Monday, August 11, 2014

Sloth and torpor

The internet is conspiring to scold me today. Over the past few months, I haven't been reading as much as I normally do. Sure, studying Khmer for several hours each week takes some time away from my Kindle, but I could still read more than I do.

I feel guilty about this, because I have mountains of excellent books at hand.  I'm not wasting my time reading rubbish.

I am just spending too much time sitting at the computer.  Too much time, in fact, looking at cute cat pictures which in turn chastise me for not reading good books.

Discipline! What I need is discipline. It wouldn't hurt to have a sad-eyed black cat like the Bear (above) instead of my resident voluptuary, Crumpet, who considers napping the highest form of self-improvement.

No more excuses -- I will finish the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn by the end of this week. I love reading, and these books are superb. It's pure laziness on my part. Switching off the computer now.  

Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Change of Climate, by Hilary Mantel

I am still waiting to encounter the book by Hilary Mantel that leaves me anything less than awestruck.

One of the countless subjects she handles very astutely is the expatriate experience. In Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, she brought me as close as I ever wish to get to living as a foreigner in Saudi Arabia.  In A Change of Climate, the story shifts back and forth between Norfolk, England and Africa -- specifically South Africa, where apartheid was still new in the early 1950s, and then Bechuanaland (now Botswana).

Mostly, though, this is a book about family chemistry, in which secrets are powerful catalysts, having indirect effects on those who don't know them and often corrosive effects on those who keep them.

Ralph Eldred wants to attend university to pursue his passion for geology -- specifically fossils -- but his father, a Bible literalist, forbids it, insisting that Darwinism is atheism by another name. Making scant headway with his determined son, the patriarch delivers a threat:  Persist in this endeavour, and I shall pull your sister, Emma, out of her studies at medical school. Ralph capitulates, though few (and certainly not his beloved sister) understand the reason why.

The story jumps ahead to Ralph's middle years; he and his wife, Anna, have returned from their missionary postings in Africa to Norfolk, where they're living in a rambling, ramshackle house with their four children. Ralph manages a charitable trust, and the young, old, addled and addicted clients of the trust frequently land in the Eldreds' home for a period of time. Eldest daughter Kit, aged 10, upon finding one of them ineffectually slicing her wrists over the kitchen sink, simply goes for the first-aid kit, and disinfects and bandages the woman's shallow knife cuts. Although the woman clearly has psychological problems, Ralph places her into his category of "Good Souls".  It's small wonder that Ralph's children frequently commented that they lived with a saint.
And this was how the world was divided, when Kit was growing up—into Good Souls and Sad Cases. There was no wickedness in it.
Meanwhile, Ralph's wife, Anna, attends the funeral of the local estate agent, Felix Palmer. Nearly everyone in the area knew that Felix had been carrying on for years with Ralph's sister, Emma. Felix's wife, Ginny, knew it. Anna and the children knew it. Only Ralph was in the dark. But it's a funeral, and everyone maintains a semblance of propriety, as Anna makes clear to her older son, Julian, when she returns home.
Anna went into the kitchen. Julian had heard her come in, and was setting out cups for tea.
 “How did it go?”
 “It went well, I suppose,” Anna said. “We buried him. The main object was achieved. How do funerals ever go?"
 “How was Mrs. Palmer?”
 “Ginny was very much herself. A party of them were going back to the house, for vol-au-vents provided by Mrs. Gleave.” Anna made a face. “And whiskey. She seemed very insistent on the whiskey. If you’d have asked for gin—well, I don’t know what!”
Julian reached for the teapot. “Nobody would have gin, would they, at a funeral?”
“No, it would be unseemly,” Anna said. Mother’s ruin, she thought. The abortionist’s drink. A mistress’s tipple. Flushed complexions and unbuttoned afternoons. 
Then Mantel takes us back to the beginning of Ralph and Anna's marriage, when they accept a missionary posting in South Africa. They seem neither giddy and idealistic nor pious. They seem more than anything to want to be away from Norfolk. Upon arriving in Cape Town, they have an audience with the weary and elderly archbishop.
“Do you also not feel equal to it?” the archbishop inquired.
“I am not sure anyone could be.” This was a good answer.
“Well, I know I am not,” the archbishop said. “There are two things—no, three things—I ask of you, particularly. Try not to despise your opponents; try not to hate them. It will probably be quite difficult for you, but for a Christian the effort is necessary. And try not to break the law. You have not been sent here to get yourselves into the newspapers or the magistrate’s court. I hope you can remember that.”
“The third thing?” Ralph said.
“Oh yes. When you write home to England, ask your people not to make hasty judgments. It is a complicated country, this. I comfort myself that there is little real wickedness in it. But there is so much fear, fear on all sides. Fear paralyzes the sympathies, and the power of reasoning. So it becomes a kind of wickedness, in the end.” The archbishop looked up, nodded. The interview was over.
There it is again. "...ask your people not to make hasty judgments... there is little real wickedness in it." Withhold judgment.  Anna and Ralph will hear this again from the Boer police who arrest and deport them -- You don't understand; this is a very complicated situation. It's true that they are foreigners, new to the country, but it's also patently obvious that the ruling white South Africans are using power oppressively and corruptly. By taking a stand, Ralph and Anna find themselves arrested, disgraced and deported to the backwater known as Bechuanaland.  And that is where the real tragedy strikes them.

Years later, Anna and Ralph are re-settled in Norfolk, Ralph running the trust that his uncle founded, and Anna trying to hold the house and their four teen-aged children together. Two of them, Kit and Robin, reflect on sharing a home with "saints".
“But do you know what I mean? Mum works so hard to keep the house going, with that furnace to be fed, and that demented twin-tub, and that antique Hoover. All Dad does is bring home hulking great hallstands from Yarmouth, and then beam on us like Jehovah and think he’s done his duty by us. Don’t you ever wonder why we have to be good all the time, why we have to have such tender consciences, why we have to have these Visitors every summer?”
“We’ll be getting some new Visitors soon,” Robin said. “Morlocks, Yahoos, slags, and tarts.”
“Why can’t we be normal, and self-absorbed, and acquisitive?” 
Anna and Ralph, however, are not saints. They coped (or failed to cope) in very different ways with the horrifying incident in Africa. It becomes clear to the reader (if not always to the characters)  that the residue of that experience will colour the rest of their lives. Anna, especially, stores a great reservoir of bitterness. In a rare outburst, she airs her unsaintly thoughts on what they sacrificed on that mission.
"I wish we had never left England. I do not believe that any good we have done here can compensate for a hundredth part of what we have suffered, and for what we will suffer as our lives go on. It seems to me impossible that we will ever lead lives like other people, or that anything ordinary and normal and safe will ever be within our reach again."
Not long after their return, Ralph and Anna sit down with Uncle James, the founder of the trust which Ralph will manage. Anna's twin senses of rage and isolation are palpable, and I can't think of many writers who could express them as deftly as Hilary Mantel.
When Ralph and Anna returned to England they began at once upon the business of finding a house. Practical considerations would not go away; there were decisions to make. Anna had talked only briefly, grudgingly, about her missing child. What was the point of talking? she asked. No one could share her feelings. No one could enter into them.
“Anna, don’t injure yourself more,” James said. “There is a thing people do—when they have been hurt, they hurt themselves again, they compound the damage. Don’t become bitter. That’s all I ask.”
“It’s a great deal to ask,” Ralph said.
“Next, James,” Anna said, “you’ll be asking me to forgive.” A kind of hard jauntiness had entered her voice; it was her usual tone now.
“No, I wouldn’t ask that. Not yet.”
“Good,” Anna said. “I am not up to the effort.”
“If you could think,” James said, “that there are some things that God does not control or will, then you could ask God for comfort … but it’s very difficult, Anna.”
“It’s impossible,” she said. “I asked God for comfort when I came home to Elim [South Africa] every night, and saw these beaten people waiting for me on the stoep—but God kept very quiet, James. God did nothing. It was up to me to do something, but I acted within constraints—I tried to be good, you see, I felt the love of God biting into my wrists like a pair of handcuffs. So what did I offer these people? Bandages and platitudes. Suppose my training had been different? I might have stepped on the train to Cape Town with a revolver in my bag, I might have shot Dr. Verwoerd—then I might have done some good in the world. Now, James—when I had in the room with me the man who was going to kill my child—when I had in my hand a broken bottle, suppose I had drawn the edges across his eyes? Suppose I had sliced his eyes to ribbons, suppose I had severed his veins and made him bleed to death? Then I would have done some good in the world.”
“Anna—” he said. She saw the fear in his face.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “You leave me alone, James, and I’ll leave you alone. You don’t come at me with your theology, and I won’t stop Ralph doing his job. It was planned that he should take over the Trust, yes? So there’s no reason to change the plan. It doesn’t matter what I think, inside myself. Nobody could imagine or know what I think, inside myself. But I promise you I won’t stand up in church and bawl out that it’s all a sham. We’re professional Christians, aren’t we, Ralph and me? That’s how we make our living. Why should we be poor, when every hypocrite is rich?” No one had seen her cry, not once; not from the beginning. Emma knew right away, when she met them at the airport: “Anna is too angry to cry. She is almost too angry to breathe.”
People who have never lived abroad will tell expatriates that they can't fathom the culture shock of living in a culture vastly different than their own. Few stop to consider, though, that the reverse culture shock can be nearly as profound if and when the expatriate comes back home.
It’s not so easy to return from Africa, even when circumstances are favorable and the return is planned. Hostilities against the cockroach and the ant cease only gradually. A mark on the wall converts itself into a crawling tick, and there is effort and vigilance all the time—it is hard to sit in the fitful English sunshine, in the heat without threat, harmless insects brushing your bare arms. It was more than a year before Anna could bring herself to leave a plate or a cup on a table; after it had been used, she would snatch it away and wash it, to thwart the advancing carpet of crawling greed. “Poor Anna,” people said. “She’s always on the go. She’ll wear herself out, that girl.” The words used about her, the trite kindnesses, had a sting of their own. There had been a tragedy in her life, and no one here had the terms for it. In winter the weight of her clothes oppressed her; wool and shoe leather chafed and cramped and squeezed.
I know other expatriates will empathise with the following passage, knowing all too well the polite and uncomprehending silence of those for whom living in a foreign country is simply unfathomable. A friend of mine announced to her friends in Michigan, US, that she would be volunteering for an NGO in Phnom Penh for two months. Their response:  Collective mute stares followed by a change of topic. She told me today that they never asked her about the experience once she'd returned to Michigan. For Anna and Ralph, their African tragedy makes the conversation even more awkward.
Anna’s parents knew the facts—knew the probabilities, that is— but they settled for not talking about them. They pretended that they were sparing their daughter’s feelings, but really they were sparing their own. Nothing in their lives had prepared them for catastrophe. They worshipped routine; events were dubious matters, and often in bad taste. It was a form of showing off, to have things happen to you. “Of course, it’s terrible, a horrible thing, dreadful,” Mrs. Martin said, “but although I don’t say so, of course, I blame him for taking her there in the first place. He could have had a nice job with his father, there was no need to trail halfway across the globe.” The Martins had spent much of their lives beating the drum for the Christian faith, getting up jumble sales and flower shows so that the dark races could have the benefit of the company of brisk young Englishmen who were familiar with the Psalms and (among other Books) the Book of Job. But they did not expect to have one of these young Englishmen in their back parlor behind the shop, frozen and speechless with misery. They did not expect the Book of Job to have any practical application...

Ralph had feared intrusive questions, but instead there was an indifference that he felt as an insult. He made a discovery, common to those who expatriate themselves and then return: that when he and Anna went abroad they had ceased to be regarded as real people. Out of sight, out of mind. Nobody, even the most generous donor to mission appeals, wanted to hear anything about Africa.
Although Mantel's characters seem to reach an accord to put the horror into storage and get on with life, like so many other dark secrets, it takes on a sinister life of its own, creeping out in dreams, in cringing expressions, in diverted conversations.
After a while they ceased to flinch when a picture of a lost child appeared in the newspapers. Finally the dimensions of the tragedy shrunk; there was a little barbed area in which no one trod, in which the secret was sequestered and locked away. Was it less potent, confined? No: it was more potent, Ralph felt. He dreamt of scrubbing blood away, scrubbing his own blood off a cement floor; but the stain always returned, like the blood in Bluebeard’s room. He understood, then, what the fairy tale means; blood is never wiped out. No bad action goes away. Evil is energy, and perpetuates itself; only its form changes.
Hilary Mantel crafts characters like no one else, but one of the finer ones in this book is the house itself, which becomes an architectural reflection of the family that lives in it -- somewhat disjointed, operating on laissez-faire laws, harboring secrets.
She remembered how she had tried to sell the place, only a couple of years ago. It was a house with no center, she had always felt, no room from which you could command other rooms. Sound traveled in its own way; from one of the attics, you could hear the downstairs telephone quite distinctly, but from nearer rooms it couldn’t be heard at all. The house had its own conduits, sight lines. Sometimes one of the children’s friends had stayed overnight, without her knowing. She didn’t make a practice of searching the rooms, scouring the cupboards and landings for fugitives or stowaways; the house would have its private life, whether she agreed or not. In the morning a parent would telephone, furious or distraught. She would say, “Your child is here to be collected. I make no charge for bed and breakfast.” And then, oblivious to the babble on the line, she would put down the phone. She had not lived her life in a way that attracted sympathy. She had made sure of that. 
Although she gives us moving and profound insights into the lives of these characters, Mantel weaves the same cautionary message throughout the book:  You can't really understand. The South African authorities repeatedly tell Ralph and Anna that no matter how long they stay in the country, the situation is too complex for them to grasp, and so they should neither judge nor meddle in it. Ralph's conservative Christian father, when arguing with his son about why he will not fund a geology degree, says the same thing:  You're young; you're arrogant, and you think you have (or can find through scientific means) all the answers. You can't. The Norfolk residents neither claim nor want any understanding of Africa, nor of what Anna and Ralph experienced there. As the family reaches their crisis point at the book's climax, teen-aged daughter Kit tries to reason with her mother in an attempt to salvage her parents' marriage. And Anna's response?  You know nothing of these matters. You can't possibly understand.

It's true, none of us will ever fully understand what another experiences. That statement, however -- "You don't understand!" -- is a defense mechanism, a barrier.  "...And don't even try" is often the unspoken tag line, leaving the speaker isolated. If we listen and read carefully, though, we can at least gain some insight into the matter. Hilary Mantel has made potential friends and confidantes of her readers, if only her characters could reach out and accept them.

The photo above is by Rebecca Brittain; prints are available for sale here.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Terrorist, by John Updike

If the manuscript for this novel had been submitted anonymously or pseudonymously, it would have perished quietly in the Hamish Hamilton slush-pile. I've read and admired other Updike fiction. For heaven's sake, the man won Pulitzer prizes for two of the Rabbit novels. Terrorist was his last novel, published in 2006, when he was 74. His editor did him a disservice by publishing this book. I think a tactful agreement over cocktails to put this manuscript to rest would have been the best move all round.

Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy lives with his mother, an Irish-American artist, in New Prospect New Jersey, his Egyptian father having bailed out not long after the baby's birth. Ahmad is 18, a high school senior, and a devout student of the Holy Q'uran, as taught by his somewhat oleaginous Yemeni teacher, Shaikh Rashid.

Ahmad is a compelling character, but in the end, one that just doesn't work. He speaks very stiffly and formally, as if English were not his native tongue. He is unwilling to kill insects that cross his path, yet he agrees to martyr himself in a plot that will kill untold numbers of bystanders. He is clearly intelligent and thoughtful, yet he behaves like an automaton where his religion is concerned.18 year-olds can of course be a bundle of inner conflicts, but Updike's Ahmad is fundamentally inconsistent.

The young man's guidance counselor is Jack Levy, a rumpled, dispirited, faithless and middle-aged Jew. Elizabeth is his middle-aged, obese wife, a faithless Lutheran. These people seem to illustrate, at least in Ahmad's mind, what is wrong with America. Well, some of what's wrong with it. There are, of course, millions of other illustrative infidels.

I know it's a small world, and coincidences abound, but according to Mr. Updike, there are about two degrees of separation from Ahmad, if that. Mr. Levy feels compelled to visit Ahmad's home, simply because he feels the boy is not going to achieve his full potential by learning to drive a truck, which his imam has encouraged in favour of a godless university track. (Can you see where that's heading?) I, personally, have never heard of a guidance counselor who makes house calls, but Levy goes one step further and embarks upon an affair with Ahmad's mother.  Even though he doesn't really think much of her paintings.

Meanwhile, his cuckolded, overweight wife, Elizabeth, talks on the phone with her sister. Hermione is the adoring, almost worshipful assistant to the newly appointed Director of Homeland Security. Frumpy and middle-aged, she is nonetheless a stolid trooper, a female Bill Gannon to the Director's Sgt. Joe Friday.

This allusion to Dragnet is not incidental. Did Updike always write such absurdly stilted dialogue? Hermione's weak-kneed adoration of her superior is laughable:  Neither "his powerful, rueful masseters" nor his "thoroughly masculine but beautifully formed brunette brows" does a thing for this middle-aged, frumpy reader, except make me rue the day I read them.
He turns in his black suit from the radiant window looking over the Ellipse and the Mall, trampled meadows where those sheep the citizenry graze in their jogging suits and polychrome shorts and running shoes configured like space ships in 'thirties comic books. "I'm wondering," he confides to Hermione, "if we should put the Mid-Atlantic region back on the orange level of alert." 
"Sir, begging your pardon," she says, "but I talk with my sister in New Jersey, and I'm not sure the people know what to do different as the levels go up."
The Secretary chews this over a moment, with his powerful, rueful masseters, then asserts, "No, but the authorities do. They up their own levels; they have a whole menu of emergency measures in front of them." Yet even as he utters this reassurance he feels irritation -- she can tell by the way his fine eyes narrow under their thoroughly masculine but beautifully formed brunette brows...
"If this thing in New Jersey blows up, there'll be no sitting on fat-cat boards for me. No speaker's fees. No million-dollar advance on my memoirs." It was the sort of confession a man should make only to his wife.
Hermione is shocked. He has come closer to her but has fallen in her estimation. She tells him a shade tartly, trying to recall this beautiful, selfless public servant to himself, "Mr. Secretary, no man can serve two masters. Mammon is one; it would be presumptuous for me to name the other."
I appreciate what Updike was aiming for. We all want to get inside the heads of those who commit suicidal mass murder in the name of their religion. Unfortunately, his effort turned mostly into a farce. Like Hermione, though, it feels presumptuous of me to judge someone of John Updike's calibre. Could I write a better novel? Quite probably not.  And so, although I do feel that this book was an overall failure, I must give credit where it's due. There are passages that have the classic Updike panache.  This one, describing the changes that the post-9/11 security upgrades imposed, and how those changes affected people of different social strata, is nothing short of brilliant.
To the well-paid professionals who travelled the airways and frequented the newly fortified government buildings, it appears that a dusky underclass has been given tyrannical power. Comfortable lives that even a decade ago moved fluidly through circuits of privilege and assumed access now encounter sticking-points at what seem every step, while maddeningly deliberate guards ponder driver's licenses and boarding passes. Where once a confident manner, a correct suit and tie, and a business card measuring two by three and a half inches had opened doors, the switch is no longer tripped, the door remains closed. How can the fluid, hydraulically responsive workings of capitalism, let alone the commerce of intellectual exchange and the social life of extended families, function through such obdurate thicknesses of precaution? The enemy has achieved his goal: business and recreation in the West are gummed up, exorbitantly so.
I bought a hard-cover copy of Terrorist at a book sale in Kuala Lumpur in 2010 or so. It sat on the shelf in my un-air-conditioned office, and because I'd not yet read it, I packed and shipped it to Phnom Penh when I moved in March 2014. I inadvertently killed my Kindle by rolling over on it while I slept, and until I could replace it, I was limited to reading print. Mind you, I adore print books. I have borderline pornographic fantasies about libraries filled with them.

But this is what a book looks like after four (4!) years in the tropics with no climate control.

I have a new Kindle Paperwhite now. I may be disappointed in some of the books I'll read on it in the years to come, but at least they'll be crisp black on pristine white.  

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene

King Cophetua and the
Beggar Maid,
Edwin Burne-Jones (1884)

Maurice Bendrix, Greene's protagonist (and, I suspect, his alter-ego) says this book not a love story, but a story about hatred. Bendrix himself is far from loveable. He fell for Sarah, the wife of Henry, his ostensible friend, but she has abruptly ended their affair, leaving him even more bitter. In his angry, dark voice, though, Bendrix narrates what proves to be a complex and profound love story.

None of the loves in this novel is easy -- each is fraught in its own way. Henry and Sarah have a platonic marriage. Bendrix' friendship with Henry is often astonishing in its depth; his passion for Sarah is peppered with mistrust. He learns that Sarah has in fact left him for someone else. The private investigator he hires, Parkis, (who also falls for Sarah in his own humble way) uncovers that Sarah is now trying to find her way in a turbulent relationship with God.

The novel is set in war-time London, and the darkness, punctuated by bomb blasts and murky with fog, is the ideal backdrop -- so little is clear, so much is intense. Bendrix recalls the first time he met Sarah; he had grudgingly accepted an invitation to a party at Henry's house. His cold, anti-social manner failed to put her off. This was perhaps the first time it's failed him; she saw beyond it.
For one thing, she was beautiful, and beautiful women, especially if they are intelligent also, stir some deep feeling of inferiority in me. I don't know whether psychologists have yet named the Cophetua complex, but I have always found it hard to feel sexual desire without some sense of superiority, mental or physical. All I noticed about her that first time was her beauty and her happiness and her way of touching people with her hands, as though she loved them. I can only recall one thing she said to me, apart from that statement with which she began - 'You do seem to dislike a lot of people.'
Greene devises his interior settings as brilliantly as the drear outside. Rooms can tell us so much about the people who live in them, revealing the best and the worst of character traits.
... when I met Henry it was on Sarah's territory, her haphazard living-room where nothing matched, nothing was period or planned, where everything seemed to belong to that very week because nothing was ever allowed to remain as a token of past taste or past sentiment. Everything was used there; just as in Henry's study I now felt that very little had ever been used. I doubted whether the set of Gibbon had once been opened, and the set of Scott was only there because it had - probably - belonged to his father, like the bronze copy of the Discus Thrower. And yet he was happier in his unused room simply because it was his: his possession. I thought with bitterness and envy: if one possesses a thing securely, one need never use it.
I highlighted the following paragraph not because it was central to the story but because it speaks so aptly about the creative process. Call it a muse, call it a miracle -- flashes of insight just seem to materialise from nothing. Provided, of course, that you sit down at that desk on a regular basis.
So much in writing depends on the superficiality of one's days. One may be preoccupied with shopping and income tax returns and chance conversations, but the stream of the unconscious continues to flow undisturbed, solving problems, planning ahead: one sits down sterile and dispirited at the desk, and suddenly the words come as though from the air: the situations that seemed blocked in a hopeless impasse move forward: the work has been done while one slept or shopped or talked with friends.
I once read that the opposite of love is not hatred but fear. Greene seems to concur, at least on the point that love and hate can be dangerously similar in appearance.
Hatred seems to operate the same glands as love: it even produces the same actions. If we had not been taught how to interpret the story of the Passion, would we have been able to say from their actions alone whether it was the jealous Judas or the cowardly Peter who loved Christ?
In one of his Easter season sermons, my pastor considered Peter's three denials. This story has always made me miserably uncomfortable. Peter proclaimed to love Jesus and presumably meant it with all his heart, but when pressed, courage failed him. Judas also betrayed Christ -- whether for jealousy, as Greene says, or for silver, who's to say? The difference between them, though, is what they did in their shame:  Judas hung himself. Peter asked forgiveness, and he received it, and that seems to be an essential component of courage and love. Although Bendrix seems unlikely to hang himself in either despair or regret, he doesn't seem open to the idea of mercy -- either earthly or divine.

The private detective manages to pilfer Sarah's diary, and he presents it to Bendrix, who is stunned to realise that Sarah is fighting her own battle with what it means to give and receive love, both earthly and divine.
All today Maurice has been sweet to me. He tells me often that he has never loved another woman so much. He thinks that by saying it often, he will make me believe it. But I believe it simply because I love him in exactly the same way. If I stopped loving him, I would cease to believe in his love. If I loved God, then I would believe in His love for me. It's not enough to need it We have to love first, and I don't know how. But I need it, how I need it.
Bendrix also discovers that Sarah has been consulting a 'rationalist' -- an atheist who delivers impassioned monologues in the park about the fallacy of religious belief. She wants him to convince her that she is deluded. She records in her diary that his certainty has the opposite effect upon her. I think Richard Dawkins has a similar effect on many people -- his vitriolic atheism is no more reasonable than fundamentalist religious views. Rigid, narrow views tend to be fragile and unbalanced.  I admire the fact that Sarah is wrestling with her beliefs and faith throughout the book; Greene never allows her staunch confidence.
I had gone to him to rid me of a superstition, but every time I went his fanaticism fixed the superstition deeper.
After Sarah's death, Henry wants to cremate his late wife's remains, but a priest turns up and asks him to reconsider and to give her instead a proper Catholic burial. Bendrix now seethes with anger at his rival, refusing to admit that He has won.
"Oh no, Henry. She didn't believe in anything, any more than you or me." I wanted her burnt up, I wanted to be able to say, Resurrect that body if you can. My jealousy had not finished, like Henry's, with her death. It was as if she were alive still, in the company of a lover she had preferred to me. How I wished I could send Parkis after her to interrupt their eternity.
Bendrix returns to the tangled braid of love, hate and fear. Sarah had made a leap of faith, of love. The apostle Peter had failed his beloved teacher miserably, but then he did the same. And Maurice Bendrix?
What I chiefly felt was less hate than fear. For if this God exists, I thought, and if even you [Sarah] - with your lusts and your adulteries and the timid lies you used to tell - can change like this, we could all be saints by leaping as you leapt, by shutting the eyes and leaping once and for all: if you are a saint, it's not so difficult to be a saint. It's something He can demand of any of us, leap. But I won't leap.

Friday, July 4, 2014


There comes a point in one's life when one realises that big dreams, glowing aspirations and hard work will only go so far. For me, reading Zadie Smith's review of J. G. Ballard's Crash in this morning's Guardian was just the latest reminder that I am never going to be a literary lion.

This review is the sort of thing I have in mind when I sit down to write every entry, but my posts end up on the kittenish end of the spectrum.   

It opens with Ms. Smith's account of her disastrous meeting with Mr. Ballard aboard a boat full of inebriated English writers, many of whom were pitching plastic chairs into the Thames. My only connection to fine literature is that my late veterinarian-father used to treat Allan Ginsberg's farm animals. 

Smith takes a broad overview of all Ballard's fiction, noting that his gift is to reveal the monstrous in the quotidian: "And Ballard was in the business of taking what seems 'natural' – what seems normal, familiar and rational – and revealing its psychopathology." In the case of Crash, it's our love of cars that becomes pornographic. She goes on to pull in other futuristic and dystopian fiction, noting that Ballard's novel is more subtle, dispassionately crafted with his "medic's eye".  She observes the novel's fine details, but she also places it in the larger universe.

I'll read this review several more times.  If I stare at the lion long enough, carefully enough, maybe -- just maybe -- I can pick up pick up some hints on how she roars.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Reasons She Goes to the Woods, by Deborah Kay Davies

What are little girls made of? 
Sugar and spice 
And everything nice, 
That's what little girls are made of. 

Deborah Kay Davies would like to debunk that little bit of doggerel, thank you very much. Little girls, like little boys, are often horrible creatures, and we forget that and idealise them at our peril.

Pearl is not rotten through and through, of course -- that would also be too simplistic. She refers to her newly-arrived baby brother as 'The Blob', but she later protects him from their mother, who is certifiably mad. Pearl turns to her father, who doesn't cope effectively with either his wife's mental illness or his daughter's obvious Electra complex. When she's out in the woods or the hedgerow with her little friends, Pearl thinks and does things that adults don't want to attribute to nice little beings of sugar and spice.

As the novel opens, I wondered if it was going to be a tribute to a pastoral idyll. This passage alone is more than enough reason to go to the woods!
The weeping willow Pearl is riding dips its neck into a clear, brown stream. Sssshhhh, she whispers, as she pats the bucking trunk and grips with her thighs. Above her, the willow tosses its shaggy arms. Slim, fish-shaped leaves fall past Pearl and plop into the stream. She dangles over to watch and inhales as the slivers of green swim away; the stream's breath smells of bright weeds, frogspawn, lichened pebbles. The water is a dazzling drink. Circular, swirling eyes come and go on its surface. Underneath, worm-thin plants all reach forwards, like hair in the wind. Pearl would love to be a stickleback, or a newt, and have the stream as her home. She climbs out of the tree and joins the tall fern-crowds running down to see the water. As she slips through they slap her with gentle, lemony hands, streaking her with juice. Pearl's shorts and pink sun-top all feel so stupid. She wades into the water, her sandals growing heavy, and waits for the stream to settle. Insects are ticking in the undergrowth. Kingcups glow amongst the fleshy plants along the water's margin. Pearl lies down in a smooth, shallow pool. Her hair entwines with the waving plants, her skin turns to liquid, her open eyes are just-born jewels. She can feel her brown limbs dissolving. Sunlight falls in bars and spots through the trees. As the lovely water laps her ears and throat, moves inside her shorts, slips across her fragile ribs, Pearl grins, thinking she hears laughter, and raises her arms to the just-glimpsed sky. These are some of the reasons she comes to the woods.
Pearl befriends Fee when the feckless little girl agrees to eat Pearl's offering of a mud-pie stuffed with dead insects. Her friendship with the not-so-sweet Honey also involves a lot of mud and mischief, not all of which is harmless fun.
Honey tells Pearl about the baby she used to take out. I love babies, she says, making a thumb-sized mud child and giving it to Pearl. You can do stuff with them, and they can't tell anyone. Pearl crushes the friable brown baby between her palms. Apart from with The Blob, she hadn't thought of that before. Honey puts lumps of mud on each of Pearl's toes, then flattens them out to cover her nails. Pearl shapes a huge, hanging mud nose and fits it on Honey. They stare at each other in the hedge gloom. Honey's wide smile looks odd curving out behind her rough, earth nose. We have a baby in our street, Pearl says, so they clean up and knock on the baby's door. The baby's mother is a friend of Pearl's family. Keep to the paths, she says, tucking a blanket in. We promise, they say. Inside the buggy the pink baby is propped up on a frilly pillow. Pearl and Honey take turns to push. Soon they come to a stile in the hedge. I know, says Pearl, we could easily get this thing over. They manage to lift the buggy up to the top bar of the stile. I'm puffed, Honey says, and sits down. Pearl thinks she can do it alone, but suddenly everything upends. The baby flies out and lands in some nettles like a knot of washing. The trees lean in and a bird trills while they stand, transfixed. Then Pearl vaults the stile, pulls the baby up by her talcy shawls and plonks her back in the righted pushchair. The baby is quivering; about to yell, covered in scarlet nettle stings and dead leaves. Its soiled bonnet is askew. Pearl and Honey hold hands; worst of all, there is a greeny-grey lump growing above the baby's right eye.
The novel follows Pearl from her early childhood through her adolescent and teen years, when her mother's mental health becomes ever more precarious. Like many children who live with a deranged family member, Pearl's intuition grows very sharp. It seems the house itself gives her signals as to what waits within.
Pearl only has to look at her front door to know how it will be inside. The oval window above the letterbox changes colour. Like an eye that's sometimes vacant, sometimes terrified, sometimes blind with rage, the bluey-green glass subtly alters. It's a language Pearl can understand. Once or twice even the brass door handle has told her things.
At once whimsical and deeply disturbing, gorgeously written and provocative, Reasons She Goes to the Woods reminds us of the wonders and the pain of childhood, giving us a new recipe for what little girls are made of.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon

Who are you? What defines your identity? What does your identity mean to you, or to those who suppose they know you?

I don't normally gravitate toward novels in which characters, either by identity theft or some other form of legerdemain, simply become someone else on page 157.  I also have limited tolerance for unreliable narrators who reveal halfway through the novel that I shouldn't believe some or all of what they're telling me.

On that basis, I should have loathed Await Your Reply. With three story lines slowly converging, inherently untrustworthy characters (fraudulent, schizophrenic, stoned, Russian or overly gullible), this novel had all the ingredients for a jumbled mess. Dan Chaon, though, strikes me as a deft puppeteer who manages to keep the strings untangled and to move his characters through the story well enough to keep the reader engaged and not hopelessly confused.

In one of the story lines, Miles has been searching for years for his brilliant and schizophrenic twin brother, Hayden, who has been teasing him with letters and emails that fuel a continual goose-chase across North America. When Miles arrives in a remote corner of Canada's northwest territories, he collides with Lydia, who is also trying to track Hayden down (although she knows him by a different name) -- Lydia's sister ran off with him years before, and no one has heard from her since.  As the two seekers sit in a bar, Lydia asks the question that's perhaps most central to the whole novel.
"But who just abandons their family in that way? What kind of person decides that they can throw everything away and -- reinvent themselves. As if you could just discard the parts of your life that you didn't want anymore. Sometimes I think, well, that's where we are now, as a society. That's just what people have become, these days. We don't value connection."
Ryan left college -- from which he was about to flunk out, anyway -- to meet his uncle, Jay, for the first time. Jay had just revealed a family secret:  He is Ryan's biological father. Ryan joins his new-found parent in the business of on-line identity fraud.  As he is travelling about the country and shifting money between misappropriated accounts, Ryan learns that the police have ruled his disappearance from the college a suicide, based upon someone thinking they saw him jumping into a frozen lake on campus. So, while taking steps to establish various aliases as part of their scam, Ryan tries to come to grips with the fact that his own identity has been declared dead, and not by his choice.
Sometimes Ryan imagined that he saw people from his past. Ever since his death, this had become a regular occurrence, these minor hallucinations, tricks of perception.
In the third story line, 17 year-old Lucy takes off from her mid-western home-town with school teacher George Orson, a charismatic, Ivy-league educated, Maserati-driving man who claims to find the teen-aged girl irresistably 'sui generis'.  Their relationship is odd -- while George Orson is clearly deceiving Lucy about his own background, he appears to genuinely care for her, and he treats her solicitously; Lucy seems alternately ordinary, savvy, gullible, and worldly. The two of them land in a house in Nebraska which George claims to have been his childhood home. They will stay there only a short while, he says, while he gets his "investments" in order before they move on to a stylish life in Europe. Italy, maybe. Their time in Nebraska, however, draws on longer than Lucy had expected, and George seems increasingly nervous. Finally, he announces that they will need to assume new identities and will be flying to Côte d'Ivoire so he can tie up a few loose ends of whatever dodgy business he's in.  As Lucy chafes uncomfortably in her new identity as the daughter of  "David Fremden", she begins to grasp that very little about her companion is as he'd claimed. She doesn't enjoy that sort of fluidity; he revels in it.
"That isn't really the house that you grew up in, is it?" she said, and her voice felt pressed flat as well. "The Lighthouse. All of the stuff you told me. That painting. That wasn't your grandmother."
"Hmm," he said, and he lifted his fingers from her thigh to gesture vaguely, an apologetic fluttering movement. "This is complicated," he said ruefully. "It always comes to this," he said. "Everyone gets so hung up on what's real and not real."
"Yeah," Lucy said. "People are funny that way."
 But George Orson only shook his head, as if she didn't get it. "This may sound unbelievable to you," he said, "but the truth is, a part of me truly did grow up there. There isn't just one version of the past, you know. Maybe that seems crazy, but eventually, after we've done this for a while, I think you'll see. We can be anybody we want. Do you realize that? And that's all it comes down to," he said. "I loved being George Orson. I put a lot of thought and energy into it, and it wasn't fake. I wasn't trying to fool you. I did it because I liked it. Because it made me happy."
In an almost believable display of earnest affection, George/David confesses his love for Lucy.
"And," he said, "I met you. I met you, and we fell in love, didn't we? Don't you understand, honey? You're the only person in the world I've ever been able to talk to. You're the only person in the world who loves me." 
Of course one wonders (and we can only assume that Lucy is doing likewise), with whom did she fall in love? With whom has she been talking?
And now she thought it again as she sat in her seat next to David Fremden on the airplane and tried to compose her thoughts. She missed George Orson. She would never talk to him again.
Lucy recalls a moment in George Orson's classroom in which he might have revealed something of himself in the guise of a logic lesson -- and her response to it.
'I never tell the truth', he told the class, was a version of the famous Epimenides paradox, and then he explained what a paradox was, and Lucy had written it down, thinking that it might be on a test, possibly she could get extra credit.
As she sits in a cafe in Côte d'Ivoire, however, her stylish new clothes and hairstyle chosen to match her latest assumed identity, Lucy considers that she may or may not stay with her former high school teacher and simultaneously realises that her own identity has become more mutable.
Perhaps he imagined she would remain the same person on the inside, no matter what name or persona she adopted. But that wasn't true, she thought. More and more, she was aware that Lucy Lattimore had left the earth. Already there was hardly anything left of her -- a few scraps of documents, birth certificate and social security card in her mother's drawer back in the old house, her high school transcript resident on some outdated computer, the memories of her sister, Patricia, the vague recollections of her classmates and teachers, already fading. The truth was, she had killed herself months ago. Now she was next to nothing: a nameless physical form that could be exchanged and exchanged and exchanged until nothing remained but molecules.
The three story lines converge completely only in the final chapter, which brings the book to a satisfying close, but the questions about identity -- our own, others' -- continue to linger and disturb. Really, who are you?