Sunday, December 14, 2014

Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings by Thomas de Quincey

Here was a panacea -- a pharmakon nepenthes -- for all human woes: here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered: happiness might be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoast pocket: portable ecstacies might be had corked up in a pint bottle: and peace of mind could be sent down in gallons by the mail coach.

De Quincey's memoir Confessions of an English Opium-Eater is separated into sections called "The Pleasures of Opium" and "The Pains of Opium," interwoven with biographical passages that describe the poverty and homelessness that led him to seek comfort in opium.  But it's hard to shake the impression that the pleasures outweigh the pains--often de Quincey's description of the opium experience seems to foretell the pro-hallucinatory rhetoric of the 1960's.  "I sometimes seemed to have live for 70 or 100 years in one night," he writes, "nay, sometimes had feelings representative of a millenium passed in that time, or however, of a duration far beyond the limits of any human experience."  But when shit gets bad, shit gets bad:

But now that which I call the tyranny of the human face began to unfold itself.  Perhaps some part of my London might be answerable for this.  Be that as it may, now it was that upon the rocking waters of the ocean the human face began to appear: the sea appeared paved with innumerable faces, upturned to the heavens: faces, imploring, wrathful, despairing, surged upwards by the thousands, by myriads, by generations, by centuries: -- my agitations was infinite, -- my mind tossed -- and surged with the ocean.

De Quincey's descriptions of his opium dreams are intricate, harrowing, and often grotesque.  I wanted more of them.  I think I hadn't expected the extensive autobiographical stuff that dominates the first section--mostly about de Quincey's endless drifting through London--and so it was difficult to adjust that expectation.  I really just wanted to the get to the opium.

I think I enjoyed the appended writings a little more for that reason.  One is a collection of essays and scraps of memoir called Suspiria Profundis, and one a short meditation on the English Mail-Coach, which apparently doubled as a kind of hired long-distance transportation.  I especially liked a brief piece from Suspiria Profundis called "Savannah-la-Mar," which uses the image of a drowned Jamaican city to meditate on the passage of time and its relationship to God.

Apparently The Confessions lead a bunch of people to actually become addicted to opium.  It didn't have that effect on me, but maybe I didn't read it closely enough.  How about you, Liz?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

The incline was the same down which d'Urberville had driven her so wildly on that day in June.  Tess went up the remainder of its length without stopping, and on reaching the edge of the escarpment gazed over the familiar green world beyond, now half-veiled in mist.  It was always beautiful from here; it was terrible beautiful to Tess to-day, for since her eyes last fell upon it she had learnt that the serpent hisses where the sweet birds sing, and her views of life had been totally changed for her by the lesson.  Verily another girl than the simple one she had been at home was she who, bowed by thought, stood still here, and turned to look behind her.

John Durbeyfield, town drunk, happens to discover one day that he is actually the descendant of a once-great family, the d'Urbervilles, of whom a few still-genteel relations remain.  Hoping for monetary advancement, Durbeyfield sends his young daughter Tess to make the acquaintance of their cousin, Alec d'Urberville.  Alec's interest in Tess is not entirely that of a friendly relative, and Tess must repeatedly deflect his crass come-ons.  Then, one evening, while she is captive in his carriage, he rapes her.  Hardy, with his usual circuitousness, never quite says this--but the second chapter is called "Maiden No More." 

Tess of the d'Urbervilles is the story of the consequences of rape.  It would be nice to think that it's a record from the foreign nation of the past, and that Tess' experience would be different today, and maybe it would, but in degree and not in kind.  Like many rape victims today, Tess is thrown together again and again with her violator, unable to break free. Like many rape victims today, she is blamed--explicitly and otherwise--for her rape, including by the love of her life, Angel Clare, whose rigid humanist morals are unable to tolerate what he perceives as Tess' indiscretion.  Tortured by male attention, she mutilates her own face:

As soon as she got out of the village she entered a thicket and took from her basket one of the oldest field-gowns, which she had never put on even at the dairy... She also, by a felicitous thought, took a handkerchief from her bundle and tied it round her face under her bonnet, covering her chin and half her cheeks and temples, as if she were suffering from toothache.  Then with her little scissors, by the aid of a pocket looking-glass, she mercilessly nipped her eyebrows off, and thus insured against aggressive admiration she went on her uneven way.

D'Urberville is one of the slimiest villains I think I've ever read about.  His constant wheedling of Tess, his feigned care, contrasted with his claims to be so inflamed with passion that he can't resist himself, are both reprehensible and recognizable.  True, Hardy leaves some space for the reader to interpret Alec's actions as a seduction, but it seems to me that Hardy's structuring of the power differential between the two figures--he is wealthy and powerful, she neither, and of course if she resists he may abandon her in the woods.  But Angel, the good man whose moral code is so inflexible, is more frustrating and maybe more repulsive.  Angel takes a voyage to South America to get rid of the sticky moral situation that is Tess, only belatedly realizing his error:

During this time of absence he had mentally aged a dozen years.  What arrested him now as of value in life was less its beauty than its pathos.  Having long discredited the old systems of mysticism, he now began to discredit the old appraisements of morality.  He thought they wanted readjusting.  Who was the moral man?  Still more pertinently, who was the moral woman?  The beauty or ugliness of a character lay not only in its achievements, but in its aims and impulses; its true history lay, not among things done, but among things willed.

Moral realizations in Hardy's novels are always a step too late, sometimes comically so--it seems like lovers are always a moment too late or early to reunite with each other--but I guess we should take Angel at his word and judge him by this intentions and not his achievements.  But his obtuseness is pretty angering.

What about Tess?  She's not as interesting as the male principals--smart, pretty, humble, etc.--but much of her identity is tragically consumed by her victimhood.  She's a sister in spirit to Jude the Obscure: neither can seem to catch a break, and both are so dogged by systemic unfairness and outright cruelty that they begin to internalize it. Hardy clearly loves her, sometimes to a fault, and subtitles the novel "A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented."  Like Angel Clare, he's more arrested by pathos--pity--than beauty, and Tess is certainly a figure of pity.  There's no place for Tess, partly because of the backward moral climate of her surroundings.  But the pathos comes not only from the cruelty of a rotten society but from a cosmic unfairness:

Care had been harsh toward her; there is no doubt of it.  Men are too often harsh with women they love or have loved; women with men.  And yet these harshnesses are tenderness itself when compared with the universal harshness out of which they grow; the harshness of the posititon towards the temperament, the means toward the aims, of to-day towards yesterday, of hereafter towards to-day.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Divine Invasion by Philip K. Dick

What a tragic realm this is, he reflected.  Those down here are prisoners, and the ultimate tragedy is that they don't know it; they think they are free because they have never been free, and do not understand what it means.  This is a prison, and few men have guessed.  But I know, he said to himself.  Because that is why I am here.  To burst the walls, to tear down the metal gates, to break each chain.  Thou shall not muzzle the ox as he treadeth out the corn, he thought, remembering the Torah.  You will not imprison a free creature; you will not bind it.  Thus say the Lord your God.  Thus I say.

The working title for The Divine Invasion was VALIS Regained.  I would have liked that.  As a sequel to VALIS, it's somewhat unsatisfying; it shares no characters, no plot lines.  But the strange central idea of Dick's fictional-universe-cum-actual-philosophy is here: that God was exiled to outer space millennia ago, and that we've been living in an imaginary universe ever since.  The Divine Invasion stages God's return to Earth--something attempted, but not achieved, in VALIS--as a young boy, Emmanuel.

Emmanuel, like Christ, is the product of a virgin birth, this time on a remote planet where people live in pods isolated from one another and separated by an inhospitable wasteland.  The protagonist Herb Asher helps Emmanuel and his mother, Rybys, return to Earth, but malicious government forces attack the incoming ship, forcing the injured Herb into suspended animation.  The crash also inflicts brain damage and amnesia on Emmanuel, who must slowly remember that he is God and recover the true extent of his power.  Like all of Dick's books, there are strange tangents that intersect with the main plot at oblique angles, including a popular diva who sings 16th century English folk ballads.  Also, the prophet Elijah's there, and he's like three thousand years old.

The Divine Invasion is not as satisfyingly bonkers as VALIS, mostly because it lacks the layered biographical irony of that book.  But I did really love the ending, which dramatizes the choice Herb has to make between the God-child Emmanuel and a seductive goat-creature identified with Belial, or Satan:

Gray truth, the goat-creature continued, is better than what you have imagined.  You wanted to wake up.  Now you are awake; I show you things as they are, pitilessly; but that is how it should be.  How do you suppose I defeated Yahwah in times past?  By revealing his creation for what it is, a wretched thing to be despised.  This is his defeat, what you see -- see through my mind and eyes, my vision of the world: my correct vision.

Did I mention the goat communicates by telepathy?  It's weird.  But it also provides an insight into what Dick was trying to do by writing science fiction, and why he so frequently layers his work with false, imagined worlds (like the post-WWII world of The Man in the High Castle, for example).  Belial presents a choice between the "gray truth" and the hopeful ideal world that Emmanuel, damaged and immature, offers instead.  At the end of the book--spoilers here--the goat-creature is killed when someone loves and pities it.  To pity the world of "gray truth" is to imagine a better one, and to kill it by imagining.  I like that.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Paris Review Review

Before the flight I was invited for lunch at a London club with a billionaire I'd been promised had liberal credentials.  He talked in his open-necked shirt about the new software he was developing that could help organizations identify the employees most likely to rob and betray them in the future.  We were meant to be discussing a literary magazine he was thinking of starting up: unfortunately, I had to leave before we arrived at the subject.  He insisted on paying for a taxi to the airport, which was useful since I was late and had a heavy suitcase.  --Outline, by Rachel Cusk

I wasn't going to write a review of The Paris Review on this hallowed blog, but after reading some comments made by the editor about The Goldfinch, I felt compelled to address the magazine.  Specifically, Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, stated, "A book like The Goldfinch doesn't undo cliches--it deals in them . . . . It coats everything in a cozy patina of 'literary' gentility' . . . . Nowadays, even The New York Times Book Review is afraid to say when a popular book is crap."

I felt compelled to write this review because, with a few notable exceptions, The Paris Review has become a bastion of pretentious "literary" work that is crap.  A perfect example is Cusk's Outline, a serialized novel that, by coincidence, started at the same time as my subscription.

Outline is a novel about a writer who travels to Greece to teach a creative writing course.  First, I'll note that in general I hate stories about writers.  There is something unusual about writers that makes me distrustful of them as protagonists.  Writer-protagonists reflect the lack of diversity in their authors' life/creativity.  Outline is no different.    The novel is about the protagonist having conversations with various people opening up about their lives.  The common thread is all of them feel somehow robbed by the promise of life.  The opening lines are a potent symbol for this thread--the protagonist is promised something, but when the time comes, that thing does not materialize.

The writing, though ostensibly literary, is boring.  The characters' dissatisfaction with their lives rings hollow.  And this theme flows throughout stories in The Paris Review, as though the target audience of the magazine is people, just past their prime and coming to terms with the fact that they haven't lived up to their potential.

This is terribly boring.

The interviews are no better.  They focus on writers (who, for the most part, I haven't heard of; though, I won't hold the magazine liable for my own ignorance) discussing their craft.  Usually, these interviews are self-indulgent, boring, and patronizing towards other writers.

So, if Lorin Stein wants to fault The Goldfinch for being crap, I would fault The Paris Review for being pretentious and self-indulgent.

That said, I did renew my subscription of the magazine because, when the magazine shines, it shines.  On average, there's at least one good story in each issue (see infra I'll list the stories I enjoyed).  This makes the subscription worth it, in my opinion.  And the Review's interview of Chris Ware was really good, motivating me to buy at least one of his books.

In conclusion, this: The Paris Review is worth reading, but not so good it should feel entitled to talk shit about other writers, popular or not.

Randy Fiedler-approved short stories:

A Dark and Winding Road by Ottessa Moshfegh
Magic and Dread by Jenny Offill
Empathy by J.D. Daniels

To the Lake by Luke Mogelson
Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets by Zadie Smith
The Window Lion by Bill Cotter

No Place for Good People by Ottessa Moshfegh
Big Week by Zadie Smith

Locals by David Gates
The Art of Comics #2 with Chris Ware (an interview)

I won't address the poetry because I continue to have no taste for it (and, admittedly, one of the reasons for me to subscribe was to force myself to read and think about poetry).  Those of you who only want to read one or two stories, I'd recommend both of the Zadie Smith stories which stand out as (far and above the others) good.  And, again, the Chris Ware interview was really good.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Lost Tribe of Coney Island by Clarie Prentice

America is full of forgotten places. Some were never known to more than a few people to begin with; others spent considerable time in the zeitgeist before that fickle friend moved on to another place, another thing. Coney Island falls into the latter category. America’s first amusement park--though that description doesn’t really cover its breadth in its heyday--served as a social center for the States at the turn of the century, only to be overshadowed by the Walt Disneys and Universals of the world. Chris tells me Coney Island isn’t what it used to be, but for a glimpse of its halcyon days, read The Lost Tribe of Coney Island.

Not that the book is only--or even primarily--about the titular island, but Coney Island looms tall in the semi-tragic story of the small group of Igorrotes, a native tribe from the Philippines. It looms not only because the middle section of the book takes place there, but because the attitudes and national sentiment that made Coney Island what it was--the willingness to try anything, the passionate pursuit of novelty--are necessary ingredients in the tale of Truman Hunt--lieutenant governor, showman, shyster, fugitive--and his quest to make a bunch of money by displaying the Igorrotes for a curious and vouyeristic public.

Selling the exhibit with the sensationalism of dog-eating and headhunting, Truman wasn’t about to let little things like a new wife and child, the Igorrotes’ sacred customs, or basic human decency get in the way of making some money and giving the people what they wanted. As with most debacles, it didn’t start out this way. Thoug he was always controlling, Truman starts the story with what seems like a genuine, if somewhat patronizing, regard for the natives. As time goes on, however, his treatment of them grows worse and worse, until the entire group ends up on the run from the law. Tribe ends up in a pair of courtroom battles; unfortunately, since this is a true story, they don’t end with the Igorrotes mounting a passionate defense while Truman looks on agape. Instead (SPOILERS FOR A TRUE STORY), they win their first trial only to be pulled back into a second, which they lose when Truman’s attorney appeals to the racism and bigotry of the jury.

There’s a bittersweet coda to the book, but ultimately, it paints a vivid picture of an America that no longer exists, for better or for worse. It would be nice to think that we’re above the sort of “strange culture as entertainment” in our enlightened age; unfortunately, one look at TLC tells us that some things never change.

Because of family events, I’m writing this review well after I’ve finished the book. In case it’s not clear, this is a great book. Well-written and one of the most entertaining nonfiction books I’ve ever read, if the premise interests you at all, do pick it up.