It begins with an enormously sympathetic portrait of Salinger during WWII. Though he was not an infantryman, he was attached to Fou...moreA deeply sad book.
It begins with an enormously sympathetic portrait of Salinger during WWII. Though he was not an infantryman, he was attached to Fourth Division, which suffered some of the worst casualties in the war. He arrived on Utah Beach on D-Day, fought in the flooded hedgerows of Normandy, endured the strange hell of the Hurtgen Forest and survived the Battle of the Bulge. Salinger was an NCO in the Counter Intelligence Corps and not directly involved in combat. He had freedom to move around, gathering intel, makings arrests, interrogating prisoners and civilians. He wasn't on the firing line, but a fox hole is a fox hole. The worst thing he saw came at the very end of the war when he and his CIC cronies went into Kaufering Lager IV, a sub-camp of Dachau, where the sick from neighboring camps were interred. Before the Nazis fled the scene, they herded all the prisoners into barracks and torched them. Those that couldn't move on their own were butchered. Unimaginable horror. Salinger wasn't prepared for this. No one was.
"You walked through a beautiful, manicured German village, and at the end of the road was this camp that looked like hell piled with corpses. For a soldier like Salinger walking into a camp, these was a stillness to it and a craziness to it. You were caught off guard. You weren't psyched for battle. These weren't liberations in the sense of busting down the gates or anything like that. The war was over; you could let down your guard a little. These soldiers basically walked into these horrific situations. Unguarded and unsuspecting, they were walking into an open place. This was like opening up, and falling into, a graveyard."
Salinger wasn't some grunt who walked in and did what he was told and get the hell out. He was a CIC guy. His job was to understand what happened and why, and then pass that information along. He couldn't ignore the madness. He had to get to the bottom of it, and how the hell do you do that? How do you process the insanity of Kaufering IV? It's no wonder that he ended up having a breakdown shortly afterwards.
There's a part of me that feels that Salinger ought to get a pass for having enduring what he did in the service of his country. As a veteran of the military and the son of a combat veteran, I know that experiences like these change a person forever. They constitute a clear delineation in the arc of one's personal narrative: before one became intimate with death and after. Two different people. Salinger would confide more than once, "You never forget the smell of burning bodies." As far as I'm concerned, I understand Salinger’s desire to retreat to his redoubt in the woods of Cornish. Leave the man alone.
But Salinger didn't retreat. He didn't hole up and hide out. He simply moved his operations to a remote location and continued to engage the world with varying degrees of contempt and disdain. Over time his communication became broadcasts: the messages came out on his terms according to his schedule. In wartime, that's called propaganda. His most consistent message was, “No.” Unless you happened to be a very young girl of a certain type. Then the message was quite different. The message was “Come to me.” Some of the girls came. Some of the girls stayed, at least for a little while. When they left (or were asked to leave) Salinger would find a new girl. Even though Salinger kept getting older and the girls stayed the same age. In spite of his so-called renunciation of literary fame, there’s no question he used it to gain access to these young women. It’s creepy. It’s reprehensible. But most of all it’s sad.
Shields and Salerno offer lots of opinions about this that I won’t get into here. The biography is an oral history, a composite of hundreds of voices. It’s an interesting approach, and a very effective one. Life is long. Let the military people comment on Salinger’s wartime years, the publishing people speak about Salinger the writer, etc. Shields and Salerno craft the message they want by shaping and directing the conversation. It’s manipulative, but good art usually is. It makes sense that the book is paired with a documentary because the book reads like one. There’s a lot of overlap in the book, which is partly by design. What’s more compelling than two people making the same point, especially if its controversial? But the conclusions Shields and Salerno draw get repeated over and over again, and there comes a point where the repetitions weaken the case because they’re handled as a fact. My least favorite sections of the book are the two chapters where first Shields and then Salerno abandon the oral history format and explore their own theories. It’s like editing a story collection and putting your own novella in the middle.
The story of Salinger as an artist has no end. It’s been interrupted and an examination of his life helps us understand why that is so, but it doesn’t change the terms of that interruption. If Salinger’s decision not to publish is like a suicide, then Shields and Salerno’s massive biography is the note. A suicide note can illuminate, but it never explains. Until we get our hands on the material Salinger was working on all those years in his alpine enclave, the story is incomplete. But thanks to this book, when that day comes I’ll greet it with far less fanfare.
Stricken with a fatal disease, an obscure novelist races against the clock to finish his final book. Pu...moreIt's like a story out of a Stephen King novel.
Stricken with a fatal disease, an obscure novelist races against the clock to finish his final book. Published posthumously, it becomes an international bestseller, securing the author's fame for the ages.
But this isn't a thriller. It really happened. In 2003, Chilean author Roberto Bolaño died at his home in Spain shortly after completing his magnum opus: 2666, a sprawling novel with a massive cast of characters and multiple settings in Europe and North America.
The novel was translated into English by Natasha Wimmer and published in the United States by Farrar-Straus & Giroux in 2008. The book was the literary event of the year and was the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.
The novel was not exactly primed for breakout success. There are hundreds of characters. Its subject is relentlessly dark. It weighs in at nearly 900 pages. A walk in the park 2666 is not.
The book is divided into five sections. "The Part about the Critics" describes the careers of an incestuous confederation of literary scholars obsessed with the work of a reclusive German author who writes under the pen name Benno von Archimboldi. After receiving a tip that the author was spotted in Mexico, the critics decamp to Santa Teresa, a desolate, industrial city in the Sonora desert in the shadow of the United States border: "red-tailed hawks soared above in the sky, which was purple like the skin of an Indian woman beaten to death."
In Santa Teresa, the critics meet a Spanish philosophy professor whose collapsing career and tenuous grip on sanity is explored in "The Part about Amalfitano." Abandoned by his demented wife, Amalfitano begins to hear a disturbing voice and becomes increasingly paranoid.
The only thing holding Amalfitano together is his love for his daughter, Rosa, who attracts the attention of Oscar Fate, a good-natured but naïve American sportswriter from Harlem who's come to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match. In the novel's third section, "The Part about Fate," Santa Teresa's dark side lures Fate into a nightmare that is part pulp fiction, part psychosexual thriller.
"Brother, this city is a shithole," said Omar Abdul. "Well, there are some beautiful women here," said Fate. "The women here aren't worth shit," said Omar Abdul. "Then you should go back to California," said Fate.
In "The Part of about the Crimes," Bolaño pulls no punches and reveals in lurid detail the discovery of scores of murdered women. The prose he uses to describe the crime scene feels like it was lifted from the pages of a true-crime novel, which, in a sense, they were. Santa Teresa is Bolaño's fictionalized Juarez, where hundreds of young women and girls have been killed and dumped in the desert that surrounds the city in all directions.
"The woman seemed to be about nineteen and the cause of death was various stab wounds to the chest, all or almost all potentially fatal, produced by a double-edged blade. The woman was wearing a pearl-gray vest and black pants. When her pants were removed in the forensic lab, it was discovered that she had on another pair of pants, gray. Human behavior is a mystery, declared the medical examiner."
"The Part about Archimboldi," 2666ís final section, comes full circle and deals with the story of how the obscure German author became a cult figure. Death haunts virtually every page of Bolaño's masterpiece. Whether it was the realization that his own demise was close at hand, or the need to speak out on the horrors of Juarez while he still could, we feel the end at every turn.
Yet there is very little resolution in 2666. There are no heroes; nor is the reader comforted with the myth of a single villain. Bolaño seems to be suggesting that what makes Santa Teresa so terrifying is that we created this world and we allow it to continue to exist. Our silence makes us culpable.
That's scarier than any bogeyman we could conjure up. On this score, Stephen King agrees. In his review of 2666 he wrote, "Bolaño paints a mural of a poverty-stricken society that appears to be eating itself alive. And who cares? Nobody, it seems."
That was in 2009. Four years later, women are still dying, and we still don't care.(less)
Earlier this year, and 15 years after the publication of Autobiography of Red, Carson released a sequel of sorts called Red Doc>. The front flap, t...moreEarlier this year, and 15 years after the publication of Autobiography of Red, Carson released a sequel of sorts called Red Doc>. The front flap, typically reserved for teasers from the publisher's marketing department and blurbs from peers, contains a 50-word statement from the author in which she describes her motives.
"Some years ago I wrote a book about a boy named Geryon who was red and had wings and fell in love with Herakles. Recently I began to wonder what happened to them in later life. Red Doc> continues their adventures in a very different style with changed names."
Carson isn't kidding around. Red Doc> bears little resemblance to its forbear. Even the way the words are assembled on the page is unusual: column after column of justified type that guides the eye down the page.
Geryon, now older and more confident, is recognizable as G, and Herakles has been transformed into The Great Sad as a result of his participation in a war that tried to teach him how to accept the unacceptable—with mixed results.
Red Doc> is a book in which interesting things happen but the events aren't connected in a linear fashion. G befriends bats. Sad gets hospitalized. Cows hallucinate and fly. It's all funneled into remarkable slivers of language that dazzle.
"Out of black nothing into perfect expectancy—flying has always given him this sensation of hope—like glimpsing a lake through trees or that first steep velvet moment the opera curtain parts."
Carson is a master of the multiple. There are always several things going on at once. The mythological markers aren't always visible, but they're there. Her erudition explains her vision, but it's her passion that engulfs the reader.
While neither book can be called conventional, it's not necessary to read Autobiography of Red before Red Doc>. I'm not even sure if it's advisable to read Red Doc> in sequence. There are gaps in the story line and character development that don't feel like they're missing so much as lost. It's as if Carson penned a complete manuscript and left only jumbled fragments behind.
Leave it to Carson to turn her readers into modern-day archaeologists, puzzling over the broken pieces of a culture that we will never understand. (less)
In Jack Kerouac's On the Road, a character based on the late William S. Burroughs has this to say about the human condition: "Some's bastards, some's...moreIn Jack Kerouac's On the Road, a character based on the late William S. Burroughs has this to say about the human condition: "Some's bastards, some's ain't, that's the score."
Marlet, the anti-hero of Brian Allen Carr's novella Edie and the Low-Hung Hands, published by Small Doggies Press, is a bastard of the highest order.
Marlet is a swordsman with freakishly long arms who wanders about post-apocalyptic Texas dispensing justice. He goes from town to town, causing mayhem for no particular reason, exacting revenge for actions to which he is utterly indifferent.
Carr's a native of Texas, and his writing invites comparisons to Cormac McCarthy, and while the story bears a slight resemblance to The Road, his prose calls to mind the gothic style of McCarthy's Tennessee novels. Yet it's the pulp fiction of fellow Texan Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, that resonates. Take this confrontation with a bartender who did Marlet wrong:
"'What do you think happens when you die?' I asked him.
He shook his head. 'Can't say.'
'Not yet,' I told him. 'But you'll know soon enough.'
He closed his eyes and waited for it.'
Carr's vision of an America gone mad makes for a grimly entertaining Western-with-swords in which I thoroughly enjoyed getting lost.(less)
The Golden State has inspired its share of strange fiction. Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, Thomas Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49 and Aimee Bender...moreThe Golden State has inspired its share of strange fiction. Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, Thomas Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49 and Aimee Bender's The Girl in the Flammable Skirt all zero in on the peculiar weirdness specific to Southern California.
Add Madhouse Fog, Sean Carswell's third novel and fifth book, to the list. Though Carswell is from Florida, he's lived in California for more than a decade and teaches English at California State University, Channel Islands in Camarillo.
His novel begins innocently enough, with an earnest young grant writer's first day on the job. He attends orientation, meets some colleagues and promptly gets lost on the sprawling grounds of the hospital that has hired him to secure funding for its endeavors. It's all perfectly ordinary except that Oak View, as he is reminded by one of the doctors, is no ordinary institution:
"A psych hospital is a bad place to look lost. Someone will find a room for you, sooner or later."
The grant writer never really gets oriented to his new surroundings. A neuroscientist seeks his support for a project involving "the collective unconscious" that sounds suspiciously like telepathy. A blind yet meticulously well-groomed ad executive who's strangely invested in the outcome of these experiments keeps turning up. And the grant writer's past intrudes on the present in unexpected ways. Is he being followed or is working in a psych hospital making him paranoid? An exchange with a hospital staff member offers a clue:
"If you study metaphysics, there are no coincidences." "I don't study metaphysics."
However, as the grant writer's skepticism begins to crumble, the novel takes off in surprising directions. Though Madhouse Fog is not a mystery, metaphysical or otherwise, the grant writer serves as a reluctant detective who must get to the bottom of the weirdness afoot at Oak View.
Madhouse Fog is a delightful look at human communication and how we know what we know. More gently weird than savagely strange, it reads like a mash-up of Richard Brautigan and Haruki Murakami. (Or maybe the wind-up bird the grant writer keeps on his desk is just a coincidence.)
What's definitely not a coincidence is that CSU, Channel Islands, the college where Carswell teaches, used to be a state mental hospital. (less)
With the publication of Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse in 1998, Anne Carson became something of a cult figure.
Carson employed the familiar tro...moreWith the publication of Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse in 1998, Anne Carson became something of a cult figure.
Carson employed the familiar trope of taking a story out of Greek lore and making it contemporary. But Autobiography of Red is neither epic like James Joyce's Ulysses nor archaic like Mary Shelley's retelling of "The Modern Prometheus" in Frankenstein.
Carson uses the obscure story of Herakles' killing of Geryon, a red-winged creature who watches over a herd, to explore why we are cursed with "the human custom of wrong love." What little we know of the original tale survives in fragments attributed to Stesichoros, who lived, Carson tells us with tongue planted firmly in cheek, in the time between Homer and Gertrude Stein.
In Carson's version, Geryon is an inordinately sensitive young man who can "feel his eyes leaning out of his skull on their little connectors." Abused by his brother and shunned by his mother, when Geryon comes of age, he trades the domestic nightmare of his childhood home for the rough companionship of Herakles, who proves to be even more indifferent to Geryon's affection than his mother. Red's "autobiography" documents their on-and-off romance and Geryon's burgeoning relationship to art.
Geryon is a hugely sympathetic character—a wounded bird who has to be coaxed from the nest he's built for himself. He's also a monster: His skin is red, and he possesses enormous wings that he keeps hidden underneath his clothing. Geryon is both a modern figure and a mythological creature in the same way that Carson's book is both a novel and a poem.
If an artist is someone who makes the old new and the familiar unfamiliar, then Carson certainly qualifies. The fact that she's an expert in mythology and teaches ancient Greek for a living is both the key to her work and beside the point, because her concerns are contemporary and her language fresh.
"A church bell rang across the page and the hour of six P.M. flowed through the hotel like a wave. Lamps snapped on and white bedspreads sprang forward, water rushed in the walls, the elevator crashed like a mastodon within its hollow cage."
All you really need to know is that Carson writes whatever the hell she wants. Her stories, structure and language are unique, which probably says something about our culture's ambivalent attitude toward history and its chroniclers.(less)
The author's allergy to artifice makes these autobiographical stories of sex and degradation almost grindingly dull. As a character and a construct, C...moreThe author's allergy to artifice makes these autobiographical stories of sex and degradation almost grindingly dull. As a character and a construct, Calloway fascinates. Who would expose themselves like this? To what purpose? But aside from serving as a cautionary tale regarding the perils of the Internet, I'm not sure what I'm supposed to take away from this. (less)
“Parents,” an old roommate of mine said after an exasperating phone conversation with his mother. “Don’t ever have them.” The joke still resonates bec...more“Parents,” an old roommate of mine said after an exasperating phone conversation with his mother. “Don’t ever have them.” The joke still resonates because it captures the absurdity of family drama: The only way to escape it is to avoid being born. One of the comforts of literature, however, is to remind us that no matter how great our suffering might be, there are those who have it much, much worse.
That’s the impression one gets reading Nowhere Near Normal, Traci Foust’s memoir about growing up with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Chief among Foust’s compulsions was a peculiar kind of counting where the consequences of ignoring her impulses overshadowed reason.
For instance, if she failed to listen for the sound of gas escaping the stovetop burners after she turned them off, she would cause the gruesome death of her entire family. In Foust’s imagination, “what if” became “they’re all gonna die.”
That’s a lot of baggage for a kid to deal with under normal circumstances, but this is a girl who grew up in a tiny apartment with her older sister, domineering single mother and grandmother—none of whom understood what’s wrong with Traci.
Though Foust’s project feels like it ought to be rooted in the realism of daytime television, it’s so skillfully written it reads like a modernist novel. Foust grew up in northern California and lives in San Diego, but it’s the psychological landscape that resonates.(less)
I picked this up in the Museum of the Aleutians in Dutch Harbor and read it on the plane. An interesting overview of this remote island's history, tes...moreI picked this up in the Museum of the Aleutians in Dutch Harbor and read it on the plane. An interesting overview of this remote island's history, testimonies from village elders, and lengthier stories about significant events, including the evacuation of all Aleutian peoples from the islands during WWII and a stirring account of a shipwreck. What's cool about the project is that the project was undertaken by schoolchildren in the village of Nikolski -- a village of 34. I wish more communities would undertake projects like this. (less)