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.