Nadifa Mohamed, The Orchard of Lost Souls (2013 UK edition; 2014 US)

August 15th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

The tanks blow their way down the street cloaked in a white pall of smoke.  Kawsar props herself up on her elbows and looks through the side window.  Her neighbours try to flee, hidden in a haze of cement dust, but bright sandals and dresses give them away and the soldiers drop to their knees and shoot at the ghostly figures.  Overhead there is the groan of a plane’s engines and then sweeping down from the direction of the airport she sees a MIG with the Somali flag on each of its wings.  Kawsar feels the air swarm about her and steal the breath from her lungs as missiles peel off the clanging tin roofs of the neighbourhood.

She collapses back onto the bed and pulls a blanket over her face, fearing that a bomb will explode through her roof in a matter of seconds.  Both she and Guryo Samo have reached the end of their time; the soldiers will return the street to the desert, unplug the stars, shoot the dogs and extinguish the sun in a well. (pp. 204-205)

Before the civil war era of 1990s Black Hawk Down or the pirates of the Red and Arabian Seas of the 2000s, Somalia was ruled for most of the 1970s and 1980s by General Mohamed Siad Barre.  Already there were tensions between the military and the populace, between various groups, especially after Somalia lost its Soviet patronage to neighboring Ethiopia.  In her second novel, The Orchard of Lost Souls, Somalian-British writer Nadifa Mohamed traces the lives of three women during the tumultuous 1987-1988 period that preceded Somalia’s descent into civil war.  It is a snapshot of imperiled lives at the cusp of a cataclysm, but also a testimony to the endurance of hope when all seems to be turning to dust.

Mohamad’s three characters represent different facets of 1980s Somalian society.  Kawsar, a widow in her mid-50s who has lost not just her husband but also several stillborn children buried in her fruit orchard, endures much in her life.  Her husband, a policeman, was abandoned by the dictatorship after he proved to be too honest and unwilling to take bribes.  Her assault by pro-government forces on the eve of a rally in the northwestern town of Hargeisa sets the stage for much of what follows.  Filsan is a corporal, the daughter of a prominent military official who has in turn berated her and protected her from practices such as female circumcision, who has been sent to Hargeisa to help quell the incipient rebel uprising occurring there.  Her story symbolizes the conflict between the Marxist-influenced government and traditional Somali customs.  Deqo is perhaps the most heartbreaking figure of the three.  Orphaned at a young man, never knowing who her father was, Deqo finds her way to the dictator’s rally at a local stadium in Hargeisa, hoping that her dancing will earn her a pair of shoes.  She ends up being taken in as a maid at a local brothel, where the prostitutes are given names such as “China” and “Karl Marx” in reference to their clientele.

Mohamed alternates between the three, devoting long chapters to establishing their backstories and the reasons why each has come to be in Hargeisa on the eve of this momentous rally.  These stories are gripping due to Mohamed’s mixture of keen observant reflections from each of the three women with short, staccato dialogue bursts that break over the narrative like the distant gunfire of the latter chapters.  In each character, Mohamed explores gender and social divisions within Somali society, illustrating issues that became even more important after full-blown civil war broke out.  Moments such as this observation by Kawsar punctuate this sense of coming calamity:

It is not so painful to die when all that she knows is dying around her.  It seems as if the world has been built just for her and is being dismantled as she departs. (p. 277)

Yet despite the setting and the events that occur within, not all hope is lost.  In her final section, Mohamed revisits these three characters after their first encounter in Hargeisha and through the wartime devastation, with body counts mounting and buildings, like the government, collapsing, there is still a desire to live, a need to create some stability in the midst of chaos.  It is fitting at Deqo, who has known nothing of family, has the final lines:

She is back in her familiar world; the war and all that time in Hargeisa just a complicated trial to achieve what she has always wanted:  a family, however makeshift. (p. 334)

The Orchard of Lost Souls is not perfect, as there are times where each of the three narrators seems to become too passive of observers in the conflict that envelops them, but it does serve as a vividly-told story of hope in the midst in destructive violence.  Mohamad’s characters possess their own voices and views on the unfolding national tragedy and while at times they might slip too much into the backdrop, on the whole they serve as witnesses for what was happening to Somali women during this time.  There is a sense that their stories carry on after the concluding scene and with it, hope is carried with them out of the conflict, where it might bear fruit in a new orchard away from the fighting.

Lorrie Moore, Bark (2014)

August 14th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Ira had been divorced six months and still couldn’t get his wedding ring off.  His finger had swelled doughily around it – a combination of frustrated desire, unmitigated remorse, and misdirected ambition, he said to friends.  “I’m going to have to have my entire finger surgically removed.”  The ring (supposedly gold, though now that everything he had ever received from Marilyn had been thrown into doubt, who knew) cinched the blousy fat of his finger, which had grown around it like a fucking happy vine.  “Maybe I should cut off the whole hand.  And send it to her,” he said on the phone to his friend Mike, with whom he worked at the State Historical Society.  “She’ll understand the reference.”  Ira had already ceremoniously set fire to his wedding tux – hanging it on a tall stick in his backyard, scarecrow-style, and igniting it with a Bic lighter.  “That sucker went up really fast,” he gasped apologetically to the fire marshal, after the hedge caught too, and before he was brought overnight to the local lockdown facility.  “So fast.  Maybe it was, I don’t know, like the residual dry-cleaning fluid.” (“Debarking,” p. 3)

I had mixed reactions after reading the eight stories in Lorrie Moore’s first short story collection in sixteen years, Bark.  It is a relatively slight collection, eight stories (two of which are perhaps more properly novellas than short stories, comprising roughly half of the book) spanning 192 hardcover pages.  In these stories, Moore covers some rather sober, perhaps dark, themes on mortality and human foibles, but there was just something missing from most of these stories to make them truly memorable.

The first story, “Debarking,” is perhaps emblematic of this.  When I first read it several weeks ago, I recall quickly catching on to the narrative rhythm of this nearly fifty page story.  The protagonist, Ira, is that sort of familiar loser most of us know in passing in our personal and professional lives:  divorced, vaguely despondent, tries to use occasionally outlandish humor to make himself barely relevant in the lives of others around him.  “Debarking” describes his character being stripped down, being exposed for the flawed human being that he is, with a host of characters, particularly a divorcée he is introduced to at a party and with whom he becomes briefly involved in an affair, helping lay bare just what sort of a person Ira truly is.  It is a well-executed character takedown, one of the better-told in the collection, but there was also this sense of hollowness, a central emptiness that defeats purpose, that ultimately weakens this story.  Ira is so commonplace that perhaps his fate just really fails to spark any sort of sympathy.

The second story, “The Juniper Tree,” is a ghost story, yet it is a curiously-plotted one.  The narrator’s female friend, Robin, is dying in a hospital and the narrator is waiting for her boyfriend – who was an old flame of Robin’s – to pick her up to take her to the hospital.  She fails to go in time and Robin dies.  What follows next is as much a dream sequence as anything truly supernatural, and a host of recriminations and those petty little jealousies that exist most strongly around close friends emerges over the course of an odd celebration in which Robin and other friends of the narrator flit about, often with some rather strange conversations and actions taking place.  It took three readings for it all to snap into place and while the story’s structure is very well-done, just like in “Debarking,” the conclusion to “The Juniper Tree” fizzled out, leaving me feeling as though I had drunk soda that had been opened a week before.

“Paper Losses” was the most vicious of the stories in Bark and perhaps the best in the collection.  Two soon-to-be-divorced parents take their children on a long-planned vacation.  Each has plotted and schemed what he or she is going to do to the other.  Moore sets the stage beautifully with this:

It was both the shame and the demise of them that hate like love could not live on air.  And so in this, their newly successful project together, they were complicitous and synergistic.  They were nurturing, homeopathic, and enabling.  They spawned and raised their hate together, cardiovascularly, spiritually, organically.  In tandem, as a system, as a dance team of bad feeling, they had shoved their hate center stage and shown a spotlight down for it to seize.  Do your stuff, baby!  Who’s the best?  Who’s the man? (p. 65)

The story builds upon this mutually-nurtured hate, as it manifests itself in several ways during this excruciating vacation in which each other and their own children get in the way of the various revenge/sex plans that each has developed.  This is not a rage story, however, but one of how contempt affects each spouse’s views, not just of the present, but also of the past and present.  It is short, sharp, and very effective.  Yet its well-drawn, emotionally thwarted characters serves to point out just what was lacking in the majority of these tales:  a rage, a desire to howl at the moon in frustration, a burning desire to strip away the raiments of one’s life and to start anew.  The near-deadness of other stories’ protagonists is perhaps Bark‘s most noticeable flaw.

Bark ultimately is a collection that I can appreciate more than I can say that I enjoyed reading.  Moore’s prose is full of clever, biting wit and yet too often her characters seem too exhausted, too beat down by life for their stories to sustain any sort of interest generated by these funny asides.  No story is actively bad, but rather they feel almost too well-constructed, too polished, to justify having such failed characters inhabit them.  Bark‘s stories are “just there” and that is a shame.

William T. Vollmann, Last Stories and Other Stories (2014)

August 13th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

If you have never loved with such luminous fidelity as to await a dead lady at a crossroads at midnight, then the question of why it is that Romania produces fewer vampires now than in old times must seem insoluble to you.  Timidity becomes its own excuse; and perhaps you have not dared even to see your own spouse naked, much less encoffined.  Many there are nowadays who refrain from kissing a dead forehead.  A wife dies alone in a hospital bed, in the small hours when the nurse sits down to sleep, while the janitor rests his chin on the handle of his mop.  At mid-morning the husband peeks in to identify her; next comes the undertaker to nail her up, or, as may be, the coroner to slit her open.  Ashes to ashes, promises the minister, but should she refrain from decaying in that fashion, who will be apprised of that wondrous miracle except for the true heart who comes to the crossroads at midnight to share a kiss?  Satan, they say, can speak even from a rotting skull – a mere assertion seized upon by you who have never loved bravely.  Insisting over the sad sighs of your conscience that you would not be able to distinguish her from Satan, you decline to visit your own wife, forgetting that loneliness is the Devil’s work – and what could be more lonely than a beautiful dead lady returning to the cemetery without a kind embrace from anyone? (“The Faithful Wife,” p. 199)

William T. Vollmann’s latest story collection, Last Stories and Other Stories, is not for the faint of heart.  The thirty-two short stories in this collection are set in locales such as Bosnia, Trieste, “Bohemia,” Mexico, Norway, Japan, Paris, Toronto, and Buenos Aires, yet each possesses certain commonalities with the other stories.  In these tales of death and hauntings, of love beyond the grave and putrescent lust, Vollmann explores certain aspects of human desire in a fashion that can leave some readers squeamish.  For those who are not warned off by this, Last Stories and Other Stories may be one of the more memorable ghost story collections in recent years.

In several of his stories, especially the early ones set in 1990s Bosnia, Vollmann carefully mixes together fact and fiction (the notes at the back of the book testify to the thoroughness of his research).  It is no spoiler to say that death frequently greets lovers in Last Stories and Other Stories.  It’s how Vollmann presents death as another aspect of desire and lust that makes for some interesting turns of phrase.  In the opening story, “Escape,” a Bosniak and a Serb are cut down crossing a bridge in Sarajevo during the 1990s siege of that city.  There is a Romeo and Juliet sort of quality about this tale, of two lovers defying the nationalists who sought to divide the region into countries divided by a common language.  The final paragraph captures well some of the themes that Vollmann explores in later stories:

At least they agreed that Zlata had been shot first.  It must have been an abdominal wound, for she kept screaming (for hours, they said, but I hope they exaggerated) in that puddle of light which the enemy had trained on No Man’s Land.  Zoran, trying hopelessly to drag her back into the besieged city, was shot in the spine with a single rifle bullet, then shot again in the skull, which, considering the distance, might be called fine marksmanship, although on the other hand the snipers had had months to learn the range.  Some embellishers claim that Zlata had not yet escaped her agony even at sunrise.  Whether or not this is so, everyone agrees that the corpses of the two lovers lay rotting for days, because nobody dared to approach them.  Eventually, when the international press made a story out of it, it became an embarrassment, and another truce was arranged.  And it turned out just as Zoran had promised his bride, for they were buried in one grave. (p. 10)

This story, based on the real-life tragedy of Bosko Brkić and Admira Ismić, introduces a couple of elements that recur later.  First is the tragedy of their love.  Several stories in this collection, including “The Faithful Wife” quoted at the beginning of this review, tie love and death, lust and rot together in unholy unions.  Vollmann tends to linger over these moments of transformation, when the soul departs the body, creating narrative dissonance.  Readers, accustomed perhaps to seeing love with life, may be startled to read detailed, matter of fact descriptions of lovers’ bodies rotting together for days, or a narrator pining for the good old days of faithful husbands and vampiric wives.  Yet somehow Vollmann manages to make these stories work despite the often questionable content.

There are also direct connections between the stories and sections.  Characters whose fates the reader learns in one tale appear as legends or secondary characters in another.  Ghosts are peripatetic creatures, gloaming entities whose haunts frighten yet entice us.  Vollmann utilizes this seeming contradictory quality to great effect in many of his tales.  “The Judge’s Promise” in particular illustrates this odd appeal that the ghastly has for many of us:

But often he returned to that black garden where the skulls basked like crocodiles, and the lovely blue undead women loitered in the grove of hand-trees, and there he tried calling on the demon Brulefer, who granted his prayer, so that all those women loved him happily.  The deeper down he went, the more he began to believe, if only to console himself, that he must be digging for something, perhaps the water of life or death, although the glowing, coagulating atmosphere he swam into down there addled him so much that he sometimes hardly gathered what he was about; nonetheless, you will be relieved to know that he remained capable of mapping and memorizing everything.  Just as Bohemia’s crown jewels lie hidden underground near Saint Wenceslas’s tomb, so the precious matter of the vampires and their kin entombed themselves right beneath the cemetery of H______, which after all is the center of the world. (p. 265)

As he makes thematic and character connections between his stories, Vollmann explores certain concepts, particularly traditional gender roles, that verges perilously close to misogyny.  This is not a casual sexism where women are viewed as lesser than men, but rather a sometimes active exploration of stories where women are the sacrificial victims, the despoiled virgins whose “virtue” has been seized from them by their rapists, the lustful vampires who yet return meekly to their living husbands.  This content at times made me uneasy, although I suspect part of that was by intent, as if Vollmann perhaps were exploring the seedy underbelly of traditional ghost stories that revealing in its full rancidness the depravities and sexual inequalities so frequently associated with horror tales.  It is not a topic easy to consider dispassionately, but it is one that will certainly affect the reader’s enjoyment of this collection.  For myself, realizing that discomfiting descriptions and analyses of these elements lie near, if not at, the center of these tales made it easier to read.  Vollmann certainly does not shy from exploring the creepy elements inherent in ghost and horror fictions and for the most part he succeeds in crafting intricately woven tales that explore these issues through many angles, with only occasional moments of dull, monotonous prose.

Last Stories and Other Stories is not one of those collections that I would lightly recommend to others.  Yet I do not regret reading it, despite the occasional moments where I would read a particularly graphic passage and wonder if I should continue.  It is an intense collection, one that explores its themes with a precision that is remarkable considering the content material.  It certainly is a memorable one, as some of Vollmann’s expounding on his topic material have impressed themselves upon me, with some vivid dreams resulting.  It is a gloriously troubling collection, one that has sparked more narrative lightning about me than most other collections combined have managed to do in recent years.  Perhaps “haunting” is the best epitaph that I can give it.  The question remains, however:  do you want to be haunted by it?

Catherine Lacey, Nobody is Ever Missing (2014)

August 13th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

There might be people in this world who can read minds against their will and if that kind of person exists I am pretty sure my husband is one of them.  I think this because of what happened the week I knew I’d be leaving soon, but he didn’t know; I knew I needed to tell him this but I couldn’t imagine any possible way to get my mouth to make those words, and since my husband can unintentionally read minds, he drank a good deal more than usual that week, jars of gin mostly, but tall beers from the deli, too.  He’d walk in sipping a can hidden in a paper bag, smile like it was a joke.

I would laugh.

He would laugh.

Inside our laughing we weren’t really laughing. (p. 8, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Borrowing its title from John Berryman’s “Dream No. 29,” Catherine Lacey’s debut novel, Nobody is Ever Missing, is a very powerfully constructed tale of a life that caroms off the path expected by others.  Initially, it can be read in two ways:  a look at a life out of control, or alternately, as a journey taken by someone who feels overly constrained by what others desire from her.  Ultimately, twenty-eight-year-old Elyria’s voyage confounds easy expectations of either direction, as what she encounters and what washes over her are emotions and experiences that defy easy categorization.

Nobody is Ever Missing begins with Elyria’s planned decision to flee not just her marriage to a math professor, but from her career and previous life.  At first, the reader does not understand why Elyria has booked a flight from New York City to New Zealand, but gradually over the course of 256 pages some of her backstory is revealed:  she was a CBS soap opera scriptwriter; she had an adopted sister die by suicide; and there are troubles in her marriage deeper than what is initially revealed in the beginning chapters.  Lacey does not divulge this information at once.  Rather, she parcels it out in flashback reminisces and in brief conversations with passing strangers.  For the most part, this is very effective, as it permits her to keep the narrative focus strictly on Elyria’s immediate predicaments, although there are times where it would have been helpful to have had her past fleshed out a bit more in order to understand just where she was emotionally and why she kept fleeing.

There is no concrete, external plot other than witnessing how a chain of events, some of them unfortunate, can affect a person and lead to them choosing to act in certain ways.  Elyria is a sharp, observant character, filled with a black wit, as seen in her comments at the beginning of Ch. 2:

They looked and made quick calculations:  a 7 percent chance of con artistry, 4 percent chance of prostitution, 50 percent chance of mental instability, 20 percent chance of obnoxiousness, a 4 percent chance of violent behavior.  I was probably none of these things, at least not at first, but to all the passing drivers and everyone else in this country I could be anything, so they just slowed, had a look, made a guess, kept driving. (p. 10)

Nobody is Ever Missing is full of these observations.  As Elyria hitchhikes across New Zealand, traveling toward the home of a one-time acquaintance who had once breezily offered her a place to stay if she ever visited, she encounters a host of characters.  Some of these are described and dismissed over the course of a single paragraph, others, like Jaye and Werner, receive more attention.  In these character interactions, Elyria’s own character is presented as a ghostly double.  Her own self-evaluations are countered by others’ remarks, with short quips often serving as a unveiling of some of the mysteries behind Elyria’s actions.

These scenes, intriguing and powerful as they are, would not contain much force if it weren’t for Lacey’s skills as a stylist.  Her sentences shift from languorous, meandering thoughts on the people and natural beauties around her to sudden, almost staccato dialogue bursts.  This creates an interesting narrative rhythm in which pages of observational detail are punctuated with these sharp comments that break up lulls in the action.  The result is a narrative that rarely loses its focus and manages to balance adroitly between self-reflection and narrative development.  Nobody is Ever Missing is one of the better debuts I’ve read this year precisely because Lacey has managed to construct a nearly-perfect narrative style to suit the complex, conflicted character she’s exploring.  The conclusion is at once surprising and fitting.  The journey Elyria and the reader have undergone has left both in a different emotional place from whence they had set out.

Joanna Rakoff, My Salinger Year (2014)

August 10th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

For a moment, I paused in front of the wall of Salinger books and looked at the titles, the familiar spines.  My parents owned most of these:  paperbacks of The Catcher in the Rye and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour – an Introduction; a pristine hardback of Franny and Zooey.  But I had read around them.  Why?  Why had I skipped Salinger?  Partly due to happenstance.  My high school English teacher never assigned Catcher.  No older sibling put a copy in my fourteen-year-old hands and said, ” You have to read this.”  And then my Salinger moment – the window between twelve and twenty, when everyone in the literate universe seems to go crazy over The Catcher in the Rye – had passed.  Now I was interested in difficult, gritty fictions, in large, expansive novels, in social realism.  I was interested in Pynchon, Amis, Dos Passos.  I was interested in Faulkner and Didion and Bowles, writers whose bleak, relentless styles stood in stark opposition to what I imagined Salinger to be:  insufferably cute, aggressively quirky, precious.  I had no interest in Salinger’s fairy tales of Old New York, in precocious children expounding on Zen koans or fainting on sofas, exhausted by the tyranny of the material world.  I was not interested in characters with names like Boo Boo and Zooey.  I was not interested in hyper-articulate seven-year-olds who quoted from the Bhagavad Gita.  Even the names of the stories seemed juvenile and too clever-clever:  “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”  “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.”

I didn’t want to be entertained.  I wanted to be provoked. (pp. 51-52 iPad iBooks e-edition)

Memoirs are tricky beasts to tame enough in order to review them.  Trying to lasso a writer’s experiences and perspectives in, to place them within the context of your own assessments is more difficult than merely assessing plot, prose, characterization, and theme.  A memoir can be filled with beautifully-flowing sentences and gorgeous images and be as full of life as a vomit-covered toilet after a night of vapid partying.  Some stories just need more than technical brilliance in order to justify their raison d’être.  Perhaps it is as little as a fleeting encounter with another human being, a little yet profound twist in one’s life narrative direction, but something is needed to help the reader to latch onto something, anything while reading about the minutiae of another’s life.

Joanna Rakoff’s memoir of her 1996 experience working at a New York literary agency (which she refers to throughout as simply, “the Agency”), however, has several things about it that make it an interesting and entertaining memoir.  Her descriptions of life working for one of the oldest literary agencies and their rather antiquated office procedures provides a fascinating look into New York publishing just as it was changing higgledy-piggledy into the digital age.  It is also an examination of the casual sexism that many young professional class women experienced in the era in which the debate raged over what type of suit/dress to wear.  Yet these are only part and parcel of her overall experiences during this defining, transformational year.  It was the year that she became acquainted with J.D. (“Jerry”) Salinger.

Salinger only directly appears in a few scenes of My Salinger Year, mostly in the context of the numerous fan mails that Joanna, as literary assistant/secretary, has to answer with a form letter informing them that Salinger does not read nor reply to his fan mail.  Yet it is in these letters, from adolescents in North Carolina to World War II veterans in Nebraska, that reveal Salinger the writer’s influence much more than anything the man himself says in the course of his periodic and brief phone conversations with the Agency’s workers.  Reading these scenes reminded me of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran in its discussion of how literature can impact readers’ social perspectives and be an agent for change.

And yes, Salinger (or the combination of his endearingly awkward phone conversations, the fan mail, and Rakoff’s eventual reading of his œvre) acts as a catalyst on Rakoff.  Her relationships with two men, her former fiancée and the failed novelist live-in boyfriend she had that year, changes as she reads Salinger’s stories and sees elements of his characters in them, particularly Franny in relation to Lane.  These revelations are organic, never appearing to be forced or stretched.  By memoir’s end, Rakoff has changed from the nervous and determined to be proper young professional described in the opening Winter section to the resolute, independent-minded young woman who resigns her position in order to continue her personal and professional development elsewhere.  My Salinger Year is the story of Rakoff’s development, due in part to her belatedly encounter with Salinger’s writing, and it is a fascinating one for how adroitly she mixes the literary and the personal to create a breezy yet at times profound read.  Highly recommended.

2014 Booker Prize longlist: Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World

August 7th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

But I must back up and circle around.  I am writing this because I don’t trust time.  I, Harriet Burden, also known as Harry to my old friends and select new friends, am sixty-two, not ancient, but well on my way to THE END, and I have too much left to do before one of my aches turns out to be a tumor or loss-of-a-name dementia or the errant truck leaps onto the sidewalk and flattens me against the wall, never to breathe again.  Life is walking tiptoe over land mines.  We never know what’s coming and, if you want my opinion, we don’t have a good grip on what’s behind us either.  But we sure as hell can spin a story about it and break our brains trying to get it right. (pp. 19-20, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Siri Hustvedt’s sixth novel, The Blazing World, is perhaps one of the cleverest fictions that I have read in some time.  It utilizes a variety of techniques, from “forged” diaries to fictionalized art exhibits to creator proxies, to create an intricate and yet powerful condemnation of certain socio-sexual biases that the presumed arbiters of elegance possess when they weigh in on the value of a particular performance or art.  This description for some might act as a warning label, yet that would deny such readers the pleasure of enjoying a well-designed mystery that engrosses a reader’s attention.

The Blazing World purportedly centers itself around the posthumous diary of a woman, Harriet “Harry” Burden, who had concealed her artwork, particularly three pieces that gained her acclaim, by having three attractive male stand-ins present her work as theirs.  In the litany of diary entries (alphabeticalized journals), interview snippets, and fragments of her descriptions of these pieces, Harriet/Harry leads the readers down a long and winding road of casual sexism and institutional biases that reject the notion that great art can be produced at any age or by anyone.

However, Hustvedt plays a more subtle game than just constructing a faux history of art prejudice.  Many of the entries contain commentaries that deepen the game, such as this one from roughly halfway into the novel:

H.L. Mencken once wrote that if a critic “devotes himself to advocating the transient platitudes in a sonorous manner,” he gets respect.  The contemporary platitudes are:  Dump on white males, encourage diversity, and destroy the canon; on conversely, wave the flag for the canon and old-fashioned artistic virtues.  Of course, Mencken was writing back in the day when college meant literacy.  It no longer does.  I could regale you for hours with stories of our interns, fresh from the Ivy League, who cannot distinguish between like and as, who cannot conjugate the verb to lie (as in lie down on the floor), whose diction errors give me gooseflesh, but from their semiliterate mouths come one transient “right-thinking” platitude after the other.  How I yearn for the future, when these people who cannot write a cursive hand have taken over the world. (p. 232)

This is stinging commentary, one that goes at the heart of several “culture war” arguments and blasts all sides equally with withering scorn.  In relation to discussions of art, it serves as a caustic reminder that yardsticks, no matter how well-intentioned, can limit and distort perceptions of the creative arts.  Hustvedt returns to this theme several times over the course of The Blazing World (which I should note here is a reference to a particular piece created centuries ago), each time building upon this central tenet.  This creates in turn an opportunity for readers to react against what is being argued, with any possible synthesis being part and parcel of the overall effect of the novel.

Hustvedt’s prose is nearly impeccable, as her depiction of Burden in all her guises and frames of mind is so vivid that it is easy to imagine the wide spectrum of emotions that she has pored into her writings and pieces.  There is also a tangible plot that runs through these disparate sections, one that deals with Burden’s battle for acceptance in a society that is loathe to acknowledge her.  Hustvedt is very careful with how this plot unfolds, as each diary entry or interview segment gradually builds up this tension between the artist and her world until it eventually explodes in a surprising fashion near the novel’s end.  While there were a few occasions where perhaps more detail could have been provided at one level and less at another, on the whole, the effect of this use of layered “source material” is impressive.  The Blazing World is one of the more finely-crafted novels I’ve read this year; the fact that it is an engrossing read is such a bonus that it is easy to understand why it was selected for the 2014 Booker Prize longlist.  Highly recommended.

Joyce Carol Oates, Carthage (2014)

August 4th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

In Carthage, there are some people who do not “support” the war – the wars.  But they support our troops, they make that clear.

Daddy has always made that clear.

Daddy respects you.  Daddy is just awkward now, he doesn’t know how to talk to you but that’s how some men are.  He was never a soldier himself and has strong feelings about the Vietnam War which was the war when he was growing up.  But Daddy does not mean anything personal.

You have said It’s a toss of the dice.  You have said Who gives a shit who lives, who dies.  A toss of the dice. 

I know you don’t mean this.  This is not Brett speaking but the other. (p. 26)

In the past few years, several novels have been released that have touched upon some aspects of the 2001-present Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  If there were one thing in common about them, it would be a focus on the individual soldier, of supporting him/her, with the reasoning behind those conflicts mostly left unaddressed, at least not directly.  In her latest novel, Carthage, Joyce Carol Oates takes a crack at addressing post-conflict trauma, but she also broadens her topic to include familial strife and grief.  It is a novel that begins slowly, yet around the beginning of the second part, almost 200 pages in, the story shifts in surprising and yet ultimately moving ways.

There are two lost, suffering souls at the heart of the novel.  One is Cressida Mayfield, the 19 year-old younger sister of the former prom queen.  She is introspective and cynical, trying to find her own way in life.  One night on a trail near her upstate New York home in 2005, she meets up with her sister Juliet’s former fiancé, the recently-discharged Corporal Brett Kincaid, who himself has been suffering from PTSD.  What happens that night is a mystery; Cressida turns up missing and when questioned, Kincaid confesses to murdering her.  Told through the viewpoint of the Mayfield family members and Kincaid in alternating PoV chapters, the first part explores the traumas of Cressida’s apparent violent end.

Oates does an excellent job in establishing each character’s personality; their shortcomings and failures to understand (with one notable exception) Cressida’s struggles are dissected with sharp, ironic commentary.  As each person supposedly close to Cressida talks of their lives with Cressida being on the margins, a more complex, composite image of town and family life emerges.  Added to this are Kincaid’s chapters, in which his recent military past is shown to have broken him, making him a living ruin of a person.  It is a devastating portrayal of a traumatized soldier and Oates does not play this up too much for theatrical effect.  Instead, Kincaid’s suffering will ultimately be a mirror for what Cressida has undergone.

The second part inverts much of the first section’s examinations of the Mayfield family and Kincaid.  It is set seven years later and focuses on a Florida woman who suddenly has a traumatic experience when she enters into a prison’s death row with her new boss, a special investigator.  It would be too much of a spoiler to reveal the specifics of her case, but it begins a series of redemptive episodes that culminates in a powerful series of conversations and revelations.  The work Oates put into developing her characters and their motivations pays off with one of the more moving and yet ambiguous concluding chapters that I have read this year.

Carthage succeeds mostly due to its combination of well-drawn characters and a plot that contains a surprising twist.  Oates’ prose is excellent, as each sentence feels important in either developing character or scene.  There is a surprising economy of words for a novel that is nearly 500 pages long.  While at first it takes several pages to establish Cressida’s disappearance, by the time the immediate aftermath is reached, the reader is sucked in, trying to figure out not only just what really happened that night, but also how this is going to affect her parents, sister, and Kincaid.  Oates uses PoV chapters very adroitly, never lingering overmuch on a particular character.  This creates a semblance of plot progression even when most of this progression is internal character development and not external events.  The end result is one of the more moving portrayals of trauma and grief that I have read this year.

J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary (2014 posthumous release)

August 1st, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Lo!  the glory of the kings of the people of the Spear-Danes in days of old we have heard tell, how those princes did deeds of valour.  Oft Scyld Scefing robbed the hosts of foemen, many peoples, of the seats where they drank their mead, laid fear upon men, he who first was found forlorn; comfort for that he lived to know, mighty grew under heaven, throve in honour, until all that dwelt nigh about, over the sea where the whale rides, must hearken to him and yield him tribute – a good king was he!

To him was an heir afterwards born, a young child in his courts whom God sent for the comfort of the people:  perceiving the dire need which they long while endured aforetime being without a prince.  To him therefore the Lord of Life who rules in glory granted honour among men:  Beow was renowned – far and wide his glory sprang – the heir of Scyld in Scedeland.  Thus doth a young man bring it to pass with good deed and gallant gifts, while he dwells in his father’s bosom, that after in his age there cleave to him loyal knights of his table, and the people stand by him when war comes.  By worthy deeds in every folk is a man ennobled. (p. 13)

Ever since I read extended excerpts of the poem in translation when I was a high school senior over twenty years ago, Beowulf has fascinated and frustrated me.  It contains a depth of character and theme that is uncommon even among the best epic poems of the past three millennia.  Yet there is a remoteness to it, perhaps due to the distance between Old English and its modern descendent and the attendant difficulties in rendering idioms precisely, or maybe it’s because it is difficult for teachers to convey adequately the poem’s riches to students who struggle with its form.  Whatever the reason, each time that I’ve revisited the poem, whether it be in prose or poetic translation/adaptation, it has been akin to staring at bright wonders through a smoky glass screen.

Therefore it was with great interest that I received the news that after decades of delays, J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation notes on Beowulf would finally be published in book form.  I have been long aware of Tolkien’s expertise on Beowulf and the Old English language in general and his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I found to be entrancing when I read it around twenty years ago.  But there was some trepidation as well.  Having dabbled in translations ever since a college Latin course on The Æneid twenty years ago, I am well aware of the distortions that occur when going not just from one language to another, but also from the metered poetic lines to prose.  The sense of the lines may be preserved better in prose, but the elegance is almost certainly lost.

Tolkien’s Beowulf was originally done as a sort of extended notes, one that would allow Tolkien to make easier references to specific lines in modern English without needing to translate repeatedly to suit the context of the cited passages in his lectures.  Completed by 1926, when Tolkien had recently accepted the position of Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, his Beowulf translation largely remained locked up in his study, only updated occasionally in light of new research that indicated different ways of restoring and reading the burnt original manuscript.  Although in the intervening decades Tolkien became one of the foremost experts on the poem, there never really was any intent on his part to have his prose translation published.  Yet it still played a role in his research, serving as a point of reference whenever he would write commentary notes for his lectures on the poem, particularly its first half (which was the part studied by English students who were intrepid enough then to complete their degree through the Anglo-Saxon path).

So what value does this translation have in 2014, besides showing how one of its foremost mid-20th century experts approached the material?  Sadly, not much at all, except as a curio.  The translation itself is decent enough and after having read three 1990s-2000s verse translations (Rebsamen, Liuzza, Heaney), Tolkien’s rendering of certain expressions (such as “Lo!” for “Hwæt!”) certainly stands its ground with these translations (of which, I found the Rebsamen to best capture the alliterative poetic structure of the original).  There are moments of livelihood in Tolkien’s translation, and he certainly utilizes the original’s use of stock expressions (under the clouds, under heaven) to great effect when establishing scene and mood, but there are some flaws to his approach.  In particular, his use of now-archaic expressions, such as the above-quoted “throve in honour” or “thus both a young man bring it to pass,” while occasionally bestowing a sense of ancient grandeur, often creates stilted dialogues that weaken the effectiveness of pivotal scenes.  But these lapses can be forgiven, especially considering the apparent intent behind writing this prose translation.

I am less charitable when it comes to the remainder of the book.  The commentary section, comprising roughly half of the 425 page book, is interesting enough at times, but it lacks enough editorial framework to make it readily accessible to general readers.  While it was mostly clear for myself, I have had some background in academic discussion of texts.  Readers who have not can easily find themselves skipping over this section, as it is not worth their time trying to decipher what exactly Tolkien is referring to in quoting certain passages and explaining their word meanings.  Christopher Tolkien could have done a better job in providing more context for these discussions instead of just posting the poem commentaries whole cloth.  The remaining two sections, “Sellic Spell” and “The Lay of Beowulf” serve little purpose beyond illustrating how the poem sparked some playing around with the language and structure of the original poem in his creation of two (or three, counting a revision) minor poems.  Even worse, Tolkien’s famous 1936 essay on the poem’s monsters is left out of this book.  The structure of the sections is just very poorly-done.

Yet despite this lack of interesting material outside the translation itself, I mostly enjoyed reading Tolkien’s translation.  Yes there are flaws in this 1926 prose rendering, but as I noted above, these are interesting not just because they show a writer trying to render as literally as possible words constructed in a different language and in a different medium, but because the care with which Tolkien had done this appeals to me as an occasional translator.  But outside of reading it as a look in how a 20th century expert approached his subject, there is little to recommend Tolkien’s translation to those who are already familiar with the story.  It is a good prose translation, but there are other, better translations, especially into verse, that reflect the changes in Beowulf scholarship since Tolkien’s 1973 death.

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