Monday, November 15, 1999

Joy School by Elizabeth Berg

I want to talk to you this morning about a delightful little book by Elizabeth Berg entitled, Joy School. Last June, I reviewed another little book of hers, The Pull of the Moon. That novel is about a grown woman who runs away from home, not because she is abused or unloved by her husband, not because she is unsatisfied with her adult children, but simply because she feels she has never been afforded the chance to discover who she is. That book was such a joy to read that I felt somehow that it may not deserve a review all by itself, so I included two other lovely novels about what it means to be a woman in this culture. Looking back, I realize that Pull of the Moon did deserve its own review, and that good books can be short, and they can by happy, or, at any rate, need not be unremittingly sad. Both of these books are what I call ‘quick hitters’; Berg seems to be the master of the two hundred page novel. Just right for one, long single sitting, and the two books together perfect for a long weekend of reading.

Joy School just recently came out in a paperback edition, and let me say a word here about the bargain of remaindered hardbounds. When a new paperback edition is put on the market, it is a common practice for bookstores to remainder their hard bound editions (knowing how hard they will be to sell once the paperback edition is out). The amazing thing is that the remaindered hardbacks often sell for less than half the price of the new paperback edition; such was the case with this Berg novel. I was actually carrying the paperback around the bookdstore, unable to resist any Berg novel, when I thought to check the remainders table, and sure enough, there it was for the bargain price of $3.50—considerably less than half the price of the new paperback. I often get my entire summer reading stack either by purchasing used books or remaindered hardbacks, an important consideration given the price of new books these days.

Joy School belongs in the genre of coming of age novels. What is amazing about this book is that Berg is able to say a lot about just what it means to come of age, what it means to love, by covering a very short period in one girl’s life between the end of her twelfth year and the beginning of her thirteenth. We who are a long way from our teens tend to forget just how intense life can be for such ‘children’, and we also tend to write off their loves, especially their disappointments in love, as puppy-love. Insultingly, we inform them the loss only seems important now, this early intimation of love will pale once they grow up and find the real thing. Berg reminds us forcefully that early love is very much the real thing. It can be crushing or redeeming, but in either case it is real and needs to be taken seriously.

Because I am such a fan of these coming of age stories (especially those written by women, since women seem to me to be so much more emotionally intelligent in recalling these early experiences), I have read lots of them. Of course, many of these stories, even most of them, are sad—dismally sad. Think of Barbara Goudy’s Falling Angels, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out Out of Carolina; so many children abused, stilted, so many children having to parent their own parents. I have spent the last year reading and helping my very first girlfriend (now a woman in her 50’s) with her autobiographical novel, an important and wonderful book, but heart wrenching to read. Still perhaps the most beautiful woman I have ever known, she was made into the girlfriend of her stepfather when she was only seven years old! The first person ever really to notice her, to ‘love’ her, he took advantage of her incredible need by raping and abusing her for the half dozen or so years until she reached puberty, and then he dropped her, cut her off from all affection, her punishment for his fears and guilt.

I bring these dismal but important stories up to make it clear that I am quite aware of just how unhappy many childhoods are, and I know we need to read these stories in spite of their sadness. We have to hear the stories of girls and women, learn over and over the price of sexism and oppression. But when the occasional happy story comes along, we need not feel guilty or lied to, we need not put aside these wonderful, if infrequent, tales. I remember from my youth being enchanted by Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine (I think his best novel ever) and later by Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle (which I think is her best work as well). Berg’s Joy School belongs in this group. Though this little girl loses her mother early and is raised by a caring but stern military father, and though she is never in one place long enough to really create family for herself, still she is resilient and tough and even optimistic. Her story could be one of the awful ones, for she falls in love with a young man in his early twenties, and it could well have happened that he would be or become the monster who takes advantage of the pure and innocent love that this girl directs towards him. Instead, because he really cares for her, really sees her, he responds as any adult should. He does not discount her love, does not make fun of it, but neither does he use it for some sort of sexual dalliance.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot of this beautiful little piece; Berg does set up some dramatic tension, and any reader sophisticated in the ways of this so often nasty world will be anxious, fearing a turn for the worst at any moment. What I loved about the book is Berg’s subtle but clear message that we can see other people if we try, that men can see beyond their genitals if they are willing, that they can refuse sexual opportunities, even sexual advances from girls and or women, without discounting or demeaning them. She shows us too that just as adults remain in so many ways the children that they were/are, so, too, children are in so many ways as perceptive and smart and ‘adult’ as their grown-up selves will be. In one passage, this young girl describes what it feels like to be attended to and taken care of by a person, to see and love the softness and warmth in a serious, grown-up man. He has just told her to button up her coat before taking her for a ride in his treasured vintage car.
He takes care of you, it is in his nature. If he came to a dying flower dropped on the street he would still move it so it wouldn’t get stepped on. I button the top button of my coat, which chokes me to death but who cares.
I love the voice of the narrator in this story. I am amazed, stunned, by Berg’s ability to adopt a convincing and consistent twelve-year-old voice without (at least to this reader) seeming trite or sentimental. The suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader that we are told is so essential to really good writing, is no effort here at all; I believe this girl, I believe in her lucidity, her goodness, her intense love, even her wisdom. I would like to have known her.

Pick up any of Berg’s novels; I think you will be glad you did.

Monday, November 01, 1999

The Best of Friends by Joanna Trollope

I want to talk to you this morning about a contemporary novelist, Joanna Trollope, and in particular about her novel The Best of Friends (which is now available in paperback). This is Trollope’s fifth novel, and on the jacket of each of the five, the publishers draw our attention to the fact that she is a descendent of Anthony Trollope. As an aside, I am wondering when, finally, the situation will be reversed and new additions of Anthony Trollope’s work will be identified by reference to his famous descendent, Joanna.

If there is any justification at all in the comparison, it is that both writers are concerned primarily with descriptions of what might be called ordinary people and their relationships. In fact, Johanna is (to my eyes) the much more skillful of the two. I think it would be easy for readers who insist on serious, substantive literature to overlook Joanna Trollope. After all, her novels are best sellers; they read with the flow and ease of a good mystery, and they can be read as a kind of dessert. Indeed, I have to confess that I put aside whatever else I am reading when one of her novels comes into my hands, and I feel a kind of guilt at the sheer enjoyment I experience in reading her flowing novels.

However, I never get far into her novels without realizing that I am learning important things about relationships from someone who has an excellent and trained eye for observing. Although discursive essay has an important role in informing us about relationships, about how they go right, how they go wrong, how deceit inevitably erodes and corrupts them, really good novels do something that essays cannot do. This has to do partly with the fact that lots of people who read novels would not, by choice, pick up a heavy discursive essay, but there is more to it than that. What Trollope wants to show us in this novel (among other things) is how families weather broken marriages, or, more accurately, broken primary relationships. The best of friends after whom this novel is named are two families—two families so close as to almost be one.

As usual, I will insist on giving away as little of the plot as possible (since I have always hated book reviews that tell me more of the story than I want to know). However, the reader will very quickly learn in this little novel that one of the marriages is going badly. Trollope is, I think, almost as astute as Iris Murdoch in seeing just how destructive relationships can be when they start to go bad. I would be very surprised if Trollope has not carefully read Murdoch’s work; her attention to detail and her meticulous creation of rich, complicated and believable characters seems very much in the Murdochian tradition. In the name of loyalty, one of the two couples in this story remain together long after they have ceased to strengthen and support one another. Indeed, as Trollope so clearly sees, the very thing that makes good relationships so enriching (namely, that each member of the partnership likes and values the other more than her/himself—so that the reflection given back enhances and vivifies the self), not only lessens as the relationship declines, but reverses itself. This is a difficult thing to say clearly. As the people begin to distance from each other, each new interest of the other, indeed, even old interests and activities, become threatening to the other. And again, in the name of loyalty, it occurs often enough that each person grows smaller by the day as they limit and conform themselves to the expectations of the other.

Let me try to use a passage from the book to make this point. Gina, the wife in the relationship going bad, is trying to explain to her old friend Laurence, the husband in the other relationship, what transpired in the fateful confrontation that is now leading to the dissolution of her marriage.
He said I’d allowed myself to wither so that I’d not only not got any new horizons, but I wasn’t interested in having any. He said I ran round after him and Sophy [their daughter] trying to claw out little bits of their lives and that I was showing every sign of becoming a hysteric with a craving for rows and scenes. He said I play emotional games and that my best energies are now devoted to manipulating people.
Laurence replies to this that her husband, Fergus, seems simply to be building a raft of excuses to sail away on, and his comment is to the point. Nevertheless, and in spite of the unfairness of Fergus’ attack, Trollope allows us to see that there is a lot of truth in what he says. Fergus and Gina have changed; interests they had in common have been abandoned by one while accented by the other. No harm in that unless each begins to see every difference as either a threat or a condemnation.

Not to continue on too long with the downward spiral of this relationship, the reader quickly comes to see that were this simply a matter of whether these two people should stay together, the answer is clearly “No!”. But, again like Murdoch, Trollope will not let us off so easily. After all, this is real life she is describing, not a novel. While it is true that each of these people is daily diminishing both in their own eyes and in the eyes of the other, there are families involved here, not simply their happiness, or even their potential as people. A bit of honesty and communication might help—less fighting and accusation and more real attempts to understand. But Trollope wants to move on now and to move the reader on. Suppose it is ‘best’ in some sense for these two to go their own ways, what of their daughter? And suppose now that Gina turns to her oldest friend (and probably her first love) Laurence for help and succor, and that he, out of real love and concern, reaches out for her. Is it enough that their love for one another is real? That they have, when they pause to consider, loved each other always?

Almost all of the rest of the novel is directed towards the consequences for both families of the dissolution of the marriage of Gina and Fergus. Each of four children as well as Gina’s aging mother gives us their story, a picture of just how far-ranging the consequences can be of one divorce. We hear Fergus attempting to explain to his daughter, Sophy, why the lack of harmony between him and Gina forced him to leave, though she ‘explains’ just as clearly how the desertion is of her as well as of her mother. And when he insists that she could have come with him, that he did not choose to leave her, it is the child who has to explain how that would simply compound the desertion of Gina.

Again, I think I will not be giving away too much if I say that the original best of friends are Gina and Laurence, and that Gina’s agony calls forth from Laurence a sympathetic response, a genuine loving response, that begins to threaten the marriage of Laurence and his wife, Hilary. Again reminding me of Murdoch, Trollope will not allow us as readers to oversimplify; the love between Laurence and Gina is real and deep, but it does not negate his love for his wife, nor does it justify his abandoning his family.

Let me end by quoting one more scene from the novel, one that I think gets at some of the complexities Trollope sees. As Laurence attempts to explain to Gina why, in spite of his love, he cannot leave or abandon his family, Gina retorts:
We can’t use our children as excuses for what we do. They’d never forgive us. They may hate us just now but they’d hate us even more later if we said that you'd only stayed on in your marriage for their sakes. It isn’t fair to burden them with that. That’s our burden.
Laurence said softly, “Don’t you make excuses.

I’m not--”

“Yes, your are. You’re trying to justify things. The only justification we have, Gina, is that we want to do this thing, and it’s not a justification that has, or can possibly have, any appeal for anyone but us.”
I don’t want to pretend that Trollope sums up so neatly, or even that she thinks there is a right answer here. What she does see is the enormous complexity of relationships and of families, and she describes this complexity in an interesting and compelling and (I think) enlightening way. She writes as if she knew me, as if she can name my blindness, my excuses, my selfishness. I think you will see that she names you as well.

Monday, September 06, 1999

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

I want to talk to you this morning about a remarkable and very important novel by Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible (published just last year; a paperback version will be out in October). This novel is ambitious and overtly political, and in my opinion almost without shortcomings. Overtly political novels are often unjustifiably trashed by critics as propagandistic, meaning that the writer dares to have a political worldview that is not pro-US and pro-capitalist. Let me hasten to add that there is a lot of political fiction that is not good, primarily because (like art of all kinds) it simply is not well done, not well crafted art. Characters are invented to play parts, represent waxen views; they are pushed around from the sidelines by the author. I think of the hopelessly sentimental and overly optimistic novel by Maxim Gorky, Mother, written to herald the so-called Marxist rebellion in Russia.

I think there are real dangers and difficulties in writing overtly political fiction. Good (not even to say great) fiction demands character development and a genuine story (or dramatic line). Think of the great political writer Nadine Gordimer. Her characters are utterly intriguing (remember, for example, A Sport of Nature), and the story literally pulls one along, though who could doubt that they are reading about South African economic policy, about economic exploitation, about the economic price of racism and sexism, about imperialism of the worst kind. Sartre, and other left-existentialist writers did less well, but again primarily because the plays and novels are not, in the end, great art.

As an aside here, I think Simone de Beauvoir is right in her novel The Mandarins to insist that all art is political. Written as an account of a group of artist-intellectuals in Paris right after the end of World War II, the question that comes up over and over as they discuss how to exist, how to be as artists and humans in the world they find themselves in is: Should art be political? Many forms of a purist position come up as these people agonize over the question—the general argument being that politics (even ethical issues) somehow sullies art, compromises it. Art must be for its own sake; any admixture with a message is corrupting. Taken to its extreme, the absurdity of this position is obvious, the emptier the art, the more artful it is.

The group de Beauvoir describes in her novel is quite political, most having been directly involved in the resistance movement, many of them Marxists. They see clearly that ‘pure’ art is not without politics; it bears the politics of the status quo; it merely diverts attention from what needs to be seen. This is just the kind of art Plato feared, using honeyed words to charm and mesmerize. Art can of course be a diversion, but if it is just a diversion, something has gone wrong. The function of art is to show things as they are—to “bring being out of concealment”, to disclose,
to dis-cover. Clearly, sexism, racism, tyranny must be a part of art; art that does not see and register these things is not the better for it.

But, so far I have said almost nothing about Kingsolver’s novel. She wants to tell us Americans, who so desperately need to be told, what is happening now in Africa, in what has been called the Congo—what is now happening, what has happened in the last twenty or thirty years, even what has happened for the last century and more. I admire her courage as an artist for taking this on! Some could see it as audacious that an American woman would take on the task of giving us the story of political oppression in the Congo. But she does it in such a clever and ‘humble’ way. The novel is really the quilted together story of four children, daughters of a super-zealous and selfrighteous missionary father, with four or five interludes of overview narrative from the mother. The eldest daughter, vain and beautiful and blond, is the perfect product of Americana; she never thinks to look beneath the surface of the wants/needs she has, for lipstick and sweatersets and boyfriends. Her incredible ignorance about the world and world politics, and the smug patriotism that accompanies it, is quite a mirror of a huge segment of Americans.

The next two daughters, however, are neither ignorant nor shallow. Both, in their own (and quite different ways) are intent on looking beneath surfaces, in seeing and understanding the incredibly different environment they find themselves in. The story of these two girls is so interesting in itself that one could forget how much Kingsolver is telling us through them. Kingsolver develops these two characters in such clever ways that she invites us into another observation/quandary—seeing the world as it is can lead one to activism; it can also lead to cynicism, even when it is more-or-less the same world seen.

Even the baby-daughter, a five year old, gets her chapters. And even here Kingsolver is able to use the clear-eyed perspective of a child to reveal the world to us, the world of racism, the world of religious blindness.

I haven’t spoken yet of what the book has to say about religion, about evangelism, about finding Christ. But you can imagine that Kingsolver will reveal much of what is dangerous and obfuscating about the other-worldliness of much of religion; and she displays the absurdities, the smug ethnocentricity and selfrighteousness of chosen-people religions. One of the twin daughters, Leah, we witness moving from a position of utter ‘righteousness’, dedication to her father and the brand of southern-Babtist-Christianity that explodes from him, to a rejection of righteousness in favor of what is right, and to a life of political struggle. The other daughter, Ada, sees through both her father and his religion much earlier; precocious, but treated almost as retarded and choosing not to speak, she is the most astute critic from the beginning, the one who most clearly sees things as they are. Though her comprehension often entails not action but despair, a kind of saintly withdrawal from the dirt and jumble of the world.

I don’t want to give away much more of the book than I have, but let me read just one (I think) profound passage. Anatole, an African man who, unlike almost all the rest of the village, befriends this unfortunate family of missionaries tyrannized by the husband-father, cautions Leah at one point not to read events, either catastrophes or fortunate events, as teleological, as god-determined warns her against this dangerous mis-seeing of the world. He puts it finally in these words,
Don’t expect God’s protection in places beyond God’s dominion. It will only make you feel punished. I’m warning you. When things go badly, you will blame yourself.
Having said this much in praise of the novel, I have to add that it has weaknesses. The project is a huge one, and Kingsolver makes the mistake that many novelists make when they try to cover too much time. The first four hundred pages of this long novel cover a period of about a year and a half--all four girls giving us an account of their lives in a small African village. The development of character is strong, the story interesting, the political asides clear and in the flow of the narrative. But Kingsolver, understandably, wants to talk not only about 1960 and the events shaping up in the Congo that led to the election of Patrice Lumumba, she wants to talk about world reaction, the role of the US, of the CIA, in the overthrow and murder of Lumumba. About the western hunger for cobalt and rubber and diamonds that led to creation and support of ruthless puppet governments. And I’m glad she did all of these things. I am one of the ignorant Americans who needs to know a little about history. Still, she tries to tell us in one hundred and fifty pages how the lives of these sisters unfold, and there is a sense that she is trying to wrap things up, finish the stories. Just as I had been immersed and carried by the story in the first four hundred pages, I felt some distance and wanting to get the story over with in the last one hundred and fifty.

How important is this flaw? I don’t know. You read the novel and decide for yourself. This is a novel that you need to read.

Sunday, June 06, 1999

Schlink, Smith, and Berg

I want to do something a little different today. I want to tell you very briefly about three different books—all short, and all well worth reading.

The first is a very current novel by a German author, Bernhard Schlink; the name of the novel is The Reader. Easily readable in a day, this little novel begins innocently enough with the story of a young German boy who is ill with hepatitis. Out of school for awhile but, under the direction of his doctor, told to take daily walks to regain his strength, this young man meets a woman who is more than twice his age who becomes his lover. It would be hard to say who seduces whom, but I found this part of the novel quite touching. The affection between the two seems obvious enough, and although the young man begins to feel some shame about having such an ‘old woman’ as his lover, the relationship between the two is both believable and somehow (to this reader at least) heartwarming.

However, after this more or less happy beginning, the woman disappears quite suddenly, the boy thinking that he has perhaps driven her away as he begins to feel ashamed of her when he is well enough to rejoin his school friends. Many years later, when he is involved in studies for his law degree, he encounters her again under surprising and exceptional circumstances. Along with several other women, his old lover reappears as a defendant in a war-crimes trial, accused not only of having been a guard at one of the concentration camps, but also of being complicit (either by neglect or otherwise) in the deaths of many women prisoners.

The moral dilemmas raised as this trial unwinds are gutwrenching, and not only the moral dilemmas of deciding on the culpability for the deaths of the women prisoners. I won’t say more than this here, because the unwinding of the plot is, in many ways, presented as a mystery. Schlink, himself a judge in Germany, has published mystery novels before this one. Here, he shows himself to be not merely an excellent writer, but also a person very able to handle complicated moral questions. This book was recently highlighted on Oprah’s book club, and should warn those of us who are too quick in rejecting her selections.

The second novel is one that has been out for over a decade and which my students had recommended to me on several different occasions. The author is Lee Smith, and the title is Family Linen. This novel is about the history of a family in a small southern town. A woman, Sybill, who is plagued with headaches that induce long periods of sleeplessness agrees finally to go to a hypnotist after her regular doctor despairs of curing her and suggests that she see a psychiatrist. Her friend, knowing that she does not want to see a psychiatrist, suggests a hypnotist instead.
... she didn’t want to go, both knew, to a psychiatrist. Sybill regarded her unconscious like she regarded the reproductive system, as a messy, murky darkness full of unexplained fluids and longings which she preferred not to know too much about. Except perhaps it was true, as Dr. Rowland apparently believed, that something down in there was out of whack....
And so begins what is a clever and often funny story that is also often profound. Like some of the best of women’s journal novels, this book shows how diving into the dirty linen of a family reveals a lot about the relations between men and women and between parents and children. Using the device of the hypnotist, Smith allows the reader to see the past not only of Sybill, but of her siblings and her parents as well. Though suspicious of the hypnotist at first, she decides that,
All in all he is one of the nicest little men she has ever talked to, a big relief. Usually Sybill doesn’t talk to men at all, or at least not about anything very personal. But Bob [the hypnotist], she can tell, is really interested, as interested as Betty or any one of her women friends. Plus he’s not exactly a man, either, being a hypnotist.
Like the first novel, this one, too, is a bit of a mystery as the past and the plot unfold. And while the humor and the writing make it race along, this little book is one of substance with a lot to tell us about relationships.

Finally, I want to mention another little book by Elizabeth Berg entitled The Pull of the Moon. This book is about a woman who runs away from home, knowing, as so many women seem to discover, that they will never find themselves if they stay in the relationship they are in. The novel is really a series of letters that this woman writes to her husband as she travels around the country in search of herself.

From the beginning, this run-away is astounded by the intimacy that she achieves with other women along the way. None seem very surprised that this adult woman, all of whose children are grown and gone, has run away from home, nor do they argue with her to return. At one point in an early encounter, the woman encounters another who confesses that she, too, runs away from her husband with regularity (though she rarely goes far or for long).
I thought, how can it be that two strangers are exchanging such intimate things? Well, most women are full to the brim, that’s all. That’s what I think. I think we are most of us ready to explode....
And so the reader is treated with just what these women are full to the brim with. It is rich with these conversations between women—conversations about their men, about raising children, about growing old, about life seeming to pass them by. Though not sure at first why she has left, thinking even that her leaving is a kind of suicide, soon she realizes that she is on her own existential quest.
It feels like this is a time for coming into my own. Extraordinary to suddenly think of this as a time for gain. Martin used to say, imitating his funny old grandmother, ‘Oy, I can’t vait to get home and take my goidle off.’ Well, my girdle’s off. Flung into the wind. What a luxury, the feel of one’s true flesh beneath one’s own hand.
My prediction is that with each of these novels you will simply breeze along, having a good time, feeling entertained. And it will only be after you have finished, pausing for a few moments to think about what you have read, that you will realize that you have learned quite a lot along the way.

Monday, April 19, 1999

Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo

I want to talk to you this morning about a contemporary male author, Richard Russo and his novel Nobody’s Fool. Earlier this year I reviewed two novels by Russo, Straight Man and The Risk Pool. In that review I suggested that while Russo is a very good (and very funny) writer, and while he seems to understand at some fundamental level a lacking in most men—a lack that shows up especially in relationships and parenting—he makes the mistake of adopting a kind of essentialism. While men are more or less emotionally blind and inattentive to others, Russo seemed to say that this is simply a part of their nature, just as it is a part of the nature of women to genuinely attend to others and to be in tune with their emotional selves (as well as the emotional selves of others). The problem with that sort of essentialism is that it simply lets men off the hook; if they cannot help their lack of outward attention, then how can we expect more of them.

I still believe that Russo embraces a kind of essentialism, that he has an overly romantic and sentimental attitude towards women, but in reading Nobody’s Fool I became more and more convinced that Russo is actually trying to expose some of the very beliefs that I criticized him for holding. He certainly knows that men, even his favorite men characters, are lacking in what I often call emotional intelligence—that they not only substitute anger for an entire range of emotions that either they don’t feel or can’t express, but also that they seem to lack the ability to analyze their own emotional responses or emotional atrophy. They look to the women in their lives not only to explain their feelings but also to somehow tell them what they are feeling.

In this book, the hero, Sullivan, or Sully for short, is an incredibly funny and heartwarming character. He is the classical “not measuring up to ability and potential” male character that the reader loves to smile at. And yet the very best characters in the novel, all women, seem genuinely to love him. And unlike most of the female characters in Russo’s other books, there are at least two women in this novel who are more than cardboard cut-outs who stand for the good. Miss. Beryl, a retired schoolteacher in her seventies who has taught almost everyone in the small upstate New York town, is Sully’s benevolent landlady. She loves him (and puts up with him) in spite of the fact that he continually drops cigarette ash on her rugs and furniture, tracks mud and dirt without ever seeming to notice what he is doing, and threatens with his carelessly mislaid cigarettes to burn down her entire house (as he has already done to the house containing his former apartment). Though everyone knows her as Miss Beryl, she is, in fact, a widow who talks everyday and often both to her departed husband and to a male African mask on her wall. This convenient device of the aging retired teacher talking to herself allows Russo to comment not only on the departed highschool coach husband, but also the ruthless and greedy capitalist son and on the unreliable nature of men in general. And while Miss Beryl is a little too good to be true, a little too selfless, nevertheless she allows Russo a mouthpiece that shows clearly that he knows a lot more about men and their shortcomings than I had earlier given him credit for. I had thought earlier that he inadvertently exposes his own sexism and sentimentalism (his essentialist leanings) as he creates his male characters and their relationships. Miss Beryl’s shrewd observations convince me that Russo is quite well aware of the faults his male characters make manifest.

Sully also has a lover, Ruth or Ruthie, married to a lazy jerk; despite her infidelity, Ruth is wise and good. Ruth is even less believable and less developed as a character than Miss Beryl, but she does allow the reader to see that Russo is intentionally exposing a great deal about the shortcomings and blindness of men. Interestingly, Ruth finally realizes that she must turn away from Sully, that he is not enough and that he is frightened by the very thought of being somehow a truly reliable friend. Still, the relationship that Russo describes between these two does a lot to convince me that he is much more aware of just what he is doing than I had thought. Even if his characters don’t learn very much from the good women around them, it seems clear to me that Russo has. Indeed, though I may be reading more into this novel than is there, it now seems to me that Sully is supposed to be exposing the error of the very sort of essentialism that I had earlier thought Russo, himself, to be guilty of.

Having said this much that is good about the novel, let me add a few comments that may be critical, but may also, in fact, simply be more evidence of how skillful Russo is in bringing out of concealment the blindness of many men. Although Miss Beryl and Ruth occupy key side-roles in this novel, it is obvious that the real love-affairs are between the men. Sully loves to hate and plot against his greedy, entrepreneurial boss Carl, and to tease and emotionally abuse his rather dim sidekick and work-mate, Rub. The portrait of men showing their deep-seated love and fascination for each other via rather brutal teasing and pranksterism is, I think, well articulated. Again, for a period of time, I thought this to be unintentional on Russo’s part—thought that he was not really aware that the women in the story are sidelights, there to represent morality and caring, but occupying no really significant role in the lives of the star characters, while it is the men who, even with their fighting and backbiting, are the real friends and lovers. There is no doubt that it is the male relationships that are featured, but I am now quite certain that Russo wants the reader to see this—wants to show the reader that despite marriages and children, good and bad sexual relating, the essential and binding relationships for the men are with each other, and that he sees this as both a description of the real world and as a kind of comedic tragedy.

Let me quote just one passage that seems to indicate pretty clearly that Russo is quite aware of the commentary he is providing about men and their relationships. At one point the wealthy womanizer and boss, Carl, is criticizing Sully for his relentless teasing of poor Rub.
“I don’t believe I’m hearing this from you,” Sully said. “When have you ever done anything but insult him?

“There’s a difference, Sully,
Carl said without the slightest hint of hypocrisy.

“What difference is that Carl?” Sully said, flicking the remains of his cigarette. “Tell me why your ragging is okay and mine isn’t, because I want to hear this.”

“Because he’s not in love with me,” Carl said.

“Get the fuck away,” Sully said, genuinely furious now, sliding off the tailgate. “He’s no more queer than you.”

“I know it,” Carl said. “But he’d blow you on the four corners at high noon if you asked him to, and you know that, Sully.”

In fact, Sully did know it, or knew the power of Rub’s devotion....
At any rate, I recommend Russo to you as an author, and this book in particular. While it may be a rather sad commentary on how men show their love for one another, and even on the ineffectual manner in which many men fight the power-structure simply by a rebellious dropping out, I think it also provides an oblique critique of the moneyed patriarchy. I intend to read more of him, and I would not be surprised if I continue to modify my earlier rather casual dismissal of his social and political acumen.

Monday, February 08, 1999

Richard Wright

Since this is Black History month, I want to talk to you this morning about a Black writer. There are so many to choose from, both contemporary and from the past. In talking to a fellow-Ole Mole contributor, Jan Haaken, I was reminded again about how few people, even people in the Left, know much about Richard Wright. In my opinion, Wright is one of the most important writers of all time. Still, though many leftists know enough about him to associate him with the Harlem Renaissance artists, few know that he was born and raised in the deep south, and only ‘escaped’ to Chicago and thence to Harlem when he was in his late teens. Wright lived both in very small, rural towns and in some larger southern cities, but even in the city, he could not, as a Black person, own a library card! Over the course of many months, while working in an optical grinding company, he came to trust one white man enough to ask if he could borrow his library card. This man had sent him, on occasion, to pick up books for him, giving Wright a note with the names of the books he wanted. By pretending total ignorance, adopting the shuffle that he so hated and had so much trouble adopting (though his smarter ‘city-wise’ friends, who had as much contempt for the white people as he, tried to teach him how to turn the shuffle against the white man, how to use it for gain)—at any rate, by bowing and shuffling and pretending not even to be able to read, Wright began checking books out of the library in a self-education program that is almost unbelievable. Without any formal training, he read not only the great novelists, but also Marx and Freud and Hegel and Heidegger. And he didn’t just read them. One cannot read his truly great works without seeing how thoroughly he understand European philosophy and political theory.

I think the problems of promoting a good understanding of Wright and his work are compounded by the fact that his 1940 novel, Native Son, was made into a decent but not good motion picture that scared people, but did not (as Wright so carefully does) point out the rationality of the fright and the social steps required to meet the very real problems. Indeed, even as a novel, unless one really understands Wright and what he is about, one could easily be depressed and frightened without knowing what we might call the lesson of the novel. An additional and very much avoidable problem (though the failure to avoid it is a symptom of the economic oppression Wright tries to expose) is that only the first half of Wright’s autobiographical novel was published in the late thirties and early forties. Wright gave the entire manuscript to his publishers under the title Hunger in America. And he was speaking of a hunger both physical and (if you will) spiritual. While the first half, published under the less inflammatory title, Black Boy, is a powerful and wonderfully drawn piece, it ends just as Wright is about to move to the big cities of the East, and where he was immediately and permanently politicized. The second half (not published at all until 1977—except for a few segments published separately in the forties), given the title American Hunger, deals with Wright’s discovery of other like-minded artists in the John Reed Club and his eventual involvement with the American Communist Party. This second section was far too political for the comfort of the publishers, and with lies and evasions, the first half was published and promises made about the second half. (Only in the last couple of years has there finally come out a recombining of the two halfs into one.)

So, were I to recommend what of Wright’s to read and the order in which to read it, I would suggest beginning with the two halves of the autobiography, and then turning not to the Bigger Thomas stories or Native Son, but to his highly autobiographical novel The Outsider. Perhaps even better than American Hunger, The Outsider describes the later parts of Wright’s life in Chicago and New York City, and it also displays his profound understanding of Marxism, the racism and blatant use made of Black struggles by the American Communist Party, and his (to me) almost incredible grasp of European existentialism and what is usually called phenomenology. Wright understands very well the Marxian notion of alienation, one based on the worker’s alienation both from the product of his/her labor and other workers with whom s/he toils under the capitalist mode of production, but Wright also understands and refuses to ignore or explain away other more primordial causes and forms of alienation.

Without saying too much of the novel here, the lead character is, like Wright once was, a Black postal worker, alienated from white people and the white corporate structure for sure, but also alienated from the black community in which he lives. His constant reading of philosophy and political theory makes him appear odd to his fellow workers and even to his own family. And, of course, he is not merely reading these works; he is living them—he is in the deepest and best sense an intellectual who is trying to understand and to bring out of concealment the sociopolitical world he finds himself in. This strange man, an outsider in almost all ways, is in the grip of an angst that he cannot even describe to those around him. Although it is Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus who are most famous for their descriptions of a kind of fundamental existential predicament, a struggle to find and/or create meaning in the midst of the material realities one finds oneself in, Wright’s description is so much more real, so much less the rather excessive complaints of intellectuals who, in many ways, are already protected from some of the harshest aspects of their world. What I want to say is that Wright’s is a mature, adult account of political and existential struggle. Simone de Beauvoir has pointed out so lucidly how naive she and Sartre (and Camus) were when Sartre became famous for Nausea and the early plays. She says that, at the time, they thought everyone was as free as they were, so that once they transcended their kind of existential predicament, they could become authentic. To her credit, she says later that they should have talked more of bread and less of existential freedom. It took Sartre another ten or twenty years to even begin to understand how to reconcile his existential philosophy and his dawning allegiance to Marxism (as well as a deep suspicion of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party); the fusion of these things is apparent in Wright as early as Black Boy , and articulated clearly in The Outsider.

I think The Outsider has been less widely read and commented on precisely because it is a deep and difficult book, but it is also well worth the effort. Even the storyline is an intriguing one: this character, so misunderstood by all those around him and feeling so much circumscribed by their expectations, suddenly (and quite literally) has the chance to escape his identity, his life, and take up a new one. I leave it to you as a reader to decide how well he does with his second chance.

Finally, I would commend to you too an essay entitled “White Man Listen.” Wright warns us all just what the consequences of brutal economic oppression will do over the course of time, just what it will produce. Again, I think reading this essay before one reads Native Son and the Bigger Thomas stories will give important keys to the author’s intentions in this, his best known, novel. As well and as clearly as Franz Fanon, Wright recognizes what happens when oppressed people, in this case Black people, take on the values of the oppressor. Let me close by reading just a short passage from an early section in American Hunger.

Monday, January 25, 1999

Straight Man by Richard Russo

This morning, though it may surprise you, I want to talk to you about a male author, and not just to pan him or to complain about the self-absorption of male writers. I read a number of male authors this past summer, and among the very best of those is Richard Russo. Today, I want to talk to you primarily about his novel Straight Man (published in ‘97), but I will mention also a much earlier book of his, The Risk Pool.

Let me begin by saying that Russo is a superb writer—a genuine craftsman of words. His narrative flows, his characters live and breathe, and there is a surprising amount of content in his books (beyond the existential self-absorption of so many even good male authors). His stories draw you along, and his characters seem to move of their own volition; you do not constantly feel his presence in the wings, making his characters do things for him in order to either get across his points or simply make him money.

Perhaps the story-line in Straight Man is particularly interesting to me because it is an insider’s view of universities, of the politics that rule there, the petty feuds and ego-wars, the power of administrators (mostly for ill, but occasionally for good), and the incredibly jaundiced views that many professors have of their students. Russo is wise enough to see, at least at times, that it is mainly the bad teachers who see their students as fools and drones—that it is their own lack of enthusiasm for their subjects and/or real attention to their students that leads them to conclude that is the students, rather than themselves, who are in need of an overhaul. As Rebecca Goldstein has revealed so well and with such humor in The Mind-Body Problem, many university professors see their own academic work and careers as the really important business of universities, and they lament each Fall when the students come back and get in the way. While administrators and academic unions pay lip service to teaching ability, it is well known from within that it is publication in professional journals that determines pay and promotion. Indeed, the more attention teachers pay to students, to reading and commenting on papers, to conferencing in sustained and intense ways, and to constantly preparing for and changing their basic courses, the less time they have for professional meetings and for working on (often esoteric) academic writing. Thus, if career and promotion are the main goals, then teachers ‘can’ their courses (meaning that they do not revise, do not refresh, they simply teach what they have taught), and, predictably, they ignore students.

Instead of merely saying all of these things, Russo shows the reader how it all works. How teachers turn the blame on students when their own performances are desultory or worse, and how the pressure to publish or perish leads quite naturally to worse and worse teaching. Russo’s telling of the story is very, very funny, almost as humorous as Jane Smiley’s wonderful laugh at academia in Moo. And while Russo is hard on teachers, he is sympathetic as well; he realizes very well the conflicting demands that are placed on them, and the bad consciences that lead them finally to malign the very students they are shortchanging.

While it is always dangerous to conclude that the views of the narrator of a novel are also those of the author, I have to add here that humor and insight aside, Straight Man is still too hard on students. He speaks of the “militant ignorance” of today’s students. And in another passage says, “This particular group of students, like so many these days, seems divided, unequally, between the vocal clueless and the quietly pensive,” and he complains again and again of student apathy and boredom. No doubt there are a lot of bored and apathetic students, but in my thirty years of teaching, it is the students who provided the fire; it was they in whom I witnessed over and over an intellectual curiosity and desire to learn that kept me alive, kept me reading and wanting to find better ways to teach, kept me experimenting with writing assignments that would, more and more (instead of less and less) tap their creativity and feed the curiosity, convince them of their own abilities. Perhaps the difference is that Russo is talking of a rather small-city university with predominantly young students, unlike the urban campus and the wonderful age mix that I experienced at Portland State University. I noticed plenty of teacher apathy and discontent, but in almost every class there were some, often many, students who thrived on real attention to them as learners and who grew and changed before my eyes.

At any rate, a reader could get much from this book simply because of the insights it gives us into university life and the toll that underfunding and overcrowding has had on state institutions. In addition, and much to his credit, Russo really wants to talk about and describe and understand human relationships. He is more than willing to talk about emotion, and about the one-dimensional emotional plasticity of so many men. Indeed, instead of seeing women as lacking something (reason or logic or true intelligence), he sees clearly that it is men who lack what May Sarton has called emotional intelligence. However, in his zeal to talk about what men lack and what women (at least often) have, I think Russo makes a mistake almost as grievous as the male authors who dismiss women as weak or illogical. The lead character has a deep respect for his wife and for her ability to understand both him and their children, and he sees a corresponding lack in himself. But even as he extols her virtues, her emotional insight, he seems to embrace a kind of essentialism that is very dangerous in its own way. In both books I am talking about today, Russo describes men who suffer from a physically or emotionally absent father, and who clearly see a depth to their mothers simply not had by the fathers. But he treats that depth as some sort of mystery, not only unknown, but unknowable by men. And, clearly, the danger with that sort of essentialism is that it lets men of the hook by claiming that they are unable to really understand or even really attend to their children and spouses.

Without giving away much of the plot, let me quote a couple of passages that I think evidence this sort of slide into essentialist adoration. In the first, the male lead character is trying to comfort his adult daughter who is in distress about her own marriage.
Throughout this exchange, Julie has made no move to get up from the sofa, and I have not taken so much as a step toward her. What we’re missing, of course, what we need most, is Lily {the wife and mother}, not so much so we’ll know what to do as so we’ll know how to feel, to be sure which emotions are valid. There are times when I can read my wife’s soul in her face, and in such moments I can almost read my own.
In another passage, our hero is feeling lost and lonely because his wife is away on a trip while his relationships with his daughters and his colleagues are deteriorating.
... it’s both wonderful and oddly sad to hear the familiar voice of this woman who shares my life, to feel how much I’ve missed it. By what magic does she softly say my name and so doing restore me to myself? More important, why am I so often ungrateful for this gift? Is it because her magic also dispels magic?
And when he begins to express the troubles his daughter is having in her own marriage, troubles that he was blithely ignorant off until his daughter calls him in a frenzy, his wife explains that the trouble has been brewing for along time. He says, “Why didn’t I know it?” And, after a pause, she responds, “I don’t know Hank. Why don’t you know these things.” And she has to explain to him that he depends on her to know them.

Of course, he does depend on her to attend, to really look, and that conveniently excuses his failure to do so. But it is not good enough to say that she succeeds in attending because she is a woman (with her magic) and that he fails because he is a man and lacks that magic. It is not magic; it is, rather, the difference between really attending and not doing so.

I admire Russo for noticing how emotionally bankrupt many men are, how hollow they are as parents, as spouses, even as friends, and I applaud him for calling them to task for it, for seeing it as a lack. But, at least in these two books, he seems to be suggesting that it cannot be otherwise. We need the magic of women, we need their emotional intelligence in order to complete ourselves as persons, as caretakers. I certainly agree that many/most men need to learn to attend better, to see the lack of emotional intelligence as a lack rather than a strength, and I also agree that one is more likely to find genuine morality (attention) in women, but it does not have to be that way. It is not that women are essentially good or caring and men essentially bad or selfish. We men can become more attentive partners, better parents, better friends (who learn how to listen, to suspend, at least momentarily, the veil of selfishness through which we usually see the world). Like racist essentialism, essentialism with respect to sex is neither helpful nor true.

To recap, Richard Russo is a fine writer and one who wants to talk about important social and political issues (though he may sacrifice content for humor a bit too often). Unlike many masturbatory male authors absorbed by their own adventures and need for freedom, he sees lacks, realizes a need for men to complete themselves, to acknowledge and try to understand relationships and emotions, though he (in my opinion) opts too easily and too early for an essentialism that gives into a spurious necessity.