Monday, December 17, 2001

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

I want to talk to you this morning about a little book that has been the occasion for a lot of controversy. The book is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling.

Conservative Christians have boycotted both the book and the movie, calling both threats to Christianity and to the mental health of children. Instead, what they are displaying is dangerous closed-mindedness of self-righteous zealots who claim to be in sole possession of The Truth.

Having been raised a Mormon in Salt Lake City, called Zion by these claimants to the throne of Chosen-ness, I am all too well aware of just how narrow is the world of those who claim chosen status. According to the Mormons, the only route to the Celestial Kingdom, the highest of the three rungs of heaven, is via the sacraments of the Mormon church. Women can get there only through the status of their men, and non-Mormons cannot get there at all. But not to be too hard on the Mormons, Catholics, too, claim their sacraments to be the only road to glory, and there are countless other claimants to the throne of truth and righteousness.

Rowling’s little book (now books) is, at the very least, harmless. There is no doubt that too much has been made of these books, both by those who fear them as corrupting sources and by those who praise them as works of art. I was urged by a good woman friend, a fellow reader whose judgment I respect, to read the first of these little tales, and I’m glad I did. Let me say immediately that Rowling is good enough as an author to have maintained my attention, and since I am a fairly demanding reader, that says something. I have to add that I doubt I will bother to read any other books in the series. That, too, says something. Once I had read The Hobbit and the first volume of Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings, I was hooked, and I simply had to read the rest—not out of simple and rather idle curiosity, but because I was engrossed by the story. Rowling is not on the same level as Tolkien, or even that of the Christian fantasy-tale writer C.S. Lewis. But the fact is that kids love these books, and that, too, should tell us something.

I would urge all of you who have children, especially those who have children who are reluctant to read or who prefer television to books, to give them the whole Harry Potter series. At the very least, these little books might be gateway books to bigger and better things. Many adults, even those who are college educated, seem to think that being a reader means simply knowing how to read. Nothing could be further from the truth. I went to school with a lot of people who now openly boast that they have not read anything but magazines and newspapers since they left college. If this is so, then clearly their college education failed. School is not a place where empty vessels get filled, so that once we have finished school, once our vessels have been filled, we are finished. Instead, school should be a place where we get in the habit of reading, where we come to want to read, even to come to love reading. For it is true that the desire to read (rather than the mere ability) can be liberating. It can bring us into the larger world, into the world of left-liberal politics; it can help us to see the world for what it really is (instead of seeing it as the corporations and rulers of our little world want us to see it).

From what I can see so far, Rowling does her part in bringing about this metamorphosis from mere ability to read to lover of the written word. Perhaps if you start your children on Rowling, you may steer them next into a far more important writer like Ursula Le Guin. You may find them reading The Earthsea Trilogy or The Word for World is Forest, and who knows, they may graduate from those little morality tales into genuinely political fantasy fiction like The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed.

While there are clearly much better children’s writers around than Rowling, and certainly ones who have a much deeper message for our children, Rowling is not bad. The struggles between light and dark, good and bad, right and wrong that take place at least in this first of the series are, all in all, simple and informative ones. We find that even witches and wizards who come from rich families tend to be corrupt and spoiled, and that even with the powers of wizardry, the children of poorer wizard families do not use their talents to gain power over others, or even to gain riches. While I don’t think that Rowling intends to give a political overview in her books, perhaps her own rather humble financial condition before striking it rich is responsible for her suspicions of the wealthy and her aversion to those who seek power over others.

Again, I would claim that Rowling argues for genuine tolerance, for humility, for the so-called Christian values that are so much not practiced by those conservative religious folk who brand her writing as the work of the devil. As I was growing up, the Mormon leaders who were my teachers told me that the ministers of other religions were (though usually unwittingly) disciples of the devil—a doctrine that has since been abandoned by the Mormons, though only quite recently. So, in their claim to ascendancy, to sole possession of the Truth, they were willing to condemn other seekers as not only mistaken, but as corrupters, as evil. I see a clear parallel in this frenzied and neurotic condemnation of Rowling by conservative Christians. Not enough for them to say that she has it wrong and they have it right; rather, they must insist that she is a spokeswoman for the devil, for evil. If Rowling is mouthpiece for the devil, then what will these same people say of Jews, of Muslims, of any and all who, in seeking for the way, announce a view different from theirs? All of these claims to chosen status, to sole possession of the truth, are clear signals of the many ways in which religion can go wrong, and instead of being in some way or other forces for moral insight become, instead, causes of a dangerous, inbred myopia that is a morally lethargizing rather than energizing force.

Rowling is not a great writer and this is not a great book, but she is a good story-teller, and I would guess that she is a good and decent person as well. While our children may not become fighters for the good simply by reading her, they may become avid readers, may come to love reading, and that may bring them to an understanding of the world in which they live that will make them as fierce in their fight against corporate injustice as Harry is in his battles with the dark forces.

Monday, November 05, 2001

Jane Smiley and Jeanette Winterson

I want to talk to you this morning about two very different authors, both contemporary but so different in style and content. Though both have written several novels, I am going to talk about only two, a relatively old book by Jeanette Winterson (published in ‘85) and a quite new one by Jane Smiley (published in 2000). The Winterson novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, was her first, and it won the prestigious Whitbread prize for first fiction. Jane Smiley’s latest book, Horse Heaven, once again establishes her brilliance and her intense preparation.

I recently reread Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit because I am using it as supplemental reading in a philosophy of religion class. Although philosophers concern themselves primarily with the question of the role of reason in establishing religious beliefs, and thus concentrate primarily on the so-called proofs for the existence of a god or gods, it seems clear to me that questions about the social, moral, and political consequences of religious beliefs are far more important in the long run. And while it is of some value to talk in the abstract about the opiating effects of religious beliefs, about the ways in which they can induce a kind of moral lethargy or blindness, it is often far more effective to look at the effects of religious self righteousness on an individual or community. Jeannette Winterson, like the heroine in her coming of age novel, grew up in a obsessively religious household with a mother far more concerned about the converting of the black heathen in Africa than about cultivating tolerance for those around her. Again like the real Jeanette, this little girl is groomed to become a missionary and go forth, not so much to do the lord’s work, as to do her mother’s work, to enlarge the mother’s already much inflated vision of herself and her goodness.

The book is written in a fanciful and rather childlike manner and would seem simply a well drawn comedy caricaturizing a religious sense of being chosen were it not for the horrible effects it has on the little girl. The heroine, also (and not coincidentally) named Jeanette, seems to be turning out just fine in the cookie-cutter image her mother has for her until poor Jeanette discovers that she has unnatural passions, i.e., instead of being drawn only to Jesus, or, at worst, to boys, she is drawn to girls! Jeanette is, to say the least, confused over the reactions of her mother, the preacher, and the congregation. She is convinced (as she should be) that to the pure, all things are pure, and certainly the intense love she has for her girlfriend is good and pure. She knows in her heart that there is a spiritual dimension to her love and that the physical and spiritual blend perfectly; neither girl takes advantage of the other, neither disconnects body and spirit. But, of course, the reactions of her mother and the religious congregation are ones of fear and outrage. Jeanette is essentially kidnapped and forced into a kind of brainwashing session, denied food and sleep as the preacher works to exorcise the devils in her. Her girlfriend is spirited away, shamed and convinced (as Jeanette is not) that her desires have, indeed, been devils working inside her.

Although her mother and the preacher believe that the exorcism has taken and Jeannette is allowed back into the congregation, she knows from the outset that the sickness is not in her. When she again ‘slips’, allowing her very natural affections their way, she is ostracized completely, excommunicated and pronounced impure—quite literally turned out by her mother and shunned by almost all who were her family in her small community.

Initially, while Jeanette lingers in ecclesiastical quarantine, her pastor (staggered by the immensity of the problem and feeling incapable of dealing with such a gargantuan issue) turns the problem over to the council. They, in their divinely guided wisdom conclude, “The real problem, it seemed, was going against the teachings of St. Paul, and allowing women power in the church.” But of course, strong, uppity women, descendants of Eve—therein lies the problem.

Fortunately, the little girl in the story, much like the real Jeanette, is a strong and uppity woman who sees that the real problem is in the contemptible self-righteousness of the religion, the ignorance and fear and closed mindedness. She leaves her home, her religion, and the family who adopted her behind and moves on into the larger world.

You will quickly see as you read this little book why it is such an appropriate aid in helping students to see some of the ways in which religion, while claiming to be the holder of the moral torch, instead so often invites moral blindness. Though it is not quite as charming as I remember it on first reading, it is an excellent book, and short enough to be ideally suited to the busy city reader.

I will not say much about Jane Smiley’s newest novel, Horse Heaven. While I enjoyed it a lot, and take it to be another proof of Smiley’s enormous talents as a writer, it is a very long and complicated novel with literally dozens of characters that must be kept in mind. In A Thousand Acres and Barn Blind, Smiley showed us that she knows farm life intricately, just as she shows us equally clearly how well she understood university life in the seventies with her hilarious and perceptive Moo. Horse Heaven is a book about the racing of thoroughbred horses—about training them, owning them, loving them, even communicating with them. Like Iris Murdoch, Smiley does not hesitate at all to talk through the eyes of animals, and at least I as a reader had no doubts at all that I was getting the real scoop as I listened to the horse-talk.

There are some interesting undercurrents about the utter shallowness and frivolity of the rich in this novel and of the contempt for the ignorant rich owners by horse trainers and others involved with the rearing and racing of the horses, but the focus really is on the magnificent horses. It is so clear that Smiley knows what she is talking about, and that she has spent literally thousands of hours around racetracks and racehorses.

I doubt that Old Mole listeners are much into horse races; I know I certainly was not until I read this book. But I found myself fascinated by the Breeders Cup in late October, knowing as I had not before, that this is the king of horse races for those in the know, eclipsing the Kentucky Derby, and what is referred to as the Triple Crown. Breeders, owners, trainers and the devotees key towards this set of races (I think eight races, all held on the same day in New York). I found myself unable to keep in my seat as I watched these races of different lengths, on different turfs, and with horses from all over the world. Certainly, Smiley has opened a new window for me, and now I know what horses would say if they could talk.

Would I recommend this book? Well, certainly I would to Smiley fans. She is one of the really great writers of our times, and she has the political and social savvy required of great writers. Still, this is a very long book, almost six hundred pages, and because of the staggering number of characters and complexity of events, it needs to be read in quite a concentrated period of time—not over the weeks or months needed by many limited-time city-readers. So, take a look at it if you can, save it up for a vacation, or perhaps just put it on your ‘maybe’ list.

Monday, October 01, 2001

This Is Graceanne's Book by P.L. Whitney

I want to talk to you this morning about a little book that will make you laugh and cry, and though it is about children who grow up in fear, made to feel guilty for the excessive and misdirected anger of their parents, in the end, I’m quite certain this little book will simply make you happy to be alive.

The book is entitled This Is Graceanne’s Book, and the author is P.L. Whitney. At this point, I’m not sure whether the author is male or female. I’m sure I could find out easily enough simply by looking up the book or author on the net, but I found myself not quite wanting to know as I was reading the book. It is written through the eyes of a nine year old boy, and as the title indicates, it is about his two sisters, Graceanne and Kentucky. If you were lucky enough to have sisters, you will understand and revel in Charlemagne Farrand’s love and adoration of his older sisters. And if you did not have sisters, you will wish you had.

The book is not overly ambitious in scope; it covers only a little over a year in the lives of the three children; Charlie’s ninth year, Graceanne’s twelfth, and the older sister Kentucky’s sixteenth. It is set in small town Missouri in a flood year, and the children play along the dangerous, muddy river surveying the refuse: dead farm animals, pieces of houses and bridges, and poor Charlie discovers (but tells no one) an Ugly Blue Man. Though it is called Graceanne’s book, it really is Charlie’s book, his recollections of the prodigious intellectual and athletic feats of his two older sisters.

As in so many families, the father, a career military man, is a surly and usually absent figure, so remote from the mother and three children that his ‘presence’ is barely missed when the parents separate and divorce, though economically, they go from a poor family living in military housing to a desperately poor family deprived of that cheap housing and surviving on the meager income of the mother.

Though we hear little about it, it is obvious that the mother has been abused, both physically and mentally by her husband, and that she leaves him for very good reason. But however she has learned it, she, too, is brutally abusive to her middle child, the tough and brilliant Graceanne. Somehow, Graceanne has been convinced that she deserves her harsh treatment, that she is a bad, even evil child, whose very blood is poisonous, so that is only natural that she receives regular and awful coat-hanger whippings on the backs of her legs and long sentences of isolation in what the children call the measel room. Charlie, perhaps because he is the youngest, perhaps because he is a favored male child, perhaps because he simply is not as troublesome, escapes the physical abuse, though his intense love and empathy for his sister makes him feel every blow, every bitter argument.

I know that what I have described so far does not seem that of a warm or uplifting book, but this one is. All the adult characters, even the alcoholic, abusive father and the high-strung and super-stressed mother, are incidental; this is the story of Charlie and his sisters. If you decide to read this book, you might at some point, as I did, wish that you could read the story from the mother’s point of view. She is an obviously bright and able woman who in a very real and very deep sense loves her children. If she were loved, if she were not forced into working too hard for too little, who knows what sort of person and parent she might have been. As it is, she sees Graceanne as her personal curse, and her frustrations with all of her life explode into her outbursts against her daughter.

While Graceanne is, indeed, a poor and abused girl, she is also brilliant, intensely mischievous, and the best soft-ball player in the state, and if Charlie is right, maybe in the world. And while she plays mean tricks on her poor brother, cruelly nicknamed Thumper because of a somewhat deformed foot that requires a corrective brace, the love between these two children unfolds for the reader in a wonderful way. It is easy to believe that the story is being told by a nine year old, and the understatement and simplicity that the nine-year-old-eye-view of the world allows makes for an incredibly beautiful and moving story.

I won’t risk eroding the lovely simplicity of this story by telling you anymore than I have, nor will I try to capture it by reading segments. Instead, let me say that I think we can learn a lot about ourselves by reading it, a lot about race relations in Missouri in the early 60’s, a lot about what it means to be desperately poor. Like Jo Sinclair’s The Changeling (a superb book that you ought to read if you haven’t), we see how one black girl and one white girl can in real ways rock the world.

Let me put in a couple of words for KBOO and what it means to have such a fine public radio station. I don’t know about you in these past few weeks, but I have found myself searching desperately for something other than mainstream television and one-dimensional reporting. I was thankful for the simple gift of Jim Leher on Sept 11, asking a few real and brave questions that evening (and since), and I have clung to the life-line of KBOO for some sort of truth and sanity. Please support this station that so clearly supports us.

Monday, August 13, 2001

A Pure Clear Light by Madeleine St John

I want to talk to you today about an exceptionally good little book by an author who is new to me; her name is Madeleine St John, and the book is entitled, A Pure Clear Light. Ms. St John was short listed for the Booker Prize for an earlier work of hers, The Essence of the Thing. Now that I have read the one I am reviewing today, I intend to read her other three novels as soon as I lay my hands on them.

The last time I talked to you I was reviewing Jamaica Kincaid’s superb novel, The Autobiography of My Mother. The obvious political and moral undercurrents in that book made it an obvious choice for discussion on this program. It had universal relevance to issues of economic oppression, racism, and sexism. The importance of St John’s book is much more difficult to pin down. The characters are undeniably upper middle class, and while the author is very skillful at portraying the cool, rather flippant language of a sort of liberal but not very informed or politically active group of what might loosely be called members of the artistic community in England, it is not easy to care much about the lives of the characters. Nor is it clear that St John thinks the reader should care about them. None seem to be particularly deep or thoughtful.

Still, this is undeniably a morality tale. It is a book about fidelity, loyalty, deceit, and betrayal. It is as if Ms. St John sets out to do a kind of phenomenology of infidelity. Heidegger claims that phenomenology is a description of lived life, and this is certainly a minute description of lived infidelity. The couple in question, Simon and Flora Beaufort, appear (at least at first glance) to be an uncommonly devoted couple with two children and a busy but comfortable life. The only even potentially serious issue between them is one of religion. Flora, a self-described lapsed Catholic finds herself tempted back to some sort of religion, while Simon, the happy and unrepentant atheist is quite happy to have left it behind. But even their disagreement over religion seems to be mostly glib banter, with perhaps just a hint of unresolved existential questions on Flora’s part. She supposes, somehow, that there must be more to life than the comfortable existence they lead.

Simon is not a typical womanizer. By his own account, he is too happy with his life and family, and at any rate much too busy even to think of beginning another relationship. And in fairness to him, he does seem simply to stumble into a liaison with a young accountant whom he meets, Gillian Selkirk. He has elected, because of work, not to accompany his family on their summer holiday, and several of the couples with whom they associate think it incumbent on them to invite the poor man to a home cooked meal. Simon is certainly not looking for a woman; indeed, he relishes his time alone because he hopes, finally, to do something really artistic and important, certainly more important than the kind of popular television programs he directs. He has begun to think that his work, perhaps even his life, is trivial, and that he may be at a point in his life where he must produce something important or condemn himself to a cycle of mediocrity. He supposes that it is the demands of work and family that have kept him from this more important writing. He would not say that he is suffering from a kind of mid-life crisis about the meaning of life, the significance of his personal life, but then he is not really very self-reflective anyway.

Alas, at one of the dreaded duty-dinners, he encounters the cool young Gillian whom he spots, at once, as one of the new autonomous women. She has decided that until she is autonomous both emotionally and financially, she will simply dabble in relationships. No strings, no emotional scenes, simply some sex here and there to relieve the tedium of work.

She gives him a phone number, though he certainly has no intention of calling, and when he does, it is on impulse, half hearted. He asks her to a movie; she accepts. “So it was as simple as that. There was nothing to it, nothing. Ask and it shall be given. And so Simon began falling into the abyss, in all its black, fathomless depth.”

I have to say that at this point, I was still not prepared to see much in this book—more the stuff of television drama than of substantial fiction. But St John knows so clearly what she is about. She understands so acutely just how deceit snowballs, and how much it affects the deceiver even if and when he is not found out. She understands the ways in which guilt destroys intimacy and communication, often enough even when that which one feels guilty about is not all that important in the whole scheme of things.

Flora, the deceived wife, is far and away the deepest of the characters in the book, and she knows from early on that something is wrong. Indeed, she suspects that something is wrong even before the actual infidelity begins. Simon’s midlife crisis sends him first to a desire for real work, real substance in his life, but is diverted quickly into a relationship. Flora, probably experiencing much the same sense of something missing, lack of meaning and purpose, thinks that perhaps religion holds the answer.

What Simon cannot admit even to himself (much less to Gillian) is that he falls in love. Iris Murdoch loves to remind us that most of what gets called romantic love is not love at all, but a kind of self-consoling fantasy. Real love, she insists, is the desire to see the loved one as s/he really is, rather than simply through the veil of ones own cares and concerns. But she also reminds us that falling in lust, so often called love, can (and probably will) happen to many (even most) of us at sometime. And, it is those who deny the possibility who are most lost when it strikes, for to feel lust/love/fascination is one thing, to act on it another. If one boasts that it could not happen, and it does, then it seems so important, so demanding; it seems one must act on it. Murdoch insists, to the contrary, that one can well admit the feeling (in passing), but very much needs not to act on it.

Simon, describing his own state in a very Murdochian way:
He had entered a realm beyond right and wrong. He had stepped—simply in the natural course of events, without seeking to do so—into a world where there was no need, and no place, for such questions: where one simply acted. It was a benefaction, which he done had nothing—that he knew of—to deserve; it was simply a piece of luck, beyond reason or justice.
I am perhaps already giving away too much of the story. What is so incredible and skillful about this novel is the way in which St John uses short, one or two page chapters, to jump from Simon to Flora, occasionally to some other character, each chapter providing a vivid snapshot. And while the presence of the insightful author is there in each scene, her presence is not heavy-handed or obvious. She is so deft in drawing an entire canvas with these mini-views, these snapshots.

The reader knows in a general way what is coming throughout the book, but knowing, or feeling the impending, is a large part of the fascination. What is clear is that this man really does love his wife and family, really cannot even conceive of losing them. He supposes that he can, at any moment, step back from the abyss, that so long as he does not use the word ‘love’ to describe what he feels, to describe the power this new relationship has over him, all will be well.

I think this little novel is about as compelling as anything I have read in the past year or so, and I have to think it is the wisdom of the author that is so compelling. Perhaps she names me, but you will not find yourself anywhere in her pages. You will have to read it find out.

Monday, July 23, 2001

Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid

I want to talk to you this morning about an astoundingly good book entitled Autobiography of My Mother, by Jamaica Kincaid. Those of you who have heard me discussing other books over the years will realize that my tendency is simply to review what I am currently reading, and while I never bother to talk about books that I think are bad or mediocre (and, indeed, rarely bother to finish such books), I do talk about a lot of good first novels. I also mention many books that are good, seem really to have important social or political points, but are not great books or must reads. I say all of this in order to call your attention to this book, to put it in a category not simply of the good, or even the excellent. This book is simply superb.

Let me hasten to add that this is not a book you should read if you are depressed, nor is it one that you should read if your attention is scattered or distracted. You will need to be focused, and you will need to feel strong, for this is a book about oppression—layers of oppression, even a hierarchy of oppression. On the cover one reviewer says that this book is “Fierce, incantatory, lyrical, powerful and disturbing.” Yes, at least. It is also about a person who is fierce and disturbed.

Were I to try to compare this book or to find others of its kind, the first thought that would come to mind is Richard Wright’s Native Son. In Native Son Wright is trying to warn his readers what happens to people who are ruthlessly oppressed and exploited for too long, what the consequences of exploitation are. There is nothing sentimental or heartwarming about that book, and much the same can be said for this one. The entire book is told through the eyes of a woman who is thrown into the world without a mother and left to wonder what might have been had she had one. She is unloved as a baby, unloved as a girl, and incapable of love as an adult. But though the book is, at least on the surface, about this poor girl and woman, it is really about economic exploitation and about the racism and sexism that follow in its wake.

I would say that this is an ugly book were I to concentrate on the events described, on the life of this woman, but the writing is almost searingly beautiful. Indeed, it seems to me that in reviewing this, I could turn to almost any page and begin reading, and if you are a lover of good writing, you would be entranced by the lyricism of the words. Indeed, instead of even trying to overview the series of events this book describes or to encapsulate what I take to be the obvious political messages, I am in a moment simply going to read to you a few passages, trusting Kincaid to recommend herself to you in a way that I never could. In order to provide just a bit of context for the passages I read, let me say that Kincaid understands as well as Franz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, and his other book The Wretched of the Earth what it means for oppressed people to inculcate the values of the oppressor. The woman in this story is not only motherless, but the daughter of a father who aspires to everything that his oppressors represent. Indeed, he is a jailer, a policeman for the oppressors, as proud of his light-dark skin as he is of his money and his power over those unfortunate enough to be beneath him, to be be subject to his reign. In Kincaid’s words: “... his presence as always was a sign of misfortune. Wherever he was, someone was bound to have less than they’d had before my father made an appearance.”

Almost from first breath, Xuela distrusts, even hates her father—hates who he is and what he stands for, hates what he sees as his strength and his superiority. If she allows him to represent what it is to be a man, it is no wonder; allows him to represent what it is to white, it is no wonder, allows him to represent what it is to be an owner, a ruler a person-in-power, it is no wonder. There is no doubt that Xuela is a person who is full to the brim with bitterness, a person who hates life, who distrusts the future, who is cynical and who preaches a kind of destructive nihilism. A kind of echo of Wright’s essay, “White Man Listen,” this book is a warning about what we can expect to reap from decades and generations of oppression.

And now, let me direct your attention to Kincaid, to her writing, her words, and then you can decide when you will choose to pick up this book.
“My mother died at the moment I was born, and so for my whole life there was nothing standing between myself and eternity, at my back was always a bleak, black wind.” Though the language of her peers, the language of Dominica, is French patois, her first words are in English. As she later reflects on this, she says: “That the first words I said were in the language of a people I would never like or love is not now a mystery to me; everything in my life, good or bad, to which I am inextricably bound is a source of pain.”

Dropped off by her father to be cared for by a woman who did his laundry, she in one bundle, the laundry in another, she is not surprised by the indifference of her keeper. When her proud, even supercilious father sends her to school (unlike the other girls around her), the first words she learns to read are at the top of a map; the words are, The British Empire. “My teacher was a woman who had been trained by Methodist missionaries; she was of the African people, that I could see, and she found this a source of humiliation and self-loathing, and she wore despair like an article of clothing, like a mantel, or a staff on which she leaned constantly, a birthright which she would pass on to us. She did not love us; we did not love her; we did not love one another, not then, not ever.” Xuela says of herself that she is partly of the Carib people, partly of the African. “The Carib people had been defeated and then exterminated, thrown away like the weeds in a garden; the African people had been defeated but had survived.” Because Xuela can read so well and can remember every detail of what she reads, her teacher tells the other students that Xuela is possessed, that she is evil, and cites as evidence the fact that her mother is Carib. Everywhere there is distrust; her father tells her that “these people” cannot be trusted, though she quickly comes to see that “these people” were ourselves. “.... this insistence on mistrust of others—that people who looked so very much like each other, who shared a common history of suffering and humiliation and enslavement, should be taught to mistrust each other, even as children, is no longer a mystery to me. The people we should naturally have mistrusted were beyond our influence completely; what we needed to defeat them, to rid ourselves of them, was something far more powerful than mistrust. To mistrust each other was just one of the many feelings we had for each other, all of them the opposite of love, all of them standing in the place of love.”

When her father remarries, Xuela is (eventually) brought ‘home’. “Not long after I came to live with them, my father’s wife began to have her own children. She bore a boy first, then she had a girl. This had two predictable outcomes: she left me alone and she valued her son more than her daughter. That she did not think very much of the person who was most like her, a daughter, a female, was so normal that it would have been noticed only if it had been otherwise: to people like us, despising anything that was most like ourselves was almost a law of nature.”
That this book is beautifully, hauntingly written is undoubtedly true, and even more important is the substance, the ‘message’ of the book. It is a great book, and one that you should read.

Monday, June 04, 2001

The Starlite Drive-In by Majorie Reynolds

I want to talk to you this morning about yet another first novel entitled The Starlite Drive-In, by Majorie Reynolds. Had I not known from the jacket cover that this is a first novel, I certainly would not have guessed it. The writing flows evenly; the characters are vivid and believable, and the story is one that is certainly worth telling.

I suspect that, like Simone de Beauvoir’s She Came to Stay, the author decided on the ending of this story right from the beginning of the telling. Of course, I won’t give away the ending, but, again, like the de Beauvoir novel, I felt less convinced by the ending than by the story itself. But the ending is incidental; this is another coming of age story, and one that is eerily beautiful and wonderfully convincing.

The entire story is told through the eyes of the lead character, Callie Anne, though the mother in the story is at least as important as the girl, and both, in important ways, come of age. Callie Anne lives literally on the lot of a drive-in movie; her father manages the drive-in, cleans it, keeps it up, even serves as projectionist every night.

I think no one who was of my generation could deny the romance of the drive-in theater, and I don’t mean simply because of the steamy action inside the cars. Even today when I drive by a usually abandoned drive-in, I am reminded of the many warm summer nights spent looking at the big screen, and, like her friends, I see Callie Anne as a lucky girl. After all, she gets to see the movies every night, either keeping her father company in the projection booth, or wandering the lot. She has an uncanny ability after a half dozen or so viewings to half lip-read, half simply remember the lines of the actors.

In fact, Callie Anne lives a lonely, isolated life. Besides the fact that the drive-in is located far from the homes of her mostly farm children friends, her mother is quite literally confined to the little house on the lot. What began as simply panic attacks when she ventured into the city have multiplied to the point where she will not, cannot leave her home at all. With Callie Anne, she is a loving and doting mother, and the bond between them is drawn very well. The father, however, is quite a different story. Callie Anne loves him despite his gruffness and hot temper, but she sees clearly that rather than helping her mother to overcome her fears of the outside world, he has instead exacerbated those fears. Though he complains often and bitterly about being bound to the place by his wife’s fears, it is all to obvious that at some level he enjoys the power that he has as her keeper. She depends on him for everything, and he in return is ever more surly with her, belittling and demeaning her before the eyes of her child. Treating her, indeed, as a child in a grown-up’s body.

And this makes for an interesting reversal, for Callie Anne is at that peculiar and painful age when she is quite obviously not a woman, indeed, she still has the stick-figure shape of a child, but neither is she a child. She has been forced into an odd sort of parenting role with her mother, and she finds it necessary as well to intercede between father and mother, trying to soften the blows of his insults, to reassure her mother, to protect her. But she is as afraid of her father’s mood swings, his unpredictable tantrums, and simmering silences as is her mother.

Enter Charlie Memphis—a mysterious figure hired by the owner of the theater to help her father shore up its crumbling fences, broken pipes, and general decadence. Callie’s father is partially disabled, dragging one leg as he walks, and Charlie Memphis has been hired to do the heavy work that her father cannot. What develops is a truly beautiful little love story. First, and quite predictably, Callie Anne falls for this handsome stranger who spins out stories that are romantic and almost believable. Charming and smiling, even tempered and attentive, Charlie Memphis is everything that her father is not. Charlie Memphis quickly comes to see the predicament of Teal, Callie’s mother, and he sees also all the ways in which her husband, whom she always calls Claude Junior, is complicit in her confinement. Big and strong and competent Charlie Memphis is drawn almost immediately to the sweet and attentive vulnerability of Teal, though his attentions are so subtle, so proper, so deferential that even Teal is not frightened or put off by them.

I have, perhaps, already told you more of the story than I ought, but it this beautiful dance between Teal and Charlie Memphis that becomes central to the story. He is able literally to save Teal, to lead her out of her house, out of her obsessive fears, back out into the world of trees and birds and beauty. It is one of most tender love stories that I can recall, and Callie’s place in the story is bittersweet. After all, the man she loves, falls for her mother, and then he accomplishes what she never could in literally loving her mother out of her confinement. Add to this the disloyalty she feels towards her father, since she sees what he does not. She comes to feel that she is an accomplice, her father chained to the summer heat of the projection booth while her mother is resurrected. Happy for her mother, of course, but as mean and unpredictable as her father is, he is her father, and she understands on some level how his anger and depression stem from his feeling trapped by his life, his wife, his disability.

In many ways, I see this simply as a microcosm of many, many marriages. Both partners feeling somehow trapped and diminished by the other, and both somehow acting out their resentment at being trapped, unfulfilled, by withdrawing love. A combination of loyalty and fear keeping them together, and not understanding themselves well enough even to begin a conversation that might free them. Callie Anne is victim, referee, defender; she understands her father’s sense of being trapped, for she, too, is trapped by her mother’s fears. And yet she fears her father for good reason; she sees what his anger does to her mother, sees her diminishing by the day in his eyes and her own. And Callie is, herself, often enough the target of her father’s unpredictable rage.

I don’t want to pretend that this is a great book, or that it suggests some ultimate solution to this unending war that often goes on between two people who cling together out of fear and manage only to destroy each other in the process. But I do think Reynolds manages to tell a simple story that rings with larger truths. And Callie Anne is a figure whom I am quite sure you will not soon forget.

Monday, May 07, 2001

Iris Murdoch and Moral Philosophy

I want to talk to you this morning about a person whom I consider to be one of the most important writers and philosophers of the 20th century, Iris Murdoch. It has been two years now since Murdoch died, and it seems an appropriate time to recall her and to recommend her to you.

For many reasons, most of them good ones, there has for at least the last fifty years, been incredible skepticism about even the possibility of an objective ethics. The assault on ethics by philosophers reached its zenith during the hayday of what is called logical positivism—the view that the very meaning of propositions consists in their methods of verification, thus, if we can’t say what would verify a proposition, it is literally meaningless, empty. Although positivism died a fairly quick and justifiable death among academic philosophers (who realized that we simply must not confuse meaning and verification—many important, meaningful beliefs are not, at least fully, verifiable), its influence spread quickly and widely into the sciences, especially the social sciences. The damage that it has done there will last, in my estimation, for many years to come.

So, one reason for the attack on ethics has come from this epistemolgical drive for clarity and certainty. Wanting to be clear, even wanting to be certain, is not a bad thing in itself, but it can cause peculiar and dangerous moves. As I learn so often from my students, there is a tremendous temptation to move from the claim that nothing is certain to the claim that everything is equally true/certain. What begins as an obsessive fascination for certainty can, though not for good reasons, lead quickly to a lazy acceptance of whatever view one likes.

However, another factor that has driven the attack on ethics is the flat out truth that cultures from time to time and place to place differ (at least in part) on what they hold dear, what they value and seek out. Dominant cultures tend always to suppose that their values (their beliefs about what is valuable) are true for all and for all times, leading to a dangerous and blind ethnocentrism. The tremendous advances made in sociology and anthropology in this century, due primarily to the careful and in so far as possible objective scrutiny of other cultures by social scientists, has culminated in a healthy humility when it comes to making carte blanche statements about other cultures. For even if there is some objective ethic, even if there are some cross cultural or universal moral truths, making judgments about the rightness or wrongness of practices of those in other cultures, and especially judging the moral worth of those involved in such practices, requires extreme care and tolerance. We can never be sure that we have all the morally relevant facts at hand, and if there is anything close to a shared moral principle among social scientists, it is that we ought not judge without complete understanding.

To put this quickly and overly simply, our increasing understanding of cultural diversity has caused many careful thinkers to be much more careful in making moral and value judgments about other cultures, even other groups within a culture, and finally even about individuals within the same group or culture.

Even from this quick overview, it should be obvious why scientists and philosophers have become more suspicious of ethical theories that claim to have arrived at cross-cultural and/or universal truths. However, none of this explains why there has been so much resistance from leftists regarding the possibility of an objective ethics. Of course, it was very important to early Marxists to carry on what Marx and Engels saw as a scientific approach to economics and cultural studies, and thus not surprising that the scientific suspicion of ethics should carry over to leftists. But it is obvious that Marx is arguing that certain forms of production are unfair, that the capitalist mode, in particular, oppresses whole classes of people. No one can read Marx carefully without realizing that he thought that capitalism ought to be overthrown. Whether or not he thought that its eventual replacement by communism is inevitable (a claim Marxists continue to argue), there is no doubt that he thought that it ought to be overthrown, that communism is a better, morally better, system.

And yet it is almost as difficult to find leftists who will seriously entertain claims to an objective ethics as it is to find positivists who will do so. Ethics is simply out of vogue, and thinkers of all sorts are fond of the mantra that there is no absolute truth (especially in ethics), and that everything must be regarded from a relativistic stance. (Such a dangerous claim for leftists to make, since, I think, it undercuts many of their most passionate beliefs and argues for a kind of status quo.)

I have used up most of my time already, and I have not yet even mentioned Murdoch’s place in all of this. What I would like to invite you readers to do is to read Murdoch. First, read one or two of her novels. Get irritated by them, get depressed by them, wonder about them. Then read a bit of her philosophical essay; I would suggest starting with a difficult but excellent essay entitled “The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts,” which can be found in a collection of essays under that same title. It can also be found in a newer and much larger collection entitled “Existentialists and Mystics.” Then return to her novels with an understanding of her theory as a background for the novels. What you will find, or perhaps I should say what I have found in fifteen years of reading Murdoch, is a thinker who understands all the perils of ethnocentrism, who understands the arrogance and blindness of what we might call scholasticism, who even understands the mistakes and excesses of both Anglo American analytic philosophers and Continental philosophers (especially the existentialists), and yet who continues to be committed to the objectivity of good. Perhaps, as some analytic philosophers have insisted, good (unlike many other important concepts) is not further reducible, cannot be expressed by synonyms (in philosophical parlance, it is simple and unanalyzable). Still, not only is there good, but we can see it everyday, we can recognize it in ourselves and others. Indeed, if Murdoch is right, we can even learn to be good, or, at least, to be much better than we are now.

It is obvious that Murdoch loves the moral zeal of the existentialist writers, loves their passion and their calls to action. But she also sees that they put much too much stress on freedom, on what gets called by both analytic philosophers and existentialists, free will. She thinks there has been much too much stress on the vaunted freedom of the will, as if one only does the good, only does her duty, in exceptional cases where the mighty will overpowers the lowly inclinations and heroically does right. Murdoch, giving in partly to Hobbes and to the legion of psychologists since, admits that we humans are organic; we are animals among animals, and we are selfish by nature. Why deny it when it is so much a datum of everyday life. But, though selfish by nature, we are not selfish necessarily; we can learn to see the world in such a way that we are not completely blinded by the veil of our own cares and concerns. Just as the scientist or painter can, through careful attention, learn to see the world as it is (rather than as s/he wants it to be), so, too, we as moral agents can come to attend to the needs of others without always or completely filtering that view through the distortions of self.

Murdoch sees also that the call-word of Satrean existentialists, that existence precedes essence, that there is no human essence, undercuts completely the possibility of an objective ethics. If there are cross cultural rights and wrongs, then they must be based on some shared essence. I understand fully the suspicions of feminists, of all careful thinkers, to claims that are based on having discovered the essence of women, or of men, or of human beings generally. But the fact that essentialist arguments have been misused, that essentialist claims have been made that are dangerous and false, cannot be a sufficient reason to give up the search for what we are essentially. Granted, we must always treat these claims gingerly, even suspiciously, but if morality is not somehow grounded in universal or shared biologies (which is also the ground for understanding how we mistreat other animals, how we abuse the organic world we live in), then we will be left with a kind of relativism that yields to the loudest voice, that disintegrates into might makes right.

Well, I haven’t really told you what Murdoch’s ethical theory is, but you can find out for yourselves. Here is a person who believes in good, who thinks we can and must eschew bad (evil), and who is willing to tell us how at least to start going about it. She is a wonderful thinker, a great writer and philosopher, and was herself a deeply good and humble being. Read her. She is a treasure of the age.

Monday, April 02, 2001

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore

I want to talk to you about a little jewel of a novel by Lorrie Moore, entitled, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? I had read one of her novels before, though I don’t remember much about it, and I may have forgotten about her entirely had I not run across an astoundingly good short story of hers in an excellent text and anthology on existentialism. The story was chosen for the anthology because it dealt very starkly with the fact that we are, all of us, situated towards death. The story is one about a young woman confronting her own death and trying neither to frighten nor to lie to her daughter about what is happening. The story is good, so moving, and yet also one that avoids false pathos.

At any rate, it was my memory of that story that led me to pick this novel up, along with the recommendation of the dear friend who loaned it to me. This is a wonderful little coming of age novel with all the intimacy of a journal or memoir. Often novels of this sort fail because they try to do too much, to cover the whole of a young life, seeming unsure of just what to emphasize and what to leave out. Moore simply takes two strands of a life, one in the present, a woman in a sadly failing marriage wondering around Paris wishing she were in love, wishing she were with someone else, and the other strand the memory of her fifteen year old self. The child of caring but cold and distant parents, this young girl, Berie, turns to a girlfriend for the love and attention that she does not get from her parents. Berie, still flat chested and little girlish, finds herself completely fascinated by a much more mature girl named Sils. This is really a story about first love, not particularly about sexual love, but love none the less. For many of us, if we are honest with ourselves, our first real ‘love-affairs’ are with friends of the same sex, and though perhaps not overtly sexual, there is a kind of delicious aura of sexuality about them. Certainly, Berie’s admiration for Sil’s lush, womanly body, has a sexual component. Truthfully, Bernie does not have overtly sexual desires for either boys or girls, but because Sils includes her in so much of her life, even welcoming her along as a third in the heated mashing sessions she has with her boyfriend (Bernie looking on from the backseat, half disgusted, half excited), there is a dimension to their relationship that would have to be called sexual.

Both girls work at a kind of amusement park called Adventureland—Bernie as a cashier and Sils as a storybook version of Cinderella. Even there, Bernie gets vicarious satisfaction from the long lines of little girls who queue up to get on the ride with Cinderella, paying for the privilege of riding around the park with her in a papier-mache pumpkin coach.

The reader is treated to the innocent development of this love story. Two girls, who, for different reasons, are allowed to run free for a long summer—hitchhiking to slightly bigger towns and using false ID to get into bars, to drink and dance, but mostly playing games not that far removed from their eight and nine and ten year old selves.

But the best way to introduce you to this delightful little book (perfect for busy city-readers—only 150 pages from start to finish), is not to tell you about it, or to describe the events. For it is the lovely, honest prose that glides one through this book. The sadness and loneliness of a little girl, echoed by the loneliness of a grown woman who finds herself in that particular loneliness of a loveless relationship. A wise woman reflecting back on a girl also wise, though profoundly inexperienced. Let me select out a few passages to share with you; I think that is more likely to get you to read this book than any overview I might muster.

The grown Berie reflecting back on the fifteen year old Berie:
In some ways my childhood consisted of a kind of wasting away, a wandering dreamily through woods and illegally in the concrete sewer pipes, crawling, or pleasantly alone in the house (everyone gone for and hour!) chewing the salt out of paper bits, or hiding under quilts in the afternoon to form a new place somehow, a new space that had never existed before in the bed, like a rehearsal for love ... My childhood had no narrative; it was all just a combination of air and no air: waiting for life to happen, the body to get big, the mind to grow fearless. There were no stories, no ideas, not really, not yet. Just things unearthed from elsewhere and propped up later to help the mind get around. At the time, however, it was liquid, like a song—nothing much. It was just a space with some people in it.
Berie remembers little of her silent father who seemed to love music much more than he loved his children. A stranger who reminded them when they hit a wrong note, corrected them and then left then alone again.
You’d be standing there talking to no one ... Nonetheless, we adored him. If he didn’t know us, love us, even recognize us, it wasn’t because he was invested elsewhere in other children. We had no rivals for his affection, except perhaps Brahms, Dvorak, the daily crossword, and our mother--and even then, not often her. In his iconic way our father remained very much ours. And in the long shadows of his neglect, we fashioned our own selves, quietly improvised our own rules, as kids did in America, in the fatherless fifties and sixties. Which was probably why children of that time, when they grew up, turned out to be such a shock to their parents.
And now this girl, this woman, wandering the streets of Paris and trying to pretend or to rekindle love with yet another man who has become a stranger, both wanting to be close but not knowing how to get there. She remembers Sils again, Sils who stayed in that little town, unable to live out their dreams of going to college together. They were so certain they would be friends for life, unthinkable that they would not, though when she sees Sils again, ten years later at a high school reunion, their lives are utterly different. Sils congratulates Berie on her upcoming marriage, insisting that she had always known that Berie would be the one to end up with the best husband of all.
For a fleeting moment, as anyone can, I imagined I felt the poverty of my future, all its unholdable surfaces; I felt inexplicably ungrateful and sad. It was a moment of stillness in which one looks around and ruefully sees only the rocks and searing sun and cheap metal. “You wanted an adventure and instead you got Adventureland,” Sils herself used to say. I longed for a feeling again, a particular one: the one of approaching a room but of not yet having entered it. Being engaged to marry, it should have been what I felt. But instead I associated the feeling with another part of my life: that anteroom of girlhood, with its laughter as yet only affianced to the world, anticipation playing in the heart like an orchestra tuning and warming, the notes unwed and fabulous and crazed—I wanted it back!—those beginning sounds, so much more interesting than the piece itself.
Hopefully, these few passages will give you some flavor of the liquid prose of this beautiful little book, a touch of the wisdom of the author in dealing with the existential angst that invades us all at some time or other.

Monday, February 26, 2001

Penelope Lively

I would like to talk to you this morning about an author I have mentioned once before, Penelope Lively. Last year, when I first discovered this wonderful author, I reviewed her 1987 Booker Prize winner, Moon Tiger. Today I want to recommend to you three more of her novels, and indeed, to recommend to you everything she has written. Lively is definitely writing about the world we find ourselves in today, and she is doing so with a sense of history and an intellectual acuity that we readers are likely to find very infrequently.

Moon Tiger was published in 1987, but Lively had been writing excellent novels long before that. Judgment Day was written in 1981, and any observant reader should see that the philosophy of history that she lays out in Moon Tiger is already very much there in this earlier novel. Like another important British novelist writing at the same time, Iris Murdoch, Lively insists on not just telling, but showing her readers that while there are patterns in history that can be understood, there is no teleology, i.e., that there is no human independent purpose functioning in the universe. And again like Murdoch, Lively does not think this is something that needs to be argued for; rather, any halfway careful perusal of history should convince us that, as Nietzsche puts it, being aims and nothing and achieves nothing. It is human beings that have purposes and goals and intentions. However, to say that history is not teleological is not to say that we cannot learn by studying it. Indeed, if we have any chance to predict what the future will bring us, any chance to avert global disaster, that chance lies in understanding how the present is a function of the past, and the future a function of the present. Judgment day will not occur at the hands of an angry father god, but through the future that we bring on ourselves, the chains that we forge with our of own activities.

In my view, most great novelists reveal features of the world to us that are far more important than the stories they tell us, more important than the characters they describe to us. And it also true that great novelists tend to tell us the same ‘big’ story over and over in their works. In the case of Murdoch, it is the laying out of an ethical theory and an attempt to point to the good via her allegorical stories. Lively, who is a much better and more acute historian and social critic than Murdoch, wants to show us how failing to learn from history condemns us to ever more disastrous consequences.

Her 1991 novel, City of the Mind, takes us into the world of giant corporations; corporations that raze huge tracts of land (with important histories of their own) to build cites of glass. Lively, the historian and archeologist is there to remind us, over and over, about what such tracts of land looked like in another time—during the second world war, or at a much earlier time when there was only land and crops, and then again changing her time-scale suddenly, drastically, reminding us of what the land was like long before human locusts swarmed over it. It is not only her readers who are taken on these sweeps through time; she likes to show us how each of us lives always in a rather confused welter of past, present, and future. We travel along in this story with an architect who drives from London to its outskirts to oversee the building of one giant glass structure, but as he drives, he remains in the present only because he must guide his car along a river of cars, a modern freeway, while his mind never rests, taking him back to the ‘great war’, to the nightly air-raids that brought down buildings and people, and further back to his own childhood, and then sweeping him along, adding to what he has experienced what he has read, what he has come to know through his interest in science, in paleontology. Expanding and contracting his universe, his city of the mind. This novel, more than any of her others, shows us the ruthlessness of market economies, the lack of concern for people in the rush to destroy countryside and to construct ever bigger and in so many ways, ever more fragile and technology-dependent structures.

The title of her 1993 novel, Cleopatra’s Sister, tells us immediately that this is, at least in some sense, a historical novel. Her readers learn more about Cleopatra and her less famous (and perhaps more ruthless) sister than they could have known, though always learning by looking back through the eyes of a living person, always a history constructed through a discrete, particular historical person. And so, Lively reminds us, is all history constructed. Lively is like Mark Twain, wanting to remind us that what gets called history is simply lies that are agreed to. All views are perspectival, and the human-eye view is, itself, perspectival, revealing only so much, and leaving much more concealed than it reveals.

And finally, let me mention a very recent novel of hers, again a superb piece of writing bound to make any thoughtful reader wonder and worry about the world we live in. Its title is Spider Web, and as the title suggests, the reader is shown again how complex and interrelated is the web of history, the web of our own lives. The lead character in this novel, Stella Brentwood, is a semi-retired anthropologist who decides to settle in a village in the west of England that was once remote and almost inaccessible. Today, with the shrinking of space and the rapidity of travel, it is close to the center of things, to Birmingham and Liverpool and Manchester and London. A lifetime of observing people leaves her unable not to observe and record and speculate about family trees, about ancestry and happenstance. But even as she loses herself in research and speculation about the local people, she is swept at once into a much broader world of human relations. During her life as an intellectual, she has traveled all over the world, never having a place she could or would call home. All her life she has tried to understand family structures, and certainly she is unable not to do so now in what she has decided will be her home, her resting place. And if her body is at rest here, certainly her mind is not. Social anthropologists, she suggests, meddle with people’s lives, meddle by the very fact of their presence; thus, their task it to meddle constructively. And that is what Lively wants to do in our lives, to meddle constructively, to remind us again and again that we must study history, must learn from history. Since we are bound to shape what will come, just as what has passed has shaped what is now, we must all learn to meddle constructively.

While Lively is a realist, not at all interested in trying to calm us about the future, about the world we have created, neither is she cynical nor unduly pessimistic. Her lead characters always describe themselves as agnostic, meaning that they have no real belief in any form of teleology. They do believe in the reality of chance, not meaning contra-causality, but in events that are not planned, are not on purpose. She wants to remind us that any day, any moment, we may be thrown back into the real world--the world that cannot be fit into our neat sense of teleology. Most of us are not starving, are not dying of a dread disease, are not hopeless third world victims of global greed, but a slip on the ice, the loss of a job, the wreck of a car—anything could rent the fabric of our articially spun security, our secure teleology, and cast us into the real world. Then we would be unable to ignore, as we are so often now, the vicissitudes of that real world. Perhaps, she suggests, we would all be better of, and the world we live in a better place, if we would suspend our cozy teleologies.

Let me leave you with one of the ruminations of the retired anthropologist, Stella:
She recognizes that she has landed at one of those alarming junctions in life, where decision is treacherous, where alternatives existences stream into an unimaginable future.
I have no doubt that Lively believes we are all of us, always, at just such a crossroads. The trick is to convince us of this, to convince us to seize the moment, to transform history. I think Lively does her best to help us along.

Monday, January 22, 2001

In the Family Way by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

I want to talk to you this morning about a new book by Lynne Sharon Schwartz, entitled, In the Family Way: An Urban Comedy. Schwartz has been a favorite author of mine ever since I read her most important novel, Disturbances in the Field. She also wrote one of the best coming-of-age, leaving-childhood-behind novels I’ve ever read, entitled Leaving Brooklyn, a rich novel about how hard it is to in some sense transcend or escape family, hometown, childhood religion. Of course, she is also well aware that we cannot literally transcend our histories, that we carry them with us forever and that even reaction and attempted overthrow of such influences is, itself, an acting out of our historicity. Still, the attempt to step outside and look at how we are influenced by culture and family is, according to Schwartz, crucial to freeing ourselves. It is understanding how these influences determine us that in some sense frees us.

Finally, before getting to her recent novel, let me remind you of one other of her books, Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books, the manifesto of a reader that should strike a chord in any dedicated, lifetime reader; it’s funny and insightful as well as providing a kind of justification for reading as an end in itself. And as a kind of continuation of that book, there is a brand new collection of essays, Face to Face, that will delight any Schwartz fan.

In the Family Way is about a modern kind of extended family living in New York City. Billed on its cover as a comedy of manners, I think, instead, that it is a very serious look at what families might become. Ursula Le Guin, who is also sited on the jacket cover, says that Schwartz has proved Tolstoy wrong in this book, that “All happy families are not alike. Her novel is about a happy family that is totally unlike any other family you have read about.” I think Le Guin is just right; Schwartz wants to tell us in this book what families here and now could be like. She understands that divorce is much more common now than in the past, and that there are more and more children who are in what get called broken families. What Schwartz wants to tell us about is a way of not breaking families in spite of the fact of separation and divorce.

In this often funny but also very serious novel, we have a family that consists of many members who are connected in many ways. The grandmother, who remembers very well her youth in The Young Socialist League where she met and married her first love Mickey, actually owns the apartment building in which they all live, but it is her daughter Bea who really runs things. Bea’s first husband, Roy, also lives in the building, but not with Bea, nor with his second wife Serena. Instead, Roy lives with his third wife, Lisa, who is pregnant with his fifth child, and yes, they, too, live in the building. Bea lives with her two children, Sara (who has become Shimmer), and Danny. Her other two children, who are not hers biologically, but, rather, the biological offspring of her husband, Ray, and a Viet Namese woman, Lien, now deceased, have been raised by her for most of their lives, but are now grown and gone. Bea’s lover, Dimitri, is also the apartment’s super. Oh, and I forgot to mention, Serena still lives in the building, but now she lives with May, Bea’s artist sister, and Serena, too, is pregnant, that is, in the family way. But you will have to read the book to see just how this has come about.

So, is this a chaotic household, filled with seething jealousies and dysfunctional units? Well, there are jealousies, and there are problems, but under the benign guidance and wisdom of Bea, I would call this a very well adjusted and, yes, happy family. One of the things I find oddest about divorce is not the separation itself, which is so often so very good for the two people who have been married (and, while married, found ways to daily diminish each other in the name of love and duty); no, it is not the separation that surprises me, but the bitterness and hatred left behind. As if the divorce somehow proves that the two never loved each other, never had anything in common, that it all had to be some horrible mistake and lie. No doubt, there are divorces that are escapes from a kind of daily hell, but it is also so often the case that the people involved seem to think they must learn to hate the other, turn from each other totally, in order to justify the separation. And if there are children involved who somehow still love both parents, well ... so much the worse for them, since they must deal daily with the venom and hatred that stands between the two people they most love.

When Roy announces to Bea that he has fallen in love with a client (Roy is a therapist), wanting Bea somehow to forgive him professionally as well as personally, she does just that. Never mind that she has a bit of a thing going with Dimitri already, making Roy’s ‘abandonment’ somewhat easier. What she sees clearly is that Roy really loves his children, and that they really love and need him. That they will share custody is never in question, and if living in the same neighborhood would be a good thing for the children, same schools, same friends, etc., well then why not live in the same building?
Right now we need to plan how to manage this. We’re not going to be angry, or fight over money, or the kids, or all the things people do. We’re going to behave like a family, as we always have. I’ll talk to this woman—what’s her name anyway?


“This Serena, and we’ll work it out. We’ll explain to her that this isn’t a connection we can break off just like that. It wasn’t only sex between us. We have a life together. She’ll understand, if she’s a reasonable person. She didn’t want to end her own marriage, did she? You had to persuade her. It’ll be better for her too, not having to deal with a furious ex-wife. Believe me, this is the way to go. Look, Roy, it’s starting to get light. I really must get some sleep.” She slid down under the quilt.

“I can’t believe you’re rolling over and going to sleep after this. This is your marriage breaking up.”

“Yes.” she murmured, but life goes on. Or so they say.
Of course, you can see that this is quite a set-up for humor, and I quite understand why reviewers were caught up with the comedy side of the book, but I am convinced that this novel is not primarily a comedy, nor is it a critique of modern relationships and a call to return to traditional values. Instead, I think Schwartz is very seriously trying to tell us about how we might live in a changing world, how we might be able to salvage the very best parts of committed relationships without also buying into what is worst about them. Same sex relationships, committed relationships without marriage, mutual and friendly dissolving of what have been good relationships, perpetuating strong relationships even when the living together ends—all of these things are possible, and all good ways of preserving family in the very best sense of family. Separating without hating, without giving the lie to the past, without forcing children into impossible choices of whom to love and whom to reject.

Schwartz, herself, has lived a long life of balancing the needs and demands of family life with the need for space and privacy and a place to work. And it is obvious from all of her work that she does not regret it. Yes, one needs a room of one’s own, but she has found fulfillment in her children, her mate. She loves to observe them as well as to immerse herself in their lives. Unlike writers like May Sarton who have found that they must choose between love/family and creativity, Schwartz has found room for both, and is convinced that each nourishes the other.

I think this is a rich and serious book. There are lots of characters, and you may need to read into it a hundred pages or so before you really find yourself, but give it a chance. Try to read it in a sustained way, and I think you will find, as I did, that Schwartz has lots to tell us about how we can live and love here and now