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 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 I would 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. But though The Marriage Plot invokes the specters of Roland Barthes, Jaques Derrida, and other maddening post-structuralists, 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 Grammatical, 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, 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. University life, European travel, and young adult anxiety are all explored in depth. However, the reader's interest in The Marriage Plot hinges best 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 have still 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 I did enjoy), 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.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Living Metaphor as Bravado vs. Conscientiousness

"Billy, all those mofos ever do is lie. You think if they halfway told the truth we'd even be in a fucking war? You know what I think, I think we don't deserve to have you guys die for us. No country that lets its leaders lie like that deserves a single soldier to die for it."

The relative value of a good war in American life has declined markedly over the past several generations. Almost nobody uninvolved cared much about the stalemate in Korea and Vietnam was very bad. In our time, Iraq and Afghanistan have been pretty disgraceful, nothing like the (ahem) "good" wars from which we build our myths and fine tune our legends. With such villainous opponents like slaveowners and Nazis, it's possible to romanticize the trenches of Gettysburg and the carnage of Normandy, especially against the patina of bygone decades. Perhaps one hundred years now some fabulist will find something noble in our most contemporary self-made disasters, but for now, the stories depicting the bungling of Baghdad are of a more critical nature.

Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is one of the best war novels I've ever read, with the interesting distinction of being entirely set in Dallas, Texas, on Thanksgiving Day. It's about the eight surviving members of Bravo Squad being feted by the media after FOX News broadcasts a tape of them in a death-defying firefight known as "the battle of Al-Ansakar Canal," turning them into nationwide heroes. Their goodwill tour culminates in Dallas for the Turkey bowl, the traditional Thanksgiving football match featuring the Dallas Cowboys.

The story takes place over a single day, but as days go it is more eventful than any you've probably ever had in your entire life. We follow closely Billy Lynn, a good kid from a normal family, who through some bad shit butterfly effect winds up in some trouble, enlisting in the military in order to avoid penitentiary time. Billy is a calm presence in Bravo Squad, a rowdy bunch, hard-drinking, hard talking, who have survived some intense battlefield moments. Everywhere they go, average, inarticulate, overweight, generally ignorant citizens approach them with trite mumbo jumbo: "terrRist... freedom...evil... nina leven...nina leven... nina leven...troops... sacrifice... Bush...values... God." Meanwhile, the boys just want to bang some Cowboys cheerleaders and be left in some degree of peace. Albert, a charismatic blackberry-wielding Hollywood producer with big-league cred tags along, trying to secure a moneyed investor to make a movie about Bravo Company.

The soldiers, hungover from a strip club outing the night before, are passed along to numerous factotums before the halftime show. Pregame, they meet the Cowboys in the locker room, hulking, buff superhuman freaks, and there is a mutual respect regarding ferociousness and the kill instinct. They watch the first quarter from the luxury box with Dallas's blue blood. The grunts are mostly impressed with such ostentatious success, but for all their moneyed opulence, the jetsetters don't have combat experience and are thus too are somewhat taken by Billy and the others' survivor cachet. In a conversation with one millionaire, Billy is reminded that people "can take pleasure in the achievement, even feel some measure of participatory pride, all the while understanding that the mission has absolutely nothing to do with him." But getting down to brass tacks, the public's feel-good patriotism ("wore on terrRr... we pray and hope and bless and praise...proud, so proud) is artifice, a mendacious concept of success and bravery, only tangentially connected to them by way of being American too. It is in this spirit that Bravo Company is marched out on national TV for the halftime show with Bush-era pop superstars Destiny's Child performing. Such a show based on flimsy associations then becomes a hideous farce and a surreal nightmare.

After two weeks of numerous TV interviews and a visit to his Texas family, Billy will be redeployed to Iraq following the game. His sister, Kathryn, who is indirectly responsible for his enlistment status, has found him a lawyer who will put him into hiding if he goes AWOL. She and this antiwar group she's in contact with are looking to utilize Billy's heroism to condemn involvement in Iraq and American militarism in general. Here could be the brave face of a movement that might sway public opinion decidedly against our military misadventures. Besides the movie deal and a love interest of Billy's (he has a hot hookup with a Cowboys cheerleader named Faison), Billy's move on whether or not to leave his friends at Bravo becomes the climax of the story. Billy is reluctant, which frustrates Kathryn: "Only a nut would want to go back to the war. We'll have the lawyers plead temporary sanity for you, how about that? You're too sane to go back to the war, Billy Lynn has come to his senses. It's the rest of the country that's nuts for wanting to send him back." But it's not quite simple: besides the obvious betrayal of his Bravo companions, there is the element of evolving into yet another pawn, at once transitioning from a symbol of American gung ho pluck to conscientious objector "coward." Being a symbol to the American public would wear anyone out, but to go from one kind of face to another might be too much.

(c) Spencer Platt

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is a great war novel, in that war is hardly confined to the battlefield. The soldiers lucky enough to survive become veterans and the experience manifests itself in their civilian lives. It reminds me then of a great movie from 1978, Coming Home, none of which takes place in Vietnam's jungles or Saigon's boulevards, but which is a great war film nonetheless, because when we talk about war, we have to consider the totality of it. At the moment, Fountain's novel is in the process of being developed into a film to be directed by Ang Lee. I won't spoil your reading experience telling whether Albert lands Bravo Company their movie deal-- but I will say that I'm sad to see Billy and the other grunts getting the big screen treatment in our world. I can get the allure-- likable characters, cracking dialogue, the psychedelic hyper-reality of football halftime shows, and a moral crisis-- but film adaptations tend to spoil the best books, divulging everything while revealing nothing. Read this now.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Jungle Book

"Keep your money. You can print money, but you can't print land. We want our land."
--Penan tribesmen in Central Borneo in response to local government bribes

The travel writer Eric Hansen's memoir, Stranger in the Forest, an account of his 1982 peregrinations on the island of Borneo, is like an elegy to a form of travel, and more importantly, a way of existence, that in the course of my lifetime, has not quite ceased to exist but has changed irreparably and for the worse. Hansen spent about seven months crisscrossing the jungles of Borneo, about 4000km in distance, two thirds of it on foot, a lot of the walking through pristine rain forest. He could not do it by himself (it turns out no one in Borneo wanders alone in the jungle due to fear of evil spirits, or just as troublesome, accusations of being an evil spirit, which happened to Hansen at one unlucky juncture); that he traveled most of the way with guides does not diminish the accomplishment. Hansen put his life in the hands of the hill people of the Penan tribe. Already by the time of Hansen's publication of the novel in 1988, the local government of Sarawak had granted massive concessions to timber companies, justifying their exploitation of indigenous land on the grounds that Penan hunters did not know how to utilize resources.  Hansen's "walk" then, was not just the first but the last of its kind really possible before contemporary globalization-- taking off in the 1980s-- would mean full-speed expansion of corporate penetration into virgin forests.

Hansen's ambitions to walk across Borneo are more fantasy than reality, and inadequate planning leads him into making numerous false starts, his endeavors sabotaged by duplicitous guides, the bearing of inadequate trade items, and an ankle injury. These setbacks aren't necessarily a waste of time, as gifted with language ability (or maybe by virtue of studious efforts), he develops decent Malay fluency and locates the right people to advise him on routes, and more importantly, which trade items to bring. An experienced merchant tutors him on tables of local trade item value and encourages him to consider profit-to-size-and-weight ratios (shotgun shells being small and portable and having excellent barter value, he picks up 250 rounds, along with four kilos of beads and two kilos of tobacco).

Hansen finally finds the right guides and plunges deep into the forest, so much so that he doesn't see the sun for four weeks. They carry no more food than they need for a couple days, hunting the rest, feeding on bats, snakes, and pig (Hansen demonstrates time and again a remarkably adventurous palate).  The jungle, so mysterious, foreboding, and inexplicable to novice trekkers, is a revelation of bounty and utilitarian things: "A piece of thin bark placed between two small river rocks became a drinking fountain; a leaf plucked off a certain tree, folded double, and sucked on to create a vibrating sound, would call the inquisitive barking deer to within shotgun range; a vine known as kulit elang, when pounded and dipped in water and scrubbed on our ankles, would keep leeches from climbing up our legs."

The heterogeneity of Borneo's arboreal life is incredible: "The diversity of tree species alone is estimated at a staggering 2500. In one ten-hectare sample plot of Borneo jungle, the Royal Geographical Society has identified nearly 800 species of trees, more than 20 times the total number of native tree species in all of Britain." They go weeks without seeing any other people, living off the spoils of the jungle. What they do not eat or smoke quickly putrefies and is recycled into the forest floor. Hansen concludes, "the rain forest was a living, breathing organism capable of consuming and digesting me was disconcerting, but also rather exciting. It made me feel as if we were traveling through the intestinal flora of some giant leafy creature."

There is a long learning curve for Hansen but he gets it: "I became blissfully preoccupied with the present tense. It was at about this time I finally came to accept the fact that the rain forest was not a chaotic wilderness to be battled and conquered. There was nothing to conquer, and the chaos was entirely due to my inexperience." There is no straight line in the jungle. His guides do not lead him in the most direct route. They cannot tell him how long the journey will take-- it all depends on how good the hunting is along the way. Eventually Hansen sheds "my Western concepts of time, comfort, and privacy. When I first entered the jungle and let go of my margins of safety to become vulnerable to a place I didn't understand, it was terrifying. I had slowly learned, however, to live with the fear and uncertainty. Also I realized that the physical journey was not the great accomplishment. The value of the trip lay in everyday encounters, and the destination gradually became a by-product of the journey."

This conclusion would make sense as Hansen is walking in the jungle for the pure thrill of being there. His style of travel is full immersion-- not only does he learn Malay, but he befriends his guides and villagers, drinks arak and enjoys their exotic food, participates in their dance ceremonies, follows their customs. Many times he makes a fool of himself, but by doing so he builds trust. He adapts to their sense of time and belief system-- very superstitious by Western standards-- and conducts himself with patience, grace, and respect.  Comparisons are inevitable and I can't help thinking of Paul Theroux, a wonderful writer, but one who seems always on the move, resistant to adaptation, and a hell of a lot grumpier and meaner in terms of value judgments. From Hansen you get the sense of an egalitarian idealism-- he's a true humanist: empathetic and compassionate, a lover. His writing is descriptive and thorough, and he tells a good story-- there will be many when you spend seven months in virgin forest speaking a new tongue, learning to hunt, going weeks without sunlight under the cover of enormous jungle canopies. 

Penan hill people (c) Eric Hansen

However good he is describing his adventures, this book is as much amateur anthropology as it is travel memoir (and that is not meant to be a criticism). We've come so very far with technology; so few of us know how to live off the land as our distant ancestors did. It is wonderful to know that in my lifetime tribesmen like the Penan can still live off the forests, but it is a tragedy to learn their way of life is highly endangered. We can only hope that Eric Hansen's childhood dream of jungle adventure-- manifested in this book-- has raised awareness of this David & Goliath situation.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Old Man and His Prejudices

"To be human was to be severed, mutilated. Man is incomplete. Zeus is a tyrant. Mount Olympus is a tyranny. The work of humankind in its severed state is to seek the missing half. And after so many generations your true counterpart is simply not to be found. Eros is a compensation granted by Zeus-- for possibly political reasons for his own. And the quest for your lost half is hopeless. The sexual embrace gives temporary self-forgetting but the painful knowledge of mutilation is permanent."

It had been a long time since I read my favorite Saul Bellow novels-- more than a decade in fact, since I'd loved Herzog, Mister Sammler's Planet, and Henderson and the Rain King-- but the excerpt above from his last novel, Ravelstein, reminded me why I'd once adored Bellow as a young man, conscious that love and sex could be entirely distinct pathos. His novels' heroes were so smart yet so troubled-- they compensated for their abysmal marriages with thoughtful narratives of love won and lost, though usually burning themselves out putting the question of love and sex on the fire too long to stand the heat. Every great novelist, no matter how many books he or she writes, has a certain, indisputable vibe and this was Bellow's: great intellectual men sundered by overanalyzed collapsing love affairs.

This is not the case of Bellow's last novel published before his death. There are elements of it, of course, but Ravelstein is some strange fictional hagiography to a gay celebrity academic (apparently modeled on Allan Bloom, a University of Chicago professor of philosophy). The narrator is Chick, an old friend of Ravelstein's, entrusted to write a biography of the man, focused on his rather unconventional life rather than his theories. Liking such a literary love letter then depends entirely on liking Ravelstein, an economic neoliberal polymath genius, but also a Francophile snob, a materialistic bon vivant, and a hypocrite, who for all his wealth of intelligence comes off as a distasteful boor rather than someone whose life we should admire.

Consider the superficiality of this: "Ravelstein had come to agree that it was important to note how people looked. Their ideas are not enough-- their theoretical convictions and political views. If you don't take into account their haircuts, the hang of their pants, their taste in skirts and blouses, their style of driving a car or eating a dinner, your knowledge is incomplete." Not only does he pass judgments on the basis of such elitist notions, there is the problem of the old coot being a tad sexist: "Nature, furthermore, gave women a longing for children, and therefore for marriage, for the stability requisite for family life. And this, together with a mass of other things, disabled them for philosophy." And for the hat trick he is a bit of a starfucker as well: "At Idlewild, once, he had spotted Elizabeth Taylor and for the better part of an hour tracked her through the crowds. It especially pleased him to have recognized her." How perfectly ordinary of you, Mr. Ravelstein!

And Ravelstein being a decrepit snob with untouchable credentials and experience must unduly disparage his contemporaries and the liberal arts scene: "No real education was possible in American universities except for aeronautical engineers, computerists, and the like. The universities were excellent in biology and the physical sciences, but the liberal arts were a failure." This is partially true-- no question that the American government and educational institutions find engineering, mathematics, and science a more lucrative investment than poetry or history, but it is a rather harsh and uncompromising generalization to label the arts "a failure" but this is the sort of personality Bellow built a novel around: an awful, judgmental personage that whom for all his dying, is never sympathetic.

Ravelstein was published in 2000 when Saul Bellow was 85 years old. The reviews for it are laudatory. Bellow was such a wonderful writer and, even here, his prose is never trite and often lyrical. But its subject is often trite and never lyrical and leaves me at a loss that Bellow-- who at that age had probably witnessed many, many friends pass on-- would choose to focus his last efforts on a personality who did not deserve his gorgeous gifts. So sad to see the swan song become an ugly duckling.