The crazy thing is that this is fiction: apartheid in South Africa somehow didn't end in war. People actually got together and said this isn't going tThe crazy thing is that this is fiction: apartheid in South Africa somehow didn't end in war. People actually got together and said this isn't going to work, and they had an election, and Mandela won, and that was that. (This is the short version, okay?)
So July's People is sortof science fiction. Written in 1981, about a decade before apartheid fell, it presents how Gordimer, a white anti-apartheid activist and a Nobel prize winner, predicted the fall would go. Her white protagonists (also anti-apartheid) flee their home in Johannesburg when war breaks out and take shelter with July, who had been one of their servants, in his village. It's a small-scale story, focusing on the two families far from the main conflict. The balance of power shifts. There is confusion over who now owns the family car. It's a metaphor! It's fun to think about whether it's a utopian or dystopian novel.
The style is cold, a little removed, sometimes hard to follow. You start in media res, unsure of what's going on. I wasn't fully engaged. It's been accused of being patronizing toward blacks. I'm not sure how I feel about that. It's complicated: no one is entirely good or bad. The white family's heart is in the right place, but they're way out of their element. July himself is opaque, purposefully but frustratingly. Gordimer doesn't tie the story up for us: (view spoiler)[in the end a helicopter arrives at the remote village, and we're unsure whether it brings help or violence. (hide spoiler)]
Spoilers, here's how Herakles (Hercules) dies: his wife Deianeira got groped by the centaur Nessus and in revenge Herakles killed him with a poison arSpoilers, here's how Herakles (Hercules) dies: his wife Deianeira got groped by the centaur Nessus and in revenge Herakles killed him with a poison arrow, and as he was dying Nessus told Deianeira to save the blood from his wound, it could be a love charm for Herakles if she ever needs it. Years later, Herakles sends slaves home ahead of him from battle, among them a nubile woman Deianeira learns he's In love with. She gives this amazing speech about her - I know my husband fucks tons of women, it's cool! - but she's insecure, the woman is super pretty. She uses Nessus's blood to anoint a robe, thinking Herakles will love her again; instead (duh) it poisons him, his own poison from beyond the grave, and he dies in agony. Devastated, Deianeira commits suicide.
There's the plot of Sophocles' Women of Trakhis (450 or later BCE). There are definitely notes of Aeschylus's Agamemnon here. In that older (458 BCE) and better play, Agamemnon arrives home from the Trojan War with his new concubine Cassandra; his wife Clytemnestra, who was already pissed off after he murdered their daughter because it wasn't windy enough, takes her own action. Clytemnestra has more agency than Deianeira, and Agamemnon's a more interesting work. Women of Trakhis is cool, though - dark and tragic and dramatic. The line repeatedly referred to is "Count no man happy until the end is known." (It's reportedly from Solon, in a story told by Herodotus.) That's an interesting thing to think about, and also a massive bummer if your life is going pretty well.
This review is also here, with the rest of the Sophocles reviews. ...more
First of all, Aias (the title in my edition) is Ajax - Big Ajax, the hero of the Trojan War. There, I saved you from "who the fuck even is this guy."First of all, Aias (the title in my edition) is Ajax - Big Ajax, the hero of the Trojan War. There, I saved you from "who the fuck even is this guy." Ajax plays a big role in The Iliad. At one point he defends the Achaean fleet from the Trojans single-handedly while Achilles is off sulking. But after the war Achilles's armor, which amounts to the Heisman Trophy of the war, is given to wily Odysseus after his speech about it proves more eloquent. Ajax is so pissed off that he goes on a murderous rampage against what turns out to be a flock of sheep. (Fuckin' Athena, always getting up in your head: he thought he was killing Agamemnon and Odysseus.) Humiliated, he kills himself.
The play is about, what happens if the person who deserves the win doesn't get it? What if you feel you clearly earned leadership, but it's stolen by the other guy? Do you go on a murderous rampage? Do you burn it all down?
This review is also here, with a bunch of other Sophocles stuff....more
Styron gets knocked for two reasons. The first is that he's an appropriater: in his Pulitzer-winning Confessions of Nat Turner, he appropriated the faStyron gets knocked for two reasons. The first is that he's an appropriater: in his Pulitzer-winning Confessions of Nat Turner, he appropriated the famous slave revolutionary's story, and here he's taken the Holocaust. As he's neither black nor Jewish, some black and Jewish people are like wtf are you doing with my history. The second knock is that he writes clear and exciting prose with a lot of fancy words, leading Martin Amis to call him a "thesaurus of florid commonplaces."
"In my career as a writer," says Stingo, Sophie's Choice's narrator, "I have always been attracted to morbid themes - suicide, rape, murder, military life, marriage, slavery." (I love that marriage is just slipped in there.) Stingo is about to write a novel about Nat Turner, so it's not a stretch to call him a stand-in for Styron. James Baldwin, a friend and defender, said that "He writes out of reasons similar to mine - about something that hurt him and frightened him."
What hurts and frightens Styron is evil, and Sophie's Choice is about evil. He's shaken by the reality of it. Stingo figures out exactly what he was doing on the morning that Sophie arrived at Auschwitz: eating a banana on a beautiful day in North Carolina. This is his point, repeated often: at any given moment, while you're living your mundane life, someone in the world is capable of the deepest evil. American slavery looms over the story: Styron would like us to remember that we're sitting around in a country built on genocide, acting horrified about what the Nazis did. Stingo is supported in part by a treasure found in an ancestor's basement; the treasure is the proceeds from the sale of a slave.
The third character in the book is Nathan, Sophie's lover, and he embodies this human schizophrenia literally. He's unstable: often charming, occasionally careening into violent madness. (view spoiler)[He turns out to be a paranoid schizophrenic. (hide spoiler)] Here's humanity according to Styron. In the end, (view spoiler)[Sophie commits suicide with Nathan. (hide spoiler)] Did I mention that this book is a bummer?
What was happening that morning as Sophie, our destroyed heroine, arrived at Auschwitz was the deepest evil Styron can think of. You probably know what the choice was, right? I'd never read the book or seen the movie but I've been using it as a joke for years: "Should we get burritos or fried chicken for lunch?" "Oh no, this is like Sophie's Choice." The ending of this book upset me so badly that I feel awful for ever making that joke. I've rarely been so crushed by a novel.
Styron is less interested in Sophie's choice than in the fact that she was forced to make it. Here's the worst thing in the world, he says. Styron didn't make the choice up; he got it from Hannah Arendt, who says she got it from Camus. But could it happen? Of course it could; if we can't prove this exact story, we have ample proof of stories like it. Who could do it? Could you do it? Could someone be doing it right now?
Styron believes that evil can happen anywhere, any time, to anyone. It could be happening now, as you read this review. Maybe you're eating a banana. You are not intrinsically better than slaveowners or Nazis. You're lucky that as yet you haven't had to decide whether to resist or submit. He asks:
The query: "At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?"
And the answer: "Where was man?”
Styron would like us to make sure we're prepared to be there....more
Joyce Carol Oates is not in the habit of pulling her punches. She might be the only writer in the history of the world both willing and able to name aJoyce Carol Oates is not in the habit of pulling her punches. She might be the only writer in the history of the world both willing and able to name a book "Rape." She's a powerful author, and I'm a big fan.
This wasn't my favorite of her books. What's it all about? Fury, right? I mean, and rape. It's definitely about rape. Nothing else happens. It's short. The personalities and histories of the people in it are briefly sketched out. Mostly, there's a rape and then there's the aftermath of the rape and then it's over. The rape is unambiguous. It's about as awful as it can be. The plot is similar to the Jodi Foster movie The Accused. That movie was made in 1988, and this book was published in 2003, and it feels a little dated. Aren't we past victim blaming? Surely no one in this day and age would...oh.Nevermind.
Oates has picked a weird avatar for justice. (view spoiler)[This is John Dromoor, a sociopathic veteran. Oates carefully introduces him as a dangerous man. You might assume at first that he's a bad guy. He is a bad guy, as in a not good person. But after the courts fail Teena Maguire, he takes justice into his own hands, carefully murdering four of the men who raped her. You might sortof expect justice to be female, right? (hide spoiler)] I'm not sure what Oates is trying to tell us here. I don't have a problem with it - it's interesting - just don't know what to make of it.
There's a subtitle here, "A Love Story," and I have no idea what to make of that either. It's not a love story. There is love, I guess - (view spoiler)[Teena's 12-year-old daughter Beth has some sort of puppy love crush on Dromoor, which again fills you with dread but nothing comes of it, thank god because you've just about taken all the bad news you can get from this book (hide spoiler)] - but no story about it. It's a rape story. It's upsetting....more
JM Coetzee writes allegories. His books always work on at least two levels. So while the plot of this book is that a professor fucks his student and iJM Coetzee writes allegories. His books always work on at least two levels. So while the plot of this book is that a professor fucks his student and is disgraced for it, that's not what it's about.
It's about post apartheid South Africa, Coetzee's home country. Whites, in charge for so long, lose power. Blacks, furious, punish them. People struggle to find a way forward. (view spoiler)[Out of it all, inevitably, a biracial baby is born. (hide spoiler)] Coetzee (rhymes with "book see") uses rape as a metaphor, which seems to be a thing for him. Tony D'Souza calls Disgrace "the definitive work on South Africa’s present state."
Coetzee writes exact books. He knows what he's doing. He has a point, and every sentence aims at the point. His work is powerful but manicured. There are no unruly digressions. They are strict. And nasty, too: violence and rape are Coetzee's recurring themes. Coetzee seems to have more sympathy for women than for men. His protagonist here, ex-Professor Lurie, is awful. His daughter Lucy is sympathetic and complicated, the soul of the book. "You behave as if everything I do is part of the story of your life," she tells him.
You are the main character, I am a minor character who doesn't make an appearance until halfway through. Well, contrary to what you think, people are not divided into major and minor. I am not minor. I have a life of my own, just as important to me as yours is to you, and in my life I am the one who makes the decisions.
There's some metafiction here, as there always is in Coetzee. He knows what he's doing with this plot. "Half of literature is about it," he points out. "Young women struggling to escape from under the weight of old men." The book is about the struggle, not the weight....more
St. Francis of Assisi, the one with the birds, chose poverty.
'He gave everything away that he owned, every cent, all his clothes off his back. He enjo
St. Francis of Assisi, the one with the birds, chose poverty.
'He gave everything away that he owned, every cent, all his clothes off his back. He enjoyed to be poor. He said poverty was a queen and he loved her like she was a beautiful woman.'
Sam shook his head. 'It ain't beautiful, kiddo. To be poor is dirty work.'
'He took a fresh view of things.'
Everyone is poor in The Assistant, desperately, grindingly poor, Raskolnikov poor, even Hunger poor. Morris Bober works 16-hour days in a dire grocery, barely managing to feed himself and his wife Ida and daughter Helen. An assistant arrives.
The assistant is Frank Alpine, who is not good. It's not a surprise when you learn that he was (view spoiler)[involved in the robbery of the grocery that begins the novel. (hide spoiler)] He peeks in the window to watch Helen shower. He steals. It gets worse. (view spoiler)[He saves Helen from rape, only to rape her himself. (hide spoiler)]
It's going to sound lame when I say it, but the question is who is getting assisted. Frank saves Morris's grocery; his energy, charisma and non-Jewishness bring in fresh business, and when Morris is incapacitated Frank saves him from disaster. But Frank wants to be good, although by all evidence he is congenitally bad, and it's Morris's example that he follows - Morris, who insists on giving food away to those even marginally poorer than himself.
It comes off as a fable. The Assistant is one of those perfectly constructed, tight novels, every page leading directly to the next. Malamud writes clearly and unpretentiously, so when he flashes out with an occasional burst of poetry - "Who was he making into a wife out of snowy moonlight?" - it stops you in your tracks.
Frank is bad enough that you're not exactly rooting for him to have a happy ending. (view spoiler)[And Malamud doesn't exactly give him one. He hints at it. But in a twist ending that works once it arrives, Frank gets himself circumcised and Jewishized to end the novel; Malamud leaves the rest up in the air.
Rape is such an enormous crime that its presence bends a novel; once rape appears, you might feel that the novel is about rape. Malamud chooses a massive crime because, like Dostoevsky, he's arguing that redemption is always possible. Your call whether you're comfortable with that or not. (hide spoiler)] Although the novel has drive and a message, Malamud doesn't traffic in absolutes; it all feels real and rooted and ambiguous. He's subtler than Dostoevsky.
Malamud is usually lumped in with a trio of Jewish American mid-20th century authors - him and Bellow and Roth. But Malamud has faded sharply; I'd never even heard of him until recently. Why? Maybe it's because Roth killed him, Oedipus-style. I don't know. Tell you what though: I don't love Bellow and I don't even like Roth, but I loved this book. "I want the moon so all I get is cheese," complains Frank. Sometimes cheese is enough....more
The problem with female friends is that you always run the risk of your sons fucking them, Doris Lessing points out. Adore, originally published as ThThe problem with female friends is that you always run the risk of your sons fucking them, Doris Lessing points out. Adore, originally published as The Grandmothers in a 2003 collection of novellas, is about one of those all-too-frequent occurrences: two lifelong friends have affairs with each other's sons.
It's good: I liked reading it and it's got things to say about female friendship and sortof the dangers of mothers in general. I read it as sortof a corrective to the old, boring story about old men fucking younger women. Those stories are lame wish-fulfillment; this story is not. One expects Doris Lessing to be smarter and more complicated than Philip Roth, and she is.
It didn't change my life; it's not a complicated or important book. I like Doris Lessing and I liked reading this....more
Here's what I know: if a book features some old dude fucking some younger lady, check the author's age. 100% of the time, he's the same age as the oldHere's what I know: if a book features some old dude fucking some younger lady, check the author's age. 100% of the time, he's the same age as the old dude.
The younger woman will be vulnerable. She will be attracted to the older man's security and wisdom. There is a power imbalance, and it's basically the same thing as when Tarzan saves Jane from the lion. It's embarrassing, immature wish-fulfillment. And even when it's written very well, it's boring.
This book is occasionally written very well, but it also has the young lady dancing naked for like 20 pages while she babbles about free love. "Oh, I see you, Coleman. I could give you away my whole life and still have you. Just by dancing." Good luck getting through that bullshit. It suuuucks.
And you've heard thisstory before. Old guys complain that no one wants to read old guy authors. It's not because we're "politically correct." It's because old men can't shut up about their penises, and it's boring. The entire canon, as it was agreed on at some point by a bunch of old guys and their penises, is full of stories like this.
Coleman Silk, the protagonist of The Human Stain, is one of those old guys. He's the worst kind of college professor: the kind who tells you how to read a book. "Fossilized pedagogy," as a character we're not supposed to agree with calls it. Fuck you, it's my fucking book, I'll decide how to read it. If I decide to take "a feminist perspective on Euripides," then that's what happens. Euripides can take care of himself.
Silk is also of African-American descent; he's been "passing" as white his entire life. Ironically, he's disgraced by an unfortunately timed use of the word "spook." This is the one-sentence plot of the book: guy accused of racism is secretly black. It sounds interesting, but the problem is that Philip Roth thinks it's a metaphor.
He thinks it's a metaphor because he keeps getting accused of being an asshole. All his life, people have called Philip Roth all sorts of names. Misogynist, even anti-Semite. (Roth is Jewish.) He keeps getting accused of believing what his characters say. It's not me, he complains. "The thought of the novelist lies not in the remarks of his characters or even in their introspection," he insists, "but in the plight he has invented for his characters."
Well, quite. The plight he has invented here is a young lady's vagina. Of course Philip Roth isn't Coleman Silk. He's his pimp....more
"That's not my baby," our protagonist tells us. "Her mittens are too fuzzy." The baby in question is brown. The previous baby was pink. We suspect our"That's not my baby," our protagonist tells us. "Her mittens are too fuzzy." The baby in question is brown. The previous baby was pink. We suspect our protagonist is making things more complicated than they need to be.
"That's not my baby," she continues. "Her teddy is too fluffy." We find it impossible to read this page without using our porno voices.
We sympathize with the protagonist, in a way. When we pick our baby up from day care, we sometimes have a moment when we think, "Oh shit: which one is ours?" Babies look similar. We look for the one who seems pleased to see us. We hope this has been a good strategy.
There are two brown babies at our day care. We know they are not ours, even though they are not wearing mittens.
Our baby, or anyway the one who is at our house, loves the last page where there is a mirror. He opens the book to that page and laughs and closes it again. He does this many times. Then he starts crying. We don't know why. Perhaps he has realized that he is not our baby. If so, we apologize. Your baby is very friendly. We're not saying this is all his fault. Some of it is our baby's fault. He should have been more pleased to see us....more
Here is the most famous slave narrative written by a woman. Jacobs isn't as polished as, say, Frederick Douglass, but she has a directness that's realHere is the most famous slave narrative written by a woman. Jacobs isn't as polished as, say, Frederick Douglass, but she has a directness that's really appealing, and a boldness that's sortof awesome. She writes unflinchingly about the widespread rape of slaves by white men. Douglass does too, but she focuses relentlessly on it. Incidents becomes a twisted mirror image of Pamela: this is how that book turns out if it's set in America and the serving woman is a slave.
What if Sister Carrie were black? ish? Harlem Renaissance author Jessie Redmon Fauset reminds me of no one more than Theodore Dreiser. Both are concerWhat if Sister Carrie were black? ish? Harlem Renaissance author Jessie Redmon Fauset reminds me of no one more than Theodore Dreiser. Both are concerned with single women trying to make it on their own terms, and neither is particularly skilled at writing. Dreiser is better - more powerful in the end, less susceptible to Victorian plot twists, and less moralistic.
Weird to say moralistic, given that Plum Bun advertises its lack of moral in the title, but the title is a lie: there are morals galore here, about pride in ancestry and the importance of family and proper behavior and what have you, and they're not subtle.
She began to see the conventions, the rules that govern life, in a new light; she realized suddenly that for all their granite-like coldness and precision they also represented fundamental facts; a sort of concentrated compendium of the art of living and therefore as much to be observed and respected as warm, vital impulses.
Maybe I should be comparing her to Jane Austen.
Passing, which is where a light-skinned black person decides to define herself as white, was of vivid interest to the Harlem Renaissance writers. It shows up in Nella Larsen's terrific Passing, the best treatment of it; it's also covered satirically in George Schuyler's Black No More, and awkwardly in Jean Toomer's actual life. We don't talk about it so much anymore. Both black and white people find it...what, gauche? I don't know. The last time I heard about passing was when Rachel Dolezal tried a reverse pass. (That's the woman who was head of the NAACP until her Caucasian parents released a statement like, hey, btw, let's make Thanksgiving awkward.) Given its frequent discussion a century ago, I would assume that many black people made this decision at some point previous, and now it's in the past, their families have been white for generations. Suck it racists, I guess?
We're still stuck on the idea that a drop of black blood makes one black, which is sortof weird and ugly. What if a person of mixed race, like Barack Obama, just declared that he was white? Why shouldn't he? The very definition of passing sucks.
Anyway, that's what Plum Bun is about. Fauset, who had siblings who could pass, is against it. Her protagonist, Angela Murray, (view spoiler)[learns over the course of the novel that she is happier acknowledging her African American ancestry. (hide spoiler)] This is all handled adequately well.
Plum Bun is at its best, though, describing loneliness. Here too there may be autobiographical elements: like Angela, Fauset moved alone to Harlem, and the poignancy of her description of loneliness in New York City feels very real. I loved these parts of the book.
Loneliness! Loneliness such as that offered by the great, noisy city could never be imagined. To realize it one would have to experience it.
They're not enough to make me love the whole thing, which totters into Victorian melodrama at a certain point and then proceeds to drown in it. Angela's sister Virginia (view spoiler)[just happens to stumble heartbroken into Angela's crush Anthony's room, of all the rooms in the entire city, after being cut by Angela at the train station. In the end, everything gets tied up all too neatly with an almost literal bow, as Anthony arrives at Angela's door in Paris on Christmas Eve: "'There ought to be a tag on me somewhere,' he remarked apologetically, 'but anyhow Virginia and Matthew send me with their love.'" It's sweet, but come on now. (hide spoiler)]
Colson Whitehead broke into the big leagues with this book, which was the consensus best novel of 2016. I thought it was pretty good.
Whitehead plays wColson Whitehead broke into the big leagues with this book, which was the consensus best novel of 2016. I thought it was pretty good.
Whitehead plays with genre. Zone One is about zombies; The Intuitionist is science fiction. Here he's digging into slave narratives. There's a parade of tropes familiar from the literature of slavery: the middle passage, medical experimentation, women trapped in attics. It's exciting and very plotty: this would be a good book to read if you want to be Readin' Good Literature, but you secretly just like exciting stories. I'm not sure there's a whole lot of depth to it. Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing (also from 2016, also on every Best Of list) is also a tour of African American themes, but it has more wisdom in it and I think it's a better book.
There's some hoopla about Underground Railroad's use of magical realism, but it's restricted to one thing: the underground railroad itself is presented literally, as a railroad underground. I like that, because when I was a kid I thought that's what it really was. But what's the point? It's imaginative, but it's just a mechanism to get us from one scene to the next....more
"A single book created the “bodice ripper” as a concept and cultural phenomenon: 1972's The Flame and the Flower. Written by Midwestern homemaker Kath"A single book created the “bodice ripper” as a concept and cultural phenomenon: 1972's The Flame and the Flower. Written by Midwestern homemaker Kathleen Woodiwiss and published by Avon, the novel is widely considered to be the first sexually explicit romance novel, released just as the second wave of the feminist movement was cresting."
This was a gift from the lovely Jennifer D. and it's my favorite book to read to my baby. It's simple and joyous and the illustrations are beautiful.This was a gift from the lovely Jennifer D. and it's my favorite book to read to my baby. It's simple and joyous and the illustrations are beautiful. It manages to be sweet without being sentimental. (I mean, not too sentimental...the bar is set at Wherever You Are My Love Will Find You, so that's pretty low.)
"Let's all dance, let's all sing"
and you're like yeah, my dog gets overexcited too. That's exactly what this is like....more
Gertrude Stein mounted a sustained attack on language from her salon in Paris, where Ernest Hemingway came to learn most of what he knew about writingGertrude Stein mounted a sustained attack on language from her salon in Paris, where Ernest Hemingway came to learn most of what he knew about writing on her knee. Hers was one of the great artistic circles: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso were also part of her dazzlingly dangerous scene. She was a major influence on modernism.
Picasso painted her, too, and here she is.
What she isn't is a very good writer herself - at least not here, in this unsettling, unfriendly, experimental book. (And this is supposed to be her easiest one!) It feels more like a thesis statement than a book, like Stein couldn't possibly have meant it to be read so much as referred to. Hemingway learned his simple language from her, but his big emotions come through readily. Stein's are so obstinately buried that it seems perverse. Hemingway famously said of Faulkner,
"Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use."
Gertrude Stein knows the simpler words too, and she seems to be limiting herself to about ten of them. Each of her three characters gets a few descriptors (she called them insistences). Anna "led an arduous and troubled life," in which the widow Mrs. Lehntman "was the only romance Anna ever knew." Melanctha is “graceful, pale yellow, intelligent, attractive," with "breakneck courage." Lena is "gentle" and "patient." These attributes get repeated, word-for-word, over and over, as though Stein is mocking the very idea of writing.
Melanctha's story, the middle and longest one, is the most annoying. (Of course, this means that English professors also think it's the most brilliant one.) Most of the story is Melanctha fighting with her pain-in-the-ass boyfriend, who is boring and won't shut up. She's basically settling for him because he's a doctor, which, like, fair enough but she should just marry him and then murder him in his sleep like a regular person. Melanctha and Jeff have these endless, circular, repetitious arguments, and of course that is exactly what real relationships are like, so...great? But the thing with literature is that I want it to be both true and interesting, and Stein appears to have missed that second part.
Also Stein thinks there's a "simple, promiscuous immorality of the black people," so you're gonna have to hear about that.
The other two are easier to get through, and if you're super into cult landmark lit, go for it. Stein has her fans. Virginia Woolf was one: according to Michael Schmidt,
[Woolf] sets the image of the clock ticking at the heart of fiction: Emily Bronte tried to conceal it, Sterne turned it upside down, Proust kept changing the hands to make things happen at the same time. Stein destroys it altogether, and when the clock is broken, syntax and all the other pacing elements perish with it.
Which actually isn't definitely praise. Schmidt himself resorts to phrases like "patternings of parataxis" to describe her, and here we are with a writer who only uses ten words but requires everyone else to dredge up shit like "parataxis" to talk about them and, y'know, I'm not sure this is a conversation I need to be a part of....more
"Kafka's sister" is how Anna Kavan gets described sometimes, and she shares Kafka's frustration, the feeling that the world makes no sense. One is not"Kafka's sister" is how Anna Kavan gets described sometimes, and she shares Kafka's frustration, the feeling that the world makes no sense. One is not sure how to find what one is looking for; one is not even sure what one is looking for. One is not sure what one is doing, but it does not seem to be going well.
All this was real, it was really happening, but with a quality of the unreal; it was reality happening in quite a different way.
But "Kafka's sister" feels a little patronizing, doesn't it? Kavan is her own thing, too. Right at the snowy outset, as our antihero drives blindly into a storm and off the precipice of reality, you feel immediately that you're in the presence of something real.
And it is about something. Some people I guess think it's about the Cold War, or heroin, sure, whatever. Ice is slippery. It's, the words of it, it's about an abusive man who can't give up his poisonous, codependent, Wuthering Heightsish relationship. He spends the book stalking his skinny-ass blonde ex-girlfriend through an icy dystopian world, or maybe it's some other skinny-ass blonde, it's unclear whether it's the same girl or whether he cares. There are dreams involved. At times an entirely other reality just takes over for a while, usually involving the skinny-ass blonde girl dying horribly. He explains that he doesn't have a super strong grip on reality. He's such an unreliable narrator that he can't even decide who he is. Sometimes he seems to be the warden instead. Often he has knowledge he shouldn't. Meanwhile, ice encroaches.
Anna Kavan was a lifelong heroin addict who tried to burn all traces of herself so that she'd become "the world's best-kept secret." This is her most famous book - that's not saying much - written in 1967, shortly before she died. Her protagonist is obsessed with the singing indri, a species of lemur that looks like this
and sounds like this. It's an eerie song, unsettling, and it's pretty great....more
Last Exit to Brooklyn in the boonies is what Jesus' Son feels like. It's an interconnected series of short stories starring the very down and very outLast Exit to Brooklyn in the boonies is what Jesus' Son feels like. It's an interconnected series of short stories starring the very down and very out in rural Iowa as they stagger through young adulthood. Its protagonist's name is Fuckhead, so there you go.
There's this great confused quality that's familiar to me from my own experimental days, which were much less dire (not at all dire) but, like, in one story they're all having a sendoff party for a friend who's going to jail, and midway through Fuckhead realizes that he has this all wrong, it's actually a welcome home party for the friend who's just gotten out of jail, so the entire story changes on a dime: "Oh shit, wait, that's not what's happening." I remember that sort of thing! Except it was more along the lines of whether we'd eaten all the gummy bears yet or not, so the stakes were a little lower.
I like this better than Last Exit. I like both, but Jesus' Son avoids Last Exit's desperate shock tactics; my problem with that book was that every story basically ended, like, "and then everyone got raped," and it felt a little obvious. Plus I like that "Jesus' Son" is from the Velvet Underground song "Heroin."
The thing with Fuckhead is that he has no self-esteem at all. He feels no shame when he peeps in some lady's window, because he has no shame left. He's made it down to raw animal level. I feel catharsis when I read characters like this, if they're well-done, as he is. I've dipped a toe or two into low self-esteem, at moments in my life. I don't think about it real often, because those were bummer moments. It's nice to understand that others know what it's like way down there where you can't see in front of your face. You don't read stuff like this too much. Cormac McCarthy's Child of God, maybe - Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays. But you don't see it often, because it's dark down there. Paradoxically, so, this book feels like a little light....more
I'm not a super fan of Against Me!, the punk band whose singer is now publicly a woman. But I do think Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a fuckin' warheaI'm not a super fan of Against Me!, the punk band whose singer is now publicly a woman. But I do think Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a fuckin' warhead of a song; it's been on my "favorites" Spotify list for, geez, a couple years now. She's got a kickass story and I would like to hear more of it.
ooh, I just found an acoustic version of that song. Not as good, I like this (and everything else) loud, but her voice sounds great on this version....more
Writing is a hostile act, says Joan Didion, not in this book, just generally, that's a thing she says. She clarifies in this terrific interview:
Writing is a hostile act, says Joan Didion, not in this book, just generally, that's a thing she says. She clarifies in this terrific interview:
It's hostile in that you're trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It's hostile to try to wrench around someone else's mind that way.
So here she is wrenching around your mind in a basically hostile bummer of a book. Her lead, Maria, lives more or less permanently at rock bottom - high, promiscuous, desperately low on self-esteem and purpose. She seems perpetually one step away from giving up, but the thing about her is that she abides. She's like an empty shell caught in the surf: helpless, battered against rocks with every swell, somehow never breaking. Her ex bullies her into (view spoiler)[getting an abortion - no one's really sure who the father might have been - and it fucks her up even further, (hide spoiler)] but she still abides.
The one thing she cares about is her daughter Kate, and what even is wrong with Kate? She's hospitalized and on methylphenidate hydrochloride, that's like our only clue; that turns out to be Ritalin, which was used to treat depression in 1960. Kate's four, I think, which seems early for depression. I don't know what her damage is.
Maria's an unforgettable, unique character. In the end she makes her only active decision of the book, passively: (view spoiler)[she chooses to keep her friend BZ company, instead of stopping him, as he commits suicide. She ends up, maybe mercifully, in an asylum for it. (hide spoiler)] She lives on the edge of the abyss, eyes locked into the void. "I used to ask questions," she says, "and I got the answer: nothing. The answer is 'nothing.'" This book is something, though. I loved it....more
"Exit, pursued by a bear" is the most famous stage direction in literature. It comes here in Winter's Tale, at the end of Act III, and it's famous bec"Exit, pursued by a bear" is the most famous stage direction in literature. It comes here in Winter's Tale, at the end of Act III, and it's famous because it's funny.
And the really funny thing is it's been a hella dark play until this moment. What happened is King Leontes has become suddenly and irrationally convinced that his wife is cheating on him (like Othello, with some Lear), so he thinks his infant daughter isn't his, so he orders her exposed in the wilderness to die, and the guy who drops her off, Antigonus, immediately gets chased off screen by the bear. It's conceivable that Shakespeare used a real bear. Antigonus (view spoiler)[dies, by the way, the bear gets him. (hide spoiler)]
That stage direction marks a shift: the bear chases tragedy off screen, and brings comedy in with him. Act IV moves forward 16 years and shifts radically into silliness - and porniness, too: the dialogue between Florizel and Perdita is some of Shakespeare's hornier work. A tinker shows up bearing "such delicate burdens of dildos and fadings," and fadings means orgasms and dildos means dildos, so if you're wondering where dildos pop up first in literature it's Aristophanes but here's this too.
Act IV is not really very good: it's confusing, full of characters and subplots that aren't remotely necessary. And that tonal shift is jarring. This is sometimes called one of Shakespeare's "problem plays": the bummer rug gets pulled out from under us when it ends happily, and we're left unsure what to make of it. Queen Hermione (view spoiler)[comes back to life in a Pygmalion moment, and it's not even clear whether this has been magic or trickery. The obvious guess is trickery, but when she died it was implied that Leontes saw her body. (hide spoiler)] And after all, Prince Mamillius (view spoiler)[is still dead of grief. (hide spoiler)]
It's a little unsatisfying. But it sticks with you; it leaves an impression. "I am a feather for each wind that blows," complains Leontes, and the play feels a little like that too. But it's an interesting wind....more
This is called poshlust, an untranslatable word referring to a kind of banal tackiness special to Russia. Here's another RuHere's a Russian douchebag.
This is called poshlust, an untranslatable word referring to a kind of banal tackiness special to Russia. Here's another Russian douchebag:
The stereotype goes all the way back to 1842 and Gogol's great antihero dandy grifter Chichikov, with his Navarino smoke-and-flame silk frock coat and his violet-scented snuffbox, and according to Nabokov poshlust is the great theme of this book, a definition of an essential theme of Russian character.
That's not what Gogol thought Dead Souls was about. He thought he was recreating the Divine Comedy; a morality tale, with three books corresponding to Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise. He only finished the first one: in one of the great tantrums of literature, he burned most of his draft for the rest and then starved himself to death. Lucky for us, Inferno is always the good part.
Gogol with his emo face on
The fragments that survive of the rest of Dead Souls, like the ending of Crime & Punishment, get a lot less fun in a hurry. This is the thing about tales of redemption: the redemption is definitely not the fun part. But it's the first great Russian novel, and you can see prototypes here for Raskolnikov and Tolstoy's great conflicted landowner Levin.
That's a ton of fun, and Book One of Dead Souls, which is about two thirds of what we have, is awesome. Vivid, surreal, funny, almost silly, as Gogol is. He's dead serious under that, of course, as they always are. Here's close enough to a mission statement:
Some wondrous power has doomed me for a long time to walk hand in hand with my strange heroes, to survey in its entirety life that rushes along so massively, to survey it through laughter that is visible to the world and through tears which the world cannot see and does not know.
Unfinished books are always frustrating, and I didn't enjoy the fragments after Book One. But that first bit is one of my favorite reading experiences this year. This is the great epic of Russian douchebaggery. Unbutton the top four buttons of your silk shirt and get psyched....more