Rikki Ducornet, The One Marvelous Thing

January 31st, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

They have given him a spacious studio. He has six months to complete his project. He persists in working on canvas. This is considered anomalous, and so he is grateful.
The studio overlooks the previous artist’s project: a series of fifty concrete ears exactly thirty feet high. Plagued by a delicate constitution, his painting is disrupted by an irrational idea that the ears are party to his mind.
He abandons the brushes and builds himself a tall ladder. He uses this to peer down into the first ear. Shouting, he precipitates a deafening echo. He suffers an imperious need to shout into each ear, and does so over the next ten days. Overwhelmed by tinnitus, he is soon incapacitated. He begins to bark. His estranged wife is flown in from Tuscaloosa to coax him down from his ladder. She deposits him in a safer place.

The bizarre landscape reminiscent of something out of Breton or Ernst, above in Ducornet’s short story, Painter, is a good representation of the surrealist images that litter her short story collection The One Marvelous Thing. Imagery plays a large part in the collection, as it does throughout Ducornet’s body of work (in addition to writing, she is also an artist). Objects that exist in the world of her writing; artistic, precious, or mundane, inherently embody their own form of beauty and as a result hold a special kind of power. In the title story, two women fight over a gilded cage that becomes a symbol for another’s erotic awakening. In Panna Cotta, it is the creation of a panna cotta in the shape of a cruel, unfaithful lover that serves as a catalyst for the chef’s freedom from the anxiety she has caused him. These objects and the creation involved in them offer the characters in the stories the chance for an act of transformation, an emerging from the cocoon, so to speak.

While the stories in The One Marvelous Thing run the gamut from relatively normal literary fiction to stories more in the genre vein such as fairy tale and science fiction, a number of themes do seem to resonate throughout. Ducornet is a very sensual writer; many of the stories focus on the relationships between lovers, the role of eroticism, and the balance of power. Often this is shown in a negative light, as in the aforementioned Panna Cotta, and Green Air, a story in which a bride is locked in a drawer with all the other past lovers of her cruel, sex obsessed, monstrous husband. In many ways, some of the stories recall Angela Carter (the two were friends, having met after Ducornet was advised to write to her by Robert Coover), especially in the opening tale, The Wild Child, in which she uses a domesticated feral girl to illustrate how the society ladies wish that they were the ones  running free like beasts in the forest.

The vivid descriptions of Ducornet are complimented by wonderful accompanying inked illustrations by T. Motley. They are dark and complex, usually very busy, lots of lines, often veering towards the grotesque, and suit the mood of the stories very well. There are also a number of short comics at the end of the collection, entitled The Butcher’s Comics, written by Ducornet and illustrated by Motley, the surreal Brilling, about an odd race called the jumblies in a sort of post apocalyptic wasteland being my particular favourite.

The stories in The One Marvellous Thing are all rather short, the longest being ten pages or so, and as a result they tend to serve as impressions; one person, one event, one item, image or idea, and in that way they reminded me, as a sort of snapshot of a moment, a little of photographs or paintings. These are the things of which our lives are made and as the abrasive Pat says in the title story to her friend Ellen,If we’re not one our toes, El, we’ll miss out of the one marvelous thing”. 

Zoran Živković, The Ghostwriter (2009; 2010 English translation)

January 30th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

It should be no secret that Serbian author Zoran Živković is, in my opinion at least, one of the best storytellers writing today.  Over the past few years, I have reviewed several of his short fiction “story suites” (such as Steps Through the Mist and Twelve Collections and the Teashop) and his novel-length works (the most recent being the just-released UK edition of Escher’s Loops).  Almost without exception (leaving a bit of room for subjective “rankings” of books within that I shall never reveal to others openly), his stories have belied their short, simple appearance, divulging depths of theme and characterization that can pleasantly surprise a reader wanting merely a quick read and instead discovering an absorbing read that rarely fails to inform as well as entertain.  This is certainly the case with Živković’s most recent short novel, Pisac u Najam (English translation being The Ghostwriter), a fiction that is only available in Serbian editions (although I believe PS Publishing will be releasing the UK edition either late this year or sometime in 2011).

The Ghostwriter begins rather simply:  the Writer, whose real name is never expressed in the book, receives an interesting proposition from a pseudonymous Admirer:  write a novel for the Admirer and sign the rights over to the Admirer.  While one might wonder at first just how such a seemingly simple affair can be the basis of a novel that’s 127 pages in the original, as one reads on, that reader will discover a cleverness to the story that promises a resolution before looping into something far deeper and more moving than someone trying to hire out the Writer (I should note that the Serbian title, Pisac u Najam, literally means “writer for hire”).

Živković fleshes out this story by utilizing a mixture of emails and breaks to his feline companion, Felix.  As the mystery behind the Admirer grows, the Writer finds himself interrupted, first by Felix (whose feline foibles are recounted fondly by the Writer) and then from four email regulars, each of them with his or her own agendas.  At first, these interruptions seem to distract from the mystery of the Admirer and just why s/he would want the Writer to write a novel and sign it off to that pseudonymous Admirer.  However, Živković artfully imbues each succeeding email and the persons behind them with his or her own quirky and fascinating personas.  Just why is a jealous fellow writer emailing the Writer so much?  Why is a half-crazed woman detailing her dreams to the Writer, who she refers to by his email pseudonym (and his cat’s name) of Felix?  Why is another aspiring writer composing pastiches of the Writer’s works and signing them off as the Writer himself?  Why is another woman begging the Writer to compose a story that would cheer her ailing dog Albert?

As the Writer struggles to keep pace with their demands and to figure out more about their increasingly odd demands, not to mention still trying to suss out who this Admirer might be, the reader perhaps has shifted his or her focus away from just the issue of the startling proposal from the Admirer to that of the Writer’s life and those who flit and move about through it.   Živković manages to not just delay the payoff to the entire angle, but to create new webs that are interwoven with this first, seemingly central mystery.  This narrative tension rises until the final two paragraphs in the novel, when the clues to not just the Admirer’s identity, but also to the real subject of this tale, are revealed in a way that surprised me and yet made the entire story all the more meaningful for how adroitly Živković managed to delay me finding out if my suspicions were correct (in fact, they were wrong and yet in hindsight I should have known better, which is a testimony to the author and not a condemnation of my abilities as a reader).

The Ghostwriter, although it is more narrow in its focus and not as all-encompassing as was Escher’s Loops, was yet another enjoyable read.  The characters were developed through their words and not their actions, but yet there was this sense that behind the words, much was transpiring that had to be imagined more than just discovered from reading the text.  The prose was in some fashions similar to that of Živković’s Hidden Camera, with each having their own quirky, mildly obsessive protagonists.  However, The Ghostwriter contains allusions to certain quasi-Faustian deals that writers have to make that part of the fun here was seeing just how (or if) the Writer would ever break and give in to the desires of those surrounding him.  I suspect a re-read will reveal even more layerings here.  As it stands, The Ghostwriter was a great read and should be sought after whenever the English-language editions become available in the non-Serbian market.  Highly recommended.

Stephen Wright, Going Native

January 29th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

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

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

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

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

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

Not so much American Psycho as America’s Psycho.

Zoran Živković, Steps Through the Mist (2003; 2007 US edition)

January 28th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

In a genre where the readers often equate the value of a book with its size or how exhaustive the author details the scenery (or “worldbuilding,” as many now call this recent phenomenon of trying to make an imagined setting feel as “literal” or “real” as possible), there is something to be said for an author who writes in a shorter, more sparse style and who eschews dictating everything that is to be seen or to be read into a piece of fiction. In Serbian author Zoran Živković’s 2003 mosaic novel (2007 English translation), Steps Through the Mist, his five interconnected stories are deceptively slight, with only just enough detail to allow each story’s plot to flow to conclusions that surprise the reader in the depth of meanings and reactions that they can provoke.

“Disorder in the Head” begins the sequence and with its bland, vaguely-described setting, the impatient reader might be quick to dismiss this as being an insubstantial short fiction that fails to grab the reader’s attention. Such a reader would end up being gravely mistaken for trying to apply the “show, not tell” mantra to this tale, because the lack of specific description actually plays a major role in setting up the plot twist that turns this tale into a provocative opener. In addition, the “mist” of the title makes its first appearance and will be seen in other guises in the remaining stories.

The second story, “Hole in the Wall,” contains a short but revealing passage that reveals in part what this “mist” might be, perhaps:

“Until recently, that was the same attitude I had toward the future,” she [Katarina] said in a voice full of understanding. “What will be will be. A person has little influence, if any at all. We enter the mist, not knowing what awaits us there. Then, after the accident, everything changed.”

In this particular story, the “mist” has a threatening overtone, as if it were of innumerable futures that contained pain and misery and discontent, among other, opaque features that frustrated the characters. This overtone, ominous as it sounds, is not the only way of interpreting this symbolic “mist” of the stories, however, as the following pieces reveal.

“Geese in the Mist” has a quality about it that takes many pauses and re-reads for one to be able to grasp it fully. It is a story of a woman on a ski lift and a mysterious stranger appearing and telling her of a momentous change, similar to the Chaos Theory aphorism of the butterfly beating its wings and through that action triggering a chain of events that might prove cataclysmic elsewhere, that would occur with which route the woman would choose down the ski loft. As the woman (and by extension, the reader) is left wondering as to what to do, Živković slyly has us consider the possibilities before having the story take a route that perhaps might be unexpected, perhaps be totally outside the bounds, depending of course upon the reader’s expectations.

The fourth tale, “Line on the Palm,” is perhaps the most tragic of these tales, but it is also one of the more powerful stories in this excellent mosaic novel. Set in a palm reader’s shop and with a wink and a nod to the skeptic who dismisses such things as feel-good foolishness, this tale deals with fate as a notion and perhaps as an actual force and how our actions, similar to those of the characters in the ancient Greek tragedies, often cause our own fates to be as bad as we believe them to be. The “mist” in this tale is as much a tragic symbol than it is anything actual.

The final tale, “Alarm Clock on the Night Table,” contains a deep and sad metaphor in its middle:

“These two gears here are broken. They’re worn out. Unfortunately, they are highly important. You might say they are the heart of the clock. And nothing can work without a heart, isn’t that so? If this were a newer model it would be easy to replace them, but no one makes spare parts anymore for such old models. The manufacturers are better off selling you a new one.” He [the watchmaker] sighed and turned to look at the wall covered with silent clocks. “Just like your clock, all of these could have kept time and woken people up, if only there had been parts for them.”

In this, the final tale, the “mist” perhaps could stand for things outside of our everyday, timed existences. However, there are more layers to this than what such a trite summation as that would reveal. Živković’s purposeful vagueness, akin to the ever-morphing “mist” of these stories, serves to point out just how so often we feel as though our lives are but journeys in which each step is shrouded in a fog-like cover, obscuring not just our destination, but also our origins and desires. There is a dreamlike quality to each of these superb tales, with multiple meanings awaiting those who are willing to imagine instead of awaiting for authorial explication.

Steps Through the Mist is a mosaic novel of five thematically-connected stories, each narrated by a different female character, that explores in a detached and surrealistic fashion many of the doubts and fears that we have about our everyday lives. Živković writes with a minimal amount of detail, but his writing is much stronger for leaving so much for us to flesh out in our own imaginations. With these multiple possible takes on the tales, comparisons to Borges or Calvino would not only be likely, they would be apt. Highly recommended collection from this World Fantasy Award-winning author.


Elie Wiesel, Night

January 27th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud,
Who does not know peace,
Who fights for a scrap of bread,
Who dies because of a yes or a no.
Consider if this is a woman
Without hair and without name,
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter.
Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house fall apart,
May illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you.
Primo Levi, If This is a Man

NEVER SHALL I FORGET that night, the first night in the camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall  forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.
Never.

The spectre of the holocaust looms as large on the beginning of the twenty first century as it did the end of the twentieth. It is, in a perverse way, the pinnacle of human achievement. Mass murder on such large a scale a normal mind cannot comprehend it by people who, by and large, until they were complicit in the act, would be seen as moral people. The near eradication of an entire race as a matter of organization. The scar that such horror has left on the psyche of the human race will never heal; what good can be done that would ever compare to such evil? Curing cancer and AIDS, the eradication of hunger, world peace? All a drop in the ocean in the face of six million souls screaming in agony. Dead babies used as fuel in the furnaces. The poor victims of Mengele’s sick experiments. The malnourished, raped women of Ravensbrück forced to kill the products of the guards’ crimes with their bare hands. Kurt Franz’s savage dog, the scourge of Treblinka. The gas chambers Auschwitz. We have no answer for them. There are no answers.

In Night, a much shortened account taken from Wiesel’s original 865-page Yiddish manuscript, he describes exactly how the nihilism of the holocaust can take everything from a person. At sixteen, before he knows it he finds himself in a ghetto and shortly after herded with the rest of the town’s Jewish population to the camps. Separated from his mother and sister, who he will never see again, he clings to his father, as he, just like everyone else, does the only thing that he can; survive. His experiences are all too much to allow him to sustain his faith though, the final straw being the hanging of a child by the SS for stealing. Where is God when His chosen people need Him, and how could He allow this to happen to anyone? He cannot bring himself to worship a God that would permit this. As well as his home, his family and his dignity, the Nazi’s take his faith from him too.

Despite all his suffering, the narrator knows that he is one of the lucky ones. He and his father are assigned to work duty at Benu, not Auschwitz, Treblinka or Buchenwald. They both survive selection (his father narrowly), when examined by Mengele himself. They live in a state of constant near starvation, but manage to just avoid starving to death, even at times in Night when food is unavailable. Despite all the terrible things that happen to him, he is lucky, because he survives. That survival  takes its toll on him though, and turns him into someone that sickens him. When the pair are evacuated to Buchenwald just before the end of the war, he contemplates taking his sick father’s rations, and when his father is beaten to death by other prisoners, he feels a sense of relief that he will no longer be burdened with another person’s survival. Having sworn that he would never be like another son he had seen abandon his father, he knows that his morals have failed him.

Hannah Arendt famous wrote, in Eichmann in Jerusalem, about the banality of evil, but there was nothing banal about the holocaust; it was mass insanity. Reason turned upon itself and devoured all sense. To try and understand even how this could happen is itself an act of insanity. Six million dead, the human mind isn’t even capable of imagining it. Imagine a landscape strewn with piles of corpses, there’s probably only a hundred or so thousand there. We owe to the dead, not just Jewish, but Romani, homosexual, and Eastern European as well, to remember what happened. To ensure, as Levi wrote, that we teach our children what happened. Lest history should repeat itself, humanity has certainly shown what it is capable of beyond what any of us would have imagined.

Goran Petrović, An Atlas Traced by the Sky (1993; English translation 2012)

January 26th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

The Serbs are a people seldom satisfied with just one life, so they double and even multiply it several times over.  And as if that were not enough, they doggedly persevere in their own dreams or live in several places at once, always with the same tempestuous ardour.  It is no wonder, then, that Serbs, who expend themselves so relentlessly, die easily, hastily and hungrily, exactly the way they live.

Undoubtedly, this might be called a good custom, were it to end there.  But it does not.  It seems that it is in death that the Serbs are at their most dangerous, as if there too they exist.  Not only do their beards and nails grow, as on any corpse, but so do their bodies, and stories about them spread and multiply even more than when they are alive.

The prevailing view among our people here is that this wild and dangerous race should not be stopped from living dreams or living several lives in one and the same place.  It would be especially good to move them from fast living to slow, and thus dilute their unruly nature in favour of calm waters that can be restrained. (p. 120)

As a child growing up in the 1980s, I can remember my early fascination with atlases.  I remember turning to the back (or sometimes the front) of my dad’s social studies books (he taught social studies and PE for around three decades) and memorizing places and countries.  There were historical atlases of Egypt, the Hittite Empire, the Greeks, the Persians, and the Romans, each with their own special colors on the maps.  There were places outlined with little dots and others with larger ones; the capitals received stars.  There were colors, later on, that we had to do in my 9th grade World Geography class (1988-1989) of the 15 Soviet republics.  Fifteen colors to represent entities that had has much in common with each other as the arbitrary choices of colors we used for our crude maps.  Atlases ultimately are but our own futile attempts to place our stamp on a wild, uncontrollable, and even almost completely incomprehensible world.  Yet we still persevere in this fiction, believing somehow that it matters.

In his 1993 debut novel, Serbian writer Goran Petrović utilizes atlases as a means to create a series of connections that are in turns artificial and more natural than life itself.  An Atlas Traced by the Sky charts the dreams and manipulations of a handful of characters who inhabit worlds and possibilities, tracing their own atlases of the worlds they experience through the clouds above the open-roofed house in which they live.  Like the clouds that float across the sky, thickening, elongated, or dissipating as they move, the images and the metaphors for human life embedded within them also shift and transform as the reader moves from one page to the next.  An Atlas Traced by the Sky is not a linear work, far from it, but the effort the reader expends in processing what Petrović’s characters are describing ultimately rewards greatly those who pay close attention to what is transpiring.

An Atlas Traced by the Sky perhaps best can be described by that most nebulous and troublesome of literary terms, “postmodern.”  There certainly are elements of postmodernist literature within its 236 pages.  The conflation of dreams and realities, of narrators who inhabit one role in one dream/reality sequence only to play another role elsewhere, references to real and imagined works of art and literature (with an impressive list of writers cited in a bibliography that includes Borges, Calvino, Eco, Pavić, Basara, García Márquez, Cortázar, Ende, and dozens more), and the conflation of time, space, and reality all help shape a work that is ever mutable.

Such works can be off-putting to readers who want to establish an emotional connection to the characters and/or narrative(s).  For the most part, An Atlas Traced by the Sky‘s characters are appealing because in their construction of their atlases, their desires, fears, and dreams are illustrated with a refreshing clarity that makes their journeys through the worlds they outline and inhabit intriguing for readers.  Although there are a few places where the reader might want to pause and re-read (as I did at several points during my second reading of the book in English – I read it twice before in Spanish), for the most part the twists and turns can be followed by careful readers who are wary of accepting what is described at face value.

Petrović imbues his narrative with a host of reference to writers from the past 75 years.  Concepts developed by the writers I cited above (and others) can be seen unfolding as the characters chart their own paths.  Perhaps the concluding section sums it up best:

Even the biggest piece of paper is bound by edges.  However, if the cartographer is adept, no road will be cut by a margin.  And if he is imaginative as well, then it is here that the road will actually begin… (p. 227)

The same too can be said of outlining our lives and dreams.  If a narrator is skilled enough, and Petrović here proves to be so, then the lives and dreams of the novel’s characters can be said not to be cut by the margins of the narrative, but instead their roads begin here.  It is this sense of openness within the confines of a described atlas, even one traced by the sky, that makes An Atlas Traced by the Sky a novel that can be read and re-read multiple times, with more revealed each time.  Highly recommended.

Zoran Živković, Escher’s Loops (2008; UK edition 2010)

January 26th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

For the past six years, ever since I picked up a copy of his The Fourth Circle, I have always had great pleasure in reading anything that Serbian author Zoran Živković has written.  In previous reviews of Steps Through the Mist and Twelve Collections and the Teashop, I discussed how Živković’s less-is-more approach toward storytelling appeals to me as a reader.  I enjoy being allowed the freedom to approach stories at cross-angles, without the author intruding too much into the text that s/he has created.  In virtually all of Živković’s stories, whether they be part of his “story suite” mosaics or more traditional novel-length tales, he leaves plenty of gaps through which an imaginative reader can delve further into the mysteries hinted at but often never directly stated within the texts.

One device that Živković utilizes in several of his stories (and one that José Saramago uses to great effect in his Blindness and Seeing novels, among others) is labeling the characters by profession rather than by name.  This creates a sort of “everyman” type of character; could be me or you or that guy or gal across the street.  It also allows for a subtle distancing of the characters from the settings, creating a sense of “otherness” cohabiting with mundane existence.  But does this sort of storytelling approach, which owes much to centuries’ worth of Central European fables, hold up when expanded to a 330 page novel?

When I learned that Escher’s Loops would combine the elements that Živković employs in his story suites with the length of a novel, I worried that the result might be somewhat of a mess to follow.  After all, when there are bifurcating stories that are designed to loop around and back into a broader narrative, patterned on Escher’s most famous illustration, there is a real risk for the inattentive reader becoming lost in what is unfolding.  However, this was far from the case for me, as these “loops,” broken down into four main movements/sections, actually augmented the joy I had while reading the narrative.

To best illustrate what Živković is doing, let me quote from the very beginning of the story:

The surgeon had just dried his hands in a stream of hot air from the hand dryer next to the wash basin, pulled on his gloves and headed for the operating room, when a sudden recollection made him stop in front of the double glass door.  Even though he was urgently awaited inside, the thought disconcerted him so much that he was rooted to the spot.

Those who knew him better would certainly have assumed that he’d remembered the incident he most wanted to forget.  It was the only stain on his career.  He’d left surgical tweezers inside a patient.  There was no excuse for this oversight.  What could he say in his defense?  That he’d been captivated by her face and couldn’t keep his eyes off her?  The anesthesia had seemed to bestow an angelic quality on the beautiful young woman.  Mentioning this enchantment as the cause of his distraction would only have aggravated his position. (p. 5)

As I noted above, there is no wasting of time giving this character a name.  The surgeon has had something unusual (and embarrassing) happen.  There is a moment of thought and recollection and then the story branches from there, seeking out others in the environs who have had experiences, both good and bad, and how each of their lives, whether they be the Dylanesque priest who plays pinball or the priest who takes pictures of birds, of the failed suicide who has attempted suicide seventeen times before having an epiphany, or of the beautiful actress and her admirer, are interconnected with one another’s.  Živković is not heavy-handed in this.  He introduces (and re-introduces) these characters in different forms and it feels so casual that the reader at first may wonder where s/he had read about that particular character before.

The overall effect is like a woven tapestry of images.  The life threads that run through our own lives are put through the warp and woof before being re-thread back into our life journeys.  The same holds true for Živković’s characters.  Although failure, frustration, and death greet several of his characters, there is this sense of optimism that pervades this story.  Živković does not focus as much on suffering as much as on how experiences end up enriching the lives of the characters involved.  This sense of optimism makes for a suitable ending to these interconnected life threads that constitute Escher’s Loops.  Certainly one of the more enjoyable reads I have had recently and on par with Živković’s other fictions.  Very highly recommended.

Flannery Friday: “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1953)

January 25th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

She said she thought it was going to be a good day for driving, neither too hot nor too cold, and she cautioned Bailey that the speed limit was fifty-five miles an hour and that the patrolmen hid themselves behind billboards and small clumps of trees and sped out after you before you had a chance to slow down.  She pointed out interesting details of the scenery:  Stone Mountain; the blue granite that in some places came up to both sides of the highway; the brilliant red clay banks slightly streaked with purple; and the various crops that made rows of green lace-work on the ground.  The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled.  The children were reading comic magazines and their mother had gone back to sleep.

“Let’s go through Georgia fast so we won’t have to look at it much,” John Wesley said.

“If I were a little boy,” said the grandmother, “I wouldn’t talk about my native state that way.  Tennessee has the mountains and Georgia has the hills.”

“Tennessee is just a hillbilly dumping ground,” John Wesley said, “and Georgia is a lousy state too.”

“You said it,” June Star said.

“In my time,” said the grandmother, folding her thin veined fingers, “children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else.  People did right then.  Oh look at the cute little pickanniny!” she said and pointed to a Negro child standing in the door of a shack.  “Wouldn’t that make a picture, now?” she asked and they all turned and looked at the little Negro out of the back window.  He waved.

“He didn’t have any britches on,” June Star said.

“He probably didn’t have any,” the grandmother explained.  “Little niggers in the country don’t have things like we do.  If I could paint, I’d paint that picture,” she said. (pp. 138-139)

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1953), later the eponymous title of her 1955 collection, is one of Georgia writer Flannery O’Connor’s most famous stories.  In a little over 15 pages, she constructs a tale in which the social conventions of late 1940s Southern “polite society” are stripped down and their base hypocrisies are laid bare.  There is a lot to unpack from this tale, as there are elements here that O’Connor would revisit in her other fictions.

The passage quoted above appears very early in the tale.  An apparently widowed grandmother, her son, wife, and two children are traveling to Florida for a vacation.  The grandmother does not want to go; she wants to revisit the places of her youth, namely the mountains of East Tennessee where she has kin.  For her, the hills of Georgia and the mountains of eastern Tennessee are home.  It is where she was raised and the values of this region she considers to be the standard from which those of all other regions fail to match.  Her son and his wife, however, are not as enamored with this region and their two children, somewhere between 8 and 12 based on their liking for certain things and their approach to life, have a casual disdain for both states; they want to experience change and aren’t as tied down.  In just a few bits of dialogue, O’Connor has established a generational shift in attitude, but then she goes one step further and shows the vicious limits of the grandmother’s worldview by her condescending, racist view of a black youth.  “Cute as a picture,” with the connotation of all blacks being little more than naive children to her.  It is a passing reference in this story, but there are reappearances of this attitude in other O’Connor stories, so it bears noting now that it is difficult at times to separate the author’s complex views on the issue (some of her essays, which in her day might be viewed as more progressive than staunch segregationist attitudes, would today be viewed more dimly than when they were composed).  But here in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” it is intended to show the grandmother’s “values” in a way that sets up the explosive conclusion.

The first half of the story deals with the family’s travels down south through the clay country of Georgia, with the family asking the owner of a country BBQ place, an unctuous barbeque seller who belies his own comment with his appearance and actions,  about an escaped convict known as “The Misfit”:

“Did you read about that criminal, The Misfit, that’s escaped?” asked the grandmother.

“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he didn’t attact this place right here,” said the woman.  “If he hears about it being here, I wouldn’t be none surprised to see him.  If he hears it’s two cent in the cash register, I wouldn’t be a tall surprised if he…”

“That’ll do,” Red Sam said.  “Go bring these people their Co’-Colas,” and the woman went off to get the rest of the order.

“A good man is hard to find,” Red Sammy said.  “Everything is getting terrible.  I remember the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched.  Not no more.”

He and the grandmother discussed better times.  The old lady said that in her opinion Europe was entirely to blame for the way things were now.  She said the way Europe acted you would think we were made of money and Red Sam said it was no use talking about it, she was exactly right.  The children ran outside into the white sunlight and looked at the monkey in the lacy chinaberry tree.  He was busy catching fleas on himself and biting each one carefully between his teeth as if it were a delicacy. (p. 142)

Although this story is set a few years after the end of World War II, this sort of conversation continues to take place every day at nearly-dilapidated gas stations, front porch restaurants, and farmer’s markets all across the rural parts of the South.  The values have changed.  Dem furr’ners.  The animalistic qualities of the imprisoned.  Why we would never be that way.  The oblivious nature of such self-blinding, self-congratulatory bromides is not only a sharp, biting social commentary, but it directly sets up the “a good man is hard to find” theme of the story’s second half.   Here, the prison escapee The Misfit is set up to be outside these values, to be something rather than someone.  It all falls within the parameters of “polite society’s” view of those who transgress its social mores.  Yet as is often case in O’Connor’s stories, those who subscribe to such rigid, absolutist views are set up for a fall.

It is in the story’s final half where everything unites in a devastating conclusion.  The family car overturns on a hilly road and among the grandmother’s internal monologue of how they should have just gone to the mountains of East Tennessee rather than this godforsaken country road, there are images of her hat still pinned to her head, but with the stiff front brim broken and the violet spray hanging off to the side.  The connection between the damaged and yet still relatively intact attire and the value system that the grandmother represents is clear, yet there is something more to it.  There is also the implication of the fool clinging to unworthy values, to someone who is blind to the changing world around them.  While the children express juvenile disappointment in no deaths or other signs of violence as they scream “‘We’ve had an ACCIDENT!’ the children screamed in a frenzy of delight. (p. 145),” there suddenly appears the metaphorical boogeyman, The Misfit and his crew.

The grandmother immediately recognizes him from his wanted ads and makes the mistake of acknowledging this.  As he and his crew are forced to round up the family and take them away, she continues to try and reason with him:

“Listen,” the grandmother almost screamed, “I know you’re a good man.  You don’t look a bit like you have common blood.  I know you must come from nice people!”

“Yes mam,” he said, “finest people in the world.”  When he smiled he showed a row of strong white teeth.  “God never made a finer woman than my mother and my daddy’s heart was pure gold,” he said.  The boy with the red sweat shirt had come around behind them and was standing with his gun at his hip.  The Misfit squatted down on the ground.  “Watch them children, Bobby Lee,” he said.  “You know they make me nervous.”  He looked at the six of them huddled together in front of him and he seemed to be embarrassed as if he couldn’t think of anything to say.  “Ain’t a cloud in the sky,” he remarked, looking up at it.  “Don’t see no sun but don’t see no cloud neither.” (p. 147)

All of her appeals to “good blood,” to manners and to the respect of life down to religion, all of these are easily countered by The Misfit.  It is, for him, society who has failed him rather than he failing society.  Through imagery such as his description of himself as being “buried alive” when sent to the penitentiary for a crime he claims he does not remember or understand (although he says the state claims it was murder of his father years before), there are certain allusions to Christianity, both in the grandmother’s attempt to get him to pray and become “good” and in The Misfit’s conclusion that such religious matters falter in the light of this:

“Yes’m,” The Misfit said as if he agreed.  “Jesus thown everything off balance.  It was the same case with Him as with me except He hasn’t committed any crime and they could prove I had committed one because they had the papers on me.  Of course,” he said, “they never shown me my papers.  That’s why I sign myself now.  I said long ago, you get you a signature and sign everything you do and keep a copy of it.  Then you’ll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see do they match and in the end you’ll have something to prove you ain’t been treated right.  I call myself The Misfit,” he said, “because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.” (p. 151)

Here lies the crux of the debate embedded within “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”  How should a society adjudicate those who “sin” or otherwise go against their laws and values?  Should such people be “buried alive” in prison, pushed away because of their heinous actions?  Should there be a dehumanization of those who commit such acts of violence, a removal of them from society that goes beyond just the punishment/rehabilitation aspects of law and order?  This is what The Misfit and the grandmother argue over.  Or rather, the grandmother naively clings to a faith in goodness as embedded in society and in the ability of The Misfit to rejoin it, while he sees further and realizes that he would never be accepted back and that even if he desired so, the order in question is itself flawed.

O’Connor has this exchange take place while The Misfit’s followers “take care” of the other family members.  The matter is as much settled with the finality of pistol shots as it is with the reduction of the grandmother to babbling about how maybe The Misfit really was one of “her children” (itself an allusion to not just the long-denied shared humanity between them, but also to the religious aspects of this).  This conclusion is devastating because it is the final, inevitable response to all of the previously-held assumptions of the grandmother.  The society and its values which she treasures has been shown to her to be not worth a bucket of warm spit in the eyes of one who has walked outside of it.  The “good man” being “hard to find” is shown to be not just the condemnation of the misguided by those who are blinded by their own inflated sense of self-importance, but also a commentary on the violence and darkness that lurks within human hearts.  It is an unsettling commentary, but one which O’Connor revisits in different guises in several more of the stories found in the 1955 anthology A Good Man is Hard to Find.  “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is a powerful tale because the little bits that O’Connor adds to the main plot aid in creating a collision of social views that underscore the fundamental hypocrisies of “polite society,” particularly that of post-WWII Southern towns and farms.  When read alongside other O’Connor tales, it serves not just as an example of her writing style, but also as a representative tale that contains the germ of several other stories within it.

Zadie Smith, NW

January 24th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

‘A bit of green is very powerful, Felix. Very powerful. ‘Specially in England. Even us Londoners born and bred, we need it, we go up to the Heath, don’t we, we crave it. Even our little park here is important. Bit of green. In some melodious plot/Of beechen green, and shadows numberless … Name that verse! “Ode to a Nightingale”! Very famous poem, that. Keats. Londoner he was, you see. But why should you know it! Who would have taught it to you? You got your music, haven’t you, your hip hop, and your rap – what’s the difference between those two? I’ve never been sure. I have to say I can’t understand the bling bling business at all, Felix – seems very backwards to me, all that focus on money. Maybe it’s a symbol for something else – I can’t tell. I’ve got my verses, at least. But I had to learn them myself! In those days, you failed the eleven plus and that was it – on your bike. That’s how it used to be. What education I’ve got I had to get myself. I grew up angry about it. But that’s how it used to be in England for our sort of people. It’s the same thing now with a different name. You should be angry about it, too, Felix, you should!’

As a critic, when you hear The London Novel, you tend to think “Dear Lord, not Martin Amis again”, followed by a brief feeling of relief on learning it is not in fact a new Martin Amis novel (unless it is, in which case, refer to Inferno, Dante Alighieri, Canto III).  Regardless of authorial intent, it has become a genre of its own, and we call all probably name a few, perhaps even offer a favourite (mine personally is Sinclair’s Downriver). NW, Zadie Smith’s fourth novel and her best since her debut, White Teeth, is a London Novel.  Set around the North West area of London, in a deprived community populated mostly by second and third generation English descended from immigrants, Smith constructs an intertwining narrative from three characters; Leah, her best friend since childhood Natalie (formerly Keisha), and a young man unknown to both of them, Felix. Despite the very different paths that Leah and Natalie’s lives take, they both find themselves trapped by the same unhappiness.

For Leah, that unhappiness stems from the fact that she finds herself trapped in a life that she never wanted. Still living in NW, she is happily married to Michel, a French-Algerian immigrant determined to improve his lot in life, but she finds herself stuck in place. The couple are trying for a child, but unknown to Michel, Leah doesn’t want one, going to whatever measures are necessary to ensure that she doesn’t conceive. She also lacks the callousness of the others in the novel, which leads to her falling for the sob story con of Shar, a local drug addict and prostitute pimped by a man the pair used to go to school with, Nathan Boggle. The tragic conclusion of that episode only adds to her depression.

Natalie, on the other hand, has made it out of NW, becoming a successful barrister and marrying a wealthy banker, half African half Italian Frank. She lives in the world of obscene Christmas bonuses, dinner parties, and organic food. But despite her commercial success and her husband and children, she is profoundly unhappy. Throughout her life, as Leah was always a lot more outgoing than her, while she was focused on success, she has always worried that she was somehow empty, as if she had no real personality or self. She becomes obsessed with internet hookups and seedy sexual encounters as if they can somehow fill the void within her, but they only ever seem to peter out disappointingly. Having left NW behind in becoming Natalie, yet never really belonging to the world of money in which she finds herself because she wasn’t born into it, she is trapped between two different Londons, forced to be two different incomplete people.

At one point in the novel, Smith quotes Nietzsche out of context, “Our pre-eminence: we live in the age of comparison“; the verification that permeates NW is the verification of our happiness, our status and wealth, of our worth as human beings, as the validity of our misery.  She writes, of Natalie and her husband,

Happiness is not an absolute value. It is a state of comparison. Were they any unhappier than Imran and Ameeta? Those people over there? You?

Leah compares Nathan Boggle to the sweet boy they knew in their childhood and wonders how he could have become a violent, drug addicted pimp. She compares herself to those less fortunate and NW and wonders why she and Natalie are better off. Natalie tells her they deserve it, that they worked harder, but she is only fooling herself; for the most part it is dumb luck. The third character, Felix is the proof of that. He has got his life together, is hard working and has a plan, but his life is cut short by a childish act of machismo. It is hard to accept that he did not make it because he did not work hard enough. And what validity does the misery that Leah and Natalie feel have when compared to that of those who loved Felix? People raised in deprived areas generally have worse lives than those who aren’t, it is a vicious cycle, and no matter how hard Leah, Natalie or Felix try, in the end they are always pulled back down into NW.

Flannery Fridays: Tentative Reading Schedule

January 24th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Although due to a combination of things I ended up postponing my weekly Faulkner Fridays back in April 2012, I thought it might be a good idea to revive a weekly review series dedicated to another one of my favorite Southern writers, Flannery O’Connor.  Her work I think lends itself easier to a weekly review series, as her collected works have been published in a single Library of Congress edition, compared to the multiple omnibus volumes of Faulkner’s fictions (for those wanting more Faulkner reviews, I likely will resume reviewing at least the novels after I finish reviewing O’Connor’s fiction).  Below is a tentative schedule for reviews, largely following the Library of America edition, with only one alteration:

January:

25  “A Good Man is Hard to Find”

 

February:

Wise Blood

“The River”

15  “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”

22  “A Stroke of Good Fortune”

 

March:

“A Temple of the Holy Ghost”

“The Artificial Nigger”

15  “A Circle in the Fire”

22  “A Late Encounter with the Enemy”

29  “Good Country People”

 

April:

5  “The Displaced Person”

12  The Violent Bear It Away

19  “Everything That Rises Must Converge”

26  “Greenleaf”

 

May:

3  “A View of the Woods”

10  “The Enduring Chill”

17  “The Comforts of Home”

24  “The Lame Shall Enter First”

31  “Revelation”

 

June:

7  “Parker’s Back”

14  “Judgment Day”

21  “The Geranium”

28  “The Barber”

 

July:

5  “Wildcat”

12  “The Crop”

19  “The Turkey”

26  “The Train”

 

August:

2  “An Afternoon in the Woods”

9  “The Partridge Festival”

16  “Why do the Heathen Rage?”

 

The stories will be reviewed not just on the basis of O’Connor’s prose, but also in terms of certain themes and motifs that appear multiple times in her narratives.  Some, but not a great amount, of time will be devoted in some cases to issues raised in O’Connor’s non-fiction pieces and letters, which will be mentioned occasionally although not reviewed formally here.  Some of these issues include matters of fate, faith, and racism, with occasional references to other stories and the connections between them.  Hopefully this will be of interest to readers beyond those visiting this site solely to plagiarize the reviews (the Faulkner pieces from last year have been quite popular with high school and college students, it seems, considering the search terminology as well as the occasional link to where my posts, or rather the elements that some have lifted from my commentaries, have been fed into a plagiarism-detecting service).

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