Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Handmaid's Tale

There are some classic books that, for whatever reason, you don’t end up reading until long after you might have, despite even having a clear intention to read them and a good chance of enjoying them. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is one of those books for me. A new category of books for this blog: overdue reads. In this case, I was re-inspired by Atwood’s recent releases Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, both of which sound fascinating but, I insisted to myself, none of that for you until you get through Handmaid’s Tale.

And of course it is gripping stuff: the fragmentary form is just perfect for the narrator’s situation and for the suspense—like some other dystopian fiction (Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go comes to mind), much of the momentum comes from the delicate handling of how much information to give away when. Perhaps this is more specifically a feature of dystopias that have a strong element of Foucaultian panopticism to them (though what truly modern dystopia doesn’t?): it is important, even with a sense of panic in the air, to establish the way that normalcy and habit start to sink in and do the work of the surveillance state.  Let the horrors and the history of the descent to madness trickle in through narrative cracks here and there.

Moreover, after nearly twenty-five years (next year is the publishing anniversary) the book feels at least as relevant—and maybe more: the invitation of religious fundamentalism into conservative government of the 1980s, a key underlying motivation for the novel, led to its death-grip on our last U.S. president (it would be nice to say this was the high-point of influence, but I’m not that sure), the environmental situation is increasingly dire (an aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale I had never really heard mentioned, although it is somewhat subordinate in the novel as well).

The only thing that feels aged here is some of the metafictional element: the narrator’s repeated insistence that she is just telling a story, a version of events, seems a bit stale at this point. On the other hand, the closing document, a record of a historical society years after the narrative present, performs something a little unlike, even opposed to, the usual metafictional emphasis on a postmodern contingency of narrative. This document, a talk by a historian about the handmaid’s culture, is a parody of an academic conference: the historian is himself so dismissive of the problems raised by the story that in fact it would seem to solidify the authority of the version of events narrator by the handmaid. To be more specific, the talk concerns problems determining historical fact in the tale, but the speaker goes out of his way to insist that we shouldn’t really judge the oppression of the period because “such judgments are of necessity culture-specific….Our job is not to censure but to understand.” Now, of course to some degree it would be useless to spend all day censuring a historical injustice that may no longer exist—no one gets credit these days for opposing slavery or the Holocaust—but the overall effect here, combined as it is with questioning the accuracy of the text, is to suggest the erasure of the experiences of women, particularly the painful ones. Atwood seems to be warning against a tendency to pat ourselves on the back for overcoming past injustices while also nonetheless perpetuating those injustices by dismissing the experiences of its victims. As a result, the handmaid’s oral history itself feels more reliable, not less—and, perhaps to redeem them, the narrator’s repetition of the idea she is just telling a story comes across not as a metafictional destabilization but rather as a testament to how much she wishes it were only a story. For us, then, it remains a potent warning.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Fortress of Solitude

This book got off to a very slow start, and although it came together well by the end I’m not sure I really see why everyone likes it so much.  In The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem has written a decent, but nonetheless fairly boilerplate, bildungsroman about growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s, and then returning there at the turn of the century.  Its interest lies largely in the milieu, which Lethem does a good job of capturing, with the exception that he has an annoying tendency to use italics the first time he uses slang terms, as if he were announcing to the reader, “Look!  Local color!”

Some of the best parts of the novel come not from Lethem’s invocation of superheroes, but in his descriptions of his protagonist’s reactions to a different form of popular culture, music.  He has a strong feeling for the way people create their own sense of a song’s meaning in their given context: most humorously, when Dylan takes “Play That Funky Music” as a direct mockery of white kids getting beat up, “lay down and boogie and play that funky music ‘til you die” a taunt to a kid curled up on the pavement and wailing while he gets beat up.  Everywhere it comes up, Lethem astutely reveals how our personal position within a culture is tied into our tastes in and interpretations of music.

Still, there are some structural problems.  The novel shifts from third to first person at the midway point, but then has to revert back to third person for a couple of chapters, not quite formally coherent.  At the end of the novel, Dylan’s epiphany about his supposed unconscious reasons for returning to New York to see Mingus is not especially convincing.  And, in the first half, Lethem can’t resist endless side pieces filling us in on the barely-glimpsed lives of minor characters—some of these sections make narrative sense by the end, but others don’t and could be cut without losing anything.

I think if I had read a novel like this years ago, in late high school or in college, I might have really enjoyed it, but at this point in my life I’ve read enough realist coming-of-age stories (in this case with a magic realism twist, but nothing very challenging) that I found myself wishing it would hurry along already.  I have a renewed taste these days for something at least a little more ambitious, formally or philosophically.  Although Lethem’s novel is long enough to be called ambitious by some standards (Time even tells us it is on the back cover of my paperback), it isn’t really, in the sense of trying to use form to adjust the way you think.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Op Oloop and Knowledge of Hell

I am a bit behind on posting, and pressed for time as well, so I have two books for this entry that, happily, work nicely as counterpoints.  Juan Filloy’s Op Oloop (1934, trans. Lisa Dillman 2009) and António Lobo Antunes’s Knowledge of Hell (1980, trans. Clifford E. Landers 2008) confront the reader with very different forms, but both are about a favorite theme of twentieth-century modernisms: the transformation of human into machine in a world of obsessive rationality and an array of professions (for Filloy statisticians, for Antunes psychiatrists) bent on eradicating the unproductive and abnormal.

For Filloy, this critique takes the form of farce: his titular character, a statistician who obsesses over his schedule, finds himself thrown from his routine and spiraling into chaos.  Dalkey’s book jacket is a little misleading here: the description suggests Op Oloop’s schedule falls apart due to “an insignificant traffic delay,” but that suggests a very different working idea than what the book is really after.  Op’s system does not crumble due to its own excessive rigidity—as characters somewhat repetitively remind us, he has kept his basic attitude for years, and one would expect he has had minor delays before this one—but rather due to a return of the repressed, although of a more comedic than gothic cast.  Here it is love that distracts Op, as well as a past destructive love affair and leftist political commitments that his rigidity was invented to suppress but come back to him in unexpected ways.  It is the distraction of love, accompanied by slapstick violence and endless petty arguments between different characters, that give the book the feel of farce, even if the ending deviates from what you might normally expect from the genre.  Filloy is a full-on romantic: love here is a force that can bond two people across space in an metaphysical vacuum—as actually happens to Op and his fiancée Franzisca.  Honestly, while I enjoyed much of the book, this reverie, and what I suppose is meant to be a comedic tour-de-force dinner conversation, left me a bit cold.  This is only the second novel I have read of the Best Translated Book Award longlist from earlier this year (several more are on my list), along with Mercè Rodoreda’s Death in Spring: so far my belated vote goes to Rodoreda.

Antunes, though writing much later, is doing so much more in the vein of experimental modernism: everyone who discusses him seems to bring up Faulkner, and for good reason.  The narrator, a psychiatrist driving home from a vacation, speaks in long, elaborate sentences; he switches between the third and first person, although the “he” spoken of is always himself, and he conflates, at an increasing rate, various memories and fantasies.  Landers’s translation of the prose in the first half of Knowledge of Hell is especially beautiful and I found myself reading some of it aloud to myself just to enjoy the language, as in this vivid moment:
I would sit on a bench, between the affectionless varicose veins of an old German woman and the intertwined thighs of a teenage couple floating on a raft of hashish, smiling at no one in the contentment of an unknown dimension, until suddenly seeing you, on the other side of the square, with a wicker basket on your shoulder, your hair parted in the middle like a squaw, coming toward me like the girl in the Repimpa mattress commercials who recycled Greta Garbo’s eyeglass.

The multiple comparisons are important here; Antunes’s style is thick with metaphor, with simile after simile often piling up in a single sentence.  In this passage these remain distinct—the addressee (the narrator’s daughter) is both like squaw and the girl in the commercials—but as the book progresses metaphors begin to embed one another, as in the following two non-continuous sentences from the same page:

Mr. Carlos was slowly disappearing, the employees were cleaning the windows of the station wagon in circular movements using a kind of sponge, the mechanic was wiping his fingers on his rag, looking at me with the strange fixity of those Christs with exposed hearts in my grandmother’s prayer niche who pursue us with the attentive and severe persistence of an urchin’s gaze.

Aljustrel seemed less and less like a concrete, almost geometric town inhabited by people, by voices, by the restless pictures of the dead, and more like a labyrinth of shadows, an apparition suspended between the black earth and the green sky, adrift, like an enormous boat in a silvery lake of olive groves.

The mechanic is like a Christ figurine which is like an urchin.  The town is like a labyrinth or an apparition that is like a boat.  The narrator of this novel cannot stop making comparisons—the long, comparative sentences pair up with the narrator’s tendency to slip between memories and the present, comparing his experiences as a psychiatrist with his years fighting in the Angolan war (both of which he feels guilt about, his rage against contemporary injustices driven by his own participation in them), and both in turn are compared to the vacationers he has just left behind.  In this most difficult, third quarter of the novel, the alternation between scenes becomes especially chaotic, and the novel makes it hard to discern how much the narrator’s connections of past moments and the present are reliable.  While a strong critique of psychiatry as a discipline comes through, the narrator’s rage is often so indiscriminate that it becomes hard to tell where or if Antunes is ironizing it (the narrator, it should be notes, has Antunes’s name), which threatens to topple the book.  I found myself especially frustrated with the intermittent misogynist descriptions of women, who most often here are portrayed as devourers and traps for men (of one woman who runs an X-ray machine: “She must have swallowed dozens of doctors with those lips.”)  Another inheritance of this kind of modernism, I think, which I really wish he could have left behind.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos)

I don’t really know what Roger Ebert means when he says Juan José Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes is “a real movie, the kind they literally don’t make very much anymore.”  While there are many things I like about Ebert, the comment just strikes me as unreflective nostalgia.  However, the movie is awfully good.   And, to add something that people do not usually comment on in film reviews, the make-up and hair designers really deserve their own Oscars.  For a while I wasn’t even sure Soledad Villamil was in fact playing her character in both its older and younger incarnations. 

I don’t want to reveal too much, but the movie takes place against the political backdrop of 1970s Argentina, remembered from a more contemporary perspective.  As much as anything, the film is about the lingering effects of the emergent fascism of the period, and trying to move beyond them.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Betrayed by Rita Hayworth

I’ve been making my way through Suzanne Jill Levine’s book on translation, The Subversive Scribe, and at the same time I’ve read her translation of Manuel Puig’s Betrayed by Rita Hayworth (both in reprint from Dalkey Archive).  It turns out that this book and G. Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers, the two Levine translations I’ve now read, are the two she first published.  From that experience I will say that Levine’s Scribe is much more interesting when you have read the particular book she is talking about in a given chapter: at other moments I find myself skimming a bit, looking for the nuggets of insight she pulls from the translation experience but less engaged with the details she uses to support them.  While certain themes would announce themselves in any case (chief among them: the translator as collaborator with the author but also as necessarily faithful betrayer of the text), the way in which the essays enrich my experience of the books I’ve already read is what has made reading her accounts most worthwhile.  In another post I want to say more about Levine’s book and how it strikes me as a reader of translations, but for now I want to focus on Puig.

When discussing Beytrayed, Levine focuses most of her attention on the translation of spoken language, but one thing that happens through the novel’s organization is a progression of forms toward writing.  From the overheard conversations of the beginning and the internal monologues that make up most of the central section, we move to a final section that consists of various documents: a diary, an essay, a note, a commonplace book, a letter.  The move towards written forms at the end, compounded with the movements forward in time and the maturity of characters’ consciousnesses, make the book easier to understand as you go, though there are still gaps to fill.  It is the kind of book that tempts you to draw out a chart of the characters and their relations so you can remember just who it is suddenly reappearing after an absence.  Indeed, at the beginning it could be easy to give up due to the difficulty of following just who talks when, but after an initial hesitation I enjoyed those chapters most by not taking many pauses.  They struck me as offering, in spirit, a conversation happening in the next room among people whose voices are similar enough to blend with one another.  You can’t always sort out who is who, yet individual personalities rise and fade.  And what does come through, in Levine’s work on the translation, are the personalities of the characters, though these personalities become more clear, again, as we move to internal monologue and in written forms.  Yet if these later moments are when the characters have the most striking voices, they are also voices fabricated for particular occasions, with likely readers in mind: even the diary and commonplace book carry the sense of being written with the sense of a potential future audience.

What the book also offers is an increasingly moving and still relevant rumination on the intersection of rural/urban divides with questions of masculinity and homosexuality.  One of the central repeated plot threads highlights the strained relationship between Toto and his father Berto, who considers Toto far too effeminate and artsy, and who favors instead Héctor, an older, macho and womanizing nephew he and his wife Mita have adopted.  Yet as the novel ends Berto’s relationship to Toto becomes more complicated; in a letter he wrote and never sent long ago, he reveals his hopes for Toto’s future that implicitly critique the interlaced homophobia and anti-intellectualism he has since adopted.  Berto’s earlier wishes betray his future self, and Toto’s fulfillment of those wishes can only betray his father in turn.  Part of this is a very common story of parents who want better for their children only to feel alienated when their children in fact succeed; but it also resonates with what has struck me, since childhood in a small town, as a very rural way of linking homosexuality to intelligence in such a way that homophobia and anti-intellectualism become almost synonymous.  It is an attitude very much alive in the U.S. today.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Robert Juan-Cantavella

This is mostly a note to myself: Robert Juan-Cantavella looks fascinating and, like Paul at By the Firelight, I hope someone translates him soon.