Monday, December 31, 2012

Dear Life by Alice Munro

What a wonderful treat on this last day of 2012 to be reviewing a book by Alice Munro who told her readers at least two books ago that she was through writing, or at any rate, writing for publication. Fortunately for us, she has not been able to abide by her own declaration. In my opinion, Alice Munro is not simply the greatest writer of short fiction alive, she is flat out the best living author. In her latest collection of short stories, Dear Life, she continues to dazzle her readers with stories of what would usually be called ordinary people who live in small Canadian towns, or, less frequently, in the larger cities of Toronto and Vancouver. 

I’m sure she would think my use of the word ‘dazzle’ humorous and hyperbolic, but that is due to the fact that she is as humble and unassuming as are most of her characters. As I’ve said of her before, she shows just how extraordinary the lives and events of so-called ordinary folks are when seen through the eyes of a brilliant and compassionate mind. Her humility shines out particularly in the final four selections entitled “Finale”:
The final four works in this book are not quite stories. They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last—and the closest—things I have to say about my own life.
We learn from her what it was like to grow up with a mother who, even before beginning to show symptoms of Parkinson’s disease at a young age, stood out as a loner, looked at askance by both the dirt poor farm family from which she had escaped and by the town-folk who are put off by her too-proper, school teacher grammar and vocabulary. Her father could adjust both language and demeanor to the country people they lived around; he could blend in, could pass, in ways that his wife never could.

Alice, too, became a loner, neither a country farm girl nor one able to fit in with the town-children with whom she attended school. “Girls got married and had babies, in that order or the other. In grade thirteen, with only about a quarter of the original class left, there was a sense of scholarship, of serious achievement, or perhaps just a special kind of serene impracticality that hung on, no matter what happened to you later. I felt as if I were a lifetime away from most of the people I had known in grade nine…”

I know that she would chastise me for spending even this much time talking about the few pages of autobiographical pieces in this collection; for her, it is the observation of the lives of others that is paramount—revealing the luster and mystery in the lives of those seen as dull and commonplace.

I can’t possibly describe or do justice to the array of stories in this collection, but let me concentrate on just a couple of them. In the first story, “To Reach Japan,” Munro describes the train-station parting of a young man and his wife, and in her typical but ingenious way plunges from the simple parting to a description of their very different lives, their pasts, their unique complementarity. 
…his light-colored skin was never flushed like hers, never blotchy from the sun, but evenly tanned whatever the season.

     His opinions were something like his complexion. When they went to see a movie, he never wanted to talk about it afterwards. He would say that it was good, or pretty good, or okay. He didn’t see the point in going further…
     Greta should have realized that this attitude—hands off, tolerant—was a blessing for her, because she was a poet, and there were things in her poems that were in no way cheerful or easy to explain…
     It would become hard to explain, later on in her life, just what was okay in that time and what was not. You might say, well, feminism was not. But then you would have to explain that feminism was not even a word people used. Then you would get all tied up saying that having any serious idea, let alone ambition, or maybe even reading a real book, could be seen as suspect, having something to do with your child’s getting pneumonia, and a political remark at an office party might have cost your husband his promotion. It would not have mattered which political party either. It was a woman’s shooting off her mouth that did it.
I have said that the stories are of ordinary, even simple people, but each story is surprising, even shocking in its own understated way. Another story, “Train,” begins with a young soldier returning by train to his hometown. Without letting the reader in on the motivations of this young man, Munro describes how, as the already slow train slows even more for a curve, he throws his duffle bag off, and then quickly jumps off himself. Dazed and hobbling, he makes his way to a small, tumble down farmhouse where a woman gives him a meal and a bed in exchange for his fixing the horse trough. The woman, Belle, is sixteen years older than Jackson, the young man, and after he spends a day fixing the trough, she gives him a second meal of pancakes and begins to talk.
They sat on kitchen chairs outside the back door until after the sun went down. She was telling him something about how she came to be here, and he was listening but not paying full attention because he was looking around and thinking how this place was on its last legs but not hopeless, if somebody wanted to settle down and fix things up. A certain investment of money was needed, but a greater investment of time and energy. It could be a challenge. He could almost bring himself to regret he was moving on.
He does stay on, and not for a day or two, or even for a season or two, but for years, as if this is not particularly surprising. And then, as so often occurs in Munro’s stories, she writes what seems almost an outline for a novel, giving the reader only paragraph or two for long swaths of time in which the farm and farmhouse are fixed up, revitalized.  It is only in the last few lines, after Jackson has taken Belle to Toronto for surgery on what is quite obviously a cancerous tumor and has begun yet another drop-in life fixing up a rooming house that the reader is finally told why, now many years earlier, he jumped from the moving train. I’m not about to let you in on the surprise; you will have to read and discover for yourself.

As always, I hunger for all the parts of the ‘novel’ left out, the lives that seem already there and waiting for her to describe. Instead, I turn the page into a new world,  a new sketch, bursting with surprise and the half told—a sigh of both satisfaction and regret that the little diamond of a tale is over. She is simply a storytelling genius.

Monday, December 10, 2012

When Nietzsche Wept by Irvin D. Yalom

“History is fiction that did happen. Whereas fiction is history that might have happened.” Irvin Yalom used these words in an essay describing the writing of his 1992 book, When Nietzsche Wept. Although I usually prefer to review contemporary fiction, this book came into my hands only recently when a colleague and I were trying to decide what we ought to read together. Yalom is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Stanford University and still lives and practices in Palo Alto. He has written several textbooks on psychotherapy, and I suspect that he is more comfortable as an academic writer than as a writer of fiction. There is something a bit stiff about his fiction, but the complex plot of this book and the historical insights regarding its real-life characters make it well worth reading. When I began reading it, I could not imagine choosing to review it, but by the time I finished it, felt that I must.

The book is set in Vienna in 1882 where the famous physician, Joseph Breuer, had his medical practice. The other characters of note in the novel are Fredrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Lou Salome, and Bertha Pappenheim. Breuer is at that time already famous both as a physician and medical researcher, and young Freud is a protégé and frequent visitor at Breuer’s home and a medical student finishing up his degree. Besides his well known research in the physiology of respiration and equilibrium, Breuer also became interested for a brief time in his career in psychology. Indeed, his work with a patient he calls Anna O, actually a young woman, Bertha Pappenheim, who herself became famous later in her life as a social worker, was very influential in the development of psychotherapy, or what Breuer called “the talking cure.” Anna O. suffered from numerous debilitating ailments and was under the daily care of Breuer for a considerable period of time. It is alleged that Breuer was able to cure Anna O. of many symptoms simply by uncovering the origins of the symptoms.

In fact, as Yalom is quick to admit in his afterward, Breuer and Nietzsche never actually met, but they well might have had Nietzche’s friends been able to persuade him to visit Breuer for treatment of his horrible migraines and for suicidal depression. In Yalom’s fictional account, Nietzsche’s stunningly beautiful friend, Lou Salome, approaches Breuer and asks him to treat Nietzsche in order to save the future greatest philosopher of Europe, but she insists that Breuer cannot ever tell Nietzsche that it is she who has requested his intervention, nor that it is more for treatment of his depression than his migraines that is required.

The story then spins itself out as a kind of mystery in which Nietzsche’s existential philosophy contributes to Breuer’s talking cure. I won’t be giving away much of the mystery by telling you that Nietzsche does consult Breuer, not for psychological help, but for a diagnosis of his many physical ailments, his migraines at the top of the list. Nietzsche initially refuses to go to a clinic Breuer works out of both because it would require a winter stay in Vienna (which he insists would exacerbate his medical problems), and because he simply cannot afford a stay in the clinic. Breuer’s offer to treat him for free and to make space available for him at the clinic also free of charge both raises Nietzsche’s suspicions (since his view is that no one every really wants to help another, but only seeks to dominate and increase one's own power), and somehow offends his dignity; he does not accept charity. Nietzsche leaves Breuer with a demand that he be sent a bill for services, and announces his intention to leave Vienna for southern Europe the next day. 

Fortunately for Breuer, Nietzsche is struck with a mighty migraine before he can depart Vienna, and the hotel keeper finds Breuer’s card in Nietzsche’s coat and seeks him out to attend to the extremely ill and unconscious Nietzsche. 

While it is Nietzsche’s suicidal depression that Salome hopes Breuer can cure, it turns out that Breuer, too, is in a crisis of depression—unable to reciprocate the love and care his wife Mathilde extends to him or to really attend to his three young children, unable to stop fantasizing about his recent patient Anna O., and no longer sufficiently driven by either his medical research or his patients. 

Breuer is able to drastically shorten the duration and intensity of Nietzsche’s migraine, and again exhorts him to enter his clinic for treatment. Finally, in what begins simply as a ploy to overcome Nietzsche’s reluctance, Breuer confesses to Nietzsche his own suicidal depression and begs Nietzsche to treat him with his profound philosophical insights, to attempt a philosophical cure of Breuer’s mental malaise.

Breuer has by this time read two of Nietzsche’s early works, The Gay Science, and Human All Too Human, and insists that in this case it is the physician who requires healing from the patient. Finally, Nietzsche agrees to begin talking to Breuer about his existential crisis, and to do so under the guise of being a patient at Breuer’s clinic.

I realize that this sounds like quite a convoluted plot, and it is both fanciful and complicated, but Yalom’s interest in German philosophy along with his lifelong work as a psychoanalyst make for a fascinating read. Along the way, the reader is treated to what I think is a very perceptive interpretation of Nietzsche’s puzzling doctrine of eternal recurrence, and tantalizing suggestions about how Nietzsche’s ideas of existential freedom accord with parts of psychoanalytic theory. There are also passages in which female characters, Breuer’s wife Mathilde and an assistant whom Breuer fired because of domestic problems caused by his obsession with Anna O., criticize in very insightful ways the so-called freedom sought by the men—a freedom that appears to be quite exclusively male.

In the end, it is Breuer who is cured as he comes to accept Nietzsche’s claim that he must will what is necessary, and then live what is willed, but Nietzsche also learns something along the way about friendship, and comes to realize that the desire for human companionship need not always be viewed as weakness.

The book has stayed with me, and the more I have thought about it, the more I have wanted to recommend it to others.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Ten Girls To Watch by Charity Shumway

Recently, after having read a string of sad but really excellent books, I remarked to my partner that I felt depressed and gloomy. “Well, look at what you’ve been reading!” was her immediate response. I defended my reading habits by pointing out that reading books about the way the world really is, i.e., reading the truth, sometimes has as a consequence a somber view of the world. I don’t think much of readers who read only to escape the world we actually live in.

Nevertheless, the next time I went to the bookstore, I consciously looked for some light fiction, something intentionally comedic. I picked up a book by Charity Shumway entitled, Ten Girls to Watch, noticing that the book was praised for its honesty and humor. I expected little from the book, but hoped for some laughs. In fact, the more I read into the book, the more interested I became. The plot is a simple one: Dawn West, recently graduated from college with a liberal arts degree, and disappointing her parents by rejecting law school in favor of trying out a writing career in New York, is hired by Charm magazine to find and interview as many as possible of five hundred women who had over a fifty year period been chosen by the magazine as college women to watch. In real life, Charity Shumway was hired by Glamour magazine to track down just that number of women for a fifty year anniversary event of a contest they had run called, Top 10 College Women. Once she had finished the project and the event was held, Shumway found herself still in the thrall of the stories of the many women she had interviewed, and thought she might spend six months writing a novel based on those stories. In fact, the novel was four years in the making, and I find the results not only interesting and heartwarming, but also historically instructive. Women have, indeed, come along way in those fifty years.

The contest was started in 1957, and not surprisingly, was first a contest honoring the best dressed college women in America. In the 60s, the contest became an academic one (or, at least, academics were stressed), and in the 70s and 80s, Viet Nam, environmental issues, and feminism played a greater and greater roll in the lives of the women chosen.

I don’t know just how much the fictionalized account squares with the lived-lives of the women chosen in Glamour’s contest, but there is no doubt that Shumway, herself, became more and more impressed by the women she interviewed, and their stories began to shape her life. Among them are surgeons, test pilots, teachers, professional sports figures, professors, business owners, opera singers, and more. Dawn West, whose biography not surprisingly closely resembles Shumway’s, gets the opportunity to visualize her own life and loves through the prism of all of these remarkable women. While she is wowed by some of the more high profile women who are politicians, talk-show hosts, movers and shakers in the business world, it is often the less known who inspire and teach her the most.

At first, I found myself put off by the title of the book, Ten Girls to Watch; certainly calling these powerful women girls seems to diminish them and their accomplishments. But that is certainly not Shumway’s intention. Instead, at the beginning of the project, she sees herself as a girl, barely out of college, barely able to make ends meet, unpublished, embarking on a risky career, and very hard on herself for what she sees as her failings. Anxious for success, she sees herself as lagging behind. Slowly, as she meets and interviews these women, some in their 60s and 70s, others closer to her age, she comes to see how hard they worked to become who they are—how many years they spent working and training for their careers. She also comes to see that men and romantic relationships were more often hindrances in their lives and struggles to succeed than positive influences, and she begins to see her own dependence on boyfriends and the importance she gives to romantic attachments as blocking her self-realization.

I can’t possibly cover very many of the inspiring stories of the women Dawn interviews, but I want to mention a couple and the effects they have on Dawn. At one point, heartbroken and stressed, she turns (as she often does) to junk food and sloth as an antidote. What a surprise, instead of feeling better, she feels worse. But at about the same time, she interviews a famous opera singer, who surprisingly steers the interview away from opera and her accomplishments and instead begins to talk about care of her body.
Something most people don’t think about is just how physical singing is, and I think that’s what I’m most grateful for on my job. I rely so much on my body that I notice all the tiny differences. If I don’t sleep enough, if I’ve eaten poorly or had a little too much drink the night before, it comes out in my voice. You can hear my sins. The thing is, everyone relies on their bodies; it’s just harder to hear the screeching when your job is writing or taking care of patients or crunching numbers. That doesn’t mean it’s not there. It just means that some people consider it part of their jobs to turn a deaf ear. I don’t have that luxury. I have to take care of myself, and that’s been a gift.
Another woman, one of the ten to watch in 1957, has recently retired from forty years of teaching first grade. Dawn asks why she chose to remain a teacher all those years when she had wanted at first to be a writer. She replies that she didn’t want it enough, but more importantly, that the desire to teach was paramount. “I suppose I just never got over the pleasure of watching a child learn to read. You’re watching the world open. It’s a miracle every single time.” Quite obviously, this woman does not see herself as settling for less than she should have, but rather as developing her real talents and following her deepest desires.

Although many of the women she interviews are still arrestingly beautiful, hardly any want to talk about beauty or fashion. It is their work that motivates and thrills them. One woman who was one of the first test pilots for the air force relates the sexism within the military that eventually drove her out, but insists that she finds her career as a professor of astrophysics much more rewarding. Many have children, many don’t, but all seem to agree that neither romantic partners nor children are enough.

I doubt that either Shumway, or her fictional character Dawn, expected at the outset of the project to learn so much from the experience. It is Shumway’s ability, via her character Dawn West, to laugh at herself and the ways in which she avoids existential questions by supposing a love-relationship will answer them all that makes this book both humorous and insightful.

I’m not claiming that this is great writing or a great book, but it is certainly one that I found interesting and inspiring, and the humor helped. I didn’t expect to review it, but decided finally that I couldn’t put it aside without recommending it to others.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Chances are that this reader would like most any book that mentioned on its first page Edith Wharton, Henry James, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Jane Austin, George Elliot, and the Bronte sisters. Jeffrey Eugenides in his newest novel, The Marriage Plot, not only mentions all these authors, but shows via one of his three lead characters that he has been deeply influenced by them all. The setting is the graduation ceremony at Brown University in the spring of 1982, and Eugenides adopts in turn the voices of each of his three main characters who are about to begin their new post-graduate lives. Interestingly, his most convincing voice is that of a female character, Madeleine, whose primary interest is in Victorian literature. “She’s become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read.” Madeleine is pursued by two young men, Leonard, whose dual interests are biology and philosophy, and Mitchell, who is fascinated by religious mystics and people like St. Teresa and Albert Schweitzer whose focus is simply doing good in the world. Most likely, each of the three characters is a side of Eugenides himself, and so it is no wonder that each speaks convincingly.

As in his meticulously researched novel, Middlesex, Eugenides displays a deep understanding of the topics that interest him. In this novel these topics are manic depression, mysticism, and the role of the marriage plot in Victorian and pre-Victorian literature. He also manages to show his understanding of and sympathy for feminism, both through the voice of Madeleine and the rather clumsy attempts of his male characters to rise above, or at least be ashamed of, their sexism. 

Eugenides reminds us that women were restricted from owning and inheriting property in early Victorian Britain and restricted from participating in politics, and that it was under these conditions that Victorian women writers wrote their books. 
Seen this way, eighteenth—and nineteenth—century literature, especially that written by women, was anything but old hat. Against tremendous odds, without anyone giving them the right to take up the pen or a proper education, women such as Anne Finch, Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontes, and Emily Dickenson had taken up the pen anyway, not only joining in the grand literary project but, if you could believe Gilbert and Fubar, creating a new literature at the same time, playing a man’s game while subverting it. Two sentences from The Madwoman in the Attic particularly struck Madeleine. “In recent years, for instance, while male writers seem increasingly to have felt exhausted by the need for revisionism which Bloom’s theory of the ‘anxiety of influence’ accurately describes, women writers have seen themselves as pioneers in a creativity so intense that their male counterparts have probably not experienced its analog since the Renaissance, or at least since the Romantic era. The son of many fathers, today’s male writer feel hopelessly belated: the daughter of too few mothers, today’s female writer feels that she is helping to create a viable tradition which is at last definitely emerging.”
But if Madeleine is attracted to the intelligence and relative independence of the women writers she so admires, she is nonetheless driven by the need to be recognized by the men in her life whom she still sees as intellectually superior. The summer after her graduation from Brown, instead of throwing all of her efforts into her own life and post graduate studies, she instead goes off to a biology think-tank with Leonard who has a fellowship there for the summer. And she does this in spite of the fact that on the very day of graduation, she discovers that Leonard is a manic depressive, and has (not for the first time) been committed to a psychiatric hospital. 

It is hard to imagine anyone trying to live with and care for someone who is manic depressive, and even harder to imagine a young woman in her twenties taking on this awesome responsibility. Eugenides takes the reader through a single summer of Madeleine trying to be the partner and caregiver of Leonard as his disease and the medication he uses to treat it lead him into a more and more isolated existence. Desperate to hide his illness from the scientists and co-fellowship students at the think-tank, he becomes ever more dependent on Madeleine, hating her to leave him even to play tennis or go to the city. “He didn’t want her to leave. If Madeleine left, he would be alone again, as he’d been growing up in a house with his family, as he was in his head and often in his dreams, and as he’d been in his room at the psych ward.” 

Meanwhile, Mitchell, the third voice in this story of young people struggling to find themselves in a complicated and unjust world, is traveling through India, reading religious mystics and trying to follow the example of St. Teresa. His character is the one least developed in this novel, and the least convincing. His quest makes him seem both younger and more naïve than the other characters, and yet it is primarily through him that Eugenides is able to give the reader some political commentary. Mitchell’s desperate but unrequited love for Madeleine, coupled with his yearning for purity and enlightenment, make him into an almost comic character, but one who nonetheless plays a pivotal role. He is perhaps more the actual mouthpiece for Eugenides that either of the other main characters.

In the end, I can’t say that this is a great or even a really good novel. I think Eugenides tries to do too much, too fast, and I have a hard time believing that his characters could really go through all the changes they do in a single summer. Perhaps he should have given them a few years to experience such life-changing events. Nevertheless, this is an interesting story, and Eugenides a gifted storyteller. It will leave you with much deeper understanding of the marriage plot and its role in both Victorian and contemporary novels, and perhaps give you a deeper understanding of the disease that is labeled manic depression.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Try to imagine what might have happened, how history might have rolled out, had Lenin not had a stroke at just the moment when Trotsky was on a train taking him to a resort for a much needed short vacation. Trotsky, a champion of democratic socialism, was next in line to succeed Lenin. Suppose he had not believed Stalin’s lie that there was no need for him to return immediately, since only a small, private service would occur to be followed weeks later by a huge state funeral. Imagine Stalin seizing on the accident of Trotsky’s absence from the state service, which in fact did occur almost immediately, to condemn him as at best disloyal, and at worst treasonous. Trotsky then declared an enemy of the state, a counter-revolutionary, and the ruthless Stalin assuming the mantel of power, liquidating any who dissented and setting the USSR on a course of rigidly centralized government. Suppose it had been otherwise.

In her incredibly ambitious novel, The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver posits the above question as one among many themes. She also takes on McCarthyism, the possibility of getting anything like truth from the press, the political responsibilities of the artist, the love life of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, the devastation of World War II, the tyranny of the F.B.I. under J. Edgar Hoover, and the Mayan and Aztec empires of Mexico. 

I am a great admirer of Kingsolver; I have read almost all of her fiction and much of her non-fiction. I admire the way she weaves her love of biology and environmental issues into her works, her staunch support of feminist issues, her insistence that art is and must be political. That said, I think this particular book suffers from trying to do too much. A skillful editor may have convinced her to cut the sprawling five hundred page novel in half, or better yet, to make it into a series of books—perhaps one about the ancient history of Mexico, another about the relationship between Kahlo, Rivera, and Trotsky, and yet another about the perils of being an artist during the McCarthy era in the U.S. Trying to combine them all into one book obscures her message about the necessity of constantly viewing the present in historical context and, in my opinion, creates a morass stitched together by Kingsolver’s own broad interests rather than by an internal, organic unity. 

Kingsolver is certainly right to remind us that we are too quick to forget the past, too gullible in our trust of the press, too ready to turn a blind eye to the political oppression that has occurred in our recent past and which continues to occur now. However, a colleague of mine and I who decided to read this book together because of our admiration of Kingsolver found ourselves asking why she wrote the book at all, or, at least, why she tried to combine all of these different themes into a single book. There is no doubt that she had a keen interest in Trotsky and the ruthless way in which he was hunted down and killed in Mexico. Her research into the lives of Trotsky, Frida Kahlo, and Diego Rivera is impressive, as is her knowledge of Mayan and Aztec cultures. Her descriptions of what it must have been like for artists who suffered through the McCarthy witch-hunts is both harrowing and convincing. 

The spokesperson in this novel, Harrison Shepherd, is a young man who straddles two cultures—born in the U.S. of a Mexican mother and American father, but raised for most of his young life in Mexico. He returns to this country after the death of Trotsky, settles into a small town in North Carolina and becomes a well known author who writes epics about the ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations of Mexico. Kingsolver uses the device of yet another narrator, Violet Brown, secretary to Sheperd, to give the reader another view of both the writer and the events that shape his life in the U.S.

Perhaps Kingsolver gives us a clue as to why she wrote this book in a conversation that occurs between Shepherd and Violet Brown.
“I have been wondering what your novel will be about,” she said. “Apart from the setting.” 
“I wonder too. I think I want to write about the end of things. How civilizations fall, and what leads up to that. How we’re connected to everything in the past."  
To my shock she said, “Oh, I wouldn’t.” 
“I think the readers won’t like it. We don’t like to see ourselves joined hard to the past. We’d as soon take the scissors and cut every ribbon of that." 
“Then I am sunk. All I ever write about is history.”
“People in gold arm bracelets, though. Nothing that would happen to our own kind. That’s how I reckon people take to it so well.”
“Oh. Then you think it wouldn’t go so well if I set my stories, let’s say, in a concentration camp in Texas or Georgia. One of those places where we sent our citizen Japs and Germans during the war.”
She looked stricken. “No, sir, we would not like to read that. Not even about the other Japanese sinking ships and bombing our coast. That’s over, and we’d just as soon be shed of it.”
“You’d do that? Take scissors and cut off your past?”
“I did already. My family would tell you I went to the town and got above my raisings.”
“Like I said. The magazines tell us we’re special, not like the ones that birthed us. Brand-new. They paint a picture of some old-country rube with a shawl on her head, and make you fear you’ll be like that, unless you buy cake mix and a home freezer. 
“But that sounds lonely, walking around without any ancestors.”
“I don’t say it’s good. It’s just how we be. I hate to say it, but that rube in the shawl is my sister, and I don’t want to be her. I can’t help it.”
Kingsolver does not want us to take scissors to our past; she wants to place us squarely in it. Not just the past in this country, but the past of Cortes and the Aztecs and the even more ancient Mayans. The past of Trotsky and Kahlo and Rivera. The ugliness of war and of political repression. I applaud her insistence on historicity. I admire her politics and her mighty gifts of story-telling, and perhaps you as readers will see more clearly than I just why all of these themes had to be gathered together in one sprawling novel. In this case, I can only say I’m glad to be finished and to move on.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

On the face of it, Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize winner, The Sense of an Ending, is not only a very short novel, it is also a very simple one. But then one might say that Barnes whole point in the novel is that no part of so-called history is to be taken on its face. Every life is more complicated than it seems, and memory a flimsy and unreliable guide even to our own lives, let alone the lives of those around us.

The story begins as one of three boys together at a boarding school: Tony, Colin, and Alex, who are then joined by a fourth, Adrian Finn. It is Tony who tells the story, but it Adrian who awakens the other three, and in a sense catapults them into their lives. 
In those days, we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives. And when the moment came, our lives—and time itself—would speed up. How were we to know that our lives had in any case begun, that some advantage had already been gained, some damage already inflicted? Also, that our release would only be into a larger holding pen, whose boundaries would be at first indiscernible. 
Adrian is the brightest of the boys, and also the most serious. While the original three seem simply to use their cleverness to get by, Adrian is already deeply engaged. One of their teachers raises a question central to the novel, “What is history?” Adrian’s response seems at first as flippant as the offhand answers of the others, but turns out to be anything but flippant.
“History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” 
The first half of this short book takes the boys through boarding school, and the reader gets a perceptive look at the sexual insecurities of teenage boys who are anxious to meet girls, but unsure about what they expect or even want from them. Although the four boys pledge to remain close forever, in fact as they drift into their post-boarding school lives, different schools, different professions, they also drift from one another. Tony, the narrator, has a brief and perplexing relationship with a girl, Veronica, who then becomes involved with Adrian. Although Tony exited the relationship before Adrian hooks up with Veronica, he nevertheless manages to feel betrayed by both, with mild reservations about whether his reading is a just one. “Again, I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time.”

Abruptly, surprisingly, the reader is informed that Adrian, the thinker, the serious one, commits suicide at twenty-two, having left an enigmatic, though existentially lucid note of explanation. Book One concludes with Tony grown up, married and divorced, his child also grown, and now looking back on his life as complete and, if not sensational, nevertheless satisfactory. So why a book Two at all? The slice of life novel seems complete, well written, entertaining if not extraordinary. But of course it is Book Two that re-raises all the questions about history, and shows graphically just where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacy of documentation. 

Although I have no intention of giving away the mysteries introduced in Book Two, it is this second looking back that makes this a profound novel. Tony, in his retirement, continues to read history, though he finds himself more interested in the histories of Greece and Rome than with those of his own time. 

Perhaps I just feel safe with the history that’s been more or less agreed upon. Or perhaps it’s that same paradox again: the history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent. We live in time, it bounds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it? But if we can’t understand time, can’t grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history—even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?

A letter, along with a relatively small amount of money bequeathed him from an unlikely source, causes Tony to look again at his own life and to see how that lovely word, ‘deliquescent’ applies to his history. Indeed, the picture he has, the story he has told himself over and over until it has become solid and clear, begins to dissolve, to become liquid. Everything begins to shift; all that was in focus blurs. Nothing is as it had seemed. Not simply in Tony’s life, but for all of us who step back to take another look. 
It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.
While Book Two is what transforms this book from simply a well-told slice-of-life story into a philosophically profound piece, when I finished the book, I still found myself puzzled by all the attention it has received. Is this really a Booker Prize sort of novel? But after letting it percolate for a bit, I picked it up again, looking back on it a second time, much as Tony looks again at his own life, and this time I was struck with its depth. I now think it is much more than a well told story; I think you will too.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Summer of Naked Swim Parties by Jessica Anya Blau

I have to admit that despite the horrors of the Viet Nam war and the political chaos in the U.S. in the early seventies, I feel that I came of age politically, socially, and morally in that decade. It seemed a time when there was a great surge towards freedom—a time when students and workers had more power than anytime since, and when young and old came together in like-minded struggles attempting to limit the power of the rich and to call attention to and put the brakes on economic imperialism around the world. It was a heady and vigorous time, and in most ways, I feel lucky to have lived through it and learned from it.

For that very reason I have been surprised by the reactions of some of the kids who were raised in that era—people who came to see themselves as victims of the relaxed sexual and social norms of the time rather than as beneficiaries. In her 2008 debut novel, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, Jessica Anya Blau recalls what it was like for her and her slightly older sister to grow up in a so-called liberated household.

Jamie and her sister, Renee, fervently wish that they had ‘normal’ parents—parents who gave them curfews, scrutinized their friends, even checked on the truth of just where they really would be on their overnight slumber parties. Jamie’s friends think her parents are super-cool; they have the access to the best weed in town, trust their daughters implicitly, and seem more interested than concerned about the sex lives of their fourteen and fifteen year old daughters. If there is anything that embarrasses Jamie more than the nudity of her parents at swim parties around the family pool, it is her mother’s wanting to share in Jamie’s coming of age and her dawning sexuality.

The night before her first real date with a boy (he is seventeen, she fourteen), she asks her parents what time they expect her home.
“When did you say this date was?” Betty {her mother} asked.
“Tomorrow night,” Jamie said.
“Dan and I won’t even be home,” Betty said. “We’re going grunion hunting with Leon and Lois.”
“Well, what time will you be home?
“I dunno, three, four in the morning.”
“Mom! Please be home by midnight. I don’t want to come home to an empty house.”
“So stay out past three.”
While most of this little novel is light-hearted and meant to be humorous, there is quite obviously an undercurrent of real fear in Jamie, and genuine disdain for the ways in which her parents conduct their lives. I’m reminded of another more serious (and on the whole much better) memoir by Joelle Fraser entitled The Territory of Men. In both of these books, it is quite obvious that the main characters see themselves as casualties rather than beneficiaries of the 70s, mostly because they were too early introduced both to sex and to drugs.

Jamie recalls a typical party thrown by her parents:
There were twelve adults and eight kids at the party. The children clumped together in an approximation of their parents’ friendship; theirs was an intimacy borne of the shared experience of witnessing the grown-ups revelries.
All of the adults were naked. All of the kids were in swimsuits, even the one-year-old girl, Lacey, who wore a bandana-print suit.
Jaime’s sister, Renee, is even more disgusted and disdainful of her parents and these parties than Jamie, and escapes the entire family whenever possible via Christian summer camps or excursions with friends in what she sees as normal families. Jaime is simultaneously attracted and repelled by the lives her parents lead, but her attitude towards the adult nakedness is univocal.
Here’s the thing adults should know when they choose to dance naked, Jamie thought: Everything bounces, and the bouncing isn’t necessarily on beat with the music. So watching a naked adult dance is like watching a 3-D movie without the glasses; a shadow image beside the real one.
She continues with a more graphic description of just what bounces and how it looks that I won’t report here; suffice it to say that even her interest in those bouncing body parts is born of disgust.

In addition to Jamie’s recollections of and critique of her parents’ lives, this is also a story about her first love. Again I am reminded of another book about the seventies, Alix Kate Shulman’s excellent memoir, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen. Alix recalls how the lovely and exciting times of kissing and hugging with boys comes to an abrupt end once she allows them to take her into the back seat, and all too soon achieve that fevered penetration. All the warmth and excitement are gone, and what is even worse, once the boys have scored, there is no going back to the warm cuddly times; boys only go forward, never back. Alix tells us that she gives up sex at eighteen, sure that there is nothing in it for her. Jamie, too, discovers that the exciting build up from kissing, to touching, to heavy petting leads not to the nirvana that she had hoped for (and that her mother insists is the nature of sex), but to at worst fear and pain, and at best boredom and waiting for him to finish. And like Kate’s experiences, there is no going back to the more innocent and much more rewarding times of cuddling and exchanging of confidences. Jamie’s boyfriend, Flip, disappears from her life as quickly as he magically appeared, and while the sex is no loss, the companionship is.

While this is not a great book, it is quite well written and sadly funny. At least for this reader, it is a reminder that the seventies might have had a much different look and feel to kids brought up in those times than to me and my peers.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Mother’s Recompense by Edith Wharton

There are times when I accuse myself of searching for moral and political significance in novels that I like simply because of the stories they tell and the skill with which they are written. There is no doubt that Edith Wharton wrote beautiful, sometimes even entrancing, prose. But she was a very rich woman who never renounced her wealth, and although she served in courageous ways during World War I, and after the war brought to the attention of the artistic world many writers and painters who were very poor and sometimes homeless, her political views were in most ways as conservative as those of the class from which she came and from which she never quite managed to extricate herself.

That said, I think Wharton is a feminist whose awareness of sexism deepened with age, and whose later works present female lead characters not simply as tragic castoffs from so-called high society, but as strong and principled women who refuse to play the roles society has dictated for them and who in most ways prefer their relative impoverishment to the moneyed lives they might have lived had they succumbed to class pressure.

In particular, I want to talk today about one of her late novels, The Mother’s Recompense, that was published in 1925 when Wharton was sixty-three and just eight years before her death. I hate to give away significant features of plot when I review books, but it is next to impossible to talk about The Mother’s Recompense without giving away one crucial feature of the plot. I don’t think giving away this part of the book will ruin it for serious readers, and at any rate, Wharton, herself, gives it away about a third of the way into the book.

Kate Clephane, the lead character in the book, has been ostracized from the wealthy New York society into which she had married, because she in desperation escapes from that woeful marriage and from the web of social constraints that were asphyxiating her. Even worse than the simple desertion, she left behind an infant daughter, Anne, whom she deeply loved. The desertion of husband is enough to outlaw her forever from this society, and while the desertion of the daughter is much worse, she knows had she attempted to take her young daughter along, she would certainly have been hounded down by the authorities and probably jailed. She could not have her daughter and leave her marriage, and so finally abandons both.

We readers are introduced to Kate many years later living on a very small income on the Riviera among a group of other outcasts (gamblers, alcoholics, and women with pasts). Kate is unaware that her ex-mother-in-law, a stern and unforgiving woman, has died and that her now grown daughter is finally free from the domineering grandmother who has presided over her life and fortune.  A grand change is about to happen in Kate’s life with the arrival of a simple telegram: “New York. Dearest mother, I want you to come home at once. I want you to come and live with me. Your daughter Anne.”

Despite Kate’s concerns that there may be no way for mother and daughter to live harmoniously together after her desertion, Kate and Anne seem at once not only to get along, but to quickly establish a deep and lasting connection. Unlike Wharton’s usually tragic women characters, it appears Kate has been rescued and the love she has for her daughter rekindled. Even the convention-bound, rigid society that had cast her out now seems to have forgotten her past sins and to welcome her back into a more forgiving and freer community, engineered in part by the younger generation who openly flaunt the old strictures.

Alas, we readers know that a significant event in Kate’s past, indeed the one and only love of her life, has not been discovered by the society to which she returns. Years after her original exile, Kate fell in love with and carried on an affair with a man, Chris Fenno, who was ten years younger than she. The affair begins during the war and ends before the war ends; somehow, war fever and Kate’s European life have kept this affair under wraps.

Anne has inherited the strength and intellect of her mother as well as the iron will of her grandmother; she seems less interested in men and marriage than in her life as an artist, and now that the forbidding and controlling grandmother is gone, she can devote herself to her newfound relationship with her mother and her art. Two strong women living together with no need of a man.

But just as Kate finally feels loved and safe, she discovers that there is, after all, a man who is important in her daughter’s life, although, private woman that her daughter is, only a select few seem to be aware of her relationship. Who could it be? Long before the reader is actually told of his identity, the clues mount up, and yes, Anne has fallen for the one man Kate cannot (personally or morally) accept into her daughter’s life, Chris Fenno.

But what to do in this moral dilemma? She knows that her daughter does not fall in love easily, and she discovers slowly that the iron will of the grandmother has been inherited by Anne. Should she tell her daughter the truth? That would surely end the relationship with Chris Fenno, but would it not also destroy the budding love between mother and daughter? And furthermore, even when Kate confronts Chris and seems to have successfully headed him off, threatening to tell all if continues with plans to marry Anne, her daughter tracks Chris down and demands and explanation.

I’m not about to give away the end of the book, but I will say that just as I deeply admired Lily Bart in Wharton’s The Age of Mirth, I admire Kate Clephane in this novel, but for different reasons. Lily Bart, an extraordinarily beautiful and accomplished woman, ultimately refuses to accept any of the wealthy men she might have married, and even as she begins to age and her beauty begins to fray, she proudly refuses the salvation possible via marriage. From a somewhat privileged background, but having no financial resources of her own, her life spirals downward and she is finally left a poor woman and an outcast from the only society she has known. I see Lily as a feminist hero precisely because she refuses to barter away her dignity as a person—refuses to use her beauty and talents as a way to snare a man. The novel is meant as a tragedy, but a tragedy with a real hero, Lily Bart. Kate Clephane, too, represents to me a proud and strong woman who refuses to be bought off with money and position. Her own dignity, in more modern terms, her authenticity, demands that she give up her life of luxury to return to her previous rather Spartan existence. But she is not a tragic figure. Nor, indeed, does Wharton present her as such. Unfortunate perhaps, but not tragic. I see Wharton’s women characters as progressively stronger and more admirable as she matures as both author and feminist.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Wallace Stegner

I want to talk to you this morning about one of the truly great American writers of the 20th century, Wallace Stegner. His biographer, as well as many admirers and even Stegner himself, insist that he has been marginalized by the Eastern intellectual press, treated as ‘merely’ a western writer—a historian and environmentalist who also writes fiction. While it is true that much of his environmental and conservationist writing focuses on what he calls the rape of the west, some of his finest novels have the action taking place in New England. Indeed, one of his finest novels, The Spectator Bird, has for its location Denmark. Anyone who reads him carefully will realize that he is a writer whose subject is the world and the beings who inhabit it, and he writes with an honesty and compassion matched by few.

Many writers find it difficult to combine writing and teaching; indeed, some writers find it difficult even to combine journal or essay writing with fiction. Stegner did it all. He was a gifted teacher whose students included Wendall Berry, Ken Kesey, Raymond Carver, Tillie Olsen, Edward Abbey, Larry McMurtry and many more. He wrote short stories, novels, essays on nature and conservation, literary criticism, and biography. And he wrote at a pace that I find staggering. He published his first novel when he was twenty-eight, and one of his very best, Crossing to Safety, when he was seventy-nine. In my opinion, his later novels were among his very best.

I returned to Stegner after not having read him for about twenty years when I discovered that I had not read his 1976 novel, The Spectator Bird. That excellent novel reignited my interest in Stegner, and I have since re-read Crossing to Safety, and am now reading his biography of Bernard DeVoto (another great conservationist) along with Jackson Benson’s excellent biography of Stegner.

Although very much a male author, Stegner wrote with a sensitivity and emotional intelligence rare among men. He does not write adventure novels, and his lead characters are not angry young men nor existentially tortured loners. Often enough, it is the female characters who nudge the males towards tolerance and understanding, and who urge compassion for all the little live things (the title of one of his novels), but he is not an essentialist who forgives men their brutality because of some inborn, inescapable nature. Stegner was small as a child, especially compared to his powerful father and athletic older brother, and as his biographer says:
Both the nonfictional and the fictional accounts of his growing up…make it clear that a dichotomy developed early in his consciousness between the proud, tough, intolerant rugged individualism represented by his father and the friendly, tolerant, neighborly tendencies toward caring and cooperation represented by his mother—and it was his mother whom he learned to admire.
He was married to the same woman all of his life, and it is obvious that several of his women characters are modeled on his wife, Mary.

I grew up as a Mormon in Salt Lake City, Utah, and have spent a good part of my adult life on the run from what I see as the silly doctrines and dangerous elitism of religious fundamentalists of any ilk. Stegner also grew up among Mormons and attended the University of Utah in the thirties when it was (even more that it is today) very heavily influenced by the church. However, he is so much more tolerant of Mormonism than I, and indeed wrote two sympathetic accounts of the westward movement of the Mormons. He admired the sense of cooperation and collectivism in the church, so unlike the individualism and gold-rush mentality of so much of western expansion. He remained friendly to Mormons and Mormonism all his life, and while he found the doctrines preposterous and distrusted the authoritarian structure of the church, his sympathetic treatment has caused me to take another look at my own past and my unmitigated criticism of the church.

So far I have talked mainly of Stegner’s fiction, and it is his fiction that most interests me and which sparked my interest in him as a writer. However, his environmentalism and his push for conservation are manifest not only in his essays (e.g., Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs) but in his fiction as well. I’ve spoken above about Stegner’s suspicion of the rugged individualism and get-rich-quick mentality of his father. That suspicion and distrust may well have triggered his later interest in and passion for nature and conservation. Again quoting from Benson’s biography of Stegner:
Stegner found the American Dream far more damaging than does Dreiser in An American Tragedy or Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby. Almost alone among major writers of our time, he realized that the dream has not only twisted our lives and corroded our values, it has despoiled the very land that has given us such hope. And that hope, as represented by the frontier, is what has given the West such a symbolic role in representing the dream, has made the perpetuation of the mythic West possible. What motivates Bo Mason in The Big Rock Candy Mountain is what motivates poor people, dreaming the impossible dream of sudden riches, to hate unions and vote Republican. Like Willie Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, they wait for Uncle Ben to pass on the secret of wealth, while at the same time, the land and air are so polluted they cannot plant seeds that will grow in their own backyards. For Stegner, who was concerned with cooperation, empathy, and mutual support in basic relationships, the American Dream very often spelled disaster, not only for individuals, but for our society and our land.
When Stegner depicts in his writings someone who is successful, it is not for his material possessions or status due to wealth or fame, but for what he has made of himself morally and spiritually and what he has accomplished.
There is a conversational style to Stegner’s fiction that makes it easy to read and utterly believable, and renders the moralizing which is always there (at least under the surface) much more palatable than it would be otherwise. I think his novels get better as he ages, both in simplicity of style and in moral-political content, but I believe readers could start anywhere in his work and find it rewarding. I have not even mentioned yet his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Angle of Repose, but that may be a good starting point, and whatever order you then pursue, be sure to include Crossing to Safety, The Spectator Bird, and Recapitulation.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Torch by Cheryl Strayed

The fact is that as organic beings, we are situated towards death. Martin Heidegger announces that one of the universal and necessary conditions of being human is being-towards-death; he calls these universal and necessary conditions existentialia. So many authors have written about this experience of living in the shadow of death, but few have written as honestly and insightfully as Cheryl Strayed on experiencing the death of a loved one. In her 2005 novel, Torch, Strayed lays out the confusion of emotions that surround the death and dying of a thirty-eight year old woman, Teresa, and skillfully changes voices to describe the reactions of a college age daughter, Claire, a high school senior son, Josh, and a loving husband and step-father, Bruce. While it is Claire’s voice that is both the most convincing and complete, I was very impressed by Strayed’s ability to speak for the son and husband as well.

Strayed now lives in Portland, and since the debut of this sad and lovely little novel, she has published a memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail (2012), and has identified herself as the voice behind the advice column, Dear Sugar. So many excellent novels (especially first novels) are thinly veiled autobiographical sketches, and this is certainly true of Torch. Like Claire, Strayed lost her mother to cancer at an early age, and she experienced first-hand her own wild grief and the different, though no less profound, reactions of a brother and stepfather.

I won’t be giving away much of the story by telling you that about the first third of the novel describes the illness and death of Teresa, and the last two thirds focuses on the attempts of her family to deal with her death.

The mother, Teresa, in addition to working hard as a waitress, is also well known locally via her radio talk show, Modern Pioneers. Teresa’s children are alternately proud of their mother’s local fame and ashamed of the homespun stories and advice she delivers on her show and strives to live out in her daily life. At the end of each show, she invokes her listeners to “Work hard. Do good. Be incredible!”

Claire is called home from college when her mother gets the shocking diagnosis that she has only a short time to live—maybe weeks, maybe months, at most a year. For a little while, she and others in the family try to carry on with their normal routines, but as the disease rapidly progresses, each has to face the fact that there will be no return to normalcy—not now, not ever.
Claire stared at her mother as she slept or tried to sleep. The longer she watched her, the more foreign Teresa seemed to her, as if she hadn’t known her all her life. She’d felt the same peculiar dislocation years before, when it had been explained to how babies were made. It wasn’t the facts that had confused her, or the mystery of sex or birth or creation, but the question of why. Why should there be people at all? Or fish or lions or rats? Now she felt a new wonder washing over her. If there were to be people and fish and lions and rats, then why should they die? And why, most of all, should her mother die?
Bruce, the loving husband who has become a devoted father to Claire and Joshua, attempts first simply to deny that his wife is dying; her death seems inconceivable. It is she who is the glue of the family, the wise mother and pioneer. And when her death becomes inevitable, when she in fact dies, his second attempt at denial is to suppose that when she dies, so will he. He can see no other solution, though he worries about how his children will respond to this second death.

Joshua, still a senior in high school, also attempts first simply to deny. He refuses to visit his mother in the hospital, not only because he hates to see her so changed, hates to see her and hear her suffering, but because in some confused way he supposes his refusal will prevent her death. Even before she becomes so ill that she has to be in the hospital, Joshua has taken to staying away, not attending school, secreting himself in a storeroom above the restaurant where he worked before his mother became ill.
On occasion he made an appearance, showing up at home a couple of times a week for Bruce or Claire so they wouldn’t worry, and at least once a day he saw Lisa Bourdeaux {his girlfriend}. But mostly he liked to be alone, in silence, or listening to his music as he lay on the unfurled rug in the apartment or sat by the river on the rock, not remembering where the world was. Remembering it, but willing himself not to. Often this meant that he could not allow a single thought into his mind, and he got good at it, forcing his mind to go separate and blank, imagining himself not human, but rather an animal that hibernated or went into torpor.
Strayed is incredibly good at dissecting the grief of each member of the family, showing how their very different reactions sometimes drive them further apart when they so desperately need to be closer together. When Joshua asks his stepfather what he is going to do now that Teresa is dead, Bruce wants to reach out, wants to comfort his son.
And he almost reached out and put his hand on Joshua’s shoulder and said, ‘Suffer for a while, but then we’re going to be okay.'
But he said none of those things. He wasn’t that man. Not in this instant. He was so alone that he could not speak. He remained silent for so long that the silence seemed to absorb the question entirely, so that it would have been stranger to answer than to leave it be.
It would be a big mistake to suppose that Strayed is simply noting that boys and men attempt to deny or flee death and grief, while girls and women have to deal with it. In fact, she is both perceptive and exceedingly kind in her descriptions of the varied responses. Each character deals with the death and dying as she/he must, and while this is not a happy book, neither is it simply bleak and tragic. I would say that in the end she is hardest on Claire, perhaps because she expects the most from her, from herself. But in truth the author shows great empathy towards and understanding of each of her characters, and if there is no final summing up and redemption, there is acceptance and understanding of this universal and necessary condition of what it is to be human. This is a fine book, and I expect more from this wonderful writer.

Monday, March 19, 2012

How It All Began by Penelpe Lively

What is it like for a being to live in time and to be consciously, even obsessively, aware of living in time? This question has captured the attention of so many philosophers in the past hundred years or so, but it is novelists who actually describe the threefold process of living simultaneously in the past, constantly anticipating a future, and so in the grip of memory and anticipation that the present is barely noticed as it tumbles into the past. Penelope Lively, in all of her works, takes on this description of lived time and the tricks and vagaries of memory. In her latest novel, How It All Began, she focuses in on how one seemingly insignificant event triggers huge changes in the lives of so many. A retired high school English teacher, Charlotte, is knocked down and mugged on a London street, sending her to hospital, one consequence of which is that her daughter, Rose, is unable to accompany her employer, Henry, to an academic convention. This in turn leads to a summons to Henry’s niece, Marion, to stand in for Rose, which in turns leads to Marion’s sending a last minute text to her lover, Jeremy, canceling an assignation. “I can’t make it on Friday. Have to escort Uncle Henry to Manchester—his PA out of action. Bother, bother. I’m so sorry. Love you.” Her lover, Jeremy, who is usually so assiduous about deleting text messages, has this time left his mobile phone at home, which again due to circumstance, leads to his wife, Stella discovering the text-message and she almost at once instigates divorce proceedings, immediately impacting the lives of their two teenage daughters. And these are only a few of the people affected in large and small ways by the impulsive, chance actions of the young mugger. Rose’s husband, Gerry, is affected because his mother-in-law Charlotte, whose hip is broken in the process of being knocked to the ground by the mugger, comes to live with them while convalescing. While staying with her daughter, Charlotte, who has been a superb teacher most of her life, and even in retirement has taken on the task of volunteer teacher of English as a second language for older immigrants, finds the idleness of convalescence almost unbearable. This leads to her taking on one of these immigrants in a one-on-one teaching task, which brings Anton, the eastern European immigrant, into contact with her daughter Rose, who to her amazement, mixed with both delight and chagrin, finds herself falling in love with Anton. And let’s not forget Marion, the niece called into the service of her aging academic uncle due to the actions of the mugger; she is an interior designer who by happenstance meets a shady investment broker at the academic convention she attends as PA to her uncle, and the broker engages Marion to restore and decorate an upper end London flat, which in turn, affects the lives of the Polish men whom she hires for the restoration. All these consequences spinning off of this chance mugging.

You may think I have given away too much of the story already in laying out the butterfly-effect above, but in truth, the reader comes to know all of this in the first few pages of the novel. The brilliance of Lively as an author is in her uncanny ability to speak in monologues for each of her many characters and to give the reader glimpses of their inner lives and their particular forms of being-in-time. Again like so many of the philosophers and writers of the past century, Lively does not believe in an external telos somehow guiding human endeavors. There is no such thing as fate or destiny. Instead, there is this incredibly complex network of causation directed by nothing and no one, but hurtling us all towards a chancy and unknown future. We may feel secure in our beliefs about a cozy and fixed future, but it is an illusion that can be exploded as myth in a second by what can only be described as a chance event.

I have been in the thrall of Penelope Lively since I picked up a collection of her short stories many years ago, and each time I read a new novel, I am struck again by her talent as a writer and by her grasp of the existential condition. She is now in her late seventies, but I can detect no erosion of her immense powers of observation, nor in her ability to describe in detail the inner lives of her characters. For me, reading her is like picking up a conversation with an old friend, and she, too, seems to have just such relationships with so many other authors I love: Henry James, Iris Murdoch, Carol Shields, Dostoevsky, and many more whom she mentions in the course of this novel. Perhaps she speaks even more particularly to me now as she talks of the process of aging and the speeding up of lived-time as one grows old.
You are on the edge of things now, clinging on to life’s outer rim. You have this comet trail of your own lived life, sparks from which arrive in the head all the time, whether you want them or not—life has been lived but it is still going on, in the mind, for better and for worse.
I have concentrated on Lively’s treatment of lived-time and on her conviction that there is no human-independent purpose for existence, no external telos, only an unfathomable web of causation and chance. But I could as well have focused in on her views about literature, reading and teaching—all of which get a lot of attention in this novel. She realizes that teachers are, at best, conduits or catalysts; rather than filling empty vessels (one particularly noxious view of education), good teachers simply provide opportunities, suggest books, provide sparks that ignite the inquiring mind.

Let me sum up this wonderful novel using Lively’s own words:
So that was the story. These have been the stories: of Charlotte, of Rose and Gerry, of Anton, of Jeremy and Stella, of Marion, of Henry, Mark, of all of them. The stories so capriciously triggered because something happened to Charlotte in the street one day. But of course this is not the end of the story, the stories. An ending is an artificial device; we like endings, they are satisfying, convenient, and a point has been made. But time does not end, and stories march in step with time. Equally, chaos theory does not assume an ending; the ripple effect goes on, and on. These stories do not end, but they spin away from one anther, each on its own course.
I have been talking about an incredible author, Penelope Lively, and of her newest book, How It All Began. I hope you will allow Lively to enter into the stream of your lived life, transform and metamorphize it.

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Monday, February 27, 2012

The Outsider by Richard Wright

Since this is Black history month, I’m going to depart from my usual practice of reviewing contemporary fiction and, instead, talk about an often misunderstood novel by a truly great American black author, Richard Wright.

Most readers know of Wright because of his early works, Native Son and Uncle Tom’s Children. Some have also read the first part of his autobiography, Black Boy (the second half of which was intentionally suppressed because of Wright’s affiliation with the Communist Party, and only much later published under the title American Hunger). But for many and rather complex reasons, the novel that most explicitly states Wright’s philosophical views, as well as his understanding of and fascination with psychoanalysis, has been largely ignored. He called the novel The Outsider, and it is indeed an incredible exploration of a bright and deeply troubled man who is on the outside in almost all ways. He is outside the powerful white culture simply because he is black, and no one understands better than Wright the economic and social oppression of American Blacks. But he is also outside the black community that he lives in, because he is an atheist, and harshly critical of religion as simply a flight into illusion and myth in the face of this oppression. And finally, he is a morbidly self-reflective man with an acute sense of his own existential isolation and who understands always the distorting lenses through which others, both white and black, view him.

This novel was published in 1953, when McCarthyism was at a fever pitch in this country. No doubt anti-communist sentiment had much to do with the initial response to the book, along with a fear of even appearing to be interested in anything tainted with communism. But the novel was also met with suspicion on the Left, at least partly because Wright had severed his ties with the Communist Party and was thereafter overtly critical of Soviet style communism. Like Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the French Marxist who felt impelled to criticize the lack of democratic process in the Soviet controlled CP, and eventually to expose the Siberian work camps, Wright insisted that it was his very understanding of Marxism that led him to reject the Soviet Union and the control it exerted over the CP. Jean Paul Sartre, too, although not wanting to alienate French workers, and thus always portraying himself as a Fellow Traveler with the CP, used plays as a mechanism for criticizing the authoritarian structure of the Party. So, both left and right were uneasy with this dark and violent novel, and academicians in this country (including those in philosophy departments) were so resistant to European existentialism (especially French existentialism), that by and large they simply ignored it—literally rejecting it out of hand, that is, without bothering to read it.  Wright, on the other hand, had both read and comprehended the major themes in existentialism, understood it on an emotional as well as intellectual level. Iris Murdoch once said that Marx and Freud changed the course of intellectual history forever, and I would certainly argue this to be the case in Wright’s development as an intellectual.

Damon Cross, the lead character in The Outsider, is a very bright and very dangerous man. He is also the spokesman for Wright, and in long, intricate passages lays out both a thorough understanding of the existential condition and a total rejection of theological consolations. The story, itself, is a long and complicated one, and I have no intention of giving away the twists and turns of the plot. I will say however that Damon Cross, not by divine intervention, but by chance intervention, is given the opportunity to begin anew, in Sartre’s words, to become the author of his own existence, to be really and truly and frighteningly free.

Damon is trapped in a low paying civil service job; trapped by a deeply religious and disappointed mother whom he both loves and resents; trapped by an early marriage to a woman with whom he feels no commonality, but with whom he has three children; trapped by a sexual relationship with a very young woman whom he comes to learn is not even of age, but pregnant and insisting that Damon get a divorce. Alienated from his co-workers and lost in a whirl of alcohol and daily thoughts of suicide, chance delivers him via a subway accident that leaves many dead, one of whom Cross manages to switch identities with. He is abruptly free; no past, no identity. His insurance money will go to his wife, so he is more valuable to her dead than alive. The girlfriend, Dot, will now have to do the sensible thing and get an abortion that she has so far refused. Even, he thinks, less a disappointment to his poor mother dead than he would be alive.

Now a stranger in this very strange land, Damon Cross flees from Chicago to New York and becomes Lionel Lane, black intellectual working for the Communist Party.
As the train wheels clicked through the winter night, he knew where his sense of dread came from; it was from within himself, within the vast and mysterious world that was his and his alone, and yet not really known to him, a world that was his own and yet unknown. And it was into this strange but familiar world that he was now plunging.
Cross, like Wright, is an intensely proud man who cannot be made to feel or act inferior because of his blackness, nor to blame race for his own condition. But he sees how racism affects others, and he bridles at the injustices he witnesses much more than at anything that has happened to him. He sees how powerful white men in the CP use black people for their own ends, how they distort and misuse the very Marxist principles that he admires simply in order to further an agenda that in the end supports an authoritarian power-structure, denies the importance of the individual, and thwarts democratic process at every turn.

In describing a character in the book, Wright could well have been describing himself:
…he had the kind of consciousness that could grasp the mercurial emotions of men whom society had never tamed or disciplined, men whose will had never been broken, men who were wild but sensitive, savage but civilized, intellectual but somehow intrinsically poetic in their inmost hearts.
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