Tag Archives: 2016

20. The Pulse Between Dimensions and the Desert, by Rios De La Luz

5 May

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It sometimes happens that I get an indie-press book whose author seems personally appealing or whose cover is beautiful or whose press I like, and then I get into the book and a) hate it and b) feel guilty about writing about how much I hate it, since the author is probably a nice person and certainly this book was their dream and it’s such an obscure book anyway, why bother?

Well, The Pulse Between Dimensions and the Desert, by Rios De La Luz, published by Ladybox press out of Portland, Oregon, is a classic example of that problem. I struggled through it. I thought it was actively awful. And despite that probably no one but its author cares about this book, I’m going to expound upon why.

So, it’s a book about race, about being a queer Latina, and the kind of myth-making and dreaming you need to do to make space for yourself if you are those things in an unfriendly world. That’s my best guess. The stories are about girls dating, grandmas, mean white boys, early girlfriends, cleaning houses for a living, sexual assault, with self-consicously lyrical flights like….

“During recess, I lugged the classroom’s bucket of crayons, color pencils and markers with me. The class played kickball and I sat under the shade of a palo verde tree because of asthma. I arranged all the greens together, blues and reds together…. Yellows owned the sun. Naranjas represented astronauts with Martian dust on their boots. Brown was my favorite. Brown represented the people I interacted with every single day.”

The  lyrical space-making mission isn’t a terrible idea, but its execution it struck me as so out of ideas. A crayon box? Really? The crayon box to talk about skin color? That is the biggest cliché in the history of writing about skin color. In a book that’s supposed to be lyrical and odd, a fucking crayon box?

None of the execution of these stories, from the good brown girls to the bad white boys brought any complexity beyond what you’d expect from campus politics. Brown girls might be more sympathetic than white boys. Many grandmas are lovely and deserve to have their struggles lionized. But these truths are not self-evident, both god and the devil are in the details, which De La Luz skips.

The story “Rosario,” is a two-page hash of bad things white boys have done to the narrator, one thing a sexual assault, another the annoying way they try to speak Spanish to pick her up, for example.  Those two things don’t seem the same to me, and erasing the differences between them obscure the possible stories therein, and the meaning of either anecdote. The point of the story is that the narrator is angry at white men and doesn’t forgive them for their crimes, but that’s not a story yet either. Lines like “Blatant sexualization of my brownness makes me gag,” are all tell, not show.

I’m going to write soon about The Mexican Man in His Back Yard, a collection of stories by the incredible Stephen D. Gutierrez on growing up poor and Mexican in Fresno and Los Angeles, a book with so much truth, passion, and pain that it makes the flaws of a book like De La Luz’s glare. Gutierrez’s stories are about race and class, but they’re about other things too: the history of illness in Gutierrez’s family; a local bully Gutierrez didn’t like. It is through talking about these other things—these characters’ real lives, because they are people first and race representatives second—that the insights about race bubble up. The cliche events in De La Luz’s book might be cliche because they’re true, but they’re so literal they allow no bubbling.

For example, in a wonderful story “Lucky Guys Forever,” Gutierrez writes about a local kid “a poor boy…. His name was Herrera. He was dark, with big, bulging frog eyes and a lambskin-lined jacket he wore all seasons of the year.” In Herrera’s one shining moment of social functioning he had a 10-speed bike early, when they were cool, and he loved it and was proud of it. That’s sad in a mostly-obvious way. I thought of the character Dukie from The Wire. But as the story goes on, it focuses not on the sad kid but on the narrator writing this kid’s story, and how much the narrator hated this kid. Gutierrez does some fancy meta-fictional footwork, circling through methods of telling that would allow his child self to beat this boy up—whom he had personal reasons to want to beat and also, we suspect, symbolic reasons. Symbolically perhaps he doesn’t want to be this sad kid with his perfect-bike sad moment. He doesn’t want to have to empathize. But eventually, he does. Here’s what he thinks:

Everything’s cool. I saw a little bit of myself in him. And I knew he needed only one thing, love. We had to help each other, the wounded. This came upon me in a flash, without premeditation. Later I would learn what it was called, an epiphany. And in that state, feeling much for him and the world, with myself included, I turned away for a second.”

The empathy is powerful because it was hard-won. It’s a brilliant story about rewriting stories. It’s a story about how much Gutierrez hates that sad-kid story, at the same time as he must admit that it’s related to his story, and find a positive, powerful way to incorporate it into his identity. The real killer in that paragraph is with myself included. At every turn, Gutierrez writes himself in, overwrites cliches about race. He’s brilliant.

Writing didactic stories De La Luz erases the details, turns everyone into caricatures, reveals nothing, includes neither herself nor the people she’s critiquing. The lyricism in this context feels like hiding from truth, or covering it. Don’t know how you really feel about your grandma? Invent her a time machine!  Sexually assaulted? Imagine throwing paint over yourself.

It’s so much easier than putting who you really are and how you really feel on the page.

 

 

21. Margaret the First, by Danielle Dutton

5 May

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Daily life in the 1600s was stranger, even, than we can imagine, but it’s fun to try. Margaret the First is the story of Margaret of Newcastle-on-Tyne, an eccentric lady-writer-aristocrat, a wearer of weird hats whose London provocations and bizarre plays were a Baz Luhrmann wet dream, all flocks of rooks and potted limes and stars like comets. Here are some science questions Margaret asked:

“Are seeds annihilated when a plant grows?”

“Is God full of ideas?
“Is lightning a fluid?”

“Is thunder a blast of the stars?”

Margaret was the first woman in England to write for publication under her own name. She wrote poetry, philosophy, feminist plays and utopian science fiction—some of the very earliest sci-fi on record. Dutton takes these accomplishments as a fictional jumping-off point, and writes Margaret’s story as that of a woman artist inventing herself, with a focus on the difficulties she faced as a woman in a men’s arena.

The writing on Margaret’s creative process is exciting, vivid, beautiful. I related to this:

“But Margaret wanted the whole house to move three feet to the left. It was indescribable what she wanted. She was restless. She wanted to work. She wanted to be thirty people. She wanted to wear a cap of pearls and a coat of bright blue diamonds. To live as nature does, in many ages, in many brains.”

The delight of this book is Dutton’s prose, and her skill at inhabiting the weird details of the historical moment. Hair is “crimped and fierce as wild lettuce”. Young Margaret wears “petal flecked shoes” and takes a “conserve of marigolds for breakfast, trying to loosen a cough.” Awful sounding medical treatments, arcane plants and flowers, strange outfits, carriages, Kings, wars, hysterical blindness and perilous sea voyages…. it’s a lusciously textured vision of the 1600s.

My only slight cavil was that the pro-woman-artist perspective felt so….modern. Margaret’s “woman-in-a-man’s-world” struggle was recognizable as how we think today. And I suppose since obviously we know that story, it’s a little bit flat as a plot. The fun is discovering how Margaret’s era was weirdly different than ours. I wanted her values, and especially her feminism, to have that same psychedelic pulse of difference. But overall this was fun to read and I enjoyed it.

 

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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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.

 

 

 

 

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.