Thursday, December 30, 2010

Love and Obstacles

What I find most interesting in Love and Obstacles is the way Aleksandar Hemon keeps coming back around to worry over the problems of what he calls “antibiographical writing” in his New Yorker interview. As he describes it, antibiographical writing means writing about things that didn’t happen to you but did happen in contexts you experienced, taking a few details and spinning out new ones to create a story. At the same time, the stories in Love and Obstacles, and perhaps most stories written with this method, are so likely to invite biographical readings that a rejection of excessive realism has to become a theme—almost to the extent that the reader (or at least this one) then wonders whether Hemon protests too much in a desperate bid to declare himself a real creator and not just a mimic of reality. So, as someone likewise averse to (auto)biographical fiction, I am a little puzzled by the solution Hemon tries to enact here.

Another frustrating thing about the book—although this may be its most redeeming attribute—is that Hemon never quite lets us sympathize with any of the stories’ characters. This includes the narrator(s) at every age—he (they) comes across as naïve as a youth (not especially surprising) and increasingly obnoxious and obtuse as an adult. Nonetheless, the supporting characters aren’t any better. In the later stories, the narrator first meets with an film student who wants to interview him for a documentary, then, in the final story, with a fellow writer in the narrator’s home city of Sarajevo. Both are candidates to serve as foils to reveal the narrator’s flawed ways of looking at or behaving in the world. Indeed, the American writer Macalister’s writing method, as it is revealed by the end, seems much like Hemon’s. Nonetheless, both are perfectly abhorrent in their own ways: the film student is as stubbornly bent on putting her interpretation on events as the narrator; Macalister is the worst kind of cultural tourist.

What comes through in this last story, and numerous others, is Hemon’s distaste for fellow immigrants desperate to win the appreciation of Americans. The collection is bookended by a story where the narrator as a youth encounters an American in Africa (his father is diplomat) and the final story about the narrator’s encounter with Macalister. In both cases the satire critiques the narrator’s slavish desire to be loved by the American. When Macalister finally includes a minor, disguised reference to the narrator’s family in his fiction, it indicates not so much the validation and recognition the narrator desired but rather that Macalister has simply consumed the experience and moved on: the narrator and his family really mean very little to him. Thus it is also strange that Macalister’s narrative technique should resemble so much Hemon’s own; the story seems to offer a self-repudiation of the writer as a sort of colonialist, taking his resources from everywhere without acknowledgment. In the initial story, set indeed in a colonial situation, the narrator carries around a copy of Heart of Darkness, and Hemon seems to be working out the problems of inheriting the representation of a fictional Other that supplants real others. From these stories, he comes across as a writer not fully convinced of his chosen aesthetic. That may not be a bad thing.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A "To Read" Bonanza from Granta

Before this slips away from me, I want to make note of Granta issue 113, the Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists, which came out this month. Three Percent has run a series of interviews and excerpts about all of the writers involved--one a day, ending just this past Wednesday. The whole series can be found here.

I'm looking forward to reading the issue soon, and I'm especially excited to see a number of women writers included (although the men well outnumber them). I've noticed that, amid my much increased reading of literature in translation over the past few years, and particularly my reading of translations from Spanish, the reading has nonetheless been dominated by male writers. This has been brought home to me especially by my negative reaction to Marquez's Memoirs of My Melancholy Whores and my biggest beef with Alejandro Zambra's Bonsai (though all in all I've quite enjoyed Zambra's work)--both related to their gender politics.

Perhaps I can begin to correct that this imbalance this coming year, and I hope this issue of Granta helps find some good prospects. (I'm not one to make New Year's resolutions, but maybe reading more women in translation should be one for 2011.) In the wake of all the publicity for her Cervantes Prize win, Ana Maria Matute will certainly be on the list as well, although I haven't decided where to begin.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

My Name Is Red

The last month has been a bit crazy, and it took me longer than I would have liked to finish Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red (1998, trans. from Turkish by Erdağ M. Göknar in 2001). This novel is one of those that have sat on my to-read shelf for a while, but I’m happy to have finally gotten around to it, and luckily it is a novel easy to come back to if you have to put it down after, say, reading the first half over the week of Thanksgiving.

My Name Is Red takes place at the end of the 16th century in Istanbul, where the Sultan has commissioned the creation of a secret book to give as a gift to the West. Amid speculation that the book is illustrated in a style offensive to Islam, one of the miniaturists is murdered. The book opens with this victim speaking from beyond the grave in a chapter titled “I am a Corpse,” and much of the rest of the book concerns the search for his murderer. The “detective,” albeit a somewhat unwilling and unqualified one, is Black Effendi, the nephew of the man in charge of the book’s creation. Black has returned after years of exile in the hope of marrying his cousin, Shekure, and his role in the search for the murderer is more about proving himself to his uncle, Shekure, and the authorities than it is about a desire for justice. Pamuk, like many other authors, takes up the mystery plot and modifies it to make his own literary concoction: Black’s love story and the mystery vie for prominence. The other play on the form lies in Pamuk’s shift in narrators between the chapters, including, as mentioned above, some chapters narrated by the dead, and others narrated by the murderer in a disguised voice.

These multiple voices and the combination of genres are, in many ways, what the novel is most about, as the situations involve extensive reflections and dialogues about the purposes of art. The novel offers a kind of political intrigue around the controversial nature of portraiture, with some factions in the novel opposing painting and illustration of any kind and others, the majority of the characters at the center of the novel, debating the proper role of art. The debate seems fairly simple at first glance: the established line is that illustration may only happen in the mannered style of the “great masters” of tradition, and that its goal is to portray the world as Allah sees it rather than as man sees it. On the opposite side are those who, under the influence of Western artists, have a growing interest in portraiture and realism, and who are thus condemned for privileging man’s perspective on the world over Allah’s, for disregarding tradition in favor of experimentation. But what is most fascinating as the novel goes on is that the distinctions between these opposed sides fall apart: not only do the artists painting in the new style have justifications for how their methods fit into a religious context and serve tradition, but the advocates of tradition themselves acknowledge that art has a history of change rather than a simple passing of tradition, sometimes giving the sense that the idea of tradition is itself just a rhetorical tactic. So many characters give their own slight variations on what they think terms like realism, style, and tradition mean that the novel reveals not so much that these two “sides” are the same thing but that they conflate a much more complicated debate where allies may not believe as similarly as they think and opponents may have a lot in common.

In all of this, the novel’s ideas and form are somewhat boilerplate poststructuralist and postmodernist of varieties that are very familiar by 1998. I think it might be fair to say that there is not a tremendous amount that is new here—although you have to reject the novel’s ideas outright if you uncritically privilege the new over the old without realizing that the new is often a matter of reproducing the old. I think I’ve seen comparisons of this book to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose in its adoption of the mystery plot and medieval religious context for pomo ends, and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone dismissed My Name Is Red as being too much the same thing. Nonetheless, as I read on I found myself thinking more and more how the pleasures offered by Pamuk’s novel vary from those of Eco’s, and I wound up valuing it on its own rather than as a way of reliving my enjoyment of the older book through a newer, lesser copy.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Memories of My Melancholy Whores

For a 115-page novella, Gabriel García Márquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004, trans. Edith Grossman 2005) took a long time to finish. I had to make myself get through it. I’m not the kind of person who thinks a writer needs to keep rehashing the same kind of thing throughout his career, so I am at least happy to see Márquez doing something besides the magic realism for which he is most popular in the U.S. Nonetheless, I’m not sure anyone anywhere at this point needs another novel about a man’s relationship to prostitutes.

Sure, Márquez ironizes his narrator: the 90-year-old comes off as having lived a fairly repulsive life, not just frequenting prostitutes and raping his servants but insisting on paying even women who sleep with him of their own accord. The novel, as I take it, is meant to reject this past life in his new-found love for a teenage virgin who he sleeps with, but doesn’t have sex with, every night at a brothel he used to frequent for more expected purposes. This new chaste love, apparently, is the real thing. Except it isn’t really: the young girl is every bit a product of his fantasy as any other relationship. She has no voice in the novel, and the novel doesn’t really draw attention to the way she is silenced.

You could take that description, at least up to the last sentence, and say, well, the novel really is suggesting the narrator is just as bad to the end as he ever was, that his is a false change of heart. I don’t really buy this reading, but even if I did, I’m not sure that it makes the book much better. At this point even a novel fully critiquing this kind of narrator just comes across as self-indulgent masturbatory fantasy.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Last Thoughts on The Last Samurai

The group read of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai ended last week, but once again I got caught up in other work, so I want to take a moment to offer that final promised post on the novel, specifically reviewing some of my thoughts on how the issues of risk come back around, especially through the novel’s rumination on suicide. One thing I want to emphasize about this novel is that, despite the feel-good ending (and one big differences of this novel from other postmodern novels is its willingness to offer good old-fashioned closure), it takes quite seriously the idea that suicide is a legitimate way out. In other words, we end with Ludo and Yamamoto (I think?) setting out on a new quest to inspire Sibylla to keep living, but despite this optimistic turn I don’t think the novel rejects Sibylla’s theories about suicide. Moreover, while Ludo’s new quest is inspiring, it doesn’t seem entirely likely to solve the underlying problems he is up against.

First, though, to quote in full a passage I enthused over several weeks ago, the following is one of the earlier indications that Sibylla, beyond feeling the drudgery of her daily existence, has been looking for a way out:

“Four hours have gone by. We have taken the Circle Line around four times. We have been to the toilet twice; L has hopped the length of the platform at Mansion House on one foot and back on the other foot; we have let the train each time at Tower Hill to make faces at the video camera & watch ourselves making faces in the banks of TVs. Or rather—you see yourself in one TV. In the others you do not appear—they show sometimes an empty platform, sometimes a platform with a few people, sometimes a platform with a train pulling around a bend. I think these are images from cameras further down the platform, but they look like glimpses into possible worlds, worlds where the sun rises and the trains run without you. There are pushchairs to be pushed but not by you, bad memories to be dodged but not by you.” (117)

I think even before we get to this last sentence, a kind of romanticism in the description suggests that Sibylla likes the idea of these worlds where she does not exist. I think there is a reference here to the idea of fiction as escapism into other worlds, but the reference works as much to distinguish what Sibylla says as it does to draw a parallel. When people talk about escaping into other worlds in fiction, they usually do so in a way that suggests they would like to imagine themselves as part of that world. Sibylla, by contrast, has no interest in being transported or transformed by fiction; rather, she really likes the idea of not existing at all.

Here we have the reason underlying Sibylla’s constant conversations with people on the tube, conversations that we only get in fragments but aren’t necessarily all that hard to piece together. The basic gist of her repeated argument is that it is better to kill someone than torture them indefinitely, and that by extension people who have a life they find unbearable should be allowed to commit suicide.

By the end of the novel, we get one body of a potential genius father figure who simply could not endure a world of trivialities in the face of extensive suffering, even though he had played a role in alleviating that suffering. His suicide prompts Ludo’s new motivation to help his mother out of her own hole. The ending here is upbeat: the novel affirms the ethics of making other’s lives worth living, and it highlights the role art can play in that ethics. Nonetheless, it hardly rejects Sibylla’s logic in favor of suicide itself, and it can’t, really, if it is to keep its high stakes.

I have to wonder, though, if Ludo’s gambit at the end can finally offer more than a temporary reprieve. He’s up against much bigger problems: not just Sibylla’s sulkiness but the forces behind it concerning risk and success in an economy that favors exploitation and the accumulation of money over concern for others and personal fulfillment. These are where all the threads of the novel come together: all these father figures ranging from the uncaring to the caring, and Sibylla’s own fear of getting trapped in a cycle of greed that will lead her away from the pursuit of better things and a more caring relation to the world. In a world of risk, how can you find a way to support yourself and live in a way that you can love? She says it best: “Once you’ve got one motel you can always get another, said Sib. And if you can get another you can’t really pass up that kind of opportunity” (512). That quote says everything about what Sibylla is running from, only to have run into a life where she has to scrape to get by and can’t pursue what she wants any more than if she went back to the U.S. and managed her family’s motel chain.

Ludo’s ending imagines that this problem can be solved by an act of love through art, but the rest of the novel betrays this ending by clueing us in to the broader forces of capitalism and the workaday world that ultimately create the choice to exploit or be exploited—misery for the those with ethical ideals either way. I don’t mean to say that I think the novel fails—far from it. What it does so well, so beautifully, and indeed so lovingly, though, is show the scope of what art can and cannot do. Absolutely art must inspire us to live, and absolutely we need other things to make us less desirous of deathly, empty platforms where no one waits for the train.

Thanks to those of you who read and commented during the group read. I hope you'll stick around!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Last Samurai Week Five: Around and Around We Go

I had planned to write about risk and death this week, but I finished The Last Samurai and it now seems like it will be easier to talk about those issues next week when the group read wraps up. Briefly, that left me wondering exactly what I was going to write about this time around, simply because the current section has us in something of a holding pattern with its repetition: Ludo continues to search out and interview new potential father figures. Each one has a personal history that merges with the last at places and diverges in others. I enjoyed them all, but what to say?

Then I realized that this repetition was exactly what I should write about. One thing that strikes me about the last half of the narrative is that it highlights, simultaneously, this book’s place in a picaresque tradition that goes back to the origins of the novel and its connection to postmodernism through an emphasis on repetition and, through the overlaps and distinctions between these various men’s lives, a refusal to offer any one coherent idea of what makes a man, or father, or person (or whatever other category you want to consider here).

The role of the picaresque in the early novel is easy enough to see here: the episodic nature of the story, where each episode repeats a certain kind of plot structure, featuring a wandering narrator. The way the picaresque seeded the nineteenth-century bildungsroman likewise: each of Ludo’s encounters seems to develop his personality, or at least his sense of what would make a good father and why he might want one, a little farther, educating him in the varieties of humanity.

Nonetheless, this same repetition feels very postmodern, precisely in this last insistence on variety that perpetually undermines any settled idea about what people—or a certain type of person, like “the genius”—are like: each repetition changes our perception of the last and of the whole, destabilizing our ability to say anything with much certainty. As we go on, DeWitt refuses any easy generalizations: genius does not automatically make you crass and indifferent to other people (what people sometimes think of as the autistic model of genius), as it may seem early in this last part (I’m thinking of Yamamoto and HC, but Sibylla qualifies as well); neither does it mean you are going to do anything good for other people or even yourself (taking us back to what I discussed in my first post on risk: genius doesn’t necessarily get you anywhere). Likewise, there is not really any one thing that Ludo or anyone else could expect from a father. There are only various versions of what people might be like, versions compounded by the stories they and others tell: one of the repeated structures here is that Ludo hears/tells one version of a biography, and then hears a different version from the celebrity father figure.

These narrative recursions in Ludo’s last long chapter are not the only way repetition comes up in this novel. We have Sibylla and Ludo riding the tube endlessly on the Circle Line, and we have Yamamoto’s aesthetic theory of the necessity of repetition in order to see differently—beauty needs a background of banality. While the painter, Mr. Watkins, might seem to offer a different theory, his search for the intensity of color also draws deeply on the context in which we see color—that is the relation of specific moments of vision to many others, and the relation among the colors themselves. In the book, the various men, likewise, only mean something in relation to one another, the stories told about them, and the fictional men from the screen with whom Ludo has grown up: their differences make for meanings, but also for their startling singularities for the fascination of the reader.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

DeWitt Group Read Week Four: Genius and Ethics in The Last Samurai

I’m still continuing apace with the reading schedule for the group read of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, and the book gets more and more fascinating as we continue with Ludo’s narration of his discover of his father and attempt to find a better one once he realizes who exactly it is. I have a lot to say, but in this post I’ll try to stick to the story of HC and RD and how it moves the book’s meditation on genius and ethics forward.

The story of HC and RD (Hugh Carey and Raymond Drecker) follows the description of Yamamoto and the story in the prologue as one of these little morsels of morsels of relatively conventional narrative DeWitt feeds us throughout the novel, all perfectly delightful but interrupting the narrative for long stretches. As with the previous stories, this one tells the stories of other geniuses—but if the Yamamoto story raised the question of genius and ethics then this one raises a problem of definition. Both HC and RD are geniuses of sorts, but HC knows more about how to make people think you are a genius by jumping through all the appropriate hoops; indeed, he has to teach RD how to jump through the hoops by cutting off RD’s own form of genius that wants to refuse the temptation of ever trivializing a philosophical question by answering it in a short form that might, say, fit on an exam form. RD, following Plato (321), thinks of this kind of practical framing of genius as a scam—rhetorical dishonesty against the philosopher’s honesty. I expected RD to be favored here—a distinction of real genius rather than self-serving celebrity—and to some extent that plays out in the story Sibylla tells. However, it becomes apparent very soon that HC is completely correct that RD would never get anywhere if he didn’t make some concessions for the academic game of chess HC teaching him to negotiate, and HC turns out correct again when RD stops playing the game and winds up just working on a dictionary rather than on big philosophical questions. Indeed, the story Sibylla tells basically romanticizes HC from there as he pursues his big adventure.

When Ludo encounters HC at the latter’s home, though, he first notices the surprising glamour of someone known for a commitment to a rugged life, and by the end of his encounter seems to put HC right back into the camp of the rhetorician—someone who only wants to be a celebrity. Notably one of the things motivating his rejection of HC as a father figure echoes Yamamoto’s story: HC, like Yamamoto, has a completely crass lack of feeling about the suffering he has seen and even perhaps inflicted on the tribal group he tracked down. Ludo, walking away from the house in what comes across as a blend of anger, fear, and loss, laments, “He had not killed to learn those moodless verbs and uninflected nouns, but he had brought a slave into existence for their sake” (358). This passage, building off the Yamamoto story, really begins to suggest a postcolonial critique of the resources a certain kind of genius exploits, on whose lives it builds its glory. Yamamoto, like HC, transforms his genius into spectacle on the basis of a lack of response to brutality and his treatment of other people as a natural resource for their personal exploitation (notably, neither tribe wants to give up the private cultural knowledge, whether language or musical ceremony, that the geniuses finally obtain).

Three observations about the way this plays out. First, I was a little surprised that Sibylla had a romanticized view of HC, given that she seems more committed to RD’s perspective. Her commitment to real genius without shortcuts or showy accomplishments comes out in her watching and interpretation of Kurosawa’s films, and, indeed, when Ludo hears the story of HC and immediately wants to follow in his footsteps by becoming the youngest person admitted to Oxford in classics, Sibylla has no interest and tries to dissuade him. Second, coming out of his encounter with HC, Ludo seems to have developed a sense of humanity and decency that Sibylla doesn’t exhibit in her unreflective admiration of Yamamoto. A sense of other people’s welfare is not something Ludo has exhibited much previously. Third and finally, if HC and RD both wind up being right about the other’s limitations, DeWitt has left us wondering what a genius is to do to avoid their respective paths. Will Ludo find a different way?

Next post (hopefully with less time in between!), I’d like to return to that passage, which I referred to previously, where Sibylla looks at the security video screens and tie it to the questions of risk I began talking about in my first post. As I have read on, I have started to rethink my initial reaction in my last post that this problem of risk had disappeared as the novel continues; rather, I think it may transform into the issue of life and death that repeatedly comes up—for example, in Sibylla’s conversations with strangers.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Unfinished Thoughts for Week Two of The Last Samurai

I’ve been swamped by work and a few other things recently, but I did finish this week’s reading for the ongoing group read of The Last Samurai and would like to get down a few bullet points at least.
  • First, I also managed to finish watching Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. DeWitt offers summary of tidbits from the first part of the film (but only the first part so far) in the novel itself. Is seeing the movie essential to reading the book? That might depend on what you mean by essential. No, to the extent that as far as we’ve read, I don’t think a lack of knowledge of the film could impede an enjoyment of the book. Yes, to the extent that a viewing of the film would inevitably allow at least some connections in terms of theme, etc., that you probably couldn’t get only from Sibylla’s summary. One very broad connection I am finding between the two is the sense of humor despite serious situations.
  • I will also say, though I’m not sure yet if I agree Sibylla’s reading of the film is correct, that she is right about one thing: that woman on the tube who thinks Seven Samurai is about an elite band didn’t watch the film (p. 128 in my edition).
  • After last week’s reading, the passages emphasizing chance have dropped off some, although obviously parenting is still front and center as a focus through the end of chapter ii. Or rather: Sibylla’s increasingly apparent dislike for parenting. She extracts some promises for good behavior that Ludo finds his way around without recrimination, and then of course she doesn’t even notice for an unknown amount of time that he leaves the Yamamoto performance, and talks herself out of being upset about it. She really does not like having to say no to him. At the same time, his walk home and his turn toward self-tutoring is already making her superfluous, and she seems to feel that lack of need when she keeps looking for something to offer to his understanding of Japanese. Is her rewatching of Kurosawa at the end of this section a moment of grasping for stability?
  • What do we do with this Yamamoto business, anyway? I felt like Yamamoto’s discussion of fragmentation and repetition comes across as a sincere description of what great art should do. Partially I buy it because of what his performance does to Sibylla; also, though, it appears to fit the aesthetic of the book. For example, while I think the writing here is great, I wouldn’t call most of the prose “lyrical”; but every once in a while we get a burst of lyricism that stands out precisely because of its placement amongst the other voices in the text. My favorite so far is Sibylla’s description of looking at herself among many images on the tube security monitors (p. 117, go read the whole thing), which I take to be a reflection on our engagement with books. (Actually, maybe I’ll say more about this another time, because as a possible reflection on how or why we would read, the passage is fascinatingly morbid.) Nonetheless, the artist who expounds this style can’t be bothered to care about the genocide he has witnessed first-hand, and his exemplary viewer (Sibylla) ignores the basic needs of her own child to feel the effect of the performance. I guess at least in the book equivalent, the reader can choose when to take a break.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Last Samurai: Parenting as Risky Business

This week begins the new group read of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai. Scott Esposito over at Conversational Reading is leading the effort: you can find the schedule here and Scott’s initial thoughts here. Scott’s post does a nice job of introducing some of the various threads of the novel. After saying a little about the prologue, I would like to expand on the discussion of chance he started, a motif that so far seems to draw together everything else for me.

Very briefly: so far, we have a prologue that tells the story of Sibylla’s father, and a first chapter that introduces her life with her gifted son Ludo. Sibylla’s father (I think unnamed so far, but maybe I just missed it) was an atheist genius admitted by Harvard at 15 but conned by his minister father into going to theological school instead so he could “give the other side a fair chance.” Sibylla tells this part of her story with much more continuity and cohesion than she can later. Indeed, the beginning reads almost like a fairy tale, with a twist of realism, when her father meets the three Deans, both because of the relatively straightforward and simple style of this section and the “rule of three” structure that leads to his admission at the third school. Again, though, more realistically: his is no “just right” fit, but one that comes from finding an administrator relatively less intellectually honest and more interested in the tuition money he can charge. More amusing, and with a happier (apparently) outcome, is her father’s run-in with an archetypal pool-hall confidence man, in which he actually beats the confidence man. Another twist on myth: the overcome opponent or obstacle that results in a magical gift—insider investment advice.

Much of this already introduces the idea of chance: give the other side a chance, con men, investments. The grandfather’s insistence that the father “give the other side a chance” may at first glance seem to be using the word chance in a different way than would apply to the narrator’s obsession with numbers and odds: the grandfather really means that the father should treat the debate over religion honestly by grappling with the best minds in the field. However, the grandfather himself is playing a con game, as the father later realizes to his own dismay. Indeed, the reason he accepts this challenge has nothing to do with the logic of his grandfather’s statement but with emotion: “Something looked through my grandfather’s beautiful eyes. Something spoke with his beautiful voice.” The use of “Something” here is a way of indicating something non-logical, perhaps sadness or desperation or just a sense of paternal obligation, and this Something, along with “a very delicate sense of honor,” drives the father. Here, and in the way the grandfather successfully convinces the father that the first two Deans are wrong that he could give a fair chance while still going to Harvard, we see the grandfather loading the dice, playing the father’s sense of honor so that it short-circuits logic (“The beautiful voice pointed out…that of course my father must decide for himself”).

Or perhaps the father knows all along: given that he never goes to class once he gets to theology school, his honor may have less to do with giving a fair fight than with a sense of filial duty: either way he gets conned, and so it is interesting that the story’s next major turn comes with his triumph over a con man. In return, what does he get from the con man? Insider advice on land investments: a way to hedge against chance that he does, apparently, then use to make a fortune on a motel chain. Sibylla herself borrows from this tradition when she lies to improve her chances of getting into Oxford, so perhaps one of the things that most ties the first three generations of this family together is not just an obsession with numbers and odds, but a willingness to skew odds in their own favor.

The obsession over chance leads, for me, to some of the funnier passages in the book. For example, here is another brief story told about the father:

In later years my father sometimes played a game. He’d meet a man on his way to Mexico and he’d say, Here’s fifty bucks, do me a favor and buy me some lottery tickets, and he’d give the man his card. Say the odds against winning the jackpot were 20 million to 1 and the odds against the man giving my father the winning ticket another 20 million to 1, you couldn’t say my father’s life was ruined because there was a 1 in 400 trillion chance that it wasn’t.

This is absurd, even given the situation of the game. In what way can you say someone’s life is ruined if they don’t win the lottery, or even if they don’t get the money when someone else wins the lottery on their behalf? The logic, or illogic, becomes clearer at the end of the next paragraph, which describes a variation on the game for European travel. Sibylla writes,

Whatever [the odds] were [of getting the money from the stranger, etc.] it was not absolutely impossible but only highly unlikely, and it was not absolutely certain that my grandfather had destroyed him because there was a 1 in 500 trillion trillion chance that he had not.

My father played the game for a long time because he felt he should give my grandfather a sporting chance.

Aside from its humorous and rococo logic (or even because of it), this passage is revealing—and surprising—because it (along with a more vague passage two pages later) suggests the father’s obsession with chance really has nothing to do with logic and everything to do with a continuing filial piety after realizing his father’s betrayal. First of all, he wants a reconciliation with his father enough to hope that getting rich through some unlikely series of events will mean that his grandfather didn’t ruin him by derailing him from Harvard (an easier path to, or better chance for, financial success). But this passage also seems to suggest that he thinks the occurrence of something extremely unlikely but still possible would vindicate his grandfather’s religious belief. The thinking here echoes religious arguments, particularly the kind you hear about intelligent design (the chances of the development of the eye or some other organ).

All of this echoes with Sibylla’s story once we get into the first chapter: her own guilt about not telling Ludo’s father he has a son and her recurrent idea to bring them together, her obsession with chance and the way certain events seem to shape later ones (I say seem because some of her chains of cause and effect feel rather like fancy). Moreover, I think the motif of chance may have something to do with what Scott called the suspicion that “the narrator tries too hard not to block the genius in her own son.” Is this novel, ultimately, going to be about the obsession with creating chances for children? Certainly Ludo seems to have better chances than most to be a genius on his own merits, but is the way Sibylla relates to his potential really so different than many parents (c.f. Baby Einstein or whatever the current fad may be)?

I think you can turn this to a more historical interpretation too: we aren't just reading about parenting, but parenting in a very modern economy of risk unlike, say, the world of the grandfather, who has no interest in his son’s chances for economic success. I will be interested to see how these themes develop as the novel goes forward.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

How the García Girls Lost Their Accents

Julia Alvarez runs a risk opposite the one causing the problems with Acosta I discussed some weeks ago: rather than offending for the wrong reasons, she comes very close to being too subdued, and even grateful to the American dream in a way that might not challenge her middle class readership enough. And a couple of the individual chapters in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents do perhaps come across as a little too composed, with too much closure and pat metaphorical significance. Nonetheless, as a whole I came away from the book having enjoyed it, largely because as it continues Alvarez increasingly interrogates the García family’s privilege in contrast to many immigrants (or others who cannot immigrate). The novel moves back in time to the family’s beginnings in the Dominican Republic, and the family’s treatment of their servants in that context is not always laudible. I didn’t always like the extent to which the novel focused on Yolanda/Yoyo, perhaps a too transparent stand-in for Alvarez (emphasized by her name’s Yo/I equivalence). However, the contrast between her relatively ignorant privilege in the first chapter when she returns to the D.R. as a grown-up and her comments on what she owes to the D.R. from her childhood in the final chapter create an interesting tension in the book: narratively, she progresses to an understanding that who she has grown up to be has a good deal of privilege due to her class and her move to the U.S., even as the most grown up version of her we see does not exhibit much of that understanding.

This makes for an interesting rough edge to the novel’s portrayal of the immigrant move. She does, perhaps, push back against any readers who would complain, like I do above, about the “American dream” aspect to novel, by showing how substantial the differences of freedom are for women. Yolanda’s mother, in a chapter that takes place just a couple of years after the family’s move, already does not want to move back even after the political situation improves: “But Laura had gotten used to the life here. She did not want to go back to the old country where, de la Torre or not, she was only a wife and a mother (and a failed one at that, since she had never provided the required son). Better an independent nobody than a high-class houseslave.” Even if she is sometimes ashamed of what her daughters do with their freedom, Mami does ultimately want it for them. Still, Alvarez acknowledges that this freedom, while desirable, allows for a certain kind of ignorance to develop in those that have it. The introductory story, in which Yolanda returns with her family to the D.R. portrays her as having a confidence she wouldn’t have developed otherwise, but it leads her to behave in ways that betray a unthinking class superiority with consequences for the people she runs across (she manages to get one little kid beaten up). Unfortunately, I’m guessing the individual episodes of the novel seem extractable enough that they get published as individual stories for classroom collections, and perhaps also were to market the book in magazines—fine for marketing, but bad in that I think a lot of the critique that develops through the novel’s organization gets lost if you just read some of the earlier stories on their own.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Hire Some Librarians, Please

Over at Salon, Laura Miller sums up some of the search problems plaguing Google Books and interviews Geoffrey Nunberg, who raised the issues last year:

Nunberg, a linguist interested in how word usage changes over time, noticed "endemic" errors in Google Books, especially when it comes to publication dates. A search for books published before 1950 and containing the word "Internet" turned up the unlikely bounty of 527 results. Woody Allen is mentioned in 325 books ostensibly published before he was born.
Other errors include misattributed authors -- Sigmund Freud is listed as a co-author of a book on the Mosaic Web browser and Henry James is credited with writing "Madame Bovary." Even more puzzling are the many subject misclassifications: an edition of "Moby Dick" categorized under "Computers," and "Jane Eyre" as "Antiques and Collectibles" ("Madame Bovary" got that label, too).

It appears that Google, of all places, is having problems understanding the function of metadata, though the root problem may be the outsourcing of scanning and data entry to anyone who wants to do it, no matter how little training.  Note to Google: I love this project, but please hire some librarians instead of outsourcing the work to Armenia.

(h/t The Millions)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Private Lives of Trees

Julián lulls the little girl to sleep with “The Private Lives of Trees,” an ongoing story he’s made up to tell her at bedtime. The protagonists are a poplar tree and a baobab tree, who, at night, when no one can see them, talk about photosynthesis, squirrels, or the many advantages of being trees and not people or animals or, as they put it themselves, stupid hunks of cement.

This paragraph opens Alejandro Zambra’s The Private Lives of Trees, just published in July by Open Letter with a beautiful translation by Megan McDowell, and, just as when I read his first novel Bonsai, the literary precursor that came to mind is Kurt Vonnegut.  This is right out of Vonnegut’s descriptions of his fictional author Kilgore Trout’s sci-fi novels: imagine one of Trout’s stories featuring aliens visiting or observing Earth.  The only difference in this passage, as I suggested in that previous post, is slightly more direct sympathy for the characters: Vonnegut would have used that last blunt assessment to describe the humans, something like “dumb hunks of meat.”  In fact, just two pages later Zambra gives us the more cynical, while still compassionate, statement that also could come straight from Vonnegut: “Sometimes Fernando is a blot on Daniela’s life, but who isn’t, at times, a blot on someone else’s life.”  Yes. And: ouch.  Still, I don’t want to overplay the Vonnegut connection: Zambra may have absorbed some of the earlier writer’s formal trappings, but he makes them his own, blending them with a deeper investigation of the internal hopes and fears of his characters in romantic and family life.

The Private Lives of Trees is just a little longer than the previous novel, but still only takes about two hours to read.  For me, it is the stronger book, dropping some of the more hackneyed ways of thinking about heterosexual romance and building on the strengths of the first.  Here, Julián is watching over his step-daughter, Daniela, and waiting for his wife Verónica to come home from her art class.  She is late, and then later, and as the evening passes he thinks about her ex-husband, Fernando, his own ex-girlfriend Karla, his writing, and how Daniela might react to it when she grows up.  This is a novel about waiting for someone to arrive, and the thoughts we have while waiting—a far less creepy cousin to David Lynch’s recent (brilliant) film Inland Empire. 

Moreover, one of the novel’s two epigrams comes from Georges Perec, and so the novel is also a play off of the Oulipian literary tradition of artificial constraints.  Early on, and occasionally throughout, the narrator tells us, after recounting the routine of Julián’s evenings with Verónica,
But this night is not an average night, at least not yet.  It’s still not completely certain that there will be a next day, since Verónica hasn’t come back from her drawing class.  When she returns, the novel will end.  But as long as she is not back, the book will continue.  The book continues until she returns, or until Julián is sure that she won’t return.

There is some ambiguity to this passage, and irony to the Oulipian constraint it proposes.  First of all, the novel is slightly ambiguous as to who is speaking or thinking here: is “the novel” Julián’s bedtime story for Daniela, his novel, or the narrator’s novel?  More basically, is Julián or the narrator creating this constraint?  Without giving away the end of Zambra’s novel, it can be said quite easily that Julián stops telling the bedtime story very early, and hardly works on his own novel at all.  Does this suggest, slyly, that he has given up on Verónica right from the start, all his thoughts for the remaining pages a kind of elegy for the relationship?  Second, as a reader of Zambra’s novel, I can only look on the Oulipian commitment as an ironic one: because Julián and Verónica are themselves fictional characters under the control of a writer, the constraint of ending the novel when one doesn’t show up or the other gives up is also a fiction.  The supposed constraint is both an authorial decision and a disguise for authorial decision, and so Zambra’s use of it strikes me as tongue-in-cheek.

You don’t need to pick up on the stylistic or explicit allusions in The Private Lives of Trees to enjoy it.  The novel does such a wonderful job of eliciting the experience of a mind avoiding its own conclusions that anyone will simply enjoy following Julián’s thoughts and reading McDowell’s beautiful translation of Zambra’s prose.  This book, more than Bonsai, shows why Zambra has become the rising star of Chilean literature others have reported him to be.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


Here's some fun: Throughout September, the University of Chicago Press is giving away e-book copies of their facsimile of the original 1906 Chicago Manual of Style. In addition, they will be giving away a new e-book each month (I believe the link in the previous sentence will go to whatever the current book happens to be).

It looks like the real amusement in the facsimile hides out in the Appendix advice to copyeditors and their fellow workers. The relationship between the (male) proofreader and his (female) copyholder (who, it appears, reads the original to the proofreader while he reviews his copy) is well-regulated. For him, we have such statements as "Let her work out her own salvation" and "She likes to, and can do it." She is reminded, "you are the housekeeper of the proof-room."

[Update, as I'm on the subject of free books: I just want to add a quick thanks to John Williams, who has been giving away a few books as part of a fascinating focus on William James over at The Second Pass. Courtesy of John, I'll be receiving a copy of a collection of William James's essays, The Heart of William James. I look forward to reading it.]

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


I should say up front that I approached Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980) warily. She is someone whose work enough people in my field respect that I ought to have some familiarity with it, but most of the references I have seen or heard have placed her fiction in one of two broad genres I do not tend to enjoy: nature writing and religious writing.

And up until the last two chapters, I have to say I did find the book quite dull, although not entirely for the reasons I had feared. Briefly, the novel focuses on a girl on the verge of puberty, Ruthie (and to a lesser extent her sister Lucille), whose grandfather and mother die in dramatic circumstances. Left in the care of their grandmother, then two great aunts, then their mother’s sister Sylvie, Ruthie and Lucille lose their sense of connection to society. Sylvie herself, still reeling from her own unvanquished grief over her father’s death, does very little except encourage them to embrace a quasi-oblivion in nature and outside the reach of their rural community.

Against the proclamations of Robinson’s lyricism, I found the prose stale, even in the nature scenes where you might expect some transcendental sparkle. Granted, some of this may be due to the novel’s focus on a variety of grief that completely immobilizes you and then transforms you into an outcast. Still, one of the consolations, even payoffs, of this grief is supposed to be a freedom and a curiosity about nature that should come across more beautifully; but, in the inevitable go-to-nature climactic chapter, when Sylvie does finally take Ruthie out on the lake to a place that, she claims, is “really very pretty,” nature feels quite uninteresting.

Strangely enough, it was when the book took a sudden, temporary turn towards religious didacticism late in the book that Robinson’s style suddenly had some lyrical pull. Here is the first paragraph of the penultimate chapter:

Cain murdered Abel, and blood cried out from the earth; the house fell on Job’s children, and a voice was induced or provoked into speaking from a whirlwind; and Rachel mourned for her children; and King David for Absalom. The force behind the movement of time is a mourning that will not be comforted. That is why the first event is known to have been an expulsion, and the last is hoped to be a reconciliation and return. So memory pulls us forward, so prophecy is only brilliant memory—there will be a garden where all of us as one child will sleep in our mother Eve, hooped in her ribs and staved by her spine.

Reading this, I can understand why Robinson has made something of a name for herself as an essayist defending religious humanism. I have no inclination to agree with her viewpoints as they come across in this novel (I suppose Robinson is not the first to take priestly commitments to poverty and turn them into a romance of wasting away), but she works so well with the sudden flourish of allusions to various families in the Old Testament that I could finally, late in the novel, be swept up in her prose. The last image of Eve is so grotesque as to be beautiful.

As a final aside for those who like Housekeeping: I do recommend you read Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s 1822 novel A New-England Tale, which seems to me an implicit reference throughout Robinson’s novel. Sedgwick’s story is a religious fiction with a view of nature verging on what would become Emerson’s transcendentalism. In it, a young girl orphaned when her parents die ends up in the care of an aunt. Sylvie, however, seems modeled less on the aunt than on “Crazy Bet,” a wild woman and vagrant tolerated by the community, who becomes a guiding spirit for the protagonist Jane.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


José Manuel Prieto’s Rex (trans. Esther Allen) is my most recent read from the Best Translated Book Award 2010 longlist, and it is the best yet. (You can see my thoughts on Juan Filloy’s Op Oloop here; I read Mercè Rodoreda's Death in Spring before I began this blog, but I do highly recommend it, and not just for what might be the best book cover of all time.) To paraphrase Chad Post over at Three Percent, it may be an injustice to try to review this novel without reading it at least twice, but I’m going to try.

Rex opens with an act of devotion on the part of the narrator, a somewhat crazed admirer of Proust: “I’ve been reading it for years, the one Book.” The Book, In Search of Lost Time, is never mentioned directly, nor is Proust, who is referred to only as the Writer. And the best way of describing the tone of the whole novel is to say that it emerges out of religious fervor and ecstatic mysticism. The Writer increasingly comprises other authors, as if a deity were behind them, something like Emerson’s Over-soul except that only geniuses have it, not everyone. The narrator’s obsession with this figure can only be expressed indirectly; in fact he is so dazzled by his literary obsession and his opulent surroundings (see below) that he can rarely narrate anything in a straightforward manner.

The general situation of the book goes something like this: the narrator has been hired by a Russian couple to tutor their son, Petya, at their extravagant home on the Spanish Mediterranean coast. The place drips diamonds, and the narrator suspects the family of being on the run from the Russian mob. Indeed they are: the father, Vasily, a scientist, has developed a method for creating fake diamonds that look authentic using normal testing, and he has sold loads of them to a couple of gangsters. As the novel proceeds, the narrator gets sucked into participation in the household scheming over how best to evade retribution.

The complications of the novel include thick allusions, though many specific references are not necessary for comprehension and Prieto provides an Author’s Note specifying many of his sources. (I was happy to have read the second volume of Proust recently, as there are several references to it.) More challenging is the sentence-level style, which, as I wrote above, gains a stilted quality from the narrator’s mystified devotion to writing and to wealth. Here is a sample paragraph from early in the book, involving the narrator’s first glimpse of a (fake, unbeknownst to him) diamond necklace worn by Petya’s mother, Nelly:

Without my being able to take a step or rather drop to the ground, return to earth, my feet a handsbreadth above the carpet, then falling slowly back down onto it, still plunged in my astonishment. All right: I’d noticed, I knew they were fabulously rich, but…that necklace! Diamonds, without a shadow of a doubt. Because if once in your life you’ve paid attention, if ever you’ve seen a diamond, you won’t mistake one for anything else, Petya. Just as it’s enough for me to read a single page by the Writer, a single paragraph: how it glows, how it scintillates! And I’m not the type to say—as I know some people would, affording themselves the pleasure of stupidly proclaiming: So what? Diamonds? What do I want diamonds for? Why would I pay for a diamond if it’s all the same—you know?—as a piece of cut crystal. I, a reader of the Book, was better prepared.

The most characteristic sentence-level mark here lies in the fragments, or collection of fragments, in the first sentence. In many parts the narrator can only write in a string of fragments that read as the equivalent of watching slow-motion proceed through a series of barely-related frames of film. This form marks either his own mystification, his attempt to mystify his implied reader (who is Petya, at least most of the time), or both.  It calls into question his sanity and suggests his own duplicities: a narrator unreliable in multiple, overlapping ways that continuously complicate one-another. His sense that the Book has universal applicability and moral authority, speaking to all situations across time, is only the least of his strangenesses, and some of the humor as the book goes on comes from watching him strain to make his fiction a workable one.  In the passage above, the actual falseness of the diamonds already bounces back to undermine the narrator’s authority on all things authentic, and thus, ultimately, his ideas about authentic art.

The resulting sense that he and the people around him are often their own dupes seems to me very much at the heart of what Rex contemplates. In his Author’s Note, Prieto writes something that seems, at first, surprising: that the novel is first and foremost a “post-totalitarian” novel, which is to say it is about life after the end of a totalitarian regime (here communist Russia). What I think he refers to is the crazed scramble for security in the moments after collapse, everyone conning everyone else in a bid to gain some stability in whatever new order arises, and everyone ready to believe in myths of a better life to come, a sudden transformation into utopia. Reading this novel, you should be prepared to disbelieve many of the things various characters profess to believe and even to wonder how anyone could believe them, but these delusions are, I think, the point. Anyone who puts Rex down early due to what appears to be unrealistic characterization will miss a truly outstanding reading experience. Chad Post’s review mentions Nabokov; expanding on this, I would say the result of Prieto’s imagined world is a book that reads as if Proust and Nabokov collaborated on the novelization of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It is a book with tragedy and humor, but with both buried under a style that ducks and weaves, creating surreal effects out of the narrator’s at once duplicitous and naïve, utopian and fearful, perspective on the world.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Nicest Way of Saying No

I have been busy with other things, but I am making my way through José Manuel Prieto's Rex and hope to post on it soon. (Short version: amazing!)

In the meantime, I give you this hilarious excerpt from a live recording of Laurie Anderson in Madison, Wisconsin (10/29/04—my transcription):

I had an idea to do an opera based on the novel Gravity’s Rainbow. So I wrote to the author, Thomas Pynchon, and I made this proposal. And I could just see Slothrop and all the characters caught up in these chords and notes and music. And I described how it all might work. And I didn’t think that I would ever hear from him because he was such a famous recluse. But actually, he did finally write back, and he said that he would be so glad and honored to have an opera made by me and based on Gravity’s Rainbow and how much he loved the idea and that he had only one condition. And that was: that the entire opera would be scored for a single instrument, and that instrument would be—the banjo.

I mean can you imagine like a whole opera, like two or three acts of solid, wall-to-wall, solo banjo and the overture, all the arias, the choruses, you know, the one instrument. And—and some people have the nicest way of saying: No. No. No. Not over my dead body.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Revolt of the Cockroach People

I have little to say about Oscar Zeta Acosta’s novel The Revolt of the Cockroach People.  My understanding is that it is thinly-disguised autobiography, a reading encouraged by the back of the Vintage edition and Marco Acosta’s afterward.  For those who do not know, Acosta was a Chicano lawyer defending protesters and dissidents during the (at times more, at times less) militant Chicano movement in Los Angeles.  He is most famous now as the character Dr. Gonzo in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; Johnny Depp plays him in the film version.  Indeed, Revolt reads much like a New Journalist’s account of the 1960s Chicano struggle. 

As that kind of journalism, the novel does decent work giving the mood of the moment.  Nonetheless, I found it mostly unreadable and a failure in terms of the propaganda Acosta wants it to be.  Acosta’s brand of Chicano nationalism leads him to fight a number of worthy battles, and I am more than willing to forgive a certain amount of over-the-top rhetoric that goes along with his work.  Nonetheless, misogyny and homophobia overrun the narrative, echoing much of the work in the Black Arts Movement of the same decade (I’m thinking of Amiri Baraka especially, although Acosta perhaps goes even further in offense).  Everyone opposing his cause is a fag—justifiable class resentment is conflated with unjustifiable homophobia at every moment.  Every woman exists to be fucked (and, he lets us know, isn’t really a woman until she is fucked) and, of course, finds him irresistible.  The only political posture Acosta and his allies know is machismo.  The best thing about the point where Chicano politics meets literature these days is that such a stance has been left behind for the defter, because more open to difference and alliance, critiques of writers like Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai (trans. Carolina de Robertis) is a pleasure to read (and so quickly too), although given the enthusiastic reviews I had seen previously I was bound to be at least a little let down.  I will say this up front: the novel has, despite its generally ironic take on romance, an honest-to-goodness mothering prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold.  It may be that Zambra pokes fun at Julio’s initiation via prostitute (although it didn’t seem especially so), but there is no question that the prostitute gives herself over to Julio’s “education.”  It is a rather hackneyed moment, doubly dull in a novel that is otherwise so full of humor and insight.

Briefly, Bonsai tells the story of a short romance between two literature students, Emilia and Julio, a romance based largely on their deliberate refusal to see the differences between themselves and a lie about a mutual love of Proust, whom neither of them has read.  It is also about the after-life of that romance, with the novella moving around in time, revealing key plot events early or moving back in time to discuss the lovers’ sexual prehistory.  Reviews have mentioned other sources for thinking of the genealogy of Zambra’s metafiction, but a name I have not seen is Kurt Vonnegut.  The rehearsal of future plot events, the prose in short fragments, the overall sense of absurdity: all of these remind me of him, although Zambra’s sentences run a shade longer and offer, perhaps, slightly more direct sympathy for the characters despite questions about how seriously they can be taken.  Here is one fragment from early on:

            The relationship between Emilia and Julio was riddled with truths, with intimate revelations that rapidly established a complicity that they wanted to understand as definitive.  This, then, is a light story that turns heavy.  This is the story of two students who are enthusiasts of truth, of scattering sentences that seem true, of smoking eternal cigarettes, and of closing themselves into the intense complacency of those who think they are better, purer than others, than that immense and contemptible group known as the others.
            They quickly learned to read the same things, to think similarly, and to conceal their differences.  Very soon they formed a conceited intimacy.  At least during that time, Julio and Emilia managed to merge into a single kind of mass.  They were, in short, happy.  There is no doubt about that.

The novella is full of these little asides rephrasing and undermining a thought that might at first seem unreservedly idealistic: instead of “truth” they want to “scatter[] sentences that seem true.”  The last sentence, “There is no doubt about that,” is a zinger—one of the places I thought of Vonnegut: it reads like “So it goes” or another of his brief refrains that says, at once, that what has been narrated is predictable, absurd, and bound to end badly.  Nonetheless, at the same time the absurdity of literary lies and romance continues (if Julio’s relationship with Emilia began with a lie about reading, a later relationship begins with a lie that he is editing the book of a famous author), Zambra studs the humor with compassion.  I’m looking forward to reading his second novel, The Private Lives of Trees, just published this summer.

Friday, July 30, 2010

After Henry

By the standards of Joan Didion’s other collections of journalism, After Henry (1993) is not that great, although it has some strong individual essays and would be a satisfying enough read if it were the first Didion I encountered.  It did not help that I had previously read Political Fictions, which reprints one and expands on another of the three essays in the Washington section of After Henry—the one really strong section in the book.  I will grant that the opening, eponymous tribute to Henry Robbins is one of the better personal essays of hers that I have read: Didion is usually best covering subcultures, politics, or crime.  Regarding the last, “L.A. Noir” is a hilarious and brutal smack-down of what Didion describes as the nonsensical news coverage of a 1983 murder.  Otherwise, the California section felt a little ho-hum.

The final New York section’s sole essay, “Sentimental Journeys,” also the longest essay in the book, is a more complicated treatment of the various narratives rising up around a particular Central Park rape.  In many ways in echoes “L.A. Noir” in its indictment of the media, but here matters are complicated by race, by gender, by class, by the particularities of New York politics.  I found myself generally admiring the essay—Didion is especially good at showing how the media and city obsessed over the crime as a way of avoiding other realities, including realities of rape and the tendency to ignore it when it does not happen to an upwardly mobile white woman.  

However, from a current perspective I did question Didion’s critique of the news media’s standard practice of not naming rape victims in reporting.  She does so because she believes that this anonymity contributed to the fantasy the media built up about the case and, more broadly, because of the possibility that this reinforces a shame surrounding rape that is, essentially, victim blaming.  I don’t entirely dismiss that point.  Nonetheless, we live in a world now where, partially due to the sensationalism of the 24-hour news cycle and even more due to internet tabloid journalism, rape victims get named all the time.  And the general effect has seemed to be that people become incredibly dismissive about rape, probing into the victim’s sexual past in order to find reasons why she shouldn’t be taken seriously.  We know the victims all too well these days, in ways that are meant, by those who tell us about them, to suggest that, well, the women really wanted it and are crying rape just to get someone in trouble.  This would, in fact, seem make it harder for victims to speak up, knowing that they are likely not to be taken seriously—not quite what Didion is hoping for in her desire for transparency.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On the Horizon: Group Reading

Ever since the group read on Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 ended, I’ve been looking forward to the possibility of another group read, which, I thought at the time, was an ideal way to do book blogging.  Still, I passed on Moby Dick (although I avidly followed the posts on Infinite Zombies) since I had read it a couple of times—a book I love, but I already had a lot of summer reading I wanted to do, including one longer readUlysses, the current IZ read, was more tempting.  I have read about half of it before—all of the Stephen chapters, several, though non-continuous, Bloom chapters, and the Molly chapter—and a few parts several times over, and a group read seems like a fun way to do it.  Still, the other reading intervened. 

Now, though, Scott Esposito has announced that he will be running a group read this fall over at Conversational Reading.  The book is Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai (2002), a book I did not even know about, but which sounds absolutely great.  My participation could hinge on how busy I am at the time with life events, but right now I am planning to read along and post.  I have already ordered my copy, so even if I am deterred when September rolls around, I will be getting to it.  Apparently, though, I need to go watch The Seven Samurai first (no, this book has nothing to do with the Tom Cruise movie).

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


I had been hoping to get to José Saramago’s Blindness this summer anyway, so it is mostly coincidence that leads me to be posting on it so soon after his death.  It is easy to see why Blindness has become such an international success—it is convincingly and frighteningly apocalyptic, yet also far transparently allegorical than most apocalyptic narratives (none of the characters have names, for example, and there is little local specificity of any sort).  Much of the novel has a feel of The Lord of the Flies with grownups.  And perhaps this is why I’m surprised I like the novel so much: I didn’t really like Golding’s novel, nor do I generally care for allegory.  Perhaps it is simply that I so easily am caught up in the terror of the possibility of going blind, which I am a little surprised more writers have not explored, at least in my reading experience.

When I read António Lobo Antunes earlier this summer, I recall running across a claim that Antunes and Saramago had a well-known rivalry within Portuguese literature, and a comparison of this novel with Knowledge of Hell suggests the general aesthetic grounds for disagreement.  Antunes is a writer with a much stronger tie to place and the problems of modernity, whereas Saramago wants to address concepts of basic humanity (or inhumanity) in a universalizing lack of spatial or temporal context.  Both have a tendency to the long sentence and surrealism, but enact them to different effects.  With Antunes, the long sentences derive from the modernist representation of mind—even while the sentences are grammatically sound and are not stream-of-consciousness per se, they suggest a train of thought.  The same is true of the surrealism, which mostly results from Freudian dream-like conflations and displacements.  In Saramago, by contrast, the long sentences are very often just a series of simple sentences spliced together, a neat formal representation of the way that dialogue gets semi-detached from distinct voices for these newly-blind people.  Sentences frame particular conversations rather than moments within conversation.  The surrealism is also much more that of horrible and degraded situations in gothic fiction: the inexplicable plague of blindness (a perfectly terrifying invention for this thought experiment), the descent into inhumane behavior it brings. 

On the whole I am the kind of reader who prefers what Antunes does a little more, even though I think in this particular comparison Blindness holds together as a novel more convincingly than Knowledge of Hell.  I think that someone could claim (and perhaps has claimed) that Saramago is basically trading in a watered-down (amongst other things, easier to read) modernism, but it might as easily be said that Antunes is a little too faithful to the Faulknerian model.

Friday, July 16, 2010

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower: Part II

I would guess that most people, like me, enjoy Proust for the meditative quality, its reflections on anticipation, memory, and experience buttressed by carefully crafted sentences piling precision upon precision.  Nonetheless, it might be too easy to overlook the humor.  I saw one Amazon reviewer insist that Proust never satirizes any of his characters because he cares about all of them equally, but I’m not sure I can agree.  The portrayal of Norpois at the beginning of Shadow seems unforgiving and pleasurably barbed.  When I read Op Oloop earlier this summer, I found its representation of longwinded blowhards in a dinner conversation a little bit dull—the book itself became too much what it meant to satirize.  Proust, on the other hand, manages to represent the endless palaver of Norpois yet make the experience worthwhile.  This is where his first-person narrator plays a useful role: Norpois’s speech prompts reflections that interrupt it and offer a reprieve, allowing us to come back to it fresh.  Turning away and back again only refreshes the sense of how silly he is.

Yet more interesting to me was how, in the second part of this volume, the narrator himself became much less reliable than he had seemed previously, and the object of the book’s satire.  This mostly revolves around the girls of the title, the “little gang” as they are called in this translation, and which include his new love interest Albertine.  Everywhere in this section the narrator’s reflections on love become more suspect than they were in regards to his love of Gilberte in the first part.  Although I thought she was not a very impressive choice as far as love interests go, his reflections on his experience seemed true enough—particularly his discussion of how love fades slowly over time.  With the “little gang” on the other hand, the narrator fully reveals himself to be a typical teenager: he is really only interested in having sex, and all of his attempts to convince himself that what he is feeling has anything to do with love just seems silly.  His inability to see Albertine’s disinterest, and Andrée’s obvious attraction to him, reveals his blindness.  He also behaves very badly, ditching Robert Saint-Loup with paltry excuses and tortured logic.  Although I haven’t read the first volume in some time, I think this must be the section with the most (or most transparent) unreliable narration thus far.

Proust being Proust, the ambivalent waffling between homoeroticism and homophobia is maddening.  In what is otherwise a rather funny extended meditation on vices, he considers the principle that “each vice, like each of the professions, requires and acquires a special knowledge that we are not displeased at being able to display.”  His immediate example: “It takes a homosexual to detect a homosexual.”  Ugh.  And yet, while the book does not seem to question the homophobia occasionally voiced by its characters, it is also filled with homoeroticism, as you might expect knowing that Proust himself slept with men.  The Baron de Charlus is just the kind of hyper-masculine homophobe that you would expect to find out has sex with men in bathhouses—his approach to the narrator in fact seems like an attempt at seduction.  The narrator’s friendship with Saint-Loup (who, I daresay despite the anachronism, reads like some sort of aristocratic McDreamy imported from a Harlequin romance novel) is rife with undertones.  Saint-Loup’s letter after leaving sounds exactly like a coded message, referring to a relationship of which he cannot tell his fellow soldiers because they would be “incapable of appreciating” it.  Sure, you could justify his language through recourse to the idea of nineteenth century same-sex romantic friendships—but surely it is worth noting that many of those friendships had a sexual element, and that by the time Proust is writing the romantic friendship is already starting to carry the association of homosexuality.  Indeed, the fact that the other soldiers could never understand suggests that the lower classes that make up his troops would see romantic friendship as something alien, a little too limp-wristed and aristocratic rather than properly masculine.  If anything, it is this homoeroticism that allows one to read against the grain of the novel and find in it many of the pleasures from which it might otherwise distance itself.

Monday, July 12, 2010

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower: Part I

As the previous post indicated, I have been reading Proust, specifically the second part of In Search of Lost Time (the artwork formerly known as Remembrance of Things Past, which I have to say I think does a much better job of capturing the spirit of the book).  This is the new Penguin translation, with a different translator for each of the seven volumes; this one, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, is the product of James Grieve.  I am finding it delightful—as I did the first volume (trans. Lydia Davis), which I read a few years ago—although I have a hard time imagining reading all seven volumes back to back.  It is a novel that requires a lot of time and a willingness to immerse yourself in its series of memories and reflections, and it invites you to pause over the narrator’s conclusions about life and compare them to what you know of people.  In this the book is about as far removed from what most people want of media these days as you can get—even more so than most novels, inasmuch as there are no chapters and very few section breaks of any sort.  This is not a novel you will be able to enjoy if you are stopping every few minutes to answer a call on your cell phone or look at the latest tweets from your friends, for the simple reason that doing so will cut off the flow of thought—that of the narrator, but also your own, which needs the freedom to wander, spinning off of a particular passage, rather than succumbing to a series of exterior distractions.

Still, the fact that even the individual volumes run long and require such a sustained investment for a single reading seems to undercut the likelihood that they will be reread, even if greatly enjoyed, by many people who are not Proust scholars, and this seems contrary to a theory of perception and art which the narrator offers, as he considers music played by his hostess, a hundred pages into Shadow and which I take to be Proust’s own:

Not only does one not immediately discern a work of rare quality; but even within such a work, as happened to me with the Vinteuil sonata, it is always the least precious parts that one notices first.  So not only was I wrong in my belief that, since Mme Swann had played over for me the most celebrated phrase, the work had nothing more to reveal to me (the result of which was that, for a long time afterward, showing all the stupidity of those who expect that their first sight of Saint Mark’s in Venice will afford them no surprise, because they have seen the shape of its domes in photographs, I made no further attempt to listen to it); but more important, even after I had listened to the whole sonata from beginning to end, it was still almost entirely invisible to me, like those indistinct fragments of a building that are all one can make out in the misty distance.  Therein lies the source of the melancholy that accompanies our discovery of such works, as of all things which can come to fruition only through time.  When I came eventually to have access to the most secret parts of Vinteuil’s sonata, everything in it that I had noticed and preferred at first was already beginning to be lost to me, carried away by habit out of the reach of my sensibility.  Because it was only in successive stages that I could love what the sonata brought to me, I was never able to possess it in its entirety—it was an image of life.

The reflection actually goes on for another page, every bit as smitten in its language with the changeability of art, but this excerpt gives the emphasis on time that Proust brings throughout.  Art, he emphasizes, needs to be lived with, and can only be recognized and experienced in a series of encounters that reveal art’s pleasures as protean and increasingly complicated.  Yet, how do we square this with the immense length of Proust’s work, which places severe limits upon anyone’s ability to re-experience it? 

One possibility is that Proust is writing for a class so leisured that it might in fact have the time.  However, two others strike me as well, both revolving around the idea that Proust is using the length of his work to simulate repeated contact.  He might, for example, be substituting the narrator’s series of encounters, and his ever-evolving, ever-more-subtle reflections on their meaning, for our encounters with the text.  In other words, the narrator’s series of encounters become the reader’s aesthetic encounters (and indeed, they to some extent already are aesthetic for the narrator as well).  Or, in a different permutation, the simple demands of the length, in leading to a lengthy series of encounters of reader with text, result in a deeper familiarity with Proust’s style (which, presumably, does not change appreciably over the seven volumes, although only being in the second I could not say for certain) than one would normally obtain of a shorter novel, symphony, or other artistic work.  In other words, by the end of it, you have gone through the different pleasures of his style just as you would have if he had written a 200-page novel that you then reread a dozen times. 

This last is the most satisfying explanation, perhaps, since the second, regarding substitution of the narrator’s experiences for the reader’s, might seem to beg the question.  The narrator’s experiences, even if aesthetic, are after all not experiences of Proust’s own style, and thus could not really lead to the same kind of appreciation of the work as art—even if they are certainly one of the pleasures dished out for our delectation.