Saturday, May 16, 2015

Sex is Nice, Morality is Good

"We are human beings, Jessica. We can't just live in the present."

The above words regarding the complexities of living presently, as if one were a jolly zen monk, are spoken by John Ducane, the hero of Iris Murdoch's The Nice and the Good. Jessica is his mistress and he is struggling to break up with her in pleasant fashion so that he can be guilt-free with Kate Gray, the wife of his boss, Octavian, who is described jolly and round (like the Buddha) and who not only tolerates Ducane's dalliances with his wife but encourages them. Very modern, right? Only, Ducane, like most of the sexually confused friends in his circle, struggles not only to be present, but also, nice and good. The novel was published in 1968 and if it is not exactly a buzzkill on the hedonism characterizing late 60s Swinging London, then it is most definitely an eloquent reminder that free love, no matter how blissful, is dangerous in a moral vacuum. 

Ducane is a civil servant charged by Octavian looking into a colleague's suicide. The colleague, Radeechy, had also lost his wife to suicide when she committed suicide the year before. But queries and interviews reveal Radeechy to be  very post-Anglican (or pre-christian), the investigation turning up all kinds of pagan black magic hocus-pocus with hired women, dead pigeons, whips, silver chalices, and Latin cryptograms. It's all a bit untidy and gross and Ducane seeks relief from the case (and the unbearably hot London summer) at Kate's countryside estate in Dorsett. But things are hardly simple there: Kate's there, yes, (Octavian is often busy in London), but so is her nubile young daughter, Barbara, whom Pierce, a sex-starved hormonal teen pines for with unrequited success. Pierce's mother is Mary, a sensible widow who is generously put up in the house with Pierce by Kate. Yet another woman there is Paula, whose husband, Richard Biranne, is a promiscuous cad implicated in the shadowy world to which Radeechy had delved too deeply. She has eleven-year-old twins, Henrietta and Edward, obnoxiously precociously intelligent for their ages. They love fielding questions to Willie Kost, a German Jew intellectual refugee residing in a cottage on the estate. Willie, who  survived Dachau, flirts gently with Mary, while intellectually sparring with Uncle Theo, Octavian's brother, who left India under a scandalous cloud and who might be a repressed homosexual. 

But in the center of it is Ducane, in whose struggle to be nice and good, to, in essence, do the right thing is the moral quest of the novel. He is privileged by wealth, status, and feels this prevents him from being empathetic: "Ducane was being infinitely sorry for himself because the power was denied to him that comes from an understanding of suffering and pain. He would have liked to pray then for himself, to call suffering to him out of the chaos of the world." His suffering, for example his failure to break up with Jessica, is so much more superficial than what he perceives in the depth of others, in Mary and her widowhood or Willie and his internment by Nazi psychopaths. Ducane even tells Kate: "It's hard for people like us with ordinary healthy minds to imagine what it would be like for one's whole mode of consciousness to be painful, to be hell." It is particularly difficult for Ducane with Willie, a morose, dissatisfied intellectual whose emotional lows are impossible for him to bridge: "Duane thought, if I were not the tied-up puritan that I am I would touch him now, take his hand or something." The great irony is that all these lost souls see John as the nexus of niceness and goodness. They are oblivious that his private and professional lives are as muddled as anyone's.

Iris Murdoch is a brilliantly articulate writer who is never boring and whose inventiveness comes across in setting and character as her description of McGrath, a blackmailer in the case of Radeechy so beautifully illustrates: "A man had no right to have such red hair and such a white skin and such pallid watery blue eyes and such a sugary pink mouth in the middle of it all. McGrath was in very bad taste."  Murdoch is also a peculiarly British novelist, at least to me. It is not just the complex cadence of her prose, but also the fidgety contrast between appearance and substance: everyone putting up a calm front but barely for the emotional turbulence of holding back so much of one's true feelings or if disclosed, tampering their confessions with over-intellectualized ideas or sarcastic embellishments. Reading Murdoch one gets the feeling it is painful to be British, to have so much interior life that cannot be confided or related and besides, impossible standards of goodness to live up to. 

Iris Murdoch

Is it for this reason that the novel often felt like a condemnation of the 1960s? No character best illustrates the quality of being morally adrift, of lostness, than Ducane's mistress, Jessica, a failed artist and something of a dilettante flower child, to whom Murdoch is venomous: "But Jessica had never developed the faculty of coloring and structuring her surroundings into a moral habitation, the faculty which is sometimes called moral sense. She kept her world denuded out of a fear of convention. Her morality lacked coherent movies. Her contacts with her contemporaries, and she met no one except her contemporaries, and her very strict contemporaries at that, were so public and so free as to become finally without taste." This is the Old Guard retaliating against the New Guard. But isn't the novel's central purpose in twentieth century literary fiction to explore the parameters of morality so that some sense can be made of the social vacuum we call life? Nice and good are so vague as to be totally without meaning. They barely scratch the surface of what it is to be a better man or woman. Without morality, we are on the proverbial tightrope without a net. It's a long way to fall metaphysically if we don't have the moral armor to deal with the inevitable personal crises that come from being human. Importantly, Ducane's great revelation at the end of the novel is Murdoch's clearest indictment against the sixties zeitgeist and its attendant gratifications: "Perhaps there were spirits, perhaps there were evil spirits, but they were little things. The great evil, the dreaded evil, that which made war and slavery and all man's inhumanity to man lay in the cool self-justifying ruthless selfishness of quite ordinary people."

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Where He's Calling From

"Things change, he says. I don't know how they do. But they do without your realizing it or wanting them to."

Together with my brother-in-law and some friends, we've founded a reading group in Kyoto that meets every three weeks or so and talks about a story one of us has selected for the meeting. We drink whiskey (we are the Monkey Shoulder Gang, or MSG) and talk for a good two hours about the piece in question before, inebriated, we splinter off into conversational factions. When it was my turn I wanted to select a story that I not only loved, but that would really pull the group together into a shared love of fiction. I ended up choosing Raymond Carver's story, "Cathedral," leading me to reread the most famous collection of his work, Where I'm Calling From.

I don't know how many times I've read Where I'm Calling From but I've often turned to Carver whenever I've grown disenchanted with overwrought novels. Carver, who never wrote a novel in his too-short life (he died of lung cancer at 50),  liked short stories because they could be written, read, and pondered over a single sitting. However, Carver's prose is so readable and his narratives so deceptively simple he is easy to binge-read, but not too much because the consequence of his characters' failed lives is usually tragedy. His protagonists, usually first person male narrators, are not living the American Dream. They suffer unhappy families, mistresses, dead-end jobs, money problems, and most especially a bad habit with the bottle. Alcoholism figured largely not only in Carver's life, but in his work as well-- the drunken rages and horrible self-destruction, but also recovery and the extraordinary difficulty in going and staying sober. Carver hailed from the "write what you know" school of realism, but he also seemingly graduated from the school of hard knocks. He is sometimes painful to read, but never dull and occasionally transcendent. 

Carver's prose is sparse, quick, and unambiguous: "This friend of mine from work, Bud, he asked Fran and me to supper." begins his story, "Feathers." Famously, his stories were heavily changed by his famous editor, Gordon Lish, who was spearheading a minimalist movement in literature in the 1980s. (Carver and Lish often sparred over the changes and some of Carver's stories have been published posthumously in their original unedited format.) But the prose is pitch perfect for an everyman screwing up. Carver's narrators often go nameless (their problems are so much more the point). In the story, "Little Things," a disintegrating marriage ends with a couple fighting over their baby biblical-style: "But he would not let go. He felt the baby slipping out of his hands and he pulled back very hard. In this manner, the issue was decided." Straightforward tragedy doesn't need flowery bits or metaphors: it does just fine with straight talk.

"Cathedral" is narrated by an average guy whose wife's pen pal, a blind man, has come for a visit. The guy has preconceived ideas of blind men: they wear sunglasses, they don't have beards, they don't smoke because the pleasure of smoking is seeing their exhalations curling through the air-- he says to his wife, "Maybe we can take him bowling?" He is envious that the stranger has a proprietary claim on his wife's past-- they've been exchanging voice tapes for ten years and when they last saw each other she let the blind man, Robert, touch her face, even her neck. But when Robert does come for dinner and a talk, the narrator (Robert calls him "Bub" throughout the evening) begins to enjoy himself. The blind man-- maybe it is intentional, maybe not-- subtlety shows him how to empathize, to understand what it is like to not only be blind, but how to better see and understand what one senses. This novelty of empathy is joyous-- it's wonderful to feel a part of something larger than oneself: "My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn't feel like I was inside anything."

"Cathedral," with its optimistic happy ending is not necessarily emblematic of the Carver oeuvre, which usually involved a reckoning of karma applicable to guilt: you can only outrun the debt collector so long or tolerate just so much drink before it wrecks havoc. "Cathedral" was written late in Carver's life, revealing that this very autobiographical fabulist was turning a new page. He was seeing past his own problems, into something more collectively human. The quote prefacing this piece about change, while usually thought of as change for the worse, can actually turn out pretty good sometimes. Pain and the horrible are not necessarily inexorable. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Sympathy for the Devil

"Pah, the Devil!" exclaimed the editor.

Mikhail Bulgakov's legendary novel, The Master and Margarita, begins on a park bench in 1930s Stalin-era Russia. A literary editor, Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, is explaining to his contributor poet, Ivan Nikolaevich, that he will have to rewrite his poem about Christ because he wasn't emphatic enough about the non-existence of Jesus. Enter a stranger, a "foreigner," who tells them not only was he present at the crucifixion, but that he, Berlioz, is to be beheaded by a woman that night. Alarmed that such a nutter was prowling Moscow, Berlioz runs off to alert the authorities, but on his way he slips on sunflower oil, stumbling over tram tracks, his head sliced off by a female conductor who can't brake the car in time. Witness to this, a terrified Ivan has a wild night that leaves him running through Moscow's streets in his underwear and eventually into a mental institution.

Such a promising beginning: this stranger, Woland, and his henchmen proceed to terrorize Moscow, most especially its theatrical arts community. Among his retinue are Fagot, an unfortunately named interpreter with cracked pince nez glasses; Azazello, a cross-eyed, single-fanged albino thug in a bowler hat; and Behemoth, a huge black tomcat that walks on hind legs and makes wisecracks. Woland performs at a "seance" exposing the materialistic greed underlying communist Russia, with hundreds of women rushing the stage to shop French wares, while thousands of ten-rouble notes floating from the rafters are lunged for avariciously by audience members (which turn out to be counterfeit). There is a long night of horror where the theater people are visited by these devils; they disappear, some into thin air, others inexplicably to other places in Russia, not unlike what must have happened to many artists, writers, and thinkers in Stalinist Russia. Woland and his bad dudes set up camp in the deceased Berlioz's opulent flat and conduct black magic on any and all parasites or authorities who venture to bother them.

The Bad Guys: Woland, Behemoth, Fagot

What begins with such promise is lost when Bulgakov brings the titular characters into it. The Master and Margarita are star-crossed lovers, the former a frustrated novelist with an unpublished manuscript about Pontus Pilate, Judea's proconsul during the crucifixion, the latter a frustrated housewife/muse. The Master is in the same madhouse as the poet Ivan Nikolaevich, while Margarita is recruited by Azazello to be the hostess at The Great Ball of Satan's (a truly weird moment in a weird book) so that she might be reunited with the Master. So, suddenly, we're in a love story, but a half-assed one, where the characters lack character. We know they love each other because Bulgakov has told us so-- but like nearly everyone in this long, diverging narrative, they aren't fully developed as sympathetic people so this reader at least did not care one way or another whether they stayed together.

How this love story fits into Stalinist Russia I was not able to figure out. Nor did I unravel the enigma of Pontus Pilate, of which passages of the Master's manuscript cover about a fifth of the book-- what the assassination of Judas and Pilate's insomnia has to do with the totalitarian Russia of the 1930s I could not quite make sense of. Nor did I understand why Margarita would champion the novel and the Master's artistic talent. The Master is hardly the type of guy a beauty like Margarita would credibly give up her worldly possessions for (she's married to a rich bureaucrat or something); he lacks confidence, money, strength of character, and, as this reviewer has noted, artistic talent. He whines and mopes while she swoons and gushes. Margarita makes a deal with the Devil, Woland, to host his silly party, detailed in a chapter containing numerous surreal passages of surprisingly dull prose: "On the stage behind the tulips, where the waltz king's orchestra had been playing, there now raged an ape jazz band. A huge gorilla with shaggy side-whiskers, a trumpet in his hand, capering heavily, was doing the conducting. Orangutans sat in a row blowing on shiny trumpets."

What a shindig. The Devil and his entourage have all the choice lines, the style, and the chutzpah, while the Muscovites, from the artists to the authorities to the peasants, are generally fearful, acquisitive, and bereft of imagination. Whether this was a sort of criticism on Soviet society I don't know, but in glorifying the Devil, Bulgakov isn't so much worshipping as suggesting evil isn't as one-dimensional as it's made out to be: "What would your good do if evil didn't exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people." This is an interesting idea for the 1930s considering that the Stalin government was murdering dissenters daily and Hitler was assembling his wartime apparatus.  Bulgakov reportedly burned his manuscript  at least once (like the Master in the novel). He died in 1940 and the novel wasn't published until 1966. But had he lived longer to witness in the papers Auschwitz and Hiroshima, would he have maintained a sympathetic feeling for the Devil? In modern times, evil had never been so one-dimensionally obvious as it was during the Second World War.

Monocled Mikhail Bulgakov

But maybe I'm missing Bulgakov's point. After all, there is still so much of the novel I couldn't really make sense of. That would be OK if for not one glaring failure. I can accept a meandering, puzzling, complicated storyline loaded with symbolism that I might not fully grasp (I'm comparatively under-read in Russian literature and history), but nearly 600 pages of mediocre prose does not make for sustainable pleasure in reading. There are moments of exquisite, absurd, humorously rendered evil when Woland and his cronies are harassing Moscow's literati, but most of the novel, especially the story of the title characters and the Jerusalem crucifixion is a slog to get through. Often, the prose is so torturously bad that reading becomes endurance rather than indulgence.  I began losing interest in the book, thinking of only of getting to the end. This is a translation, of course (a very popular edition by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky from Penguin Classics), so I cannot say for sure whether Bulgakov is good or bad as a prose stylist (I'm willing to grant him a vivid imagination). Lacking evidence, I suspect the translators. No doubt, there is a real conundrum for word handlers: how to faithfully reproduce the exact author's intentions, without aesthetically altering the text seems a formidable task. But perhaps prose should be altered more, or at least delicately edited by a poet. Not to take anything from translators, who are enormously talented in their bilingualism, but few of them are genuine writing talents, which is something altogether different from understanding how a sentence sounds in two languages. Choosing the right words, the most precise, naturalistic, fluent prose is a devilish task. Bulgakov's demonic Woland, while a mischievous cretin, is charming enough to  deserve a better English stylist than the ones he had in this edition.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Post-Structual Retro Victorianism

"There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel."
-- Trollope

Bibliophiles have this thing, not dissimilar to audiophiles or cinephiles, in which we tend to zoom in on a person's bookcase in order to gauge the compatibility of our aesthetic sensibilities. Jeffrey Eugenides' novel, The Marriage Plot, in fact opens with a close perusal of the heroine's shelves. There we find Edith Wharton, Henry James, Dickens, Trollope, Austen, George Eliot, the Bronte sisters, a collection described as "Incurably Romantic." The heroine, Madeleine Hanna, and I would not be the most compatible bibliophiles. Having studied something other than English at university, I managed to bypass most of these authors and their air of "required reading." I might have found her too academic or blinded by old-fashioned prejudice; she would read my variety of literary interests as chaotic, or that of a dilettante. Nevertheless, after a round of drinks we'd probably discover we are both unrepentant snobs, ruing the decline of American reading standards. I might not have gotten around to George Eliot or Henry James, but know I should.

Jeffrey Eugenides

Truth told, I probably would have fallen for Madeleine too if I had been a liberal arts major at Brown in the early 1980s when the story is situated. She's romantic to a fault, literate, forgiving, generous, attentive, and witty. So I was thus surprised when I checked out the reviews on goodreads to see so many one-star reviews with plenty of nasty commentary, mostly condemning the character of Madeline as a "spoiled brat," as something "pretentious" and "loathsome." Personally, I rather liked her and the book as well. It made me nostalgic for university life, for a time when I was a young man,  young love, and the hyper-personal quest of selfhood.

Perhaps readers were expecting something more special after the wonderful strangeness of Eugenides' first two novels, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. The Marriage Plot invokes the specters of Roland Barthes, Jaques Derrida, and other maddening post-structuralists, but as foreshadowed by Madeline's bookshelves, this is old-fashioned storytelling. It's Eugenides' homage to the Victorians, as the plot deals with love, marriage, class, and, poignantly, madness.  Madeline is the pivotal point of a love triangle between two suitors, Leonard Bankhead and Mitchell Grammaticus, the former a hyper-intelligent manic-depressive, the latter, a shy, introverted ascetic with a spiritual keenness to understand God. 

The novel begins on the day of graduation. Madeleine is hungover, she's had some regretful relations with a classmate, her parents are in town, and she has just learned that her ex-boyfriend, Leonard, has been recently institutionalized for a nervous breakdown. Relationships are rarely on equal terms-- one usually loves or needs more than the other, and the balance of power, once Leonard's, shifts to Madeleine once they move in together when Leonard takes a fellowship in Cape Cod. Meanwhile, Mitchell has suffered an unrequited crush on Madeleine throughout university. A religious studies major from a humble Greek family in Michigan, he tries his best to put Madeleine out of his mind by traveling to Europe, and later, India, where he volunteers at Mother Teresa's hospice, desperate to make sense of a spiritual path, vainly hoping it might intersect at a romantic one. College life, European travel, and young adult anxiety are all explored in depth. However, the reader's interest in The Marriage Plot hinges most on who gets the girl.

Sounds terrifically old-fashioned storytelling, right? But in a twist of the sexist Victorian conceit, it is Madeleine who is most stable, mentally and financially, while the men flounder in poverty, odd jobs, and uncertain futures. This is 1982, post-feminism, post ERA, post Roe vs. Wade, and it is the men who stand to gain stability and respect in marriage, not Madeleine. There is a marriage in The Marriage Plot (the book's title refers to Madeleine's thesis paper), but I'm not one for spoilers. And if I were to tell you that Mitchell seems to closely resemble the author and his own experiences as a young man, I still have told you nothing. 

I can be partial to old-fashioned themes, and there is nothing more classic to a novel than love and marriage. However the narrative is a bit complex, as Eugenides breaks the book into sections of close third person, where we read scenes over, but from the other major viewpoint. For me the enjoyment in the book was not so much the plot, nor its resolution (which for the record I did like), but in how spot-on (and agreeable) Eugenides details were. Perhaps Eugenides has read more post-structuralism than myself (I am not a fan) so he might be more receptive to its ideas, but not here: "Reading a novel after reading semiotic theory was like jogging empty-handed after jogging with hand weights." The most ghastly moment in the novel involves Roland Barthes. When Madeleine declares her love for Leonard the first time his response is to point out this passage in Madeleine's well-thumbed copy of the famed post-modernist's Lover's Discourse: "The figure refers not to the declaration of love, to the avowal, but to the repeated utterance of the love cry. Once the first avowal has been made, 'I love you' has no meaning whatever..." Madeleine responds by throwing the book at him.

Roland Barthes

Madeleine had met Leonard in a senior course on semiotics. Perhaps she was drawn by the bibliophile's natural curiosity:  "Semiotics was the first thing that smacked of revolution. It drew a line, it created an elect; it was sophisticated and Continental; it dealt with provocative subjects, with torture, sadism, hermaphroditism-- with sex and power." That doesn't leave much room for the heart. And for that reason, guys like Barthes and Derrida don't make the shelves on Madeleine's shrine of a bookcase. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

There Might Be a Good Life Beyond Thirteen

"You're so goddamn funny, it isn't funny."

According to the documentary on his life, J. D. Salinger's unpublished work after his "retirement" in 1965 will be released to the public beginning in 2015. In anticipation of such a literary cultural event I've taken to reading Franny and Zooey and now, Nine Stories, of which only one of the stories I'd read previously. (The second time I read The Catcher in the Rye I was just finishing university, quite unprepared yet for adult life and wept-- I read it four years later in a summer in New York and found Holden a whiny brat-- no plans for a reread for now, perhaps when my son is of age, in which we might read it together.) After bearing through Nine Stories, I'm afraid my enthusiasm for whatever is to come from Salinger doesn't hold much for me. In fact, Salinger might be one of those popular authors whom I just don't like very much, a list that includes Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Bukowski, Haruki Murakami, and J. G. Ballard.

What exactly is my problem with Salinger? After all, he often writes beautifully-- his prose is stylistic, precise, and occasionally lyrical. But for all his fine writing and sophistication, there is something wholly unlikable about nearly everyone's story he deigns to tell. The nine stories (all written in a five-year period shortly after his war experience) deal variously with PTSD, childhood innocence, and child prodigies, while one story treats anti-semitism and another an inebriated man insecure about his wife's fidelity. The problem then is not subject or prose, it is Salinger's heroes, especially his young geniuses, who infuriate us with their arrogance. It takes considerable charm to overcome major character flaws like uppityness and obnoxiousness. In literature, in fact, it is rather impossible. Consider this diatribe by one of Salinger's spoiled brats: "I mean here's this awful little person from Altoona, Pennsylvania-- or one of those places. Apparently starving to death. I'm kind and decent enough-- I'm the original Good Samaritan-- to take him into my apartment, this absolutely microscopic little apartment that I can hardly move around in myself." He is an ass, of course,  but not an isolated example from this collection-- the heroes of "De Daumier-Smith's Blues" and "Teddy," are equally precious, precocious, and pretentious. Salinger would have us expect the little boy in "Teddy," would remark to a stranger, "Poets are always taking the weather so personally. They're always sticking their emotions in things that have no emotions." Oh, are they really, Teddy?

But as annoying as they can be, the larger problem with most of Salinger's stories is they are forgettable. Not a lot happens in them-- the characters think too much, they drink, they cuss their "Christ Almightys," "Chrissakes," and "Goddamns" (after awhile most of Salinger's characters begin to sound like Holden Caulfield.) Easily, the most dramatic and thus most famous story in the collection is its first: "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." I'd originally read this when I was about 21 years old and remembered it as having significant impact. But upon this latest reread I found Seymour Glass anything but the legendary genius Salinger makes him out to be in Franny and Zooey and other stories. From the outset here we know he's unhinged from the beginning due to a lengthy conversation between Seymour's wife and her mother. There are three scenes with Seymour himself, the lengthiest of which he is playing with a little girl, Sybil, on the beach. Seymour takes Sybil out into the water on a floating raft. They look for bananafish, a fictional creature that "behaves like pigs." He has a Humbert Humbert moment in which he kisses the arch of her foot. But it is not this bizarre, nearly pedophiliac moment that is so disturbing. Nor is it his evident social awkwardness when later, in the elevator hotel, he rashly accuses a woman of staring at his feet "If you want to look at my feet, say so. But don't be a goddamn sneak about it." No, the stunner is this: Returning to his room, he takes out a pistol. With his wife asleep before him, apropos of nothing, he blows his brains out. That he should do this, shattering forever any normalcy and sanity in his innocent wife, is abominable. To this reader at least then he is at best a creep, at worst, a monster. That this could be one of the most celebrated stories of 20th century literature baffles me to no end. 

A story of similar themes but much more complex and better executed is "For Esmé-- with Love and Squalor." Again, we have an older man and a girl, though this one is about thirteen. The narrator, an American intelligence officer, meets her in a tearoom in Devon, England after witnessing her melodious singing in a church. They have an engaging character, and though Esmé
is nearly as supercilious and precocious as any Salinger type she is very nearly charming, or at least we are able to recognize the charm she has on this lonely soldier. The second half of the story follows the end of the war, in a battle-ravaged Bavarian village where a Sergeant X, battle-scarred and suffering severe post traumatic stress opens a piece of mail that had been forwarded over many addresses-- it is from Esmé and the contents of its cadence and character rejuvenates the young soldier. 

J.D. Salinger during the War

It sounds sentimental and it could be easy to dismiss from our generations of leisure and small sacrifice. But we all have our personal "battles" even if they are nowhere near as dramatic as Salinger's, who was in D-Day and helped liberate the death camps. But we can remember a time more innocent, more optimistic before the war (our war, our little war). This is Salinger at his best and how he might have contemplated his literary purpose: to remind us of what it felt like to have our future in front of us. Perhaps that is why Salinger is so popular among the young. But childhood is not necessarily our life peak from which we inevitably decline. For those of us who have left innocence behind and have discovered adulthood hasn't been an outright disaster, the running themes in Salinger's work can feel a bit melodramatic, if immature. After all, you don't need to be a child to be imaginative, creative, and adventurous. In fact, you can keep a youthful spirit intact most especially when you don't sentimentalize the past. You would have thought Salinger, a Zen enthusiast, might have realized the joys of present tense living. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Interesting Times

"There are fleeting moments when the public scene recalls the Weimar republic of 1932-33. In this American phantasmagoria, an empty-faced girl in a scarlet cloak and a clown's hat points a gun... the unemployed mill about.. the largest city is about to go bankrupt... a feckless President, another wooden titan, drones stolidly... exorcists, astrologers, and strange oriental gurus wander through... the screens, large and small, pulsate with violence and pornography.... the godfathers last tango with clockwork orange in deep throat... women in pants bawl lustily while anguished youths try to be gay... a motherly woman raises her gun and fires...screams... Underlying all this is a new spirit of nihilism, a radical disbelief in any rational, objective basis for ethical norms or for orderly political change."
-- New York Times columnist William Shannon

If there is a more descriptive caricature of America in the middle 1970s I have not yet read it. The "Weimar" summer the writer referring to was 1975 and up to that point it had been a pretty bad year: runaway inflation; a stagnant economy; NewYork City fiscally bankrupt; Cambodia and Vietnam falling into Communist rule in dramatic fashion; two assassination attempts on President Gerald Ford's life; terrorist bombings (89 over the course of the year); heiress Patty Hearst on the lamb with the radical outfit Symbionese Liberation Army; textbook wars in West Virginia; antibusing riots in Boston; and a congressional commission investigating systematic abuse and murder by the CIA. This in the aftermath of the OPEC embargo and energy crisis in 1973 and the Watergate scandal brought down Richard Nixon in 1974. There was, in politics, economics, and in all walks of social life, a "crisis in confidence."

Patty Hearst posing with the SLA insignia

The writer's reference to Weimar Germany in 1933 signals the author's dire pessimism of what might come to pass. On the other hand, one would have thought that all this turbulence would be a catalyst for reflection, for significant change, for "growing up," which entailed abandoning the myth of American exceptionalism and the harsh reality we might be as flawed as the banana republics where our CIA was fomenting agitation and death. Yet the following summer in our Bicentennial year, Ronald Reagan, a former B-list actor that not a single pundit took seriously, nearly won the GOP nomination for President. He did this on a radically conservative agenda that almost entirely ignored the reality of a culturally diverse and economically complex superpower.  Four years later he would take this movement mainstream winning a landslide election and once and for all twisting the knife in 1960s idealism. Rick Perlstein's wonderful history of the middle 1970s, The Invisible Bridge, is about how the fall of Nixon led to the rise of Reagan and the modern conservative movement that took hold in America.

In 1974, a retiring congressman said, "Politics has gone from an age of 'Camelot' when all things were possible to the age of 'Watergate' when all things are suspect." Perlstein often references the"small and suspicious circles" who go from a Greek chorus chattering in the margins to the mainstream, their voices expanding into a din. The suspicious ones are vindicated time and again for their paranoia, most especially for Watergate. The revelations therein: Nixon's "enemies list," suitcases of cash, burglaries, break-ins, forgeries, plans to kidnap activists during the Republican convention. Meanwhile, the Moonies, EST, and all kinds of cults are thriving, as the hippies moved back from the communes but couldn't quite readapt to the system. "Once upon a time 'the occult' had been the redoubt of rubes. Now, in a world where the usual sources of authority no longer had answers for anything, the weird stuff was getting more serious consideration." In a bestselling paperback written by psychics, Predictions for 1974, a stock market crash, swarms of locusts and floods "like the plagues of Egypt" were augured. Many feared Nixon wouldn't leave the White House without calling in the army and maybe staging a coup, or even going nuclear in an alcoholic delirium. Unfounded fears, as Watergate finally did bring down Nixon but when his replacement, the mild-mannered Midwesterner, Gerald Ford pardoned him "absolutely," he too marked himself as an "insider," one of them.

Operation Frequent Wind (better known as the Fall of Saigon)

Around the time of Watergate, an exposé by journalist Seymour Hersh revealed CIA drug running in Laos, assassination attempts, pivotal roles in coups setting up right wing dictatorships, and more. Led by Senator Frank Church and New York congressman Otis Pike, an investigation uncovered numerous illegalities, but at a certain point the public suffered scandal-fatigue. The New York Times and The Washington Post, both instrumental in bringing down Nixon, buried the stories. And while many worried about the State of the Union for America's 200th birthday, the collective mood of the country ended up feeling good and proud. Americans were frankly tired of feeling guilty about Vietnam and Watergate. They were ready to move on.

The Invisible Bridge is long-- 800 pages long-- and while it is comprehensive of the era, covering economic and social issues, as well as pop culture (The Godfather infecting Watergate criminality, The Exorcist touching on cults brainwashing daughters, Jaws as the invisible, uncontrollable menace lurking just out of our sight), Perlstein is a politics geek. Much of his research is devoted to the rise of Ronald Reagan. The historian covers his impoverished childhood with an alcoholic father, his unwavering belief in self, his lifeguard stint, his nearsightedness (and refusal to wear glasses), his leftism in college, a radio career, movie stardom, his marriages to Jane Wyman and Nancy Davis, spokesperson for GE, his move to the right and strong anti-communist stance, Governor of California and his vilification of student activists, and finally a rich man on the speakers' circuit commanding $5000 for an hour's talk. Always aware of being watched, of presenting an image. Here was a man capable of making all the cruelties of conservatism tolerable, even likable. The momentum for him to be elected reminded him the nature of his work as a lifeguard: "Then along came Ronald Reagan, encouraging citizens to think like children, waiting for a man on horseback to rescue them." Whatever complexity encountered could be reduced by him to a matter of good and evil.

After the midterms elections of 1974-- so-called "Watergate Baby" Democrats sweeping many Republicans out of office-- the race to be the presidential nominee in 1976 should have been wide open but Jimmy Carter, a heretofore unknown former governor of Georgia, won outright by conveying the strongest anti-Washington "outsider" stance. Normally, incumbent presidents don't expect much of a challenge from their party, but Ford, who had Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in his cabinet, was not conservative enough for the reactionaries who wanted a Reagan candidacy. Beyond the culture war-- abortion, busing, history textbooks, the Equal Rights Amendment-- the power brokers wanted deregulation, smaller government, and lower taxes, basically deconstructing the New Deal. As former speechwriter Pat Buchanan put it in his column: "Ford is a conservative... a conservatism marked by wariness of status quo... It is a don't-rock-the-boat conservatism exemplified by what Mr. Ford calls the politics of cooperation, conciliation, compromise, and consensus... But Reagan was there to lead Republicans who believe that conflict, not compromise, is the essence of politics."

The Soiling of Old Glory-- antibusing violence in Boston

After more than six months of primaries and caucuses, Ford had only a slightly larger lead than Reagan and the nomination process had to go all the way to the GOP convention in Kansas City. Ford clinched it when he swayed the Mississippi delegation to his side after some raucous politicking and backroom dealing.  Ford might have won the battle but Reagan won the war for the soul of the Republican party. The delegates at the convention ratified a pro-life, anti-detente, pro-gun, antibusing, pro-school-prayer platform.

This was not yet a popular view in 1976. When Gallup polled voters on a Reagan vs. Carter match, Carter consistently topped Reagan by three times as many votes. Had they gone against each other in 1976, Reagan might have been defeated, soundly even, his reactionary platform discredited as unwinnable, a failure. Perhaps then not every single president in the last few generations would have taken his cue, dividing citizens and nations into good guys and bad guys to fit Manichean world views. Moreover, there might not have ever been a Reagan Revolution, and all of its attendant disastrous consequences. It would have been a different world, almost certainly a better one. That said, there is something about Reagan and his flamboyant charm that seemed inevitable. It's poor taste to ever use that adjective with history, but with someone like Reagan, it seems appropriate. Germany got Hitler in its Weimar moment, we got Reagan, which isn't to say we didn't lose too. Losing can be complicated and difficult to define, notwithstanding some presidential philosophies.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Year in Reading (2014)

2014 marked another wonderful year in reading. I managed to read nineteen novels or short story collections, eleven books of nonfiction, and one book of poetry. Eight of the books were rereads. Everything I read was on paper and I am yet to read a single book on an e-reader. The best pleasures were William Faulkner's Light in August, Graham Greene's Heart of the Matter, and Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. The only books I struggled to like were Celine's Journey to the End of the Night, JG Ballard's Crash, Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, and Saul Bellow's Ravelstein (I normally love Bellow but of Celine and Ballard I am convinced of incompatibility-- an unpopular view, and many whose tastes I respect adore Ballard and Celine. But then again I rather dislike Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway, and Haruki Murakami, so I am rather used to defending my preferences in beer-soaked quarrels.)

I did not manage to read nearly as many books as I did in 2012 or 2013, but then what matters is the quality of the read. And, importantly, I was able to hold true to my resolution of writing about every book read this year. This was not easy, as sometimes it's nice to just finish something and move on. However, the knowledge I would need to make sense of whatever I was reading made me a more critical reader and I would like to continue this process in the coming years.

Rereads are marked with an *. My review to each book is linked in the title if you are curious.

1) Journey to the End of the Night by Louis Celine (1932)
2) Captain James Cook by Richard Hough (1999)
3) Hirohito: The Making of Modern Japan by Herbert Bix (2000)
4) Winesberg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (1919) *
5) Light in August by William Faulkner (1932)
6) A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor (1955)
7) Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954) *
8) Boxcar Bertha by Bertha Thompson
9) Crash by J.G. Ballard (1973)
10) Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger (1961)

11) Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (1914)
12) Perfume by Patrick Suskind (1985)
13) The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides (1993)
14) The Plague by Albert Camus (1947) *
15) Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini (1566)
16) Waiting for the Barbarians by JM Coetzee (1980)
17) The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (1992)
18) Ways of Seeing by John Berger (1972) *
19) Coin Locker Babies by Ryu Murakami (1980)
20) Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy MacLean (1949)

21) A Blue Hand by Deborah Baker (2008) *
22) The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene (1948) *
23) Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (2012)
24) Drop City by TC Boyle (2003) *
25) The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler (1903)
26) Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr (1964)
27) Ravelstein by Saul Bellow (2000)
28) Stranger in the Forest by Eric Hanson (1988)
29) Lost Japan by Alex Kerr (1994)
30) Divine Magnetic Lands by Tim O'Grady (2008)
31) Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins (2011)

For the new year, I've started Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge, regarding the core years of the 1970s when Richard Nixon fell in disgrace and Ronald Reagan rose to prominence as the right's Chosen One. A great read...

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Tortoise Poet

I don't suppose there is anything in the arts more frivolous than poetry. Epic, abstract, couplets, rhyming, no rhyming, whatever form poetry takes it probably has a smaller audience share than opera or silent films. You really don't meet many poets in cafes these days, and if someone does introduce himself as one you would not be that out of line inquiring what the person's day job might be. Even the very best of them would only make a pauper's living with verse (though they might teach at a university of notable name recognition). I suppose that poetry's inability to engage any contemporary zeitgeist, especially in the United States has twofold reasons: 1) its disavowal of puritanical values: poetry is about thrilling in the small moments, introspecting everyday matters so that the banal might be beautiful-- its daintiness antithetical to a strong work ethic. And 2) Lacking kinetics, verve, vigor, muscle or obvious razzle-dazzle poetry struggles to transcend youth culture-- forever a niche for romantics and the old-fashioned. These days poets are never worshipped by the young, so there are few celebrities in today's world.

While not exactly a household name, anyone who dabbles in poetry has heard of Billy Collins. His ninth collection, Horoscopes for the Dead, reaffirms his reputation as poet's poet, that is, a maker of mountains out of molehills. Collins, a genuine savant in the arts of boketto (staring into space while seeming to think of nothing), writes variously about sitting on rocks in the sunshine, smelling the flowers, floating in kayaks, sinking into chairs, bicycling through cemeteries. He imagines his birth in one poem, death in another. He lingers over passing light and see colors where there is none.  In the titular poem, he reflects on the fortune of a dead friend, who sounds as if he were in something of a similar trade to Collins:

"No more goals for you, no more romance,
no more money or children, jobs or important tasks,
but then again, you were never thus encumbered."

My own favorite in the collection was the first one, titled "Grave" in which Collins visits his parents tombstones donning a new pair of shades. He asks them, "What do you think of my new glasses:"

"and what followed was a long silence
that descended on the rows of the dead
and on the fields and the woods beyond,

one of the one hundred kinds of silence
according to the Chinese belief,
each one distinct from the others,

but the differences being so faint
that only a few special monks
were able to tell them apart."

No poet fails to contemplate love and in the poem, "Genesis," over a "second bottle of wine" his loved one speculates maybe Eve came first and "Adam began as a rib." But Collins, clearly neither a biblical literalist nor a misogynist, wonders,

"what life would be like as one of your ribs--
to be with you all the time,
riding under your blouse and skin,
caged under the soft weight of your breasts."

But no poem in the collection suggests Collins' whimsy like the short piece "My Hero" does.

"Just as the hare is zipping across the finish line,
the tortoise has stopped once again
by the roadside,
this time to stick out his neck
and nibble a bit of sweet grass,
unlike the previous time
when he was distracted
by a bee humming in the heart of a wildflower."

Here is Collins himself distracted by anything and everything, recognizing with childlike wonder the mystery of life, losing the race to bankers, politicians, and professional athletes no less. For all their riches and accolades, have they ever noticed the bees doing their business among the wildflowers? While the tortoise might be the best zoological metaphor for Collins' dilatory nature, he is anything but a slacker. For a laid-back poet-scribbling slouch he's done well for himself. Among the many publications for the poems in this collection are The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and many other notable rags. Moreover, he was United States Poet Laureate from 2001-2003, so his was the responsibility to write an elegy for the victims of the September 11th terrorist attacks. His poem for this tragedy, "The Names" is neither frivolous nor whimsical, but touches gently and melancholically on the tremendous loss:

"Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,
The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.
Alphabet of names in a green field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart."

Not bad for a daydreamer lying recumbent on the grass staring up at the sky, dreaming of the lumbering tortoise.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

See the USA in Your Chevrolet

"The answer is never the answer. What's really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you'll always be seeking."
-Ken Kesey

"There is nothing wrong with Americans except their ideals. The real American is all right; it is the ideal American who is all wrong."
-G K Chesterson

Poetically, nothing is perhaps more synonymous with America than the open road. Not counting the great Alaskan frontier, the contiguous 48 States is rather huge. That it was settled coast to coast within a century of the nation's founding is a testament to our collective restlessness. America is big: big people, portions, guns, budgets, ideas, lies, estates, dreams.  An easy glance at the political-economic spectrum reveals America as an Hegemonic Bully, making it tempting, if not convenient to write all of us off as big-ass dolts, and so toast good riddance to the passage of the American century. But even the most virulent anti-American propagandists would be disheartened to know that if they were to actually visit America, going deep by way of highway and byway, they might find Americans more complex than they thought possible and perhaps undeserving of our cruel stereotypes-- in fact, some visitors might find Americans rather likable and perhaps not so big in everything.

A baby boomer born into America's Golden Years, Timothy O'Grady, left for Ireland in 1973 at the age of 22 and never moved back. In 2003 and 2004 he does two cross country road trips in a rental pale beige Chevrolet. "But there's nothing between here and California but gas stations" some dude in a New York city bar exclaims to O'Grady at the outset of his journey. But as O'Grady describes his travels in his travelogue Divine Magnetic Lands, while homogenization has made America an uglier, less interesting place, geographical quirks persist still. This is one of those zen trips where it's all journey, destination an afterthought. Thus to enjoy the ride, he avoids interstate highways for country roads. Wherever he arrives, he goes drinking at bars, usually beer, with a game of billiards if there is a table. The bar does seem a good place for interviews, though surprisingly O' Grady learns "that in in the little bars in the little towns on the American road, particularly those where the grooming is haphazard, the language coarse, the prospects bleak and where it is believed that disputes both international and personal are best solved by violence, you are unlikely to get from the door to your chair without being engaged in conversation... but in cities and university towns, no matter how politically or spiritually open the prevailing ideology, you are likely to pass your evening in silence."

The wonderful thing about a road trip is that no two are exactly alike. Where you choose to stop is personal-- friends in propinquity, lingering nostalgia, or local cultural interests all play a part.  O'Grady's first trip takes him along the northern half, visiting a number of small towns including Ogden Dunes, Hibbing, Eagle Butts, Deadwood, Wallace, Medford, and Sausalito, then Big Sur, Monument Valley, Taos, Wichita Falls, Greenwood, Oxford, Sarasota, Edenton, among the many smaller towns during the second leg. Along the way he references other famous trippers on the American Road including Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, Simone de Bouvier, William Least Moon, Woody Guthrie, and Alexis de Tocqueville. Wherever he goes, he breaks down a bit of history: famous native sons, inventions, and often parables of civic decline. Most American towns have been dying since the 1970s, the main cause being de-industrialization, factories shuttering. Most ruminations lead inexorably to a discussion of American decline, and nearly everyone O'Grady meets on the road is feeling this some way or another. In New York City the author meets a researcher who has written a study on Americans' fascination with the apocalypse.  Here's O'Grady summing up the mess:

"This is the age, it would seem, through which America is passing, an Endtime of Empire-- a lack of belief in state structures, a decline in voting, an unreality in the unit of currency, enemies without and within, false accounting, vast numbers of servers accumulating around the rich, the ingratiation of the press to the powerful, the ascendancy of marketing over product, a retreat into privacy, reduced intellectual activity, a lack of public forums, a clouded future, religion based on salvation rather than good works, the infantilizing of adulthood, high anxiety, falling wages, casinos, crystals, angels, lotteries, private armies, seers, fanaticism."

The solution to nearly all these problems begins and ends with politics. O'Grady is a progressive and recognizes that deregulation and inequality are the primary causes of poverty, pessimism, and the decline of the middle class. He offers some advice for reform, all good and all to fall on deaf ears so long as our government continues to be bribed with graft and corrupted by K Street lobbying groups. O'Grady writes, "There is no people more easy to govern than the fearful, the debt-ridden and the demoralized. " Indeed, our current power structure thrives on the burdens of the many.

(c) Stephen Shore

The timing of the author's journey is important: 2003-2004 was the heart of the Bush era, an extraordinarily paranoid period wherein Bush, ostensibly, still had much of the country's support in spite of the developing catastrophes of the Iraq invasion (as a personal sidenote, 2003 is when I left the USA myself and eleven years later, have yet to move back). Traveling the US against this backdrop of fear and loathing will inevitably lead most seekers to dark conclusions. Nevertheless, for all his protestations, O'Grady is at heart, American, and thus optimistic. Interestingly, he connects the whiny victimization complex to conservatives and their "appeal to the sense of being abused, fed up, being ever on the losing side, in this country so focused on and celebratory of winning." Certainly if America ever hopes to be winning again, it will necessitate its reactionary minority to look beyond gay marriage, abortion rights, school prayer, and immigration fears to a politics that is more in tune with their livelihood. Like O'Grady I'm at heart an optimist and believe this is possible. But one day I might have to drive myself cross country and back just to make sure. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Japan Lost?

"To put it bluntly, these places have become cities of illusion, historical theme parks... Kyoto, Beijing, and Bangkok have been turned into concrete jungles. Meanwhile, the countryside has been filled to overflowing with billboards, power lines and aluminum houses."

A collection of essays concerning personal history and cultural critique, upon publication Lost Japan made Alex Kerr a legend in expat circles in Tokyo and elsewhere on the archipelago. A bit of a controversial figure for his harsh assessments of Japan, it is difficult to question his authority, as there are few foreign residents who have gone deeper into the culture than Kerr. He variously describes his interests delving into traditional Japanese architecture, kabuki theater, calligraphy, and art collecting. He seems to have experienced Japan at every level including a stint working for the Trammell Crow developing firm during the Bubble Era. Fluent in the language, Kerr originally wrote the book in Japanese.

Japan really is one of the most mythologized nations of which nearly everyone has an opinion. Many romanticize it, and it is easy to fall in love after a brief vacation. The streets are safe, the people polite, the shopkeepers honest, the service impeccable, the eccentricities charming. But any longterm residents- no matter the quality of their expatriate life- can enumerate various frustrations with the Japanese way of doing things. Kerr is an aesthete and his main point of contention is the Japanese willful destruction of their beautiful landscapes (pylons, power lines, concrete covering nature) atmosphere (interiors of plastic and florescent light), and the abandonment of the traditional arts (philistinism best typified by the rise of pachinko). Kerr might be a snob, but he is an agreeable and knowledgable one and his points are well thought out and colorfully made. His derision of pachinko, a mind-numbing electronic gambling game and its parlors for playing, is spot on: "When you look at the cultural remains of a historical period, you are able to perceive its dominant ideology. In the Nara and Heian periods there were Esoteric temples; from Kamakura to Edo there were Zen temples and teahouses... What about the present?... In the Japanese countryside the tallest and most ostentatious building is invariably a pachinko parlor." 

Hitchhiking across Japan in the early 1970s, he discovered the Iya Valley in rural Shikoku, where in a little village suffering depopulation he purchases an abandoned 17th century wooden house. The most expensive and complicated renovation is replacing the kaya, or thatched roof. It takes years for him to do so but in the end the structure is beautifully restored. He calls it Chiiori and it becomes a success story for restorative village tourism. Nevertheless, in spite of a longterm recession and a history of failure, a corrupt national government continues to spend massively on pork barrel projects that despoil the environment.  

Kerr comments wearily, "This destruction has continued at an ever-increasing rate, and now Japan has achieved a position as one of the world's ugliest countries." However brusque Kerr's criticism is, the fury derives from a profound love for his adopted country. Wherever we choose to live, we will have a complex relationship to our environment, most especially if we import our values into a distinct culture. For all of Kerr's criticism, he is lavish when describing his fondness for calligraphy and kabuki not to mention, his gratitude for the genuine friendships he's maintained with certain Japanese people.

But for all Kerr's lamentations of a bygone Japan, I couldn't help noticing there was a tinge of the traveler's boast-- what I'm talking about is the one-upmanship people have when comparing their life experiences. No doubt Kerr has had an extraordinarily unique go at it, but the underlying message here for those coming to the party late seems to be "forget it!" as he was the last foreigner to experience the "real" Japan. Kerr is far too delicate to come out and say this explicitly-- however, over and over, he brings up cultural topics that have changed irreparably, from art collecting to kabuki to the rural village experience. Even something as culturally vulgar as Japan's economic Bubble is burst and the gold rush is over. Kerr's not exactly rubbing it in, but this memoir is an elegy for a "lost Japan," and let's not forget who wrote it.