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12. Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer

3 Apr

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In April 1992, a young man from a well-to-do East Coast family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. Four months later his decomposed body was found by a party of moose hunters.

Thus begins the Author’s Note to Into the Wild, one of Jon Krakauer’s greatest books and a harrowing true story. Like Into Thin Air (Krakauer’s eyewitness account of his disastrous 1996 expedition to Mount Everest), Into the Wild started as a magazine article. The young man found in Alaska’s name was Chris McCandless (his real photo, above), and two years earlier he’d given 25k in savings to charity, abandoned his family and friends, burned the money in his wallet and set out on an itinerant project to live off the land, adopting the name “Alexander Supertramp.”

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There was a movie version of the book a few years ago, which I remember vaguely finding macabre without knowing much about the story. I think I’d thought it was a camping trip gone awry, and not the much more interesting tale which it turns out to be. McCandless deliberately rejected society, severed all his ties, abandoned his property, security, loved ones, food and shelter, for the allure of nature and the experience of pure unfiltered existence. Here’s a passage from a letter he wrote to a friend before the Alaska trip, urging him to adopt a similar lifestyle:

So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. 

In the service of this idealism, McCandless went into the woods in Alaska without food and with little research or preparation. Krakauer reconstructs the story from his diary, letters, photographs and exhaustive research and interviews with people who encountered McCandless along the way. Once he got into the woods, his path out was cut off by high spring floods. In his attempts to live long-term feeding himself off the land, he poisoned himself to the extent that he became too weak to gather food. He starved to death a few weeks before anyone happened by the area.

Krakauer reconstructs the events with precision and insight, and his sense of narrative  is like liquid crack.  He has to be the best writer of reportorial nonfiction working today. It was only after a few chapters that I realized that the book was about how we as a society relate to such stories. Krakauer relates that his original Outside Magazine article provoked a storm of spite and outrage from ordinary people, many of them wilderness lovers, who felt that McCandless was a fool, disrespectful of the mountains and of nature, and deserved to die. I felt that way a little bit myself reading the story, especially concerning how cruelly McCandless rejects and abandons his parents and sister, and the many people who came to love him along his travels. In some ways he has the vibe of a sociopath, and seems like the kind of idealist who becomes a terrorist.

Krakauer doesn’t think so, though. He writes movingly of how he related to McCandless. Krakauer is a mountain-climber, has taken his own terrible risks with his life for the ephemeral rewards of adventure. He keenly feels McCandless’s youth. In a great chapter about one of his own young adventures, an attempt to climb a never-before-climbed face of an Alaskan mountain called the Devil’s Thumb, Krakauer writes “I knew that people sometimes died climbing mountains. But at the age of twenty-three, personal mortality—the idea of my own death—was still largely outside my conceptual grasp.” He views it as a tragedy that this by all accounts talented, honorable, hard-working and life-loving guy died so young. At the same time, he paints a balanced portrait of the family, the people hurt and the moral complexity of McCandless’s tale.

One of the most interesting parallels between McCandless’s life and Krakauer’s is that both men had brilliant, autocratic fathers who, while trying to force their sons to achieve got more than they bargained for. I’m going to close with a wonderful Donald Barthelme quote that Krakauer uses to lead the chapter about his attempt on the Devil’s Thumb. It’s not exactly about mountain climbing or starving to death on a bus, but it is about fathers and sons, and maybe that’s the same thing, right?

But have you noticed the slight curl at the end of Sam II’s mouth, when he looks at you? It means that he didn’t want you to name him Sam II, for one thing, and for two other things it means that he has a sawed-off in his left pant leg, and a baling hook in his right pant leg, and is ready to kill you with either one of them, given the opportunity. The father is taken aback. What he usually says, in such a confrontation, is “I changed your diapers for you, little snot.” This is not the right thing to say. First, it is not true (mothers change nine diapers out of ten), and second, it instantly reminds Sam II of what he is mad about. He is mad about being small when you were big, but no, that’s not it, he is mad about being helpless when you were powerful, but no, not that either, he is mad about being contingent when you were necessary, not quite it, he is insane because when he loved you, you didn’t notice.

It’s important to notice.

10. The Home Depot, Built From Scratch, by Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank

18 Mar

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This 1999 business book by the founders of Home Depot was a very satisfying read in the sense that I’m always curious about the inner workings of those big-box stores. They seem like whole worlds, and like there must be good stories. And there certainly were. Moreover, I was educated about the meteoric rise of Home Depot, how it created the DIY market for home improvement and moved an industry from small-business to big-box, none of which I  knew. Home Depot has been a fact for most of my life, so it was indeed very interesting to see how it all started.

Though of course in 2016 we’re more aware of what’s been destroyed by big-box stores than the founders of Home Depot would ever be willing to admit.

The book’s central claim is that the stores were so successful because they were focused on the consumer, and that the first step in pleasing the consumer is empowering the people who work in the stores to love their jobs. Every chapter talks about “our people” and the “associates” (the guys on the floor at Home Depot) being the most crucial element of the business. It sounds good, though I can’t help but notice the absence of specifics on what these people are paid, what their medical insurance is like, if they’re all still getting stock options, etc. It would be just like corporate bosses to demand “love of the job” theatrics in addition to the real work, without providing any additional compensation.

It’s sort of a shame to be reading the book more than 15 years after publication too, because the ownership structure of Home Depot has changed, the founders are no longer so involved, and I can’t say I’ve noticed the culture at my Brooklyn Home Depot as being any better than the culture at my Brooklyn Lowe’s. In fact, the Brooklyn Home Depot has a genuinely scary location under the highway next to a sanitation plant (much worse than Lowe’s scenic location next to the Gowanus Canal) and I’m not sure I’ve ever had a long and helpful conversation with an employee there, as is supposed to be the trademark of a Home Depot, according to this book. Lowe’s is cleaner and more friendly, the bathrooms are more conveniently located, and so on. Reading Built from Scratch makes me feel like I should be able to write to Bernie Marcus and he’ll address my concerns! But alas, times have changed.

And of course, that’s really the big-box story. I’m sure Home Depot was visionary and interesting when it started, and it may have been fun to work at when it was run by its founders, but all those places tend to drift into soulless bureaucracy and poor service, and Home Depot has been no exception. Two employees chatting idly with each other at the one in Burlington, Vermont, recently scolded my children for running in the store, which they claimed was dangerous, while my husband and I were there trying to pick a carpet. They were running in the carpet section, where everything is soft. It was not dangerous. The section was deserted, the children were not bothering anyone. Or they weren’t until my husband and I had to insist that they stop playing and stand there with us while we picked the carpet. Which, at that point, they were bothering us. Consumer friendly? No. Bureaucratic and stupid? Yes.

I also by the end of the book found the founders self-congratulatory and smug, and I began to doubt their claims that even in their heyday they were such great managers. They pride themselves on limiting bureaucracy, but then roll out several chapters on the joys of corporate spirit-building nonsense, which I’ve never known any human being to actually like. There is a particularly repugnant section about a Utah camping trip where everyone nearly froze to death but rah-rah, they did it to prove their devotion to Home Depot! Wouldn’t you just love your boss if that happened?

Marcus and Blank also extoll the virtues of 360 feedback, which I’ve had the joys of participating in personally, and which totally sucks. This is when the people you work with, peers, superiors and underlings, anonymously “rate” you. In my experience 360-feedback hurt everyone’s feelings and created a horrible workplace environment full of suspicion, theories about who gave the bad ratings, lying, back-biting, brokered deals for mutually good-ratings, etc. I did not see it improve anyone’s job performance. I did see it waste a ton of time that could be spent, yes, working.

By the end I was enjoying the book more as an accidental expose on “the horrors of large corporations.” But that was fun, too.

9. Stubbornness, loneliness, vanity, failure and the urge to create. Alasdair Gray’s Lanark.

8 Mar

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Lanark, published in 1981, is a cult classic of speculative fiction, a novel and autobiography that takes place across ruptured joints of time and place, with one part set in the fantastical dystopian land of Unthank and the other in Glasgow, the city which is artist and author Alasdair Gray’s lifelong muse. I don’t know how I’ve missed it until now, since the book feels like it was written for me.

A great deal of the pleasure of Lanark is in having no idea how it’s going to unfold, in being hit with the enormous surprises as it moves between worlds or parts of worlds in ways that shouldn’t work but do. (So, stop reading here and just go read it, if you love me and trust me!). The moment when I realized what I was in for came in Chapter 6. “Mouths.” Until this moment, the book had followed a recognizable man-arrives-in-a-strange-city trope, and adhered mostly to a gritty, dystopic realism. And then:

With no will to see anyone or do anything he immersed himself in sleep as much as possible, only waking to stare at the wall until sleep returned. It was a sullen pleasure to remember that the disease spread fastest in sleep. Let it spread! he thought. What else can I cultivate? But when the dragonhide had covered the arm and hand it spread no further, though the length of the limb as a whole increased by six inches. The fingers grew stouter, with a slight web between them, and the nails got longer and more curving.  A red point like a rose thorn formed on each knuckle. A similar point, an inch and a half long, grew on the elbow and kept catching on the sheets so he slept with his right arm hanging outside the cover onto the floor.

People can develop strange scales in fiction—they do all the time nowadays, as a metaphor for all kinds of things—but arms can’t grow by six inches. This steps off an entirely different cliff, one usually confined to genre, and not attempted by serious literature. But Lanark is obviously serious literature. The novel is made up in four books, with the first and last set in Unthank bracketing two realist books about a protagonist named Duncan Thaw (who is Lanark, who is Gray). Thaw is an artist helplessly as a condition of existence, an asthmatic before there were good drugs for it, and has baroque sadomasochistic fantasies. He is a failure with women.

For me there’s hardly a point to an autobiography if it doesn’t connect to the world of dream and fantasy, doesn’t portray the baroque worlds we have within. There can be no Glasgow without Unthank. The realist bits of our lives are only part of it. So it’s a sublime joy to read an author who knows this, gets it, and delivers the same story—of stubbornness, loneliness, vanity, failure and the urge to create—both ways, real and subterranean.

I don’t want to give away all the good parts, but here is the beginning of a love-scene between Lanark and the girl he pursues through several stories and incarnations:

He leaned into the chamber through the open panel. All her limbs were metal now and she was bigger, head pressing the wall on one side and hooves on the other, the wings spread so that the tips of the plumes touched the walls all round and not an inch of the floor was visible. The air was chokingly hot and a white line like cigarette smoke rose from the beak. He said, “Rima.” The voice answered with a throb of delight…

He’s been trying to break through this girl’s shell, which in the realist section looks like ordinary awkward dating, and in Unthank becomes courting a dangerous and beautiful giant beetle in an underground cavern by reading to her, and telling her stories, and dodging the sharp bits.

I’ve been reading my way through the Gray interviews and ephemera available online, and somewhere he said that he did not wish for Lanark to be his personal story, and instead hoped to write about “a more general kind of man,” but that “mine were the only entrails available to me.” (Quotes are approximate, I’ve lost the source.) I’m so glad he did, and I can’t imagine Lanark any other way.

8. Writing from a front row seat at a mass murder: The Foundation Pit by Andrei Platonov

11 Feb

Andrei Platonov is one of the giants of Russian literature, a writer from the revolutionary period who passionately believed in communist ideals but was critical of party leadership, and whose work was suppressed. Between 1918 to 1921 as a young man from the city of Voronezh in Central Russia he published poetry and essays in venues like Red Countryside and Smithy, a union magazine for metal-workers. (Amazing publication titles, from the modern perspective.) He achieved much local success and was a director of the Voronezh Union of Proletarian Writers in 1920. However, after living through the famine of 1921, in which the political disturbances of early Bolshevik Russia combined with a severe drought killed six million people,  Platonov said that he “could no longer be occupied with a contemplative activity like literature,” and applied his technical abilities to infrastructure, spending the next several years on building dams, draining ponds and building a hydroelectric plant.

Kotlovan, or The Foundation Pit was published only in part in 1931 and is Platonov’s story of the de-kulakization of 1929, when Stalin ordered millions of prosperous peasants to be murdered or exiled to facilitate the formation of collective farms. According to the Afterword of my NYRB edition of The Foundation Pit, Platonov and Vassily Grossman were the only two contemporary writers to write about the purge, and “Platonov’s account is firsthand. No other Soviet writer of his generation had a better understanding of the life of the peasantry in the 1920s.”

The Foundation Pit‘s characters represent the different types playing their part in the de-kulakization of a village near a generic small town, where workers are building a utopian housing project. There’s Chiklin, a strong, hard-working proletarian man who represents the communist ideal; Prushevsky, a technocrat with no enthusiasm for how things are turning out; Kozlov, a weak, spiteful man using the new order to cause trouble; Zhachev, who believes in the new government’s ideals at the same time as he exploits them for personal gain; Nastya, a little girl who is the dream of the communist future; and finally Voshchev, a thoughtful worker-drifter trying to understand the meaning of what he sees around him, who probably represents the author.

A “foundation pit” could be the beginning of a great new structure or it could be a journey  down into hell, a movement in exactly the wrong direction, and it’s fairly clear from the beginning that the latter is the meaning Platonov wishes to emphasize. The ecstatic, strange, wonderful part for the contemporary reader is that he chooses to do that primarily through the manipulation of language. His Russian is half-technical, half-broken, as if it’s being spoken by an alien, or as if it’s deliberately hiding meaning in the crevasses of syntax, where the censors could not follow.

Here’s the first paragraph:

On the day of the thirtieth anniversary of his private life, Voshchev was made redundant from the small machine factory where he obtained the means for his own existence. His dismissal notice stated that he was being removed from production on account of weakening strength in him and thoughtfulness amid the general tempo of labor.

Platnov could say On his thirtieth birthday which is what “the day of the thirtieth anniversary of his private life” means. He could use worked for “obtained the means for his own existence.” There’s no need to say that the strength is “in him”. A person being fired for “thoughtfulness,” a quality that’s supposed to be good, is odd and is put forth in a slightly mixed construction with “tempo.” Can a person even be thoughtful “amid” a tempo? The paragraph is bewildering, carefully planned, and brilliantly introduces Platonov’s main theme of progress or movement (that tempo of labor) that is senseless or cancelled out.

At first I thought the book was satire. Voshchev, drinking in a depressing bar after his dismissal, goes over to the window “to take note of the beginning of night,” hears a brass band “pining; getting nowhere” and then sits:

“…down by the window, in order to observe the tender darkness of night, listen to various sad sounds, and feel the torment of a heart surrounded by hard and stony bones.”

That bit about the heart is purplish… until you know that themes of hearts surrounded by bones—i.e., life already gripped by death—run throughout the book. A clenched heart jumps into a man’s “cramped” throat before he dies. A man is hit in the heart and dies with a cracking of bones. The language seems like it might be purple until you remember that Platonov was writing from a front-row seat at a mass-murder.

And then all claim to satire falls away. Here’s a character sleeping:

Kozlov was barefoot and sleeping with his mouth open; his throat was gurgling as if the air of breath were passing through dark heavy blood; and out of his half-open, pale eyes were emerging occasional tears—from a dream or some unknown yearning.

It’s creepy, terrible, dehumanized, and not at all funny.

Here’s another one, for my collection of disturbing passages about horses:

“Are you alive, dear breadwinner?”

The horse was dozing in her stall, having lowered her sensitive head forever; one of her eyes was feebly closed, but she did not have enough strength for the other and so it was left looking into the dark. The shed had grown cold without equine breath and snow had begun to fall inside, settling on the mare’s head and not melting. Her master blew out his match, embraced the horse’s neck, and stood there in his orphanhood, smelling in memory the mare’s sweat as when they were ploughing.

“So you’ve died have you? Well don’t worry—soon I’ll croak too. It’ll be quiet for us.”

Not seeing the man, a dog came into the shed and sniffed at the horse’s hind leg. It then growled and sank its teeth into her flesh, and tore itself out some beef. The horse’s two eyes shone white in the darkness—she was now looking through them both—and she moved her legs a step forward, not yet forgetting to live because of the pain.

“Maybe you’ll enter the collective farm? Go ahead then, but I’ll wait,” said the master of the yard.

This is a great passage for its gothic horror, and also a relevant one to the collectivization process, since the peasants en masse killed and ate their animals rather than let them be collectivized. In this case, the horse seems to have died on its own, but even that natural process has been disturbed—disturbance of natural processes is another major theme of the work, along with displacement of ideas and qualities into nature. The horse comes to life again, if only to feel pain.

The foundation pit gets deeper. Construction does not progress. The kulaks are put onto a raft in the winter and sent to their deaths. Eventually the poor souls who were taken onto the collective farm go to the foundation pit and dig as if they are digging their own grave, a reading which the odd, wonderful syntax equally allows for:

The collective farm was following him and, without stopping, was digging the earth; all the poor and middle peasants [i.e. those not killed as kulaks] were working with such zeal of life as if they were seeking to save themselves forever in the abyss of the foundation pit.

“Save themselves forever” could mean salvation, or it could mean storage for a corpse. I think Platonov means the latter.

On a last weird note, there’s a Platonov festival in Voronezh in the summers that looks kind of cool.

Time will eat up all the use. A post on the translation of Kotlovan, or “The Foundation Pit” by Andrei Platonov

6 Feb

The strange, futuristic, experimental genius of Andrei Platonov will get its own blog post—and wow, experimental fiction geeks, gird yourselves, this book is bending my mind in all the good ways—but first, I’d like to address the New York Review of Books’ 2014 translation, by Robert Chandler & Olga Meerson, of Platonov’s 1930 classic, The Foundation Pit (Kotlovan, in Russian). I’m reading my English version simultaneously with an original Russian version, and have been amazed by seeing what the translators, and the NYRB, were up against. The Foundation Pit could be a case study in impossible translations, further complicated by the persecution of writers in the Soviet Union.

The NYRB had a difficult primary decision to make, in terms of which version of the book to use, since The Foundation Pit was published only in part in the 1930s, and then suppressed. The version of the manuscript most commonly used in Russia, (and the one I’m reading in Russian) is from the writer’s daughter’s archive. In an appendix to the NYRB edition, the translators explain that this commonly-used one “reflect[s] an earlier stage in the evolution of the text” and also contains additions and deletions by a third party that were supposed to make it more acceptable for publication. The “greatly superior” manuscript version Chandler & Meerson have chosen to work with, which was first published in Russia in 2000, reflects later changes made by Platonov, and restores some of the lost material, particularly the raunchy bits. I’m going to refer to these two versions as “daughter’s archive” and “NYRB/more recent” to help the reader keep it straight.

On paper it makes sense to use the NYRB/more-recent version, since we can presume it’s the one the writer intended. But reading both side-by-side, complications arise. There are continuity issues in the NYRB/more-recent version that it seems the writer would have fixed if he’d intended it to be published. Things like the character Chiklin appearing on page 12 without previous introduction, “The engineer told Chiklin…” a sentence begins. Who is Chiklin? Huh? In the daughter’s-archive version, Chiklin is identified earlier as an earth-worker. Another example is a spot on page 13 in the NYRB/more-recent edition where the line reads,  “Annulling nature’s old order, Chiklin felt unable to understand it.” That’s an obscure line to begin with, and made more obscure by the fact that Platonov apparently cut material from the daughter’s-archive version where Chiklin asks questions about the earth he’s digging, giving us some explanation for what he doesn’t understand and deepening the joke.

I don’t know the back-story, but such issues make me wonder if the NYRB/more-recent revision was complete. The daughter’s-archive version is more polished. (It has line-reps and minor errors as well). This is probably unorthodox in the world of translation, but I wonder if these two versions couldn’t be reconciled, either using the NYRB/more-recent but fixing the obvious continuity issues, or annotating the daughter’s-archive version to include major missing scenes. It’s an interesting puzzle, and I’m not sure which I’d choose if it were up to me (which, ha ha, it is obviously not).

Another bizarre note: There are end-notes in the NYRB edition, but without corresponding numbers on the text. Did someone forget?

All of that about which manuscript to use, however, doesn’t get to the difficulties with the actual translation of the words. Let’s go back to,

“Annulling nature’s old order, Chiklin felt unable to understand it.”

In Russian it’s “Упраздняя старинное природное устройство, Чиклин не мог его понять”,

which could be more literally translated as “Abolishing the old natural construction, Chiklin could not understand it.”

No matter how you translate it that’s a weird sentence. Platonov has been described as a linguistic cubist. He was using words wrong in a systematic way to a variety of ends. You can’t abolish construction, so, the translator has the difficult job of choosing not just the right word, but a word that will be wrong in a similar way to how the word is wrong in Russian.

Reading the Russian and English translation side by side, it’s apparent to me how much is lost. Calling soil “the old natural construction” is humorous because Platonov is spoofing the Soviet lingo of his time, which applied mechanical and industrial terminology to all of life’s processes. Nature is just another worker. The translation loses that shade of meaning. But it also invents annul in place of the more literal abolish. Annul is stilted and legalistic and odd in just the way the spirit of Platonov’s prose is. Annul is a great choice.

Platonov was a devoted communist. Post-Revolution he’s like a cyborg using the Soviet Union’s new and unfamiliar jargon to examine his own human soul—a use for which the jargon was not meant. It’s amazing, brilliant and deeply sad, and much of the texture is created by the odd word choices and gappy syntax through which meaning falls like flung coins. The translators capture that, while doing a very good job of making the prose “read” smoothly. There are insertions and inventions, but if you look very carefully at the options, each one seems correctly weighed.

Here’s another example of how difficult the decisions must have been:

“‘We need more hands,’ said Chiklin to the engineer. ‘This job’s a killer. And time will eat up all the use.'”

And here’s the Russian “Мало рук, – сказал Чиклин инженеру, – это измор, а не работа, – время всю пользу съест” (p 26).

Literally translated, the Russian says: “Too few hands” said Chiklin to the engineer. “This is death-by-starvation, not a job. And time will eat up all the use.”

The translation is stilted and a little bit dorky (“a killer!”), but it renders the moment as smoothly as it reads in Russian, and preserves the best strange part, which is that bit about “time will eat up all the use.” The line barely makes sense in either language, but is an essential Foundation Pit construction. Platonov is using “use” as something like “useful force,” a concept you’d find in revolutionary social theory, but he maroons it in a bit of dialog where a worker is explaining how a utopian construction project is failing. It’s a great coinage and the most important part of the sentence. On the other side of the scale, the translators lost измор, which means “death by starvation,” (of course Russian has a word for that) and lost the echo between “death by starvation” and “time will eat up.” It must have been painful, but that literal translation clunks, and you can’t have too many of those.

(For more on how awful literal translations are, read this brilliant takedown of  Pevear & Volkonsky in  Commentary Magazine.)

I will eventually write a post about The Foundation Pit itself and blow everyone’s minds out their ear….. For now, I will leave it that Chandler & Meerson have done a wonderful job.

 

 

7. White Matter, by Janet Sternburg

24 Jan

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The lobotomized were our mothers, and our mothers’ mothers.

Of all the ways the world of medical care has gotten worse, one way it’s gotten better is the end of lobotomy as a treatment for depression and mental illness, especially as it was practiced on marginal and at-risk populations, like depressed single women in the 1940s and ’50s. It’s easy to forget at this remove that lobotomy was once a legitimate, even popular treatment for mental illness, and that its inventor won a controversial Nobel Prize in 1949. The procedure, according to the Wiki definition, “consists of cutting or scraping away most of the connections to and from the prefrontal cortex, the anterior part of the frontal lobes of the brain” and was done to an estimated 20,000 people in the United States from the early 1940s to mid-1950s when chemical treatments put an effective end to it.

Janet Sternburg’s memoir White Matter is the story of the two members of her immediate family who were lobotomized or, as she says in the book’s first line “the story of a family who made mistakes.” The two were Sternburg’s mother’s siblings, an uncle and an aunt. In middle age the author goes looking for the answers of how and why her family made the decisions to lobotomize these two people and explores the consequences for the family’s next generation.

The legacy of lobotomy is one that’s close to my heart. I can imagine no greater violation  than a procedure that removes the self and leaves the body here, defenseless. And I can only imagine the suffering of the victims’ relatives when they discover that their loved one is there but absent, a ghost of their former self, just out of reach forever. It seems like the kind of thing that could not happen in any kind of civilized society, but it did.

So I had high hopes for this book. I wanted to gain insight into the horrors and venal bureaucracies of how this procedure came about. I wanted to read medical theory about how these operations worked, were believed to work, didn’t work, and understand what current science brings to light on the past.  I wanted names and numbers on the perpetrators. And most of all, I wanted some kind of homage paid to the victims. What were their capacities? Who were they as a population? How do we understand them as metaphor? As people we loved?

I didn’t find what I was looking for in Sternburg’s book, which is uninspired as a work of non-fiction and unilluminating as memoir. The medical and historical detail White Matter provides is a broad-strokes overview. It doesn’t seem like Sternburg did original research on either lobotomies in America or on her own family. I wanted documents, medical records, facts. She talks to her one aunt who is still alive and calls the son of the doctor who recommended the procedures (Abraham Myerson, a Boston-area physician of some note who later developed the first antidepressant). But in both cases she seems reluctant to ask hard questions and doesn’t follow up those she does ask. She recreates a fair amount of scenes from family history, but it’s never clear what her sources are, and there’s way too much imagining what might or must have happened. There’s even a scene where she hears an aunt’s voice in her head, explaining something, and dutifully transcribes it.

Worse was the feeling that Sternburg didn’t seem to know what to make of this odd fact of her family. Early on she explains that growing up with her lobotomized relatives “seemed an ordinary part of life,” and that she didn’t recognize until much later how unusual it was. She leaves home, puts the past behind her, and writes that “nothing they told me about the family ever touched me.” This emotional disconnection drains meaning from the story. To her question of How Did This Happen?, her best answer is banal: Her family had two difficult members—the uncle was mentally ill and violent; the aunt extremely depressed—and respect for medical authority, and they succumbed to the tides of their times. It’s a truth, but it doesn’t add much. Sternburg realizes the answer is inadequate and repeats the question “What was wrong with my family? … What was wrong with them?” twice on one page near the end. We don’t know. She doesn’t know. Eh.

It’s also worth noting that we don’t learn an awful lot about Sternburg as an adult, beyond that she finds this story important and puzzling and wants to pursue it. I am certain that she was affected, deeply, by her family’s medical history. In one of the scanty chapters about herself she describes how she left home and became “a girl of my times” who did “a number of wild and interesting things, all of which are sufficiently familiar to readers of sixties memoirs that they do not need to be repeated here.” She’s distancing, not self-revealing, dismissive. She tells us that she once plagiarized a paper in college, but she doesn’t connect the dots between her emotional detachment and that of her callous relatives who allowed not one but two of their loved ones to be irreparably damaged by lobotomy. She manages to write a whole book on this terrible, terrible story and not once show personal pain.

Actually, not everyone in White Matter was callous. The matriarch, Sternburg’s grandmother, whom she admits she didn’t like, was ferociously devoted to her mentally ill son. Despite the disadvantage of her sex and class status, she managed to keep Sternburg’s uncle out of institutions through sheer force of rage, and against determined opposition. She was not included in the decision to lobotomize him, and we don’t know what she felt about it, but after the surgery, she was able to keep him peacefully at home with her until the end of her life. That’s a lobotomy story too, a sad one, but worth hearing.

The mothers of the lobotomized have probably mostly passed away now, as have most of the procedure’s victims, a footnote of medical history whose stories we’ll mostly never know. Ghosts. Dear, innocent ghosts, some of them.  They deserve more, then and now.

 

 

 

Wilberforce, by H.S. Cross

19 Jan

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In the antique and innocent 1980s, a girl could make it all the way through high school without ever seeing a pornographic magazine—at least this girl did—which left movies and books as the source of erotic information. And the movies that had interesting sexual content, like, 9 1/2 Weeks, A Room With A View and Purple Rain—were legendary. One of the strangest and most magical entries in this canon, for me, was Another Country, the story of two boys’ affair at an English boarding school, with the boys played by Rupert Everett and Cary Elwes. (Everett already being a source of obsession from the Judith Krantz miniseries, Princess Daisy, but I digress).  The combination of gorgeous boys, forbidden love and the English pastoral setting has left me with a soft-spot for English boarding-school romance, which is how I picked up Wilberforce, by H.S. Cross, a flawed but wonderful novel from FSG, published in 2015.

Wilberforce is the story of a 17-year-old attending a third rate English boarding school in 1926, who is plagued by sexuality, loneliness and the half-formed urges to be a good man. He seems mostly ordinary, somewhat athletic, handsome enough, considered bright but lazy by his teachers, but as the novel progresses his situation becomes more precarious. His mother has died, his father retreats into grief, the school itself with its old-fashioned codes of honor and behavior has been undermined by the cynicism following the first World War (and presumably by the loss of a generation of men to be masters; most of the teachers are ancient). Tragedy, by the time it strikes, seems inevitable.

A well-written, high-stakes world of caning, gay sex, boarding-school hideouts and rugby drama is my cup of tea. The first older-boy sadist/villain is named Silk Bradley (!), and Wilberforce’s obsession with the older, magnetic Spaulding is the stuff of legends. But, though I’m focusing on the fun bits here, the author is aiming for high literature, more The Secret History than Princess Daisy. Wilberforce is haunted by tides of emotion, premonitions of darkness, has beautifully detailed memories and flashbacks. His perspective is rich and sometimes intensely overblown in a teenage way, but I liked that. Here’s a passage after he’s deliberately tackled Spaulding in rugby (the reader doesn’t know yet why), that displays some of the drama and pleasure of Cross’s prose:

Now in his mouth the aftertaste of blood, in his chest the dread of life turned ill, and in his bones the shock of impact—savage, fatal—with Spaulding.

Or, here’s a memory, richly detailed:

His mother never made him drink foul things. She always put in honey so being ill didn’t have to be worse than it was, she said. When he couldn’t keep things down, she gave him boiled sweets and ice, hammered to shards in a tea towel.

I also thought the novel’s qualities as a historical fiction were pretty good. The characters’ psychology didn’t feel modern, nor did the dialog. The writing had a kind of dry humor on topics like boarding-school discipline and Victorian pornography that worked well as a historical voice.

And as the action amps up in the first half of the book, Wilberforce becomes a page-turner.

So, then, I was puzzled-baffled-disappointed by what went wrong in the second half. After a school holiday the previous threads are largely dropped, a major character disappears and another appears to fulfill his narrative functions, and some annoying conceits arise, like a chapter where Wilberforce literally sees and talks to two versions of himself, one bad, one good. What I really wanted to know was, How did this book get bought by FSG in this shape? Could it possibly have been bought on a proposal? Why didn’t it get a much better edit? Was the writer difficult to work with? Did people run out of time? All of the above?

There are the bones of a great story in here…. there is a great story in here. But [spoilers, sorry] after the boy Wilberforce madly loves dies in front of him, he returns to school and starts flirting with a bar-maid? Right away?  His sexuality which has basically seemed sympathetic and reasonable until this point suddenly becomes pathological? It’s all a muddle. I understand that he wants spiritual redemption, but not the sense that the narration thinks he needs it badly enough to bring in a Bishop, as Cross does.

It seems like at some point a decision was made that the story is the redemption of a character gone totally off the rails, when the story I thought I was reading was about a lonely kid trying to survive an insane boarding school.

So, I liked a lot of things about the writing, but for me this book didn’t work.

 

 

 

 

4., 5., 6. Ancillary Justice Trilogy, Ann Leckie

17 Jan

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Space opera! Gender-bending space opera! With a former mercenary down on her luck in the lead role, bent on avenging a lost love. But wait, she’s an AI in a human body. Can she really love?

If anything about the setup of the first volume of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice trilogy could make me happier than my current state of screaming joy, I’m not sure what it could be. Well-executed deep space-opera with a mercenary and a love plot (see my forever-love, Richard K. Morgan) is almost my favorite thing to read of all time. And this one comes with the delightful twist that the AI-character, Breq, is from a culture where there isn’t really gender and everyone uses the female pronoun. On her interplanetary travels Breq can’t tell what anyone is supposed to be, since the signifiers change from planet to planet even among humanoids, so she mostly refers to people as “she,” leaving the reader not knowing the gender of anyone unless another character from a gendered culture refers to them. It’s a really interesting thing to lose track of while reading.

[The rest of this review will contain spoilers.]

Breq is the last fragment of a destroyed hive consciousness that encompassed a starship and its staff of zombie “ancillary” workers. She served an evil empire of space-going elitists as they violently annexed and assimilated entire planets and solar systems. In the first volume she must overcome her programming and act according to her conscience. She’s helped along that path by a Captain she loves who is fighting for greater equality in the society. (The first social justice-sci fi I’ve read.)

I was not able to put this book down for three days, and I’ve now read the whole trilogy. It had uneven moments (the second book is always tricky), but I think Leckie overall did a fabulous job at character development and at executing her social metaphor.

The Radchaai are a society of powerful humanoids who bring civilization to those they colonize. The tenants of their society are Justice, Propriety and Benefit, with the idea that that anything that is beneficial (to Radchaai) must also be proper and just. That’s a neat  skewering of the self-serving mindset of the elite. Their all-powerful Emperor, Anaander Mianaai, is one person who lives  in thousands of bodies as a unified top-of-the-social-pyramid ruler. This thousand-bodies-in-one quality is also a neat metaphor for the homogeny of elites. Except, we find out in volume one that Anaander Mianaai has been fighting with herself, with part of her wanting to allow social mobility, to stop having slaves and generally to be less evil. The other half is the one responsible for the worst genocides, and she wants the tyranny of the elite to continue. (Half of her is red-state and half is blue-state). Breq, as her former slave, thinks the two sides are basically the same, and wants freedom for the AIs and the ultimate destruction of the Radchaai.

This setup gives Leckie opportunity to explore some of our current social issues of policing and inclusion. Breq is forced to work with the power structure (the blue-state Anaander) in order to achieve her ultimate goals, and fights to do police work and protect the people she wants to free in a sensitive way, supporting striking workers, offering respect to village elders, listening instead of talking, etc. One of Breq’s biggest supporters is a member of the Radchaai aristocracy, Seivarden, who has some sensitivity issues in dealing with the lower classes. This character provides rich opportunities to explore how  frustrating it can be to relate to well-meaning but clueless elites. Race in the book is inverted in the sense that the rulers have dark skin, but if you wanted to transpose Radchaai with white-American and Breq and her friends with black-American, the codes would work.

I don’t really share Leckie’s politics. Breq’s modern-PC-policing strikes me as its own creepy tool of social control—I’m all for not harming anyone, but not offending anyone seems like an unreasonable requirement. And Breq also argues that once the AIs and the stations (the most powerful members of their society, if not enslaved) are free, it will just naturally be great for everyone because those creatures really just want to take care of humans and do the right thing, which I found to be an unwittingly funny liberal nanny-state fantasy. An all-powerful government will just be fair and take care of everyone! Because people are good. (Suuure they are. Ha ha hah.) But I didn’t have to agree with the politics to recognize a  fantastic sci-fi trilogy that achieved its author’s intentions brilliantly.

 

3. We Think the World of You, by J.R. Ackerley

16 Jan

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We Think the World of You by J.R. Ackerley slips by so cleverly that it’s almost easy to miss how perfectly it’s constructed. Here’s the line from the back jacket that grabbed me, and that accurately represents the book’s acid British humor:

“The wife gets to visit the jail. The mother gets to adopt one of the children. The stepfather gets to beat the dog. Is there nothing left for the middle-aged gay lover?”

J.R. Ackerley (1896–1967) was the literary editor of the BBC magazine The Listener, and is an intriguing personality in his own right. The introduction to this re-release by the NYRB imprint explains that:

 “…Ackerley was, in a way, much favored by fortune. He was very good looking, had indulgent parents and devoted friends, among them his guru E.M. Forester, and was a highly regarded literary editor. It is true that he had a complicated and harassing love life, being incorrigibly promiscuous (though he did not see it that way himself). Every three weeks or so he would have found the love of his life.”

The book is the story of Frank, a middle-aged civil servant who is in love with Johnny, a much younger working-class man who is married and has an ever-increasing brood of children. Events are set off when Johnny is incarcerated for a petty crime and Frank is left to compete with the other people in Johnny’s support network for a role in Johnny’s life, which he’s not exactly entitled to but which he cannot help but demand. The conflict hilariously and obsessively begins to focus on Evie, Johnny’s dog. Here is how she’s described:

“She was certainly an extremely pretty dog, I had never seen a prettier, stone gray with a black tunic and her face most elegantly marked. Her nose and lips were sooty, as also were the rims of her bright brown eyes, above which tiny black eyebrow tufts were set like accents, and in the middle of her forehead was a dark vertical streak like a Hindu caste mark.”

Lovely sentences and a beautiful dog, whose passionate, loving and jealous nature finds a match in Frank’s own. The book is one of those genius assemblages that cuts both ways—Frank is both ridiculous and sympathetic. His passion and devotion to Johnny are sincere, but are also made equivalent to passion of someone (Evie) who eats your mail. He is rightfully maddened by Johnny’s family, and wrongfully makes these people’s lives  more difficult during a difficult time. He openly harasses and demeans his lover’s wife (she doesn’t know Johnny is sleeping with Frank, or chooses not to), yet he’s also a gay man, in love, in a closeted society.

Here’s an example of the acidulous humor: Frank, the main character, is frank, but unwittingly so. He’s open and self-revealing not because he understands himself or wishes us to understand him, but because his obsessions and character flaws come through so clearly.

The introduction also tells us that Ackerley became dog-obsessed himself in his later years, and that We Think the World of You is one of his two books on the topic. Despite what must have been his partial sympathy for Frank (he wrote a book about him, and we see through Frank’s eyes), the author takes the story to a dark, satirical conclusion. The following eye-popping passage, which takes place between Johnny and Evie (the dog) near the end of the novel, must be one of the weirder moments in the NYRB library:

“Indeed, I saw it, for when she had done making love to him he would make love to her. He knew—it was what he was good at, the conferring of physical pleasure—exactly where and how to touch her, and as soon as his hand descended she would roll over on her side and open her legs, and his strong yet gentle fingers would move over her stomach, manipulating her nipples and her neat, pretty genital, shaped like the crown of a daffodil, in a way she enjoyed, while he whispered little affectionate obscenities into her ears.”

In case we have any doubt that Frank has crossed into the territory of pure satire, the brilliant last paragraph, as he discusses his life as the prisoner of Evie’s jealousy, sums it up:

Not that I am complaining, oh no; yet sometimes as we sit and my mind wanders back to the past, to my youthful ambitions and the freedom and independence I used to enjoy, I wonder what in the world has happened to me and how it all came about…But that leads me into deep waters, too deep for fathoming; it leads me into the darkness of my own mind.

 

 

2. What Belongs to You, by Garth Greenwell

11 Jan

What Belongs to You, By Garth Greenwell

Garth Greenwell’s first published short story, “Gospodar,” which appeared in  The Paris Review in 2014 takes place entirely within the frame of a BDSM sexual encounter between two men in a tenement high rise outside of Sofia, Bulgaria. I read it in a single terrified gulp, not because of the transgressive nature of the material (though it was plenty transgressive) but because of the depth and precision with which Greenwell revealed his character’s passions. There is a sense in which two people with their clothes off in a room bring everything in their lives in with them, but I’ve never before found a writer who is able to convey it as well as Greenwell can, in elegant, formal sentences. He is the new voice I’m most excited about for 2016, the writer whose style feels the most like he’s made up a new way of speaking. His first novel, What Belongs to You, is out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on January 19th.

Like “Gospodar,” What Belongs to You is set in Bulgaria. The novel concerns an American teacher who has an affair with Mitko B., a Bulgarian street-hustler and prostitute.  The narrator meets Mitko in the bathroom at the National Palace of Culture, a cruising spot of which he explains, wonderfully:

“There was only one reason for men to be standing there, the bathrooms at NDK (as the palace is called) are well enough hidden and have such a reputation that they’re hardly used for anything else.”

He at first turns down Mitko’s proposition that he pay for sex, “reflexively and without hesitation,” explaining:

“It was the answer I had always given to such proposals (which are inevitable in the places I frequent), not out of any moral conviction but out of pride, a pride that had weakened in recent years, as I realized I was being shifted by the passage of time from one category of erotic object to another.”

What a sentence. How much it tells us about the narrator. He admits the places he frequents, his own vanity, and even how the vanity crumbles in the face of erotic necessity. This is a man who will tell us everything, without illusion. I also adore “being shifted by the passage of time from one category of erotic object to another,” a deft characterization of the effects of age on beauty—one that  I’ve noticed myself, alas.

The narrator quickly changes his mind about Mitko’s proposal and offers ten leva, which is increased to twenty. He says:

“the sums were almost equally meaningless to me; I would have paid twice as much, and twice as much again, which isn’t to suggest that I had particularly ample resources, but that his body seemed almost infinitely dear.”

What follows is not a happy story. The narrator in some ways wants more from Mitko—sex, reciprocal desire, intimacy, possibly—but is stuck renting something he “wouldn’t be given freely.” The moments in which he finds satisfaction are fleeting, vastly offset by the lies and transparent manipulations of a man who can’t care for him, really. The book’s excellent title cuts several ways and the first is that Mitko does not belong to the narrator and never will. Very near the end he describes him as “this man I had in some sense loved and who had never in the years I had known him been anything but alien to me.”

Throughout, I was struck by how this category of experience—desire with a tarnished motive, a sexual relationship that isn’t quite legit, that exists outside our ordinary boundaries—can be so self-revealing. This is the second sense of the title, What Belongs to You. The buttons pressed to produce a Mitko of whatever form Mitkos come in our lives, belong to us too, gifts or burdens we’ll never relieve ourselves of.

In the book’s second section (where the new material starts after the novella version, which I wrote about—kind of incoherently—here), the narrator returns to his childhood and teenage years, exploring the foundations of his sexuality, drawing out the particulars of the mechanism that created the affair with Mitko. His shames are both common and terribly sad, beginning with his father’s violent rejection of his homosexuality. He expresses this history in a single, 40-page paragraph that again in the precision of its psychology is almost like nothing I’ve ever read.

In a climactic scene where his father offers him a chance to deny his homosexuality (he doesn’t) and then disowns him for being gay, the narrator says,

“As I listened to him say these things it was as though even as I laid claim to myself I found there was nothing to claim, nothing or next to nothing, as though I were dissolving and my tears were the outward sign of that dissolution.”

This goes several layers deeper than the cliche of claiming one’s truth. Greenwell packs the emotion and its opposite into a single moment, the assertion and dissolution of self. And then he complicates the picture further:

I was still crying but more than shock or grief I felt anger, more than anger, I was enraged, and rage filled me up with something that would not dissolve.”

From his later perspective, he adds:

What would I be without the anger I felt then, I wondered as I stood looking over the water, the anger I still feel, it ebbs or surges but is always there; whatever it has kept me from, without it I would have lost myself altogether.

This is not a happy or uplifting foundation for selfhood, but it’s the truth. We can trust his anger. He can trust his anger, has chosen to.

Almost every scene in this book is that complex, that wonderful. There are many other themes—story-telling, divided selves, false faces—but I think I’ll leave it with the anger, negative possibly, but belonging to the author, the way the story of Mitko does.