Monday, December 10, 2007

Regeneration by Pat Barker

I think I am a reader who is so reluctant as to be almost unable to read novels that contain violence. Unless it seems to me obvious that I am learning something very important in reading descriptions of violence or that a novel contains a clear and well articulated denunciation of violence, my tendency is simply to avoid it. Pat Barker’s superb little novel about World War I, Regeneration, leaves no doubt that there is much to be learned simply by reading it.

I stumbled onto Barker a few months ago by reading a novel of hers entitled The Man Who Wasn’t There and realized at once, simply from the power of the writing, that this was a novelist I needed to gobble up. Probably lucky for me that I started with this less shocking, less sad novel, because when I realized that The Regeneration Trilogy was all about this grisly war, I almost decided not to read any of the three. Fortunately, I swallowed my reluctance and picked up the first of the three books. (Incidentally, she won the Booker prize for the last book in the trilogy, The Ghost Road, and I intend to read that and the intervening volume as well.)

This novel is superbly researched, and it begins with a declaration made by a soldier in that war, a man by the name of Siegfried Sassoon. I am going to read to you all of that declaration, since virtually all of the novel is about events that occurred before and after this declaration.

A Soldier’s Declaration

I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.

I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the suffering of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.

I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.
S. Sassoon
July 1917

There was at this time considerable resistance to the war mounting in England and against the government in power, so much, in fact, that the authorities were reluctant to simply court martial Sassoon for cowardice or desertion (although plenty of other soldiers had been silenced via court martial). Instead, a medical board concluded that Sassoon must be suffering from war-related neurosis and he was sent to a Craiglockhart, a military hospital that treated soldiers who were suffering from a wide variety of psychological illnesses due to the stresses of incredibly ugly trench war-fare.

I think we, especially we in the U.S., tend to get our views of World War I from Hollywood war movies that glorify both the war and the reasons for which it was fought. If nothing else, reading this novel ought to shock us out of any romantic notions about the brutality of that war. Simply reading the number of casualties is sobering to say the least; 102,000 killed in one month in 1917, and literally millions who lived in trenches in conditions that are, at least to me, unimaginable. Protest against the war, especially any hint of protest from men still in military service, was greeted with swift punishment and silencing.

But quite apart from informing the reader about the realities of this war and the conditions the men at the front endured, this novel is a wonderful story about relationships between men. Again relying on historical fact, Barker takes us through a few months in the life of W.H.R. Rivers, an army psychologist and his unusually humane methods of treatment for men suffering from horrible events and the unbearable strains of trench warfare. The task facing Rivers is to rehabilitate and send back to the front the men who are sent to him for treatment. And while his voice on the medical boards is a very powerful one, allowing him to disqualify those whom he thinks are simply unfit (physically or mentally) to return to active duty, he sees it as his duty to send back to the front as many men as he can. However, while he is dealing with Sassoon, he comes to doubt more and more his own role as doctor, and indeed, comes closer and closer to the position declared by Sassoon.

Rivers eschews the electric shock treatments that are coming into vogue at the time and used to shock, jolt, those suffering from psychosomatic paralysis, uncontrollable stammering, loss of voice, and a host of other conditions back into so-called normalcy. Instead, he uses a combination of Freudian psychoanalytic methods and treatments he discovers for himself during the course of his contacts with these poor, trench-weary men. He is especially adept in helping soldiers who are unable to recall battlefield experiences (except in their recurring and horrible nightmares) simply by urging them to remember as much as they can during their days. “Rivers’s treatment sometimes consisted simply of encouraging the patient to abandon his hopeless attempt to forget, and advising him instead to spend part of each day remembering. Neither brooding on the experience, nor trying to pretend it had never happened.”

I doubt that I have to mention that the contents of this book are more than relevant to current events and to the alleged war of liberation now being fought by young men and women. I had not realized that there had been such suppression of dissent in England during World War I, but it really should have come as no surprise. Barker reminds us that, “A society that devours its own young deserves no automatic or unquestioning allegiance.” Indeed, what is required is constant and total questioning and soul-searching—action rather than complacence.

Although (or should I say because) this novel was written by a woman, it explores with great insight and tenderness the relationships between men. While it is often very sad, very hard to read, it is beautifully written. I have barely scratched the surface of the many layers of this extraordinary novel. I hope I have said enough to get you to pick it up, even you readers who, like me, hate war novels. I’m quite sure if you pick it up, you won’t put it down until it is finished.

Monday, November 12, 2007

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Once in a great while, a writer comes along who remembers to focus on small things, perhaps single events, and work outward to reveal a life, a time, a country. Ian McEwan is just such a writer. While most of you will know him because of his very ambitious World War I novel, Atonement, I think he is much more comfortable when he takes on less, restricts his focus, as he did in Saturday, an entire novel ostensibly covering just one day in the life of a British surgeon. In his newest novel, On Chesil Beach, he begins and ends with a single night—a wedding night for two young people who grew up in the forties and fifties.
They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy.
And now, in telling us who these two young people are and how they came to be here, at a hotel on this beach, McEwan is also able to tell us so much about the times, the anticipations and expectations. Edward and Florence are poised here, ready to begin their new life together, free at last. They had met in London in 1958, when “The Pill was a rumor in the newspapers, a ridiculous promise, another of those tall tales about America.” He is from a poor, small town, his father a principal in the local school, his mother permanently disabled by a freak railway accident (although neither he nor his siblings are aware of just what happenstance made their mother so different from the other mothers). Florence is from a more prosperous household, her father owns a small business and her mother is a professor. Both Edward and Florence perhaps more educated than most young people around them, but also profoundly naïve.

Florence supposes that it only she who is so innocent, so naïve, and that somehow Edward, certainly more worldly than she, will make the magic happen when the time comes. Edward, who through their relatively long courtship has come to understand to some extent Florence’s reluctance in matters sexual, does not correct his fiancé’s misconception regarding his worldly wisdom, and for his part, misreads her reluctance bordering on repulsion as simply sexual shyness, a veneer covering a deeper earthy sexuality.
He felt trapped between the pressure of his excitement and the burden of his ignorance. Beyond the films, the dirty jokes and the wild anecdotes, most of what he knew about women was derived from Florence herself.
This may sound like the setting for a romantic comedy, and certainly this little novel is not without humor. But it is not a comedy; it is as serious in its way as any book I have read in the past year. McEwan is so keenly aware of just how each of our histories hangs on a thread, dependent on a string of contingencies, of possibilities, and that the course of our lives is as liable to depend on what we don’t do, some crucial step not taken, as on any of our actions. How can they have let this ignorance continue for so long? Why don’t they talk to one another of their fears, their anxieties? Why doesn’t Florence seek counsel from someone, anyone?
There was no one she could have talked to. Ruth, her sister, was too young, and her mother, perfectly wonderful in her way, was too intellectual, too brittle, an old-fashioned bluestocking. Whenever she confronted an intimate problem, she tended to adopt the public manner of the lecture hall, and use longer and longer words, and make references to books she thought everyone should have read. Only when the matter was safely bundled up in this way might she sometimes relax into kindliness, though that was rare, and even then you had no idea what advice you receiving. Florence had some terrific friends from school and music college who posed the opposite problem: they adored intimate talk and reveled in each other’s problems. They all knew each other, and were too eager with their phone calls and letters. She could not trust them with a secret, nor did she blame them, for she was part of the group. She would not have trusted herself. She was alone with a problem she did not know how to begin to address, and all she had in the way of wisdom was a paperback guide. On its garish red covers were portrayed two smiling bug-eyed matchstick figures holding hands, drawn clumsily in white chalk, as though by an innocent child.
And thus they each approach this day, excited by the prospects for their future lives together, the children they might have, the home they will make together. Florence is very brave in her own ways; a skillful violinist, she has already formed a quartet that shows promise for a successful future. And Edward has been a diligent and successful student, intensely interested in history, and while his academic success has not been linked to any specific future occupation, his father-in-law seems anxious to take him into the business. They seem poised, ready to launch into this new life.
For over a year, Edward had been mesmerized by the prospect that on the evening of a given date in July the most sensitive portion of himself would reside, however briefly, within a naturally formed cavity inside this cheerful, pretty, formidably intelligent woman. How this was to be achieved without absurdity, or disappointment, troubled him. His specific worry, based on one unfortunate experience, was of overexcitement, of what he had heard someone describe as ‘arriving too soon.’ The matter was rarely out of his thoughts, but though this fear of failure was great, his eagerness—for rapture, for resolution—was far greater.

Florence’s anxieties were more serious, and there were moments during the journey from Oxford when she thought she was about to draw on all her courage to speak her mind. But what troubled her was unutterable, and she could barely frame it for herself. Where he merely suffered conventional first-night nerves, she experienced a visceral dread, a helpless disgust as palpable as seasickness.
At least this is not a case of an arranged marriage; neither has any doubts about having chosen the wrong person. While Edward is looking forward to a more physical relationship, it cannot be said that his interest in Florence is merely, or even mainly, sexual. And for her part,
… she loved Edward, not with the hot, moist passion she had read about, but warmly, deeply, sometimes like a daughter, sometimes almost maternally. She loved cuddling him, and having his enormous arm around her shoulders, and being kissed by him, though she disliked his tongue in her mouth and had wordlessly made this clear. She thought he was original, unlike anyone she had ever met.
Of course, I am not about to reveal the course of their wedding night, nor can I (without giving away too much of the plot) read to you some of the stirring concluding remarks by the author on just how much contingency rules our lives. But I can tell you that I find McEwan to be a genius of the heart. In my life as a reader, it has been almost only women writers who have wowed me with their emotional intelligence, their knowledge of relationships and the inner life. McEwan is one of a handful of exceptions to the rule. This is a wonderful little novel that you will read quickly, and if you are like me, will come away thinking you have learned something important about life and about communication.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Making it Up by Penelope Lively

So much in our lives seems to be chancy and contingent; call it choice, or if that word seems too fraught, call it possibility, but such important matters in our lives seem to hinge on chance. The blind-date that ended in marriage, the canceled vacation that may well have led to a new and exciting relationship, the decision to go to this college or that, take this job or that, getting sick at just the right or wrong time. Penelope Lively, who I believe thinks about time and chance and contingency more deeply than any other writer alive, has written a book about directions her life might have taken but did not, realizing that she is more a leaf in the wind than captain of a ship.

In her words:
Somehow, choice and contingency have landed you where you are, as the person that you are, and the whole process seems so precarious that you look back at those climactic moments when things might have gone differently, when life might have spun off in some other direction, and wonder at this apparently arbitrary outcome.
Not surprising that this author, so interested in history, in archeology and paleontology, should write a book at the end of her long career that looks back on the lives she might have lived. She has already announced that she has written her last novel, and this 2005 book that she calls anti-memoir may be one of her last books of any kind. She calls it, appropriately, Making It Up. In my view, Lively is one of the very best writers of the last half century, and one of my favorites of all time. When Lilly Tomlin’s little-girl-in-the-rocker character, Edith Ann, is accused of making things up, she replies in a huff that she doesn’t make things up, because making things up is lying, and she doesn’t lie. But, she adds with a mischievous glint, you can make up the truth if you know how. Lively, like all of the great writers of fiction, knows how to make up the truth, and she knows also that one’s own lived life provides much of substance for that made up truth.

This book has some striking similarities to the memoir of her first dozen years growing up in Egypt, which she titled Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived. But she is quick to deny that it is memoir.
This book is fiction. If anything, it is an anti-memoir. My own life serves as the prompt; I have homed in upon the rocks, the rapids, the whirlpools, and written the alternative stories. It is a form of confabulation. That word has a precise meaning in psychiatric terminology, it refers to the creation of imaginary remembered experiences which replace the gaps left by disorders of the memory. My memory is not yet disordered; this exercise in confabulation is a piece of fictional license.
The pieces in this book take the form of short stories, the first is about a love-affair that might have been but was not. It is called “Mozambique Channel,” and has as its starting point a time when Lively, her mother, and her nanny were forced to flee Egypt just before the Battle of Alamein. In the space of fifty pages, Lively is able to tell us a lot about the class system that existed not only between rich Europeans and the people native to the lands they exploited economically, but between these Europeans and the servants they brought along with them. But all of this occurs in the background as she tells us a touching love story, one so unlike the over-sexed and overdone fictions of Hollywood.

Next, in a story titled “Albert Hall,” she describes a child that might have been hers, would have been hers had circumstances been ever so slightly altered. This story is set in the early fifties, “In those pre-pill days, girls diced with death. The back street abortionists were busy, along with others trading behind a respectable Harley Street nameplate. The single mother was not a recognized social category then, accepted and inviting sympathy.” The social commentary Lively provides in the stories, and in the longish prefaces and postscripts to the stories gives the reader a very clear sense of where she stands as social and political critic.

Of course, I don’t intend to list and describe each story in this fascinating collection. But I will tell you that one story has to do with a plane-wreck, a plane that Lively, herself, might well have been on but was not. In another she talks not simply about how contingency operates in an individual life, but how it seems to have operated on an evolutionary level. She reminds us of all the species that once existed but now do not, and of how unlikely (in so many ways) it was that homo sapiens should come to occupy the place on the planet that they now do. It seems, looking back, that the fact she is not an archeologist or historian but a writer is, itself, a consequence of so many ‘chance’ occurrences. So many lives that might have been lived but were not. “A faithful exercise in confabulation would proliferate like an evolutionary tree. I should write not one book but hundreds; I should pursue each idiosyncratic path.”

The depth of her intellect as well as her mastery of words (and her lack of embarrassment at using the language maximally) endear her to me. I also think that she has a great insights into the connections between reading and writing, and that all aspiring writers would do well to read her. I often tell my students that their real educations will begin after university, when they have been freed from the cycle of courses and exams and required writing. College may prepare them for that education, but is no substitute for it. Lively’s experiences and advice seem akin to mine.
You write out of experience, and a large part of that experience is the life of the spirit; reading is the liberation into the minds of others. When I was a child, reading released me from my own prosaic world into fabulous antiquity, by way of Andrew Lang’s Tales of Troy and Greece; when I was a housebound young mother, I began to read history all over again, but differently, freed from the constraints of a degree course, and I discovered also Henry James, and Ivy Comton-Burnett, and Evelyn Waugh, and Henry Green, and William Golding, and so many others—and became fascinated by the possibilities of fiction. It seems to me that writing is an extension of reading—a step that not every obsessive reader is impelled to take, but, for those who do so, one that springs from serendipitous reading. Books beget books.
One of Lively’s stories is about a bookseller who spends his life in and surrounded by books; she remarks, “… a life in books seems an attractive proposition.” Yes, indeed, and if it is chance that led Lively to be the reader-writer that she is, we are the beneficiaries of that accident. Let me close with a final quote from the story about the bookseller.
A house that contains books has concealed power. Many homes are bookless, or virtually so, as any house-hunter discovers. And then suddenly there is a place that is loaded—shelf upon shelf of the things—and the mysterious charge is felt. This house has ballast; never mind the content, it is the weight that counts—all that solid, silent reference to other matters, to wider concerns, to a world beyond these walls. There is a presence here—confident, impregnable.

Monday, October 01, 2007

As Hot As It Was You Ought To Thank Me by Nancy Kincaid

A good reader friend of mine remarked to me once that I must read a lot of books, given that I review one or two a month, and supposing that I probably select from many. I was vague in my reply, but the truth is that though I start many books, maybe even dozens a month, I finish only a few of them. I almost never bother to stick with books anymore unless they hit me in the first hundred pages or so; there are just too many good books out there to use up my reading time on questionable ones. The book I am going to talk to you about today is one of the exceptions. Its title is As Hot As It Was You Ought To Thank Me, and although it starts rather charmingly, it seemed almost too cute to me, too much like a young adults’ novel, and the fact that some reviewers compared it to Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird only increased my doubts. I loved To Kill A Mockingbird when it came out in the early sixties, but it is not a book that would warrant a sequel. However an author whom I much admire, Lee Smith, called the book compulsively readable, so after initially putting it aside, I decided to give it the few dozen more pages I usually would not. I’m glad I did.

The story is told through the eyes of a young girl, and one who seems naïve even for her age, but the further one gets into the novel, the more surprising the events and the more adult the themes. The story is set in rural Florida, and though we are never really told, it would seem to be about the fifties or early sixties. Kincaid is exceptionally good at staying in voice, and even when the insights seem a bit too precocious for such a young girl, they are delivered in a way that allows the reader to believe that the girl, herself, is unaware of the depth of the messages she is conveying. There is also a pleasing mixture of suspense and intrigue that keeps the book moving along, and events that I find quite surprising for such a small town.

The young girl’s name is Berry, and it is really her story. The descriptions of the other children, of their games, their interpretations of events, gives the book its shape, its content. The only adult character who is well developed is that of Berry’s mother, and that, too, is primarily through Berry’s eyes. Berry’s father, the stalwart and admired principal of the local school, remains a kind of shadow figure throughout, the suggestion being that the reader knows him about as well as Berry herself knows him, about as well as adult men let themselves be known.

This is not the sort of book where I can find particular quotes that sum up the story or the message it is meant to convey. There are no profound asides about the economics of small towns, no carefully constructed critiques about the smothering effects of religion in such places. But that is not to say that one does not sense a message in the book deeper than the surface events described. I find myself wanting to read other books by this author: I believe that she understands children and the culture of childhood in ways that I don’t and never will. I sense that she is gently trying to teach me.

Let me read one quote from the book that I hope will give you a flavor for the charm of the lead character, and also for the deceptively simple style of the writing.

Boys had all their lives to get used to penises. But girls—we had to spend years waiting for breasts, dreading them or longing for them. They were more interesting to me than any other body part. I didn’t know if they were beautiful or hideous. I didn’t know if I would be comforted by having them—or ashamed. I had never seen any breasts except Mother’s once, when she was getting into her bathing suit at Cherry Lake. She mostly ignored them. But in her bathing suit there they were, small, pointed and sharp, pressed into her suit like a couple of innocent prisoners under false arrest waiting to make their escape. I thought of them like things that wanted to be set free—like they had their own little brains or something, like they dreamed dreams.
Berry watches her mother very closely, and she watches the mothers of her friends as well. She watches what happens to, what is said about the older girls who are considered beautiful, as well as to the allegedly humorous asides about those not so pretty. She understands that all of this has a lot to tell her about her own future, and she is a quick study.

During the course of the novel there is a huge storm that changes the lives of the people in drastic ways, flattening the school, damaging houses and churches, and sometime during that storm, Berry’s glasses are dislodged, stepped on, and crushed. But she finds her not being able to see clearly as much a blessing as a curse. Not only does she look better without her glasses, but the world looks better too. Not so sharp, not so distinct, not so ugly. Perhaps she is a girl who sees too much, but we as readers are lucky to be able to see along with her.

This is not a great book, but it is a good one, and very pleasing to read. I think once you get really into it, you will be unable to put it down, and glad you didn’t.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Midnight at the Dragon Café by Judy Fong Bates

Imagine, if you can, what it would be like to find yourself in a new country, unable to speak the language, unable in some deep sense to ever be at home, and yet to realize at the same time that what was your home is now closed off to you forever. This is just the condition that six year old Su-Jen and her mother find themselves in when they immigrate to a small Canadian town in 1957. Su-Jen’s father has lived in Canada most of his adult life, having arrived before the second World War to do whatever work the lo fons (white ghost people) would not do, and send money back home to his family in China. Unable to return to China or to get his family out when the Japanese invade China, he returns home after the war just long enough to marry for a second time, this time to a woman who has lost her husband in the war, both of them with children from their previous marriages. The above description is just a sketch of the complicated circumstances and family tangles described in Judy Fong Bates' novel, Midnight at the Dragon Café.

In many ways this book is very plainly, even simply written. I have become so spoiled by the intricate word-weaving of so many wonderful writers that I almost skipped over this little book after giving it the rather cursory fifty to a hundred page trial I give to most books that do not immediately grab my attention. I had read other books about Chinese immigrants in both Canada and the U.S.; I understood something about how difficult it would be to be a child suspended between two worlds, expected to succeed in a new language, a new world, expected to accommodate, even to be assimilated into the new culture, and yet also expected to remain true to the values of another time and place. Maxine Hong Kingston in Woman Warrior had given me some sense of how it would be to live in that tension between two worlds, expected to belong to both. But what Fong Bates does in this novel is to bring the reader closer to an understanding of what it must have been like for the parents of such children to, in a real sense, sacrifice their own lives in order to make a new life possible for their children.

Even while in China, Su-Jen’s mother marries for a second time to a much, much older husband not out of love nor even out of a need for companionship, but in order to provide for her son from a previous marriage. She then convinces her new husband that he must return to Canada while he still can when the new Communist government begins to make it more and more difficult for citizens to immigrate, deciding not to tell him about his child she is carrying, fearing that he will then refuse to leave. Finally, almost seven years later, she follows him. This move, too, not for herself, but for her daughter, Su-Jen. Had the two remained in Toronto, with family who had immigrated before her, at least there would have been a sizable community of Chinese with whom the mother could communicate, talk with about home, commiserate with about the hateful lo fans, but instead she is immediately whisked away to a tiny town, Irvine, fifty miles outside Toronto where the only other Chinese people are her husband and his brother who have bought and now run the café. Su-Jen will go to school in Canada, will learn the language quickly. As she says, “I played, thought, and dreamed in the language of the lo fans.” But her mother insists that she is too old to learn a new language. “Whenever she talked about happy times, they were during her childhood in that distant land.”

In the café, they make food for white people that they, themselves, would never eat—not only the egg rolls and bland chow meins and other so-called Chinese food, but French-fries and club sandwiches, big slabs of beef and mashed potatoes. And only after all the customers leave, after they close for the night, do they prepare for themselves the food that their customers never see.

But while her mother protects her from the insults and bullying of the sei gew doys (dead ghost kids), exhorts her to stay away from the poison food that they eat and the money they waste on worthless toys, nevertheless everyone in her family realizes that it is the lo fans who have the money and the power.

The adults in my family were always comparing Chinese people to lo fons. While we made fun of them, we all knew how powerful they were; they were the ones who lived in houses with backyards and drove cars. They were the important people in town, the teachers, the policeman, and the doctors.
And although in one breath her mother would show her contempt for the ghost children, she could in the next say, “Su-Jen, she is almost a hoo sung, a Canadian-born. She speaks like she was born here and she reads many thick books.”

Difficult, indeed, to be caught between two worlds, admired because of her success among the lo fans, and yet criticized for abandoning the values of her own people. But worse for her mother who exclaims over and over, “I’d be better off in China fighting for my life, here I just die a slow death.” Although still a beautiful and relatively young woman, in this small town her mother is simply the Chink’s wife, and if her beauty is ever noticed or remarked on, it is only by drunk lo fans who see her as a sexual object. Because of her mastery of English, Su-Jen sees and hears what her parents do not, hears her father called Charley, and burns with shame at the wide smile he gives in response.

When I was a child living in Irvine, I had wanted so much to have what other children had: piano lessons, to be sent to camp, to be taken on a holiday, all things that cost money. I thought my parents gave me so little. It has taken many years for me to realize how wrong I was, to understand the depth of their sacrifices.

At the time I was blind to how they tried to protect me in what must have been for them an alien world ... For my mother the act of living here was in itself an act of love, my mother had given up her own life out of love for me ....
When Su-Jen, at about twelve or thirteen, asks her father how he can stand the daily insults from his customers, the grinding hard work that never seems to get them ahead, his response is simple, “I tell myself that this is not my home. They are not my people.”

I have not yet mentioned that besides the difficulties for this family living always as strangers in a strange land, there were also secrets—secrets that Su-Jen could tell to no one, not even her best friends. I don’t intend to tell you those secrets; you must read the book to discover them, but the secrets add another layer of meaning to this novel, and to the bitterness her parents, especially her mother, had to swallow daily.

To the people in Irvine, we must have seemed the perfect immigrant family. We were polite, hard-working, unthreatening, and we kept to ourselves. As far as the townsfolk were concerned, there was nothing about us that would upset the moral and social order that presided over them. Even when things started to go wrong, we blended so seamlessly into their everyday life, we remained invisible.
You must read the book in order to discover the secret. Once I gave this story a chance, allowed the plain language to accomplish its understated ends, I literally raced through the second half of the book. I’m glad I stayed with it; I think you will feel the same if you read it.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Pearl by Mary Gordon

Humanity is outraged in me and with me. We must not dissimulate nor try to forget this indignation which is one of the most passionate forms of love.” This is Mary Gordon, quoting George Sand, and talking to all of us from her perch at the end of the 20th century about the strange and frightening world she finds herself in. Mary Gordon is always an incredible writer, but at least for this reader, the content of her novels is uneven, sometimes profound, sometimes merely heart-wrenching, but always with close attention to human relationships and questions of how we ought to live. Gordon’s latest novel, Pearl, is one of her great ones. If there are no answers in it, at least there is a long, agonizing list of questions about where we are and where we are to go from here.

This novel begins with Pearl, a young American-Cambodian woman just over twenty who has chained herself to the American Embassy in Ireland, careful to have starved herself almost to death before setting the cuffs and chains in place, and knowing precisely how long the combination of dehydration and starvation will take to finish off the bit of life left in her.
When you have decided you will die—which is a different thing from knowing that you want to die and different, too, from the idea that you no longer want to live—when you’ve come to that point, nothing is difficult. You are in love with your own lightness. You grow radiant to yourself. Transparent. You can take in anything and nothing can be taken from you.

This is who I am.
But this is really only the backdrop, the hook the author uses to draw us into her examination of the last seventy-five years or so. Once she has told us about Pearl, about just how close to death she is, she leaves Pearl there, chained and half delirious, and begins to fill us in on the history that has brought Pearl to this place at this time. And not just the history of Pearl, the daughter of Maria, whose Jewish father converted to Catholicism and began a successful business selling religious relics, but also of Joseph, whose father left one afternoon to buy cigarettes and never came back—leaving behind the unlovely, Polish immigrant girl Marie who had been his ticket out of Poland via an arranged marriage. Of course he also leaves behind his two year old son, another encumbrance he no longer needs, and thus Joseph’s mother becomes servant and housekeeper to the relatively well off Seymour Meyers, whose wife has died suddenly leaving him to care for Maria. Joseph and Maria grow up together, almost brother and sister, and due to the generosity of Seymour, even go off to university together to lead quite different lives, bound by their pasts, and even more by their mutual love of Pearl.

In fact, this is an incredibly complex novel, in terms of both characters and events. I see the novel as nothing short of Gordon’s almost frantic attempt to remind us of the bloody wars of her own lifetime—of Viet Nam and Cambodia, of Ireland, of the lingering horrors of World War II. As I read this novel, I could not help but be reminded of Carol Shield’s final novel before her death, Unless, in which she has a young girl resign herself to a life on a street-corner of Toronto, sitting speechless, day after day, a sign around her neck with a single word emblazoned on it, GOODNESS. In that novel, too, the frantic mother and father try so desperately to understand their daughter’s act, wanting so badly to save her, to understand what could have brought her to such desperate resignation. I am convinced that both Shields and Gordon are using the symbolic acts of the two girls to try not only to shout a warning, but to make some sense out of where we are and what we might do to change the world we find ourselves in. I can’t remember which feminist it was who responded to Kate Chopin’s novel, Awakening, in which the apparently well-off woman and mother ends by walking into the sea by saying, “No Kate, the answer is not walking into the sea.” Indeed not, but then what is one to do?

In the novel I am discussing today, Gordon uses a technique often condemned by critics, that of an omniscient author, a narrator who sits on the sidelines, interrupting the stories of the various characters to tell the reader what is really going on, to fill in on all that the characters don’t tell us, or don’t know, or don’t want to remember. I think the technique works very well here. I find myself much more interested in Gordon’s take on the world than on the little story she is telling, and if the story of Pearl is just a hook the author uses to reel us into her commentary, that is fine with me; I can use her wisdom, her insights, her skillful questioning. I don’t mind the hook.

Besides the political reminders Gordon gives us, of what happened in Cambodia after the U.S. left Viet Nam, of the bombings and madness in Ireland and England over the past twenty years, the ghettos on fire in this country, she also has so much to tell us about religious orthodoxy, about the phenomenology of religious life. At one point the omniscient narrator remarks, “It has occurred to me that sometimes a story is more a tone than a tale.” Yes, and this novel is much more a tone than a tale. The tone is one of oppression, of chains either real or symbolic. We hear of a young girl from a fiercely orthodox Jewish community who is, though reluctantly, allowed to go to college in order to come back to her community as a teacher of music. But while away, she falls in love with the music of Bach, who her family and community see only as the musician loved by the Nazis, and not only does she love Bach’s music, she yearns to perform it, in spite of the fact that her orthodox family thinks it a grievous sin for a woman to sing in front of men. When she finally announces her perversion, insists that she will listen to Bach, will sing publicly, she is disowned; they sit shiva for her, declare her dead to them now as a daughter.

But, of course, Gordon does not reserve her critique of religion to Judaism, she also understands on a deep and lived level the sort of shame that Catholicism can engender. Poor Joseph, after the Buddhist monks in Vietnam set themselves on fire to protest the war there, cannot sleep for nights. He feels the flames, and yet is too frightened to protest, fearful of losing his scholarship. And his misery is intensified by the sexual longing he has for Devorah, the Jewish girl who loves Bach, “he is aroused and full of self-hate for his arousal,” his guilt about his sexual longings merging with his guilt about the war. He and Devorah both live a sort of religious crisis “which is not fashionable to be having in the bloody smoke-filled autumn of 1968. Maritn Luther King has been shot, Robert Kennedy has been shot, Vietnam is on fire, the ghettos are burning; who can be thinking about religious crisis?” But if Gordon is critical of religion, of the needless guilt and shame it induces, she also understands the benefits of religious community. Like Iris Murdoch, another writer-intellectual who finds that morality, itself, requires her to abandon the religion she was raised with, she sees the ways in which it is an abandoning of family, of community values. And she finds herself at times of desperation wondering about the urge to pray. Like Murdoch, Gordon seems finally to think that what we need is prayer without god, “even when you are not a believer, when you’ve staked your life on having left belief, in the name of justice, in the name of truth.”

There is so much in this book; I have only barely scratched the surface. This is Mary Gordon at her very best; if you read nothing else of hers, read this one.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Two Girls, Fat and Thin by Mary Gaitskill

If you have read any of my reviews in the past, you probably realize that once I find an author I like, I tend to read up all of their work pretty quickly, or at least read them until I think I have learned from them what I can. This has definitely been the case with the intriguing and troubling author, Mary Gaitskill. I have talked to you before about her two collections of short stories and her recent novel, Veronica; today I am going to talk about her other novel published in 1991, Two Girls, Fat and Thin.

Some of my reader friends who have taken my advice and read Gaitskill have returned the books to me, often only partially read, asking me again just why I have thought her important enough as an author to recommend her to others. Yes, they have agreed, she is a wonderful user of the language; yes, she does come up with metaphors that are striking, surprising, sometimes beautiful (though in a distorted or twisted way). Yes, she certainly describes well what life must be like for some young, beautiful girls/women who get sucked up into the world of modeling and/or the sex trade. Yes, she provides a window into the lives of young street kids in New York City and San Francisco. But her characters are often so sad, the lives she describes often so bleak and desperate, and with so little suggestion about how things can be made better. Defending her to one such skeptical friend, I pointed out that she tells us so much about how sado-masochism plays into the sexual lives of some people and how our knee-jerk rejections of all forms of S&M are blind and misinformed. Perhaps, he agreed, but she seems to go on and on with her descriptions, and one can only take so much of such stuff or learn from it. What is her point in the continuing descriptions? How is the information she gives us helpful or hopeful?

Certainly, as I read Two Girls, Fat and Thin the above questions returned to me over and over. I almost put the book down early, but could not quite do it. USA Today calls the book “darkly, erotically compelling,” and another commentator talks of Gaitskill’s “brainy lyricism, of acid shot through with grace.” I can’t say I see the book as erotic, but I certainly see the acid, and I certainly see the grace. She is a stunningly honest writer, holding nothing back—not bad language, not rather horrific scenes.

As in Veronica, this is book about a relationship between two women, one who is slim and beautiful, the other fat and intentionally unstylish. The women, at least on the surface, seem to be about as unlike as any two people can be, and yet there is a kind of alliance that forms between them. Both have been sexually molested as children, and their sexuality has formed out of that molestation. The immediate cause of their meeting is a shared interest in a controversial intellectual, Anna Granite, who is quite obviously based on the equally controversial Ayn Rand. Dorothy, the fat and unlovely woman who finds a kind of salvation in the works of Granite, and in fact comes to work for Granite as a kind of secretary, answers an ad placed by the younger, beautiful Justine Shade who is a writer wanting to write an article about the once famous but now almost forgotten Anna Granite.

Once we are introduced to the two main characters, the novel proceeds in alternating chapters to tell us about the childhoods of the two lead characters, and only at novel’s end are their separate stories brought together, again via their mutual interests in Anna Granite.

The first time I wrote this piece, I felt obliged at this point to go off on a critique of Ayn Rand and the naïve and pernicious form of selfishness that she endorsed. But this novel is not really about Rand; it is about the odd bond that forms between these two women as a result of their shared interest in the Rand-like character. What Gaitskill seems to realize and wants to point out, and what I had never noticed in my earlier readings of Rand, is that for the fifties and sixties when Rand’s work became famous, there is a rather strong feminist current in her work. Rand urged women not to see themselves simply as extensions of their men or of their families. Her female characters are at least as strong and authentic as her male characters; it is not surprising that women who had been abused by their fathers, their husbands and boyfriends found a message of hope and strength in Rand. Women are not simply the helpmates of men, are not simply to be used by men; it is not a virtue for women to submerge themselves in the needs of others. Dorothy comes to see that a healthy sense of self-interest is not the same as selfishness, and that it may be a requirement for sanity, for salvation.

Indeed, when towards the end of the book, Dorothy rushes to Justine’s apartment to confront her about Justine’s rather scathing article on Anna Granite, she finds that the beautiful Justine is in many ways a victim of her beauty, of her sexual appeal for men, and that in truth she has no more real and caring friends than the dumpy Dorothy. In fact, Dorothy rescues Justine from an S&M scene that has gotten out of hand, and quite literally throws the man, naked and protesting, out of Justine’s apartment.
Then I realized she was crying. Tears dropped from her chin onto her folded hands, and she trembled small and hard. She sat erect and contained, dabbing at her face with the sleeve of her robe and gulping discreetly. I didn’t comfort her because her body did not invite it. But I sat with my heart opened to her, feeling her heart mournfully opening to me, sending me the messages that can be received only by another heart, that which the intellect can never apprehend.
And so there is almost what you would call a happy ending to this novel, a kind of resolution in which these two quite different women open out to one another, see one another for the first time, see how each is in many ways simply acting out a life fashioned by her past. There is at least the hint of a budding friendship, a suggestion of a brighter and less lonely future for both.

I still can’t be sure what I’m getting from Gaitskill, and yet I know if she publishes again, I will read what she has written. Her voice is very much here and now, and when her stuff is sad, it is a sadness of the here and now world we live in. I am glad to have heard her voice. I cannot shake the sense that I am learning something important from her.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

I suspect—well I am sure—that there are lots of people out there who have been brought up in some religion or other, are unhappy in it, don’t believe it, or are worried about the evils that are done in its name; people who feel vague yearnings to leave their parents’ religion and wish they could, but just don’t realize that leaving is an option. If you are one of them, this book is for you. It is intended to raise consciousness—raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one. You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled. That is the first of my consciousness-raising messages.
This is from the preface of biologist Richard Dawkin’s book, The God Delusion, a book that would, in fact, be good for all of us to read, theist, atheist, and whatever lies between. I first read Dawkins years ago when I stumbled on his interesting attempt to inform us lay folk about evolution (or his view of it) in The Selfish Gene. More recently, I read an article in the periodical Wired about what the journalist called a new group of evangelical atheists—three willing spokesmen for the virtues of a scientifically based atheism. The three authors were Richard Dawkins, philosopher Daniel Dennett, and neuroscientist Sam Harris. My interest in that article and suggestions from a student in my Philosophy of Religion course led me to the Dawkins book I am recommending to you today.

In truth, Dawkins has in mind not only those of us wanting out of our childhood religions, but lots of other folks who think it best, both morally and rationally, to remain agnostics, to maintain a tolerant attitude towards any and all religious beliefs. That stance, Dawkins (and others) insist, simply plays into the hands of the religious right and of religious dogmatism in general. That we cannot know that some position is false, is hardly a reason simply to suspend judgment, or to suppose that the odds of its being true are equal to those of its being false. To suppose otherwise, insists Dawkins, is to simply make manifest the poverty of agnosticism. “Nevertheless, it is a common error, which we shall meet again, to leap form the premise that the question of God’s existence is in principle unanswerable to the conclusion that his existence and his non-existence are eqiprobable.” I have tried for years to make the same point to my philosophy of religion students. To say that I cannot know for sure that not-X (that X is false), is not to say that I have good reason for affirming X, nor to say that I do not have perhaps very good reason for denying X. Bertrand Russell gives the example of a celestial tea-pot orbiting the earth, but too small to be detected by any telescope we now have. We cannot rightfully claim to know that there is no such teapot, but that hardly means that the thesis that there is such a thing is on equal footing with its denial. I used to give a similar example of a genie that I had in my pocket but one such that none of our senses could apprehend it. When I would then ask how many in the class were geniests, only a jokester or two would raise their hands; when I asked for a-geniests, perhaps a few more, but when I asked who were agnostic with respect to my genie, almost all hands shot up, proud of their intellectual humility and fairness. “Why then you’re fools,” was my reply. Having no evidence at all for a hypothesis is very good reason for supposing it false, and certainly not being able to prove it false is next to no reason for supposing it to be true. The burden of proof for all of the many religious hypotheses (and there are so many candidates to the throne) rests squarely on those advancing their hypothesis, and reason does not demand that we suspend judgment until we can know definitely one way or the other. Indeed, I tried to convince my classes that almost all were either atheists or theists, though some of the theists and most of the atheists remained in the closet. Genuine suspension of belief or equally balanced evidence is the rare condition.

But while Dawkins does spend considerable time distinguishing between types of agnosticism, pointing out that we have very good reason for not accepting supernatural stories, and also some time criticizing the traditional so-called proofs for a god or god’s existence, his main concern really is to defend the reasonableness and grandeur of scientific theory and the paucity of religious explanations of the world. He also understands, both personally and from his extensive reading, how atheism has been demonized, especially in America, and how religious intolerance has been canonized, with the current Administration as a startling example. Americans ought to read Dawkins’ book in order to see why so many non-Americans view the U.S. as a dangerous religious backwater, one that applauds dogmatism and religious intolerance. He does an excellent job of showing how current beliefs and attitudes stray from the secularist roots of the founders of the constitution. Especially since he is a biologist rather than an intellectual historian, I find myself humbled by the incredible reading in political theory, sociology, philosophy, and history he has done, perhaps not specifically for this book, then certainly providing and impressive background for it.

The content of the book is far too rich and complex for me even to summarize here; it is not difficult reading, but its content is far-reaching. I usually argue that in order to do a novel justice, one needs to read it quite quickly, give over to the story rather than reading it snippets. Almost the reverse is true of Dawkins’ book; although he writes in plain language that we can all understand, he covers so much ground that he needs (and deserves) to be read in bites, rereading sections of particular importance. A journalist friend of mine tells me that there are newer books on the market making cases for atheism that are less ‘mean’ than Dawkins, and that his book is viewed by many to be sarcastic about religion and believers, and just plain mean. I don’t find Dawkins to be mean, although he is offended by the harsh treatment afforded atheists in this country, nor do I think he is flippant or sarcastic. He does see religious stories about creation, what might me called religious science, to be just silly and even dangerously false. And he sees the so-called moral history of religion to be frightening and bloody and cruel, repressive not just to science but to reason itself. But what I find especially good about the book is his insistence on just how full of wonder and complexity the scientific story about the universe is.

To accentuate this last point a bit, Dawkins is quick to explain that his crusade is against supernaturalist religions, especially what he calls the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He distinguishes these from positions sometimes seen as or called religious that are naturalistic. Indeed, chapter 1 begins with a quote from Einstein: “I don’t try to imagine a personal God; it suffices to stand in awe at the structure of the world, insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it.” Einstein called himself a deeply religious non-believer, and Dawkins wants to make it clear that it is not such Einsteinean forms of religion that he is attacking. He, too, is in awe at the structure of the world insofar as we have understood it. He does see it as a real error to call such views religious, or to use the word ‘god’ to stand for this awe-inspiring complexity. Such talk simply confuses folks and does violence to the historical meaning of religious terms. I recall a time when I was younger and wanted to preserve some form of religious belief when I claimed to believe in a ‘whirling ball of energy,’ and on the basis of that called myself a theist. Friends finally convinced me that I was at worst lying, and at best unintentionally deceiving by attempting to co-opt the language for my purposes. Dawkins makes this point well and forcefully.

I thought of trying to do this review simply by putting together some of the marvelous quotes Dawkins uses in this book from scientists, philosophers, political theorists, etc. I decided against that approach, but let me include a line he quotes from Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot:
How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is better than we thought. The universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant.’? Instead they say, ‘No, no, no? My god is a little god, and I want it to stay that way.’
Like Dawkins, I find the world to be ever grander and more complex and wonderful as I look and question and ask questions. The religious stories do seem too simple, too small, to silly. And I will end with a final point of agreement with Dawkins. We human beings can think and talk and conceptualize and ask questions precisely because we are the beings we are, because we have eyes and ears and a tongue, a brain and liver and heart. It is because of our amazing complexity that we can do these things. So the religious claims that the death of the body, this body that is myself, is insignificant, that the real me will survive death, is not just false and silly, it shows contempt for the wonderful complexity of the body that makes us who we are. Dawkins, the biologist, has much more reverence for the body than most religious stories, so much that he thinks all the evidence suggests that we die along with our bodies, and that to say otherwise is to demean who and what we are. It is the religious who are truly irreverent, not he.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Man Who Wasn't There by Pat Barker

Colin Harper leads a dual life: He is, most importantly, a fearless fighter in the French Resistance movement, smuggling messages under the noses of the ruthless security of the Nazis, sometimes dressed as a woman to facilitate his brazen, death-defying tasks. At more mundane times, he is simply a twelve year old British boy, born during the Second World War and now raised by his mother who works nights as a cocktail waitress in a not very reputable working class bar. Colin, left on his own every night with only token overseeing by another single mother in the same boarding house, wanders the streets of a war-ravaged British town scarred by the air-raids of the recent war, one part of himself constantly on the lookout for his unknown father, the man who wasn’t there, and the other on the alert as he transforms into the famous Gaston, freedom fighter par excellence, risking his life daily in his struggles to overcome the evil Nazis.

This is the minimalist skeleton of Pat Barker’s superb little novel entitled, The Man Who Wasn’t There. I initially picked up this book simply because Barker seemed to have stolen my title for a novel, and I wanted to see if she had done the title justice. Perhaps I also vaguely recalled the enthusiastic recommendation of a few students and reader friends who were shocked that I had not yet read any of Barker’s work. You readers will already know of her work via her Regeneration trilogy: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and Ghost Road, the latter of which won the Booker prize.

She is a writer of incredible talent. Without once breaking out of character or showing herself as the omniscient author in the background, Barker manages, simply by telling the tale of this boy and his wonderfully imaginative life, to say so much about childhood, about the thin line between fantasy and reality, about the tough blue collar standards of what it is to be a man, the difficulty of being a low income single mother, and about the search for a parent never known. It is a sweet tale, but not sentimental. The men Colin and his young street-smart boyfriends look up to are themselves boys of seventeen and eighteen, often in trouble with the law, some having already been to prison, and destined to lives of semi-poverty and small-time crimes.

What caught me immediately about this story is the crystalline accuracy of Barker’s portrayal of how a young boy perceives the world. I was instantly reminded of my own boyhood in which many plays worked themselves out simultaneously as, from outward appearances, I simply lived out the life of a school-boy in a blue-collar neighborhood. Whether walking to school, walking the mile or so to the bakery where I got the pies I then sold door to door after school, walking to Sunday school or to a friend’s house, my inner life was rife with adventure. I rarely actually walked anywhere, preferring to lope or run outright, and needing to do so in order to function as the inner hero that I was. There were enemies lurking in every ally, spies looking through slits in curtains, while I was always on some dangerous mission with the salvation of many hinging on the success of my ventures. I recall the sense of offense, near outrage, at being called back from my important reverie life by some mundane errand, or worse, reminded to wash my hands before dinner, to go back outside to clean my muddy shoes. The adults around me so pitifully unaware of my dual life and so caught up in the ordinary, the banal.

Often when I read an author, I can see how he or she does what they do, even if I haven’t the talent to duplicate their efforts. But I cannot understand how Barker was able to envision just how much she could tell us readers simply by letting us in on the fantasy life of one small boy. How did she come up with the idea, and how can she speak through the eyes of a twelve year old boy so convincingly and with such veracity. I am still shocked that she brought it off, and that she was able to catch me so completely, absolutely absorbed for a few hours by this simple story.
Colin plodded up the hill, half moons of sweat in the armpits of his grey shirt. In the distance, lampposts and parked cars shimmered in the heat. All around him was the smell of tar.

Gaston jerks himself awake. A sniper is crawling across Blenkinsop’s roof, but Gaston has seen him. He spins round, levels the gun, and fires.

The sniper—slow motion now—clutches his chest, buckles at the knee, crashes in an endlessly unfurling fountain of glass through the roof of Mr Blenkinsop’s greenhouse, where he lands face down, his fingers clutching the damp earth—and his chest squashing Mr Blenkinsop’s prize tomatoes.

Gaston blows nonchalantly across the smoking metal of his gun, and, with never a backward glance, strides up the garden path and into the house.

As he passes through the hall, Gaston taps the face of a brass barometer, as if to persuade it to change its mind. No use. The needle points, as it does unswervingly, in all weathers, to Rain. Madame Hennigan, the landlady, believes in being realistic, and no mere barometer is permitted to disagree.

Gaston clatters up the uncarpeted stairs to the top-floor flat.

Where he becomes, abruptly, Colin again.
And so throughout the book, we move from Colin to Gaston, from lonely, father-seeking, daydreaming and late-for-school Colin to Gaston the great. Just as I remember being amazed that so few adults saw me as who I really was, taken in by the ordinariness of my appearance and apparent life, Colin is half ashamed, half proud of the duplicity that has him scolded and reprimanded by dull school masters, coddled and sent to bed by a loving but harried and overworked mother, and an inner life so full of adventure, so important, so vital.

Barker is the master of understatement. This little novel is only one hundred and fifty pages long, an easy afternoon read, and yet it covers so much. Simply by telling her story, the reader comes to see how and why tough, poor boys, lured by all the superfluous riches of market economies, turn away from the drudgery and meaningless occupations offered them to a life of petty crime, despite knowing on some level that they will likely end up in a shuffle between prison and street life. We see through Colin’s school experiences the cruelty of boys to one another, often enough abetted by equally cruel teachers. We see a boy embarrassed by his own sexual longings alternately attracted and repulsed by the crass sexuality of the older children and adults around him. And we see the deep longing for a father to admire, a man to teach him how to be a man, a lonely search for the man who wasn’t there.

This is a story of loneliness and longing and hope. If it is a sad story, it is also strangely uplifting. And it captures the wonderful imagination of childhood (so often crushed or forsaken in adulthood) in a manner as rare as it is wonderful. Give your self a treat; read this book.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Veronica by Mary Gaitskill

There was a time when I read disturbing authors only if I knew beforehand that I would learn something important from being disturbed. Mary Gaitskill may well have failed to measure up to my strict criterion, but it is I who would have been the loser for not reading her. I have talked to you before about two of her collections of short stories, each a photograph or still life that suggested a whole world outside the margins of the frozen scene. Today I want to talk to you about her latest novel, Veronica, which is, I think, the fleshing out of the world glimpsed in the short stories.

The brutal truth is that beauty can be a curse for a woman in a way that it rarely or never is for a man. Alison is only seventeen when she is discovered by a guy who runs a sleazy modeling agency in San Francisco. A runaway at fifteen who returns to her family only long enough to run away again at sixteen, Alison is as street smart and wild as any of the young girls depicted in Gaitskill’s earlier short stories, so although Gregory Carlson does lure her to his studio to take pictures and then to sample the flesh of this young beauty he spied selling flowers on the street, she at least half knows that will be the outcome before she accepts his invitation. She watches what happens to her with the eye of a painter or researcher. Perhaps had he been only a trickster or Allison less beautiful, that would have been the whole of the story, but he does send off the pictures he takes, and Allison is contacted by a modeling agency in New York. Returning home again only long enough to get the reluctant blessing of her parents, Allison soon finds herself in Paris living around a group of young, beautiful girls who are alternately coddled and abused, kept in fancy apartments where there are literally bowls of cocaine and pantries full of fancy party foods.

It is this period of a few months that provides the backdrop for the rest of the story. Alison becomes famous in a minor way quite quickly, but when she publicly shames the head of the modeling agency who owns the apartment she lives in and whose mistress she has become, she is quite literally dumped on the streets of Paris, blacklisted and more-or-less broke.

I have been talking as if Gaitskill tells her story in a chronological fashion, but in fact, she is a master of time-change, of moving from present to past not simply chapter by chapter, but often from one sentence to the next. Indeed, the bulk of the story centers around a period of time when Alison is a proofreader in New York, and even that story is told from a present that occurs many years later in which Allison, now living again in San Francisco and a lifetime removed from the nubile youth required for her earlier years of modeling, is very ill with hepatitis, her past swimming before her in a fevered haze of memory.

Having filled you in on this much of the story, I still have not even mentioned the title character, Veronica. Unlike the often pathetically thin, underfed girls Alison has known in the world of models, Veronica is an overweight, middle-aged woman whose sense of style is outlandish and whose cynicism is finally polished and directed shotgun style at almost all who fall under her gaze. I have no idea how Gaitskill landed on this unlikely duo as the lynchpins for her story, and yet the attachment, even love, that develops over time between these two is quite extraordinary, and for a novel as tough and unsentimental as this one, almost tender. Their relationship blossoms in the troubled New York of the 80s when AIDS is new and when New York comes to be known as the city of death. The chain-smoking, tough-talking Veronica is a loner and fellow worker who proofreads “like a cop with a nightstick; ” she dates a bisexual man who is away with his young boys much more often than he is with Veronica, and the stories she tells of their strange dates in Central Park are bleak and alarming.

Although the reader is introduced to Veronica early in the novel, it is only in the helter-skelter jumping from past to present, Paris to New York to San Francisco that the story of their relationship slowly unfolds. Indeed, Veronica is already long dead from AIDS and Alison super sick with hepatitis C when Gaitskill now and then returns the reader to the present.

I have perhaps told you more of the story already than I need to, and you may well be wondering why, given the gloomy list of events, one would want to read such a novel. The answer is in the beauty of the writing and the emotional depth achieved by the author. Gaitskill knows these characters, and she knows them with the certainty of having lived these lives rather than merely viewing them. Her metaphors are wild, sometimes even twisted and alarming, and yet seem utterly appropriate the moment one reads them. At least this reader wonders why he has not seen the world in just such metaphors as soon as they leap off the page. Gaitskill says of one of her characters that “His opinions were frivolous, fierce, and exact,” and I am tempted to use just that language to describe her writing. There is such a fierce beauty in the ugly scenes she depicts, in the deep, inner agony she describes.

I know that I cannot do justice to the writing by quoting a line or two, and there is certainly no way I can capture Gaitskill’s incredible ease in moving from time to time, place to place, in slowly allowing this story to take form by weaving present to past, naïve childhood to stormy young adulthood to fevered present. But let me leave you with a longish passage describing a bus-ride Alison is taking in San Francisco, nearly delirious from the fever engendered by hepatitis C, and yet still observing the details of events around her.
The bus humps and huffs as it makes a labored circle around a block of discount stores and a deserted grocery. As the bus leans hard to one side, its gears make a high whining sound, like we’re streaking through space. Looking beyond the stores, I glimpse green hills and a cross section of sidewalks with little figures toiling on them. Pieces of life packed in hard skulls with soft eyes looking out, toiling up and down, around and around. More distant green, the side of a building. The bus comes out of the turn and stops at the transfer point. It sags down with a gassy sigh. Every passenger’s ass feels its churning, bumping motor. Every ass thus connected, and moving forward with the bus. The old white lady across the aisle from me sits on her stiff haunches, eating wet green grapes from a plastic bag and peering out to see who’s getting on. The crabbed door suctions open. Teenagers stomp up through it, big kids in flapping clothes with big voices in flapping words. ‘Cuz like—whatcho look—you was just a—ain’t lookin’ at you!’ The old lady does not look. But I can feel her taking them in. Their energy pours over her skin, into her blood, heart, spine, and brain. Watering the flowers of her brain. The bag of green grapes sits ignored on her lap. Private snack suspended for public feast of youth. She would never be so close to them except on the bus. Neither would I. For a minute, I feel sorry for rich people alone in their cars. I look down on one now, just visible through her windshield, sparkling bracelets on hard forearm, clutching the wheel, a fancy-pant thigh, a pulled-down mouth, a hairdo. Bits of light fly across her windshield. I can see her mind beating around the closed car like a bird. Locked in with privileges and pleasures, but also with pain.
If you read this book, I promise you will see and hear and smell the world Gaitskill is describing for you, and you will come away somehow with a deeper and more sympathetic understanding of these strange beings that we are.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Runaway by Alice Munro

I want to talk to you today about one of the very best authors of the last fifty years, and one of the best short-story writers of all time. Her name is Alice Munro, and today I will talk about her 2004 collection of short stories, Runaway. Alice Munro, Carol Shields, Magaret Atwood, three friends, three Canadians (although Shields was born in the U.S.), three great writers. Shields died in 2003 at sixty-eight, Atwood is sixty-seven and still writing like a house afire, Munro is seventy-five and has announced that she has published her last collection of stories. Marvelous to me that Canada produced three such incredible authors in that short span of time. We readers should treasure all three both for their writing and for the ways they lived their lives.

I have told you before of my lifelong aversion to short fiction, but I think finally I have overcome it. Or should I say that Grace Paley, Shields, and Alice Munro have bulldozed it. This collection has only eight stories in it, and I came away from these stories feeling that I had read not short stories, but parts of novels. It seems that Munro must have thought through, mind-written, whole novels about some of these characters, and then decided to give her readers only some of the chapters. If she could do a good job with the few scenes she let the reader in on, then the reader could fill in the interstices, could become an accomplice in writing the novel.

One reviewer said that this book is so good that he didn’t want to talk about it, didn’t want to quote from it, that neither quoting nor synopsis could do it justice; the only way to do it justice is to read it, so he would simply repeat that injunction. Read Munro! Read Munro! I understand the feeling, and yet while I will certainly resist the temptation to synopsize, I am going to try to give you a few themes, a few passages, hoping to incite you to read the whole book.

Like the other great short story writers I mentioned above, Munro insists on writing about, illuminating the lives of, what we would think of as quite ordinary people, showing us that their inner lives are certainly as rich as the lives of the rich and famous, and that their existential crises are every bit as real. Several of the stories in this little volume are about girls/women who run away—run away from the small towns they have been raised in, from the boyfriends who threaten to smother them in the over-seriousness they manifest in their own lives, from the parents who love them too much or too little. The title story is about a young woman who enlists the help of an older woman in running away from her husband. She is helping the older woman whose husband is invalided to clean and straighten her house when quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, the younger woman moves from what appear to be soundless howls to outright howls and hysteria. She can’t stand it anymore, she wails. It turns out that what she can’t stand anymore is her husband.

He was mad at her all the time. He acted as if he hated her. There was nothing she could do right, there was nothing she could say. Living with him was driving her crazy. Sometimes she thought she already was crazy. Sometimes she thought he was.

The young woman is surprised, stunned at the ease with which the older woman is able to help her escape—a bus-ticket to Toronto, a bit of money to tide her over, a plan that spills out as if it had been in the making for sometime. Once on the bus, she has to begin to think what she is running to, what she is running from, what will become of the people and animals she has left behind.

Another of the runaways in this book is a girl from a small town, odd among the inhabitants because she is bright, studies math and foreign languages, and at first opportunity runs off to college.

Juliet knew that, to many people, she might seem to be odd and solitary—and so, in a way, she was. But she had also had the experience, for much of her life, of feeling surrounded by people who wanted to drain away her attention and her time and her soul. And usually, she let them.

Once Juliet has run away, she returns home infrequently and for short, uncomfortable visits. This young woman who studies Greek and Latin is the primary figure in two of the stories in this volume. In the first as the runaway who returns home with an infant girl, and although now living with the father of her child, not officially married. She is surprised to discover that her liberal, teacher father and her ailing mother are more shocked than they let on about her unmarried state—that it has even caused her father to resign his teaching post. And she finds herself running again, now back to the relative safety of her man and her adopted coastal home. How could she guess that twenty years later her own daughter would run away, not from a conservative and religious household and town, but, instead, towards a spiritual life that she has perhaps been denied by her atheistic mother. What is freedom to some may be bondage to others.

Finally, let me talk briefly about the middle story in this volume, “Passion.” This, too, involves a kind of runaway. Here the heroine, Grace, is from a very small town, raised by an aunt and uncle who always seem in some ways strangers to her. Following her senior year in high school, she gets the opportunity to go to a resort town and work through the summer as a waitress. There, she meets a family with much more money than any she has known and falls in love with the mother, Mrs. Travers, just as the young son of the family is falling in love with her, indeed, plans to marry her. There are twists and turns of running away in this story that I will only hint at, but let me give you something of the flavor of the young woman as she goes on her first date with the wealthy son.

He did take her to the movies. They saw Father of the Bride. Grace hated it. She hated girls like Elizabeth Taylor in that movie, she hated spoiled rich girls of whom nothing was ever asked but that they wheedle and demand. Maury said that it was only supposed to be a comedy, but she said that was not the point. She could not make clear what the point was. Anybody would think that it was because she worked as a waitress and was too poor to go to college, and that if she wanted anything like that kind of wedding she would have to spend years saving up to pay for it herself. (Maury did think this, and was stricken with respect for her, almost with reverence.)
She could not explain or quite understand that it wasn’t altogether jealousy she felt, it was rage. And not because she couldn’t shop like that or dress like that. It was because that was what girls were supposed to be like. That was what men—people, everybody—thought they should be liked. Beautiful, treasured, spoiled, selfish, pea-brained. That was what a girl should be, to be fallen in love with.

Certainly, these few passages do not do justice to the book, so I must end with the same injunction as the New York Times Book Review critic, Read Munro! Read Munro!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Four Great Women Authors

Instead of my customary chat with you about a single book and author, in honor of women’s month, I want to talk about four great women writers of the past fifty years. Choosing four is both difficult and arbitrary, so instead of choosing authors whom most of you will have heard about and read, writers such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Louise Erdrich, I’ve decided to talk about four whom you will be less likely to have read, but who have written such important works during the past fifty years. I’ve intentionally chosen three foreign born authors and only one American; they are Nadine Gordimer, Penelope Lively, Edwidge Danticat, and Toni Cade Bambara.

Nadine Gordimer certainly belongs on any list of great authors of the 20th century. Born and raised in South Africa, she was without doubt one of the most important anti-apartheid authors of her time. Indeed, although she won both the Booker and the Nobel prizes, her books were banned in South Africa for many years, and she was urged by many to leave her homeland because they feared for her life. Undaunted, she continued to live there and to write, in spite of having to send her books out of the country for publication. She has also written bravely, fearlessly, about changes in Africa since the official end of apartheid, and about the psychological tensions of whites and blacks living and working together. Gordimer has a wonderful mind, and any reader who knows philosophy will see how well she understands and uses philosophy in her novels. My view is that you can begin with any book Gordimer has written, either working back from her latest works published in the 90s, or beginning with early works such as Burger’s Daughter or her Booker prize-winning The Conservationist. She has also written several collections of short stories, and I have yet to find a book of hers that I did not thoroughly (and usually immediately) enjoy. Perhaps my favorite of all is A Sport of Nature, published in 1987; feminism is much more a theme of this novel than of others of hers I recall, and she talks bravely, insightfully, about romantic relationships between powerful, aspiring black leaders and white woman who are dedicated to the eradication of racism while they are themselves targets of suspicion both because of race and gender. In spite of the quality and quantity of her work, in my experience she is still relatively unknown among American readers.

Partly so that it won’t seem that I am concentrating only on older writers, my next choice is a very young author, Edwidge Danticat. Born in 1969 in Haiti, Danticat came to the U.S. when she was twelve years old, but her early works concentrate on her native country. I can still recall the chill I felt both during and after the reading of Krick? Krack! Although the language is beautiful and haunting, the story is about desperate lives lived in Haiti. I have not yet read Danticat’s work directed at young readers, Behind the Mountains, but her other works are almost unbearably sad, and yet told with a grace and beauty that both cuts through and magnifies the sadness. Her second work, The Farming of Bones, shows how well she listened to the stories told to her by her elders, since it is about Haitians living in the Dominican Republic in the thirties and forties. We certainly need to hear the voices of those who have experienced first hand the economic oppression visited upon them by European and American market economies. While it takes a bit of strength to listen to the voice of Danticat, it should also convince us readers how important it is to hear such voices as well as how beautifully they can write.

The third writer whom I wish to talk about today is a writer of almost unbelievable skill. It continues to surprise me how few of my students have heard of this giant. Her name is Penelope Lively, and she continues to write and publish at quite an incredible rate. Born in Cairo in 1933, like Danticat she moved from her birthplace when she was twelve, although she was born of English parents and returned to England because of the intense war actions in Egypt during World War II. She began her writing career by publishing children’s fiction, and did not publish any adult fiction until the 1970s. I did not discover her until the late 90s when I stumbled across her Booker prize winning Moon Tiger published in 1987. Once I had found her, I read up everything I could get my hands on, and not once have I been disappointed. I have used her fairly recent novel, The Photograph, in several of my classes. It was published in 2003. Lively writes about lived time, about the ways in which past and present merge into each other, with perhaps greater skill than any other writer I have read. Martin Heidegger insists that we are beings-in-time, that being in time is one of the universal and necessary conditions of what it is to be human. (He calls these conditions existentialia.) Karl Marx and Immanuel Kant also recognized the incredible importance of temporality in human life, but no one, I think, describes how we live in time with the detail and acuity that Lively does. Moon Tiger begins (and ends) with a woman in her eighties who is living in a rest home, simply another old, dying woman to the staff there. But her daily lived-life has next to nothing to do with that dismal, sedentary existence. It is her past in Egypt and England that occupies all of her waking and dreaming moments. Having lived as a writer who concentrated on political history, she now questions the very meaning of history. Is there such a thing? Can it possibly be written? What has the history of wars or of great political figures to do with the lives of ordinary people, with their histories? Again, I would recommend to you anything she has written, including her skillful and labyrinthian short stories, one collection of which is called Pack of Cards. Just citing a couple other titles will suggest her preoccupation with time and memory: City of the Mind; Spiderwebb, Passing On.

And finally, let me mention one American writer who unfortunately died in 1995. She was only fifty-five when she died, but she will be remembered as one of the most important writers and activists of the seventies and eighties. Her name is Toni Cade Bambara, and I first ran across her by reading a wonderful collection of short stories entitled Gorilla My Love. I used that book in teaching philosophy in literature almost every quarter for several years after I discovered her. Most of the stories are told through the eyes of a street-smart and tough little girl who runs and talks faster than anyone else around her. Bambara writes in the language she learned as a child, and her ear for dialect is truly wonderful. One reviewer of Bambara says of her: “Ms. Bambara grabs you by the throat ... she dazzles, she charms.” Yes, she has lots to tell us, and she does it with dazzle and charm, but also with deep insight and tenderness. During a particularly bleak period for me politically, when it seemed to me that the male-dominated new-left had abandoned the fight, I happened to read Bambara’s novel The Salt Eaters. In that novel, strong, black women encounter a kind of cynicism emanating from disenchanted male activists much like what I thought I saw around me, and they react immediately and forcefully. They refuse to hide or deny the sexism they experience in the African-American community, even though they are told that they must keep a united front, that sexism is a problem only among whites. And they also refuse to give up or hunker down or make suspicious deals with The Man. I came out of that reading with a new sense of strength and purpose. Aside from her writing, Bambara was a community activist and freedom fighter all through her life. Both tough and tender, both critical and understanding, she was a fine person as well as a great writer.

There are so many names I have not mentioned: Zora Neale Hurston, Jane Smiley, Doris Lessing, Alice Munro, Marge Piercy, Margaret Atwood, May Sarton, Iris Murdoch and a host of other great women writers. So many voices of so many bright and strong women. They have saved me from despair and pointed out directions for me, and I just plain love reading them.