17., 18. & 19. Two Books About Climbing Mount Everest

22 Apr

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I surprise myself by having a great, obsessive love for Jon Krakauer, based entirely on the man’s grip of reporting and narrative, which, honestly, if there’s any better nonfiction writer/reporter on earth, I don’t know about him. I recently re-read Into Thin Air, twice through, starting directly again from the beginning after having completed it once, bringing my total lifetime reads of Into Thin Air to five. This is just weird, I realize.

Into Thin Air, for the uninitiated, is the first-person story of Krakauer’s disastrous 1996 summit of Mount Everest. He was on the trip as a magazine journalist, writing for Outside magazine, covering the increasing crowds on the mountain and commercialization of the climb. The thesis of the piece was supposed to be that the new forces were making the climb more dangerous and that a big disaster was in the offing. No one knew how prescient that would be, but the big disaster in fact happened in front of Krakauer’s eyes. Eleven people died on Everest in the few-day time window that Krakauer was summiting the mountain, including two guides and two clients in his group, and the head guide of a rival group. This was the trip that included socialite Sandy Hill Pittman, who did manage to make the summit, but whose celebrity presence warped the climb in ways that directly led to several deaths. Krakauer’s chronicle of the disaster is just simply one of the most harrowing and riveting adventure stories of all time.

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The summit of Mount Everest!

You might think that with such good material, the story would be hard to fuck up. It’s not that Jon Krakauer is a great writer, it’s that he got “lucky” to be along on a trip where people died in spectacular circumstances. This couldn’t be more wrong. Into Thin Air reads so effortlessly that the reader barely questions that Krakauer has re-created, through painstaking original reporting, the timing, movements, thoughts, soul-searching, etc., of dozens of people wandering around on the top of Mount Everest in a snowstorm, most of them half-demented from hypoxia, some of them actually hallucinating. These were not reliable sources, but Krakauer sorted it all out. He also imposed a narrative on events, which could roughly be translated as “What went wrong? Why did this happen?” Again that seems so obvious that the reader doesn’t question it, but creating structure takes intellectual rigor.

And I have proof of this!, because my Kindle auto-prompted me to buy another Everest book, Dark Summit by Nick Heil, and I took the bait. This book focuses on an almost equally deadly season on Everest ten years after Krakauer’s, in 2006, when ten people died. You could teach a master class in narrative in comparing these two books, which are as close to apples and apples as you’re ever going to get, yet Krakauer’s is the classic of the genre and Heil’s is sketchy at best, despite that he also had a riveting and horrible story to work with, about a young climber named David Sharp who sat dying for days on the top of the mountain while teams of climbers walked past him without trying to help. A week later another experienced climber was left for dead in the same location. (He miraculously survived).

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Dark Summit is worth reading, barely, just because the story is so crazy, but Heil misses the boat with asking the interesting questions about it or imposing a moral narrative. I can’t say what that narrative should have been, but I feel its lack, and suspect that in the hands of a different writer the facts could have been orchestrated to mean more.

Heil’s reporting, also, is thin. He frequently quotes from websites, TV interviews and so on instead of directly from the sources. He doesn’t seem to have talked to two of the story’s villains, a couple who ran an adventure website that was generating scandal and misinformation. I found myself wondering if he’d had adequate financial support to write the book, and then wondering more in the epilogue when he mentions that some of the reporting was done on the tab of another of the book’s major players, Russell Brice, a prominent adventure-tour leader who was blamed (probably unfairly) for Sharp’s death. (Sharp was not his client.)

It’s not necessary to tear Heil apart by comparing him to Krakauer (we can’t all be Jon Krakauer, sigh) but it’s so tempting because of how illustrative it is. Into Thin Air starts with the information about who its writer was and how he related to the expedition. Krakauer was a journalist working for Outside magazine, a member of a luxury tour, basically a representative of the exact type of person not qualified to be on Everest but there anyway. He turned out to be physically up for the climb. His mountaineering expertise probably saved his life. But his presence as a journalist clearly added to the pressure on the tour-leaders, and was a factor in the body count. Krakauer puts this up front and wrestles with it, hard, for the entirety of the book. He is there to be critical, do his research, and tell the truth, the core tasks of the journalist.

I think it’s possible between-the-lines that Heil was hired by Brice to write Dark Summit. And if not, Brice was obviously his main source and the person he had the most access to. The book is Brice’s story, but it pretends not to be. It would have been stronger if Heil had just said OK, it’s Russell Brice’s story. Brice is a new microcosm of the dangers and problems of Everest, the “big boss” of the base camp, the man running all the ropes up the mountain, footing the bill for many a rescue of people not on his team, yet with no real authority. What does that ultimately indicate about life and death, good, evil, human society, the modern-day state of the commercialization of Everest?  Brice has too much power and too little and how does that get into the heads of guys like David Sharp, climbing in his proximity? That kind of synthesis is what Jon Krakauer excels at, and Nick Heil unfortunately does not.

Heil also fails to get into any of his characters’ heads. There’s a tediously in-depth chapter about David Sharp’s personal history, but it comes after two filler chapters about the history of climbing Everest, by which point I’d forgotten that Sharp was the name of the climber who’d died. In a well-written book that wouldn’t have happened.

Some people will say that Krakauer had the massive advantage of having been there. I don’t, actually, think it’s entirely relevant since he’s shown the same virtuosity and moral reasoning in Into the Wild, the story of a young man who died alone in the Alaskan wilderness. Krakauer wasn’t there for that one, but he recreated it as if he were. And, in fact, he entered the story himself, bringing in his own struggles with his family, mountaineering and the hubristic impulses of young men in order to shed light on the story’s mysterious subject. Krakauer is self-revealing, critical and honest, a brilliant combination in an investigative journalist. Amazing!

I could go on, but surely this is enough. Adding a 19. to this post because I have also just read Eiger Dreams, Krakaeur’s first book on mountaineering.

And here, I shall leave you with Krakauer in 1964, at age 10, summiting his first mountain. Taken from his beautiful Instagram feed. A little boy about to cause the world a lot of trouble, right there.

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16. Redefining Realness by Janet Mock

21 Apr

Redefining Realness by Janet Mock

Janet Mock is a transgender woman who began her transition in high school and lived as a woman in New York City in her 20s, working media jobs. This is her memoir, and it’s a fascinating story, especially since it cleverly starts with Mock revealing her gender identity to her straight-man boyfriend, whose response the reader eagerly awaits for the next 300 pages.

Everyone’s lurid questions swirl around these issues—How would a straight man feel to discover he’d been sleeping with a former man?  Did Mock have an obligation to disclose? Can a transwoman really pass that effectively? And while the eventual answers are interesting, Mock’s story is much more than that, and she knows it, and uses the hot topics only as a frame.

Mock is half black, half Hawaiian and grew up in poverty bouncing between residences with a grandmother, a neglectful mother, a crack-addicted father and a cast of siblings, half-siblings and de facto step-siblings. She was sexually abused as a child, though she says her gender nonconformity came first. She makes a compelling case that contrary to the stereotype (that abuse causes gender dysphoria) the abuse was the result of her gender, since the abuser sensed she’d keep silent because of her difference.

Despite the obvious flaws of her family, Mock drew on their positive qualities, loved them, and used them for the support they were able to offer. Her gentle treatment of them shows true kindness of spirit. And, in a way, the multiple homes and not-so-benign neglect allowed her to take the reins with her gender in ways that a more policed young person would never have managed. (For example, she started taking off-label hormones and growing breasts in high school… and her mother didn’t notice.)

It’s a page-turner, and a great story.

The book and the generally excellent writing suffer, however, from the sense that Mock is trying to win a cultural argument for trans people through framing her life in the right way. She tends to spell out the political lessons of her experiences. Passages like the following are encrusted with lingo and feel like dogma 101:

The stories of my early expressions of femininity echo many people’s lived experiences with exploring, experimenting, and expressing gender. I’ve read and heard stories of trans people from all walks of life who remember playfully exhibiting their preferred gender behaviors and roles at age three or four without anyone’s prompting. …the majority were discouraged from experimenting outside their prescribed gender roles and behaviors. This contributes greatly to self image… Most cis people rarely question their gender identity…. This makes it difficult for the majority of people—including parents of trans youth and those close to trans people—to grasp the varied identities, needs, and determinations of trans people.

What’s the difference between a “lived experience” and an “experience”? What does “determination” mean in this context? Do we really know how parental discouragement of gender non-conforming behavior affects self-image, or is this a party line, a truism that everyone accepts because it seems to make sense? And “most cis people rarely question their gender identity”…. uhhhm, that’s probably not true, especially in childhood, whether you end up cis or end up trans. Most of this passage probably is accurate enough as common sense, but it has a false science-y quality that I object to.

I suppose the point is that the book is Dogma 101, Mock is quite specifically writing the book as a work of advocacy, using herself as an example to teach a general readership about trans issues.

The most interesting part of that to me was that as an advocate she struggles with the desire to pass as a woman (be a woman), as has been her deepest urge since childhood, verses the rising tide of calls to stand with her sister trans-women, which involves a fair amount of not-passing. It’s a conundrum and Mock doesn’t have the answers, but she has obviously responded to calls for her help with the same kind of generosity she has shown in other parts of her story. I admire her for it.

 

 

 

 

Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James (unfinished)

8 Apr

A Brief History of Seven Killings

I am finally going to admit this: I’m not going to finish this book, and I intend to stop torturing myself by trying. I have a now entered my third cycle with struggling through Marlon James’s Booker Award-winning masterpiece, A Brief History of Seven Killings. Unfortunately the book is not brief enough.

A Brief History of Seven Killings is set in Jamaica in the 1970s around the time of Bob Marley’s non-fatal shooting. It’s the Flamethrowers of 2015, a long, ambitious, highly political period-piece, rendered in excellent prose. It has a great location (Jamaica!) and offers a fascinating and real-seeming inner look at island politics. As something I should be curious about, it’s perfect. Unlike Flamethrowers, which was one girl’s story, James’s book is told in multiple voices, white and black (mostly black), including a series of interrelated thugs, a CIA agent, Nina Burgess who is a one-night-stand of Marley’s, Alex Pierce a scrappy journalist who hopes to interview him, and others.

The writing is truly very good. James has a kind of heat and virtuosity that lights up a scene, drills in, twists around, brings everything out in flash-bulb detail. I found myself loving some pages and some scenes enough to keep slogging. Some character arcs were interesting to me. But then, as soon as I’d settled in to being engaged, the POV would change, I’d be introduced to a new character, or brought back to one whose back-story I’d forgotten. The problem with this kind of thing is that once the book starts losing you, then you slow down too much and it loses you more. I gave up and went back three separate times and by the last had to be honest with myself that Nina Burgess was the only character I still remembered and related to. Also, the thug-voices were in dialect, and some of their sections were very violent and disturbing. And then there were big jumps in time.

I want this book to be for me but when I look at how much I have to go, and how small the type is, I just can’t do it.

I would also like to point out that this is the first time in the five years I’ve been keeping track of my reading on this blog that I’ve been unable to finish something I basically like and think is worthy of finishing. An Anthology of Clouds has been defeated by Marlon James.

15. USSR: Diary of a Perestroika Kid, by Vladimir Kozlov

8 Apr

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I took a gulp of lemonade, put down the glass, and took some cucumbers with sour cream from the salad dish. These were the first cucumbers of the year.

By the time I read the above quote about eating cucumbers, I was starting to wonder if anything, ever, was going to happen in USSR, Vladimir Kozlov’s exquisitely detailed but not exactly plotty autobiographical novel about an ordinary boy growing up in the late days of the Soviet Union.

The book’s protagonist, Igor, a seventh-grade boy, is moving through the ordinary, depressed, small events of childhood in the Belorussian town of Mogilev. His is a world in which, “Signs of a crumbling society were everywhere, but childhood forged on, largely structured around the daily schedule of school and activities such as clubs, sports, Pioneers and Komsomol (the mandatory youth and teenage communist organizations),”  one of the book’s introductory writers explains. Another introductory writer mentions that Kozlov’s other fictional works are usually about “the quick, intuitive, and often misguided adjustments that ordinary Soviet people were forced to make on the spot in order to survive in their rapidly changing surroundings, even as they remained rooted in their small, customary ‘Soviet’ worlds…”.

That understanding, I think, is crucial to reading this book, which is about what life was like just before the cataclysmic change occurred—the book’s project is to establish that small, customary world, with great tenderness. A little boy drinking lemonade and eating cucumbers with sour cream, not understanding anything, is the essential counterpart to what’s occurring elsewhere in the scene: The adults are discussing the appointment of a new Soviet premier—Mikhail Gorbachev. And even they don’t understand what it will mean. One says, “‘It doesn’t matter who they appointed, everything will stay the same.'” Hindsight is hilarious.

With this project in mind, the child’s unimaginative viewpoint, which does not see the larger picture, is a brilliant POV from which to catalog the last days of the empire.

And what Igor does see—the smaller picture—of model cars, brands of jeans, first crushes, dads who drink too much, and bootlegged Western music is entertaining too. The narration had a habit of hopscotching from scene to scene, so I wasn’t always sure where, exactly, we were. Was the grandma’s house in a village, or in Mogilev proper? Does Igor’s friend Kolya live in the same building? How did they meet again? But the scenes themselves were so beautifully rendered that I was along for the ride.

An old woman in a quilted jacket was leaving the bus stop with her net bag. There was a red and blue carton of milk and a round loaf of black bread in the bag.

I know just what that looks like! I’m glad someone has written a tribute to it.

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro

7 Apr

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I bought this book—and even bought a second one as a gift for a friend!—based on the first few chapters and its resemblance to a 2001 Ishiguro short story published in the New Yorker, “A Village After Dark,” which is a masterpiece of weirdness and withholding.  In the short story, terrain shifts, memories change, no one knows quite why they’re here, a village becomes a warren closing in on itself. Forgotten crimes could indicate that the village is a metaphor for England’s colonial history. There’s a sublimely pleasurable sense of vague horror. As a writer I’ve studied this story’s technique. It’s a master-class in how to get away with changing the rules. The trick, we discover as Ishiguro knocks out the underpinnings of narrative (time? not working; space? not working; location? obscure; motivation? unclear; characterization? eh), is to pin everything on the serenity and matter-of-factness of the narrative voice. A reliable narrator—who can paint a scene as confidently as Ishiguro can—can narrate anything and we’ll believe him.

Well, at least it works for a short story, because The Buried Giant, which uses the same technique, goes on my list of officially irritating and unreadable books and might mark a parting of ways between me and Ishiguro. The idea is similar to the “A Village After Dark” premise: an old couple, this time in Dark Ages, post-Arthur England where the Britons and the Saxons were recently at war, live in a warren where the inhabitants are cruel to them and everyone is afflicted with a curse of not being able to remember much. It’s scary and it could be a colonialism allegory. Eventually the couple discovers the source of the memory curse and lift it, at which point things may get worse because they’ll all remember each other’s crimes.

The allegory, I thought, was heavy-handed. The pleasure of the narrative voice was not enough. Reading The Buried Giant, I longed for characterization. These people were not allowed to really be people and thus were impossible to care about. The loss of memory meant nothing when they weren’t distinct characters with distinct memories in the first place. I really had to slog through to the end, and found myself skimming.

 

14. Since peace was tardy, I made it come by force. Burqa of skin, by Nelly Arcan

5 Apr

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I’m so glad I’ve grown out of being a girl. Am now a woman. Am no longer an object, enchanting or otherwise. Though now I have a daughter, so there is always cause for concern. I say that because there was a time when I was very interested in portrayals of the female body and sexuality, and would have really taken this book, in its rawness and pain and confusion, personally. It’s nice to see beyond the horizon of your body, though I remember not being able to.

Burqa of skin is a posthumous collection of essays by the Francophone Canadian novelist Nelly Arcan, whose first two book titles, Whore and Crazy will give you the idea of how Arcan related to stereotypes about women, the simultaneous frenzy of assumption and rejection with which she took on our historical labels. Whore is autobiographical, as was all of her writing; Arcan worked as an escort as a young woman. She killed herself in 2009 at the age of 36.

I suppose it’s telling that even after reading the book I don’t quite understand what the phrase burqa of skin means.  Arcan’s writing is smart, biting, claustrophobic but slightly incoherent. In the essay “The Child in the Mirror” she writes with vivid, visceral horror about her own skin, how it shamed her as a child, how it grew greasy and needed to be chastised, treated and tamed with masks and products. Arcan, like many  young women, saw herself as a surface, and felt the alienation between the surface and the interior, the self and the object. Skin, for her, seems to be symbolic of embodiment, in all its horror. (She found it horrifying.) But I can’t find a place in the book where she actually uses burqa of skin. The quote below mentions burqas, but  doesn’t entirely shed light on it:

The landscape she saw most often was a vision, blinding and clear, of women veiled in long blue burqas—blue like the low and omnipresent sky of American deserts—slicing the Earth, the golden orange, at full throttle, well over the speed limit, astride Harley Davidson motorcycles on and endless desert highway, someplace like Nebraska.

The burqa here seems freeing. But still, somehow I suspect that Arcan’s burqa of skin is just her own skin, a fabulously distorted and generic garment made of the cultural feminine, which utterly conceals her at the same time as she is naked  wearing it.

I’m kind of making that up, but maybe I’m right. These essays are on mothers and daughters, mirrors, speed dating, suicide, with the second half of the book devoted to Arcan’s obsessive musings on a scandalous interview she did on the Canadian television station CBC, in which the male interviewer and other panelists made fun of her cleavage instead of talking about her writing. (It’s painful to watch, here in French.)

I’d sort of like to read Whore. I’m not sure how she stacks up as a cultural philosopher, but she’s very good at writing about the body. Here’s a passage I liked:

 

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Wow!

If only she weren’t dead, she could date Houellebecq.

 

13. Hungry, by Daniel Parme

4 Apr

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This is a novel about a guy from Pittsburgh who eats his friends (ice-climbing trip, downed plane, survival situation). The protagonist, Travis Sebastian Eliot, is rescued from his ordeal, returns famous but still just an ordinary slacker/barfly, and then things start to get weird. I was going to say that the book is awesome though it suffers from some of the usual bad-editing flaws of books brought out by small presses, but close examination of my copy reveals no publisher’s imprint. I think Hungry, by Daniel Parme is self-published, which makes it even more awesome. It’s my favorite book found this year at AWP.

What is so awesome about eating your friends, you ask?

What I liked about Hungry  was that it slowly clicked through the dial of what this metaphor could mean. The first stop was that cannibalism brought fame—the opening scenes are a morbid satire of the media and celebrity culture. Won’t we celebrate anyone for anything?  Haven’t all famous people at one point eaten their friends? But it moves on to sex and to power, to the idea that eating people brings vitality, defeats death. Travis feels like life is lacking after his adventure and becomes impotent, until being seduced by a group of cannibals who trick him into eating human flesh again. Here he is accidentally consuming his first box of human take-out:

So I ate it. Devoured it actually. One, I was starving, and fainting hadn’t helped. And two, it may have been the best meal I’d ever eaten. The potatoes, well, they were good, but still just potatoes. But the green beans were amazing—crisp and juicy and with just the right amount of garlic. As good as the beans were though, they couldn’t hold a candle to the meat. I’m talking tender, juicy, succulent bite of Heaven, here.

The cannibalism solves the limp-dick problem. Some interesting passages follow on the power and enjoyment that comes from consuming others. (The cannibal group, naturally, are all rich finance guys and lawyers.) Travis, however, finds almost a spiritual enjoyment in the attraction of eating flesh, though he resists doing it, mostly. He gets a j0b in  morgue, where he becomes obsessed with the dead bodies…yes, he wants to eat them, though not the skinny ones. Some of the book’s best-written scenes are set here (one senses that Parme did some research in looking at dead bodies) and Travis’s thinking, while admittedly totally fucked-up, is interesting, almost tender. Here he is looking at a dead woman:

She was done. Everything building up inside her, everything ready to explode—it all just stopped. All that power that had taken years nearing the surface, it was all trapped. She could never let it out. She was a false alarm, and I felt sorry for her. Or, more accurately, I felt sorry for all the stuff she’d never be able to let out.

Travis longs to eat this corpse and others to get some of that power, though like a good liberal boy with a conscience, he resists.

None of the action is particularly plausible, but the sketchy plot didn’t bother me too much since the heart of the book was its strange, punk-rock premise that found life in death and breathed desire into very weird configurations.

The prose was casual, funny, and fun to read, too, though could really have used a slash-and-burn on all the excess verbiage and the thing about this or the thing about that. There are ways to write tight prose that still captures a conversational tone, but without an editor Parme didn’t get there.

“The thing about being stranded in the mountains is that you have no one to talk to, so you talk to anything.”

“The thing about having a whole lot of sex is it’s not enough. Never enough.”

Repetitions everywhere! But overall, a really fun book. Eat your friends, kids, or just read about it!

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.

11. Submission, by Michel Houellebecq

29 Mar

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Submission is a meaning of the word Islam in Arabic, and is also the title of a 2015 novel by French provocateur Michel Houellebecq, freshly translated into English by our own Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review. The book is about a near-future Paris in which, following fighting in the streets by armed militias, a moderate “Muslim Brotherhood” party takes political power. It has the tragic claim-to-fame of having been published on 7 January 2015, the date of the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, and having to some extent predicted events of the March 2016 Paris Terror.  As the title indicates, the book’s central theme is the giving-way of one form of society to another, the collapse of what Houellebecq identifies as “atheist materialism,” or secular democracy, or the values of the Enlightenment, to a resurgent global religiosity, spearheaded by Islam.

A review of the novel in my copy of Bookforum tells me, basically, that we’re not supposed to take Houellebecq seriously as an idea man. He’s been called a misogynist and Islamophobic, and has been taken to trial for inciting racial hatred (he was acquitted). He says things we’re not supposed to say with obvious button-pushing glee, from quotes like this about what even moderate Muslims want :

For these Muslims, the real enemy—the thing they fear and hate—isn’t Catholicism. It’s secularism. It’s laicism. It’s atheist materialism.

To something more subtle like this, from the POV of a professor at the Sorbonne, which tells girls in burkas they don’t belong at the Sorbonne:

…what did those two virgins in burkas care about that self-proclaimed analist, Jean Lorrain? did their fathers realize what they were reading in the name of literature?

But, you know, I surprised myself by loving this book anyway. I thought Submission was a ravishing good read, beautifully written, very difficult to put down, and also hilarious. I appreciated my literary encounter with those two hot topics of our time, misogyny and Islamophobia, though I may have drawn different conclusions than the author intended me to. Or not. It’s hard to tell with Houellebecq, whose hot topics tend to be the sort people bring their own strong opinions to.

The book’s protagonist, Francois, is a French academic with a specialty in the 1800s French decadent author Joris Karl Huysmans. He says in the opening line that “For all the years of my sad youth Huysmans remained a companion, a faithful friend; never once did I doubt him…”.  After defending his dissertation, Francois realizes “that part of my life, probably the best part, was behind me.”He’s a stand-in for his society, one of the “remaining Western social democracies,” (quote also from the first page) for whom the best part of their existence, Houellebecq believes, is also behind  them. Francois at his best has the virtues of art-appreciation and intellectual curiosity, but mostly he’s callow, radically isolated, degraded, sees the women around him only as sex objects, drinks too much, eats microwave food. He can find nothing to value, and no one to value him. He’s riding on the fumes of history.

Here he is, in all his glory:

My life would have been truly tedious and dreary if I hadn’t, every now and then, fucked Myriam. I pulled over at a service station called Mille Étangs—Thousand Ponds—just after the exit to Chateauroux. I bought a chocolate-chip cookie and a large coffee at La Croissanterie, then I got back in the car to have my breakfast and think about the past, or nothing at all.

Erotic memories of an ex-girlfriend—the best memories of Francois’s life, no less—are juxtaposed with eating a cookie from a service station. It’s a witty and vicious illustration of the banality of consumer culture, which turns people into products and love into a sugar high. I also laughed at this:

My attempt to interest myself in the natural beauty of the region was obviously doomed to failure.

Francois, in his transparent loathsomeness, is funny. But his despair is real, and his story is, for all its satirical elements, a search for meaning.

When the Muslim Brotherhood takes over France and deprives Francois of his rote existence as a teacher at the Sorbonne he has to come up with something other than suicide. He tries to find love (getting back together with an ex-girlfriend, frequenting prostitutes…) and fails. His somewhat vague stirrings of political consciousness suggest to him that maybe good old-fashioned patriarchal marriage where the woman stays home and cooks a nice meal was a better way of life. Or perhaps religious faith was. He tries half-heartedly to embrace traditional values by experimenting with Catholicism, but also discovers he cannot. Mainly, it seems, because he can’t deny himself the fruitless pleasures religious faith would prevent. (He leaves a spiritual retreat at a monastery because he’s annoyed that he’s not allowed to smoke.)

But Houellebecq, it seems, can’t believe in faith for his modern man. He closes the story in an explosion of spite. In newly Islamic France, polygamy is legal, and the old elite seamlessly shares power with the new. Francois is offered a plum teaching position and a couple of teenage wives if he’ll convert to Islam, which cheers him up. Is this an extension of the idea that a return to “traditional values” is actually a good thing?  Or meant as vicious satire, not of women or Muslims, but of the protagonist and the French intellectual classes he represents?

Either way it’s a satisfyingly cynical demonstration of one boys’ club handing the reins of power to another. It also draws satisfying parallels between Francois’s atheist-materialist pornotopia and a religious system that runs on women’s bodies (as the version of Islam in this book seems to).  And—I’m not sure Houellebecq means to be making this impression—but it felt to me like Francois’s misogyny was the key to his despair. Why blame a failed society for his isolation when there’s a closer, more direct explanation: He’s totally blind to any qualities of the women around him other than their sexuality. No wonder he’s lonely. His condition is less a reflection of his society than of himself.

For what it’s worth, Karl Ove Knausgaard, reviewing the book for the New York Times, sort of agrees with me.

Francois doesn’t find much relief in art, or not enough, at least. But I think that possibly Houellebecq does. You can tell by the carefulness of his craft, and the deliciousness of those explosions of spite, and passages like the following, that make a greater attempt at spirituality than anything Francois finds in the monastery.

The beauty of an author’s style, the music of his sentences have their importance in literature, of course; the depth of an author’s reflections, the originality of his thought certainly can’t be overlooked; but an author is above all a human being, present in his books, and whether he writes well or badly hardly matters—as long as he gets the books written and is, indeed present in them.

There is presence in this book. It’s obnoxious, despairing, cynical, but I really liked it.

 

 

 

 

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.