Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Beast Within

“We're English, and the English are best at everything.”

There are few novels assigned to schoolchildren so despairing and damning as Lord of the Flies. The story's central thesis, that there is a “Beast” inside our collective soul liable to wreck havoc on the Earth and murder enemies, is a most pessimistic parable to grasp, particularly for the middle-school reader, aged twelve. The author, William Golding, might have been serving the spirit of the times, that of a narrative beyond Auschwitz and Hiroshima, but sixty years on, the story resonates, as even the holocaust and atomic cataclysms have failed to learn us to be better persons, loving and respecting one another. This remains a world where Power corrupts and destroys, whether it be via military, corporate, or even schoolyard shows of force.

Lord of the Flies could be a metaphor for any badly governed state. A group of boys are marooned on a small tropical island paradise. There is the initial euphoria of independence (there are no grownups and therefore an absence of traditional authority figures), followed shortly by an attempt at republican organization, but which quickly collapses into factionalism, later secession, and finally civil war. From this random allotment of children, the main archetypes of society emerge. There is a natural leader, Ralph; an aspiring warrior-autocrat, Jack; an ineffectual intellectual, Piggy; a sensitive, effeminate, artistic clairvoyant, Simon; workers and/or hunters,“biguns;” and a lumpen-proletariat, “the littluns.” With the exception of Ralph, Piggy, Simon, and the twins, “SamnEric,” all of the biguns are from a choir group, and follow Jack's lead first in dissension and later in secession.

Ralph and Piggy want to be rescued, so their priority is maintaining a signal fire. Opposed to this longview, Jack and the choir-kids become “hunters,” obsessed with exploiting the island's most important (and limited) resource, pigs' meat. In true fascist tradition, they become obsessed with the pageantry of their lifestyle, abandoning old clothes for facepaint and dressing as “savages,” unifying objectives with song (“Kill the pig. Cut his throat...”), demonstrating heartlessness towards those of limited utility (the littluns are disposable “crybabies” who “don't hunt or build or help”) and ruthlessness towards their enemies (the abduction of Piggy's glasses, the forced conscription of SamnEric, and of course, cold-blooded murder of ideological nemeses.)

Photo still from the 1963 film adaptation

These may be children but they are innately aware of the talismanic power of certain objects. Piggy's glasses, though they define one of his physical shortcomings, are their only means for starting fire, without which, there is no smoke signal nor means to cook their quarry's flesh. Just as important, the conch, a shell of “fragile, shining beauty,” is the symbol of democracy. Ralph, democratically elected “chief” by the boys, calls a congress by blowing it and in meetings, the person holding the conch is the only one allowed to talk. When Jack and his minions speak out of turn or ignore protocol, links to civilization are undermined and when the conch is finally destroyed, so is the last link to Western humanism severed.

Of course the most important symbol on the island is that of the Beast, whose existence is rumored first among the littluns, affirmed by SamnEric, and whose mysterious representation of evil is availed by Jack for his belligerent ends. Essentially the Beast is to the children what the Devil was to medieval Europe, Communism was to 1950s Americans, and how Islamic fundamentalism serves as a Boogyman for contemporary nervousness-- a threat exaggerated by a power structure needed to justify its more extreme actions. Golding's point, of course, is that the Beast is within, and sets out to dramatize it by making his actors civilized British schoolchildren. Youth is usually conflated with innocence, but on this metaphorical island only a very few are good, a few are innately evil, and the majority morally malleable, unable to think intelligently for themselves, following the will of power rather than reason when given both alternatives: “There was the brilliant world of hunting, tactics, fierce exhilaration, skill; and there was the world of longing and baffled common-sense.” As an inkblot, Golding sees a monstrous id colored in blood staining on our collective tabula raza. Youthful innocence is a canard if the Beast is always there, a potential manifestation from within. For a twelve-year-old reading Lord of the Flies for the first time, this is a rotten apple to consume from the Tree of Knowledge, difficult to digest, but an integral view on human nature we do well to learn and understand.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Good Country People

Well, it takes all kinds of people to make the world go 'round.' It's very good we aren't all alike.”
--Mrs. Hopewell from "A Circle in the Fire."

In Flannery O' Connor's story, “The Artificial Nigger,” two bumpkins, a grandfather and his grandchild, take a train from their rural homestead to Atlanta. All his life, the boy has been putting on airs, because even though he was raised in the country by the old man after his mother's untimely death, he had been born in a metropolis. The old man wants to show him that the boy's hubris is unwarranted since the city is no place for good folks. But when they become lost in a negro neighborhood, he too, has his own pride challenged, and he utterly fails in his responsibility as the boy's caretaker and role model, so much so that “now he was wandering into a black strange place where nothing was like it had ever been before, a long old age without respect and an end that would be welcome because it would be the end.” In other words, screwing up has serious life-changing consequences.

Today short fiction has been accused of existential navel-gazing where nothing ever seems to happen. These attacks are not unfair. In our ever-increasing attention deficit disorders, so-called “microfiction” has replaced the classic short story and its meticulous structuring in which setting, mood, character are as elemental as narrative. And what makes good storytelling really? What is compelling about human drama? Same as it ever was: nothing engages a reader like when we have something to lose, whether it be pride, attachments, or love.

In O'Connor's story collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find,men and (especially) women deal with loss. In “Good Country People,” a 30-year-old academic gimp living with her mother lets herself be seduced by a hayseed bible salesman for intellectual kicks, only to have the boy doublecross her. The female farmer in “A Circle in the Fire,” has to deal with an ex-employee's adolescent son and his pals arriving uninvited and camping out on her property without politeness or permission. And in “The Displaced Person” a female landowner takes on as tenants a Polish family escaping the Holocaust. The refugee is industrious, the best investment she's ever made, but he wants to marry off a niece to one of the negroes on the farm so he can bring her to America too and Mrs. McIntyre is so outraged at the affront to the South's politics of racial purity she connives to fire him in spite of his diligence. She's willing to lose the best farmhand she ever had because of her ancestral fears of miscegenation.

O'Connor's characters, not always likable, nevertheless represent well our baser human instincts, those of pride and envy, often manifesting themselves in class war or racial violence: “I'm as good as you any day of the week,” the yokel huckster tells the PhD gimp when he triumphantly discovers the source of her vulnerability. Due the thoroughly unequal distribution of wealth in America's feudal south, the haves had much to worry about from the have-nots, who by cunning or duplicity, take what they can get from the other. These characters are flawed, all of them, so much so that there are really no heroes or villains, only fuck-ups. In “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” a hobo-cum-huckster named Mr. Shiftlet looking for work on a derelict property, has “a look of composed dissatisfaction as if he understood life thoroughly.” His is a treacherous wisdom: by the end of the story, he has abandoned a blind woman he'd pretended to marry, driving off with the family car.

Flannery O'Connor with two of her pet peacocks

Stories about loss are rarely known for their happy endings. But perhaps Flannery O'Connor knew something about loss-- she'd lost her father to lupus at an impressionable age and was diagnosed with the disease herself when she was a young woman just starting out on her literary career. The knowledge she would die young (she passed away in 1964 at the age of 39) no doubt trickled down into her work, the painful recognition that nothing in life can be held forever, life itself most importantly. Change is the only constant, and those who fail to take this into account will be the most devastated with this inevitable reckoning.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Requiem for a Father-in-Law

Den (1945-2014)

A little over six months after he was first diagnosed with stomach cancer, my father-in-law, Denzaemon “Den” Inaoka, passed away in the early morning hours of Tuesday, February 25th. He was 68 years old.

His last few years had found him in and out of hospitals. In early summer of 2012, Den suffered a critical neck injury from a bad fall. Rehabilitation entailed wearing a metal halo to stabilize his cervical spine. Then, on May 11th, the day my wife and I were married in a traditional Buddhist ceremony at Kurama-dera in the hills north of Kyoto, Den passed out while taking a bath and was taken to the emergency room. Shortly thereafter the infection from his pneumonia became sepsis and he was induced into a coma for nearly a month. We were all very happy when he survived this ordeal, only to be utterly devastated when a cancer diagnosis shortly followed during his convalescence. Due his previous sickness, he was too frail for chemotherapy or surgery, and his condition slowly deteriorated until he could no longer even hold in water without vomiting. Through it all, he never complained, and we were grateful that at the very least his passing meant an end to his suffering.

Some years before this, in March, 2005, by chance or perhaps by fate, I met my future wife, Ariko, in Tokyo. She had just returned to Japan after a decade in New York City. We liked each other immediately, and after just one weekend together she invited me to come visit her in Kyoto, where she was staying temporarily with her parents. I made the trip down and was treated with perfect Japanese hospitality. I was charmed meeting Ariko's father, Den, this dapper gentleman with a crown of handsome white hair, elegantly modern in jeans and collared shirt, the Colorado state flag affixed to his sport coat lapel. We all went out for dinner and drinks and afterwards ended up dancing in the family living room to Al Green. Den loved American soul music and romantic crooners, with a special soft spot for Nina Simone and Frank Sinatra. When we sang karaoke, he did Sinatra's “My Way,” which is how he liked to tell us was his philosophy for living.

Den loved the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, where he skied whenever possible. He also loved Lake Biwa in nearby Shiga, where he often waterskied. Into his sixties he was still competing in his age bracket and until he got sick he had been an effortless athlete on the water, gliding free and strong, forever young. He truly loved waterskiing, mentoring young competitors and investing his own money in endeavors to help those in whom he saw both potential and his shared love of the sport. Indeed, Den wanted his legacy to be one in which he was remembered for shaping and sponsoring this community.

My father-in-law was also Denzaemon, head of a soba restaurant/ cake patisserie business dating back to 1465, when his ancestors first arrived in Kyoto. Even with a culinary pedigree going back to the middle fifteenth century, running a family business is challenging and when you're in a position of power, enemies often pose as friends and take advantage of a man's generosity (he could never say no to someone's request for help and inevitably then some people took advantage of his kindness). No matter how fortunate one man's life might seem, there is tremendous pressure in living, in handling one's regrets and mistakes. Perhaps Den internalized more pressure than he knew how to bear. In later years, we worried over signs of alcoholism. Yet while Den drank a bit much for his own good, he was only ever his worst enemy. He was as gentle as any man I'd ever met.

Though we dined together often through the years, we didn't converse all that much. For a man born into distinct privileges, he was quite soft-spoken. Neither did we have a lot in common (I don't ski or play golf and our politics diverged). He often preferred television to conversation, especially action movies (particularly James Bond). However, from the very beginning, my father-in-law never begrudged his daughter's choice in love, in spite of my foreignness, my slipshod Japanese, and my financially insecure career avocations of writing and photography. In fact, he welcomed all of our friends, Ariko's, mine, friends of friends, so that through the years, dozens, if not hundreds of visitors, most of them foreigners, shared a cigarette, coffee, or tumbler of Suntory whiskey in his company, breaking bread with all of us, regardless of origins, shared interests, or the human need for privacy. His door, always open.

His last night before getting sick was the day before our wedding ceremony. I had about fifteen friends who'd flown in from overseas for our moment. Den took all us guys to one of my favorite restaurants for dinner and afterwards we headed out to Gion where another fifteen people, Ariko's girlfriends, joined us for two hours drinking with geisha and enjoying a traditional dance performance. It must have cost him a fortune, but if it did, he never let on. Den had even checked into the Kyoto Hotel so that all my friends visiting could stay at his place. It was a five-day wedding party that lasted until the dawn every morning. We did not yet know how precipitous his condition was going to deteriorate-- mostly we'd been sad that he'd missed out on a hell of a party and, moreover, wouldn't be able to perform at our wedding reception. He'd recently taken up tap dancing and the plan had been for him to tap dance to Sinatra's classic, “Come Fly With Me.” Such stage ambition was part and parcel of his cavalier charm, the old gentleman athlete challenging his physical limits, doffing his quiet spot in the corner for a brief shining spotlit moment.

His last days he grew very thin, eventually confined to bed. It was difficult for us to witness this man, once so physical and agile, laid low with illness. Sixty-eight years is not that young, but it is not that old either. He had managed to live a full life, with all the triumphs and tragedy that goes into such living. He takes into the next world some secrets, some regrets, much fondness and his generosity. But like so many with exceptional presence of character it is difficult to feel he is truly gone, as if his spirit remains here among us, someone felt, more than seen, wandering these familiar streets that he lived and walked on for nearly seven decades. As a son-in-law who entered his Big Picture late in life, I am grateful for the small co-starring role I had, especially the good memories-- there were many-- that he has bequeathed in passing. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

On William Faulkner's Light in August

“And so is it any wonder that this world is peopled principally by the dead?”

“Man performs, engenders, so much more than he can or should have to bear. That's how he finds that he can bear anything.”

Perhaps the only literary task more difficult than reading William Faulkner's novels is writing about William Faulkner's novels. Somehow, in spite of a liberal arts education, I'd managed to avoid him in school only getting to read The Sound and the Fury in my late twenties. This was an overwhelming experience. So much so that I immediately reread it. I then internalized Faulkner's prose and paid homage to him the worst possible way, co-opting his style and riddling my own novel with cryptic stream-of-conscious self-indulgent preciousness. Writers should really never attempt to plagiarize another's signature method, but most of us learn that the hard way (via significant revisions and clarifications). His 1932 novel, Light in August, is not as complex or revolutionary as his more famous work, but it is hallmark Faulkner in its structural intricacy, multiple point-of-view narrative, racial violence, and Southern Gothic atmosphere.

How does one even begin to summarize Light in August? No other American writer is so adept at putting together such a multi-layered story composed of minute jigsaw pieces, assembled, seemingly willy-nilly across decades and perspectives, but always with Faulkner there is method in apparent madness. Lena Grove, heavy with child, is in Jefferson, Mississippi, looking for Lucas Burch a wildcat good-for-nothing who ran out on her in Alabama. Instead she finds Byron Bunch, working at the local planing mill. Byron doesn't tell her about an ex-coworker named Joe Brown, which is where Burch is hiding under an assumed name. This "Joe Brown" is living in the woods with a “foreigner” named Joe Christmas, only Joe is not an immigrant but a troubled drifter handling his mixed heritage racial identity with decidedly indelicate emotions. Brown and Christmas share a shack adjunct to a plantation house owned by a New England “carpetbagger” spinster named Joanna Burden. The crux of the story is her murder and the torching of her mansion the day Lena arrives in Jefferson. The main suspect in the crime is Joe Christmas, especially when it is learned by the townfolk Christmas has “nigger blood.”

If the novel has a central figure it is Christmas, whose biographical provenance has the shadow of peculiarly Southern violence cast over his life from its very conception, predestining the bloodletting to come: his white grandfather murdering his black father; the death of his mother due to childbirth complications; the murder of his adopted white father; and before Joanna Burden's own demise, the numerous victims of sexual violence and barroom brawls. Joe Christmas abandoned the chance for a normal life when he slammed a chair over his adopted father's skull. On the run, a handsome tramp, he makes a life out of starting over, following a road that “ran through yellow wheat fields waving beneath the fierce yellow days of labor and hard sleep in haystacks beneath the cold mad moon of September, and the brittle stars: he was in turn laborer, miner, prospector, gambling tout; he enlisted in the army, served four months and deserted and was never caught... He owned nothing but the razor; when he had put that into his pocket he was ready to travel one mile or a thousand, wherever the street of the imperceptible corners should choose to run again.”

Joe Christmas's running takes him to Jefferson where he works a low-wage job at the local planing mill. He operates a small, careful bootlegging business in the woods and has a tumultuous sexual affair with his benefactress, Joanna Burden. An older woman, nearly menopausal, their talk is mostly perfunctory, but Joanna opens up to Christmas one night, telling him about her origins, an abolitionist heritage, tough, moralizing New England stock, and her family's almost spiritual calling to help blacks (as if the cause entwined itself with the family's namesake): “I thought of all the children coming forever and ever into the world, white, with the black shadow already falling upon them before they drew breath. And I seemed to see the black shadow in the shape of the cross.” Before she was born, Joanna's brother and grandfather were murdered in the town square in an argument with Sartoris, an ex-slaveowner. Christmas cannot comprehend why Joanna's father never struck back, eye-for-an-eye. But Joanna feels her father understood well enough to “respect anybody's love for the land where he and his people were born and to understand that a man would have to act as the land where he was born had trained him to act.” Thus one man's self-restraint is as natural as another's resort to violence-- Faulkner seems to be describing us as products of purlieu, which makes for inevitability in both peacefulness and destructiveness. In Joe Christmas, we have post Civil-War black-white racial relations boiling over in a single man, whose entire history is composed of sexual exoticism and senseless violence. And Joe isn't even positive regarding his black lineage. "If I'm not, damned if I haven't wasted a lot of time."  In a good novel, good people make bad decisions-- it's a lot more complicated with an anti-hero.

The reader is never entirely clear whether Joe Christmas was responsible for the murder and mutilation of Joanna Burden, as Joe Brown is as slippery, mendacious, avaricious and irresponsible as any two-bit shyster one is likely to encounter in Faulkner's invented Yoknapatawpha County. But if he is flawed, he is in bad company, as the men and women in 1930s Deep South led hard, wasted lives, spiritual dissipations manifesting themselves physically. The local sheriff is “a tub of a man, with the complete and rocklike inertia of a tub.” Gail Hightower, a disgraced ex-preacher and confidant to good-hearted Byron Bunch, has “that odor of unfastidious sedentation, of static overflesh not often enough bathed.” The crisis occurring in the town of Jefferson is a confluence of catastrophic decision-making, people acting against their best interests, incapable of clarity. In such circumstances, tragedy begets tragedy, and so it goes when men, not only members of communities but descendants of historical hatreds, follow through on their prejudices to the bitter end.

Bill in his younger days

Reading Faulkner is an intense experience. It also requires anachronistic levels of concentration-- it is impossible to grasp the complexity of his storytelling in short bursts of one- or two-pages read. You don't read Faulkner with music on or between tweets. His convoluted syntax, multiple narrative perspectives, and time-tooling can intimidate even the most experienced readers, and occasionally even fans like myself feel like shouting, “WTF, Bill?” when he goes really far out. (I've even wondered how much whiskey was in the tumbler for certain passages only to be humbled when a seemingly random flight-of-fancy is revealed as an integral clue to the puzzle of a man-- someone once connected the work of the novelist to that of the architect, and it is a good metaphor, for good writing, no matter how complex, finds a way to utilize every brick in its structure.) But for all the confusion and mystery, the effort is rewarded to us with not a glimpse but a long linger in the darkest areas of the human heart. Our inner life is somewhat wiser than we were when we started, and maybe tougher too.