Sunday, May 22, 2016

Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative by Peter Brooks

The lawyer is the arch-narrattee, and also the figure of the novelist: he who listens to, and enters into, all the secret, buried stories of a society. Yet like the priest and the doctor, the lawyer is sworn to professional secrecy: he is precisely the man who does not transmit stories but rather lets them die in his office, encrypted in vaults. Or rather: the lawyer--unlike the priest on the one hand, whose silence should be absolute, or the doctor on the other, who may give a full report if it is in the anonymous form of the case history--retells stories selectively in the litigation of his client's cases.

(that quotation has almost nothing to do with the book's main points; I just like it)

As promised in the comments section of my review of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, I have dipped my feet farther into the waters of narrative theory. What I found was...a bit...too...theoretical. This is not Professor Brooks's fault. He is, after all, a literary critic. I should not have expected anything other than literary theory.

But honestly, sometimes I don't think I get the point of literary theory. Like, what do people do with this stuff (ahem, English master's degree folks)?

Brooks endeavors to discuss narrative as a distinct concept; he wants to start to explain narrative as its own form of conceptualization, in the same way that logic or math are ways of understanding. However, because he's writing in the 1980s, he also doesn't want to forget everything structuralism and poststructuralism have taught us (cough, cough, assuming they taught us anything), so he is less interested in defining rules than recognizing patterns.

His preliminary discuss, the first chapter, tackles the possibilities of "narrative" as its own form of discourse, and lays out basic principles. The most important are fabula and sjuzet. Fabula refers to "the order of events referred to by the narrative. Sjuzet "is the order of events presented in the narrative discourse." I know this is grossly simplifying what Professor Brooks meant, but as I read I basically thought of this as: "fabula = facts" and "sjuzet = meaning."

These two separate concepts are important because for something to have a plot it must have both. Facts without meaning are, well...just facts. We need meaning so that we know what to do with the facts. Brooks explains that what we do as plot-seekers is gradually have the meaning revealed to us as the facts are given to us. We are given more and more fabula; eventually--because the selection and ordering of the fabula--we get the sjuzet.

Professor Brooks then takes these basic concepts and explores them in more depth by adding new concepts to describe how the fabula and sjuzet work together. And he uses novels to exemplify his points.

I say this was a bit too theoretical for me because I do not know what I'm going to do with this information. My internal purpose for seeking more information about narrative was to find tools to assist with my legal writing (or, perhaps in my fantasy-future life, my novel writing). This, however, was far too theoretical for that purpose. Legal writing does not (and really cannot) embrace the nuanced and sophisticated approach to plot that Brooks creates.

This is not a slam against Brooks; it's more a warning to any lawyers out there who think they will find the book useful: it is useful, but the usefulness to time-spent ratio makes it a bit too much. I'd point people in the direction of the storytelling chapter in Minding the Law and call it a day.

That aside. It was interesting. Completely changed the way I think about Great Expectations, which I'd always considered an entertaining page-turner. Now, I agree with Brooks that it is a master work of plot.

For lack of any other concluding remarks, I'll attach a passage I enjoyed:
As at the start of the novel we had the impression of a life not yet subject to plot--a life in search of a sense of plot that would only gradually begin to precipitate around it--so at the end we have the impression of a life that has outlived plot, renounced plot, been cured of it: life that is left over.
In choosing that passage, am I making a statement about my relationship with narrative theory? Maybe, maybe not.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro

People's lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable--deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum.

One of the most fulfilling things about this project, for me, is the revelation that comes when you are totally blown away by a book or an author you had not expected.  Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping was like that, and Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower, and so is Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women.  It's not just that these books are better than I had expected them to be, but that they remind me of how good books really can be; they belong, if you ask me, among the very best fiction the modern era has produced, and without this project I would have likely never have read them.  It's nice to have your suspicions confirmed--that there are great authors out there, still in a way hidden like veins of oil or ore, underground.  The fact that all three of them are women may be a coincidence, and it may be further evidence that women authors still lack the kind of cultural prestige they deserve.

I have to admit that the title of Munro's collection didn't compel me to read it.  Lives of Girls and Women brings to mind a lot of sentimentalist genre fiction, or something that might be adapted by the Lifetime Channel.  And to be sure, that is what the book is about.  The mother of these stories' narrator, Del Jordan, employs the phrase in a characteristic piece of advice:

"There is a change coming I think in the lives of girls and women.  Yes.  But it is up to us to make it come.  All women have had up till now has been their connection with men.  All we have had.  No more lives of our own, really, than domestic animals.  He shall hold thee, when his passion shall have spent its novel force, a little closer than his dog, a little dearer than his horse.  Tennyson wrote that.  It's true.  Was true.  You will want to have children, though."

That was how much she knew me.

What Del's mother says, of course, is true.  But in its dry, encyclopedic manner it fails to understand the experience of what it means to be a girl in love, and the deep attraction to the mystery of sex.  Del is smart and ambitious, but she in her turn falls in love with a local rustic named Garnet French.  Garnet is no intellectual match for Del, but he is raw and physical and she has her first intercourse with him in the yard outside of their home:

In the morning I went around the broken peonies and a little patch of blood, yes, dried blood on the ground.  I had to mention it to somebody.  I said to my mother, "There's blood on the ground at the side of the house."

"Blood?"

"I saw a cat there yesterday tearing a bird apart.  It was from a big striped tom, I don't know where it came from."

"Vicious beasts."

"You should come and take a look at it."

"What?  I've got better things to do."

Del knows, like her mother, that there is something deeper in the relationship between men and women than the stiff intellectualism her mother--who travels around the county selling encyclopedias--will allow.  She knows that this depth is part of a story that plays out timelessly even in the provincial Ontario backwater of Jubilee that is there home.  As she says in the passage I quoted above, the lives of people everywhere are like "deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum."  In this way she counters male critics who have no patience for stereotypically "feminine" writing (I'm thinking of V. S. Naipaul's dismissals of Jane Austen).  Munro knows that--for men as well as women--domestic life is just life, and that life itself has its profundity and mysteries wherever it is found.

The sexual themes of Lives of Girls and Women don't really appear until the second half, though, when Del is old enough to ponder them.  The first few stories of the book, when Del is younger, deal with old literary mainstays like family, death, and faith.  With a book this good, it's best, maybe to just get out of the way and let it speak for itself.  Here's young Del considering the corpse of a cow in the woods:

Being dead, it invited desecration.  I wanted to poke it, trample it, pee on it, anything to punish it, to show what contempt I had for its being dead.  Beat it up, break it up, spit on it, tear it, throw it away!  But still it had power, lying with a gleaming strange map on its back, its straining neck, the smooth eye.  I had never once looked at a cow alive and thought what I thought now: why should there be a cow?  Why should the white spots be shaped just the way they were, and never again, not on any cow or  creature, shaped in exactly the same way?  Tracing the outline of a continent again, digging the stick in, trying to make a definite line, I paid attention to its shape as I would sometimes pay attention to the shape of real continents or islands on real maps, as if the shape itself were a revelation beyond words, and I would be able to make sense of it, if I tried hard enough, and had time.

Another story, "The Age of Faith," is one of the best stories I've ever read about religious life:

If God could be discovered, or recalled, everything would be safe.  Then you would see the things that I saw--just the dull grain of the wood in the floor boards, the windows of plain glass filed with thin branches and snowy sky--and the strange, anxious pain that just seeing things could create would be gone.  It seemed plain to me that this was the only way the world could be borne, the only way it could be borne--if all those atoms, galaxies of atoms, were safe all the time, whirling away in Gods' mind.  How could people rest, how could they even go on breathing and existing, until they were sure of this?  they did go on, so they must be sure.

As Del grows older, these themes don't so much disappear as become incorporated into the themes of womanhood and sex, as if Munro is making us aware that death and faith are as much a part of that pair as anything else.  Like Fitzgerald, she peoples Jubilee with a set of distinct, fascinating characters--a literary feat that I think is often taken for granted, so difficult it is--and like Robinson, she understands and communicates the powerful death of ordinary life.  However removed our petty existences might seem from the most powerful mysteries of the universe, Munro says, in truth they are our only way of confronting them, and for that they deserve savoring.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

A Hundred Thousand Worlds by Bob Proehl

"Everything changes, all the time. Even if you tried not to change, things would change around you and you'd have to. It's like you're a story, not a picture."Alex knows this, and he knows about sharks and how they have to keep swimming of they'll die, and how you can't stop moving ever because the earth is moving you through space at ridiculous speeds, speeds that, when you think about the fact that you're moving that fast, you feel like a superhero. He knows you can't stop. You never get to stop.
I loved this book. Before I try to describe it (which is hard) or critique it (also hard), I want to make clear that I loved it, because on paper, it doesn't sound like the kind of book I would love, but it was just fantastic and everyone should read it. Possibly before reading this review in case it discourages you from reading it.

A Hundred Thousand Worlds is a modern day bildungsroman that follows Alex, a nine year old precocious writer and artist, and his mom Valerie on a trip across the country. They are traveling from comic conference to comic conference where Valerie, a former star of a X-Files-like show, is signing posters and entertaining nerds. That's all we get a first, but the real reason they've left New York for California gets unveiled as they go.

There are flashbacks and shifts and a few comic book origin stories, but the book spends a lot of time in Alex's head; we know as much as he knows, and we figure out what's going on as he (fairly quickly) figures it out. This allows for some To Kill A Mockingbird like moments of highly precocious child narratordom that, when done poorly, are insufferable. Proehl, however, nails the inner life of an observant, anxious nine year old, and it works. Alex spends the trip teetering on the edge of what he recognizes as a big change. Proehl captures the simultaneous elation and terror at what looms ahead in a way that feels just as real for my adult transitions as it does for the ones I remember from childhood. There is a passage where Alex wrestles with the idea that he will be spending time away from his mom:
Alex sits with this thought a minute, that not only would he and his own mother not be together, but that they might not even know where the other one was. Any time they spent apart was always defined by place and duration. I'm going to the store, I'll be back in an hour. It seems impossible to think that soon he will not know where she is all the time, and she won't know where he is, either. His position in space has always been in relation to hers and now, without that, he wonders if he'll be like a boat on the whole ocean, where you can't see land in any direction, and sun cycles over you day after day.
This not only captured exactly how I felt when I first lived away from my mother as a teenager, but how I felt after every other big rift: breakups, moves, transitions. Proehl is able to write prose that feels genuinely childlike, but still relevant and connected to his adult audience.

For the comic book nerds out there, this book was teeming with inside jokes and references that were way over my head. You can absolutely read without catching them, but I imagine it would have been even more enjoyable had I been able to figure out which storylines he was referencing.

This was an easy, fun, and genuinely enjoyable read. I loved Alex right away, and loved the cast of characters Proehl packed around him. Proehl has Alex writing a story throughout the novel, and each bizarre new character brings something to Alex's life and story that makes it a little richer. Read it!

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Tempest-Tost by Robertson Davies

In the production of every play there comes a low point of rehearsal, after which the piece climbs to whatever climax it is destined to reach.  There could be no doubt about it, the day Geordie killed the horse marked that point for The Tempest, as produced by the Salterton Little Theatre.

I brought two books with me on my Canadian trip: Anne of Green Gables, and The Fifth Business, by Thamesville, Ontario's favorite son, Robertson Davies.  Davies, like the Tragically Hip, seems to be one of those Canadian cultural icons that never quite made it across the border into the United States, so I was eager to find out what I had been missing.  But before I left, a coworker told me that her favorite Davies book was actually Tempest-Tost, about an amateur production of Shakespeare's The Tempest in a rural Ontario town, which is exactly the kind of thing I'm into, so when I found a copy of it in a used bookstore in Charlottetown, P.E.I., I figured I'd go ahead and read it instead.

Amateur theater is always marked by a measure of pretension.  Shakespeare is for all people, as Harold Bloom loves to say, but the puffed-up cultural cache surrounding him is at odds with the very idea of the amateur, and the image of small-town people taking themselves seriously as actors is ripe for satire.  In this Davies doesn't disappoint, but he also has a great sympathy for the people of Salterton--the fictitious Ontario town where Tempest-Tost, and two sequel novels, take place--who engage in petty vanities and squabbles against the backdrop of the production.

Davies reminds me of Penelope Fitzgerald in his ability to create a large cast of characters with highly individuated, and interesting personalities, though perhaps he doesn't have quite her subtlety or inventiveness.  There's Professor Vambrace, whose overinflated ego makes him perfect for the role of Prospero; Nellie Forrester, the head of the Little Theatre who takes herself, and the organization, far too seriously; Geordie Shortreed, the practical-joke lover playing Caliban who accidentally kills a beloved old horse by driving him over an exposed electrical cable; Humphrey Cobbler, the eccentric but canny musician who provides music for the play; the vain and idle, but oddly perceptive, Griselda Webster, playing Ariel, with whom half the rest of the cast falls in love.  One of my favorite minor characters is a busty young woman who most people just call "The Torso."

The main character, to the extent that the novel has one, is Hector Mackilwraith, a mathematics teacher who has little in the way of culture or artistic skill, but who chases a wild impulse to act, and takes the role of Gonzalo.  Hector has credited his success as a teacher, though his sphere is small, to "planning and common sense," which he applies to every situation.  Hector's the kind of guy who makes a pro and con list before he does anything, and the "con" column for his decision to take up acting includes entries like, "Couldn't take part of lover, clown or immoral person -- plays full of these -- Shakes often vulgar."  Davies makes it clear that Hector has no feeling or understanding for The Tempest, or art in general:

He found The Tempest somewhat baffling.  He had supported the suggestion that the Little Theatre present a Shakespearean play, for he was strongly in favour of plays which were "worth while"; it was widely admitted that Shakespeare was worth while.  But in what precise union of qualities this worthwhileness lay was unknown to him.  His first encounter with The Tempest was like that of the man who bites a peach and breaks a tooth upon the stone.

In the very first scene, for instance, there was a coarse reference to the Female Functions.  He read it again and again; he consulted the notes, but they were unhelpful; in spite of a conviction held over from school days that poets were people who hid their meaning, such as it was, in word puzzles it seemed clear enough that in this case Shakespeare meant to be Smutty.  Obviously this was a play to be approached with the utmost caution.  He might even have to change his mind about acting.

Hector doesn't change his mind, but when he, like many others, falls in love with the 19-year old Griselda, he discovers that even planning and common sense are little help in seducing a woman, or even understanding the profound suffering of love.  There are certain thematic overlaps there with The Tempest, but mercifully, that's it.  Davies declines to force parallels between the plot; there is no elderly statesman with a grievance against his brother, no cloistered young Miranda who is introduced to a "brave new world, with such people in it."  Instead, Davies mines the contrast between the grand drama of the play and the small-town players for humor and pathos.  Hector isn't a wizard, or a shipwrecked sailor, but his petty griefs are stirring enough in their own way.

Anyway, I'll end this review with a great paragraph, spoken to Hector by the musician Humphrey Cobbler, which I think is good advice and doesn't fit elsewhere in this post:

Well, allow me to introduce myself to you as an advocate of Ornamental Knowledge.  You like the mind to be a neat machine, equipped to work efficiently, if narrowly, and with no extra bits or useless parts.  I like the mind to be a dustbin of scraps and of brilliant fabric, odd gems, worthless but fascinating curiosities, tinsel, quaint bits of carving, and a reasonable amount of healthy dirt.  Shake the machine and it goes out of order; shake the dustbin and it adjusts itself beautifully to its new position.


Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything. The rooms in the house on Friary Street belonged to her, she thought; when she moved in them she was really there. In the town, if she walked to the shop or to the Vocational School, the air, the light, the ground, it was all solid and part of her, even if she met no one familiar. Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty, she thought. She closed her eyes and tried to think, as she had done so many times in her life, of something she was looking forward to, but there was nothing. Not the slightest thing. Not even Sunday. Nothing maybe except sleep, and she was not even certain she was looking forward to sleep. In any case, she could not sleep yet, since it was not yet nine o’clock. There was nothing she could do. It was as though she had been locked away.

Brooklyn is the story of Eilis Lacey, a young Irish woman who emigrates to Brooklyn, leaving behind her widowed mother, sister, and brothers. At the start of the book, Eilis' sister secretly orchestrates a job for her in the States, and the book tracks her transition from deep homesickness to eventual assimilation into American culture. It follows Eilis across the Atlantic in steerage on a steamship (lots of seasickness), through her job at a large department store and bookkeeping classes, and into her first American romance.

Toibin's pacing is quick and engaging, and Eilis is a sympathetic wallflower. You care what happens to her, and even when the story lags a little (or gets somewhat predictable) you want to keep reading. Eilis is a keen observer of culture, whether it be small town Ireland or Brooklyn. The burgeoning issue of race runs through the book, both as Eilis sifts through the complex hierarchy of white European immigrants and as her department store starts to welcome African American customers.

Brooklyn tells an immersive story, but the parts that really stuck with me were the pieces that dealt with homesickness. The passage quoted above felt like a very real depiction of life in a new place and all the internal brutalities that come with it. Even more heartbreaking (and true) is Toibin's description of Eilis' return to Ireland two years later:

She had put no thought into what it would be like to come home because she had longed so much for the familiarity of these rooms that she had presumed she would be happy and relieved to step back into them, but, instead, on this first morning, all she could do was count the days before she went back.

Eilis' return to Ireland happens in somewhat of a fog. She isn't fully home, but not quite a visitor. This part of the book had some of the more poignant descriptions, but also some of the pieces that felt the most out of character for Eilis. Toibin definitely has nailed that "you can never go home again" nostalgia, but he also has Eilis struggle with her role as the American returning home in ways that are compelling but often hard to read. She somewhat knowingly takes on a new personality, and watching her trying to reconcile the person she was before she left, the person she has become in Brooklyn, and the person her family and friends expect her to return as is difficult but engaging.

Overall, Brooklyn is a quick, engaging read. I haven't seen the movie yet (maybe I'll update when I do), but the book is definitely worthwhile. If you're in transition or feeling somewhat at sea, especially recommended.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Anne of Green Gables of Green Gables
"Yes, it's red," she said resignedly.  "Now you see why I can't be perfectly happy.  Nobody could who had red hair.  I don't mind the other things so much--the freckles and the green eyes and my skinniness.  I can imagine them away.  I can imagine that I have a beautiful rose leaf complexion and lovely starry violet eyes.  But I cannot imagine that red hair away.  I do my best.  I think to myself, 'Now my hair is a glorious black, black as the raven's wing.'  But all the time I know it is plain red, and it breaks my heart.  It will be my lifelong sorrow.  I read of a girl once in a novel who had a lifelong sorrow, but it wasn't red hair.  Her hair was pure gold rippling back from her alabaster brow.  What is an alabaster brow?  I never could find out.  Can you tell me?"

"Well, now, I'm afraid I can't," said Matthew, who was getting a little dizzy.  He felt as he had once felt in his rash youth when another boy had enticed him on the merry-go-round at a picnic.

There's nothing I love more than reading books about the places I go when I travel.  When I took a recent spring break trip to Canada (where it was way too cold for right-thinking people take spring break trips) I decided I had to read Anne of Green Gables, the literary pride of Prince Edward Island.

First of all, Prince Edward Island is awesome.  It's easy to see why Anne, the novel's impulsive, imaginative hero, would be so captivated by her new home: it's pleasant and bucolic, but the abundance of red clay at the farms and red sand on the beaches gives it an otherworldly kind of feeling.  It certainly doesn't look or feel like anywhere else.  Green Gables, the house where Anne is taken by accident to the elderly couple Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert (who wanted to adopt a boy), is a real place, and you can tour it--or you could, if you were smart enough not to visit it in what is essentially Canadian winter.

Matthew and Marilla are charmed by Anne, who talks a mile a minute about the things she imagines.  And to be fair, Anne is pretty charming.  Her overactive imagination is the optimism of someone who's had a hard life as an orphan, a way of shaping the world into something more palatable.  Green Gables, though she sets about immediately renaming local landmarks to suit her sense of whimsy (a local pond becomes, for instance, the Lake of Shining Waters), is the first place commensurate with Anne's capacity for wonder.  The no-nonsense Marilla, while secretly enamored by Anne, endeavors to rein in her impulses, which result in some reliably amusing scrapes.  One of my favorites involves the twelve-year old Anne, permitted to throw a tea party, accidentally substitutes wine for cherry cordial and gets her best friend roaringly drunk.

Eventually, Anne becomes a young woman.  At sixteen, she graduates from high school and--oh, Canada--immediately becomes a schoolteacher herself.  Over the course of the novel, she becomes a part of the Cuthbert household, and ingratiates herself into the society of her small P.E.I. town, and becomes generally loved by everyone.  There are few very high stakes--although Montgomery manages to wring a great deal of unexpected pathos out of a bittersweet ending--but the small niceties of domestic Canadian life prove to be surprisingly compelling, because Anne is a compelling character.

Many women--only women, honestly, but only a few of them Canadian--have told me that these books meant a great deal to them as a child.  Why is that?  I enjoyed the book a lot, but something about Anne, even a hundred years and fifteen hundred miles removed, continues to resound for young girls.

The Last Interview and Other Conversations: Hannah Arendt

I think that Watergate has revealed perhaps one of the deepest constitutional crises this country has ever known . . . . And this constitutional crisis consists--for the first time in the United States--in a head-on clash between the legislative and the executive. Now there the Constitution itself is somehow at fault, and I would like to talk about that for a moment. The Founding Fathers never believed that tyranny could arise out of the executive office, because they did not see this office in any different light but as the executor of what the legislation had decreed--in various forms; I leave it at that. We know today that the greatest danger of tyranny is of course from the executive. But what did the Founding Fathers--if we take the spirit of the Constitution--what did they think? They thought they were free from majority rule, and therefore it is a great mistake if you believe what we have here is democracy, a mistake in which many Americans share. What we have here is republican rule, and the Founding Fathers were most concerned about preserving the rights of the minorities, because they believed that in a healthy body politic there must be a plurality of opinions.

Oh, Hannah Arendt, how I love thee so. I picked up this drink after having had a couple of drinks and stumbling into our downtown, locally-owned book store. I did not need to buy any books (the twin, leaning towers of books mirroring each other from my desk and my night stand is, well...embarrassing). But, alcohol emboldens the spirit, and I walked out with this book, part of an entire series of last interviews (all with the same title except the person's name) and an unabridged copy of The Count of Monte Cristo (the latter has been laid down as foundation for what aspires to be my third leaning tower...).

The book contains four transcribed conversations with Arendt, including her last interview before dying. In each of the discussions, she pontificates about all sorts of issues related to political philosophy, language, and international affairs.

Being general in nature, the book provides a decent overview of her philosophy, albeit more superficial. This is both the book's strength and weakness. It is substantially easier to read than her substantive works. This is consistent with my experience reading similar books, like The Chomsky-Foucault Debate on Human Nature and Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida. Unlike these two books, however, which encompass longer dialogues focused on a specific topic, this book of Arendt conversations is quite short, and more aimless. The dialogues in this book feel more like the segment at the end of The Daily Show, where some author and Jon Stewart shoot the shit for a couple of minutes. That is, the range of topics is broad; we get a quick sense of Arendt's view on something, and then we move on to a new topic.

Being a big fan of Arendt, this treatment was not substantial enough for me. Nonetheless, I might recommend it to someone who wants an easy primer on her work, while considering diving into her more substantial work. (though, honestly, Eichman in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil is plenty read-able for that purpose).

That said, I think at the end of the day, the point of this book is not really to help anyone understand Arendt better. Rather, it's for the fans out there, like me, who cannot get enough Arendt and are willing to spend a small amount of cash and a small amount of time diving into her brain. In that regard, the book was perfect.

And, don't worry, folks, my next heavy read is going to be a real Arendt book, so this won't be the only Hannah Arendt appearance on Fifty Books. I know you were all worried.

To close, one more Arendt quote, to appeal to the documented pretensions of wannabe philosophers (like myself):
And to think always means to think critically. And to think critically is always to be hostile. Every thought actually undermines whatever there is of rigid rules, general convictions, et cetera. Everything which happens in thinking is subject to a critical examination of whatever there is. That is, there are no dangerous thoughts for the simple reason that thinking itself is such a dangerous enterprise. So how I can convince . . . I think nonthinking is even more dangerous. I don't deny that thinking is dangerous, but I would say not thinking, [not thinking is even more dangerous].

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Reckless Eyeballing by Ishmael Reed

He walked out to get the newspaper.  What it carried on the front page woke him: TREMONISHA SMARTS, WELL-KNOWN BLACK PLAYWRIGHT, ACCOSTED BY PSYCHO.  He read the story.  It said that a man dressed in a gray leather  coat, matching beret, and dark glasses had entered Tremonisha Smarts' apartment two nights before, and shaved all of her hair off.  His twisted explanation: this is what the French Resistance did to those women who collaborated with the Nazis.  The man had said that because of her "blood libel" of black men, she was doing the same thing.  Collaborating with the enemies of black men.  Ian blinked and read the story again.

Ishmael Reed's Reckless Eyeballing is set in the New York theater scene, where progressivism is eating itself.  Ian Ball, the protagonist, is a black playwright whose new play, Reckless Eyeballing--about a black man convicted of the title crime against a white woman and put to death--is a cynical ploy to get him off the "sex list," those playwrights whose work is blacklisted by feminists.  But his artistic allies are up in arms over what they see as his betrayal of black men, who are the punching bags of feminist art.  His play is moved to a smaller theater in order to make way for a play rehabilitating Eva Braun.  ("She may be a Nazi whore to sexists like you," a white feminist tells him, "but to many of us, she epitomizes women's universal suffering.")  Meanwhile, a mysterious vigilante dubbed the "Flower Phantom" is attacking female playwrights by shaving their heads.  The climate is toxic:

During the intermission Ball went out into the lobby.  Average everyday normal middle-class people were congratulating him and patting him on the back, while the white feminists stared at him stonily.  He could tell that their black feminist friends had really enjoyed the performance of Ham Hill's defense attorney but wouldn't let on before their white sisters; one came up later and told him so.  The fellas had said that a lot of feminists were okay when you had a one-on-one relationship with them, but when they were around the sisters they'd get all fired up.  The academic black Marxist-Leninists were in one corner sneering, and the black avant-garde members of the audience segregated themselves from the rest of the people in the lobby.  They were standing near the wall, sulking.

At first, it seemed to me that Reed wants to skewer everyone in this universe.  Ian is certainly venal and cynical, and often as sexist as his critics imply, but no one in the novel is far away from being a cartoon.  His mentor, who hasn't written a play in decades, wants to write about the Armenians because Jews have stolen all of his "black material."  It's a satire of how easily progressive factionalism can deteriorate into selfishness and solipsism.

Or is it?  Early in the novel, Ball's director, a Jew named Jim Minsk, is invited to speak at a small Southern college only to be murdered in a bizarre scapegoating ceremony reminiscent of the killings of Jews in medieval Europe.  It's so bizarre, and so out of place (but fun, in a morbid way) that my first thought was that it was a metafictional thing where Reed was creating a scenario as shallow and over-the-top as Ball and his peers might.  (For one thing, it suggests a complete misunderstanding of the way that Evangelical Southerners perceive Jews--which, in my experience at least, is wholly positive, if not always informed.  Something like the faraway admiration with which children regard the tooth fairy.)

But ultimately, I think Minsk's murder is Reed's ominous reminder of who the real villains are.  Late in the novel, Tremonisha Smarts, the black feminist who takes over direction of Ian's play, essentially apologizes for the way she allowed herself to be manipulated by her white feminist allies, the ones who revere Eva Braun.  Even the racist cop, Sergeant O'Reedy, who says things like "[e]verybody knew that all black men did was rape white women," ultimately comes to see himself as an Irishman whose ethnic identity has been co-opted by Anglo forces.  This conclusion seems to take a lot of teeth out of the satire, not to mention being less than generous to women and Irish-Americans.  Far from being "reckless," in the sense of casting a satirical eye everywhere around him, Reed seems (to this WASP, at least--take that how you will) to cast his gaze in one direction, and resort to some easy answers.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Roughing It by Mark Twain

On the inquest it was shown that Buck Fanshaw, in the delirium of a wasting typhoid fever, had taken arsenic, shot himself through the body, cut his throat, and jumped out of a four-story window and broken his neck--after due deliberation, the jury, sad and tearful, but with intelligence unblinded by its sorrow, brought in a verdict of death "by the visitation of God." What could the world do without juries?

Roughing It is Mark Twain's account of his travels to and through Nevada, continuing to California and then Hawaii. I was mainly interested in the book because, while reading Harry Reid's book, I came across a lengthy and hilarious passage from this book. I figured it would be a funny way to learn a bit about this state that I've now been living in longer than anywhere other than my hometown.

Mark Twain's reputation as a humorist is well-deserved. Using a combination of pithy characterization, much hyperbole (so much hyperbole), and funny situations, Twain describes a crazy Nevada. It's not the wild west that we usually think of, but a land of unique absurdity.

In one episode, for example, Twain and some fellow miners strike it rich when they find a strand of gold that is sure to render them all rich. All they have to do is remember to start working the mine within a set period of time. Instead, they spend all their time planning how they will use their wealth. Of course, they forget to actually start working their mine, and so their riches are lost. The epitaph to the book, refers to this episode, and will probably always be one of my favorite epitaphs of all time:

To Calvin H Higbie, 
of California, 
An Honest Man, a Genial Comrade, and a 
Steadfast Friend,
THIS BOOK IS INSCRIBED
By the Author
In Memory of the Curious Time
When We Two
Were Millionaires for Ten Days

The book is a series of anecdotes, that are chronological but not more than loosely connected in terms of plot. Indeed, there is not really a plot at all for the whole thing. Nonetheless, it hits upon some recurring themes, one which is particularly interesting now: this idea that people came to Nevada with the hope for easy riches. Many of the anecdotes are about the narrator's hard luck and his turn to mining as a get-rich-quick scheme. Because of Las Vegas's (well deserved) reputation as a land of--if you're lucky--easy opportunity, I cannot help wondering if there is a connection.

However, I would not recommend reading this book if what you're looking for is a deep analysis of contemporary Nevada culture. Rather, it's worth reading simply because it's so funny. In a, I hope not misguided, attempt to capture this hilarity, here is an abridged version of one of the stories. Twain is traveling by stage coach on his way to Nevada. At one point the stage coach driver shares this story:
I can tell you a most laughable thing indeed, if you would like to listen to it. Horace Greeley went over this road once. When he was leaving Carson City he told the driver Hank Monk, that he had an engagement to lecture at Placerville and was very anxious to go through quick. Hank Monk cracked his whip and started off at an awful pace. The coach bounced up and down in such a terrific way that it jolted the buttons all off of Horace's coat, and finally shot his head clear through the roof of the stage, and then he yelled at Hank Monk and begged him to go easier--said he warn't in as much of a hurry as he was a while ago. But Hank Monk said, "Keep your seat, Horace, and I'll get you there on time"--and you bet he did, too, what was left of him!
A couple days later, the coach that Twain is riding in picks up another passenger. They get to talking and then the passenger says, "I can tell you a mot laughable thing indeed, if you would like to listen to it. Horace Greeley went over this road once . . . ." Twain (the author) then re-writes, word for word the same story about Horace Greeley. A couple days later, after some more changes of passengers, they have a cavalry sergeant in their stage coach; after talking a little while, this sergeant recounts, again word for word, the same story about Horace Greeley. In this chapter, Mark Twain has four different people recount this story; each time Twain reprints each word. They encounter another person who begins to tell this story, Twain cuts him off and says:
Suffering stranger, proceed at your peril. You see in me the melancholy wreck of a once stalwart and magnificent manhood. What has brought me to this? That thing which you are about to tell. Gradually but surely, that tiresome old anecdote has sapped my strength, undermined my constitution, withered my life. Pity my helplessness. Spare me only just this once, and tell me about young George Washington and his little hatchet for a change. 
Twain the author then describes what happens:
     We were saved. But not so the invalid. In trying to retain the anecdote in his system he strained himself and died in our arms.
     I am aware now, that I ought not to have asked the sturdiest citizen of all that region, what I asked of that mere shadow of a man; for after seven years' residence on the Pacific coast, I know that no passenger or driver on the Overland ever corked that anecdote in, when a stranger was by, and survived. Within a period of six years I crossed and re-crossed the Sierras between Nevada and California thirteen times and listened to that deathless incident four hundred and eight-one or eighty-two times. I have the list somewhere. Drivers always told it, the very Chinaman and vagrant Indians recounted it. I have had the same driver tell it to me two or three times in the same afternoon. It has come to me in the multitude of tongues that Babel bequeathed to earth and flavored with whiskey, brandy, beer, cologne, sozodont, tobacco, garlic, onions, grasshoppers--everything that has a fragrance to it through all the long list of things that are gorged or guzzled by the sons of men. I never have smelled any anecdote as often as I have smelled that one; never had smelled any anecdote that smelled so variegated as that one. And you never could learn to know it by its smell, because every time you thought you had learned the smell of it, it would turn up with a different smell. Bayard Taylor has written about this hoary anecdote. Richardson has published it; so have Jones, Smith, Johnson, Ross Browne, and every other correspondence-inditing being that ever set his foot upon the great Overland road anywhere between Julesburg and San Francisco; and I have heard that it is in the Talmud. I have seen it in print in nine different languages; I have been told that it is employed in the inquisition in Rome; and I now learn with regret that it is going to be set to music. I do not think that such things are right.
A made-for-TV movie.
(Forgive the nineteenth century language and the self-indulgently long block quote). I hope I have not butchered this anecdote.

I will refer to one other anecdote from the book, but because it was so good, and because I don't think there's anyway to do it justice, I link to it here. In it, Mark Twain describes how the fine citizens took to the new United States Attorney sent to Carson City. The entire thing had me laughing outrageously. In fact, I took a part of it and made it my facebook cover photo. If the block quote was insufferable, please take 10 minutes and read the linked anecdote.

Recommended for anyone who wants a fun read, a read about Nevada's early days as a territory, or just a chance to have fun with Mark Twain.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers

And the confusing point is this: All useful things have a price, and are bought only with money, as that is the way the world is run. You know without having to reason about it the price of a bale of cotton, or a quart of molasses. But no value has been put on human life; it is given to us free and taken without being paid for. What is it worth? If you look around, at times the value may seem to be little or nothing at all. Often after you have sweated and tried and things are not better for you, there comes a feeling deep down in the soul that you are not worth much.

Carson McCullers really only has one subject, I think: unrequited love.  More than anyone, she understands what it means for love to be unrequited--only very rarely are people consciously spurned by the objects of their affection.  Rather, most love goes unspoken, unseen by the person it adores, and often unacknowledged even by the person who possesses it.  Sometimes it's a romantic love, but not always, or even often: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is about the unrequited love of an entire town for the mute John Singer, and The Member of the Wedding is about Frankie's inability to share in the love of her brother and his fiancee.  The homosexual desire of the Captain in Reflections in a Golden Eye is buried so deep that even he doesn't even recognize it.

"The Ballad of the Sad Cafe," the central novella of this collection of McCullers' stories, examines unrequited love in its most teen-movie of forms: the love triangle.  Miss Amelia, a bitter and taciturn shop-owner, is suddenly softened by the arrival in town of a hunchbacked dwarf claiming to be her cousin.  Cousin Lymon and Amelia open the title cafe together, which brings a new life to the town that parallels their own heightened feelings for each other.  But when Amelia's ex-husband, an amoral lout named Marvin Macy, returns, she watches helplessly as Cousin Lymon develops a puerile attachment to him.  He lurks around the cafe, causing mild trouble, until Amelia and Marvin Macy finally come to blows--and Cousin Lymon, at the last second, attacks Miss Amelia from behind.  Marvin and Lymon destroy the cafe on their way out of town:

They unlocked the private cabinet of curios and took everything in it.

They broke the mechanical piano.

They carved terrible words on the cafe tables.

They found the watch that opened in the back to show a picture of a waterfall and took that also.

They poured a gallon of sorghum syrup all over the kitchen floor and smashed the jars of preserves.

They went out in the swamp and completely wrecked the still, ruining the big new condenser and the cooler, and setting fire to the shack itself.

They fixed a dish of Miss Amelia's favorite food, grits with sausage, seasoned it with enough poison to kill of the county, and placed this dish temptingly on the cafe counter.

They did everything ruinous they could think of without actually breaking into the office where Miss Amelia stayed the night.  Then they went off together, the two of them.

I especially love the "terrible words" they carved on the tables--McCullers is a virtuoso at adding the telling detail, but she's just as canny about leaving some things out.  I also loved when, in a story called "The Jockey," the diminutive title figure carefully takes out a cigarette and cuts it in half with a penknife so it's his own size.  (McCullers loves weirdos--jockeys, dwarves, etc.)

The other stories are shorter, more experimental.  "Sad Cafe" has so many of McCullers' hallmarks--the small southern town, the physical oddball, etc.--that it might be the work of a particularly good imitator.  The other stories see her treading unfamiliar ground.  There are stories set in Ohio, and in New York City, where McCullers lived most of her adult life, but which seem outside the realm of her interests.  But each of them has the same lyric quality, the same interest in human failures and frailties, and the same vast empathy.