Monday, December 02, 2002

The House Gun by Nadine Gordimer

I want to talk to you this morning about an author whom you have probably read in the past, but whom you may have forgotten since apartheid ended in South Africa. The author’s name is Nadine Gordimer, and the name of the novel is The House Gun.

In my estimation, Gordimer is one of the giants of the 20th century. Unlike artists who insist that they don’t want their work ‘tainted’ by political content, hinting that such works then become simply propaganda, Gordimer is and has always been a political writer. Indeed, her works were banned in her own country until apartheid came to an end, including the novel that won her the Booker prize in England--a wonderful novel about the colonization and exploitation of Africa, entitled The Conservationist.

Gordimer understands very well that the explo
Publish Post
itation of Africans did not end with the official end of apartheid; she understands economic imperialism as well as anyone, and she knows that it does not end by government edict. Gordimer is not a writer for those who read simply to be entertained; not only is she tough politically, she also writes dense and complicated prose that requires close attention even of experienced readers. Often enough, her writing is simply page after page of stream of consciousness, the stream varying from character to character. Like a very few writers can do, instead of saying everything as slowly and as carefully as possible, Gordimer is an optimal user of the language, and she says as much as she can as fast as she can and invites her reader to keep up with her. She has an incredible vocabulary, a wonderful understanding of world economies, a fine grasp of (even very esoteric) philosophy, and an awe-inspiring grasp of human psychology.

There is no formula for understanding this novel short of close attentive reading. Two upper middle class white South Africans, a woman doctor and her upper level businessman husband are sailing comfortably along in their lives, drifting from each other (as old couples often do), often enough as bored with themselves as with each other, and despite rather liberal political leanings that make them cluck and shake their heads over events they read about in the paper or catch on the telly, they do very little other than send the occasional check to ‘worthy’ causes. They are above the fray. And then, out of nowhere, they are summoned one day to the police station and told that their precious only son has been charged with murder. Though they know, of course, that there must be some mistake, some confusion, they hurry to his side to rescue him.

I won’t be telling you much of the story if I let you know now that the son confesses to the killing! Apparently, he has killed a young man who lives with him and a group of other young people in a house and cottage rented by the whole group. The gun used in the killing has been located, tossed apparently carelessly into the bushes outside the house. Somehow, a woman with whom the son has been involved is at the center of things, having apparently slept with the murdered man, rather publicly, on a divan in the living room of the house, and now the man is dead.

When they visit the son, full of condolences for him and outrage at the obviously mistaken authorities, he is oddly calm and quiet, not denying the charges, not reassuring his parents of his innocence. And what is even worse, the semi-rich white couple are told to hire a black attorney who is famous for handling such cases. As the story begins to unfold, this clean, white, upstanding couple has to admit first that their son has done the killing (or will not deny it), and, even worse, that he has also been involved homosexually with the man he is accused of killing! What is worse, the charge of murder, or the sordid details of his bisexual life? And which of the parents is to blame for the twisted behavior of the boy?

The father, at least, has the refuge of his childhood Catholicism which he has not discarded despite his wives half amused, half disgusted dismissal of all such superstitious nonsense. Is it her fault, he wonders, that the boy has turned out so? She has been a rather cold mother, occupied so much with her patients and her practice and her (isn’t it unfeminine) lack of spirituality? Both parents ask questions, of themselves, and if not overtly of one another, then in their covert reveries. And this facile and too well dressed African attorney who asks such personal questions, and implies so much with both what he says and what he doesn’t, what are they to make of him?

I think rather than trying to tell you more of the story, I am simply going to read a rather lengthy passage which I hope will give you the flavor of the entire novel and of the questions these people have to ask themselves. The Senior Counsel referred to is the attorney, Hamilton Motsamai. The writing is abbreviated, a kind of short-hand stream of consciousness style, and I think this one passage will give you some feel for the whole and for the attention required by the reader. I only hope I can read it in a way that will carry its sense and its impact.
As you know, Senior Counsel said. But what concern had it been of theirs, except in the general way of civilized people—privately uncertain whether crime could be deterred without the ultimate retribution—dutifully supporting human rights and enlightened social practices where these had been violated in the country’s past. There had been so much cruelty enacted in the name of the State they had lived in, so many fatal beatings, mortal interrogations, a dying man driven across a thousand kilometres naked in a police van; common-law criminals singing through the night before the morning of execution, hangings taking place in Pretoria while a second slice of bread pops up from the toaster—the penalty unknown individuals paid was not in question compared with state crime. None of it had anything to do with them. Murderers, child batterers and rapists; if Dr. Lindgard [the wife] once or twice had professional contact with their victims and related to her husband the damage that had been done, neither she nor he had in their orbit, even remotely any likelihood of knowing the criminal perpetrators. (And perhaps, after all, they ought to be done away with for the general good?)

The Death Penalty. And now, too, it still seemed to have nothing to do with them or with their son. They had been obsessively preoccupied with why he did what he did, how he, one like themselves, their own, could carry out an act of horror—they had been unable to think further, only abstractly, confusedly now and then half-glanced at what a penalty could be, for him. The penalty had seemed to be the prison cell they had not seen, could not see, and the visitors’ room which was the only place of his material existence, for them. Even Harald; who in his religious faith, concerned himself with the act in relation go God’s forgiveness, and committed the heresy of denying that this grace, for the perpetrator, exists: ‘Not for me.’ The Death Penalty: distilled at the bottom of the bottle pushed to the back of the cupboard.

Hamilton Motsamai has left them. Door closed behind him, footsteps became inaudible, car must have driven away through the security gates of the townhouse complex. He was all there was between them and the Death Penalty. Not only had he come from the Other Side; everything had come to them from the Other Side, the nakedness to the final disaster: powerlessness, helplessness, before the law. The queer sense Harald had had while he waited for Claudia in the secular cathedral of the courts’ foyer, of being one among the father of thieves and murderers was now confirmed ... The truth of all of this was that he and his wife belonged, now, to the other side of privilege. Neither whiteness, nor observance of the teachings of the Father and Son, nor the pious respectability of liberalism, nor money, that had kept them in safety—that other form of segregation—could change their status.
Well, a sample at least of this wonderfully complex novel, whether or not my reading did it justice.

Monday, October 21, 2002

“White Oleander” And Other Films From Novels

Not too long ago I talked to you about a depressing but wonderful book entitled White Oleander. Like many best selling novels, this one was recently made into a movie. Today, I want to say a few things about this particular novel adaptation, but more importantly, about the whole practice of adapting novels to film, and also a bit about how one ought to judge such efforts.

First, take a moment and count up what you would take to be genuinely successful novel to movie adaptations. I bet it didn’t take long, and I bet you didn’t have to use both hands. Indeed, some of you may still be trying to count enough even for the first hand. The very idea of making a movie from what has been a successful novel is a conservative one; Hollywood hates taking real risks. American movie makers would rather do Rocky 14 or Halloween 6 than risk a good script with a good cast that has not yet been stamped with the mass marketing seal of approval.

Sometimes old novels, especially if they are about the rich, can be made into visually sumptuous film feasts in which all the marvels of expensive contemporary cinematic techniques can be used to visually stupefy the audience. I have in mind here some of the more or less successful adaptations of Henry James and Edith Wharton novels, all of which could be gathered together into a “Lives of the rich and famous” genre. And while I don’t intend simply to pan such efforts, anyone who has read, for example, the complex and intricate House of Mirth by Edith Wharton or the exquisitely detailed The Golden Bowl by Henry James will realize immediately how the movie adaptations failed in almost all ways to do justice to the novels. This was not simply a failing of the particular movie makers; such complete and phenomenologically rich novels cannot be condensed to the screen without losing most of what was excellent in the books. Some of the eight-to-ten hour public television serializing of novels has done a better job of capturing the original complexity of the books, but it is simply not possible in the ninety to one hundred twenty minutes allowed to mainstream movies.

Indeed, realizing how much novels depend on the reader being able to ‘see’ inside the heads of characters, characters who can be both actor and commentator in key scenes, and how novels can sometimes ‘play’ the same scenes several times through the prismatic viewing screens of different characters, one can see the utter audacity of trying to render such complex material in a few visual scenes. How long does it take to read a good novel? How much of what makes the novel a good one is simply extraneous to what might be called the core of the novel? My answer is, “Not much.” The goodness, the excellence, is in the detail

I used the word ‘render’ quite intentionally; think of that word in its sense of reducing to essence or boiling down, clarifying. Now, were films really able to render novels in the sense of boiling down or clarifying, reducing to their essences, that would be a profound and noble undertaking indeed. But novels, at least really good ones, are not meant to be boiled down, to be stripped to their essence. Indeed, it they are really good novels, then their goodness will dwell in their detail, in their complexity, in their life-likeness. In novels, we can sometimes see the development of a character over months, even years, occasionally even over a lifetime. I tend to think that even in the case of novels, the best ones cover relatively short periods of time with only general hints of past and future. But if this is true of novels, it seems to be to be even more true of successful films. Films that cover a day, a week, a month, a year can be much ‘fuller’ and more life-like than those that attempt to cover decades, lifetimes.

But suppose we simply admit (what seems to be true) that films cannot provide the character richness and development possible in novels, and that it is an unfair expectation that they do so. Certainly, many film buffs would insist that films must be judged on their own merits—on how well they do what they can do rather than on how they fail to do what they cannot. How, then, ought we to view and judge films that are adapted from novels?

I suppose what we ought to do first (in our attempt to be fair) is to try to ‘forget’ the novel when we go to see the movie. If we are forever comparing the film to the book, we will find the film wanting in so many ways. Similarly, I want to claim that there are films that are successful only because the film-makers depend on an audience who watches the movie simply as an extension or visual addition to a story-line they already know and love, to a book already read. In such cases, the movie does not have to tell the whole story; the audience will fill in the missed scenes, the internal dialogue, the unseen pasts and futures. (Think for a moment of the Harry Potter books and movies, or even of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings).

Better, I want to claim, to try out films on those who have not read the book. See if much of the important ‘message’ of the novel comes through; see if the characters seem full and believable to these ‘innocent’ viewers. If the film is a really good one, then it should be able to stand on its own. Perhaps it will not be as profound or as rich as the novel, but it will be complete and comprehensible as far as it goes. If films pass this test, then they are good films whether or not they live up to the novels from which they are adapted.

Even with these generous criteria, my list of successful movies adapted from novels does not increase that much, but it at least doubles, probably triples. And, getting finally to the movie “White Oleander,” I would have to say that the movie succeeds as a statement that stands alone, and even further, that it does quite a good job of capturing at least some of what was so haunting and important about the book.

I was fully prepared not to like this movie, and this was perhaps because I liked the novel so much and was so skeptical about the very possibility of rendering it in film. Michelle Pfeiffer is simply superb as the beautiful but icy and self-absorbed mother, a bit too sweet and Michelle Pfeifferish in the first few scenes, but she grows into the hard bitten and icily beautiful character described in the novel. Alison Lohman, who has to play a girl of about thirteen who develops slowly into a scarred and world-wise eighteen year old, does a very good job, especially if she is not compared to the much more complex and conflicted girl, Astrid, in the novel on whom her character is based. Before seeing the movie, I winced at the choices of actresses to play other characters (e.g., Renee Zellweger as the lonely and reclusive actress and foster mother, Claire), but in fact, they all did very well, again, especially if not compared to the naturally richer and more complex characters in the novel.

Of course, so much of the novel is left out; two of the five foster-care situations faced by the young Astrid are simply skipped over. Each omission takes away, I think, from the believability and development of her character, and also from the progressive disintegration of her relationship with her mother. This makes the ending of the movie less poignant and less fitting with the whole. And an even more serious failing is in the decision by the film-makers not to include more of the early relationship between the mother and daughter, which would in turn have provided more context for the crime at the center of the movie and a much fuller picture of the mother. This omission they try to make up for in a few flashbacks, but I know, had I not read the book, I would find the flashbacks more confusing than illuminating and the crime less believable than it is in the book.

So, am I recommending that you see the movie? Yes, and especially if seeing the movie might lead you back to the book. Perhaps that will also put you in a good position to decide on my criteria for judging novel adaptations.

Monday, September 09, 2002

The Lifetime Writings of Iris Murdoch

This morning I want to depart from my normal course of reviewing a current novel and, instead, talk to you about the lifetime writings of Iris Murdoch. A few weeks ago, Jan Haaken and I talked to you a bit about the movie, Iris; while we were both somewhat disappointed with the movie, we ended by agreeing that, at least, the popularity of the movie might get some people to actually read Murdoch and might serve as well to slow her disappearance from the public mind. Shortly after our review, I was urged by a number of friends to write some sort of editorial about Murdoch’s philosophy as an attempt to correct the impressions made by the movie as well as simply to provide some overview of her work that was woefully lacking in the movie. Although the movie has come and gone, it still seems appropriate to try to say something of the importance of Murdoch.

If the movie were all one had to go on in trying to decide what Murdoch was about, her work would seem pretty vacuous indeed. Let’s face it, though Judy Dench did a great job of portraying the older Murdoch, the movie was more about Kate Winslett’s bare breasts than about Iris Murdoch’s philosophy. As Jan remarked to me (and mentioned in our joint review), all we learn about Murdoch in the movie is some vague claim that we ought to be free along with an endorsement for free love. Neither does any justice to Murdoch’s views. Indeed, one of her major disagreements with both Anglo-American, analytic philosophers and Continental, existentialist philosophers, centers on their endorsement of free will and duty as central to morality. While Murdoch sees little agreement between these two warring traditions, she insists that analytic philosophers have centered morality on the concept of duty, and the moral person is the one who, often heroically, uses leaps of will (against natural inclination) to do their duty, to do the right thing. Existentialists, while not thinking much of the concept of duty, nevertheless insist that freedom is everything; indeed, Sartre in his characteristic hyperbolic way, insists that he is nothing but his freedom. Remember his little shibboleth that is supposed to unlock the meaning of existentialism? Existence precedes essence; we (as human beings) have no essence, but instead we create our essence by our acts of choice. You are what you choose; you are what you do.

Murdoch, although sympathetic to Sartre and to his attempt to really make philosophy count in everyday life, to live his philosophy, nevertheless takes him to task for his claims about what she calls the much vaunted freedom of the will. Murdoch insists that the works of Marx and Freud have altered the intellectual landscape forever, and that it is not free will (or even the concept of duty) that is central to morality. Indeed, we are determined by our natures to be selfish; we are self-interested naturally, though not necessarily. We can (to some small extent) overcome our natural tendencies to see everything through the veil of our selfish cares and concerns, but this occurs (when it does occur at all) not through heroic acts of will in dramatic moments of decision, but, rather, via the painfully slow and incremental establishing of habits of really looking at others—seeing them not through the veil of our cares and concerns but as they really are. Morality, properly understood, is simply truth applied to ethics; i.e., seeing the real needs of others and acting on those needs. Thus, it is neither will nor duty that is central to ethics, but the good. Indeed, the title of one of her most famous and most important philosophical essays is “The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts”.

Murdoch’s moral philosophy is not unique to her, nor is it a complex or completely worked out view. To put is simply: Murdoch believes that good is real (it is not, as Sartre would claim, created by choice or by the will); it is not relative to the individual (or tribe, or culture). The problem with much of analytic philosophy (according to Murdoch) is that while it correctly rejects Sartrean (and similar) attempts to place value in the subject (to make it subjective and relative), it attempts to come up with a successful analysis of good; i.e., to come up with some property or set of properties that all good things share and by virtue of which they are good. Murdoch, agreeing with an Oxford philosopher famous to academic philosophers though not to others, G.E. Moore, insists that while good is real, is an objective feature of the universe, it is simple and unanalyzable. There is no property that all good things share except their goodness.

So, good is real; the concept of good is central in ethics, and people come to be good not by heroic acts of will, but by the day to day accretion of the habit of attending to others. But why write novels instead of simply writing good, clear, discursive essay if one wants to put forward this theory of morality? Well, Murdoch believes that since good is not analyzable, cannot be broken down or analyzed further, the best that we can do to portray good is by pointing to it. Murdoch supposes herself to be agreeing with Plato in claiming that metaphor is not simply a useful tool in displaying good, but a necessary one. She reminds her readers that Plato often uses the metaphor of the sun when speaking of good, and invites us to again think about his allegory of the cave. Plato, usually so successful in analyzing difficult and pivotal concepts, seems here to resort to metaphor. Likewise, Murdoch, in her novels, intends to show us good in the concrete acts of characters immersed in life. She intends also to show us, clearly and convincingly, the myriad ways in which we are blinded by self, the ways in which not only the will to power can lead to self-absorption (and consequently moral blindness), but many other things that are not normally seen as selfish. For example, guilt can, easily and completely, return the gaze to the self, and though guilt may be understandable, may even seem morally required, guilt rarely if ever leads us to good. Resentment, grief, guilt, even what gets called love (especially of the romantic and sexual variety) are ways of being self-absorbed, and thus are also ways of going wrong, of not being good.

Murdoch writes novels not to take the place of discursive essay, and indeed insists that discursive essay has its part to play in doing ethics. She simply thinks that it is not enough, especially if the attempt is not simply to talk about morality but to make people better, to help them to really see. Novels concretize, put into context, good acts and good people, but even more clearly, they show us how people ‘go bad’, how and why they usually miss the mark . It is one thing to say that deceit leads to deceit, that lies accrue and gather and destroy, it is quite another to show how this happens. One simple lie, often enough told to ‘spare’ another some unpleasant truth, begins an entire network of lies and obfuscation. In one of her best novels, A Fairly Honorable Defeat, there is a good and successful homosexual relationship between two men who rank among the best of Murdoch’s characters (characters who are so often dark and selfish and deceitful); the relationship is one of very few I can think of in her novels that seems to be a really good and mutually caring, mutually seeing one. But a skillful enchanter (and there are so many skillful enchanters in Murdoch’s novels) decides, just for the fun of it, to test this relationship, and he does it by the simply machination of getting Simon (the younger and more naive of the lovers) to cover a possibly embarrassing admission with a lie. The reader has to stand by in horror as a series of cover-up lies ensues; no one horrible in itself, but deceit (Murdoch shows us) destroys trust and intimacy.

But I am trying to do too much here too fast. Let me end by saying simply that you ought sometime to pick up an Iris Murdoch novel, and I’m tempted to say that any one will do. Read through it expecting it to say something important, expecting it not to simply be pessimistic or simply mocking the human condition. In fact, pick up one of her essays on ethics (say from the excellent collection Existentialists and Mystics), and read what she has to say about morality. And then read another of her novels, or read the same novel again. I think you will see that Murdoch is getting at essential truths about the human condition, and that she is doing so with the intention of making us better, making us wiser. Perhaps you will even come to agree with me that Murdoch is a very good ethicist, and one of the most important novelists of the century.

Monday, August 19, 2002

Range of Motion by Elizabeth Berg

I want to talk to you this morning about another little city book. I mean by that expression, a book short enough and engaging enough to be read by busy city workers in a few days rather than a few weeks or months. I have talked about this author before, Elizabeth Berg. The title of the little book I am reviewing today is Range of Motion.

As I have mentioned before, I prefer talking to you about books that are current to me and about us, here, now. Were this not my guiding principle, I may not have discussed this book today, because I do not think it is a great book, and there are plenty of great books I might have chosen instead. Still, I think the underlying message of this book is an important one, and the author is so emotionally astute that one always gets considerable insights that are simply asides to the main story.

Iris Murdoch
, one of the truly great novelists and philosophers of the last half of the 20th century likes to remind us over and over that the world is chancy and huge and that there is no external telos—no human independent purpose for human existence. As maddening as it can be for a reader, Murdoch often takes us through some long and painful development of a character, brings that character very close to some sort of world-shaking realization, some momentous reconciliation, and then a page or two later, allows our emerging hero to die due to a fall on the ice, a traffic accident, or some other whim of chance. And while the reader may be crushed by the chance turn of events, and mad at the author for letting it happen, Murdoch’s intentions are very deliberate; she wants her novels to mirror life, and life is full of chance turns, of what is so often called luck. As the current (and I think excellent movie) “Thirteen Conversations About One Thing” reminds us, if we do not believe in luck, that is often enough simply an indication that we are experiencing a run of good luck, and we have become so used to it that we think somehow we have earned it, that we deserve it, that it is meant to be. But nothing is meant to be, and the test of our characters will occur when our luck changes, when we are faced with some sudden illness or death of a loved one.

Range of Motion is about just such a chance event. A young couple with two young children who, unlike many of us, is not only happy but aware of their happiness and of their luck in love has it all tumble down in a moment. The husband is struck by ice falling off of a roof, and from that moment, the lives of all four change drastically. In a coma that it seems unlikely he will ever awake from, his wife, Lainey, visits him daily, first in the hospital, and then in a long-care nursing home, trying to bring to him each day some part of his life that might miraculously awaken him from his long sleep. Most of the staff at the nursing home laugh at her feeble efforts; they have seen too many cases of this sort, watched confidence change to hope, hope to despair.

On the jacket of this book there is a review that calls it the love story of the year, and I suppose one could see it that way. But I doubt that is Berg’s intention. Yes, Lainey loves her husband, Jay, and continues to love him even as he lies silent and helpless. But she also wonders if she should go on hoping, if she should keep her children hoping. Is it a favor to them to keep her doubts to herself? Shouldn’t she at least attempt to start some new life, if not for herself, then for her children? And how could this have happened, to her, to them? How could she have allowed it, how could he have deserted them? And on and on with the unanswerable questions, while in her lucid moments, she sees it for what it is, simple chance. She and her children do not deserve the loss any more than they deserved the happiness that had before.

Although I have no way of knowing whether Berg has ever read Murdoch, one could easily believe that she has taken this theme of the huge and chancy world laid out by Murdoch and decided to do a kind of phenomenology of luck, show just how chance plays itself out in the lived-life of some particular family. This particular story reminding us all as readers not to be smug, not to suppose so quickly or so easily that those who are less fortunate somehow deserve their misfortune, that they have somehow fallen from grace. Our protection, our safety-net, is an illusion; we are only a chunk of ice, a traffic accident, a virus away from pain and death and hopeless despair.

Of course, I have no intention of giving away any of the particulars of the story, and even in what I quote from the book, I will quite intentionally omit any parts that give away the outcome. But don’t expect a good outcome, either in your own life or in the lives of these characters. Chance is real, destiny is an illusion. But let me have Lainey (and I am supposing Berg) speak for herself in the Epilogue:
I am living on a planet where the silk dresses of Renaissance women rustled, where people died in plagues, where Mozart sat to play, where sap runs in the spring, where children are caught in crossfire, where gold glints from rock, where religion shines its light only to lose its way, where people stop to reach a hand to help each other to cross, where much is known about the life of the ant, where [gifts are as accidental as losses], where the star called sun shows itself differently at every hour, where people get so bruised and confused they kill each other, where baobabs grow into impossible shapes with trunks that tell stories to hands, where rivers wind wide and green with terrible hidden currents, where you rise in the morning and feel your own arms with your own hands, checking yourself, where lovers’ hearts swell with the certain knowledge that only they are the ones, where viruses are seen under the insistent eye of the microscope and the birth of stars is witnessed through the lens of the telescope, where caterpillars crawl and skyscrapers are erected because of the blue line on the blueprint--I am living here on this planet, it is my time to have my legs walk the earth. ... I am saying that all of this, all of this, all of these things are the telling songs of the wider life, and I am listening with gratitude, and I am listening for as long as I can, and I am listening with all of my might.

Monday, July 22, 2002

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

This morning I have the opportunity to talk to you about a truly excellent book by Barbara Kingsolver entitled Prodigal Summer. If you are a reader and somewhere on the left, liberal, progressive side of things, then you know of Kingsolver. She is one of the really important political writers of the last twenty years. I admire her not only because she is an excellent writer, but because she is an overtly political writer. That would be surprising enough if she had a small but devout circle of leftist readers—large enough to tempt even a big corporate publisher into risking the publication of a few thousand, even a few hundred thousand, copies, but it is simply stunning when you realize that her books are huge best sellers, reviewed by even the most stodgy and business oriented periodicals and newspapers. I believe that what she has to say is downright dangerous to corporate capitalism, and if her readers really manage to read beyond the story, allow themselves to hear the deeper and more important message, then they cannot help but move further to the left.

I’m sure that many readers were able to read her earlier work, Poisonwood Bible, and yet see in it only a clever story and a condemnation of religious fundamentalism. At best, to see in that wonderful book a studied examination of ethnocentrism and the arrogance of chosen people religions, without also seeing how clearly she paints the role of America and the CIA in the political assassination of Patrice Lumumba, without seeing how the hunger for cobalt and diamonds and the economic enslavement of a whole continent by the U.S. and other imperial giants denies millions of people not only what is rightfully theirs, but keeps them on a razor’s edge of poverty.

Perhaps many who read Prodigal Summer will see it merely as a kind of animal right’s piece—easy to cheer for coyote pups if your portfolio is sound. But any but the most superficial of readings has to leave the reader with so much more. Here is a person who obviously knows what she is talking about, a biologist and naturalist long before she was a famous author, Kingsolver weaves a wonderful and complex story about the interconnections between the senseless slaying of predators, the criminal pressure and lying of chemical companies selling their ever more deadly insecticides, the corporate takeover of farming, and the rapid disappearance of farm families and a whole way of life. Knowing what she knows, seeing clearly just how rapidly forests are disappearing, how species vital to all living things are going extinct at a spiraling rate almost inconceivable in its acceleration, somehow she remains hopeful, and I admire her as much for her dogged hopefulness as for her knowledge and her expertise.

Were this book simply a doomsday warning, a long and close look by someone who knows much more than we her ordinary readers about how frightening the future is, about the extraordinary cost of productive madness, it would be well worth reading. But it is more than that. There is an energy and hopefulness in Kingsolver that is simply thrilling. I wish that I could say that I am always hopeful, that I can somehow see a future that is less market mad and with some sort of sanity with respect to dwindling resources. I have always respected and admired my friends in the left who work and struggle tirelessly in trying to initiate change and who manage somehow to stave of the pessimism, even cynicism, that seems so clearly to square with the facts. Though I can’t say quite why this is so, I have come away from Prodigal Summer with somewhat more hope. Perhaps it is due simply to the huge audience that Kingsolver now reaches; perhaps this signals some burgeoning consciousness in what seems a blind and paralyzed populace. And while consciousness is certainly not enough, it is at least a necessary condition for any real change.

Even if you are simply a would-be naturalist, someone who, like me, had biology and botany as a first love, there is plenty for you in Prodigal Summer. Though I think we should all try to read more natural science, try to have some more understanding of how we play into the great chain of being, I have to admit that many (even most) science texts are badly written and overly technical for the novice. Kingsolver, as she tells us the interesting story of a few families, manages also to tell us about the incredible lives of moths, the strange habits of male butterflies, the complex language of coyote colonies. If, like me, you are an addict of fiction, a reader who has come to love and even expect skillful word-weaving from what you read, then here is a wonderful way to become more acquainted with nature and with the web of dependencies between all living things. I was hooked from the first page as I was allowed to walk along a trail with a women forest service worker, a hermit who has fled from the world of humans back to a saner and more ordered world of non-human nature. Even the first passage should get you, and if it does, you will be hooked for the whole book.
Her body moved with the frankness that comes from solitary habits. But solitude is only a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot; every choice is a world made new for the chosen. All secrets witnessed.
I suppose one danger of reading this book is that one could easily simply increase their disgust, even contempt, for human animals as wonder and awe for other creatures increases. I have to admit that I sometimes found myself wondering how wonderful it would be for the rest of the living organisms on the planet if some quick and sudden plague simply wiped out human beings. Such a catastrophe for humans would, most likely, insure many more thousands of years of life on this earth-garden for most other organisms. Couple that with the realization that continuing on the course we are now on will quite soon make the earth unlivable not only for us but for most other living things, and it is a short step to a kind of enlightened misanthropy. But that is certainly not Kingsolver’s intent. If you get a chance, listen to her interviews since September 11; hear what she has to say about the hatred and fear so many other countries have, not for Americans, but for the bloated and senseless economies like this one that are ravaging the earth. As saddened and sickened as she is by so much that is going on in the world, always you can hear also her pleas for change, her understated but very real hope for a better future.

On so many levels, this is a book that you should read, that you will be so glad that you did read. I swear it will inform about the real bleakness of what is happening on the biological level but without leading to simple despair. If you have heard other reviews by me, you know that I don’t bother to talk about books that I think are bad. There are too many good ones to bother knocking the bad. But one problem with that approach is that it might tend to level the good books and fail to distinguish the great from the merely good. Believe me when I say that this is one that you just must read, and when you have, you will feel privileged to be an animal among animals. Perhaps you will also find yourself renewed and committed to trying to make the future better than the past.

Monday, June 03, 2002

Barbara Kingsolver, Paule Marshall, and Jo Sinclair

Almost always when I talk to you about books, I choose to talk about books that I have read very recently. That had been my plan for today, but as it happens, I have in the past weeks reread three great novels, all written in the past fifty years, and all dealing with racism and its ties to colonialism, economic exploitation, and market economies. As impressed or even more impressed than with earlier readings, I want to recommend these books and authors to you. The three authors are Barbara Kingsolver, Paule Marshall, and Jo Sinclair.

Oddly enough, when I chose these three books for a philosophy in literature course, I did not set out to choose books all of which dealt with racism and economic oppression. I am more or less retired from teaching, so I had reason to believe that I may not get the chance to teach this class again. So, again against my bent for choosing what is recent for me, and about us-here-now, I simply scanned my own book journal to note how or when I had used books in the past. Many books called to me, but three in particular caught my attention. Paule Marshall leaps out to me as a reader not only for her great skill as a writer, but because she understands so well from her own history as an Afro-Barbadian immigrant growing up in Brooklyn how racism is tied to and exacerbated by economic oppression, and how money-power hides behind racism—uses racism as a foil, a screen to obscure what is really happening. The brownstones she speaks of are the brownstones of Brooklyn. The original non-Jewish inhabitants are frightened away by Jewish immigrants who hungered for a home. And subsequently a white flight into the suburbs opened up the brownstones to people of color. The hard-working Barbadians, employed because of the second world war and resulting robust economy, and seeing southern blacks as lazy and without initiative, saved and scrimped, rented out rooms, worked two jobs, whatever it took to buy a brownstone—to buy a piece of prosperity.

And to skip for a moment to Sinclair, this time in Cleveland and a bit later, in the fifties, her main character in The Changelings (and almost certainly modeled on Sinclair’s life) lives in a Jewish neighborhood where in each home and in almost every conversation, the first thing to be mentioned is the feared encroachment of Die Schwartze, the blacks. To rent to one of them, to sell to one of them, they are certain will bring their world crashing down. The value of their hard-fought for houses will plummet; even the schuls will abandon those who are left and go, like their neighbors have, to ‘the heights’. This time, the returning soldiers and growing economy of the fifties has made it monetarily possible for black workers to buy homes, but neighborhoods, especially Jewish ones, unite in their efforts to stop the incursion . Sinclair’s lead character, a twelve year old girl named Vincent, who has already led a neighborhood gang, is one of the changelings in this book. By befriending a black girl her own age, Clara, (who has just witnessed Vincent being stripped and demeaned in front of her previous gang—just to prove that she is a girl and does not belong in the gang, let alone leading it), Vincent begins to see real people with black skin instead of threatening automata. She finds that her parents warnings about them, die Schwartze, are just like the warnings Clara has gotten from her parents about all of them, the other, the whites whom they see as blocking their paths to homes and prosperity.

Barbara Kingslover’s Poisonwood Bible takes up similar themes, but this time from a larger and more global perspective. Kingsolver describes the lives of a family of southern Baptists who have gone to Africa, to the Congo, to save heathen souls. If you have read other of Kingsolver’s novels, you know that she is an astute social and political critic who fully intends to use her novels to do political work. I have to admit that in my first reading of Poisonwood Bible, I saw primarily Kingsolver’s critique of religious fundamentalism, as a comparison of religious righteousness (or self-righteousness) and what is right. And there is no doubt that Kingsolver does intend her book as an attack on the blindness and ethnocentrism of much religious evangelicalism. But deeper and more important that this critique is Kingsolver’s critique of economic imperialism and the ways in which Africans have been exploited and deprived of the riches of their own country. Again, it is young girl characters who act as the whistle blowers, the changelings, this time a family of four girls; each of the four girls as well as the mother are given voices to tell us what they see. And what they see is an Africa that has been ruthlessly divided by foreign invaders. The Belgians, who have for decades been extracting cobalt and diamonds and whatever else they can grasp, are feeling the pressure from the native populations, and are about to retreat—at least in their role as direct governors of the Congo. But the popular election that they sponsor and that brings Patrice Lumumba to power threatens to keep African riches for Africans, a proposition that neither the Belgians nor the Americans much like. Quoting form the novel:
The Belgians and Americans agree, Lumumba is difficult. Altogether too exciting to the Congolese, and disinclined to let White control the board, preferring the counsel and company of Black.
So, with the help of the American CIA, Patrice Lumumba is arrested and eventually murdered, and one of the most ruthless and power-hungry puppets for world capitalism ever invented, Joseph Mobutu, is handed power.

The last of these three novels, Poisonwood Bible, is probably the most important of the three precisely because it understands racism and imperialism globally. Kingsolver never tries to hide and never apologizes for the overtly political nature of her novels. She means to be didactic. However, having said that, she does her ‘teaching’ by telling a wonderful story about this family, about these girls and about some of the dangers of religious fanaticism. As one student in my class put it, in spite of realizing the ambitious themes of the novel, she finds herself finally reading not by chapter or even by paragraph, but sentence by sentence. Kingsolver’s wonderful insights about sexism, about relationships, about love and racism and power occur in the detail of the novel as well as in the grand theme. She is such an important novelist of our times.

I suspect that many of you will not have heard of Jo Sinclair. In spite of writing two very important novels, each well known in its time, she never was able to support herself entirely as a writer. Her real names is Ruth Seid, so why does she choose to write under the name Jo Sinclair? You guessed it. Even as late as the fifties, several of the magazines that she publishes in do not even consider material submitted by women authors. And were it not for The Feminist Press, which literally resurrected Sinclair’s work in 1985 (as it has so many wonderful women writers), this important novel would not be available to us today. This press is also responsible for reissuing Paule Marshall’s novel, tough she has written so much since that we can hope that her later successes would have led to a reassessment of her earlier work.

At any rate, it has been a rewarding though sometimes painful and heart-rending experience to reread these three fine novels. I recommend them to you.

Monday, April 01, 2002

The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi

I want to talk to you this morning about yet another amazing debut novel. This one, by Trezza Azzopardi, is entitled The Hiding Place. I’m one of those fools who very often does judge a book by its cover and who buys because of flashy titles or irresistible jacket covers. Of course, I also take a quick look at the back to see who has reviewed the book and at least a bit of what they have said without risking the story-line. I am also almost irresistably drawn to what are called coming of age novels, although the truth is that many such novels are pretty bleak and almost unremittingly sad. All of the above is true of The Hiding Place; it had an irresistible cover and enough information on the front and back to convince me that the story would be an important one.

One reviewer says of the characters in the book that they are drawn so sharply that they bite. Just so. This is the story of a family of five girls, their desperate mother and their almost casually cruel and self-absorbed father. The entire story is told through the eyes of the youngest girl, Dolores, Dol for short. It begins a bit unconvincingly, since Dol is only about two years old, and yet telling us the story of her family as if she remembers it quite clearly. However, the patient reader will find out soon enough that this is a kind of collage, quite obviously put together by a much older Dol who is looking back, trying somehow to make sense of an impoverished and brutal childhood.

The story is about Maltese immigrants in Wales living in a section of town that is crumbling, half deserted. We know very little of either the mother or father except by way of reports from Dol, and her view is a kaleidoscopic one dancing from daughter to daughter. The girls range in age from the very young Dol to pretty girls in their early teens. What we do know about the father, Frankie, is that he cares for little other than gambling, and his constant dream is one of escape—escape back to Malta (now a romantic dream in his mind), or at least back to the sea and a life without children, without obligations. Such seems to be the dream of many of the poor Maltese men, while the dreams of the women who bear their children are simply of enough food to put on the table and of children who may someday be able to carve out lives not so desperately determined by the day to day struggle for food and shelter.

Frankie is worse than a non-provider; he manages to lose whatever he has earned, and too often to lose as well the meager scraps that his wife has managed to scrape together and to hide away for rent or food for the next day or two. No wonder the mother, Mary, is on the edge of sanity. The children are regarded by the locals as half-breeds, but despite their extreme poverty, at least some of the girls are pretty, and Frankie manages to gamble away even his daughters. The oldest he literally sells to another Maltese immigrant who has been luckier (and more ruthless) than he. He is able to excuse that transaction by believing that the man he sells his daughter to is really the girl’s father, thus he can punish his wife while buying himself out of his gambling debts. The next oldest daughter, Celesta, is desired by a man three times her age, and again Frankie rather casually arranges a marriage, and if it sickens him do to so, it is more because he resents adding to the possessions of the old man than out of real concern for his daughter.

Although we, as readers, do not see a great deal of the violence Frankie rains down on his wife and daughters, it is obvious enough that he rules by threats and physical force. In one instance we know that Mary, the wife, is in an upstairs bedroom, so battered that Frankie has had to call in the doctor.
My father shoots his eyes at me—terrible, warning looks that make me want to hide away—as if he’s guessed what I’m thinking about. He’s nervous about the doctor coming; he thinks he’ll be found out. I won’t tell—none of us will, not even Fran.
Fran, who is about ten, is about to be sent to a Home, because her reaction to her chaotic home life and the veil of violence hanging over it is to take some sort of control over her world, so uncontrollable at home. She finds her measure of control by burning down the abandoned buildings in her neighborhood.

I find myself telling you too much of the story, because I don’t know how else to describe or recommend to you this novel. Perhaps I am warning you at the same time that I recommend this book to you. In many ways, the experience of reading this novel is horrible. In fact one of my most trusted reader friends passed the book along to me because she simply had no desire to go on reading it. Her words, “I don’t like the father; I can’t quite believe the story. It’s sad and awful and I don’t know why I’m reading it.” Of course, we are not supposed to like the father and the lives of the girls and the mother are just what they seem to be, unbearable. So why write the book and why should we read it? I’m not sure I can answer either question convincingly. My deep sense is that the book was written as autobiography or very, very closely witnessed lives. Poverty and violence next of kin; poverty and madness are often intertwined; poverty and unhappiness are constant companions. We already know all of these things. Do we need to be reminded again? Yes, and especially if the person telling us has the skill and insight of Azzopardi.

This wonderful/awful little book never preaches; it simply describes, using time-warp as a tool for showing us whole lives while still restricting almost all of the told story to a few months, at most a year or two. Only at the very end do we get some clues as to how these emotionally and physically battered children turn out. And if there is any part of the book that seems a bit too neat, a bit out of synch, it is this last section. I suspect the author had to include this last part as her own way of making sense of what came before.

So, on a day when my friends in the Old Mole collective are talking of visions of the future, I am reviewing this bleak tale of the present and past. My only excuse is that I want always to talk to you of what I am reading now. I could have talked today of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, or of some other moderately hopeful view of the future. Instead, I have chosen to talk of this sad tale. I have to leave it to you as a reader to decide whether insights gained from reading it sufficiently compensate for the sadness of the story. Read it when you feel strong and when you can give it the concentrated reading it needs and deserves.

Tuesday, February 05, 2002

White Oleander by Janet Fitch

I want to talk to you this morning about a beautiful but also very disturbing book. The title of the book is White Oleander, and its author is Janet Fitch. The book is disturbing because it is about a young girl who goes through a series of foster homes and is exposed to the horrors and dangers of the world so early; she is denied any sort of genuine childhood, denied any sort of home. But in spite of how awful her various situations are, the writing is beautiful beyond description. I know almost nothing about this writer, but I suspect that she must either be a painter herself or that she has lived around someone who painted as a way to talk back to the world. The painterly quality of the writing is at times so achingly beautiful that the reader almost forgets the bleakness of the situations being described. Indeed, some of my reader friends found the language too beautiful, insisting that the author’s absorption with word pictures, her intensely careful painting of words on paper interfered with the stark realities being described, even with the covert message of the book. Perhaps they are right in their criticisms, but for me, a hopelessly inept artist who is mesmerized by those who can capture the world in images, this is simply beautiful writing.

This is, like so many books that capture my attention, a first novel. The young Danish girl described in it is the daughter of a talented and beautiful but icy and self absorbed mother who prefers poetry and music to men and who dismisses all of her daughter’s queries about the sperm donor responsible for her birth. When she asks about her father, she is told that she has no father, that fathers are irrelevant. The reader meets this young girl, Astrid, when she is twelve years old, living with her mother, Ingrid, in southern California. The Santa Anas are blowing, furnace like, bringing in the thick smell of the poisonous oleanders. Ingrid, the mother, seems to have it right; men are worse than unnecessary; Astrid and she can do very well without them. The young girl loves to look at her white-blond and beautiful mother, to be included in her powerful aura, to hear her poetry, hear her tell of the many places in the world they have lived. But when one of the men who chases after Ingrid will not be shrugged off, continues to pursue, to demand to be noticed, Ingrid finally relents, and for a short time, Astrid has a man, a sort of father in her life, and sees her mother soften some, sees her melt, give in.

I don’t intend to tell you much about the plot in this complex and intricate novel, indeed I can’t betray the ending, for I have not yet quite finished it. But I am not giving away much in telling you that this brief period of happiness, a mom, a surrogate dad, and happy child does not last long. Just as Ingrid has always warned her, men are not to be trusted, not to be indulged, not to be counted on or lived with. The charming Barry who has melted the ice queen has no inkling of just what he has found, what he has uncovered. When he tries to leave this woman behind (as he has done with all the women he has ever known), he discovers that he has unwittingly made a lifetime commitment.

Without saying too much, let me say that Ingrid is soon in prison and Astrid is in the first of many foster placements. The series of events and placements that follow are almost incredibly awful. Indeed, if we did not know from reading the news that just such horrors actually occur, we would not find the series of events credible. I found myself supposing that this must be an autobiographical novel. Why would anyone bother to fabricate such an awful train of events? In fact, I began to think that I could not forgive the author if the book were not, for the most part, autobiographical. I could understand her having to tell her own story, but I could not understand why she would construct it simply as a way of writing a story.

With the bit of research I have done, it appears that the novel is not autobiographical, but it is equally obvious that the writer knows a lot about foster homes and about what so often happens to children once they become wards of the state. She is not telling us this story just for kicks. I have no way of knowing what instigated the author’s search into abandoned children, but it is obvious that once she began, she felt she had to tell us what she uncovered. I suspect that the life described as Astrid’s is, in fact, pieced together from the real lived-lives of several different children. But neither is this simply a fictionalized expose of what gets called children services (though it certainly is intended at least in part as a wake-up call, a call to action). The twelve year old child whom we meet in the opening pages of the novel and follow through her tortured life in junior high and then high school has much to tell us of the world. Almost as beautiful as her imprisoned mother, Astrid comes to see what a curse her beauty is in a world controlled by men. In one confrontation with a young boy in a detention center, who, like Astrid, cannot help but express his relationship with the world in the form of visual art, the boy tries to tell her how beautiful she is. When she explains that what he sees as her beauty hurts her more than it helps her, he at first refuses to understand. Thinking he has been cursed always with ugliness (though really it is only the bad skin of adolescence), he continues to insist that Astrid secretly must welcome her beauty. Let me have Astrid speak for herself.
“It doesn’t mean anything. Only to other people.”

“You say that like it’s nothing.”

“It is.” What was beauty unless you intended to use it, like a hammer, or a key? It was just something for other people to use and admire, or envy, or despise. To nail their dreams onto like a picture hanger on a blank wall. And so many girls saying, use me, dream me.

“You’ve never been ugly.” replies the boy, and talks of how hurtful it is to be rejected, to never be touched or allowed to touch. As if to make his point, he asks Astrid if she would allow him to touch. Her reply:

“I don’t let anyone touch me.”

“Why not?”

Why not? Because I was tired of men. Hanging in doorways, standing too close, their smell of beer or fifteen-year-old whisky ... men who made you love them and then changed their minds. Forests of boys, their ragged shrubs full of eyes following you, grabbing your breasts, waving their money, eyes already knocking you down, taking what they felt was theirs.
I wouldn’t want potential readers to think that this book is unremittingly sad or bitter. In fact, the beauty of the description is almost overwhelming, and there are moments of ease, even of happiness for this girl. There are a few women who actually see her, who care about her rather than simply using her for their own gains. And somehow even the sad and awful parts seem to instruct.

All in all, this is a good book, maybe even a great one. It is neither short nor easy to read. Read it when you are strong and when you have time.