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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Friday, January 31, 2014

Why Mark Tietjens decides to remain silent and immobilized - Parade's End

At the end of section 1 of Last Post, the final volume of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End, FMF gives us a fairly detailed account of Armistice Day in London, this time in sequence from the POV of Mark Tietjens and from his wife, Marie - a French woman who had been is "mistress" but whom he finally marries, as discussed in Mark's interior ruminations about mistresses and prostitutes and kept women and whom a gentleman should marry - he seems to see his marrying her as some sort of benevolence. In any case, what we see on Armistice Day is an account of Christopher Tietjens dunning his brother, Mark, for some money, leaving some crappy furniture as collateral, so that he can spend some time in his long-awaited sexual liaison w/ Valentine Wannop - but of course Mark never gives him the money, and the night gets spent in frustration, his carousing with various war buddies in various states of shell shock, inebriation, and madness. Its almost but not quite comical. Mark provides an insight that had never come up in this novel to this point - the possibility that Valentine and Christopher are half-siblings. Strange indeed. Strangest of all is Mark Tietjens's determination to be silent and immobile - which seems to come about when he learns that the British will not pursue the retreating German army back to Germany. Now it certainly seems odd that such news would drive him to a lifetime of paralysis - perhaps he did have a stroke and his silence is not a willed decision? But in any case I think he's clearly not reacting only or even primarily to this news but to his vision of the collapse of the British way of life as  he knows it, that is, to the class structure, as he sees men socializing together across various class boundaries - the war has created an entirely new network of associations and allowed possibilities - it's this that he's protesting against, that revolts him, that forces his retirement from life itself. There may be an aspect of his anger at Britain's failure to pursue - but I would have thought he'd more likely be a pacifist than a war-monger. More on this perhaps in a later post.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Stream of consciousness or dry creekbed - New Yorker story by Donald Antrim

Donald Antrim - a name I've seen around for some time but have never for some reason read one of his books or in fact can even name one of his books - but I might do so now (read one, that is) after reading very impressive story in current New Yorker, The Emerald Light in the Sky or something like that - one of the many fine stories in the American outsider tradition, in this case a 3rd person but very close to the consciousness of the main figure, Billy, a 30-something middle-school art teacher and going-nowhere sculptor, living near Charlottesville, Va., but not in the academic circle, and coming off a horrible year in his life, parents both died and wife left for another man, a year that has pushed him into severe depression, into ECT treatment, and into a lot of dumb decisions about drugs and drinking and driving, all at once - the story finds him kind of lost on rural roads in a very old Mercedes, stuck in a rainstorm that sends him careening off the road and stupidly trying to navigate a creekbed, which is becoming flooded; surprise, eventually he's mired and a kid comes to him thru the storm, asking if he's the doctor coming to see the very ill mother. He says yes - which leads to a few  interesting twists, and also to a very moving scene in which Billy tries to do good for someone and realizes the strength in his heart and the relative security and prosperity of his position in life - a simple story that covers only an hour or so of time but gives us a very full and complex person in despair. I like the close narrative style that Antrim has worked - it's not exactly stream of consciousness but more like jumps of consciousness - each paragraph leaping to a separate thought or moment - sometimes in the present and sometimes a recollection of a past, usually traumatic, event - which I think is more close to the way a mind works (or mine does) than to the flowing-stream image or style.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Westward the course of empire: America rising in Parade's End

Following on yesterday's post, Ford Madox Ford in the 4th and final volume of Parade's End does begin to examine the issue class privilege - mainly through the point of view of Mark Tietjens who has Iago-like (as he notes, he also misattributes an to Othello a quote from Iago - FMF's error, or his character's?) vowed "never to speak word more" and who begins to ponder his own position in the English class structure - he's of the landed gentry and he feels in some condescending way an obligation to keep the estate running to support the tenant farmers and so - wonder how they might feel about this? - but now he's physically and mentally unable to run the estate - so who are the heirs? He notes that three older siblings (one a sister) died in the war (WWI) - the father committed suicide, and that leaves everything to the oldest surviving child - but he can't handle it - and - the great dilemma - younger brother, Christopher T., the main figure in the three preceding volumes, doesn't want it. We have to give some props to CT here - he doesn't just talk the talk, so to speak - he has really turned his back on potential class privilege - taken up w/ the impoverished though highly educated Valentine Wannop, even while still married (he's such a moralist - won't divorce as he believes it's improper, either morally or perhaps socially, particular when there's a child involved - although I think all readers are surprised to at last meet his son in vol. 4 and find him to be a college-aged kid), and more important he's actually trying to earn a living in the antiques trade rather than just expect that wealth and privilege is due to him by birth. Of course Mark is very scornful of CT's choice - but the war seems to have changed CT in ways that aren't really overtly expressed: the camaraderie w/ men of a different class, the sense of the horrors or war and the sudden, randomness of death; also, he seems to have a sense that westward the course of empire makes its way: America is a rising empire, and is picking up the pieces of the British empire, shattered in the ruins of the war. It's no accident that he makes his money selling to Americans, and that Mark T survives on the estate by renting to an American woman.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The demise of the landed gentry - Parade's End

The one single element that the BBC miniseries uses from book 4 of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End is the great cedar tree on the family estate, Groby; in the series, screenwriter Stoppard makes a big deal about the symbolism of the tree - it seems to stand for all the grandeur and tradition of the country baronial estates, ridings, I think they call them in the north country, and it's kind of a surprise that this tree makes no appearance until the final volume of the series - but at last it does, as a group comes up to the immobile and mute Mark Tietjens, who's living in his rustic hut on the estate, and it takes a while before we learn that the visitors are the new tenant for Groby, an American woman, accompanied by Christopher Tietjens's son, also Mark I think - so we realize that some time has passed as the son is now at Oxford, and he talks about all his friends'  being communist. Well that's kind of odd, as the kid himself has no sense about giving up any of his landholdings or class privileges. What's going on in this section of the novel is not just a challenge to the moral values of the landed gentry but an invasion of the American, commercial spirit - the new tenant who's made to seem like an idiot and a boor - she trudges across the meadow, not realizing that her doing so will damage the hay harvest, but how is she to know that? There's a sense, always, among the landed gentry, that their ways are the only right ways, the best ways, and that anyone from another class is only to be barely, condescendingly tolerated. Worst of all, she wants to chop down the ancestral cedar - a pretty heavy-handed symbol. Also, Christopher T. is now making his living as an antiques dealer, buying up all this British scrap and selling it at outrageous prices to American collectors. So - America came out as the only winner of the war, the dollar is mighty, and the ways of the landed gentry will never be the same. And what makes the landed gentry so great? Why do they feel entitled to own all that land and live off the labor of others? They are no better, no smarter, than anyone else - and if the Americans, we Americans, can earn enough $ to buy stuff we want from the British, so be it. It's particularly odd that Mark Tietjens wills himself never to speak - never to move his body, in fact. Another bit of symbolism, old England, paralyzed and mute, while the world around changes and grows.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Good morning, Vietnam - The Beauty of Humanity Movement

Book group pretty much reached consensus on Camilla Gibb's The Beauty of Humanity Movement -a book w/ a lot of good information, a view of North Vietnam that we seldom if ever see, a novel that upends our belief about the egalitarian socialist government and the noble agrarian peasants, but for all that kind of a didactic novel without much depth of character - they're all "two-dimensional," that is, each stands for something - the old and long-suffering displaced rural peasant, the new Vietnamese youth plugged into rap music, sneakers, and pop culture, living off the nascent tourist trade and resenting it, and so on. In the end, I felt it was a novel w/out the courage of its convictions: Gibb has written a very dark novel in which impoverished Vietnamese suffer under every form of government - colonial, communist, neo-capitalist - but she is unwilling to bring the novel to a dark conclusion. All kinds of plot devices get shoe-horned into the last few chapters, and the novel ends with everyone happy and virtue rewarded. That unearned harmonious ending is at odds with the great difficulties that the characters, especially the pho chef, Hung, have faced over many years, generations. The long-delayed romance between Hung and the much, much young beauty, Lan, is really not credible, either, and in fact it's a little creepy. All that said, there's been very little fiction in English about this culture so Gibb has given us a novel that lets us see the world from another point of view, which is something. I just wish she'd done so less schematically and with great depth of character.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Surprise Beginnings: Volume 4 of Parade's End

Not surprised that volume 4 of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End opens up in the North Country at or near Tietjens's family estate, Groby - throughout the war years that the first three volumes span he had been desultorily dreaming of returning to that estate, and at other times about running an antiques shop on the south coast - but I was surprised that the volume, Last Post, opens by centering on Tietjens's brother, Mark. We find Mark T living in a kind of open-air shed somewhere on his expansive grounds, and he has been immobile and confined to a chair or bed and unable - or perhaps unwilling - to speak; he is tended to by a very competent but not well-educated groundskeeper - giving FMF occasion for his typical class condescension - and by his mistress-partner of long standing (I don't think they're married, not sure though), a French woman who dreams of retiring to her homeland, well taken care of by whatever legacy Mark T leaves her; she's incredibly voluble, the opposite of T - this was true of their life even during and before the war - and discourses on all sorts of subjects, while he has one interest only, horse races - he reads the racing pages in the papers on some reading contraption she sets up for him. The kicker of these first two chapters is that all think that MT has suffered a stroke and cannot move or talk - various docs have seen him, though the only one his "wife" trusts is the French one - but in the sections told from MT's POV he indicates that he is perfectly capable of moving and speaking but has vowed not to - this is not really credible, either it's his self-deception of a symbolism of some kind - since the Armistice, when the allies decided to allow the Germans to retreat across France w/out pursuit. Not sure why FMF spends so much time here on two characters who had either no role in first 3 volumes or very little - and there is indication that Tietjens and his partner, Valentine Wannop, will visit Mark T - who, btw, as best I can recall, deprived T of part of the father's legacy? Not sure about the details, from back in volume 2. This section is more FMF tour de force interior monologue, clearly in the tradition of Woolf and Joyce and even Faulkner, though I'm not sure if he had read Faulkner at that stage of his life - does remind me of sections of such pieces as The Bear w/ very long interior monologues and little outside information or context to hold our hands as we move along on the journey - very demanding of the reader, and a very intense reading experience if you can enter the character's mind.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A bit of literary history: Robert Coover and the Origins of the Brunists - the (non) movie

Glad to see (very) short story by old friend Robert Coover in current New Yorker and to see in the notes on contributors that his forthcoming novel will be a long-anticipated follow-up to his first (great) novel from ca 1966, The Origin of the Brunists. Thought I'd use today's post add a bit to literary history with some info for current or future Coover fans, followers, and critics. In about 1985, lifelong friend and sometime writing collaborator Andy Wolk and I purchased from Coover the movie rights to Brunists. Apparently, we were the 2nd to do so; not sure how far along the first project moved, but was clearly never filmed. Andy and I had been fans of the novel since its initial publication. When we met with Coover to discuss terms, all went very well except for one sticking point: Bob (as we knew him) was very distressed about standard contract language that would sell the rights to all characters and sequels. He felt very strongly that he owned these characters and could not give them up - it was kind of touching. He also said he was planning a sequel. Oh? About what? Well, he was going to write about the Brunists, scattered after the end-of-the-world fiasco, travling the country in small groups, spreading the gospel, facing persecution, etc. Well, Andy and I immediately knew that, if we ever turned Brunists into a movie, the studio would not want that kind of sequel - it would be something like Tiger Miller gets a call from his friend who runs a weekly in Greenwich Village and needs his help on some breaking story .... After much discussion, we drew up a unique (I think) contract that said that on any sequel Coover would be hired as an executive story consultant, or some such title - we knew that provision could still be trouble but we figured we could work that out down the road. Anyway, sadly, though I produced an unworkable draft, we never did complete or sell a screenplay - one well-known producer was highly interested but he literally died on the set of movie he was in the midst of shooting - but that's another story. Now, it's cool to see that Coover's sequel is about to be published - and I suspect few know how long he has pondered and maybe worked on this project.

Friday, January 24, 2014

A sense of an ending in volume 3 of Parade's End

The end of the third volume of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End, A Man Could Stand Up - , is, intentionally, comically absurd, as on Armistice Day a fairly large group of Tietjens's war buddies show up at this half-abandoned London house to, as the British always do, carry on. The kicker in this mix is the presence of Valentine Wannop - VW and T have had this very long-running unconsummated affair, and this Armistice Day, with T clearly still in some kind of shock from his war experiences, finds him still perseverating as to whether he should take her as his "mistress" - he feels guilty because he's still married tho very estranged, she's young and innocent, and so on - yet he doesn't believe in divorce, still professes to worry about his son - about whom he almost never thinks and who astonishingly plays no role in any of the volumes of this series - so British! So the war buddies gather, that half-crazy mckechnie or whatever his name is is still carrying the sonnet that he'd pledged to translate into Latin, they sing and drink and carouse - one of the guys, Aranjuez?, is with his girlfriend now his war bride whom he was worried would reject him if he came back wounded, which he did, and she didn't. So there's a kind of celebration, and, as w/ so many war vets, the guys, who had little in common before the war, now realize that they bond only with one another and that the civilians can never fully understand them or their experiences. And all this bonding and carousing is yet another obstacle that keeps VW and T apart - for at least another night. This scene of everyone coming together during the day-long celebrations has the feel of the end of the series, not just of this novel, and I wonder if FMF had planned to write a 4th volume - I do think this scene was the end of the BBC series, so that's why it may feel that way to me - but I think FMF will have to or want to bring T. and Wannop back to T's estate, Groby, to see how things have changed since the war, and to bring some kind of conclusion to his terrible marriage, which actually began the series, and perhaps to his relationship to his difficult brother, in vol. 4.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The strange and endless courtship of Wannop and Tietjens - Parade's End

As anticipated, the third section of volume 3 of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End brings together the first two sections: that is, the first was Valentine Wannop on Armistice Day, just getting word that her long-lost crush, Tietjens, was in London, essentially dispossessed by his estranged wife, and suffering from shell shock or some kind of war-induced madness (she had not heard from him for two years, but, like him, as it turns out, was clinging to memories of the two nights, some years apart, that they spent together and almost but not quite had sex); the 2nd section was from Tietjens's POV, in the trenches, just up to the point where he was knocked semiconscious by a German rocket, and one of his subordinate officers was nearly crushed to death and lost sight in one eye (which was his greatest fear. Now, in 3rd and final section, Valentine rushes off to find T in his apt or house in Lincoln's Inn, I think - when she finds him he's very flustered, invites her in, runs off carrying a piece of furniture or something that he wants to sell, she can tell he's disturbed and is not even sure if he recognized her (she doesn't know how much he has been fantasizing about her over past two years - but is reluctant to come on to her bcz she's the daughter of his father's best friend [ so what?] and perhaps also bcz he's still married and doesn't want to sully her pure reputation?). She wanders around the house, waits for his return, takes a phone call from her mother, who somehow knew she'd be there and wants her to look out for T., who had been their benefactor during their extreme poverty in wartime. FMF doesn't give much description of the celebration of Armistice Day, but this reunion of the two main characters, after many years apart, is strangely haunting - she so anticipatory and he so strange and unemotional and in fact unable to express the many thoughts that we saw running through his mind during his time in trench warfare. He'd said, quite oddly I thought, that his real desire was to engage, with VW, in a long conversation - maybe that's just a reaction to his difficult wife, but it seems to me also very naive and even repressed, unable to recognize or act upon his deep physical attraction to VW. Understanding that he wants her as a partner, soul mate, an equal as a thinker and iconoclast, he also seems to have no idea as to how to win her to a loving, sexual relationship, what steps to take.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

What're we fighting for?: the war in Parade's End and Dance to the Music of Time

As noted at end of yesterday's post could probably make an interesting comparison between Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End and Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, as two multivolume novels that hinge on Britain and a World War - I and II respectively. The novels are really different in style and tone - Powell's very simple and straightforward in tone although quite complex in regarding to the many entwined relationships among a broad cast of characters, who keep popping up in the volumes in unexpected places; it's also first-person, though the narrator is quite opaque; its ancestry seems to be direct tie to Proust, though it's not nearly as layered and introspective and, frankly, beautiful. Ford's is a third-person narrative, dense and challenging, sometime poetic, a fairly small cast of characters with pretty straightforward relationship - its ancestry is probably Virginia Woolf with a dash of Conradian adventure. FMF's story brings us right into the trenches of the war, but it's not a battle novel in the way that, say, War and Peace is - we get very little picture beyond what the main character, Tietjens, processes through his consciousness - which is amazingly focused on barracks politics, his estranged wife, his distant amour Valentin Wannop, put downs of fellow officers and soldiers, and only occasionally about military matters, which is the point - he uses all the other material as a buffer to keep his sanity and his complacency in the face of mortal danger; what really struck me about Powell is that it's a wartime novel told from the viewpoint of London hq (Whitehall) - and most of the "action" concerns handling diplomatic issues, especially with allied troops exiled to London, and the enormous bureaucracy that supports the war. What it has in common with Parade's End is the amazing British ability to keep class and social distinctions alive an active through the war - for U.S. soldiers, the war was a way to break these down, to a degree anyway - and to superimpose British class structure on the military caste. To give up the class structure would to give away the whole culture - which is what they're supposedly fighting to preserve.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Warfare and class warfare: Parade's End

As I suspected, the second section of A Man Could Look Up - , which is volume 3 of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End, brings us back to Tietjen's point of view, beginning on the duckboard inside a trench, somewhere in France, about 1916 or so (anyway, well before the Armistice Day that we see in the first section), with German lines about a 1/4 mile away - close enough so that the men can look across the middie no-man's land between them, using binoculars, and actually see people, faces, and the artillery can hurl small missiles at one another for hours on end. The experience was evidently paralyzingly frightful - knowing that in a few hours, on any given day, a shell could hit you or the enemy troops could come storming at you to over-run your positions and kill you hand to hand - or you could be ordered to do the same. The conditions were miserable, cold and we and almost devoid of light. The British, additionally, were way outnumbered and feared getting driven back to the sea - over over-run entirely. FMF conveys this with amazing precision and detail - the dead soldier in the space between the lines held aloft by the concertina wire, for one of the many examples - and it's all through the POV of Tietjens - who on the one hand is a cool strategist and on the other is plain terrified, like so many of the soldiers. Some are of the soldiers literally go insane - but there's really no place to shelter them from the coming onslaught. Others in that crazy British way distract one another with endless talk about life, culture, art - many references to poetry, including an argument about who can compose the better, or faster, sonnet - obviously these kind of conversations no longer occur on the front lines anywhere. But it's very British - showing how cool they are under stress. Also very British is the incredible racism, anti-Semitism, xeonophobis, and just plain class snobbishness that's so pervasive in the culture that I can't tell in FMF just accepts this as part of the world he trying to convey or condones it or isn't even aware of it - but it's so obvious that in British society at the time, even in the army where you'd expect a little egalitarianism, a man is judged by his accent, which tells all about his class, education, and upbringing - and it's almost unimaginable that a working-class soldier would have a chance to rise up in rank, or for that matter than anyone of the "gentry" would be assigned to menial tasks. Interesting to note, in some of my other reading, how A. Powell picks up similar themes in writing about WWII a generation later (Dance to the  Music of Time).

Monday, January 20, 2014

Niether safe nor pacifist - the end of the war in Parade's End

Started reading volume 3 of Ford Madox Ford's quartet Parade's End, this one called something like A Man Could Stand Up-- (another great writer who was pathetic at titles). This volume, at least the first section, is far easier than some of the earlier obscure sections, in part because I've got the first 2 volumes in mind now and in part from having seen the excellent British miniseries with the Stoppard teleplay. I truly thought this volume would follow the main character, Tietjens, into the trenches in France (WWI), as the 2nd volume ended with his being dispatched to the front, in part as payback to some obscure insult to a general. And, knowing how FMF jumps freely back and forth in time, that we will somewhere get T's experience of the horrors of trench warfare. But this volume begins, as we quickly learn, on Armistice day - the war is over, London about to break apart in celebration, and we're with the long-beleaguered love, unconsummated, of T's life, Valentine Wannop - she's working as a phys-ed instructor in a suburban girls school. She gets a call from Lady Macmaster, who'd married T's best friend, telling her that T is back in London and is apparently suffering from some kind of shock and disturbance and is living in a flat w/ no furniture. Miss Wannop, though she hasn't heard from T in years, is ready to fling herself on him - although she's also very mindful of the danger to her status; T is still married, though his wife apparently seriously ill. Much of the section is W's discussion with the head of her school, who seems to believe gossip she's heard about W, namely that she had a child (T's?) - not true, but W. determines she's going to quit her job and devote herself to rescuing T., and then she'd like to live on the Mediterranean and back in literature and think (who wouldn't?). All the complexities of the first two volumes are back in place now - T's financial straits, his suffering from abuse at the hands of his unfaithful wife and his exploitative friend Macmaster; W's insecurity about her own social status - though her father was a well-known classics scholar, he left the family with almost nothing and she was forced to work as a "tweeny maid" (horrors!); her brother, a pacifist, has apparently had a safe war job aboard a minesweeper - doesn't sound either safe or pacifist to me, but there ya go - the Brits are strange and this is a strange novel.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The lower frequencies: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and what it means

The narrator of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man experiences pretty much every variety of exploitation and degradation of black men in America in the 20th century; his journey is not so much from innocence to experience but from innocence to exile - it parallels Huck's journey, in a way, though it begins where it end, in an off-the-grid underground retreat and not heading out for the territories. Think of the range of experience Ellison packs in to his novel - the Battle Royal in front the crowd of hostile whites (who end by condescendingly giving him a college scholarship), the subservience to the white benefactors at the all-black college, his banishment by the college president, the rebuffs as he tries to find a job, the humiliation of working in the paint factory, his abuse by the doctors at the factory, his use as a pawn in the hands of various radical and progressive groups, his use by various white women to fulfill their sexual fantasies (it's kind of amazing that he has virtually no relationships or even contact w/ black women of his own age throughout the novel) - no wonder that he withdraws in the end, as he realizes he has been duped by the progressive Brotherhood, a Stalinist left-wing group that uses him as a front, and by the black-power apostle Ras, who uses him to stir up trouble and violence. The final chapters are quite dense but also beautiful and mysterious, and they helped me to see that the IM is certainly the voice of the black American male but also speaks for all writers - especially as Ellison describes the reason for the retreat into invisibility - to try to discern the meaning of his own experiences, a process that leads him, as he says at the end, to get ready to re-enter society. Isn't this, in a way, the experience of all serious writers? Writers make their lives public, they "express" their thoughts and feelings and ideas, while becoming invisible in and of themselves - we see the words but not the person. To write is, even if temporarily, to withdraw from experience in order to reflect and translate experience into words. The Invisible Man is each of us, as Ellison says in the famous final sentence of the novel, which, to paraphrase, goes: Who knows but that, at the lower frequencies, I may also speak for you? I love that mysterious "lower frequencies," as if we've been not reading a novel but hearing a transmission, on some obscure band on the FM dial, broadcast only late at night and accessible only to the insomniacs who stumble upon it by chance. I have spent many hours on those frequencies.

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Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Invisible Man as activist and isolate

Following his banishment from the Brotherhood for acting on his own "personal" beliefs and not waiting for instructions from The Committee, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man wanders the streets of Harlem, where he sees lots of activity and anger following the police murder and funeral for Tod Clifton - anger that the Brotherhood fails to recognize or channel - and eventually he comes upon his arch-rival, the Black separatism advocate Ras the Exhorter, who's leading a street rally, which he turns against the IM when he notices him in the crowd; the IM leaves, followed by some thugs who try to beat him up. He escapes and goes into a drugstore to buy a disguise: shades, and big hat. To his amazement, not only to people - including associates fail to recognize him (not really believable but let's accept it), but hes mistaken wherever he goes for guy named Rinehart - through these misidentifications he learns that Rinehart is a guy who pretends to be a friend of the people but actually is in league w/ the police - this further exacerbates the IM's cynicism and pushes him toward withdrawal from activism - in a long chapter w/ little action but lots of reflection, the IM begins to realize that through his long journey he is finally discovering his own self and personality and he does not want to subjugate that self to a greater force, good or evil - and he begins to think the Brotherhood is evil and hypocritical, following a late-night visit to his mentor, who fails to offer consolation. We are edging closer to the IM whom we'd met at the outset of the novel, a social isolate.

Friday, January 17, 2014

A great scene in Invisible Man, and Ellison's weakness

The funeral scene toward the end of the novel is one of the great moments in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man - the IM goes looking for a brother who had more or less disappeared from the movement and finds him near 42nd st. selling tiny black-boy dancing dolls - a real racial insult, that he is, pathetically, trying profit from. While the IM watches, the brother gets in a confrontation with a police officer, who shoots him dead - OK, too many coincidences here, but still - the IM is unable to reach others in the Brotherhood and goes forward w/ plans for a huge public funeral in Harlem. It's one of Ellison's most powerful descriptions - and the oration that the IM delivers is a great piece of memorial rhetoric - a high point, and also low, sorrowful point in the novel - because the next day the leaders of the Brotherhood gather and essentially expel the IM because he went ahead w/ the funeral on his "personal responsibility" and in the Brotherhood nothing should be personal (or emotional) - all decisions must come from the Committee - we really see the Stalinist side of the progressives here, and sadly there were many such groups right up through the 70s. Just before this series of events, the IM is seduced by a white woman who latches onto the fringe of the movement - he's deeply fearful that she may have been assigned to test him or, worse, to set him up for blackmail; not sure if Ellison will do anything further w/ this episode, but she is the least credible, the least full character in this novel - Invisible Man is not really a novel about character, except for the journey and education of the narrator, but it must be said that Ellison is particularly clueless when portraying women.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

I feel a little bit had by the "story" in this week's New Yorker

There was a time a 20 years back or so when I was books editor at the Providence Journal and some of the major publishers would send around at the beginning of each "season" a booklet, usually in magazine format, that had short excerpts from some of their major forthcoming books. These were really attractive and today maybe they have some collector's value - I remember reading the first pages of The Secret History in this format, and being blown away. And that was its sole purpose - to develop interest among critics and booksellers, and not through some fake bullshit buzz but from the quality and promise of the writing. Those days are gone in many ways. But what's up with the New Yorker, has it become, is it becoming the same kind of shill for publishers? I realize that the New Yorker does not explicitly publish "short stories" - they label it "fiction" - so excerpts from novels or other long-form works are within bounds. But still, shouldn't what they publish have some kind of form, architecture, beginning-middle-end, arc, or sense of an ending? Or are they just doing a publisher's bidding and touting a forthcoming book or upcoming author? This week's fiction is a case in point, and a really good case because I have to admit I was very taken by the writing and intrigued by the writer, about whom I know nothing, Akhil Sharma. Story feels quite autobiographical, narrated by a young man who immigrated to Queens from India when he was 8, and who's looking back on at least that segment of his childhood; he's the anti-Jhumpa Lahiri - his immigrant family is isolated, conservative, driven by finance (and status, through the intellectual accomplishments of their boy, esp the older brother). The writing is great - clear, odd, funny - for one example, the narrator and brother spend part of summer vacation visiting aunt in Virginia, and what particularly strikes the young boy is that the TV networks in Virginia are on different channels from NYC. That's a very real thing that a kid would note and that would make him realize he's in a different location - other stuff he'd barely notice. Anyway, something pretty dramatic, traumatic happens in the story and, instead of making anything of that event, Sharma just ends story abruptly - but obviously, he doesn't end story abruptly, his story, The Mistake, must be a lift from his forthcoming novel. It worked. I'm interested in his novel. But I feel a little bit had as well. NYorker - you're the leading literary magazine in the world, and the one w/ the most $, prestige, and connections. Can't you do better for your readers? Can't you find a story every week - 52 weeks a year (not counting your double editions, staff vacation on the subscribers' backs, if you ask me) - it's not that hard!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Why the 2nd half of Invisible Man is not quite as good as the first half

The second half of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, in which the unnamed narrator becomes a political activist and a spokesman for a leftist group called The Brotherhood, is a little less interesting than the first part of the novel, for three reasons: first, quite frankly, it's a little less "black," that is, it's not so uniquely cast as the experience of a black man growing up in the deeply segregated South and moving to NYC to advance his life - the experiences of the IM in the leftist group are more universal and a little more abstract (not entirely, there are still issues of race, particularly as the IM confronts a new character, Ras the Exhorter, who advocates for a blacks-only leftist movement - we're very roughly seeing, in inchoate form, the cultural and political class that would dominate the next 20 years, between accomodationist, integrationist groups such as NAACP and SNCC and the black power movement - panthers, Malcolm X, et al); it's also far more polemical than the first half of the novel, which was more symbolic in mode: the black man mixing white paint, the explosion from too much built-up steam pressure; finally, it's a less of a peripatetic journey - from southern small town to college to nyc to a series of jobs and dwellings and more of an interior journey, as the IM is exposed to various political forces and oppositions, but all more or less w/in the same setting. That said, it's still a grand and capacious novel and very interesting even in this second half as we watch the various factions in The Brotherhood and in the leftist movements battle for the soul of the IM - who, at the point I have just reached, is "banished" from Harlem, in part for being too effective at rousing passions, and sent to a downtown office in Manhattan to continue his journey and to advance his knowledge.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Political speeches - correct, and incorrect - in Invisible Man

The "radical" section of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man may seem a little dated today, but for anyone familiar with leftist-progressive groups of the 60s and 70s Ellison's account of this band of "brothers" that recruits the Invisible Man to be their lead speaker at public rallies and demonstrations seem very true, real, and hilarious - though I suspect it will lead to a less-than-hilarious denouement. The activists come upon the IM when he speaks impromptu to a group gathered in Harlem to rail against an eviction; after brief introductions to their leadership team - primarily, their wealth East Side benefactors, a bitter and ironic contrast w/ the white benefactors of the IM's college - they bring him to speak at a rally. The IM gives an impassioned from the heart speech, modeled on the church sermons he knew as a child, and he totally rouses the Harlem crowd. Then the group leaders engage in a critique session - how true that is! - in which after initial hesitations a few of the "brothers" express their contempt for his speech: we shouldn't stir their passions, we should reason with the audience, win them over to action through logical argument. Well, it's obvious why this is a fringe group and why they need someone like the IM - even though they are jealous of his charisma and, in fact, a little afraid of the passions he can stir (and with good reason - these passions can so easily turn to fascism, a fact not all that far removed from Ellison at the time he was writing - late 40s early 50s). I love in particular when one of the brothers gives the ultimate term of damnation to the IM's speech: it was "incorrect." Politically incorrect has a different connotation today, but in the 20th century it seemed to derive from the idea that leftist politics was scientific and that a speech or action that deviated from accepted theory was "incorrect" in the same way that a solution to math problem could be incorrect. Their solution: several months of training and study for the IM before he's permitted to speak in public again. Wonder how that'll turn out.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Invisible Man gets radical

The next stage in the journey of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man: after he gives a rousing speech to a crowd gathered in front of a Harlem apartment to protest the eviction of two elderly tenants, the IM flees the police running along rooftops - pursued by someone he thought was a cop but turns out to be a member of a radical-progressive activist group. The guy brings the IM to a party meeting in an expensive East Side apartment, and they agree to hire him to be some kind of speechmaker/rabble rouser - the group is all white and they clearly want to make inroads in Harlem and the black community. There are serious hints of trouble - the hostess worries that the IM may not be black enough, for ex., - and it does strain credulity that they would offer him a job and up front $ knowing almost nothing about him, that they have no black members at all in their group, and in fact that the IM would take such a job, which requires him to take on a new name and identity and sever ties with his family and with anyone he knows in Harlem - though, granted, he seems very isolated from his family and from his community and he desperately needs the $. For his first assignment, they give him a bunch of pamphlets to read, then bring him to the site of a rally, an old Harlem boxing arena, it seems, and keep him backstage, telling him he'll be the last speaker. That's a lot of responsibility to put on a guy on his first day on the job, right? Obviously, Ellison again is examining issues of identity, racial identity, and the need for black independence - her reserves some of his deepest contempt for the white "benefactors," whether the trustees of Tuskegee or the New York activists who think they know what's best for others.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Proust and anti-Proust in Invisible Man

Unnamed narrator in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man takes a job in a paint company - as noted in yesterday's post, the symbolism is effective and funny if heavy-handed, as his job initially is adding a black pigment that disappears w/in the white paint but makes the paint stronger - this for a government contract in fact - but after he does poorly on his first assignment they assign him as an assistant to the wizened old man in the boiler room Narrator works for one of the few black employees, a mean guy who's worked his way up and knows more about the paint process than anyone else; he's indispensable. Heading back to locker room to get his lunch, narrator wanders into a union meeting, where everyone suspects he may be a "fink" until he proves otherwise. Back to boiler room, his supervisor freaks because he thinks narrator may be a union spy - boiler guy plays up to management in every way, but has gained little for it. As they argue, the pressure in the tanks builds, leading to a vast explosion - another bit of symbolism here. Narrator awakes in a hospital - turns out to be a company hospital, more like an infirmary, where the doctors are performing some kind of experimental treatment, perhaps a form of lobotomy. They discharge him on disability - has he changed? The corporate world has made him into a machine, a walking zombie. He goes back to Harlem, gets new accommodations (after lashing out at someone he mistakes for the college president who'd betrayed him); then we get to one of the most beautiful sections, winter in Harlem - a completely new experience for the narrator. He walks through the snow; sees a family being evicted and speaks to the crowd, urging them not to attack the laborers carrying out the eviction but to be thoughtful and to work in unision - he's pretty much ignored; very moving description of the objects in the snow. Walking on, he comes upon a yam salesman - buys one for a dime - this is the Proustian moment in IM, as narrator (unnamed, but clearly autobiographical, like Proust's narrator) is transported back to his childhood by the taste and aroma - we seen nothing of his early childhood and know little about his family to this point - IM has been anti-Proustian in that sense - but the taste of the yam leads to his pun - I am what I yam - which suggests that he cannot get away from his childhood, from his family, from his race, no matter how he tries.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Ellison's accomplishment in Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison's great novel (1952) Invisible Man, takes his (unnamed narrator) into a college, obviously Tuskegee, circa 1935, where he is assigned to drive a white benefactor around for a day and the end up stopping, at the benefactor's request, to meet a vulgar, crude sharecropper and then, when the benefactor is literally overcome by this meeting - he has the ennobled ideas of helping the Negro Race, which he thinks of as the professors and students at the college, and he is appalled and horrified to meet this Southern agrarian black man and wonders if his ideals and ideas are wrong, perverted - narrator takes the white man to a whorehouse to try to get him a shot of whiskey. When the college prez, Dr. Bledso, learns of this he expels student from school, but provides him introductory letters to various trustees to supposedly help him get a job in NYC. Ok, we obviously can see around some of the edges of this narration - perhaps we are wiser readers, more used to bitterness and irony than were the readers of Ellison's day, but the story is still a great one. I mean, there's a very long scene at Tuskegee in which a black minister gives a sermon praising the college president as if he's the 2nd coming of the savior, and Ellison tells us only at the end of the sermon that the speaker is blind - we'd figured that out I think much sooner - so it's a pretty heavy-handed irony when, in next chapter, the sainted Dr. Beldso lashes out at the narrator and among other things calls him a "nigger." Similarly, we obviously sense that the sealed letters of introduction Dr. Bledso provides are poison-pen letters that will not help narrator get a job. And the first job he gets - irony or heavy-handed symbolism, take your pick - is in a paint-whitening factory, adding black pigment, which disappears within the paint bucket and thickens the mixture. All that said, the narrative just excellent, full of humor and insight and pathos - we really feel sorry for the Invisible Man, and not just as a person but also in the broader political sense, as a man and a race oppressed. The novel is about his journey not from innocence to experience but from hope and promise to withdrawal and bitterness, to his invisible life underground, "off the grid" we would say today ( he literally steals power from the grid, in fact). It's a very sad bildungsroman, and Ellison's accomplishment is in helping us to see this journey of education as not aberrant but as inevitable and obvious - a result of the political and racist forces at work in American, then and now.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Perhaps the greatest American novel of the 2nd half of the 20th century

Started re-reading Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man yesterday, hadn't read it in maybe more than 20 years and have forgotten most of it, and find the book just as astonishing as on first encounter - probably justifiably listed as the most influential and important American novel of the 2nd half of the 20th century. It's something of a cross between Faulkner and Dostoyevsky, with maybe an element as well of Thomas Wolfe (IM is a very Southern novel) and Richard Wright - and of course elements unique to Ellison. The Dostoyevsky: well, that's primarily in the first chapter (not sure how much this voice returns later in the book, I'm only about 20 percent through) in which the unnamed Invisible narrator describe his living conditions and his attitude toward the world - he's an American Underground Man who is acutely aware of how he, as a black man, is both feared and ignored, mistreated and neglected, in 20th century America - he's full of rage and somewhat frightened at his own capacity for rage, thus his retreat to his well-lighted basement cave - and perhaps his urge to tell his story. The story begins with the famous Battle Royale sequence - the narrator among 10 black "boys" who fight one another before an all-white "smoker" in the southern town where he grew up - probably the most scathing indictment of race relations, hatred, condescension, and misjudgements, ever written - then the narrative moves on to IM's experiences as a student at what is obviously Tuskegee - and the amazing series of scenes in which he drives one of the "trustees," a white benefactor so confident in this benevolence and good intentions, who is near-fatally shocked by the actual conditions and behavior of the rural black population - the long sequences in which Trueblood tells his tale is another one of the great set pieces - making me think of another influence, Melville, as a long narrative composed of these interspersed set pieces and narrative sidelights. The tone at times - the chapel sequence in particular - becomes archly poetic, as in Wolfe, or interior, as in Faulkner. But put all these elements together - along with the unique insight Ellison brings as a black intellectual, the burden of expectations and the suffering from exclusion and condescension and even hatred, and the colloquial voice, the wit, the bitterness - there's really no other novel quite like it. Which makes me wonder whether it was truly "influential" - if so, on whom? - or rather an accomplish unique unto itself, a summing up of tradition rather than the advance of a new wave.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Two Roads Divurged: Mengestu's story The Paper Revolution in current New Yorker

The New Yorker is on a bit of a roll now with another good story this week, Dinaw Mengestu's The Paper Revolution, a first-person account of a time - not sure how far in the past - when young African intellectuals flocked to Kampala, Uganda, which was in a post-colonial, proto-socialist state and had looked and hoped to be the cultural, political, and academic center of the continent. The narrator, who adopts the name Langston (after Hughes, whom he notes he hadn't read but who had attended a writer's conference of note), is one of many completely impoverished young people, men exclusively I think, who hung around the university and more or less posed as students just to be involved in the activism and to get a dusting of knowledge by proximity. Mengestu does a great job describing the poverty in which these young men lived, their frustrated aspirations, and their despair. Langston befriends another would-be revolutionary, Isaac, who lodges a much deeper contempt for the wealthy young men who attend the university and flaunt their privileges. The guys realize they can tell the actual students by their shoes, and even by the way they walk and stand. The two launch a revolution of their own, papering the campus with weird manifestos that challenge the government, which leads, predictably, to a violent repression and then a martyrdom, or at least a heroism. Story ends on an ambiguous note, as Isaac becomes a leader in a student uprising (even though not a student) and Langston, seemingly, turns another way. It's very much a "road not taken" story - Langston's aspirations, as his name evinces, are literary - he emulates the writers of Africa and elsewhere, even though the action is campus politics, and eventually takes his own course. I have no idea if any of this story is autobiographical, but even if not Mengestu has captured the mood and feeling that so many young, aspiring writers and artists have felt, lived through, in their youths - not only in post-Colonial Africa but everywhere - a story both particular to its time and place and universal in its mood and insights.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Some final thoughts on Mark Slouka's Brewster

Sure the end may be a little over the top, but there's plenty of action, emotion, and even surprises in the final pages of Mark Slouka's novel Brewster. In yesterday's post I wondered if there would be any "look back" in the narration - after all, it's a contemporary story written by a guy looking back at his high-school years, his coming of age, his confrontation with a crisis, and maturation - and it kind of cries out for some info on what the narrator has done w/ the intervening years of his life and why he's chosen to look back on this particular period. Slouka does, in the final pages, give us a sense of the course the narrator's life took, at least in the ten or so years after the events of the novel - the rest is a blank screen. I found the conclusion pretty satisfying, tying up all of the loose ends of the novel and showing how fate can change people, for better or for worse. I think the novel would have been slightly stronger if Slouka had begun, as well, with a look-back statement, something dramatic (like the way D Tartt began The Secret History), such as: This is a story about the worst thing I ever did, and the best. Or: This is a story I have never been able to tell until now. I found the evolution of the narrator's character very credible and moving - unlike in many sport-themed novels, he doesn't (completely) triumph in the end. I found the evolution of his best friend's character a little sketchy - he's a much nicer, more sympathetic guy by the end than at the outset, and I'm not sure if he's really changed, or if Slouka is presenting him in a different light (it may be that he hasn't changed but our view of him changes - tho he certainly starts out looking like a thug and ends up quite different). I think the girlfriend's character is a little underdeveloped - would like her to explain, at some point, what draws her to Ray Cap, and would like to know a little bit about what did become of her in the end. Surprised that Slouka so effectively introduced issue of racial tension and then did not develop this - though he does use the clash of cultures beautifully in one scene, when narrator Jon learns from one of the black kids that his best friend, Ray, has not been leveling with him. Altogether, a very satisfying novel, emotional and dramatic and even cinematic, and I hope if finds its readership.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Don't Look Back: Mark Slouka's coming-of-age novel, Brewster

Mark Slouka's novel Brewster edges toward its sad conclusion - this is not a sunny, nostalgic coming of age story but a dark, sometimes painful look back by a kid from a very troubled family whose best friend is from an even more troubled family - we learn well into the novel that in fact Ray Cap has not been going to boxing clubs to earn some spare cash but apparently is getting beaten up by his sadistic dad who becomes especially cruel when drunk. Sure, there are some very familiar, perhaps overly familiar, tropes in this novel - the smart girl from the "good" family who is drawn to the troubled but sensitive tough guy, the "band of outsiders" (as in many such novels or films and TV shows for that matter, I sometimes have trouble understanding why these smart, handsome, athletic kids are outsiders - in most settings they would be leaders - but maybe everyone in high school feels like an outsider in their depths of their soul) - but Slouka rises above the conventions in which he works, building a novel that's intelligent and engaging start to - almost - finish. To my running buddies, this is one of the few novels that writes about track and field with insight and intelligence - he really "gets" the feeling of being on a small-town high-school track team in the days of spikes and cinder tracks. Though it's a novel of an older man's reflection back on his childhood, we, oddly, know nothing about the narrator today - at least up the 200-page mark; usually, these types of narratives give a hint at least as to the course of the narrator's life and as to what prompted this reflection (Secret History, Canada - to site to examples); not so, here.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Used a little too much force?: Racial tensions and other matters in Brewster

Mark Slouka's novel Brewster continues to be engaging and appealing. Yes, some of the elements are a bit shopworn and predictable in this 1060s small-town coming-of-age novel: the sweet girl who falls for the tough guy who's sensitive within (Friday Night Lights? Step Up?), the two guys and a girl (Jules & Jim?), and yes Slouka is a little too fixated in providing period detail, in particular rock lyrics from the era, but all said and done the two main character, narrator Jon and best friend the pugilistic and troubled Ray, are very credible and intriguing - each struggling with difficult, even tragic family situations, and the plot clicks along nicely, especially when about half-way through Slouka introduces the theme of race - a group of black students bussed in from an nyc suburb create a lot of tensions among the small-town white culture in the high school - it will be interesting to see how this develops, but Slouka provides plenty of ominous foreshadowing - notably, as Jon overhears several conversations involving Ray's father, we begin to sense he was kicked off the police force for some incident involving someone black, in which perhaps he "used a little too much force," to quote a rock lyric on my own. The tensions are all below the surface - though the action is relatively confined, it's also clear that this is no idyllic coming-of-age novel. Slouka a very confident writer, and he does a great job with teenage dialogue and with a reflective (looking back on the past from a long time forward) first-person narrator. Why has this novel, and Slouka's work in general, drawn so little attention?

Sunday, January 5, 2014

My Back Pages: A very smart start to Mark Slouka's Brewster

Started Mark Slouka's newest novel, Brewster, yesterday Slouka is one of those writers who's flown below the radar, or at least my radar - not part of the vast publicity mill that seems to propel and sustain the careers of many far-less talented writers than he (it helps to live in nyc, I think). Was drawn to the book by a strong review in the NYTBR, so good for him - and I'm enjoying if very much, having finished the first 100 or so pages, about a third of the way. Brewster is set in the upstate town of same name, in I think 1968, and it's one of the many long-life-lookback at the coming-of-age years; has many of the tropes of the genre that we're familiar with from other novels and TV shows (e.g., Friday Night Lights) - the narrator, Jon Mosher, is a smart and sensitive kid who doesn't quite fit in - is not recognized for his intelligence, only as a wise guy (in more urbane high schools there would be plenty of kids like him - reading Nietzsche or the British war poets at lunch hour - and they would form their own "in group") - he befriends the sensitive tough guy, Ray Cap, and the two bond as much over their differences as their similarities. Jon is a terrific character, very complex - his parents are European Jewish immigrants who got out just before WWII, his older brother died in an accident when Jon was 4 and family never recovered and to a degree blames the hapless Jon. Slouka writes really well in Jon's voice and very effectively captures the mood of the place and the era - too effectively, at times - I could to w/ fewer cultural reference points and lyric quotations, as I think the strength of the novel ultimately will be not how well it captures one era but how well it feels universal. One aspect I really like is that Jon goes out for track and we watch as he gradually exceeds his expectations, becomes a star, develops some (not a lot) self-confidence - this will obviously lead him away from his former friends, but not sure yet how. A weak spot is the very cliched seduced-by-beautiful-next-door-neighber-older-girl/woman - a very familiar trope that appears a lot in books and movies and not so often in real life. That aside, a very strong start to this novel, which I hope will bring Slouka more attention and, more important, more readers.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

A novel in need of an ending: The Sound of Things Falling

Obviously Latin American novelists are reared in a tradition of complex narratives with sometimes jolting shifts of point of view, narrative voice, and mode, all encompassing a wide time span that can stretch for generations. Juan Gabriel Vasquez is no doubt part of this tradition, or the 2nd wave of this tradition, and he even gives a little obeisance at one point to the founder, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in his novel The Sound of Things Falling. The stronger sections of this novel make it obvious that Vasquez is a talented writer who can deftly establish a scene and a mood; some of his passages about life in Bogota during a time of drug-infused street violence are very beautiful and evocative. Unfortunately, for me the many disparate elements in this ambitious novel do not cohere into a whole - the novel feels disjointed and sprawling rather than rich and multifarious. I won't belabor with examples, but let's just note that, after a very strong beginning full of questions and mysteries - who shot Ricardo and why? did the shooter also mean to shoot the narrator, Antonio, or was he just a random victim? what's the connection between Ricardo's death and the death of his wife in a plane crash? why has Ricardo been estranged from his wife for 20+ years? - the novel diverges into a very long third-person section, allegedly the account Antonio puts together about the life of Ricardo's wife, Elaine, and it's pretty obvious that Antonio could not have "learned" all these details, that what we're reading is a novel within a novel - which all would be OK is this novel-within did answer the questions that have nagged at us from the outset of Things Falling, but sadly it doesn't do so. By the end, Ricardo's life still makes no sense - the estranged and wizened character we meet at the outset bears no resemblance to the passionate and self-confident man he was in his youth - yes, prison may have, must have, changed him, but we get no sense of that, we have no idea why he has had no contact for all these years w/ Elaine, and most of all the deaths of Ricardo and Elaine are, at the end, both unexplained and unconnected. Vasquez's writerly gifts may for him prove to be a blessing and burden - he brings us into his work so effectively, that the stakes are higher than ordinary. I was totally engaged, and then somewhat let down. I think he owes us more of a sense of an ending.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Exes and others in current New Yorker story

I've admired Antonya Nelson's stories for many years - her empathy for young and often troubled girls, her terrific and quirky sense of humor, her story titles themselves are works of art. I don't think her story, the first husband, in the current New Yorker is one of her best efforts, however. I appreciate the difficult challenge she's set for herself: writing about some v complex family dynamics in this case a late 30s woman and her complex relationship w the children and grandchildren of her first and much older husband - and she uses the good guy current husband as a bit of a foil - she should and does love him more but is troubled by still smoldering attraction to the eponymous first husband who actually does not appear in the story. In brief ex step daughter drops off her children at about 2 am allegedly to search for drunken husband but as we learn in fact to go on a binge of her own. By far most touching moment is woman's - her ridiculous name is lovey - realization that the ex step grandchild so close to her now will grow estranged - as she regrets missed opportunities to have or to raise children of her own. Nelson is exploring some important modern complexities of family dynamics but the problem is that the dynamics of the relationships and the gnarls of the family tree - even the terminology - ex-step - are so sinuous that most of our attention goes to keeping the characters and their relations straight - we lose sight of the action and emotions of the story. Alice Munro can sometimes bring off this kind of trick but even alive the great need more space in which to do so. If I were to edit Nelson's story I would suggest making the family tree a bit simpler - would this story work as well? Better? If the child had been lovey's grandson for example?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

In search of lost fathers - Latin American fiction

Is it just a random observation or is it true that a lot of contemporary Latin American novels center on a young person's efforts to learn about the past of his parents, parents who usually were involved in some manner with political upheavals, either as resisters against or collaborators with the autocratic dictatorships? I wish I could list novels that are exemplars of this vast generalization - seems to me some works of Bolano, and certainly My Fathers' Ghost is Climbing in the Rain, by Patricio Pron, which I read last year and with which I was very impressed. I'm now about half-way through Juan Gabriel Vasquez's The Sound of Things Falling and am seeing the outlines of a similar plot: we know little about the background of the narrator, Antonio Yammerer (sp?), but, well, here's a brief synopsis: Antonio was with a pool partner, about whom he knew very little, when the man was assassinated on a public street - and A. was shot as well. The "mystery" of the novel is: why was this man assassinated, and was A. just an unfortunate bystander? We learn that the dead man was waiting for the arrival of his estranged wife, flying in from the U.S., who died in a plane crash; immediately before the assassination, he had a tape cassette of the black box recording, which he played and burst into tears. Later, A. hears this tape. What is the connection between these two events - the plane crash and the shooting? And how would the black box recording be released to the victims' families? The heart of the story is A. difficult recovery - physically and emotionally - from the shooting. His girlfriend was pregnant at the time; now, we move a few years forward and we see that A. is still in some kind of shock, very bitter toward his girlfriend (I don't think they've married), and we learn as well that he has been impotent since the shooting. A. gets a message from the daughter of the dead guy, who wants to meet with him - he drives out to her house, a few hours from Bogota, and they discuss the black box tape over lunch. She's on a quest to learn about her father's death. The relations between the disparate, odd elements of this plot are hazy and obscure, but Vasquez seems a very competent and controlled writer and I suspect the smoke will lift.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Under the long shadow of Bolano: Juan Gabriel Vasquez

At start of  new year am reading Juan Gabriel Vasquez's novel The Sound of Things Falling - yet another smart, thoughtful, unconventional novel by a young Latin American (Colombian) author. What a rich literary tradition has emerged (and sustained) from Latin America. Many young writers now are working in the long shadow of Roberto Bolano, and, from first section of Marquez's novel he is definitely one of Bolano's offspring (although his name and his nationality point back a generation farther, to Gabriel Garcia Marquez - though their styles are very different - JGV not drawn at all to magic realism, just to realism with narrative inventions - or so it seems so far). In this novel, set in contemporary Bogota but with a focus on a series of events from the 1990s, the narrator (Antonio, I think) recalls a man and even that completely changed his life - and proceeds to describe the sequence - mid 1990s, he's a young law professor, dating a former student, who becomes pregnant, and they plan to marry or at least raise the daughter (they know from ultrasound) together; he spends evenings in a pool hall where he often shoots pool with a somewhat older man - rumor that he'd just gotten out of prison. They spend a long night drinking, and the friend wants to maybe unload his conscience to narrator, who rebuffs him - though does learn that the guy is waiting for a long-anticipated visit from America from his (former?) wife. On their next meeting, the friend says he needs to find a cassette player to listen to a recording someone made from him; narrator brings him to a literary museum (a real place in Bogota, I learned - the one-time home of a famous, tragic Colombian poet); the guy listens to the tape, tearfully, departs abruptly. Narrator surmises that guy's wife may have died in a crash of an AA plan that week. He tries to catch up w/ his friend on the street and a passing car shoots them both - killing the friend. At this point, we have no idea if this was part of the random Colombian street violence in this dangerous era or a motivated assassination. On a sad note - that AA plane crash, a true event, touched our family, as M. had a professional friend who died, along with husband and children, in that crash.