National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in Fiction: Lydia Millet, Magnificence

February 27th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

She condescended to the sexes of men, but it wasn’t personal.  Clearly they also condescended to hers.  They had their own opinions about the sex of a woman, and those opinions were not all positive.  That much was obvious – from, say, pornography, which almost every man loved, from the purest young boy to the jaded defiler.  In other words small secrets were also held against her, and she did not need to know them.

Pornography, she thought.  Degradation and debasement.  A man liked to degrade a woman, in pornography.  It made perfect sense.  If she were male, she’d like it too.  Because a man might not know he was tragic, but he often suspected it.  On a subconscious level, a man suspected himself of pathos.  A man walked around bearing that half-aware, weary load; it was more stressful to suspect than to know for certain.  Women were oppressed from the outside, via the patriarchy – girls raped in various African cultures, for instance, then put to death for their trouble.  But men were oppressed from inside their own skin.  She saw it this way:  the testosterone was a constant barrage, not unlike an artillery shelling.  They had doubtless needed it, in, say, prehistory, to run around spearing meat, build up muscles that impressed the breeding-age females, etc., much as baboons made their loud wahoo calls or sported shocking pink anuses.

But now that the men were deprived of the endorphins of the chase and the butchering, the hormones were a call with no response, a ceaseless, useless siege upon the male psyche.  Naturally the men, held hostage in bunkers of flesh, sought refuge in pornography and violence.  It was just self-expression. (Ch. 1, pp. 10-11 e-book)

Out of the five finalists for this year’s National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, Lydia Millet’s Magnificence is perhaps the most difficult to review on its own merits.  As the concluding volume of a thematic and plot trilogy, it has a “beginning” that truly lies outside of its page.  Although Millet does make Magnificence into a story that does not depend upon its antecedents as much as most trilogy conclusions do, there is still the sense, particularly in the beginning stages when the novel’s protagonist, Susah, thinks of T. (her boss, who was the main focus of the opening volume, How the Dead Dream), or of her now-dead husband, Hal, (the protagonist of the middle volume, Ghost Lights, as he goes to Central America in search of the now-disappeared T.) that there is a wealth of backstory that would inform Magnificence and make it an even stronger novel for those such as myself who read the volume without realizing at first that it was only but the last third of a larger trilogy.

Magnificence opens with Susan’s reflections upon her often-frustrated sex life with her late husband and the many infidelities that she committed (including one into which Hal walked into just before he left for Central America in the second volume).  It is a powerful opening, perhaps the best writing in the novel, as Millet captures eloquently a middle-aged woman who alternates between her disdain for the strictures of patriarchal society (in particular, the double sexual standard when it comes to unfaithful spouses) and her vague regrets that life did not turn out differently for her.  Susan is, even for those readers like myself who have not read the previous readers, a fascinating and fully-fleshed character here, neither “good” nor “bad,” but somewhere in-between.

Magnificence is at its best when Susan is the focus of the narrative.  As she learns about her paraplegic daughter’s burgeoning career as a phone sex operator and as she struggles to deal with the sudden inheritance from an uncle of a large house in a tony section of Los Angeles, her puzzlement over the turns her life has taken adds layers of depth to what otherwise might appear to be a vapid, self-centered life.  It is this dissonance between the dissatisfied, curious woman who investigates the strange contents of her inheritance (including a mysterious basement that cannot be reached by normal means) and the detached participant in casual sex that provides interesting insights into one of the more fascinating characters that I’ve read in recent years:

When she told him, in the entryway of the house, he was mildly surprised.  Not floored even.  At this lackluster response a part of her was incredulous.  And then, as the moment expanded quietly between them, infuriated.  Apparently he was too insensitive to be shocked even by sudden death.  A human block of wood.  On the other hand, he was easy to shock with sex.  The news of Hal’s death barely moved him, but when she indicated that they could proceed from the sound bite to having sex he was uncomfortable.  She relished his discomfort.  She led the dog into the backyard and closed the door behind it.

A dog was not sexy.  Also it was T.’s dog, which she and Hal had been taking care of after T. disappeared – practically a proxy for T. and thus also for Hal, for both of them conflated. (p. 24 e-book)

Susan’s cool, almost clinical approach to intimate relationships is mirrored in one of the inherited house’s strangest possessions:  a large collection of stuffed animals, a taxidermist’s dream.  These stuffed animals represent on some levels the imposition of order upon a chaotic (ex-)life, a bestiary that in code might represent something deeper about Susan’s life and of those around her.  This collection and the mystery of why it was begun and for what purchase consumes much of the second half of Magnificence.  There were times that allusions were made to events in the previous novel that passed over me, leaving behind only a vague sense that there was something more profound being stated there which I could not be privy to due to not having read the previous two volumes.  Yet this mystery did not detract from the novel, but instead made it somehow even more enticing for me.

The conclusion is superbly-executed.  The mystery of the closed-off basement is revealed in a somewhat spooky fashion, with a sense of faint horror mixed in with an introspective look at life, both in general and in Susan’s specific case.  The musings that opened Magnificence are echoed in her reactions to what she discovers at the end:

Men slew each other, they slew the animals, went slaying and slaying.  Women were mostly witnesses.  They were not innocent – it wasn’t that simple, not by a long shot – more like accessories to the crime, if not the principal offenders.  They saw killing ravage all things beneath the sun and were the silent partner in it.  You didn’t want to kill, you had no interest in killing – your very genes went against it.  Possibly your hormones.  Again, the molecules that governed you.  But you were also far too weak to stop it.  Your weakness was your crime.

Not weaker than men, per se, just differently weak.  The wanting to be liked, avoidance of conflict…you were profoundly and eternally guilty of this terrible weakness, this moral as well as physical weakness, the fear of being hurt, of being injured, of being embarrassed.  You were crippled by the guilt of being who you were.  Guilty of being yourself. (Ch. 10, pp. 189-190 e-book)

By novel’s end, there is a sense of subtle illumination, of Susan discovering answers to questions that she only half-dared to ask herself throughout the narrative.  The numinous appears to be half-revealed, or at least enough for Susan to recast her life and her desires and regrets in a new light.  Capturing this sense of (partial) enlightenment is very difficult to do in fiction without appearing to be hokey or trite, yet here in Magnificence Millet manages to achieve this difficult feat.  Magnificence, indeed.  One of the best novels on this excellent National Book Critics Circle Award shortlist.

Emma Goldman and Pope Benedict XVI: Anarchism and Religious Morality

February 26th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

Two separate things today, one regarding anarchism and the other my reading of John Thavis’ The Vatican Diaries, reminded me of a 2011 essay I wrote on works by Emma Goldman and Pope Benedict XVI.  Thought this might be of interest to those who did not read the original article:


For eighteen hundred years, the Catholic Church has preached the gospel of peace.  Yet, when the people actually wanted to make this gospel a living reality, she urged the authorities to force them to bear arms.  Thus the dynasty of Spain followed the murderous methods of the Russian dynasty, – the people were forced to the battlefield. (p. 135)

This quote, taken from Emma Goldman’s “Francisco Ferrer and the Modern School,” represents a key component of her thoughts on liberty and religion.  An anarchist since her youth, Goldman approaches issues such as labor conditions, political tensions, religious belief, gender inequalities, and other related social issues from the view of what provides the most freedom for people.  As she said later on in that particular essay, Goldman views with antipathy anything hinting at discipline and restraint:  “Discipline and restraint – are they not back of all the evils in the world?  Slavery, submission, poverty, all misery, all social iniquities results from discipline and restraint. (p. 142)”

There is much that is appealing to this virulent distrust of anything that hints at restraint or any control from an outside agency.  We live in a world where commercials exist to persuade us to “just do it,” to “take the Pepsi challenge,” to value as “priceless” things purchased with credit cards.  We imbibe the often-inane political mantras of all points on a spectrum of political thought – taxes are bad, the rich ought to pay a greater share, entitlements are good, entitlements are bad, the poor are wretched, the wretched are worthy of contempt – without much in the way of critical engagement with the issues at hand.  There is something ridiculous about the current arguments between the US branches of government about debt reductions, as why should some nebulous, intangible thing such as debt control our lives and futures as much as it does currently?  Cui bono?  Surely not mine nor yours, for do we ever really control the puppeteers that act out the farce that we see played out in political theaters all across the nation and world?

Goldman in several of the essays contained within Anarchism and Other Essays tackles these thorny issues.  She notes the betrayals of revolutions, of the tendency toward despotic centralism that infects even the most egalitarian of institutions.  Writing in the early 20th century, her take on woman suffrage is sobering in its blistering dismissal of it being a panacea for the social and economic ills that plagued the US a century ago.  So often we want to claim freedom, while we fasten the chains around us.

The central area of contention deals with religion and its role in constraining human action and apparent freedom.  Goldman criticizes not just the institutionalization of religion as represented by European Catholicsm, but also the Puritan streak (taint?) that is still visible today a century after Goldman’s essay was composed.  Goldman begins by presenting a contrast between life and Puritan views:

More than art, more than aestheticism, life represents beauty in a thousand variations; it is, indeed a gigantic panorama of eternal change.  Puritanism, on the other hand, rests on a fixed and immovable conception of life; it is based on the Calvinistic idea that life is a curse, imposed upon man by the wrath of God.  In order to redeem himself man must do constant penance, must repudiate every natural and healthy impulse, and turn his back on joy and beauty. (p. 144)

This certainly rings true; several people do tend to denigrate the natural in favor of the idealistic.  Behind this, however, lurks a hidden question that Puritans and atheists like Goldman answer in opposite fashions:  just what “meaning,” presuming there is one, that can be derived from life.  For Puritans, this is relatively simple:  life is meant to be lived in accordance with certain prescribed religious ideals and that the natural is subservient to a God that judges humans based on how close they hew to the idea of religious morality and its practices.  Goldman argues that life is a manifestation of change and the freedoms inherent in it.  Beauty is intrinsic; it does not require a curator to proclaim it to be “good,” for it is already “good” without any need for a human to proclaim it so.  Whereas a Puritan would view discipline as the key to religious faith and the preservation of the link between humanity and God, Goldman in her essay “The Hypocrisy of Puritanism” argues that religion places fetters on human freedom and that its insistence on discipline and restraint deters humans from following a path to freedom.  Religion is the greatest and most cruel of slavemasters, as it shapes human responses to external stimuli in such a way that the fetters are not even detected by most.

 Yet there is something dissatisfying about Goldman’s arguments on religion.  Yes, religious dogma can easily enslave those who want to be bound to rules and regulations, yet there is that sneaking suspicion that behind the promise of anarchistic freedom lurks yet another insidious enslaving force, that of desire and the cravings it inspires.  Nothing in Goldman’s essays really addresses those tendencies; they might be scarce imagined by her.  Yet there is a plethora of evidence that the non-disciplined tend to enslave themselves to certain impulses or substances.  Whether it is the drug addiction that I see everyday at my current job or if it is manifested in a vapid materialism that urges us to buy this or consume that in order to experience that fleeting high of satisfied lust, there just does not seem to be much freedom in anything humans ever create or act out.

What if there was a God?  What if that God was not the stern schoolmaster portrayed in Puritan sermons?  What if, indeed – it is a powerful question that does force us to consider the hypothetical arguments surrounding religious faiths.  This is especially true with Christianity these days, with the crises of faith it has experienced over its history.  How does one react to such a question (or to its inverse of what if there were no God)?  Do we reject it out of hand as being a tool of power-hungry humans or do we consider which elements might be true and which might be false?

In his 1968 book (revised in 2000), Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, tackles that question and other related ones.  He does not shy away from the nagging doubts surrounding the (non)existence of God; he embraces it.  Instead, he takes upon himself the difficult task of explicating a creed that is not always understood by the myriad Christian groups, much less those not members of this particular religion.

At the heart of this book is the Apostle’s Creed, conceived by the late fourth century CE.  The major part of the book is devoted to this creed, quoted below:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.
 Ratzinger’s thoughts are erudite and yet written with a clarity that average laypeople can understand the points being made.  One such point is the very issue of control/restraint that so irritated Goldman in the 1910s.  He does not argue for a God that sits in judgment on a holy throne; instead he argues for the God who, in the human form of his son Jesus, offered himself up for sin expiation.  This touches upon the issue of humility, a presumed virtue that is not addressed in Goldman’s book.  Is humility the ultimate gesture of a free soul, or is it the sign of the most depraved slavery?  Ratzinger would almost certainly argue that it is the former, based in part on this excerpt:
According, in the New Testament the Cross appears primarily as a movement from above to below.  It stands there, not as the work of expiation that mankind offers to the wrathful God, but as the expression of that foolish love of God’s that gives itself away to the point of humiliation in order thus to save man; it is his approach to us, not the other way about. With this twist in the idea of expiation, and thus in the whole axis of religion, worship, too, man’s whole existence, acquires in Christianity a new direction.  Worship follows in Christianity first of all in thankful acceptance of the divine deed of salvation.  The essential form of Christian worship is therefore rightly called Eucharista, thanksgiving.  In this form of worship human achievements are not placed before God; on the contrary, it consists in man’s letting himself be endowed with gifts; we do not glorify God by supposedly giving to him out of our resources – as if they were not his already! – but by letting ourselves be endowed with his own gifts and thus recognizing him as the only Lord.  We worship him by dropping the fiction of a realm in which we could face him as independent business partners, whereas in truth we can only exist at all in him and from him.  Christian sacrifice does not consist in a giving of what God would not have without us but in our becoming totally receptive and letting ourselves be completely taken over by him.  Letting God act on us – that is Christian sacrifice.
Ratzinger thus would likely dismiss Goldman’s arguments due to this belief in a humble God who serves, among other things, as an exemplar for ideal human behavior rather than as an immortal, capricious despot.  This is not to say that Goldman’s ideas do not have merit, for one only has to look at the practices of people following various religious creeds to see how readily some utilize religion as a means of controlling people, whether it be ministers exhorting their congregations to campaign against alcohol or, at its extreme, violent cult leaders like Jim Jones or David Koresh.  By our deeds we shall be known, for good or for ill.  Yet it is hard to fathom freedom without some sense of responsibility, which Ratzinger argues later in his book when he discusses the responsibility inherent in deeds born of faith.
At this point, one might wonder whether or not Goldman or Ratzinger is more correct.  It is, of course, only natural to take sides and to judge which is more cogently argued or which fits one’s own needs better.  Although I am more inclined to Ratzinger’s points (being raised in a religious family does influence one’s takes on such matters), Goldman’s arguments on freedom do merit consideration.  Questioning our assumptions often leads to fruitful introspection that in turn leads to new conceptualizations of life, ideals, and religious belief that can benefit someone regardless of whether or not that person ultimately views religion as a positive, mixed, or negative force.  Ratzinger’s book is valuable in the sense that it is one of the deeper “introductions” to a religion that has deeply influenced global philosophical, political, social, and cultural currents for two millennia now.  Whether or not one agrees with him or not (I largely do) on matters of dogma and its application in the world, he puts forth the notion of a Christianity that depends more on voluntary action and sacrifice that centers itself around the notion of humility than around the utilitarian practices that many associate with this faith.  Reading both works certainly will provide much food for thought for others and this perhaps is the greatest worth that these two books contain.

Flannery Friday: “A Stroke of Good Fortune” (1953)

February 22nd, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

Not every single story that Flannery O’Connor wrote was “serious literature,” the type that allows for extensive textual pulling and prodding to yield bumper crops full of symbolism and portentous commentary on the human condition(s).  She herself professed in her letters bemusement at how earnest some people were at deriving meanings from characters and situations that she loosely based on actual events that she had witnessed growing up in Georgia during the early-to-mid 20th century.  Yet there are some stories in A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955) that are lighter and perhaps slighter in nature and tone than the majority of her fictions.  “A Stroke of Good Fortune” (1953) is one of these works.  It is an amusing tale that does contain just enough overt references to symbolic foreshadowing to please those who look for these elements in a tale, but it is little more than just a diversionary tale, one that does not linger as much in the reader’s mind after reading it as do most of her other tales.

The steps were a thin black rent in the middle of the house, covered with a mole-colored carpet that looked as if it grew from the floor.  They stuck straight up like steeple steps, it seemed to her.  They reared up.  The minute she stood at the bottom of them, they reared up and got steeper for her benefit.  As she gazed up them, her mouth widened and turned down in a look of complete disgust.  She was in no condition to go up anything.  She was sick.  Madam Zoleeda had told her but not before she knew it herself.

Madam Zoleeda was the palmist on Highway 87.  She had said, “A long illness,” but she had added, whispering, with a very I-already-know-but-I-won’t-tell look, “it will bring you a stroke of good fortune!”  and then had sat back grinning, a stout woman with green eyes that moved in their sockets as if they had been oiled.  Ruby didn’t need to be told.  She had already figured out the good fortune.  Moving.  For months she had had a distinct feeling that they were going to move.  Bill Hall couldn’t hold off much longer. (p. 185)

This quote is the first of several allusionary passages in “A Stroke of Good Fortune” that give clues as to what ails thirty-four year-old Ruby.  Ruby has found herself these past few months to be increasingly ill, with sudden nauseous spells.  Married yet childless, she considers herself smarter and more fortunate than her mother and sisters because she is not burdened with squalling young children, as those would drain her of vitality even quicker than it did her mother.  She takes a vain pride in her youthful looks, remarking early in the tale that she is younger-looking than her youngest brother, Rufus, a just-returned veteran who is fourteen years younger than herself.  This pride, coupled with the confusions of the past few months as to the changes in her condition, serves to set up the series of amusing events throughout the story.

He looked old too.  He looked older than she did and he was fourteen years younger.  She was extremely young looking for her age.  Not that thirty-four is any age and anyway she was married.  She had to smile, thinking about that, because she had done so much better than her sisters – they had married from around.  “This breathlessness,” she muttered, stopping again.  She decided that she would have to sit down.

There were twenty-eight steps in each flight – twenty-eight. (pp. 186-187)

The step numbers here are an important clue, along with the fact that Ruby lives on the fifth floor of her apartment complex.  Yet while the reader by now might have figured out Ruby’s “malady,” what with the two quotes already provided and the early description of Ruby as becoming “urn-shaped,” the narrative sustains itself with the tension between Ruby’s puzzled, sometimes terrified thoughts about her “worsening” condition and what the reader might already know is the true “stroke of good fortune” that the palmist declared that Ruby would experience.

There are more references to this, such as this little passage:

The steps were going up and down like a seesaw with her in the middle of it.  She did not want to get nauseated.  Not that again.  Now no.  No.  She was not.  She sat tightly to the steps with her eyes shut until the dizziness stopped a little and the nausea subsided.  No, I’m not going to no doctor, she said.  No.  No.  She was not.  They would have to carry her there knocked out before she would go.  She had done all right doctoring herself all these years – no bad sick spells, no teeth out, no children, all that by herself.  She would have had five children right now if she hadn’t been careful.

She wondered more than once if this breathlessness could be heart trouble.  Once in a while, going up the steps, there’d be a pain in her chest along with it.  That was what she wanted it to be – heart trouble.  They couldn’t very well remove your heart.  They’d have to knock her in the head before they’d get her near a hospital, they’d have to – suppose she would die if they didn’t? (p. 187)

Stories such as this that rely on the main character to be clueless about what is actually transpiring around them can quickly grow wearisome if the writer doesn’t resolve their naivety in a timely fashion.  “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” which is thirteen pages in the Library of America edition, comes close to tedious repetition by story’s end.  The quotes provided here, taken from the first four pages of the story, should already give the reader all the clues necessary as to deciphering what truly ails Ruby.  Yet several of her self-doubts are repeated in the pages that follow to the point where the story can barely sustain its narrative force.  The narrative “twist,” presented as a combination of a joke and a commentary on how easily we can self-deceive ourselves, is too slight.  There is little else to the story other than Ruby’s self-delusion.  “A Stroke of Good Fortune” might bring out a brief smirk or even a quick chuckle from the reader when she solves the puzzle, but there is little else to the story that recommends itself to the reader.  The characterization is decent, but O’Connor does better in the majority of her fictions.  Sometimes, however, the slight, less resounding tales serve a purpose.  Within the greater collection of A Good Man is Hard to Find, “A Stroke of Good Fortune” provides a respite of sorts from the menacing atmosphere of the previous three stories, showing that O’Connor’s characters can be amusing in their mendacity as well as being afflicted by it.  It is not O’Connor at her best, but it does demonstrate that she is no one-note composer either.

Zoran Živković, Nemogući Susreti/Impossible Encounters (2000; English translation 2006)

February 22nd, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Umro sam u snu.

Nije to bilo neko naročito umiranje.  Gotovo da ga nisam ni primetio.  Sanjao sam kako stupam nekim velikim hodnikom, punim vrata s obe strane na malom međusobnom rastojanju.  Kraj hodnika nije se mogao sagledati u daljini, a u njemu nije bilo nikog drugog osim mene.  Na zidu, pored svakih vrata, visio je oveći, uramljeni portret, obasjan svetiljkom postavljenom iznad njega.

Posmatrao sam likove u prolazu.  Šta sam drugo mogao da radim?  Portreti su ovde bili jedina stvar koja je narušavala nedoglednu jednoličnost hodnika.  Koliko sam uspeo da procenim, postojao je približno jednak broj slika žena i muškaraca.  Uglavnom je to bio vremešniji svet, povrmeno baš u dubokoj starosti, ali tu i tamo mogli su se videti i mlađi ljudi, pa čak i deca, premda sasvim retko.  Likovi su delovali svečano, kako to već biva na portretima – doterani, pomalo uštogljeni, svesni svoje važnosti.  Mahom su se osmehivali, ali bilo je i lica uz koja osmeh naprosto nije išao, pa je na njima stajao izraz stroge ozbiljnosti. (pp. 5-6)

I died in my sleep.

There wasn’t anything special about my death.  I hardly even noticed it.  I dreamed I was walking down a long hallway closely lined with doors on both sides.  The end of the corridor was invisible in the distance, and I was alone.  On the wall next to each door hung a framed portrait, slightly larger than life, and lit from above by a lamp.

I looked at the paintings as I passed by them.  What else could I do?  Only the portraits disturbed the endless monotony of the corridor.  There seemed to be male and female portraits in approximately equal numbers, but randomly distributed.  The people were mostly of advanced age, and some were very old indeed, but here and there was a younger face, or even a child, though these were quite rare.  The images were formal studio-portraits, and the people were all elaborately, even ceremonially dressed.  They looked conscious of their own importance, and that of the occasion.  Most of them were smiling, but some faces were simply not suited to smiling.  They looked grimly serious. (p. 81)

Zoran Živković’s second collection, Nemogući Susreti (Impossible Encounters in English), is structured similarly to his first, Time Gifts, in that there are six stories that share a common theme and at least one recurring feature between the stories. Although the similarity in structure between these collections (and others that I have reviewed over the years) may seem too familiar to those who esteem variety even when it might not denote quality, the familiar qualities of these stories serve to accentuate the luminousness of Živković’s stories.

If time and the use of time’s “gifts” was the overarching scene in Time Gifts, here in Impossible Encounters the “impossibility” of the encounters that the narrators experience (and the repeated mention of an eponymous book in each of the six tales) provides a narrative unity that builds upon each constituent story. Take for instance, the first tale, “The Window.” Here we encounter the narrator after his death (which may or may not be a dream). He finds himself in a large gallery, filled with images of humanity. He discovers his own portraits and is struck by a mixture of surprise and bemusement at seeing his image there. The surrealness of this situation is not the only “impossibility,” as he encounters a curator of sorts who offers the narrator a second life, with a permanent death at the end. It is in this offer that Živković explores not just our understanding of our life/death dreams, but also on conceptualizations of beauty that extend beyond our own limited, finite understandings. “The Window” concludes with a sly twist ending that causes the reader to reevaluate what she previously understood the story to be about.

The second story, “The Cone,” is perhaps the closest Živković comes to telling a Borgesian tale. If anything, it is a clever inversion of Borges’ “Borges and I,” except here the story is told via the viewpoint of the younger self. It is a story of not just revisiting old memories and scenes of personal enlightenment, but of a true singular visiting again. It is a conceit worthy of a Pierre Menard and his attempt to not just recreate Don Quixote but to write the Don Quixote for a new age and yet Živković manages to pull this complex weaving of past/present together with aplomb.

The third tale, “The Bookshop,” is more overtly SFnal than the other stories in the collection, as it concerns a connection between writers on two different planets somehow brought into contact with each other through the first author’s seeming “conjuration” of the second’s world. In reading this, I was reminded favorably of one of Ray Bradbury’s tales from The Martian Chronicles, “The Summer Night,” particularly the merging of thoughts and “reality” for the recipient group. Contained within is a subtle critique of science fiction and its influence on the shape of some people’s dreams, although this element is subordinate to the larger theme of “impossible encounters.” Despite liking the constituent elements of this tale, “The Bookshop” was perhaps the weakest story in Impossible Encounters, perhaps because it is too easy to separate one of the two characters into an “alien” role, depriving the story of the intimacy that is present in the majority of the other tales.

“The Train” takes one of the enduring questions of Christendom, “What would I ask God if I were to meet him?,” and turns it into a small, almost quotidian event. A bank executive is traveling by train when he encounters a heavy-set middle-aged person in a dark suit who at first he confuses for a retired colonel until he strikes up a conversation and learns that this is God, who is offering him a no strings attached question that he may ask him. The nature of the question and the response reaffirm this twisting about of common expectations of such an “impossible” encounter (after all, would you dare ask God, if possible, a petty question?). This story’s confounding of expectations causes its confusion to have a greater impact than it otherwise might have.

The fifth story, “The Confessional,” inverts the preceding tale. Here is a priest having Satan himself as a penitent. Their conversion covers the nature of hell versus heaven, the guilt found in souls who do not themselves truly release their sins, and the troubles found within those who themselves are charged with the absolution of sinners. It works separately from “The Train,” yet when read one after the other, the two tales complement each other and build upon elements found within each of them, making these two, along with “The Window” my personal favorites from Impossible Encounters.

The final tale, “The Atelier,” binds the five preceding stories together. The title itself is a reference to the older form of artistic instruction, that of a true workshop in which the artist would train apprentices to produce elements of an artistic work which, when complete, would bear the master’s name. In it, the stories preceding it, all of which contained references to an unnamed author’s Impossible Encounters, are shown to have a “realness” that extends beyond the author’s conception of that word. In it, the author enters into his own fiction and becomes a character, blurring the lines between what is “real” and “unreal.” It is a fitting coda to a collection that challenges its readers to reconsider how they view the world, its beauties and dangers, and themselves in relation to the worlds they live and which they inhabit in their dreams. Impossible Encounters is a collection whose stories have haunted my thoughts for nearly a month since I last re-read it in both Serbian and English and it is perhaps slightly stronger than the preceding Time Gifts. Highly recommended.

National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in Fiction: Laurent Binet, HHhH (2010; 2012 English translation)

February 21st, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

How can you tell the main character of a story?  By the number of pages devoted to him?  I hope it’s a little more complicated than that.

Whenever I talk about the book I’m writing, I say, “My book on Heydrich.”  But Heydrich is not supposed to be the main character.  Through all the years that I carried this story around with me in my head, I never thought of giving it any other title than Operation Anthropoid (and if that’s not the title you see on the cover, you will know that I gave in to the demands of my publisher, who didn’t like it:  too SFF, too Robert Ludlum, apparently).  You see, Heydrich is the target, not the protagonist.  Everything I’ve written about him is by way of background.  Though it must be admitted that in literary terms Heydrich is a wonderful character.  It’s as if a Dr. Frankenstein novelist had mixed up the greatest monsters of literature to create a new and terrifying creature.  Except that Heydrich is not a paper monster.

I’m all too aware that my two heroes are late making their entrance.  But perhaps it’s no bad thing if they have to wait.  Perhaps it will give them more substance.  Perhaps the mark they’ve made in history and on my memory might imprint itself even more profoundly in these pages.  Perhaps this long wait in the antechamber of my brain will restore some of their reality, and not just vulgar plausibility.  Perhaps, perhaps…but nothing could be less sure!  I’m not scared of Heydrich anymore.  It’s those two who intimidate me.

And yet I can see them.  Or let’s say that I am beginning to discern them. (Ch. 88, p. 136 e-book)

More than any other event of the 20th century the Holocaust has cast a shadow over our own lives, over 80 years after the Wannsee Conference and the formalization of the actions undertaken the prior year under the Einsatzgruppen and collaborators in the occupied Eastern front.  The prime actors in this horror fascinate us, almost hypnotize us from the grave.  Hitler.  Himmler.  Eichmann.  Mengele.  Those names are infamous for being involved in some form or fashion with the Endlösung.  How could such atrocities be enacted on such a mass-produced, industrial scale?  This question has haunted historians and laypeople alike ever since the extermination and concentration camps were liberated in 1944-1945.  A huge argument over this issue, the Historikerstreit (the Historians’ fight), took place in Germany as historians of World War II and the Holocaust divided over the issue of Intentionalism (the German government intended all along to commit mass genocide) versus Functionalism (that the nature of the killings and the timing occurred as a function of the war and the priorities of total war at the time).  Yet even today, nothing truly has been decided on the issue; it likely shall forever be a topic for debate, or at least as long as people can bring themselves to care deeply about the actors and the event itself.

In 2010, debuting French writer Laurent Binet’s HHhH (the acronym for Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich, “Himmler’s brain is Heydrich) was published to great acclaim, winning the prestigious Prix Goncourt.  In many ways, it complements and critiques a previous French bestseller/award winner, Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones in its treatment of the Holocaust.  HHhH, however, is not a strictly linear novel.  Through its short (rarely more than a single page) chapters, Binet’s narrative divides itself into several streams:  a mostly straightforward historical recounting of the events of Reinhard Heydrich’s life leading up to his assassination in the occupied Czech territory in 1942; the motives and lives of those who planned and committed Heydrich’s assassination; asides that look at the interpretations of the Heydrich assassination; and the author’s own evolving reactions to and relationship to the material he is researching and reshaping into a novelistic form.  It is simultaneously very lucid in its presentation and devilishly complex in its structure.  Yet for the most part, HHhH realizes its extremely ambitious goals.

The first few dozen chapters of HHhH are mostly straightfoward in their discussion of Heydrich’s life and how his character was shaped.  Binet’s research is impressive, as he adroitly utilizes several historical accounts to recreate a sense of the subject of Heydrich as being grounded in a standard historical monograph.  Yet even in these early chapters, before the assassins are introduced, there is a subtle working of Binet the Reader into the text, as the “I” becomes not the voice of authority, but instead the destabilizing element that makes the reader pause for a moment to reconsider what he or she might have blindly accepted as fact.  This can be seen in a subtle fashion in the concluding paragraph to Ch. 49, in response to Heydrich’s directive, as the assistant leader of the SS in 1947, for the German regular police, the Kripo, and the Gestapo to go beyond the letter of the 1935 Nuremberg Laws and send the Jewish women arrested for illicit sexual relations with gentiles to the concentration camps:

In other words, when the Nazi leaders are – for once – ordered to show a degree of moderation, they are unafraid to thwart the Führer’s will.  This is interesting when you consider that obedience to orders, in the name of military honor and sworn oaths, was the only argument put forward after the war to justify these men’s crimes. (p. 81 e-book)

This interjection of opinion becomes more apparent in the latter half of HHhH, as he opines on Flaubert’s Salammbô in relation to his (Benet’s) own struggle to corral his bucking bronco of a text into novel form.  These interjections, which in most cases should be annoying because they break the flow of the historical events being interpreted here, actually manage to provide the novel with a greater depth, as they illustrate Binet’s own “real time” struggles with the implications of the material he is researching in light of other works on the subject (including Littell, although most of his observations regarding The Kindly Ones was redacted by his editor; the “missing chapters” were published here in 2012).  One of the few observations that did survive his editor’s cuts provides an incisive look at not just Littell’s book, but also current understandings of National Socialism and the Holocaust:

A poster on an Internet forum expresses the opinion that Max Aue, Jonathan Littell’s protagonist in The Kindly Ones, “rings true because he is the mirror of his age.”  What?  No!  He rings true (for certain, easily duped readers) because he is the mirror of our age:  a postmodern nihilist, essentially.  At no moment in the novel is it suggested that this character believes in Nazism.  On the contrary, he displays an often critical detachment toward National Socialist doctrine – and in that sense, he can hardly be said to reflect the delirious fanaticism prevalent in his time.  On the other hand, this detachment, this blasé attitude toward everything, this permanent malaise, this taste for philosophizing, this unspoken amorality, this morose sadism, and this terrible sexual frustration that constantly twists his guts…but of course!  How did I not see it before?  Suddenly, everything is clear.  The Kindly Ones is simply “Houellebecq does Nazism.” (Ch. 204, p. 316 e-book)

In this single paragraph, Binet goes straight to the heart of the dissonance that exists between the motives and actions of the actors of the 1940s and how we, after not just the revelations of the death camps but also the subsequent horrors in places such as Cambodia, Uganda, Rwanda, Bosnia, and now Syria have chosen to underscore certain elements of these narratives at the expense of other components.  Binet says as much when he declares in Ch. 239 that despite having “a colossal amount of information about Heydrich’s funeral” that it’s “too bad, because I really don’t care.”  In another context, say that of an “authentic” historical account, this would be tantamount to willful distortion of the historical record.  But speaking not just as a novelist, but also as a reader of the period, he notes:

My story has as many holes in it as a novel.  But in an ordinary novel, it is the novelist who decides where these holes should occur.  Because I am a slave to my scruples, I’m incapable of making that decision. (p. 378 e-book)

It certainly can be said that there are “holes” in HHhH.  The narrative, fractured as it is, often is frayed to the point of nearly dissolving into a mess.  Yet Binet does an admirable job of rescuing the novel from its own centrifugal forces by acknowledging frankly that it is by decentering the subject (whether it be Heydrich alone or Heydrich as representative of the forces that led to the Holocaust) that we can even begin to grasp the enormity of the issue, not just in the past but also in our present today.  HHhH works precisely because there is no singular explanation that can be provided; it is in the muddled confusion of those times (and our own tortured relationships to it) where greater truths can be found.  HHhH is far from a “perfect” novel, but its imperfections serve to affect us more than any technically perfect world could achieve.  In a crowded National Book Critics Circle Award field for Fiction, HHhH is perhaps the most ambitious and most moving of the finalists.  It certainly is worthy of reader consideration, even despite its (intentional) flaws.

Angélica Gorodischer, Trafalgar (1979; English translation 2013)

February 17th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Argentine writer Angélica Gorodischer’s fiction has run the gamut from relatively straightforward science fiction (1973’s Las jubeas en florThe Jubeas in Bloom – albeit with some commentary on gender roles and expectations in some of this collection’s stories) to ethereal fantasy (1983’s Kalpa Imperial) to more recent crime novels published in the last decade in Argentina.  Yet until this January, only Kalpa Imperial and one of the stories from Las jubeas en flor were available in English translation.  For those readers who are not as familiar with the shifts and turns in Gorodischer’s writing, the recent translation of her 1979 mosaic novel, Trafalgar (excellently translated by Amalia Gladhart), will likely appear to be widely divergent from Kalpa Imperial (at least in terms of the subject matter), yet there are certain narrative traits in common that those who enjoyed Kalpa Imperial likely will find Trafalgar to their liking.

Trafalgar is a series of short stories, some of them almost surreal in structure and content, revolving around the experiences of a Rosario businessman, the eponymous Trafalgar Medrano.  Gorodischer never makes it clear as to whether or not Trafalgar is a BS artist; raconteurs inhabit their stories regardless of their veracity, after all.  Yet it is in the interplay between the narrator and Trafalgar in which the disparate stories gain an unity that makes the mosaic novel stronger than its individual stories.  Below is a quote taken from the first story, “By the Light of the Chaste Electronic Moon,” in which Trafalgar’s character is established:

And he went back to his black coffee and unfiltered cigarette.  Trafalgar won’t be hurried.  If you meet him sometime, at the Burgundy or the Jockey Club or anywhere else, and he starts to tell you what happened to him on one of his trips, by God and the whole heavenly host, don’t rush him; you’ll see he has to stretch things out in his own lazy and ironic fashion.  So I ordered another sherry and a few savories and Marcos came over and made some remark about the weather and Trafalgar concluded that changes of weather are like kids, if you give them the time of day, it’s all over.  Marcos agreed and went back to the bar.

“It was on Veroboar,” he went on.  “It was the second time I’d gone there, but the first time I don’t count because I was there just in passing and I didn’t even have time to get out.  It’s on the edge of the galaxy.”

I have never known if it is true or not that Trafalgar travels to the stars but I have no reason not to believe him.  Stranger things happen.  What I do know is that he is fabulously rich.  And that it doesn’t seem to bother him.

“I have been selling reading material in the Seskundrea system, seven clean, shiny little worlds on which visual reading is a luxury.  A luxury I introduced, by the way.  Texts were listened to or read by touch there.  The rabble still does that, but I have sold books and magazines to everyone who thinks they’re somebody.  I had to land on Veroboar, which isn’t very far away, to have a single induction screen checked, and I took the opportunity to sell the surplus.”  He lit another cigarette.  “They were comic books.  Don’t make that face – if it hadn’t been for the comic books, I wouldn’t have had to shave my mustache.” (pp. 2-3)

Trafalgar’s diffidence permeates most of the stories.  Regardless of whether the transactions of which he is a part are mundane or fantastical, his slightly self-contented yet understated delivery of these tales provide an interesting contrast that makes the reader curious not just about what he is describing, but what he is not.  Although the narrative form and content differ significantly in many ways, a comparison can be made to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities in how the banter and interplay between the narrator and storyteller serve to create a narrative dissonance that makes both the “in story” and frame story elements a joy to read.

There are, of course, some elements that might baffle younger readers.  The smoking, the depiction of gender roles, these are a bit out-of-fashion thirty-four years after the book’s initial publication in Argentina.  While much of this can also be chalked up to cultural differences (one could say that Trafalgar merely tiene creído, but that might be more true of a porteño than anywhere else in Argentina), it does bear noting that at times Gorodischer seems to be deconstructing the characteristics of a Trafalgar to make a point regarding gender roles, similar to what she did in her 1973 story, “The Violet’s Embryos,” regarding masculinity and the natures of desire.

Leaving aside these potential issue for some readers, Trafalgar is largely a triumph of storytelling, as Trafalgar (and the female narrator who interacts with him and teases these stories out of him) is beneath his quirky behavioral tics a storyteller who melds plausible and implausible elements together to create stories that are among the best SFnal stories of the past half-century.  Although not baldly stated as such, each story links into the other, often through an aside that leads into a story of its own.  These semi-nested stories, which spring organically from each other, rarely ever feel too “artificial” or contrived; they “flow” naturally from one into another, leaving the reader eager to discover what happens next in Trafalgar’s adventures.  Sometimes, all a reader wants is a well-told story that feels “inhabited,” and Trafalgar certainly provides that in spades.  It may not be the perfectly-told series of tales, but it certainly is nearly flawless and even most of its few, minor flaws end up adding to, rather than detracting from, the overall narrative.  Highly recommended.

Flannery Friday: “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” (1953)

February 15th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

Unlike the previous Flannery O’Connor stories reviewed here, her 1953 short story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” defies easy description.  There are no preachers of a Church without Christ, no Misfits giving the lie to “good breeding” and genteel manners, no confused young boys trying to self-baptize themselves in order to wash away the detritus of their young lives.   Yet “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” has its own haunting quality about it, perhaps because it is so subtle in its presentation of souls trying to gain advantage in life, whether or not it is at another’s expense.

“The Life You Save May Be Your Own” opens with an old woman and her daughter on a porch, apparently in northern Georgia or Tennessee, when an apparent drifter, a Mr. Shiftlet, appears, searching for a place to stay.  The mother tries to gauge Shiftlet’s intent (at first, he is described as being “a tramp”) and the two engage in a series of bantering probes, trying to peer deeper into the other’s true intentions.  There is a wry, black humor occurring here, with the adult daughter, Lucynell (the younger; the mother is also named Lucynell), being caught in the middle of a sort of perverse bargaining between the two.  The mother wants her married; Shiftlet at first takes more interest in the ancient Ford that’s been parked there since the girl’s father died some fifteen years before.  Soon into their semantic circling, Shiftlet says this:

He flipped away the dead match and blew a stream of gray into the evening.  A sly look came over his face.  “Lady,” he said, “nowadays, people’ll do anything anyways.  I can tell you my name is Tom T. Shiftlet and I come from Tarwater, Tennessee, but you never have seen me before:  how you know I ain’t lying?  How you know my name ain’t Aaron Sparks, lady, and I come from Singleberry, Georgia, or how you know it’s not George Speeds and I come from Lucy, Alabama, or how you know I ain’t Thompson Bright from Toolafalls, Mississippi?”

“I don’t know nothing about you,” the old woman muttered, irked.

“Lady,” he said, “people don’t care how they lie.  Maybe the best I can tell you is, I’m a man; but listen lady,” he said and paused and made his tone more ominous still, “what is a man?” (pp. 174-175)

“What is a man?”  What a portent-filled question this is; in some ways, what is a “human” lies close to the heart of O’Connor’s fictions.  What makes us lie to each other’s faces, trying to gain an advantage that most often is negligible at best?  Why do we go about trying to “pull a fast one,” to cover ourselves with our own fabrications in order to present a false face to the world?  These questions, although unspoken in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” loom large over it.

Shiftlet and the mother come to a series of arrangements, grudgingly agreed to by each.  Shiftlet will do work for shelter and the car.  Lucynell, the innocent girl with “pink-gold hair and blue eyes,” becomes the next center of attention.  Her mother wants to marry her off; Shiftlet responds to her probing into his marital status curtly:

There was a long silence.  “Lady,” he said finally, “where would you find you an innocent woman today?  I wouldn’t have any of this trash I could just pick up.” (p. 175)

There is ironic foreshadowing in this line, considering how Lucynell, whose silence is eventually explained, is often depicted as an innocent among the fallen.  As her mother and Shiftlet continue to haggle in the week to come, Lucynell becomes engaged to Shiftlet, to her mother’s great delight, as she seems to be relieved at the thought of her burden being removed.  Yet Shiftlet, who began by bargaining for a place to stay, begins to wheedle for more:  the car (then the car with a fresh coat of paint), a “mortgage-free farm,” and then a dowry for him to marry Lucynell.  The mother, in her desperate desire to rid herself of her deaf-mute daughter’s care, eventually accedes to these terms.

One of the themes that comes to the fore around the midpoint of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” is that of the dualism of body and spirit, of permanence and wandering:

“Lucynell don’t even know what a hotel is,” the old woman m uttered.  “Listen her, Mr. Shiftlet,” she said, sliding forward in her chair, “you’d be getting a permanent house and a deep well and the most innocent girl in the world.  You don’t need no money.  Lemme tell you something:  there ain’t any place in the world for a poor disabled friendless drifting man.”

The ugly words settled in Mr. Shiftlet’s head like a group of buzzards in the top of a tree.  He didn’t answer at once.  He rolled himself a cigarette and lit it and then he said in an even voice, “Lady, a man is divided into two parts, body and spirit.”

The old woman clamped her gums together.

“A body and a spirit,” he repeated.  “The body, lady, is like a house:  it don’t go anywhere, but the spirit, lady, is like a automobile:  always on the move, always…”

“Listen, Mr. Shiftlet,” she said, “my well never goes dry and my house is always warm in the winter and there’s no mortgage on a thing about this place.  You can go to the courthouse and see for yourself.  And yonder that shed is a fine automobile.”  She laid the bait carefully.  “You can have it painted by Saturday.  I’ll pay for the paint.”

In the darkness, Mr. Shiftlet’s smile stretched like a weary snake waking up by a fire.  After a second he recalled himself and said, “I’m only saying a man’s spirit means more to him than anything else.  I would have to take my wife off for the week end without no regards at all for cost.  I got to follow where my spirit says to go.” (pp. 179-180)

Not only does this scene set up the final third of the novel, it lays bare the inner conflict within Shiftlet’s soul:  the desire to be “free,” to have his “spirit” roaming wherever it may.  It is a powerful desire, one that leads him to the ultimate betrayal of innocence.  Yet conscience is a powerful thing and a road sign dealing with speeding, the titular “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” pricks Shiftlet painfully.  His self-justifications for his actions are ripped apart and shown for the lies they are when he encounters a young hitchhiker at the end (the connection with how innocent Lucynell is abandoned is made quite explicit), who calls his statements for the lies that they are.  As the story closes, Shiftlet is anguished, yet ultimately unrepentant. It is with him “rac[ing] the galloping shower into Mobile” that provides a metaphoric parallel to a man being chased by hellhounds.  Shiftlet is guilty as all and he knows it and the ultimate question of “the life you save may be your own” takes on a different level of meaning.  While it certainly is lesser in scope than the majority of her other stories, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” is a muter yet only slightly less powerful work than her more well-known tales.


Karen Russell, Vampires in the Lemon Grove (2013)

February 12th, 2013 § 2 comments § permalink

Over the years, Magreb and I have tried everything – fangs in apples, fangs in rubber balls.  We have lived everywhere:  Tunis, Laos, Cincinnati, Salamanca.  We spent our honeymoon hopping continents, hunting liquid chimeras:  mint tea in Fez, coconut slurries in Oahu, jet-black coffee in Bogotá, jackal’s milk in Dakar, Cherry Coke floats in rural Alabama, a thousand beverages purported to have magical quenching properties.  We went thirsty in every region of the globe before finding our oasis here, in the blue boot of Italy, at this dead nun’s lemonade stand.  It’s only these lemons that give us any relief. (p. 12 e-book)

A vampire couple fighting their centuries-long addiction to blood.  Japanese women trapped in a silk factory begin to morph into a human-silkworm hybrid.  American Presidents in a pastoral afterlife.  Mysterious seagulls and a vulnerable young boy.  These are some of the stories that appear in Karen Russell’s just-released second short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove.  Within them, reality and fantasy blend together to create fictions that sometimes are surreal but always deeply personal in scope.  It perhaps is her strongest work to date, as the uniform quality of the stories make it difficult to select a single “strongest” story, while maybe only one or two are even slightly lesser in quality.

The titular story opens the collection with a sobering yet touching account of an aging vampire who desperately seeks to be free of the constraints that he himself has placed on him.  He reflects on his travels, both alone and then when he discovered the only other vampire he has ever met, Magreb, a century before.  Here love clashes with lust, desire for freedom with the sense of inevitable decline.  Russell imbues this aging vampire, Clyde, with a sense of fatalism that is more poignant because he is a nearly-immortal creature.  Passages such as the one quoted above reveal the quests of his and his wife for relief from their addiction, but there is something even deeper going on:

Often I wonder to what extent a mortal’s love grows from the bedrock of his or her foreknowledge of death, love coiling like a green stem out of that blankness in a way I’ll never quite understand.  And lately I’ve been having a terrible thought:  Our love affair will end before the world does. (pp. 19-20 e-book)

Too easily this seemingly elderly vampire’s reminisces could have been played for a brooding, melancholic commentary, but she relieves this by punctuating such passages with his interaction with a young girl, Fila.  Her enthusiasm serves as a sharp contrast to Clyde’s worried thoughts about his incremental loss in power and when combined with Magreb’s increasingly distant relationship to Clyde, this makes for a more subtle and nuanced narrative than a simple mid-vampire life crisis.  The story’s conclusion, which references and then develops the character fault lines established early in the tale, is poignant without being maudlin.

The second story, “Reeling for the Empire,” is perhaps the most pointedly “political” statement that Russell has made in any of her fiction.  Set in early Meiji Japan, it begins as a tale of industrial exploitation of young Japanese silk weavers and it transforms, similar to the women themselves, into a revolutionary tale.  There is a slight sense of horror (more from the perspective of the industrialists’ representative than from the women themselves) at the end, but much stronger is the echo of older revolutionary fictions:

Before we can begin to weave our cocoons, however, we first agree to work night and day to reel the ordinary silk, doubling our production, stockpiling the surplus skeins.  Then we seize control of the machinery of Nowhere Mill.  We spend the next six days dismantling and reassembling the Machine, using its gears and reels to speed the production of our own shimmering cocoons.  Each dusk, we continue to deliver the regular number of skeins to the zookeeper, to avoid arousing the Agent’s suspicions.  When we are ready for the next stage of our revolution, only then will we invite him to tour our factory floor. (p. 62 e-book)

There are several symbols embedded within this story:  the oppression of Japanese women mirrored in industrial exploitation of workers; the connection between silkworms and transforming social/working conditions; outer and inner perspectives of gender roles; and the desire for personal freedom from old social constraints.  Although the social commentary is explicit, it is integrated into the narrative so deftly that it does not stick out like a sore thumb, but rather informs and deepens the narrative.

The third story, “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979,” was actually my first exposure to Russell’s fiction (I read it in early 2010 in Tin House 41 when I was developing a longlist for the later-aborted Best American Fantasy 4).  Unlike the first two stories, it does not as readily reveal its core elements, as it is more personal, more wrapped up in the experiences of a troubled male teenager, Nal.  The seagulls represent different elements as Nal’s narrative evolves.  At times, they represent his past, while at other times they are a sort of “cosmic scavengers” that steal parts of local people’s lives to feather their “weird nest.”

The other stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grove explore other facets of human questing, sometimes through symbolic metaphors such as the manipulable tattoos of an Iraqi War veteran in “The New Veterans” or the reincarnation of dead, ambitious Presidents as horses in “The Barn at the End of Our Term.”  In these stories, Russell plumbs the depths of human emotions, showing in some of the most surreal images our hopes, dreams, desires, and fears.  The writing in these stories is clear, incisive, and yet full of hidden layers of meaning.  In reading them, I was reminded favorably of another early 2013 release, George Saunders’ Tenth of December, in how both writers would develop their characters in the midst of sometimes grim or surreal settings in such a fashion that their trials and tribulations were accentuated rather than obscured.  Russell’s characters here have a greater depth than in her previous fiction and the prose is stronger for her greater attention to both character/situation detail and plot structure.  Vampires in the Lemon Grove‘s stories are different in theme and often in presentation, but very similar in the quality of the narratives.  It is, along with Saunders’ collection, one of the best 2013 collections that I have read to date.  Highly recommended.

Emma Donoghue, Room (2010)

February 9th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Today I’m five.  I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra.  Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero.  “Was I minus numbers?”
“Hmm?” Ma does a big stretch.
“Up in Heaven.  Was I minus one, minus two, minus three – ?”
“Nah, the numbers didn’t start till you zoomed down.”
“Through Skylight.  You were all sad till I happened in your tummy.”
“You said it.”  Ma leans out of Bed to switch on Lamp, he makes everything light up whoosh.
I shut my eyes just in time, then open one a crack, then both. (p. 3)

Emma Donoghue’s 2010 Booker Prize-nominated novel, Room, is one of the more intriguing novels that I have read this year.  It contains some sordid details of a horrific kidnapping/rape, but the story is not as much about that.  There are some excellent psychological portrayals here, yet instead of discussing them too directly, she employs a precocious and yet socially-limited five year-old, Jack, as the narrator.  Some might see Room as being a book about parent/child development in the face of terrible mistreatment, but I suspect that it is a simple matter of spaces and boundaries that help define and shape this excellent novel.

Look at the opening passage that I quote above.  Accept, if you can, that Jack is not a typical five-year old.  Not only is he the product of the rape of his mother by her abductor, he is defined by very strict parameters:   an eleven-by-eleven foot room (Room) inside a converted outdoor shed that is isolated from the world around.  It is a small, confined world, mostly deprived of those little elements that we take for granted:  free movement, breezes, sunlight, and open and willing interaction with other human beings.  It is a claustrophobic space, one that is only barely disguised by Jack’s labels for its features:  Wardrobe, Bed, Skylight, Spider, Kit, Spoon.  With these very limited features, Donoghue manages to create a plausible, believable mini-world that is memorable not just for what is occurring nightly within Jack’s limited comprehension of her mother’s rapes at the hands of “Old Nick,” but for how adapted Jack and (to a much lesser extent) his mother are to their confined environment.

It is very tricky to emulate a child’s voice and at times, Jack’s narrative, littered with references not just to some works of art and literature that his mother was permitted to keep in this “Room,” but also to signs of abstract thinking that just is not very prevalent in children before the age of ten or so, just is not very believable.  But this inability to suspend disbelief gradually changes when it becomes apparent that not only is he a precocious and observant child, but that within the narrative, there are some troubling emotional attachment manifestations that become more pronounced as the story progresses.

The plot revolves not around the kidnapping/sequestering as much as it does around relationships of space, place, and people.  Although Jack does not understand the specifics of “Old Nick’s” nightly visit to his mother, there is a sense of fear and dread that is all the more terrifying because we know more what is happening than he does.  Donoghue may have developed Jack to be precocious, but it is when he is at a loss that we truly begin to piece together those narrative elements that he is unable or unwilling to comprehend.  This adds a layer of depth to his character and to his environs that is subtle and deep, a stark contrast to the innocent, caring narrator.

The last two sections of this novel, roughly comprising one-half of Room, have been problematic for other reviewers.  Due to the shift away from Room and to the outside world, there is a marked shift in the narrative away from Jack and Ma and Room toward Jack, only sometimes Ma, and things very different from Room.  Connotations that previously were lacking for expressions such as “getting some” are now revealed in ways that surprise and perhaps horrify not just the other characters now appearing, but also certain readers.  What if we had grown up in a confined space and had only a limited palette of words and concepts for what surrounded us?  What if we were removed to a whole new “world,” one whose shapes, features, and mores differ significantly from ours?

There are times where Donoghue’s story tries too hard.  Perhaps it is in those scenes away from Room, where too many allusions to the relationship problems others have with themselves, with Jack, or with his mother are made, that some believe slow down the plot.  Certainly, there were several instances where it felt as though the problems raised were extraneous to the plot.  In trying to show dysfunction through the eyes of a child who has never known “normalcy,” Donoghue often distracts the reader too much.

However, this is a minor complaint.  Room was a great read due to how adroitly Donoghue explores relationships.  Jack and his mother are quirky yet interesting characters.  Despite the nightly horrors each endured (even if Jack did not possess the knowledge necessary to understand just what “rape” entails), the way that each has learned to make his or her peace with the surroundings makes this novel an absorbing read.  The disorientation that Jack experiences (and we, through him) in the last two sections of the novel are all the more powerful to us because Donoghue has constructed her tale in such a fashion that we are able to “accept,” in a limited fashion, their enclosed “world.”  When everything broadens, the reader may feel lost and confused as to what Jack is experiencing, because it is “our” world that he is literally experiencing for the first time and we grasp much more of it than he is able to do.  But by novel’s end, there is a glimmer of hope that this disorientation and dysfunction that Jack and his mother experience will lessen and that recovery from their ordeals can now begin.  Room becomes, ultimately, a beginning of awareness and not the end of hope and, sometimes, that makes all the difference.  Highly recommended.

Flannery Friday: “The River” (1953)

February 8th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

Religious life in the American South has fascinated and repulsed non-natives for the past few generations.  The South’s complex relationship to the tenants of (American) Protestant Christianity bewilders those who are not accustomed to its myriad expressions of faith.  Last week in my review of Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 novel, Wise Blood, I discussed the more “modern” form of religious expression, that of the heretical “movements” that decentralized church hierarchies into a protean mass of storefront chapels and “preachers” that have distilled certain elements of American Protestantism into a sleek package that appeals to those who are searching for a “moral compass” in their lives and who refuse to have any truck with matters of creeds and dogmas.  Yet there is something distinctly “Southern” about the characters in O’Connor’s 1953 short story, “The River,” that it bears reminding readers that O’Connor’s stories often focused on the particular socio-religious interactions that dominate Southern culture in ways that are foreign to other Americans (not to mention those from outside the United States).  As O’Connor said in her 1963 essay “The Catholic Novelist in the South”:

The things we see, hear, smell and touch affect us long before we believe anything at all.  The South impresses its image on the Southern writer from the moment he is able to distinguish one sound from another.  He takes it in through his ears and hears it again in his own voice, and, by the time he is able to use his imagination for fiction, he finds that his senses respond irrevocably to a certain reality, and particularly to the sound of a certain reality.  The Southern writer’s greatest tie with the South is through his ear, which is usually sharp but not too versatile outside his own idiom.  With a few exceptions, such as Miss Katherine Anne Porter, he is not too often successfully cosmopolitan in fiction, but the fact is that he doesn’t need to be.  A distinctive idiom is a powerful instrument for keeping fiction social.  When one Southern character speaks, regardless of his station in life, an echo of all Southern life is heard.  This helps to keep Southern fiction from being a fiction of purely private experience. (p. 855)

This simultaneous lack of “cosmopolitan” characters and “an echo of all Southern life” can be seen in many of O’Connor’s most compelling fictions.  Sometimes, as in the case of the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the rigid morality defined by its provincial character is portrayed in all of its glorious hypocrisies and shortcomings.  In “The River,” however, there is a tragic quality to this tale of a young boy who seeks redemption, both for himself and for his mother.  In it can be found an echo of creek baptisms and even multiple baptisms whenever a teen or adult switches congregations in search for that rapturous moment in which s/he feels as though the symbolic drowning of baptism might this time (the first?  second?  fifth?) wash them fully of their sins.

The story opens with a little boy, Bevel (actually Harry, but he changes his name to the name of the minister in response to a question from his chaperone), who is about four or five, getting ready to travel with a neighbor, Mrs. Connin to the countryside to hear an itinerant minister perform a healing service at the local river.  The opening pages of the story describes in gentle ironic terms the poverty of the place, with the dilapidated hog pens and an escaped shoat hog illustrating the lives that the Connins and their neighbors lived, before the scene at the river accentuates the difference between the squalor of their lives and the intensity of their faith in the cleansing power of river healing.  Young Harry/Bevel, dirty as many young boys can be, is largely ignorant of the faith, as is seen in this passage:

You found out more when you left where you lived.  He had found out already this morning that he had been made by a carpenter named Jesus Christ.  Before he had thought it had been a doctor named Sladewall, a fat man with a yellow mustache who gave him shots and thought his name was Herbert, but this must have been a joke.  They joked a lot where he lived.  If he had thought about it before, he would have thought Jesus Christ was a word like “oh” or “damm” or “God,” or maybe somebody who had cheated them out of something sometime.  When he had asked Mrs. Connin who the man in the sheet in the picture over her bed was, she had looked at him a while with her mouth open.  Then she had said, “That’s Jesus,” and she had kept on looking at him.” (p. 160)

There is an enduring innocent quality to young Harry/Bevel in this story.  He is ignorant of the tenets of Christianity or even the image of the Christ, but he is also oblivious at first to those adults who are also seeking the Sublime at the riverbank.  As the Connins and Harry/Bevel arrive at the riverbank, they encounter a rangy youth of perhaps 19 who has waded out into the river and is singing a hymn.  This is the preacher Bevel, and what he says captures the conflicting qualities of evangelical Southern revival/healing services:

“Maybe I know why you come,” he said in the twangy voice, “maybe I don’t.”

“If you ain’t come for Jesus, you ain’t come for me.  If you just come to see can you leave your pain in the river, you ain’t come for Jesus.  You can’t leave your pain in the river,” he said.  “I never told nobody that.”  He stopped and looked down at his knees.

“I seen you cure a woman oncet!” a sudden high voice shouted from the hump of people.  “Seen that woman git up and walk out straight where she had limped in!”

The preacher lifted one foot and then the other.  He seemed almost but not quite to smile.  “You might as well go home if that’s what you come for,” he said.

Then he lifted his head and arms and shouted, “Listen to what I got to say, you people!  There ain’t but one river and that’s the River of Life, made out of Jesus’ Blood.  That’s the river you have to lay your pain in, in the River of Faith, in the River of Life, in the River of Love, in the rich red river of Jesus’ Blood, you people!” (p. 162)

The audiences are searching for a release from their pains:  from arthritis, from heartbreak, from the abandonment of kinfolk and friends.  They desire to be cleansed of their real and perceived sins, to be able to walk out of the river changed irrevocably from what they were before.  From the testifying of those on the shore in response to the preacher’s call-and-response sermon, a fervor arises that O’Connor captures perfectly.  In reading this middle section of the story, I was reminded of my adolescence, occasionally having to travel with my parents on Sunday afternoons to gospel singings that my Baptist relatives (I was raised Methodist, before abandoning that denomination in my early 20s) would participate in.  I can still recall vividly the thundering sermons calling for people to (re)commit themselves to Christ, lest the baptisms that many of them had would be rendered ineffectual.  In hindsight, it was confusing for me and in reflection the services differed significantly from the liturgies of my youth and present.  So when O’Connor has the young Harry/Bevel come into contact with the preacher Bevel and hear what baptism means, it felt so true to the events I witnessed in the 1980s:

The preacher didn’t smile.  His bony face was rigid and his narrow gray eyes reflected the almost colorless sky.  There was a loud laugh from the old man sitting on the car bumper and Bevel grasped the back of the preacher’s collar and helf it tightly.  The grin had already disappeared from his face.  He had the sudden feeling that this was not a joke.  Where he lived everything was a joke.  From the preacher’s face, he knew immediately that nothing the preacher said or did was a joke.  “My mother named me that,” he said quickly.

“Have you ever been Baptized?” the preacher asked.

“What’s that?” he murmured.

“If I Baptize you,” the preacher said, “you’ll be able to go to the Kingdom of Christ.  You’ll be washed in the river of suffering, son, and you’ll go by the deep river of life.  Do you want that?”

“Yes,” the child said, and thought, I won’t go back to the apartment then, I’ll go under the river.

“You won’t be the same again,” the preacher said.  “You’ll count.”  Then he turned his face to the people and began to preach and Bevel looked over his shoulder at the pieces of the white sun scattered in the river.  Suddenly the preacher said, “All right, I’m going to Baptize you now,” and without more warning, he tightened his hold and swung him upside down and plunged his head into the water.  He held him under while he said the words of Baptism and then he jerked him up again and looked sternly at the gasping child.  Bevel’s eyes were dark and dilated.  “You count now,” the preacher said.  “You didn’t even count before.” (pp. 164-165)

Here occurs the beginning of the heartache that comprises the story’s final third.  The boy wants so desperately to be good, to be redeemed, to truly “be counted,” now that he is told that he “counts.”  He wants a prayer for his mother, whose illness at the beginning of the story is finally revealed.  Yet this revelation, that he wants the good Lord to heal his mama from the pain of her hangover, draws anger from the preacher and derisive laughter from the crowd.  The innocence of child only goes so far, it seems, and the boy is stung by this.  When the Connins return him late that night to his parents and his mother is informed of the boy’s pseudonym, baptism, and prayer for her, she is in turns horrified and offended that he was exposed to such religious matters.  His parents’ irritation at the credulous believers who believed in the efficacy of river baptisms is misinterpreted by the young boy as being a commentary on his quality of his own recent “conversion.”  He wants to “count,” he wants to have the pains “washed away,” like the preacher talked about.  He wanted to be cleansed, no matter how many dipping into the river waters it would take.

The end result is tragic.  It is sobering to read and it make make one’s heart ache.  O’Connor, who earlier described with detached irony the peculiar beliefs of the local Protestant evangelicals, does not play up the end for laughs.  We see the end unfold from the boy’s perspective and his sincere, burning desire to find the Kingdom of Christ (of which he knew nothing until the morning before) is disturbing because the new-found fervor is expressed in such a sad, moving fashion.  The final three paragraphs transform “The River,” making it not a mocking commentary on rural Southern Protestant practices, but instead a commentary on how the combination of ignorance and faith can lead one into a disastrous revelation.  The symbolic drowning of Baptism, which O’Connor references in places throughout the story, becomes all too real:  the literalization of the figurative is tragic.  Yet there is no sense here that O’Connor ridicules Harry/Bevel.  Instead, she takes pity on him, showing through his viewpoint the circumstances that led to his fateful end.  He at least found peace and that is a quality that is so hard to demonstrate in fiction, much less in real life.  That O’Connor is able to accomplish this within 18 pages is a remarkable achievement and “The River” perhaps is one of her strongest fictions due to this.

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