Monday, August 3, 2015

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

I've been worse than truant in my reviews this year--I plead the "two children 3 and under exemption--but Brittany requested a review of The Buried Giant, which both Chris and Randy read this year, and I'd hoped to review it anyway, as a fan of Ishiguro's other novels.

The Buried Giant is Ishiguro trying his hand at the genre of high fantasy. The plot is fairly simple--an older couple travel across a fantastical land to visit their son who lives a ways away. Along the way they encounter vengeful village people (not THOSE Village People), one of King Arthur's Knights, monks who are not what they seem and, tying them all together, an ancient dragon whose breath keeps the entire world in a state of forgetting.

It's not a state of total amnesia--people remember their names, some of their acquaintances, bits and pieces of their past--but in a way, it's worse. They live with the past constantly on the tip of their tongue, unable to recall it. They, and the reader, sense from the beginning that this isn't personal--and that there's reason to suspect that remembering might not lead to a happy ending.

Based on the other two Ishiguro books I've read, Never Let Me Go and Remains of the Day, this is all very much in Ishiguro's wheelhouse. Characters who can't quite remember, or contextualize, their lives, the questions of choice and agency, the gradual revelation of a world that looks normal but is revealed in turns to have some sinister underpinnings. Not that any of this is bad. These are complex, nearly bottomless themes, and Ishiguro has--and does at times here--explored them quite artfully. Here though, things don't really come together in a satisfactory way.

First, the good. There are some great setpieces here--I enjoyed the couple's harrowing journey across a fairy-haunted lake and their stay at a creepy monastary--and the medieval atmosphere occasionally works well--it's hard to imagine something like a monastery chase happening in modern times. Axl and Beatrice are strong characters, and their interactions, which form the emotional core of the book, work in spite of their sometimes stilted stylization.

Ultimately, though, I have to side with Usula K. LeGuin and Chris. There are just too many weak links in the story for it to hit as hard as Never Let Me Go or Remains. The fantasyland Ishiguro creates too often feels like it exists on a soundstage, with the cast too frequently lapsing into parodic dialog. Two of the main characters, the warrior Wistan and the elder Arthurian Gawain, never develop much beyond their archetypes, and the twists, which in Never Let Me Go and Remains are both surprising and enriching to the story being told, are, here, somewhat predictable and don't expand the themes of the story beyond what we already know.

I enjoyed The Buried Giant, but it is by far my least favorite Ishiguro. Pick up the other two books mentioned here first. I'm not sure this one is really necessary if you can remember those.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

Gone, and as painful now as the thought of a stillborn child.  Sentimental?  Of course.  Riddled with the Anglo-American mawkishness about home, quicksandy with assumptions about monogamy and Women's Highest Role, buttery with echoes of the household poets.  All that.  But I find that I don't mind her emotions and her sentiments.  Home is a notion that only the nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend.  What else would one plant in a wilderness or on a frontier?  What loss would hurt more?

I'm a big fan of Idaho.  It's full of some of the most fascinating things I've ever had the luck to see: the towering Bruneau Dunes, the bizarre lavascape of Craters of the Moon National Park, the grand Shoshone Falls overlooking the Snake River Gorge.  Boise--an underrated city.  The isolated buttes on the way east from Wyoming, like stranded ships.

When I was heading out on my road trip to Oregon earlier this month, I wanted a book that took place in one of the places we would be passing through, and this novel came up on a list of "books set in Idaho."  The joke was on me--much as it was last year when we only passed through Iowa for five minutes when I tried to read Marilynne Robinson's Home--because we were well out of Idaho before I got to the part of Angle of Repose that was set there.  (In fact, I was back in New York before the book arrived in Boise Canyon.)

But worse, the Idaho of Angle of Repose isn't the sublime West that I like, but a real wilderness which proves an inescapable burden for Susan Burling Ward, the book's protagonist and the wife of Oliver Ward, an engineer who spends most of his life trying to find a project equal to his grand ambitions.  He and Susan go from New York to New Almaden, CA to Leadville, CO to Michoacan, Mexico, up to Boise Canyon over the course of decades.  Boise seems to finally offer Oliver the chance to build something meaningful--a set of ditches and canals that will irrigate the canyon--but the experience of living on the Western frontier proves difficult for Susan, a genteel New Yorker who is uprooted from any sense of civilization or society, and who worries about how her children will grow up amidst the savagery of Western isolation.  Boise Canyon is where those pressures finally come to break Susan and Oliver's relationship, causing a break that never seems to mend.

Telling this story is Susan's grandson, Lyman Ward, a former college professor suffering from a crippling bone disease which has left him confined to a wheelchair, as well as the dissolution of his marriage.  Lyman is bitter and recalcitrant in his insistence on being independent as possible, and writing about his grandmother is also a kind of self-finding:

Right there, I might say to Rodman, who doesn't believe in time, notice something: I started to establish the present and the present moved on.  What I established is already buried under layers of tape.  Before I can say I am, I was.  Heraclitus and I, prophets of flux, know that the flux is composed of parts that imitate and repeat each other.  Am or was, I am cumulative, too.  I am everything I ever was, whatever you and Leah may think.  I am much of what my parents and especially my grandparents were--inherited stature, coloring, brains, bones (that part unfortunate), plus transmitted prejudices, culture, scruples, likings, moralities, and moral errors that I defend as if they were personal and not familial.

Angle of Repose is in many ways a very conservative text.  Lyman frames his attempt to recover the story of his grandmother Susan as an alternative to the hippy-dippy notions of his caretaker Shelly, who has bought into the 60's counterculture optimism of creating a new society by breaking from what is old.  The strangest temporal experience of Angle of Repose, in fact, is not its demand that we sympathize with the Victorian Susan, but rather treating hippie utopianism as a contemporary idea--it's the latter, not the former, that really seems antiquated.  But the novel is also deeply critical of the way we trivialize or infantilize the past, something which I agree with very much:

What a hangup about bare skin!  What a hypocritical refusal to acknowledge the facts of life!  The Victorians were a race without biology.

Horsefeathers.  Grandmother grew up on a f arm and lived much of her life on crude frontiers.  She knew the animal facts of life as few of us are likely to again.  Without embarrassment she accepted the animal functions of, say, buggy horses that would bring giggles and hooraws from emancipated moderns... Death and life were everyday matters to Grandmother.  The breeding of horses, mules, cattle, the smug and polygamous fornications of chickens, raised no eyebrows.  When animals died, the family had to deal with their bodies; when people died, the family's women laid them out.  In the 1880s you suffered animal pain to a degree no modern would submit to.  You bore your children, more likely than not, without anesthetic.

We have only switched prohibitions and hypocrisies with them. We blink pain and death, they blinked nudity and human sex, or rather, talk about sex. 

Angle of Repose is based, not very loosely, on the life of Mary Hollock Foote, whose family gave Stegner permission to use not only the story but excerpts from Foote's actual letters within the novel.  Stegner, like Ward, fills in much of the blanks with fiction, piecing together what can be pieced with the help of conjecture.  The effort is seamless, though the choice hasn't been without controversy.

I love the American West.  Whenever I go out there, I'm struck by the scale of its landscape, and its vast near-emptiness.  But Angle of Repose reminds me that, in the end, I'm only zooming through on an interstate, and that I'll never love it--or loathe it--as strongly as those who worked on the frontier to make it a habitable place.

The Case Against the Supreme Court by Erwin Chemerinsky

The Court has frequently failed, throughout American history, at its most important tasks, at its most important moments.  This is not easy for me to conclude or say.  Almost forty years ago, I decided to go to law school because I believed that law was the most powerful tool for social change and that the Supreme Court was the primary institution in society that existed to stop discrimination and to protect people's rights.  In a society filled with inequalities and injustices, the civil rights lawyers of the 1950s and '60s were the model for what I wanted to be.

I'm sympathetic to Young-Chemerinksy's view about the Supreme Court: I myself once bought into the myth of the Supreme Court as the main institution to fight injustice (past tense because not sure how I feel right now).  So, I understand Dean Chemerinsky's starting point: does the Supreme Court live up to our expectations of it?

Chemerinksy's unequivocal answer is no.  For all of the United States's history, the Supreme Court has, according to him, failed every major test.  Every time the Court was presented with a difficult case for which the Court should have fought injustice, the Court failed to.  Chemerinsky, thus, concludes that the Supreme Court is a failed institution.

He documents these failures in three major historical areas (protecting minorities, enforcing the Constitution during times of crisis, and property/states' rights), two contemporary areas (employers/employees/consumers and abuses of governmental power), and discusses counterpoints (What about the Warren Court?  Is the Roberts Court really that bad?), and offers some possible solutions.

I can summarize his argument succinctly: he disagrees with a lot of Supreme Court decisions.  The Warren Court did not do as much as it should have.  The Roberts Court is really that bad.  And, we need to term limit our justices and question their ideology during confirmation hearings.

I have only one major problem with Chemerinsky's argument.  His disagreement with major Court decisions does not acknowledge that his own view is subject to reasonable disagreement.  For example, he believes the Korematsu decision (Japanese internment camps) was wrong and that everyone can agree the decision is wrong.  Although, I also agree the decision was wrong, I think many people feel it was the right decision, both at the time of the decision and today.  During World War II, there was an intense fear of Japanese Americans---that we now know the fear to be unfounded, doesn't change that they thought the fear was founded---and so the Court allowed the internment of them.  This decision was based on a belief that the Court should not interfere with the executive branch during times of war.  No Court has since overruled the decision because this is still a widely held belief about the relationship between the Court and the executive branch.  Again, I disagree with the Korematsu decision; my point is only that it's subject to reasonable disagreement.

Dean Chemerinsky
So I feel that Chemerinsky does not give enough credit to the fact that the decisions he discusses are difficult, contain competing values, and include many tensions within the Constitution itself.  So, for his thesis to work (for me), it is not enough to say that the Court is wrong about some decisions; the decisions must be so wrong that no justice could have, in good faith, reached the decision.  However, (obviously), justices have, and I feel have done so in good faith.

Chemerinsky does not accuse the justices of bad faith.  However, he thinks they are simply applying their discretion to cases, which in turn is informed by their ideology.  Though I think this is accurate, in terms of concluding there is something wrong with the Court, his explanation is unsatisfying.  If justices are merely applying their ideology, then the only basis for criticizing their decisions must be based on a criticism of their ideology.  But ideology is itself subject to reasonable disagreement.  So it feels as though Chemerinsky is criticizing the Court for not following his ideology.  This, I feel, is less an issue with the Court as an institution and more an issue with each individual Justice.  I don't see this as a problem with the Court because disagreement over ideology is an inherent part of our political and justice systems.

Am I the only one who sees a
resemblance?
Chemerinksy offers two solutions of note: 18-year term limits and closer Senate scrutiny and more openness from judicial candidates during confirmation hearings.  I don't know how to feel about term limits.  I'll say this, though: I'm not sure what problem it is meant to serve other than ensuring the Supreme Court more closely reflects which party wins presidential elections.  Because I view life appointments as a way of guaranteeing independence, which I support, I am reluctant to say our justices should be term limited.  Nonetheless, I think closer scrutiny of judicial ideology would be desirable.  Of course people grow and change and develop over time.  Still, I think it is only fair for us to be able to hear what candidates for the Supreme Court believe their role in the Constitutional system will be.  I don't think it would require them to pre-decide cases; I think it would simply require everyone to be more honest about the judicial role and what considerations play into it.

There's a lot of meat to this book, and so I would tend to recommend it.  It reads more for non-lawyers (and honestly, for a lawyer, sometimes the explanations of basic constitutional concepts was...tedious; no fault to Chemerinsky because I understand he was writing for a broader audience). Still, though, I think many readers (whether lawyer or not) will find that the book feels like a series of disagreements with the Court's decisions.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

It does not matter that the "intentions" of individual educators were noble.  Forget about intentions.  What any institution, or its agents, "intend" for you is secondary.  Our world is physical....Very few Americans will directly proclaim that they are in favor of black people being left to the streets.  But a very large number of Americans will do all they can to preserve the Dream.  No one directly proclaimed that schools were designed to sanctify failure and destruction.  But a great number of educators spoke of "personal responsibility" in a country authored and sustained on criminal irresponsibility.  The point of this language of "intention" and "personal responsibility is a broad exoneration.  Mistakes were made.  Bodies were broken.  People were enslaved.  We meant well.  We tried our best.  "Good intention" is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.

Wow. Between the World and Me really has some mustard on it. I'll preface my review by saying that though this book is a vital addition to any understanding of race in America, it is pretty advanced.  If you gave this book to someone who thinks #alllivesmatter or that the Confederate flag isn't necessarily racist, much of it probably will go right over their head.  On the other hand, if you're a person who believes him or herself to be white and you have started learning and listening and reading about the experiences of black people in America, then this book is essential.

Coates writes Between the World and Me as an open letter to his teenage son as a way to try to guide him in his life as a black man in America.  Throughout the book Coates writes about his own experiences.  Coates describes his childhood and his overprotective parents, which he says is common among African-Americans, explaining it as a product of love and extreme fear (his dad's theory was, "Either I can beat him, or the police."), which is perfectly understandable given recent events.  Though he was restless and unmotivated during high school, he had an intellectual awakening at Howard University (the "Mecca"), where he reveled in being surrounded by so many vibrant, lively black students and devoured writings by black thinkers, especially Malcolm X.  He writes about the death of his acquaintance Prince Jones by a bullet from an overzealous undercover police officer in a (barely credible) case of mistaken identity.  Coates also describes how he changed after becoming a father.

Coates also surgically deconstructs race in America.  One of the most interesting points he makes is that race didn't create racism, racism created race; that what we think of as race is mutable and is really just a tool to oppress certain manufactured groups when convenient for the powerful.  Coates acknowledges that Americans did not invent this practice, that it has been going on for centuries, but he doesn't let us off that easily:

But this banality of violence can never excuse America, because America makes no claim to the banal.  America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization.  One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and the plead mortal error.  I propose to take our countrymen's claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.  This is difficult because there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not inquire too much.  And it is so easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and to ignore the great evil done in all of our names.  But you and I have never truly had that luxury.  I think you know.

As you can see, this is not a comfortable book to read, especially as a white man, but I think that makes it all the more important.  But it is also powerfully and wonderfully written, and at times has a poetry to it that makes it even more effective.  There are many other passages that I would love to quote, but I'll leave it at two.

I bought my copy of Between the World and Me at a local book shop so that I could also get a ticket to his upcoming lecture at the Carter Center.  I hope that he clarifies a couple of things: first, he writes often about the taking, assaulting, or breaking of black "bodies."  But often he uses the word in a way that you could easily interchange selves or lives.  So I wonder if there is some reason why he keeps focusing on "bodies" or if it's basically just a poetic choice.  Second, he often writes about the "Dream."  It seems like the Dream is basically a desire for an upper-middle class life in the suburbs, with the picket fence and two car garage, etc., (and only select and regulated interactions and proximity to black people.)  It seems like Coates sees the Dream is inextricably linked to systemic racism.  What I wonder is whether this desire is possible in a hypothetical society without racism or how the Dream fits into urban areas.  Other than the whole white flight part, most of the things that Coates argue constitute the dream seem pretty innocuous, but he seems to condemn it wholesale.

Of course, the answer may be that it doesn't matter, because, as Coates predicts at the end of the book, climate change, for which white supremacy has been one of the forces most responsible, will soon doom us all. It's kind of a bleak book (but definitely worth reading).

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

There are moments in this book that Poehler infuses with such reflection, honesty, and humor that it is impossible not to love it. Descriptions of family and friends, of her early life in comedy are some of the best. It is clear that she is a comedienne through and through--everything in her life, including the pain of losing a childhood friend's mother to cancer, is seen through the filter of her humanity and comic genius. In some places these reflections fall flat.

It felt to me that she isn't fully comfortable in the spotlight. Her descriptions of the set of Parks and Recreation seem to be included simply to meet the expectation that they will be. It's such a cursory treatment, that I wished she had omitted it entirely. The chapter in which is discusses her resentment of those trying to take what she views as shortcuts to enter "the business" felt forced and preachy. It was ungracious to jump on someone who dropped a screenplay on her lap on a commute (it is beyond obvious that this person was rude and disrespectful). I didn't need her to tell me that she worked hard to achieve her level of success--she showed that beautifully in other places in the book. This treatment simply made her seem out of touch with those who haven't made it.

The only thing about the book that I found unforgivable, however, was her seeming distaste for the task. She calls herself on it in the preface. But that honest reflection did not warm me to the moments she felt the need to point out that "writing a book is hard" or is "no fun." Again, this is something I already know, and perhaps I'm a reading snob, but I believe writing is like figure skating: those who do it best make it look easy. Every time she mentioned this, it pulled me up short and diminished the fun I was having reading the work.

The book was disorganized and jumpy, almost to the point that I wanted to pull out my red pencil. After a little while though, I realized that quality added to the fact that the book is a great representation of the human who wrote it: silly, scattered, energetic, and flawed. While there are parts that are dull, forced, or cringe-worthy, it is clear that Poehler's approach to life requires that she include them. Like any good improv actor, she can leave nothing on the table.
    

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

"I suppose if I had a moment of doubt at all it was then, as I stood in tat cold, eerie stairwell looking back at the apartment from which I had come. Who were these people? How well did I know them? Could I trust any of them, really, when it came right down to it? Why, of all people, had they chosen to tell me? 

It's funny, but thinking back on it now, I realize that this particular point in time, as I stood there blinking in the deserted hall, was the one point at which I might have chosen to do something very different from what I actually did. But of course I didn't see this crucial moment then for what it was; I suppose we never do."


The Secret History was suggested to me - it was described as having all the things I loved about The Goldfinch and was perhaps a better read as well. It has, unfortunately, been a little too long since I've read it to do a proper review, but it's too good of a book to not mention it at all. 

It does have some things in common with The Goldfinch: male narrator, flashback frame story, the idea of the point in which a life is divided into Before and After, a cast of characters who are easy to love. It is, however, more sinister and not necessarily because of the content. It opens with:

"The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation...We hadn't intended to hide the body where it couldn't be found" 

and continues in Tartt's signature fetchingly lovely prose: 

"Walking through it all was one thing; walking away, unfortunately, has proved to be quite another, and though once I thought I had left that ravine forever on an April afternoon long ago, now I am not so sure."

It is not this act that makes the novel more sinister but the way people are not who they are supposed to be and all the consequences - intended or not - of that. 

Richard is a poor California boy at a rich East coast college. He had studied Greek before transferring, but is denied entrance into the Greek class by the professor, Julian, who cannot possibly take more than five students. Richard becomes enchanted by the group of students - who take almost all their classes with Julian. 

 "the more I heard about [Julian], the more interested I became, and I began to watch for him and his little group of pupils around campus. Four boys and a girl, they were nothing so unusual at a distance. At close range, though, they were an arresting party - at least to me, who had never seen anything like them, and to whom they suggested a variety of picturesque and fictive qualities."

After helping the group with a difficult translation and buying a nice used suit, he is granted admission into Julian's class which is intoxicating. He goes from being a poor nobody to part of an elite group of pretentious snobs who approve of him. It's like Mean Girls for booknerds. I totally related to Richard and wanted simultaneously to be one of Julian's students and/or to be the kind of teacher Julian is:

"[Julian] refused to see anything about any of us except our most engaging qualities, which he cultivated and magnified to the exclusion of all our tedious and less desirable ones...the magnificent roles he had invented for us: genis gratus, corpore glabellus, arte multiscius, et fortuna opulentus - smooth-cheeked, soft-skinned, well-educated, and rich." 

Donna Tartt is truly a masterful storyteller. She opens with the dead body, very quickly tells the whole story of whodunit, and then jumps into a suspense novel that I couldn't put down. Based on the strength of this and The Goldfinch, I think I will devour any future novels by Ms. Tartt. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney

Venturing closer,
his talon was raised to attack Beowulf
where he lay on the bed; he was bearing in
with open claw when the alert hero's
comeback and armlock forestalled him utterly.
The captain of evil discovered himself
in a handgrip harder than anything
he had ever encountered in any men
on the face of the earth.  Every bone in his body
quailed and recoiled, but he could not descape.
He was desperate to flee to his den and hide
with the devil's litter, for in all his days
he had never been clamped or cornered like that.

Beowulf is the original badass.  His name means BEE WOLF, for Pete's sake.  The Old English epic poem is about three of Beowulf's most badass accomplishments: first, he travels from his homeland among the Geats to save the Danes from the monster Grendel who is devouring them at night (out of jealousy for how sweet the king's hall is, no less).  Then, when Grendel's mother attacks the Danes for revenge over her son's death (you may remember her as Angelina Jolie) he goes underwater and kills her, too.  Then, after returning to Geatland and reigning for fifty years, he defeats a gold-hording dragon, though he dies in the process.

The dragon bit should sound familiar; Tolkien--who famously brought critical attention back to Beowulf--clearly modeled The Hobbit's Smaug after it.  Much of modern fantasy fiction, in a way, with its uncomplicated heroism and reliance of British mythological themes, is basically cribbed from Beowulf.

Heaney's translation, which seems to have become fairly canonical, is a great accomplishment.  Heaney's poetry, which has always been very workmanlike and straightforward, is a good match for the earthy tone and subject matter of Beowulf, and strips the poem of its English 101 associations.  In his foreword, Heaney talks about his decisions to adapt some of the language of his working-class Irish background into his translation, which he traces back to the recognition of the Old English root tholian in the Irish slang thole, to suffer.  In this way Heaney's work adds merely another layer to a complex stack of temporal and geographical influences: Beowulf is a poem written in England about Denmark and Sweden and given an Irish inflection by Heaney.  The subtle conflict between the author's Christianity and his subject's paganism, too, testifies to Beowulf as the unique product of different cultures.  But it also emphasizes the universality, and the plain adventurous fun, of the story.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The circus arrives without warning...No color at all, save for the neighboring trees and the grass of the surrounding fields. Black-and-white stripes on grey sky...and the black sign painted in the white letters that hangs upon the gates, the one that reads Opens at Nightfall, Closes at Dawn...

When the tents are all aglow, sparkling against the night sky, the sign appears...Le Cirque des Reves. Some in the crowd smile knowingly, while others frown and look questioningly at their neighbors. A child near you tugs on her mother's sleeve, begging to know what it says. "The Circus of Dreams," comes the reply.


The Night Circus has been the highlight of all my popular fiction reads this summer. It begins and is interspersed with these second person chapters helping you navigate the physical space of the actual circus which is unlike anything you've ever seen. 

As a small child, Celia is delivered to her father Hector (stage magician name: Prospero). She, like him, has the ability to manipulate objects. When he determines that she is ready, he invites a mysterious gentleman to visit them. 

"I was hoping you might be up for a game. It has been far too long since we've played. Though first, you must meet my new project." 
...
"You would wager your own child?"
"She won't lose," Hector says. "I suggest you find a student you can tolerate parting with, if you do not already have one to spare."

A ring is burned onto her hand, and thus Celia is bound into the rules of a game she is far too young to understand. The mysterious gentleman finds a student of his own, Marco, who is also entered into the game. 

The books shifts perspectives and time, so you know I love it. The Night Circus, created by Chandresh, is the stage for the contest, although the rules are not articulated and not all the characters involved realize what is going on. With the exception of Hector, Marco, Celia, and the gentleman, and a few minor characters, the vast majority of the novel exists in the real world - this isn't Harry Potter.

I devoured this novel over the course of maybe 36 hours. The physical space of the Circus is addicting. In fact, it has its own groupies called the Reveurs (dreamers) who follow the circus, wearing black and white and a touch of red (acknowledging that they are apart from the circus - not a part of the black/white spectacle). I wanted to wear black and white and red for days to try to make the magic of the novel last longer. 

Fortunately, Summit Entertainment has optioned both the movie and TV rights, and I look forward to devouring those as well. I will most certainly be dressed as a Reveur. 

Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion

She began to feel the pressure of Hoover Dam, there on the desert, began to feel the pressure and pull of the water.  When the pressure got great enough she drove out there.  All that day she felt the power surging through her own body.  All day she was faint with vertigo, sunk in a world where great power grids converged, throbbing lines plunged finally into the shallow canyon below the dam's face, elevators like coffins dropped into the bowels of the earth itself.  With a guide and a handful of children Maria walked through the chambers, stared at the turbines in the vast glittering valley, at the deep still water with the hidden intakes sucking all the while, even as she watched; clung to the railings, leaned out, stood finally on a platform over the pipe that carried the river beneath the dam.  The platform quivered.  Her ears roared.  She wanted to stay in the dam, lie on the great pipe itself, but reticence saved her from asking.

Maria (Ma-RYE-a) Wyeth is a starlet, the kind who never really drops the diminutive to become a "star."  (Kind of like Tuesday Weld, who plays Maria in the film version of Play It as It Lays?)  In a brief first-person narrative that opens the book, she gives us her life story: growing up in tiny Silver Wells, Nevada, a town that doesn't exist anymore, moving to New York where she becomes involved with a manipulative abuser named Ivan, coming to Los Angeles and marrying the producer Carter Lang, who puts her in a couple small pictures, having a daughter, Kate, who is confined to a mental institution.  But most of the book occurs in the third person, as a disembodied observer watching Maria tumble slowly into a nervous breakdown.

The most obvious comparison point for Play It as It Lays is The Bell Jar: both are about young women undergoing protracted mental episodes.  Both Maria and Esther Greenwood cling around the lower rungs of a industry dominated by male figures.  Play It as It Lays is populated with cruel men: the psychopathic Ivan, the dismissive Carter, a womanizing Russian mobster named Larry Kulik.  None of these men understand Maria, nor do they care to; Maria's instability and suffering threaten the kind of freewheeling party atmosphere they laboriously occupy.

But the other comparison point is Nathanael West's L.A. phantasmagoria The Day of the Locust, another book that paints Hollywood as a moral black hole.  Los Angeles may not be to blame for Maria's breakdown, but it is somehow the perfect backdrop for it: shallow, superficial, misogynistic, destructively hedonistic.  Much of the novel is taken up by Maria driving around Greater Los Angeles with no clear destination or purpose, which is most of what I imagine happens on L.A. freeways:

In the aftermath of the wind the air was dry, burning, so clear that she could see the ploughed furrows of firebreaks on distant mountains.  Not even the highest palms moved.  The stillness and clarity of the air seemed to rob everything of its perspective, seemed to alter all perception of depth, and Maria drove as carefully as if she were reconnoitering an atmosphere without gravity.  Taco Bells jumped out at her.  Oil rockers creaked ominously.  For miles before she reached the Thriftimart she could see the big red T, a forty-foot  cutout letter which seemed peculiarly illuminated against the harsh unclouded light of the afternoon sky.

I'm putting that one in my great-sentence scrapbook: "Taco Bells jumped out at her."

The book ends by forcing a moral choice upon Maria (spoiler alert): she does nothing while her friend, BZ, commits suicide by overdose.  This single act redefines the entire novel.  It is the only moment in which Carter and her friends take her mental breakdown seriously, since as we know from the first-person chapter, it's what finally drives her into a mental institution.  But it also repurposes Maria's persistent lack of agency.  BZ asks her to do nothing, and though she is drugged out, her compliance with his wishes transform her lack of agency into a positive moral choice which honors her friend's distress in a way that the other characters in the novel refuse to recognize Maria's.  Is it an act of kindness?  Or, as BZ's wife believes, an act of deep selfishness?

Maria tells us at the novel's beginning that such questions have no value:

What makes Iago evil? some people ask.  I never ask.

Another example, one which springs to mind because Mrs. Burstein saw a pygmy rattler in the artichoke garden this morning and has been intractable since: I never ask about snakes.  Why should Shalimar attract kraits.  Why should a coral snake need two glands of neurotoxic poison to survive while a king snake, so similarly marked, needs none.  Where is the Darwinian logic there.  You might ask that.  I never would not any more.  I recall an incident reported not too long ago in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner: two honeymooners, natives of Detroit, found dead in their scout camper near Boca Raton, a coral snake still coiled in the thermal blanket.  Why?  Unless you are prepared to take the long view, there is no satisfactory "answer" to such questions.

Just so.  I am what I am.  To look for "reasons" is beside the point.
But doesn't this attitude let all the monsters of the novel--Ivan, Carter, Larry Kulik--off the hook?  Is it merely the only way that Maria can cope with the world in which she finds itself, to embrace its cynical amorality in order to keep "playing it as it lays?"  And is it Los Angeles' problem, or all of ours?

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Territorial Rights by Muriel Spark

Tuesday afternoon.  Curran had spent the morning with his Italian lawyer who had been summoned overnight from Milan, and even with this old acquaintance Curran had seen the poison of Robert's missive working.  The man was plainly uncertain how much Curran had to hide.  If there were indeed two halves of a man's body in the garden of the Pensione Sofia, the lawyer pointed out, and should they be exhumed, it might be easy for Curran to deny knowledge of them, but certainly he would be involved in a scandal such as the newspapers of Europe would rejoice in for weeks on end.  Yes, said the lawyer, it was true, he was sure, that Curran had not murdered Pancev (imagine it!) but there was no doubt he had known Pancev well... Then, the question of drugs.  Boys and drugs.  Yes, the young man Leaver would eventually, of course, go to prison for calumny; that was, if he could be found, and if he could be proved to have written these accusations voluntarily.  But the publicity would be enormous.  On the other hand, if there were not two halves of a body...

'I'm afraid there are,' said Curran.

Robert Leaver is on a trip to Venice with his friend and, it is presumed, lover, the wealthy art dealer Curran, when he runs into his own father, who has skipped to Venice from their native England with his mistress.  Robert, disgusted, disappears, leaving behind both Curran and his girlfriend, the Bulgarian emigre Lina Pancev.  Soon, a series of incriminating letters find their way to Curran and others threatening to reveal Curran's involvement in the death of Lina's father, who--for reasons that are never clear--was cut in half and buried in the garden of the hotel Pensione Sofia decades ago.  Meanwhile, Robert's mother contracts a private investigation firm in England to find out what her husband and son are up to, but mostly sits at home reading trashy novels.

The cloak-and-dagger stuff is very much part of Spark's oeuvre, but here it is mostly toothless.  The death of Pancev is a red herring, a plot contrivance to keep Curran on edge and give the mysteriously omniscient Robert the air of a puppet-master, working from behind the curtain.  It does result in one memorable scene when Robert's letters persuade Lina, not knowing her father is buried beneath, to dance on the twin rose gardens of the back garden of the Pension Sofia.  But otherwise Robert's hijinks remain hijinks, scare tactics for the sake of scaring.  No money is moved; the only revelations occur to the reader, and they are slight ones at that.  In many ways Territorial Rights is a parody of a dime-store thriller novel, the kind old Mrs. Leaver reads because she is necessarily absent from the adventures of her husband and son.

Ultimately, this was one of the least compelling of Spark's novels.  The cast is too large, bogged down by characters both indistinct and unamusing.  Like her other works, the disparate parts barely seem to hang together, despite the novel's brevity, but unlike them, I don't really care to think about the ways they might be made to cohere thematically.  Venice as a setting is never vividly described or purposefully employed except as a blank space occupied by the moneyed classes, and might just have well been Ibiza or Stockholm or some other place.  Territorial Rights produces a few good moments--one is when Lina, having discovered that she has slept with a Jew, jumps despairingly into the canal--but that's about it.