Saturday, May 30, 2015

Pro-Youthful Indiscretions

"That world! These days it's all been erased and they've rolled it up like a scroll and put it away somewhere. Yes, I can touch it with my fingers. But where is it?"

This world, rolled up and put away, is the one of hard core hippie drug use from the late 1960s described so elegiacally in Denis Johnson's weird gem of a novel, Jesus Son. The novel (published in 1992, many years after the Woodstock Utopia dream puffed out its last cloud of highfalutin swag joy) is barely that: it's a collection of interconnected stories centering around the experiences of an unreliable narrator, never quite named, but known in some circles as Fuckhead. He scores drugs, makes out with girls, gets in trouble, works low-wage graveyard shifts, and hitchhikes around the Midwest. Our vision of ultra-sixties sinning rarely veers towards small town Kansas street corners, but the fact it does here makes the stories all the more special.

Besides the fact stories like "Car Crash While Hitchhiking" and "Emergency" feature irresponsible narcotics use, Jesus Son is not for everyone due to its resistance to narrative conventions. It's about Fuckhead and his journey from young adult screwup to rehabilitating himself and getting a job and maybe a girlfriend. The prose is gorgeous, pointed, true, and epigrammatic. Describing his buddy on his court date: "He'd looked in his lawyer's eyes and fathomed it would be a short trial." Our narrator on leaving the TV on during casual sex: "But I was afraid to make love to her without the conversations and laughter from that false universe playing in our ears, because I didn't want to get to know her very well, and didn't want to be bridging any silences with our eyes." And Fuckhead on the diaspora of his drug buddies, either dying off or getting clean, but the good times as they knew them gone: "Sometimes what I wouldn't give to have us sitting in a bar again at 9am telling lies to one another, far from God."

Perhaps the best story in the collection does not concern drugs at all, but Fuckhead making a go at reality in suburban Arizona. His days are filled with Narcotics Anonymous meetings and he works at Beverly Home, a hospital for the aged and infirm, caring for patients whose deformities "made God look like a senseless maniac." Besides writing their monthly newsletter, he makes them feel human by sharing with them his smile, his charisma, and his capacity to listen. He dates a dwarf and later a cripple, meanwhile falling in love with a woman's mellifluous voice on his bus route. She sings in the shower and every day he stops to listen. He grows braver, risking more to see and hear. He realizes she and her husband are Mennonites, a conservative splinter group of Christianity famous for its Old World traditions. He spies her naked and hopes to catch her making love, but instead discovers the couple quarreling. It is nighttime and the woman flings the curtain aside with the narrator below on the other side of the window: "My face wasn't two feet from hers, but it was dark out and she could only have been looking at her own reflection, not at me... I thought I heard her weeping. I could have touched a teardrop, I stood that close." But the husband approaches her with contrition, offering to wash her feet and she for a moment resists accepting his move: "She didn't move for a while, not perhaps for a full minute, which seemed like a very long time to me outside in the dark with a great loneliness and the terror of a whole life not yet lived, and the TVs and garden sprinklers making the noises of a thousand lives never to be lived, and the cars going by with the sound of passage, movement, untouchable, uncatchable."

I suppose you call call Jesus Son a coming-of-age book. Youth is a folly but the great folly for the young might be not getting into enough trouble. "The cards were scattered on the table, face up, face down, and they seemed to foretell that whatever we did to one another would be washed away by liquor or explained away by sad songs." Perhaps we can learn about ourselves best while doing our worst. The poetry of youth is written in our errors. As important as an education is no one writes a beautiful song about straight A's. We have time enough to be wise and careful and if we're lucky, many years to look back. Perhaps the hero of Jesus Son took his sprint through the darkness a bit far, but his survival made him a better man. I've long traded on my own youthful catastrophes as good storytelling, having learned that while life gives and takes, you're often lucky enough for second chances. And what they say about sadness being integral to understanding happiness might hold true for the inner peace of growing old. It's possible that there is nothing truly to regret save for having not lived. Live and learn, your elders tell you. Truth.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Ages of Anxiety

"It was six in the morning. Through the open kitchen door, Sophie felt the morning sunlight on her bare feet like a sustained and mindless stare. She poured herself a shot glass of whiskey, then drank it down hastily, catching glimpses, as her head fell back, of the waxed surface of kitchen cabinets, a flash of scoured pots, a line of sharp Sabatier knives gripped by a strip of magnet."

This excerpt, from Paula Fox's Desperate Characters (published in 1970), sounds (specifically) like the quiet, painful breakdown of a desperate housewife. However, Sophie Bentwood is not a housewife, nor quite a character, but a member of the educated class in New York. She translates French literature from home while her husband, Otto, is an attorney. They live in a Brooklyn brownstone in the late 1960s, not yet gentrified and quite dangerous still. Sophie's 6am whiskey is downed on a Monday morning following an atrocious weekend, that while nothing quite horrible happened, enough minor setbacks add up to make for a very anxious novel.

The precipitating crisis is a cat bite. Against Otto's wishes, Sophie is feeding a stray when it attacks her. The bite looks infectious and there is the possibility of rabies. She pretends that it was nothing yet she worries incessantly: "It was only her hand, she told herself, yet the rest of her body seemed involved in a way she couldn't understand. It was as though she'd been vitally wounded." The cat's viciousness is emblematic of the neighborhood's general menace. The ten-minute walk to a friend's party is a minefield: "Beer bottles and beer cans, liquor bottles, candy wrappers, crushed cigarette packs, caved-in boxes that had held detergents, rags, newspapers, curlers, string, plastic bottles, a shoe here and there, dog feces." Neighbors leer, defecate, and masturbate openly. 

Otto bitterly complains about these conditions of urban blight, Sophie tolerating him with some little annoyance. They are a childless couple in their early 40s, not affectionate or even friendly, but have been together so long it's like they have become interdependent on each other's identities. Nevertheless, Sophie once had an affair with Francis, one of Otto's clients a few years back. It did not end dramatically, but with a deflated air, a dull hiss, and it had seemingly meant a lot more to Sophie than it had to Francis. Paula Fox is an incisive writer, with clear, precise, haunting prose, but nothing in the book is as pathetic as how the last motions of Sophie's affair are described:

"They drank a glass of white wine. Absently, he touched her ear lobe. She stood up. He backed her against a wall, pulled up her skirt. She tried to anticipate him. He pressed against her, suddenly turned away, showed her a new book on ferns. She heard the zing of a coin as it rolled out of his pocket and hit the floor. On the couch, he knelt above her, looked down at her body with sharp unimpassioned curiosity. He couldn't control a fit of coughing; it rattled her insides, traveled deep through belly and stomach and chest. She was outraged that he could make her laugh at that moment. But she couldn't stop laughing. They fell off the bed. Her bones weren't such young bones, and they hurt. 'I must give up either smoking or fucking,' he said. The gray return was before her. It was unthinkable to leave him. Sometimes she took a taxi. She rode home seeing nothing, her mouth slightly swollen, her cheeks rosy."

Over the weekend, while Sophie's hand is throbbing they go to a friend's party, where a stone is lobbed through a bedroom window. This too is ominous, but Otto is distracted from Sophie's predicament by his own problems, namely that of his law partner, Charlie, leaving the firm. Charlie comes by the house in the middle of the night and Sophie steals out with him for a drink. It's weird and slightly perfidious, and Sophie confides to Charlie more than she should (about Otto's frame of mind as well as the fact she'd had an affair.) There are distracted visits Sophie makes to the department store and a friend's loft, and finally the emergency room, which as you might imagine is a surreal circle in Dante's hell. 

So Otto and Sophie decide to escape the city, packing lunch boxes and driving to Long Island where they keep a summer home. But they cannot escape the city's worst excesses. As soon as they enter their sleepy cottage, they discover it's been vandalized: "The caning of the dining room chairs and been slashed, sea shells ground to dust on the floor, lamps broken, the Paisley fabric of the couch cover torn into strips, cushions gutted, over every painting or photograph a giant X had been drawn with barn paint...and in front of the fireplace among the heaped up paperback mysteries and magazines, a hummock of dried feces sat like a rotting toad." The implication being of course, nowhere is safe, nowhere is inviolate, and that society was going to the dogs, or worse, rabid cats. The best you could do to escape was die.

The novel's ending hinges on whether or not Sophie has rabies. Though there is a cure, a vaccination (albeit inconveniently administered) does not make it any easier if she were to learn the worst. No matter the lab results, life is simply out of Sophie's hands, her fate continuously mocked by forces far out of her control. So what? you might be asking... It's just a cat bite after all. That the conflicts in Fox's novel are insubstantial or less dramatic than what some readers might expect in no way diminishes the pacing of the novel. Otto and Sophie are rational, intelligent, capable  (if a little edgy) citizens beset by small crises that for all their muster or logic cannot overcome. They are not exactly victims so much as they are overly sensitive to the calamities of modern urban life. They fight futilely with their limited capacities. That Otto and Sophie have each other is not exactly enough when your inner life is so prodigious and inexplicable.  Desperate Characters is a novel for anyone who has felt the world closing in on you, cutting off all escape routes, suffocating your capacity to feel harmonious. Therefore it is relatable to most of us. 

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."