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

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Friday, July 31, 2015

Conrad's romantic heroes and the chasm that separates the races

There's a certain type of Conrad her0 - we see this in Victory, which I'm reading now, and in many other novels, maybe most of them other than the spy/suspense novels  - a lonesome independent man, enchanted by the sea - whether serving on board a ship or an outcast in the South Pacific islands, often an outsider or mediating figure - that is, although generally European, not of the predominant ethnic group in whatever locale he's inhabiting, and almost always a romantic, a man holding to a code of ideals that others find it convenient to flout or ignore. Axel Heyst (got his name wrong in yesterday's post), the central figure in Victory, is a prime example: a Swede in the South Pacific (the powers that be seem to be English, Portuguese, and Dutch), enchanted by the islands to the point where he settles in one, after his somewhat ridiculous coal-business scheme goes bust and lives as a hermit essentially, and I think a mediator between the "white" and "brown" cultures: he's a European, but to survive alone on his little island he must have dealings withe native populations (I think we'll see more of this later in the novel), and he's a consummate romantic, not only in his odd attraction to the nomadic life on the archipelago but also in his central actions in the novel: his impulsive offer to help a failing businessman that leads to his entry into the coal business (and finally the death of his business partner who returned to England in search of capital), and later his abduction of the young Englishwoman indentured to perform in a traveling all-female orchestra. Heyst meets her and sees that she's being bullied and abused by the orchestra leader and his wife, she tells him of her miserable and impoverished upbringing and of her continual need to fend off the crude advances of men she meets on tour, and Heyst falls in love with her - rather improbable in a few minutes - more accurately, though he doesn't quite articulate or even know this, he falls in love with the idea of rescuing her from her fate, even if that means bringing her to the solitude of his island - a true romantic. We'll see how she takes this twist of fate. It's always notable how Conrad talks about his living alone - when in fact that's highly unlikely, and what he means is living as the only white European. There's a continual sense in his colonial fiction of a wide chasm separating the races, and separating 1st world from 3rd - a chasm so wide and so accepted, at least in Conrad's time (this novel was completed ca 1915) that it hardly bears notice or mention.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Types of Conrad novels

Joseph Conrad's Victory is not exactly one of his novels of the sea, for which he is most notably and justifiably famous, but one of his novels of another sort - of the mostly European population in the South Sea Islands who live by trading  up and down the coast and who mainly seem to be people, men actually, whose guiding spirit in life is the exotic and the isolate. The central character in this "yarn," very typical of Conrad in that the central character does not tell his own story but the entire narrative is conveyed to us by a loquacious yet presumably reliable (and unnamed) narrator - who tells us what he can, there are some elements to the story that remain shrouded in mystery (a first-person narrator can withhold information for a # of reasons but would have all the information, at least from his or her own perspective). Axel Heym, a Swede, is the main character, a man who traded in the most remote parts of Indonesia and SE Asia, eventually setting up as an agent for a South Pacific coal company - this business highly symbolic as it was coal that fueled the steamships that were replacing the sailing vessels and changing life forever in the region, both aesthetically and economically - but his coal business failed (unsurprisingly), his business partner returned home to his much-loathed Dorsetshire, where he died, and Heym stayed on in his small island, a complete recluse. How does he live? How dies he even survive? He must deal with the native tribes in the area, but he's the only European - and a source of wonder and mystery to the narrator and other merchants in the region, who have their own hierarchical culture. On one of his rare trips to one of the trading ports, Heym (not sure I have his name correctly) runs off with an English (?) woman who's entertaining int he region as part of an all-female band - a scandalous affair that turns him even more into a pariah. A friendly merchant makes a point of passing by Heym's port every 23 days - usually H makes no sign of recognition, but one day he raises a flag and the merchant pulls up to the port and finds Heym very disturbed - H provides the merchant with a shawl that he wants returned to its owner in the port city. What a strange novel about a strange and long-gone culture and way of life.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The weirdness of Doctorow's historical fiction

The ending of E.L. Doctorow's The March shows his strengths and his weirdness, all at once. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he does care about shaping the ending of his novels rather than having them end abruptly w/ no real sense of conclusion - something Roth was guilty of even in some of his great works like American Pastoral - and that's probably because ELD ties his fiction not to the arc of the narrative of a character but to the arc of an epoch or event in history - none more so, I think, than The March, which proceeds - the title and the reference to Sherman's advancing army are a metaphor for the narrative process in this instance - toward its inevitable conclusion with Lee's surrender (later, General Johnston's surrender - if the novel is to be trusted a major gaffe on Sherman's part to agree to terms that would not be acceptable to his superiors in the military and in government) and especially toward the Lincoln assassination - material there for a whole other novel, if ELD wanted to go there. He illuminates these historic events through an oscillation between public figures and figures of his own creation, as did Tolstoy, e.g., but I think the narrative interest is heavily weighted toward the historical: great as some of the writing is throughout the novel, would we care as much if he were writing about a fictitious war? I think our interest, mine anyway, depends greatly on thinking about ELD's insight into the character of particular military leaders, the history of this war that took place on our soil at sites that we can easily visit today. And that's where the weirdness comes in: just as we trust the veracity of his research and believe that, yes, he makes all of this history feel real and alive and present, the accurate re-creation and smart creation of fictional characters representing different cultures and contexts (confederate soldiers, union soldiers, an army surgeon, several freed slaves, Southern belles, et al.) he upends his research by involving the key historic figure - Sherman - in an episode that, as far as I can tell, is entirely fictitious - an assassination attempt by a confederate sympathizer and racist posing as a military photographer. I thought the scene was probably real, until I looked it up and found nothing but references to this novel. So why does he do that, play around with the facts at the edges of history? He's not interested in a false history - what if Lincoln has survived the attempt? What if Sherman had been assassinated before the march - rather, he's interested in just bending or refracting the light at the periphery so that we can't quite trust him, so that we are left with the sense of unbalance and uncertainty, that history is malleable, at least in the telling, that it all comes down to - as he notes toward the end of this work - a lot of nouns and verbs.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

To argue or to judge?: The moral objectivity of Doctorow's The March

Some of the scenes in E.L. Doctorow's The March are so hauntingly beautiful - the novel at times reminds me of Winter's Tale (Halperin), and for that matter it recalls the style of ELD's own World's Fair, one evocative scene after another, like a dream sequence - only in this case it's not a dream but what appears to be a truthful attempt to have us not only understand but also feel what it was like to travel with the Union Civil War Army on the move during Sherman's march through the South, leading up to the end of the Civil War. I'm thinking of the scene where Pearl walks through the encampment of freed slaves, some 25k of them, who'd been following Sherman as their deliverer to freedom and safety, also the many battle scenes and the scenes of the pillaging of Southern cities, Columbia especially. This is the kind of novel about which some would say: This would make a great movie. But they'd be completely wrong, it would make a lousy movie, because a film would feel like a shapeless mash of images whereas this story - not really plot driven or even character driven, as there are too many for us to care deeply about any one character of set of characters - different from its prototype War and Peace in that regard - but more like a saga or incantation, a work that can exist in my view in literary form only. I would not say it's a great book but it has many great qualities - the topical and action descriptions about all, but also that there are surprising and unexpected plot twists - ELD does not succumb to sentimentality or narrative convention and is willing to suddenly kill of seemingly key characters, this is a war novel after all - and ELD deserves credit for avoiding the tendentious and the hortatory. I've been annoyed that the overall climate of the novel is one of hatred for the brutality of the Union troops w/out significant recognition of why they are fighting and of the evils of slavery. But ELD is striving to keep an even hand, or, more accurately, to be an objective and unobtrusive narrator - there are glimpses of the horrors of slavery, and maybe we don't need more than that - just to remind us, no matter what we might feel for the people whose cities were destroyed, that their cities and their prosperity was supported, in fact created, by slave labor. It's a novel that makes no obvious points or judgments - leaving that to us, witnesses to, participants in history.

Monday, July 27, 2015

An odd book who's heart seems to be in the South: The March

Some of the scenes in E.L. Doctorow's The March that depict life on the ground in Sherman's Army of occupation during the march through Georgia and north into the Carolinas are completely harrowing and quite credible - not sure how many sources Doctorow used or to what extent and how much of this - most I would think, it doesn't feel fusty and source-heavy - is based on his imagination and ability to place himself amid the lives of others - especially part 2, the occupation and destruction of Columbia. It's a very odd book - makes us feel like almost none other the lives of ordinary soldiers and others affected by the war - freed slaves, Confederate conscripts the various hangers-on such as a licensed war photographer - but it also feels as if there's something missing, maybe intentionally. That is, there's almost no sense at all as to what the war is about; the soldiers, even the generals (Sherman et al) don't seem to be fighting for a cause - they're fighting for a because: because they're professional soldiers, because they were conscripted, because they had no future so they took the place of a draftee for $300, because their home was destroyed and they have no place to turn, because they're uneducated and are just following a crowd. The March itself is a great, inhuman force - like a tide rather than a movement; it may seem surprising but ELD's sympathies seem to be more with the South - the destruction of the Southern cities is depicted as cruel and pointless, and to make matters worse the Union soldiers brutally rape the Southern women, the freed slaves especially - so, yes, no doubt this happened, but that happened to the slaves for the past 200 years, with impunity? I don't want the novel to be preachy or ideological, but at times is does feel like an apologia - not as much so as the loathsome Gone with the Wind and its ilk but you can't help passing through this book without thinking that the Union Army was pretty repugnant. One other note: ELD deserves a lot of credit for his handling of the many strands, most but not all intersecting, of the plot and in particular for his willingness to break convention and have key characters die in action and to write a story in which the obvious, too obvious, romantic connections turn out very often to be false leads: the Southern belle who joins a Union army medical team ends up walking away from the surgeon rather than falling for him, for ex.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Historical fiction: How to judge it, what value does it add?

As expected, by the end of part one of E.L. Doctorow's The March two things happen: the various strands of plot entwine as the characters meet, cross paths, realign, in the occupied (and liberated) city of Savannah, and, the novel becomes more of a conventional historical fiction, as Doctorow introduces historical figures as active characters in the story - General Sherman, and Secretary of War Stanton (maybe some of the other referenced minor characters are actual as well). Though I haven't read a lot of Doctorow's fiction, I know he's known for the blend of created plot and historical plot and incidence - establishing fictional characters who lives among and actually can affect the events of their time. I'm generally not drawn to that type of fiction, but Doctorow's narrative skill is exceptional and I found the scenes of carnage, military advance, and the life in a liberated city during wartime to be extremely vivid and powerful vignettes. It's taken a while but I also am now able to hold straight the sets of characters - he introduced many characters at first and some have fallen by the wayside while a few are driving the plot: Ms Stephens, daughter of a late judge working as an aide with a union surgeon; Pearl, a half-white freed slave girl traveling with General Sherman disguised as a union drummer boy; Coalhouse Walker and another freed slave who've decided to take up the union army offer of 40 acres of land and stay in the South; and two confederate deserters, Will and Arly, who pose as medical aides and travel north with the army, now heading into South Carolina. The question we face when reading historical fiction is always: what value does it add? Would we be better served reading a straightforward account of the historical events? To succeed, the historical novel has to fill in the headlines of history with the lives, feelings, beliefs of people living in the time, while also being true (though some writers are whimsically untrue) to the events of history: War and Peace being the touchstone for all. It helps if readers bring some basic knowledge of the history to the threshold: it's probably way easier for American readers to take on The March (and for Russians to take on W&P for that matter). This novel so far is very appealing to read - although I am beginning to feel that the narrative strands are tied a little to coincidentally and there's an element of Hollywood theatrics here as well - love in time of war, the buddy movie, oppressed man standing up against the system.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The most English of writers: Tessa Hadley

Tessa Hadley shows up w/ another strong story in current New Yorker, Silk Brocade - there is something so incredibly, self-consciously English about Hadley. You know the setting is England from the first few words, inevitably - and I don't think that's true of most contemporary English writers: if you're reading a story by, say, Zadie Smith or Martin Amis or Ian MacEwan or Julian Barnes - it seems to me that the story could be taking place anywhere, at least until there's a specific place name or topical reference. But not so w/ Hadley, who seems to go out of her way to dredge up peculiarly English terms like listening to the Third Programme (evidently a classical BBC station?) or earning a bursary (a scholarship?). In any event, what also marks her fiction is a deft blending of memory, recollection, and long-term perspective, and this story is great example: the first section - really the first 90 percent of the story - describe an encounter between a 20-something dressmaker who is asked by an old schoolmate (not a friend, particularly) to design her wedding dress, leading to a visit to the posh but passe estate with the schoolmate and her fiance. Hadley is deft about not disclosing the time period precisely - we pick it up, gradually, by a # of clues: the squirminess about premarital sex, a reference to someone's being a "socialist," finally a reference to polio - which places the episode in the 1950s or so. Then, flash, brand new episode - the main character and her 20-something daughter looking at some swatches of fabric, which brings back the memory - as quickly learned what became of each of the characters in the first section of the story - and then the story, brief though the ending may be, becomes the daughter's - objects, memories, and traits passed along over time through generations, a very fine narrative trick. It's not a particularly dramatic story, certainly by Hadley standards (she is a plot-driven writer), but it's peculiar and introspective and shows the continued development of this writer's work.

Friday, July 24, 2015

What's good about Doctorow's The March and what's missing

Figuring out a little more about the structure of E.L. Doctorow's The March as I read further, and I see now that we will follow several strands of narrative in roughly alternating chapters - and it may be that the narratives overlap and entwine further into the novel. I don't have all the narrative strands clear in my mind yet, but the three that Doctorow has developed the most so far are: Pearl, the half-white slave teenage girl left more or less abandoned in the attic (she's shunned by both cultures) after the plantation owners free the slaves and flee ahead of Sherman's army - rescued by an officer in the army, treated kindly (others suspect he's made her his concubine, but they come to see that he's protecting her) - surprisingly, he dies in ambush - Pearl will clearly continue to be a main character, a bridge between cultures; the daughter of Georgia Supreme Court Justice who goes off with the union doctor, working beside him as a nurse-attendant, after her town is ransacked and her father dies in his sleep - strangely, another narrative strand about a chaste, somewhat protective relationship between man and woman of different cultures. A third strand is about two Confederate soldiers who deserted, were arrested for desertion, wriggled to freedom, and now kind of bounce back and forth between the two armies, struggling in a comic-opera manner for sustenance and survival. Each of these story lines, and some others not yet developed, told beautifully, with a real sense of life during time of war, the constant terror and uncertainty and danger. I am surprised, though, at how little, so far, ELD has to say about the slaves and the freed slaves: it's as if the whole reason for the war is forgotten; I'm also surprised at how much he tries to build our sympathies for the white Southerners whose lives are upended by Sherman's army, about which I only have to say: upended from what? How did they manage to live in such luxury and abundance in the first place?

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Is The March Doctorow's best novel?

I have read relatively little of the late E.L. Doctorow's works, mainly because I'm not drawn to historical fiction, although also realizing he wrote historical fiction in a nearly unique way, playing fairly loosely with historic figures and enjoying the interplay of the real and the fictive; decided on learning of his death to take a look at the novel that many - as the NYT obit noted, including Updike whom I revere - take as his best novel (Updike, famously, was not a fan of much else he wrote - which might lead you to think he'd be a poor judge of Doctorow's best, but others concur). So started The March last night, wondering if really there is anything more to say or write about the Civil War - and finding myself very taken by and impressed with the first few chapters at least - each of which shows a different take on the ravages of Sherman's march through Georgia toward the end of the war. The writing is excellent, as he really captures the sense of panic, terror, as troops march through the South disrupting lives, stealing rampantly, killing almost randomly. I am a little troubled, thus far (only about 35 pp in, granted), and the focus on the the white Southern "victims," with little attention paid to the true victims, the enslaved blacks - but I suspect the scope will get ever wider as I read further on; I actually wonder if there will be too much material, if the novel will maintain a focus - can't see the design yet, so don't know if every section will introduce a new vignette - or if we will follow several lead characters incrementally over time - or even if the plots will overlap and intersect. That said, the scene of the harrowing of Milledgeville, the daughter of the Supreme Court Justice wandering the streets looking for a physician as fires burn, soldiers drink and carouse, and at the hospital she sees a steaming mass of amputated limbs - one of many powerful sequences in the first pages.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

State of the Story: What the selections in Best American Short Stories have in common

So what do the selections in Best American Short Stories 2014 (Jennifer Egan, ed.) have in common? First of all, for the most part the stories are by writers in relatively early career (Baxter, Beattie, Oates three exceptions) - and I think that's because so many young writers begin with short stories and even among those who continue the well begins to run dry and more mature writers begin to focus on novels. Maybe this is also in part because of the emphasis in writing programs on short stories, especially linked stories. It also made me think how so many of the great living short story writers have seemingly retired: Munro, Trevor (not eligible for this collection anyway, I think), Pearlman, Roth (though he hasn't written short fiction in decades). Second, these stories tilt toward the conventional: generally realistic narratives in straightforward narrative style - other than one or two told in fragments and one or two in which the narrative sequence is a pastiche, these are not experimental or groundbreaking stories: not a collection in which, among the established literati, Coover or Davis would find a comfortable slot. Third, the stories tend to be much longer than average - novels in miniature, in some instances. This may be evidence of Egan's taste (and mine, for that matter), but we don't see any of the abrupt, epiphanic, enigmatic, dreamlike stories that we often see in the New Yorker and in many of the lit mags reviewed for this collection. Many of the selected stories are novels in miniature. It's incredibly hard to place a story of any substantial length in a literary magazine, most of which are tight on space and hoping to publish many writers rather than many pages by a few writers, so the published stories of 20+ pages tend to be very good ones. Fourth, surprisingly, the collection is not NY-centric: I think only one, maybe two, of the stories takes place in NYC, which is a really nice break: though every living writer seems to have settled in Brooklyn, there are great stories to be told, and found, elsewhere, as this collection shows. I don't think this collection is exactly representative of the contemporary American story, but it's a strong collection. I liked some more than others but it seems to me that every entry was worthy of selection on its own terms - not based on author prestige or log-rolling (one year the editor, was it Mark Helprin?, judged the entries blind) but on the quality of the story and by a search for range and variety - in locale if nothing else - within a tight prescriptive field.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Bovary spinoffs

I've read Madame Bovary several (maybe 3?) times, and I'm always surprised and distressed at how elusive this novel is to me: I really couldn't give you much of a plot outline if my life depended on it, and what I remember are the isolated moments or scenes: the wedding procession, Emma in the loft above town hall with her first lover (Rodolphe?) as the town fair goes on beneath them, the carriage ride through Rouen, running through the fields to meet his lover, the ghastly conclusion, and of course the great phrases from Flaubert: mirror held up on the side of a highway; his writing as banging on a drum for bears to dance to when what he wanted to do was move the stars (such an under-evaluation of his talent). Karen Russell's story Madame Bovary's Greyhound, in Best American Short Stories 2014, made me a bit jealous - that she knows the novel so well - though maybe she was working with the text at her side. In any event, she has a good idea - developing a story based on a minor element of MB. This is sort of a literary trick and it's been done before with varying success re other great works of lit - there was a recent novel Ahab's Wife, for ex., and of course the great Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead. What's unusual about Russel's foray is that her protagonist is a dog, who, apparently, sprints off into the woods while the Bovary family is moving to a new location - off, and out of the novel. Russel imagines the dog's experience as at first beloved and then ignored by the narcissistic Emma, much like husband Charles, when you think about it (Russell does not make that point). Russell has unusual facility at entering the consciousness of an animal - and she gives the story a neat plot twist at the end as well. It's not the kind of story that generally appeals to me - leaching off the powers of a much greater work - but it can work from time to time and this one does - although I'd have to say the bar for MB spinoffs in short fiction is very high: can anyone every top Woody Allen's The Kugelmass Episode?

Monday, July 20, 2015

Disaster stories - in Best American Short Stories 2014

What would a Best American Short Stores collection be w/out a story by Joyce Carol Oates? Her inclusion in the 2014 edition, Mastiff, is typical of her style, form, and obsessions: inevitably, inexorably, a JCO story will include menace and violence, as does this one; the highly skillful JCO sets this up immediately, as a 40ish woman and a 50+ man hike in the mountains near Berkeley and at near the trailhead come across a young man walking a mastiff that barks and lunges at them, frightening the woman. Do we suspect they will cross paths again? JCO has our attention and then builds a sensitive and thoughtful account of the personalities of the two hikers - kind of hoping to begin a relationship, but also, as it becomes clear, they're quite different and really not that into each other - but the woman in particular thinks, well, maybe she should settle. The man ultimately shows his bravery and perhaps, in his act of chivalry, has won the woman's attention - but it's not clear this is a good thing, for either of them. The mix of banality and terror is a JCO trademark - good story (I think I posted on it when it ran in the NYer) In the continued odd juxtaposition throughout this anthology of stories on similar themes (odd because they're arranged alphabetically not thematically), an adjacent story, Next to Nothing, by Stephen O'Connor, is also about a disastrous event, and I have to say his account of a vanload of people swept off a bridge during a rising flood is about as harrowing as it can get. But the story is only peripherally about the disaster - it's really about two very strange sisters - both sociologists, each w 3 kids and a somewhat estranged husband (the husbands loathe each other) who have absolutely neither affect nor empathy - to the point where it's almost pathological - neither can understand, for ex., how people can watch celluloid illuminated by a projecting light, and imagine that they're watching real people and actually laugh and cry about what they're watching. More seriously, they are cold and doctrinaire w/ their children - leading in the end to a Sophie's Choice, in the floodwaters, whom do you save? The decision, with these 2, is obvious.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Portrait of the artist as a young punk: Best American Short Stories 2014

Another story in the Best American Short Stories 2014, Jennifer Egan, ed., about the music scene - a particular interest of Egan's - this one This is Not a Love Song, by Brendan Mathew - the first story to this point in this collection that is somewhat unconventional in narrative form - using a series of vignettes over time to tell the life story of a friendship between two young counterculture high-school aspiring artists - the narrator, a would-be photographer, and her bestie Kat, a punk-rock-indie musician. Over time, Kat becomes pretty famous in the music scene, then withdraws, then (spoiler here, kinda - though hardly unexpected) dies young (of cancer, not of the many rx she ingests). Along the way we get some vivid sketches of the scene in clubs, lofts, on the road - sometimes straight short narrative sequences, some times "transcripts" of recordings (not sure who made these or why) - and all of the material rings true and, though centered on the Art Institute crowd in Chicago, could take place in any U.S. city with a serious art school and some old lofts or abandoned mills. I quibble a little with the ending, which seems too easy and predictable, and I only wish Mathew had pushed the experimental style further: given that his narrator is a photographer, I wonder if he considered using imagery - photos or sketches - making the story more of a collage. That said, it's another one of the rare stories that covers the scope of a lifetime rather than the arc of a single event.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

War stories: 2 in Best American Short Stories 2014

I'm pretty sure I posted on Will Mackin's story Kattekoppen when I first read it in the New Yorker, but last night read it again in Best American Short Stories 2014 and was (again) impressed, mostly with his ability to establish a tone that feels both authentic and unfamiliar: Navy SEALs, one would think, are not populated by a lot of literary guys, especially ones familiar with the art of Breughel and for that matter the poetry of Auden, but Mackin makes his first-person narrator credible and insightful and he tells of a force on duty in Afghanistan. His voice establishes a macho insouciance about death and destruction and a somewhat surprising indifference to, defiance of actually, the military hierarchy - these guys play by their own rules and know that no mere lieutenant can tell them otherwise. Story involves the SEALs commandeering a guy to help them by plotting weaponry deployment - the guy they shanghai is willing to join the unit but notes that he needs to go home on leave briefly when wife delivers - they OK that arrangement (we see how they, not commanding officers, set the rules); the guy is Dutch and he gets shipments of candies from home, including the much-loathed licorice catheads of the title. While he goes on his leave a couple of soldiers are captured, and the SEALs spend a few days trying for a rescue and, eventually, a body recovery. The bodies are molding and rotting by the time of recovery; the candies help dull the senses enabling the soldiers to bag the bodies for transport. When Dutch soldier returns he tells of his anxious fears that his infant son will stop breathing - a strange sense of the fragility of life set against the ever-present closeness of death and cool acceptance of danger in the military world. This is a story of pure combat - not a moment of contemplating the long-range goals, the purpose, the politics, or the mission - just soldiers doing a job. Interestingly, the adjacent story in this anthology (arranged alphabetically by author), Evie M (by O A Lindsey), is also a story of military trauma, this one about a female veteran returned to civilian life, much disturbed and damaged and unable to manage her precarious finances and the tedium of office work, which seems to befuddle her - a sad story of the unexpected and untreated wounds of war.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Why the woman screams: Ghosts and Empties

By chance (I guess) just finished reading (my first?) Lauren Groff story in the Best American Short Stories 2014 and the next day (yesterday) pick up current NYer and read another Groff story, Ghosts and Empties. It shares with the BASS selection its setting - central Florida in or near the University campus - and a (northerner's) fascination with the gothic architecture, the humidity, the rot and ruin, the scary wildlife (snakes and gators), the creepy mood. But the stories could hardly differ more in other respects: the BASS story telling the entire life of a Florida-raised intellectual and his difficult relationship with his domineering father, the NYer story a first-person story that reads much more like an essay (though I am sure it's not, that the narrator is not Groff but a fictional character) about a woman who regularly, almost obsessively, walks through her neighborhood, often at night, in a turnaround section of Gainesville, apparently quite dangerous at one time but now in the throes of revival. Like a spirit (the ghosts of the title?) she observes without being seen - passing runners and pedestrians, snatches of conversation overheard, dumb-shows observed through lighted windows. The story could, in a sense, be nothing but mood and observation, except that Groff artfully conceals a few clues that give the story richness and dimension: The narrator scoffs at those who consider her neighborhood unsafe, hinting that they're racially biased, and tells us it's perfectly safe - except that a jogger was raped a month back and except for the shooting. Hm. Is she willfully obtuse, or a risk-taker, or even seeking trouble w/out knowing it? She tells us, also, that one night she came home and looked at her husband's laptop and saw something she shouldn't have seen - never tells us what, exactly - an email? a photo? - and then she spends the night walking, returns at dawn. What's that about? What's his reaction? Our sense is she keeps all of this within - or without (the empties?). The story opens with the odd phrase that she is a woman who screams, so she's taken up walking instead of screaming. She never does scream, in this story - but, again, what's that about? Something to do with the laptop discovery? What can't she communicate her anger and anxiety to anyone - or even to us, as she writes this confessional? The story is a true mystery, maybe unsolvable, maybe too unresolved or opaque for some readers, but definitely worth looking at, thinking about - which is much more than I can say for most recent short fiction.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The arc of the story and the story of a life: two examples in short fiction

Have liked David Gates's stories since reading his previous collection many years ago (and have liked his journalism, too) so I was glad to see that he has a new collection and glad to read his story A Hand Will Reach Down to Guide Me (?) in the Best American Stories 2014 collected edited by Jennifer Egan. Once again this story fits in well with the others (so far) in the anthology, almost all of which are in the realist-naturalist tradition - and I can see why Egan was drawn to this as well based on their common interest in fiction about the music industry. I have to say that Gates's depiction rings more true that Egan's - it seems to be something he's lived with and not researched. The story is in a close first-person narration - I know it's not memoir but the narrator feels as close to the author's confidential voice as one can get - who tells of a NY musician he'd met in youth how their lives entwined over many years - it's one of those rare stories that has an arc, just as life has an arc, and that spans almost the whole course of a lifetime. Interestingly, another such story, in a different mode, is the next the collection, Lauren Groff's The imagined corners of the round world (a quote from Donne; she includes the whole sonnet in the story), this one in remote 3rd person, looking at the entire life of a young many raised in the Florida swamps by a herpatologist father, a nasty man, and a remote mother - we see in outline how the boy matures, breaks free from his difficult parents, reconciles to a degree, and returns to his home town - now radically changed (by the encroaching university) and much more valuable, to live out his life. This seems in a way as if it should, or could, become a novel - but then again why should it? I can remember writing a story some years ago that I thought was OK (nobody else did, it was never published) and my then-writers' group encouraged me to develop it into a novel - at which point I thought I could spend four years doing that only to realize that it should be stripped down to a story. Omit needless words - the basic premise of the Strunk-White Elements of Style, my Bible And the same goes for every facet of writing: if you can tell it as a story, the rest is just padding and vamping for time (and money).

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A unique literary artifact: Story written on phone

I wouldn't have known except from the author's note in Best American Short Stories 2014 that Joshua Ferris wrote his story The Breeze on his phone - but it does make sense. If you're interested in how the medium shapes the message in the short story (or in fiction - e.g., how the introduction of the typewriter changed the style of Twain, and of James), this is a good case study. The story begins with a gen-y couple living in Brooklyn trying to decide what to do on a beautiful spring evening. The story proceeded as a series of vignettes, each a few paragraphs, exploring alternate versions of what they do (and don't do): a picnic in Central Park, stuck in subway on way to Central Park and hence no picnic, drinks in a 34th-floor bar and no dinner, dinner in a little Italian place, walking out of Italian place in a huff w/ no dinner, and so forth. In other words, it feels like a series of false starts or tentative starts, just as the characters are deciding about the (trivial) options in their lives (while ignoring the more serious issues in their marriage, the real decisions), the author is exploring his material w/out really bringing it together into a whole. The form is of course also a metaphor for the fragmented nature of contemporary urban life in the age of the smart phone and Google, just as the characters represent the spoiled and privileged qualities of the age: seemingly well to do, carefree, with plenty of options, plenty of time on their hands, no pressures except the decision as to where to get a drink or a dinner - and yet beneath that placid surface there lies a sea of anxiety and displeasure: sexual longings, marital animosity, anxiety about whether to have children. I wouldn't expect too many others to try to write an ambitious story on a phone, but this one stands as a perhaps unique artifact of the age - and includes a pretty good descriptive passage about crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. (Can there possibly be an anthology of contemporary fiction w/out at least one story set in Brooklyn? I doubt it.)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A ruch and untapped vein for literature-noir: Niagara Falls

I've always thought that the Niagara Frontier (love the term) was a rich and untapped vein for literature-noir - especially the city of Niagara Falls (there are a fair # of Buffalo novels and stories, thanks in part to SUNY Buffalo one of my alma materae), and maybe most of all Niagara Falls, Ontario: tacky tourism of run-down b&bs and freak-show museums, the ruined remnants of the honeymoon capital of the world, industrial waste and decay (that's more in NY than Ontario), Canadian insecurity, the odd streets and parks, the rapids, the geographical weirdness, the sense of living on a borderland, the climate - and maybe it's a turf that Craig Davidson can claim, as his story in the Best American Short Stories 2014, Medium Tough, is one of the first maybe the first I've seen to capture a sense of that city. His story concerns a man born into a strangely deformed body, with his right side extremely powerful and his entire left side withered, a genetic mutation caused by fetal alcohol syndrome - the man, Jasmine or Jazz, is a neonatal brain surgeon, that is, he performs probably the most delicate and risky surgery known to medicine, and he's also a serious drug addict; he's a lonely man who gets his kicks from strips joints and quick stands, it seems, and from arm-wrestling competition - so he's a man in two worlds, high-end medicine and dive bars. There's not much plot to the story, mostly it's about character (and to a lesser extent place) set-up, though there is a little twist at the end when Jazz is called in for emergency surgery on a case he probably shouldn't handle (and in a condition in which he shouldn't handle anything) - but it's a small city probably lucky to have one specialist in his area. I have to wonder where Davidson gets all his info about drug cocktails and works - let alone about medicine and brain surgery - but he wears his knowledge well and this story does not feel over-researched (though for Davidson's sake I hope it's all about the research). I can kinda see why editor Jennifer Egan was drawn to this story, as it strikes similar notes to her Goon Squad collection, which arose from her research into the world of the music biz. I hope Davidson will have more to say about this part of the world.

Monday, July 13, 2015

2 more stories in the realist-natrualist tradition

Two more stories in the realist-naturalist mode in Best American Short Stories 2014 - these being Peter Cameron's After the Flood and Nicole Cullen's Long Tom Lookout. What's striking about these two is that they present prototypical American characters, easily recognized, but not often given voice in fiction: Cameron's story about a Midwest churchgoing 50 something, whose suffered through a tragedy we understand only in outline (possibly daughter and grand-daughter victims of husband's murder-suicide) and therefore more powerful: story told very credibly in the first person, in a voice that in an odd way recalls the narrative voice that Richard Ford uses so effectively, with many parenthetical qualifiers and asides. The story involves the woman and her dour husband taking in for temporary shelter a family whose house was destroyed in a flood. These polite but unwanted guests have the unexpected effect of drawing woman and her husband closer together and, in an odd twist at end of story that I don't entirely understand, making woman challenge her faith, or at least her church-going: she feels put upon by her boisterous pastor to take on this act of charity, and the latent resentment seems to push her away from the church rather than bolster her piety. Cullen's story is a little more conventional - young woman in dire straits on road trip back home to Idaho with child (not hers) in tow. Where it picks up is when she gets a summer job as a fire lookout - just learning about that job and the loneliness and even terror of living alone (or in this instance w/ young and seemingly learning disabled child) make the story worth reading. I thought it was kind of a stretch that they'd even allow a lookout to bring a child - and that the lookout could keep the child entertained and engaged over a these long stretches of empty time - but Cullen's author's note indicates that she had an account of a mother who did the job w/ 2 of her children. Despite an abrupt ending, a story worth reading by an author new to the scene.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Baxter, Beattie, Boyle: What stories by these 3 have in common

My taste in short fiction seems to align w/ that of Jennifer Egan, as I applaud at least the first three selections (arranged alphabetically by author like the credits in a Woody Allen movie) in Best American Short Stories 2014: she seems to be drawn to realistic stories that don't draw undue attention to their style, that focus on characters in a time or moment of crisis, that come to some kind of resolution, that have an arc to the narrative, that include precise but not overdrawn description, that pulse with sharp and witty dialogue that often contains erudite if whimsical literary references. Yes, at least from the first three stories, we aren't pulled very far afield, and in fact two of the stories are narrated by characters who are writers, one a grad student in writing an an Iowa-like U and the other probably mid-career visiting a one-time faculty mentor. The three: Charity by old friend Charles Baxter, The Indian Uprising by Ann Beattie whom I don't really know but who did me a favor, and The Night of the Satellite, by T C Boyle (I believe I posted on this story when it first appeared in the New Yorker). All 3 are fine: Baxter's is a brave foray into writing about a relationship between two gay men, one of whom is becoming addicted to painkillers after return from volunteer service in Ethiopia. His intro note to the story tells that it began w/ another one of his stories in which a character was mugged in a park - and he wondered: Who would have done that, and why? - and this story answers. Beattie's is the wittiest and maybe most subtle of the 3: One example: The first line of the story is something like: "You can't copyright titles; you could write a play and call it Death of a Salesman." True, and funny, but even more so for those who note that the title of the story is also the title of a famous Barthelme story, one of Beattie's cohort and perhaps a one-time rival? Boyle's story will ring familiar to anyone who went to grad school in lit or writing, and it will make you both yearn for those days and be so glad you're beyond them as well: quite a bit of time spent, or perhaps wasted, in bars and clubs or just "hanging out" with friends, but all this nearly upended by an encounter with two in a lovers' spat on a lonely strand of country road: Should the passers-by get involved? Man and woman have pretty different views on that question.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Why we shouldn't read Go Set a Watchman

All the news today about Go Set a Watchman has me thinking about what exactly it means to be a literary "character." No doubt Harper Lee's Atticus Finch is, or was, among the most indelible characters in American literature. I read the novel in my early teens - that is, many years ago - and not since, and still remember it well I think; saw the very faithful movie when it came out - in those days you saw movies generally only once - and still remember some of the great moments, and of course its unusual style, and evocative b/w long past the b/w era, which made the film seem and look classic right from that start, I even remember the subtle soundtrack - wasn't Scout kind of humming over the opening credits? Any, now we have the so-called sequel to Mockingbird and in today's Times Michiko Kakutani reports that we now see Atticus, at age 72 or so, as a bigot, racist, suspicious at best of the civil rights movement just ebbing into  his town (seems to be set in the early 1960s?) - but is this really the character, or person, that Atticus Finch became? I would say no. Clearly,Watchman was much like a first draft of a novel, maybe a really good draft that could easily, back in the days when there was midlist fiction, have been published. But some extremely wise editor suggested that Lee rewrite the story from POV of Scout's childhood, and even more amazingly she was willing and able to do so, the result being Mockingbird. The character of Atticus (and others) developed during her process of writing, forward in real time but backward in fictional time. The fact that she had a later Atticus in an early version, or draft if you will, does not mean or should not mean that that's what Atticus "became." No, it's what he un-became, as Lee learned her craft and expressed her character more deeply. It's obvious why she never moved to have Watchman published - and though I obviously understand why they're publishing the novel now, I wish it could be accepted as a draft, a version, even a failure - though it's likely not to be, it's likely to change our views of Lee's novel and her people. Literary characters (and movie characters) can have a life of their own, beyond the page and beyond the writers hopes and intentions.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The end of Nostromo

And so it ends - Nostromo - as we see that Decoud killed himself (shot dead sitting on gunwale of his rowboat, body falling in sea, weighted down by 4 silver ingots, symbolism anyone?), which Nostromo rather unconvincingly discovered (from a passing ship). Once ashore, N finds the silver and realizes that D had died (dead from despair after being left alone on the island by N for two weeks or so - one would think he would try to row to safety?) and N develops scheme to take the silver, ingot by ingot, and enrich himself over many years by pretending to run a successful business as a tradesman. So there goes his moral authority - he's a thief plain and simple (but isn't Gould, English owner of the SA silver mine, a thief in his way, too? Conrad is well aware of this, but we sense his sympathies lie more w/ the European colonizers than with the workers or the natives). N is also guilty in a way of the death of 2: the stowaway Hirsch and his compatriot Decoud - a guilt he bears till the end. N's plans almost foiled when they start to build a lighthouse on the Isabel near his trove, but he schemes to have the Italian revolutionary Viola made the keeper, and he lives there w/ two daughter, one of whom Nostromo courts - giving cover for his many visits to the ravine. But things go sour - he gets engaged to one of the sisters though he loves the younger one, they begin an affair, Viola, now quite elderly, shoots N to death, mistaking him for a ruffian whom he doesn't like courting the younger daughter. It's a complex ending to a complex book and more melodramatic than most of the material in the novel - Conrad was not much or a writer of love and romance, and the relationships at the end feel creaky and forced upon us: there was hardly a hint of N's attachment to anyone and, in a parallel narrative, he shows Dr. Moynaghan as suffering from a lifelong crush on Mrs. Gould, who's largely ignored by her husband in his pursuit of wealth. There's so much great material in this novel but by the end it's almost too much to hold in one's mind or in one book. In an earlier post I speculated about Nostromo as a film, and I think  - maybe it's been tried - it would be destined to fail - but I honestly think it might make a good series, though some of the scenes told by indirection or inference would need fleshing out.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Nostromo: Possibly the most densely plotted novel I've ever read

After a horrific account of the death of the unfortunate stow-away Hirsch - shot to death in a fit of anger by the steamship captain who believes (mistakenly) that Hirsch has been lying to him and knows where teh silver bullion has been hidden - Conrad very amusingly shifts the narrative a few years forward and he makes the garrulous and somewhat pompous Captain Mitchell a sort of tour guide, addressing us as if we are visitors to Castaguana, as he shows us the sites and gives us a bit of history: Sulaco is now the capital of a very prosperous independent country of Occidental Castaguana, which successfully protected the Gould silver mine and fended off the peasant rebellion. So we now are looking back on the history of the country from a future vantage point. We know that part of the success of the Occidental independence movement - first enunciated by the journalist Decoud whom we'd last seen hiding with the silver bullion on one of the remote Isabel islands - came about because the steamship captain became convinced of and obsessed by the theory that the silver was spilled into the gulf when his ship collided with the lighter that he spends days dredging the water, obsessed like Ahab, on his foolish quest. What we don't know is: what happened to Nostromo, what happened to Decoud, what finally happened to the silver bullion. And what I don't know is how anyone keeps the plot details straight - this is a densely plotted a novel as I've ever read, and I think readers, at least first-time readers, either need some kind of crib sheet or plot outline as they read through the novel or else maybe the message is just forget about the plot and read it for the beautiful and the exciting passages, taking them as isolated gems of short fiction, and leave the rest to fall as it may.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Class exploitation in Costaguana, and maybe elsewhere as well?: Nostromo

Conrad didn't forget: Nostromo has been off stage for maybe 200 pages as the revolution sweeps through the coastal town of Sulaco - it seemed as if these events took place over many weeks - but of course things are happening rapidly and as we come back to Nostromo, shaking himself awake after a long sleep following his ocean swim from the island to the mainland, we realize all these events took place over a 14-hour span. When Dr. Monyghan, almost by chance, comes across Nostromo - whom he and everyone else assumed was dead - the very complex plot takes another twist: Monyghan wants Nostromo to carry a message and try to make a deal w/ one of the rebel generals in an effort to save the Gould silver mines, but only Nostromo knows that the silver bullion was not lost at sea (and that Decoud is still alive); Nostromo will keep that knowledge to himself - inevitably, he'll have to get back to Decoud on the island, and what they do with the bullion is an open question. This section of the novel involves one of those typically Conradian extensive dialogue, as Dr M and N go over the details of the coup and the attempt to escape with the silver, Nostromo holding back on key information. Nostromo's character begins to emerge as well, as for the first time we see him bristle against the way the English colonists take him for granted, expect him to solve every problem, and pay him very little - and he particularly bristles at Dr M's suggestions that he should have raised a lantern to avoid the collision w/ the steamship - that would have been better than losing the silver altogether: N thinks, so you wanted me to be a coward? To fail in my mission? N has the clearest insight into the class and ethnic exploitations that are at the heart of the socioeconomic system in the small country of Costaguana - and, just maybe, in other countries as well.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Conrad's narration and imagination in Nostromo

The third part of Conrad's Nostromo shows the scramble for advantage in the wake of the peasant revolution in the SA country of Costaguana: the temporary imprisonment of Dr. Moynaghan, Captain Mitchell. et al., as the revolutionary soldiers try to learn the whereabouts of the last shipment of bullion taken from the San Tome mine - the captives released when they learn (incorrectly) that the treasure sunk when the lighter collided with a passing steamboat. So we begin to focus on the various generals and toy soldiers allied with the leaders of the revolt, the Montero brothers, as the squeeze closer in on the silver mine - and we watch the European business leaders huddle for safety and advantage - with the thought that they will destroy the mine rather than turn it over to the peasants. Conrad's view of government, particularly in the Third World, a term that predated him by many years but where he sets most of his fiction, is quite condescending and Eurocentric - although his view is also just dark enough that we realizes the European colonists are not exactly exemplars of liberty, freedom, and justice - they're pretty much out for themselves, for what else is Gould doing but stripping away the mineral wealth of the country? - nothing that he does benefits the people of Costaguana, it just props up a sympathetic government (whose leaders get their cut) and brings the semblance of stability. This whole section of the novel, The Lighthouse, is colored by our known more than all of the characters - all of whom assume and believe that both Nostromo and Decoud are dead and that the silver is lost to the bottom. We read with anticipation of how the discovery that the two men are alive and that the silver is safely buried will changes attitudes and actions. The post-rebellion section contains some of Conrad's most detailed and beautiful writing - and this time not even about the sea. There are long passages describing the peasant armies, the political rally, the town of Sulaco at night with the moans and cries of the wounded - how did Conrad know all this? Today, we get so much info and have access to so much info that it's not surprising when a writer in, say, Idaho, writes about German soldiers and French scientists during WWII - but how did Conrad get so much info? Observation? Research? Imagination? He creates scenes that feel documentary and vivid based on places, situations, and outcomes that I would guess he never witnessed - storytelling at its finest, in the days when people, like so many Conrad narrators, actually told tales to one another.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Two American-type characters in Nostromo, neither of whom is American

The encing of the middle section of Conrad's Nostromo, The Isabels, is a pretty great scene, as Nostromo and Decoud navigate through the darkness to get the silver bullion ashore on the Isabel islands, where they bury it - and N. leaves D. behind as he sails their boat back toward the harbor of Sulaco. The question is: what will happen to Decoud? Will he be stranded, or rescued? And how long will it take for the rebel forces to learn the whereabouts of the silver? It's easy to forget this plot detail but the rebels passing by in the night on a steamship pulled from the water the old guy who was a stowaway on the lighter carrying the silver - inevitably he will tell someone that N and D were transporting the bullion and that the steamship missed them in the night, and someone will come searching. Clearly, this is one of the great sequences in the novel and in all of Conrad - as everyone knows, his best writing is almost always about the sea, and the technical difficulties of navigating in the pitch black is perfect. I've now read a little bit into part 3, The Lighthouse, and am concerned that again Conrad is loading the narrative down with back story - this is an extremely demanding novel which at times is at war with itself: the impulse to writing a good stirring narrative fighting against Conrad's tendency to build a complex plot of intrigue, revolution, and counter-revolution. That's a theme not generally associated with C., but, as I noted yesterday, a few of his great works do concern politics and terrorism - notably Under Western Eyes and The Secret Agent (which has been made into a good movie, under a different title). In Nostromo, the complexity of the plot may be the novel's undoing - may be why it's read less often than his more accessible works such as Lord Jim or the novella The Heart of Darkness - my head spins trying to keep all the factions and their representatives straight, and maybe that's not even necessary. Maybe it's all about establishing a mood of political upheaval - with a few lone wolfs finding for their own ego and salvation, i.e., Nostromo and Decoud, each with different motives, and each a risk to the other. Finally, the success of the novel, for me, will depend on how well C is able to establish N as a character - not just as a near-mythical superhero - in part 3. Nostromo and to a lesser degree Decoud are what we used to call "mediating figures," able to move across social class boundaries and cultural gaps, with little allegiance to anyone but themselves: each an American type of character amidst the social interconnectedness and dependencies of the Europeans who control the economy of this tiny country (Costaguana) and who control the narrative drive of this novel.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Does Nostromo hold up after 100 years?: When Conrad is at his best

Friend WS (not william shakespeare) notes that in my series of posts on Conrad's Nostromo I have said little or nothing about whether I'm enjoying the novel, whether it's a great work, whether over the course of a century it still holds up - and he's right, I've been withholding judgement. I'm not a little more than half-way through this long novel, ready to evaluate it provisionally: First of all, it's very complex in its plotting and intrigue and somewhat opaque in its narrative structure. It's hard work going through the novel to keep straight the names of the many characters - some of who are introduced 200+ pages into the narrative! - and the many strands of the plot: there are revolutions and counter-revolutions and several back stories - the Goulds, the Avellanos (?) - as complex in and of themselves as novellas. It's clearly one of those books about whom readers over the past hundred years say: This would make a great movie! And the fact is, it won't or couldn't: there are many references to the coups and countercoups, there's a political story of capitalism and imperialism, there's a love story (this is the one introduced late, through the journalist Decoud (in yesterday's post I amusingly called him Decoup, which I will let stand) and the daughter of the political leader Avellanos) - and there are few powerful scenes: Nostromo protecting the Italian radical's little coastal hotel from a band of revolutionary soldiers, for example, that do seem cinematic, but when you get down to it so much of the novel is interiour and involves complex unspooling of narrative strands, not really cinematic stuff. The section I'm in now, in the middle of The Isabels (part 2) is the best in the novel so far and also the most cinematic: Decoud and Nostromo in a little cargo boat (a lighter) trying to bring a load of silver bullion to a passing steamer, which will bring the wealth to the U.S. bankers, passing in utter darkness and coming close to a steamship with the revolutionary soldiers who would kill them in a moment - they have to be dead silent (and there's a stowaway on the boat who could panic and scream), and N. has said he will scuttle the boat and sink the bullion before giving it up. There's no doubt that - The Secret Agent and maybe Under Western Eyes aside - Conrad's best writing consistently is about the sea - and it feels as if this novel comes to life for the first time when the main characters push off from shore.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The true social structure of Conrad's Nostromo

The pseudo-French journalist Decoup (?) declares his love for Antonia whose father a former diplomat who was held in captivity by the previous tyrannical regime and is now a senior adviser to the Gould San Remo silver mine but Decoup knows his fate is tenuous as he has written contemptuously about the new rebel faction the Montero brothers. So he has much at stake as the ragtag army commanded by a drunken general departs from the coastal city to do battle. In next chapter in Conrad's Nostromo Decoup picks up the rumor that the Monteros are already victorious so he know his life is in danger and we have no idea how or whether he will survive. He tells all this to mrs Gould who is particularly concerned because her husband Charles the next day will escort the latest shipment of silver bullion and it's crucial to the survival of the country. So we see more and more what the ideals are behind all these so-called patriots of Costaguana: rape the country of its mineral wealth, ship the wealth north to the U.S. to secure the credit of a very few elite, mostly European, business leaders, and support a government of "stability," that is, one that will protect the wealth of the few while bringing little or no prosperity to the many. (It's unclear to me where Conrad stands on all of this.) The wealthy also must rely upon the guile and the muscle of a class of European immigrants to protect their wealth and their interests - most notably the title character, Nostromo, who gets things done as the head of the caragadores (?), the equivalent of the contemporary head of the Teamsters union - not liked, not welcomed, but respected and necessary.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Hot Chliean: Newly anoined NYer favor Aejandra Zambra

Alejandra Zambra has pretty much been anointed by the New Yorker as the heir to the South American hot novelist crown, since vacated by the late Roberto Bolano, whom the NYer also "discovered" although it was too late to do him any good; Zambra got high praise from the high priest Jas Wood in a recent issue and I suspect we will see more of his stories in the NYer in weeks ahead. I've read one of his novels and posted on it on this blog - and was very glad to read his story in current NYer, Reading Comprehension No. 1 - which, like many other great Latin American stories, has both a starkly realistic narrative that gives us NA writers a view of life in a very difficult cultural milieu - well, different in some ways and strikingly similar in others, as we're all part of a world culture these days it seems, as one comedian put it, the Judeo-Xtian-Disney tradition, but told within an original and surprising narrative frame. This story starts off conventionally - a young man remembering how he and friends cheated on standardized tests when they were in school, that it was particularly easy to do so bcz they were multiple choice so it was easy to copy or come in w/ crib sheets, and he slyly suggests that this cheating - rather than the knowledge and skills required to succeed on the test, was what truly prepared the students for success in Chilean society. Ha! But sadly true. The narrative goes on to describe to boys, twins, graduates of the school, one of whom did well in school the other not - who later cheated on their law exams (complicated, not worth explaining here) and now they're both successful lawyers, proving the point - story told to the boy by a religion teacher who left the school to become a transit driver, at twice the money - very cynical and burnt out. And then - after we learn the fate of the twins and the narrative in and of itself ends, we get a multiple choice "reading comprehension" exam on the story - very clever, with some rather funny choices such as D. The answer is usually D. and C: I don't understand the question but my benchmate checked C.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

War and Peace in South America

In the second section of Conrad's Nostromo we get more deeply involved in the politics and civil wars in the SA country of Costaguana - as we learn about the tyrannical ruler Guzman who treated the defeated army with barbaric cruelty - he's the precursor of despots like Amin and Husssein - and one of the few surviving captive leaders is now a key advisor to Gould and his silver-mining empire. Guzman, however, is history - and even the current leaders recognize that he did bring an era of peace and prosperity (so we wonder how tyrannical he really was - was he as barbaric as the accounts hold, or was that the perspective of those whose power he stripped?). The present leader, Ribiera, is uninspiring and feckless, but he lets the capitalists, particularly Gould and his mines, continue to rake in the money and export the nation's wealth to the U.S., so he's "popular," at least with the central figures in the novel - and perhaps w/ Conrad as well? But now there's yet another insurrection, as two brothers, the Generals Montero, are leading a peasant revolt, and much of the first part of section 2, The Isabels, involves marshaling troops and sending them off to war, with trumpets playing fanfares. If it weren't so pathetic - we know that no good end will come for these men - it would be comic, the wealthy industrialists sending them off to war then retreating to tea and ices on their estates, while other young men - a newly introduced character, a French-influenced young journalist, for ex. - flirt with the beautiful daughter of one of the industrial leaders (the formerly imprisoned adviser to Gould) and trade witticisms with Senora Gould: It's like War and Peace in miniature, on a tropical seacoast. The question to pursue is: where does Conrad stand in relation to the moral and political behavior of these characters? And where do we stand? And let's not lose sight of the title character, the guy who serves his master diligently and makes things happen, things for which the "upper" classes will not dirty their dainty hands.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The social structure of Nostromo

We see by the end of the first (of three) sections of Conrad's Nostromo how the silver mine has established a hierarchy in the culture of the South/Central American country (Costaguana): at the top stand the owners of the mine, the Goulds, English of course; a step below would be their advisors, Spanish-descendant residents of the country - Conrad is a little contemptuous of their clubbiness and general indifference to the lives of their countrymen/women - and a notch below that is the representative of the navigation company, Capt Mitchell (retired from the sea now), no doubt the most typically Conradian character in the novel, the elder seaman with his aphorisms and his befuddled view of life ashore - to him, everything is either a historic or epochal event, "a mistake," or, as we learn at end of section one, in this hint of things to come, "a fatality" - and below him is the President of the country and his entourage, beneath contempt, corrupt and feckless. Then we go to the other Europeans, the Italians - the hotel owner and the eponymous Nostromo, hired hands, powerful figures (at least N. is), idealists, who get things done. The natives of the country are far below and even below these are the blacks, descendants of the slaves, whose ancestors are buried among the ruins and rubble of the mine. You can see a kind of racial/ethnic cliche in this hierarchical sorting, something endemic to Conrad and to the culture of the time - although there is talk of upending this hierarchy - the Italian freedom fighter, the politician who dreams of democracy, and a few others - and we can maybe anticipate where this novel is heading - with all this $ in play, the scene cannot remain peaceful for long. One powerful and beautiful passage in the first section of Nostromo is the description of Gould leading a convoy of mule-driven carts carrying silver ingots from the mine to the coast for shipment north to SF - our first glimpse of the great divide in the society as the silver, protected by armed guards, travels the dangerous road past villages and towns of extreme poverty.