antipathy transferred from that to the work itself.  It is not a fair assessment of the work, some might argue, but it is an honest one.  The Stranger’s Child does not work for me because it achieves too much, delves too deep into the workings of a societal world-view that is antithetical to my own.  This is not as much a condemnation of the work as it is a back-handed compliment.  It pushes all sorts of buttons that lesser works could not accomplish.  The Stranger’s Child certainly is not my favorite out of the five novels nominated for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, but it certainly is among the strongest and most well-developed of the finalists.

2012 National Book Critics Circle Award nominee in Fiction: Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia

March 7th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

There is some mythical about rock and roll.  The loud guitars, the body-jarring rhythms of bass and drums, the piercing wail of the lead singer come crashing together to create an aural tapestry that makes our hearts beat faster and our emotions burble to the surface.  With that come the legends of average Joes and Janes (or Bob and Patti) who make it on their sheer grit and determination to see their visions come true.  But the road to such mythical glory is strewn with the corpses of bands and singers who just were not good enough, famous enough, or were just plain unlucky.  What dreams did they carry within them as they had to abandon being a rock star for the comparatively dull and non-glamorous life of a businesswoman or mail carrier, with maybe only a few part-time gigs at local dives to keep the dream burning bright?  Does age blunt the edges of disappointment, or does it sharpen it to a keen point?

Dana Spiotta’s third novel, Stone Arabia, explores the possibilities buried within those questions.  Based to some extent on her stepfather, who was a part-time musician who almost but never quite made it big, her brother-sister duo of Nik and Denise Worth strikes a chord with those of us who envisioned ourselves being the next Robert Plant, the next Johnny Rotten, the next Patti Smith.  It is hard for some of us to let go of our fantasies, to accept that we do not have the songwriting talents of a Bob Dylan or the guitar-shredding ability of a Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page.  Sometimes, those dreamers end up depending upon (or even using in a parasitical fashion) family, friends, and loved ones to give them at $20 in gas money to drive the beaten-up van to the next gig or $500 for that new Gibson or bass drum.  Think back long and hard enough and a great many of us can remember those in our lives who dared to attempt the impossible dream, only to fall flat.  Spiotta’s novel is replete with those moments where the dreams run head-on into a harsh, indifferent reality.

Denise is the grounded sibling of the two.  Stone Arabia revolves in part around her look back, from the late 1970s to 2006, over her brother Nik’s life and how his dreams, chronicled in short passages aptly named “Chronicles,” warped around the expectations of the world around him.  It is also a chronicle of a musician who almost made it, who had that record contract just slip out of his grasp.  But Stone Arabia is as much Denise’s story as it is Nik’s, as both are in their mid-to-late 40s and are confronting the driftlessness that has defined their lives, especially Nik’s, to that point.  A key passage in the novel occurs almost exactly halfway in, as Denise has learned of the grisly fate of a former TV actor and his wife:

For days, I would return to the Garret story.  I checked the tribute site, but after a week it stopped getting new posts.  The story dropped away, just an autopsy toxicology report of the various substances in the bodies’ bloodstreams.  I didn’t care about that, how the contents of your blood became public information.  I just thought about, and could not stop thinking about, what Garret Wayne’s last day was like.  Did he get up and think, This will be the last day of my life?  Or did he fall into a sudden rage, a rage of such distortive, annihilating force that he couldn’t stop himself?  Was the gun sitting in a drawer, just in case?  I stared at the headshot photo of his actress wife that had become ubiquitous now.  Did she know what was coming?  If not, how was that possible?  I stared into the artfully lit eyes of this pretty, ordinary girl and tried to see if her future was written in her face.

We all long to escape our own subjectivity.  That’s what art can do, give us a glimpse of ourselves connected with every human, now and forever, our disconnected, lonely terms escaped for a moment.  It offers the consolation of recognition, no small thing.  But what the televised bombardment of violent events did to me was completely different.  I didn’t overcome my subjectivity; rather, my person got stretched to include the whole world, stretched to a breaking point.  I became pervious, bruised and annihilated.  That’s what it feels like, this debilitating emotional engagement – annihilation, not affirmation.

Contrast that sobering passage with a “present day” comment, presented in drama-like dialogue, where Denise shares with her daughter about why Nik began making his “Chronicles”:

I guess it really started around ’79 or ’80.  It coincided with his ending his band.  1979 was the last year Nik was actually in a band.  The year of the big disappointment.  I think it is fair to describe it as not entirely a surprise.  Nik was faking it.  I knew it, he knew it.  He wasn’t really interested in the punk or post-punk music scene that was exploding.  He was too old, for one thing.  Nik was twenty-five and everyone else was like seventeen.  He was a poseur, as we used to say.

I took a sip of water.  I paused for the effect of recollection.

It is important to understand what was going on in those days.  After years of deadness, Los Angeles suddenly had this legitimate scene.  Nik cut his hair super short.  He knew what would work.  No gigs unless you had that look.  But already Nik betrayed himself with harmony and hooks.  Why not?  The Sex Pistols and the Clash had harmonies and hooks.  Okay, you spat and you cursed, but it wasn’t ever that far from the Beatles.  What you couldn’t do, though, ever, was play solos.  No guitar pretension and no drum solos and no complications.  Fine.  But LA was not London.  LA had to answer for the Eagles and Jackson Browne.  LA had some issues in it.  Somehow out of the good sun and the long days, LA felt a deep ugly rage.  It was swollen with heroin and debauched wastedness.  It was a badly stitched, angry-red, keltoid-scar rage.  It was a self-scratched, blue-inked, infected-prison-tattoo rage.  I understood, almost instantly, what that rage meant.  I loved that rage, the anti-tan pasty look, the deliberately ugly.  I understood how subversive ugly could be.  We had a terrible hunger for the nasty, the horrible, the deformed.

Beneath all of the excerpts from Nik’s “Chronicles” lurk façades, deliberately constructed images that are at odds with the world around him.  Nik fabricates events, mythologizing them in the process.  His segments resound with the hopes and dreams of countless number of musician hopefuls.  When juxtaposed with Denise’s more pessimistic portrayal of him and his talents, Nik’s scenes take on a sense of bathos, as the exuberance fades quickly into a denial of the world around him.  Spiotta does an outstanding job over the course of 236 pages to explore these dynamics between the two siblings, their contrasting world views, and how hopes and dreams can lead to myths that are unknown to all but a small handful who view them with as much wistfulness as fond recollection.  Stone Arabia is a brilliant portrayal of a time and attitude that can seem a bit foreign to those of us who did not live the dream, but its ability to make even the more grounded readers experience the passion that fueled those wannabe musicians makes it a worthy contender for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award.

Faulkner Friday: “Hair” (1931) and “Nympholepsy” (1973, posthumous publication)

March 2nd, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

This week’s two stories, “Hair” (1931) and “Nympholepsy” (posthumously published in 1973), illustrate the breadth and depth of his range as a writer.  The former is, on the surface at least, a study of a mysterious character while the latter is an exploration of character and life as seen through an intense magnification of a moment of struggle and despair.  Yet both, in their own particular way reference and reinforce several themes that Faulkner liked to explore in his fictions, novels and short fiction alike.

“Hair,” like most of his fictions, is set in the fictional town of Jefferson, Mississippi.  Hawkshaw, a mysterious barber who appeared in town some years ago, appears to have at best an odd and at worst a disturbing relationship with a young orphaned teenaged girl, Susan Reed.  Their relationship is frequently the talk of the town, as the narrator, a traveling salesman, notes.  Yet there is much, much more to Hawkshaw than what is first revealed and it is in that slowly-revealed backstory that “Hair” develops into something much more poignant.

Faulkner never has Hawkshaw tell his own story.  Instead, we see his entire life through the eyes of observers, the salesman being the one who fills in the gaps over a thirteen-year period in which his traveling circuit across Mississippi and Alabama has allowed him to intersect with Hawkshaw and to discover just why the barber asks for two weeks off in early April every year.  Here is an example of how this salesman describes Hawkshaw:

A little, sandy-complected man with a face you would not remember and would not recognize again ten minutes later, in a blue serge suit and a black bow tie, the kind that snaps together in the back, that you buy already tied in the store.  Maxey told me he was still wearing that serge suit and tie when he got off the south-bound train in Jefferson a year later, carrying one of these imitation leather suitcases.  And when I saw him again in Jefferson in the next year, behind a chair in Maxey’s shop, if it had not been for the chair I wouldn’t have recognized him at all.  Same face, same tie; be damned if it wasn’t like they had picked him up, chair, customer and all, and set him down sixty miles away without him missing a lick.  I had to look back out the window at the square to be sure I wasn’t in Porterfield myself any time a year ago.  And that was the first time I realized that when I had made Porterfield about six weeks back, he had not been there.

Faulkner contrasts this staid, everyman look with the mystery behind his travels through Alabama, Tennessee, and finally Mississippi.  Why would a barber, generally one of the more rooted members in pre-World War II Southern society, be seen for a year or two at a time in at least eight different towns before asking for leave in early April for two weeks, only to skip town for good except for his final stop at Jefferson?  What is so important about a closed house in a flyspeck town on the Alabama/Mississippi border where the villagers would tell the salesman about this same barber?  By using anecdotes to flesh out this mystery, Faulkner sucks in the reader, inviting them to try and puzzle out why the house is so important, what is symbolic about a missing portrait and lock of hair, and just what might be the connection with young Susan Reed?

“Hair” works as a story because there is very little exposition that occurs outside of the salesman’s recollections and even that is doled out in accordance with the unfolding narrative surrounding Hawkshaw and the young girl.  Although by the time the final reveal many readers may have already puzzled out most of the mysteries, there is also a short, sharp finale that leaves the story hanging in such a way that the reader may find herself dwelling upon what had just occurred over the past eighteen pages of text.  Within that brief space, Faulkner explores loss, determination, honoring debts, and the viciousness of town gossip not through declamatory protest or acclaim, but instead through a subtle juxtaposition of character comments and actions.  There is a surprising amount of depth to this little story, one that is belied by its length (with the exception of “A Rose for Emily,” this is the shortest Faulkner short fiction, other than the second one featured in this commentary, to be reviewed to date here).

“Nympholepsy” differs significantly from “Hair” in that it focuses on a key, decisive moment in a farmer’s life.  The opening paragraph sets the tone for the climatic moment to a story about which the reader will know so little:

Soon the sharp line of the hill-crest had cut off his shadow’s head; and pushing it like a snake before him, he saw it gradually become nothing.  And at last he had no shadow at all.  his heavy shapeless shoes were gray in the dusty road, his overalls were gray with dust:  dust was like a benediction upon him and upon the day of labor behind him.  He did not recall the falling of slain wheat and his muscles had forgotten the heave and thrust of fork and grain, his hands had forgotten the feel of a wooden handle worn smooth and sweet as silk to the touch; he had forgotten a yawning loft and spinning chaff in the sunlight like an immortal dance.

It is a day like and unlike any other:  another day of toil and sweat complete, the desire for something compassionate in a seemingly harsh and unforgiving life dependent upon the whims of God/nature.  This farmer feels he is going to die, or rather, perhaps intends to die in order to leave this dreadful state of uncertainty:

The rotten bark slipped under his feet, scaling off and falling upon the dark whispering stream.  It was as though he stood upon the bank and cursed his blundering body as it slipped and fought for balance.  You are going to die, he told his body, feeling that imminent Presence again about him, now that his mental concentration had been vanquished by gravity.  For an arrested fragment of time he felt, through vision without intellect, the waiting dark water, the treacherous log, the tree trunks pulsing and breathing and the branches like an invocation to a dark and unseen god; then trees and the star-flown sky slowly arced across his eyes.  In his fall was death, and a bleak derisive laughter.  He died time and again, but his body refused to die.  Then the water took him.

Here the edges between reality and dream become blurred.  As the night deepens, the farmer seems to be drawn through water and death toward a woman in the distance, whom he seeks to hold in his hands.  There is a disappearance, followed by a long, slow return to the patterns of before.  The very title, “Nympholepsy,” hints at just what sort of woman the farmer found himself beholden to; the final part the type of encounter.  It is a direct, raw, hallucinatory story, very different in form from most of Faulkner’s fiction.  In it can be seen most clearly the elements of the magic within the purportedly realist milieu.  Faulkner is often cited as an influence on the great Latin American writers of the “Boom Generation,” and “Nympholepsy” certainly contains that ethereal, haunting quality found in the best of their works.  It is not as much a story as a moment of magic on earth, serving not to provide an escape route for the farmer, but instead a confirmation of what he has lived.

2012 Pulitizer Prize finalist and National Book Critics Circle Award nominee in Poetry: Forrest Gander, Core Samples from the World

March 1st, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

As Chinese poets, we don’t want to go backward, Xi Chuan observes, but ahead of us the way forks in innumerable directions.  Forgetting which language he has just heard, but remembering the substance, the exhausted translator begins to translate the original language into the original language.  The nonnatives are inept at reading the forms of discussion here, much less the subtleties.  What is taken as evident wafts away.  Tensions come clear, faces shaking no, one translator interrupting another.  The topic, Where is Chinese poetry going in the age of globalization, invites phatic responses.  But under their masks of muteness, the visitors go beyond listening to; they listen into.

What else is being

asked, what

is at stake?

Forrest Gander’s Core Samples from the World has lingered in my thoughts for nearly a month now.  I find myself reflecting on the recollections of encounters with people high and low, literate writers and illiterate villagers, that span from China to Mexico, Bosnia to Chile.  Most traveler accounts focus almost exclusively on the writers themselves, with the people encountered being conflated with their cultures and monuments into a vague, “exotic” landscape that feels devoid of interaction.  In those accounts, the travelers just go, arrive, view, and leave, with only mementos and rarely any memorable encounters.  Core Samples from the World is different.  Gander does not as much describe what he encounters in the four countries he visits as he witnesses.  We encounter through Gander’s testimony cultures that are far more ancient than mine, some of which, like the Kyrgyz, have their own national poetry that rivals (and in some regards) surpasses the grandeur and depth of Greco-Roman epic poetry.  The way he describes the recital of part of the Kyrgyz national poem, Manas (clocking in at 232,162 lines in some written forms), is indicative of how he approaches encounters in each country that he visits:

Each of the local singers specializes in a single section of the poem, one declaiming in a raspy voice at a martial clip and another chanting forlornly, but all strumming the three-stringed komuz.  The last Manas singer rocks back and forth, reciting his part in the meter of horse hooves, trochaic tetrameter.  After the performance, the poets are invited to sit cross-legged at long tables in a restaurant where, in their honor, a horse has been slain and cooked.

This is not to say that in his witness Gander fails to explore keenly his own reactions to what he has encountered.  Here is a segment from “The Tinajera Notebook” that deals with his visit to a local Mexican market and the emotions inspired from it:

…Radiance inside.  Bald

children wearing hats, and a bald baby in a mother’s arms, and

here in the lobby, where I wait for you.

to be X-rayed,

some stranger whose exhaustion

can’t be fathomed, begins to snore.  If this

is the world and its time, as irrevocably it is,

when I step out into sunlit air

suffused with sausage smoke and bus exhaust,

with its relentless ads

for liquor and underwear,

where am I then?

Quien es?  First words

of Hamlet.  Last

of Billy the Kid.

Gander does not skim over the emotions sparked by what he has seen in these countries.  He describes in poetry, through the photography that his collaborators took from which he devised some of his poems, and in his adaptation of the Japanese haibun (a form of essay-poem), just what he has encountered and how events, small and epic alike, affect the peoples he meets.  Not all of the encounters are benign, as he describes a literary festival in Santiago, Chile:

At dinner, the Santiago poet averts her face from the gringo although no one else is sitting close enough for her to engage in conversation.  A synecdoche, he is taken for his government.  She lights up and blows sullen smoke down the table.  With suspicion at the threshold of dialogue, there is always a word blocking the first word.

And on the second day of the festival, after many papers, a consensus emerges that there are no longer regions of poetry; there are zones.  A distinction weakened, perhaps, in translation?

Final night, a local poet accuses the host of avoiding the issue of regionality altogether, of talking around it with clever language games when, in fact, some people’s lives are at risk, even now, at this moment, because of what they write, because of where they live.

Another shouts from the audience that vanguard poetry doesn’t speak to him, it is elitist, the tone of the whole conference is elitist.

And so the last evening dissolves into tensions,

A dinner table balanced
like a barbell, partisan drinkers
cluster at either end.
The foreigner can’t control his situation; mastery eludes him.  After four days in another language, he who started out infinitely sensitive is completemente rendido, rent by the effort of constant attentiveness.
Sometimes, it is easy to spot a phony, particularly when it comes to descriptions of personal situations.  Forrest Gander is no phony.  What he does through the three media described above is provide a sampling of cultures and traditions that are not as much filtered through him as they use him to speak to those of us who may not have considered just how diverse we are in our customs and beliefs.  Core Samples from the World is one of the best poetry collections I have read.  It is easily on par with Bruce Smith’s Devotions and I believe it is the best of the five nominees for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry.  It is a work that will move those who read it, as they cannot view others nor themselves in the same light again after careful consideration of what Gander says in this collection.

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