Monday, June 27, 2011

Ghostwritten, by David Mitchell

Ghostwritten (1999) was David Mitchell's first novel.  I struggle to write about it on its own merits, because it has much in common with his later work, Cloud Atlas.  Both novels are works of literary architecture, constructed of discrete blocks which are connected by intricate and sometimes barely discernible threads.  As I was reading Ghostwritten, I often smiled, nodded, and thought, "Yup, there he goes again," as a character's name crops up in Kowloon and again in Ireland, or as a quasar symbolises two different (or maybe not so different?) things in Okinawa and Mongolia.

This is not, mind you, a particularly astute observation. It's on a par with a concert-goer at Bayreuth remarking that the operas all sound as if they were written by the same composer.  These comments don't do justice to either Wagner or Mitchell.

For one thing, building a novel from very tangentially connected plot lines comes across as a trendy gimmick unless it's done with Mitchell's skill.  Yes, he's used this approach with two of his books now, and although there are a few trademark Mitchell touches, each book is a masterpiece of originality and imagination.  In retrospect, Ghostwritten was obviously the warm-up act for the more elaborately-structured Cloud Atlas, but it is in no way a lesser book.  Mitchell dreams up an Irish physicist who yearns for control of her research, a Mongolian spirit who inhabits one nomadic herdsman after another in search of the creation myth, a woman who spends her life re-building her tea shack on the side of a holy mountain as China lurches through its series of regimes, a financial lawyer involved in shady trades in Hong Kong, and a young member of a Japanese doomsday cult, just to mention 5 of the 9 story-tellers. Mitchell lightly weaves glimmering threads of music, astronomy, politics, spirituality and terrorism through them, a familiar image or name popping up as if at random.

I like to imagine a David Mitchell devotee standing at a white-board with a fistful of coloured markers, devising a diagram of the places, themes, references and characters and ending up with something like the mad scribbles and arcs of a mathematical proof, or maybe a mandala.

When we tire of admiring the architecture of the story, we can start complimenting the prose. A young jazz-lover in Tokyo eschews the university for his job in a record store.  When a clique of school-girls minces into the shop, he sizes them up in an instant:  "Rich Shibuya girls are truffle-fed pooches."  One of them, however, stands apart from the rest, and finally she speaks to him in "a doomed, Octoberish oboe of a voice."

And voice is another one of David Mitchell's strong suits. He's giving us 9 narrators, most (but not all) of whom are human, scattered across the globe and across time, of different genders and ages. Each of them speaks in a distinct voice, and each voice sounds pitch-perfect.  Margarita is a Russian woman, formerly the lover of important men, now involved in a scheme to smuggle art masterpieces out of St. Petersburg. She works as a docent in the Hermitage, contemplating one painting in particular as she strolls about the room. (Don't you wonder what those docents are thinking about when you visit museums?)
I gaze into my next conquest. Our next conquest, I should say. Eve and the Serpent, by Delacroix. Loot brought back from Berlin in 1945. Head Curator Rogorshev was saying how the Krauts want it all back now! What a nerve! We spend forty million lives getting rid of their nasty little Nazis for them, and all we get out of it is a few oil paintings.

A Texan agent from the Pentagon delivers a chilling lecture to an Irish physicist on why her work is not her own and, as a result, her life will never be her own.
"War is making a major comeback – not that it had ever gone anywhere – and scientists like you win wars for generals like me. Because quantum cognition, if spliced with Artificial Intelligence and satellite technology in the way that you have proposed in your last five papers, would render existing nuclear technology as lethal as a shower of tennis balls."

Critics adore David Mitchell's work. I know several readers who are essentially David Mitchell groupies.  Hey, I would type his manuscripts any day and fetch his coffee. He's published five novels to date.  I'm rationing them.  It would feel criminal to gorge, to read them serially on a Mitchell binge.  His second book, Number9Dream, and his latest, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, are still on my shelf, waiting for the perfect day to begin them. I also look forward to the perfect day to start re-reading all of them.  They all warrant it.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

Some years ago, a friend came into work one morning looking very unwell. "Book hang-over," she mumbled, clutching her coffee cup. "I just finished The God of Small Things last night."

It'll take more than aspirin and strong coffee to get me through the aftermath of The Grapes of Wrath. When asked about the book, Steinbeck remarked, "I've done my damnedest to rip a reader's nerves to rags..."  

When the book came out in 1939, it hit raw nerves aplenty. Infuriated farmers branded Steinbeck a communist-socialist. Schools and religious organisations banned the book, some going so far as to burn it.  The Pulitzer Prize committee awarded it the prize for fiction in 1940. The fact that I'm slumped here in 2011, my nerves in rags, is just one more testament to the book's power.  

The novel is set in the 1930s, when the Great Dust Bowl had enveloped farms in Oklahoma and nearby states. Facing starvation and eviction, "Okies" headed to California in an exodus of staggering scale -- about 250,000 families all lured by rumour of work on farms and vineyards.  One character in the book sits beside his small shop on Rte 66, watching the desperate westward flow of families in barely-running vehicles, and he murmurs only one phrase over and over: "I jus' don't know what the country's a-comin' to." This was the time of industrialisation of America's farms, when farming became an industry, when tractors lifted a man's feet off the soil he was working, when farms no longer belonged to people but to banks. The members of the Joad family, Steinbeck's characters, are just one more overloaded vehicle-load of tired, hungry, frightened farm people to reach California and find themselves exploited and loathed.  

In the current euphemistic jargon, I suppose the Joads would be termed economic refugees, but I wonder how many Americans today read The Grapes of Wrath and feel a shock that so many fellow citizens suffered and died in squalid camps -- not in Bosnia or the Sudan, but in California.  Racial and ethnic injustices have been with the US from its beginnings, but the migrant Okies were white Americans. Their offense? Destitution. 

As I was reading The Grapes of Wrath, the black and white pictures of Dorothea Lange kept popping into my head. I wonder if anyone ever published an edition of his novel illustrated with her photographs.  I wonder if they ever met, those two great documenters of the Dust Bowl and Depression.  Their works complemented each other so well, it seems obvious that they shared the same passions and sensibilities.  Lange's best-known image, "Migrant Mother" (top), has haunted me from the first time I saw it in a school text-book, and I don't expect Ma Joad to vacate my memory any time soon, either.  

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Mother Night, by Kurt Vonnegut

When I was growing up, one of the household rules forbade asking my father about his experiences as a medic in WWII France.  My mother said he never discussed what he did or saw there.  Not with her, and as far as she knew, not with other veterans, either.  I had a few friends whose fathers who had also fought in Europe or the Pacific and were equally tight-lipped about it.

As I was reading Mother Night, I really began to appreciate the difficulty in portraying war by those who were in it for those who were not.  The Nazis captured Kurt Vonnegut during the Battle of the Bulge, and he survived the Allied destruction of Dresden only because the Germans locked up his group of POWs in an underground slaughterhouse.  Yes, Slaughterhouse No. 5.  His was most definitely first-hand experience.

So how to describe the indescribable, the incomprehensible?  Hemingway took one approach, by paring his language down to the barest essentials. Vonnegut turned to black humour.  That, I've realised, is a walk on a high wire. Use humour unwisely, and you risk being read as frivolous or cruel. You need to portray the insanity of war while keeping your narrator relatively sane -- if he sounds as loony as the circumstances, he's got no credibility.  In Howard W. Campbell, Jr., Vonnegut finds this exquisite balance.

The People's Radio: It broadcast only German radio frequencies
Campbell is an American citizen who grew up in Germany, spent the war doing radio propaganda broadcasts for the Nazis in which he encoded spy messages for the Americans.  Is Campbell a devoted Nazi, or a devoted American?  Neither one.  He's a writer, devoted to his art and his German actress wife, Helga.

The story takes place years after the war's end, when Campbell is pursued by Israelis who want to try him for war crimes:  "I was high on the list of war criminals, largely because my offenses were so obscenely public."

Campbell, however, never took his radio broadcasts seriously.  He never really took Nazism seriously. Like, one suspects, the majority of Germans, he just wanted to get on with his life.
It wasn't that Helga and I were crazy about Nazis. I can't say, on the other hand, that we hated them. They were a big enthusiastic part of our audience, important people in the society in which we lived.
They were people.
Only in retrospect can I think of them as trailing slime behind. 

When the somewhat shady American spy-master approaches him,  Campbell insists that he an an apolitical artist, working at his "peaceful trade."  No one, the spy-master assures him, is neutral in war-time.
He shook his head. "I wish you all the luck in the world, Mr. Campbell," he said, "but this war isn't going to let anybody stay in a peaceful trade. And I'm sorry to say it," he said, "but the worse this Nazi thing gets, the less you're going to sleep like a log at night."
"We'll see," I said tautly.
"That's right -- we'll see," he said. "That's why I said you wouldn't give me your final answer today.You'll live your final answer."

 As part of his work for the Nazi propaganda machine, Campbell dreams up the idea of the Free American Corps -- a group of American POWs who fight the Russians ("the Mongol hordes") under a German banner.  This corps, Cambell admits, "was not a howling success. Only three American POWs joined. God only knows what became of them."  Campbell also (and with equal incompetence) devised the uniforms and logos for this absurd venture, and his father-in-law remarks upon the unit's device.
There were thirteen stars around the head of the eagle, representing the thirteen original American colonies. I had made the original sketch of the device, and since I don't draw very well, I had drawn six-pointed stars of David rather than five-pointed stars of the USA. The silversmith, while lavishly improving on my eagle, had reproduced my six-pointed stars exactly.
It was the stars that caught my father-in-law's fancy. "These represent the thirteen Jews in Franklin Roosevelt's cabinet," he said.
"That's a very funny idea," I said.
"Everyone thinks the Germans have no sense of humor," he said.  

Much as he would like to believe otherwise, Campbell's efforts as a sane man trying to impersonate a Nazi do have an impact.  An appalling impact.  His became the voice of an apparently sane Nazi.  His father-in-law, who had never been very fond of him, gives Campbell one particularly chilling compliment at the end of the war.
"You could tell me now that you were a spy, and we would go on talking calmly, just as we're talking now. I would let you wander off to wherever spies go when a war is over. You know why?" he said.
"No," I said.
"Because you could never have served the enemy as well as you served us," he said. "I realized that almost all the ideas that I hold now, that make me unashamed of anything I may have felt or done as a Nazi, came not from Hitler, not from Goebbels, not from Himmler -- but from you." He took my hand. "You alone kept me from concluding that Germany had gone insane."  

And there it is, amidst all the excruciating irony and humour -- the moral of the story, which Mr. Vonnegut hands us in the very first line of his Introduction:
This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don't think it's a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is:  We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.  

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Magnificent Ambersons, by Booth Tarkington

Published in 1918, The Magnificent Ambersons won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in the following year. Booth Tarkington is one of only three authors to have won the prize more than once; the other two are John Updike and William Faulkner.  (Tarkington's Alice Adams won it in 1922.)  Although he was more prolific that either of the other two writers, Tarkington's name is less familiar than theirs to readers today.  If Orson Welles hadn't produced a film version of The Magnificent Ambersons in 1942, the title might have fallen into total obscurity by now.  And that, although it would be sadly ironic, would be apt, since the book is about one family's departure from the sight and memory of the people who had once admired their magnificence.

In an unnamed midwestern town at the beginning of the 20th century, the Ambersons are the wealthiest and most prominent citizens, Major Amberson having erected his mansion on an enormous plot of land on Amberson Boulevard.  Nearby, he built another on the same scale for his daughter, Isabel, her husband Wilbur Minafer, and their son, Georgie.
At the age of nine, George Amberson Minafer, the Major's one grandchild, was a princely terror, dreaded not only in Amberson Addition but in many other quarters through which he galloped on his white pony. "By golly, I guess you think you own this town!" an embittered labourer complained one day, as Georgie rode the pony straight through a pile of sand the man was sieving. "I will when I grow up," the undisturbed child replied.  

For Isabel Amberson, the sun rises and sets on her angel, who grows into one of the most self-absorbed and least self-aware spoilt brats in fiction. It seems to Georgie that other people exist for his convenience, and his mother's pandering does nothing to disrupt this world view. He gets the occasional challenge from other boys, but the greater challenge comes from Lucy Morgan, a sensible young lady who often seems to find George's arrogance entertaining.  George pursues her with his unshakable senses of entitlement and superiority.  He is an Amberson, after all, and in that town at that time, the name is big.

Lucy's father, Eugene, is not an aristocrat but a gifted inventor who rumbles about the town in his own early version of the horseless carriage, a mechanism which George ridicules, insisting that there's no future in it.  Although he has a university degree, George seems to feel that putting it to use by aspiring to some sort of career would be downright ungentlemanly.  When George repeatedly asks Lucy to marry him, she asks him what he plans to do.  The question baffles him, and when Lucy points out to him that her father is a respected man in the town, George goes on the offensive.
"He has his way, and I have mine. I don't believe in the whole world scrubbing dishes and selling potatoes and trying law cases. Why look at your father's best friend, my Uncle George Amberson -- he's never done anything in his life, and --"
"Oh, yes, he has," Lucy interrupted. "He was in politics."
"Well, I'm glad he's out," George said. "Politics is a dirty business for a gentleman..."
"I expect to live an honourable life," he said. "I expect to contribute my share to charities, and to take part in -- in movements."
"What kind?"
"Whatever appeals to me," he said.
Lucy looked at him with grieved wonder. "But you really don't mean to have any regular business or profession at all?"
"I certainly do not!" George returned promptly and emphatically.

George, in search of an appropriate pastime, asks his grandfather for the money to buy another carriage horse so that he might pursue tandem driving.  The Major is reticent to hand over the money, and George attributes this to senility rather than any sense of financial constraint. The notion that the Amberson wealth might be affected by time and change is one of countless ideas never to cross his mind.

When reality (in the form of other, lesser people) intrudes, George resists, angry that the riffraff are trespassing, but this grows increasingly difficult as the city grows, immigrants (heaven forbid) arrive, and styles and fortunes shift. At the time of his father's death, George notes that the newer section of the cemetery seemed a "more fashionable and important quarter than that older one which contained the Amberson and Minafer lots."  His subsequent thought on the matter is a classic example of his insistence that being an Amberson is of much greater import than doing anything at all.
...a feeling developed within him that the new quarter of the cemetery was in bad taste -- not architecturally or sculpturally perhaps, but in presumption: it seemed to flaunt a kind of parvenu ignorance, as if it were actually pleased to be unaware that all the aristocratic and really important families were buried in the old section. 

An irate and perpetually self-absorbed George puts a stop to his widowed mother's plan to marry Eugene Morgan. In the following years, the automobile's popularity and Morgan's success steadily increase, and the Amberson empire cracks, decays, and finally topples.

Like many of the citizens in the Ambersons' town, the reader is just waiting for George to get his come-uppance. He is a loathsome snob, and Tarkington gives him only a few redeeming scenes.  If George had gotten his just deserts and nothing more, though, the book would never have received the acclaim that it did. It would have been shelved as one more righteous morality tale.  But George's tribulations do change and at least partly redeem him.

I couldn't help comparing George Amberson Minafer to Anthony Patch, the protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and Damned.  Both young men are presumptive heirs to a fortune, and both embrace idleness as a virtue.  Patch, however, is a more complex character, written with a much sharper pen. We know that Fitzgerald and his character share many traits, including fondness for liquor and literature. I get the sense that Booth Tarkington loathed George and had little in common with him. Maybe an author will treat a character in whom he sees much of himself with more finesse and depth.

George may not have Anthony Patch's verve, but one day he notices that his city has renamed Amberson Boulevard to Tenth Street, and he does grasp, at last, the fundamental message of Tarkington's novel:  Just as his name has passed from the city's memory, so will those of the people who took his place. Everything is transitory. And in 1918, when change came at fraction of today's pace, that realisation probably came as a shock.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

I found a bunch of reasons (none of them good ones, as it turned out) to resist reading Neil  Gaiman's Neverwhere.  What is it -- science fiction, or fantasy, or a kids' book of some sort?  No thanks.  Within the first five minutes of listening to the audio book, I was glued to the MP3 player for the duration.  Mr. Gaiman is one of a handful of authors who is brilliant at reading his own works aloud.  He's got a terrific range of voices, whether his characters are alive or dead, human or not, or some combination of the above.

I read The Graveyard Book in print;  it's whimsical and morbid and thoroughly delightful.  (Note: The Independent voted it one of the 20 Best Audio Books, with the author narrating.) As the tale begins, a man named Jack has killed a father, mother and one child with his razor-sharp, bone-handled knife, and he's on his way up the stairs to dispatch the toddler.  Just in time, said infant toddles out of his crib, out of the house, and over to the nearby graveyard, thwarting Jack and throwing the cemetery's inhabitants into a tizzy.  Mrs. Owens, who departed this life some centuries before, is the first to find him.  She summons Mr. Owens.  "Strike me silly," said Mr. Owens, "if that isn't a baby."

Mrs. Owens, being the warm, fuzzy, maternal sort of spirit, lobbies to keep the child and raise him in the cemetery.  Others, including Caius Pompeius (who came to Britain during the Roman days and liked the roads very much), raise the obvious problems with raising a living child in the cemetery.  The terrified and newly dead spirit of the child's mother begs the ghosts to save her baby, startling the Owenses half to death. Or whatever.
You might think -- and if you did, you would be right -- that Mr. Owens should not have taken on so at seeing a ghost, given that Mr. and Mrs. Owens were themselves dead and had been for a few hundred years now, and given that the entirety of their social life, or very nearly, was spent with those who were also dead. 

With a sly wink in Hillary Clinton's direction, Mr. Gaiman shares with us one sage spirit's opinion about raising orphaned, living children.
"For good or for evil -- and I firmly believe that it is for good -- Mrs. Owens and her husband have taken this child under their protection. It is going to take more than just a couple of good-hearted souls to raise this child. It will," said Silas, "take a graveyard."

What to name him?  Every ghost in the place thinks he resembles some relative or ancestor of his, so Mrs. Owens puts her foot down and names him Nobody.  Nobody Owens, or Bod for short.  He is given the free run of the cemetery, tutored in various subjects by various ghosts, and briefly befriends a little girl, Scarlett, whose parents bring her to the graveyard to frolic out of doors.  When she tells her parents of her new friendship with Bod, they smile indulgently and tell each other that having imaginary friends is normal for a child of Scarlett's age.  Meanwhile, she tells Bod that her father teaches particle physics, or at least he does so when they can find enough people who want to learn it.
"What's particle physics?" asked Bod.
Scarlett shrugged. "Well," she said. "There's atoms, which is things that is too small to see, that's what we're all made of. And there's things that's smaller than atoms, and that's particle physics."
Bod nodded and decided that Scarlett's father was probably interested in imaginary things.  

One day Miss Lupescu arrives at the cemetery to tutor young Bod, bringing with her containers of beet soup with dumplings.  Bod is keen on neither her food nor her didactic methods. He protests.
"I have teachers. Letitia Borrows teaches me writing and words, and Mr. Pennyworth teaches me his Compleat Educational System for Younger Gentlemen with Additional Material for Those Post Mortem. I do geography and everything. I don't need more lessons."

Miss Lupescu is not impressed.
"Name the different kinds of people," said Miss Lupescu. "Now."
Bod thought for a moment. "The living," he said. "Er. The dead." He stopped. Then, "...Cats?"
"You are ignorant, boy," said Miss Lupescu. "This is bad. And you are content to be ignorant, which is worse. Repeat after me, there are the living and the dead, there are day-folk and night-folk, there are ghouls and mist-walkers, there are the high hunters and the Hounds of God. Also, there are solitary types."
"What are you?" asked Bod.
"I," she said sternly, "am Miss Lupescu."

Miss Lupescu proceeds to teach Bod how to call for help in every language, not limited to those spoken by living humans.  This proves to be a surprisingly useful bit of memorisation, and Bod's opinion of Miss Lupescu's knowledge (if not of her cooking) goes up. The Graveyard Book lifted my already fond opinion of Neil Gaiman to new levels, too.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sunset Park, by Paul Auster

When I finished this novel (by virtue of reading what must be one of the longest, comma-riddled, run-on sentences in recent literary history), I expect my brow was furrowed like a shar-pei puppy, and my one utterance was a puzzled "Huh."  Bewitched? Mmm, a bit. Bothered and bewildered,  definitely.

Although each section of the book focuses on one character or another, the narration is nearly always by an omniscient, anonymous 3rd-person voice, speaking in the past tense, which feels a bit cool and detached to me. In one of the later sections, the narration switches to a 2nd-person voice, as if the character is addressing himself.  It's a little more personal, but I still felt excluded as the reader, and I wonder why Auster made these choices.

As the book opens, the character who is most central, Miles Heller, is working in Florida in a "trash-out" job. The year is 2008, the economy is in shambles, and Miles and his colleagues go from one vacant house to the next, removing the personal possessions so the house can be sold. While his less scrupulous workmates take items of value, Miles takes photographs of them.
Each house is a story of failure -- of bankruptcy and default, of debt and foreclosure -- and he has taken it upon himself to document the last, lingering traces of those scattered lives in order to prove that the vanished families were once here, that the ghosts of people he will never see and never know are still present int he discarded things strewn about their empty houses.  The work is called trashing out...

Failure, regret, and economic and emotional depression are the themes that rule this novel. Miles, we learn, is a very intelligent man, having fled his family home in New York following the accidental death of his step-brother, for which he blames himself. In Florida, he has fallen in love with an exceptionally gifted teen-ager, Pilar. Miles, however, is not a paedophile -- he and Pilar met when he discovered her reading The Great Gatsby in a park, and their subsequent relationship, while not platonic, is as much about mentoring as it is about lust. Pilar's greedy older sister, however, threatens to turn Miles over to the law for statutory rape (the age of consent in Florida is 18) unless he showers her with stolen loot from the trash-outs, so Miles returns to New York to bide his time until Pilar's 18th birthday.  Only a few months -- I felt as hopeful and confident as Miles that the time would fly, and they would be together.  They seemed like one of the most intriguing and compatible couples I've run across in fiction in years. Why shouldn't it work?

In New York, Miles connects with his long-time friend, Bing Nathan, who invites Miles to become the fourth squatter in an abandoned, incongruous, wood-framed house in Sunset Park.  From one side of the house they can see the Statue of Liberty (symbol of hope), and from the other the enormous Green-Wood Cemetery (land of no more hope).  The four young house-mates are academic and artistic types. In earlier decades the idea that they would be squatting in an abandoned house might have seemed unthinkable, but times are grim now.

Alice is working on her PhD thesis, completing the chapter on the film The Best Years of Our Lives, the ironically titled classic about the miseries and struggles of GIs returning from World War II. In another section of the novel, Miles' father, Morris, watches the film on a trans-Atlantic flight.
He wound up watching The Best Years of Our Lives, something he had seen once a long time ago and therefore had utterly forgotten, a nice movie, he felt, well played by the actors, a charming piece of propaganda designed to persuade Americans that the soldiers returning from World War II will eventually adjust to civilian life, not without a few bumps along the way, of course, but in the end everything will work out, because this is America, and in America everything always works out. 

Considering that Morris' small, boutique publishing house is on the verge of bankruptcy at the end of its worst year ever, and his Brown University-educated son is living as a squatter, the irony is lacerating.

Morris' ex-wife and Miles' mother is an actress, in New York at the moment to play the part of a woman buried up to her neck in sand in a Becket play, Happy Days.  Morris reflects on her career with the same sense that America might not be holding up to its advertised promise.
...that was the world she came from, an ethical universe patched together from the righteous platitudes of Hollywood films -- pluck, spunk, and never say die. Admirable in its way, yes, but also maddening, and as the years moved forward he understood that much of it was a sham, that inside her supposedly indomitable spirit there was also fear and panic and crushing sadness. 

The miasmic sense of doom spawned by the financial melt-down makes sense to me as a reader.  What I find more puzzling are the personal senses of failure and defeat that seem to engulf both Miles and his father.  Yes, there was the tragic death of Bobby, Miles' step-brother, which occurred when Miles shoved him, and Bobby tumbled into a country road only to be killed by a car that sped around a bend. This would be traumatic for any family, but neither Morris nor Willa, Miles' step-mother, blames Miles for Bobby's death. Morris consistently berates himself for having generally failed Miles; Miles just as consistently berates himself for having failed his family. And yet, when we look at the family that Auster has drawn for us, they are as close to ideal as reality will allow.
...he can remember actively liking his brother, perhaps even loving him, and that he was liked and perhaps even loved in return. But they were never close, not close in the way some brothers are, even fighting, antagonistic brothers, and no doubt that had something to do with the fact that they belonged to an artificial family, a constructed family, and each boy's deepest loyalty was reserved for his own parent. It wasn't that Willa had been a bad mother to him or that his father had been a bad father to Bobby. Quite the reverse. The two adults were steadfast allies, their marriage was solid and remarkably free of trouble, and each one bent over backward to give the other's kid every benefit of the doubt. 

Following the story's sudden, violent climax, Miles concludes that the sun really has set on his life, on his hopes for any sort of worthwhile future, and he rattles out his despair in that one long, rambling final sentence.  Here, too, Auster leaves me scratching my head, because although Miles' situation is far from rosy, I don't find it anywhere near as dire as he does.  While Auster's telling of the Decline and Fall of the American Empire rings brilliantly true to me, his snap-shots of personal anguish and guilt don't add up. I can't understand why the people he has put in front of us are as tortured as he says they are.

This is a book I would like to read with a book group. I would love to know if, for examples, New Yorkers find the personal emotions more sensible, or if men do. In the meantime, thoughts of Miles and Morris will be popping into my head at odd times, I'm sure.  Maybe I'll figure them out on my own.

P.S. Morris recalls the day when a very young Miles talks to him about To Kill a Mockingbird.  The boy noted that in the novel, the falsely accused black man, the lawyer who tries to defend him, and the lawyer's son all suffer injuries to their right arms.  Miles concludes that injury is a requisite step on the road to manhood, an inference that his publisher father admires greatly. Maybe when men don't suffer any real or catastrophic injuries on the road to manhood, they create them from whatever struggles life has given them.  Just a thought, and not one, I think, that Mr. Auster or his publisher would admire greatly.  

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Honeymoon, by James Patterson

In short, this book stinks.  On a 5-Skunk Scale, I give it a 4.  I would give it a 5, but there were no glaring grammatical errors, it was printed on nice paper, and I couldn't find a picture of 5 skunks.

Why did I read it in the first place? Because the blind audio librarian at MAB (Malaysian Ass'n for the Blind) asked me to record it, and I didn't have the heart or the hubris to say no. I spent over 20 hours reading aloud the story of Nora Sinclair, an irresistibly gorgeous woman with a compunction to seduce rich men when they employ her to decorate their gazillion dollar mansions, to collect red Mercedes Benz convertibles and other designer trinkets from them, and finally to kill them. I would go on with the other things about this novel that appalled me, but there's no point.  Either to the book or the complaints.

That Patterson's fiction is so popular is profoundly depressing to me. I can't for the life of me understand its appeal. Do readers want to live vicariously through characters who are obscenely rich, exquisite, and clichéd?  Do they want a plot in which they know the end before they've begun?  The fact that Honeymoon has 117 2-page chapters is telling.  It's aimed squarely at people with 2-page attention spans.

I love a good, entertaining, escapist novel as much as anyone.  I just couldn't escape from this one fast enough.

TTBOOK: Nordic Noir Interviews

Wisconsin Public Radio broadcasts a terrific interview programme, To the Best of Our Knowledge, or TTBOOK for short.  For each show, staff members select a theme and then interview authors who have written books related to it.  Bless their frosty Wisconsin hearts, they did a show on the recent craze for Nordic crime fiction, and they interviewed four of the writers I've been reading over the past year.

Well, they didn't actually interview Stieg Larsson (Sweden), since he died a few years ago, but Charles McGrath, New York Times writer-at-large, spoke about Larsson and his posthumous impact on the genre.

Although Larsson's novels have inspired interest in Nordic noir, they are not representative of it. McGrath describes the more usual Scandinavian crime story:   "A very gloomy, solitary detective who drinks too much, smokes too much, eats appalling food, is depressed and solves in a solitary way some gloomy, awful crime. They are not upbeat books."  He seems dubious that they'll ever be truly popular in the US on their own merits.

He describes Larsson as passionately idealistic in the way many American youths were during the 1960s. If someone made a politically offensive or misogynist remark, Larsson would break with him or her permanently. As for the conspiracy theorists who wonder if the Swedish neo-Nazis that Larsson had been writing about might have murdered him, McGrath thinks that Larsson's heavy smoking and abysmal diet probably did the job for them.  A heart attack seems to him all too plausible.

Henning Mankell (Sweden) may or may not become a best-seller in the US, but in Germany, Kurt Wallender, his detective, outsells Harry Potter.  Mankell wanted to "create a person who had a certain basic credibility", so Wallender is  prone to depression, cynical, lonely, and he drinks too much. Mankell grows tired of characters who never change: "I still remember when I gave Mr. Wallender diabetes in the 4th book. In one way, it made him even more popular, because people get diabetes in real life."

Interviewer: "For a lot of Americans, Sweden remains a sort of model society, but certainly you raise a lot of questions about whether or not that's really true in these stories.  What do you think these novels can say about the state of Sweden?"

HM: "First of all I really believe that Sweden is still a very decent society to live in, but I'm also aware of the fact that Sweden could have been a much better society... What I believe I'm doing in a way is trying to take away a little of the mythology of Sweden. In the '60s it was a lot of rumours of the blonde Swedish girl.  Even that was a sort of mythology. There was also a mythology that Sweden was a perfect country; we have never been that. "

He reads from one of the Wallender novels:
This is Sweden, he thought. Everything is bright and cheerful on the surface. Our airports are built so that no dust or shadows could ever intrude.  Our national aspiration, our religion, is that security written into the Swedish constitution which informs the whole world that starving to death is a crime.  But we don't talk to strangers unless we have to, because anything unfamiliar can cause us harm. We never built an empire, so we've never had to watch one collapse, but we persuaded ourselves that we'd created the best of all possible worlds, that even if small, we were the privileged keepers of paradise. Now that the party is over, we take our revenge by having the least friendly immigration control officers in the world.

Asked about the focus on weather in his books, HM says he grew up in northern Sweden:  "When it was more than 35 degrees below 0 celsius, you didn't have to go to school." The weather, in other words, is a significant factor in Swedish daily life.

Interviewer: What do you say to people who say crime fiction is not serious literature?

HM:  It's one of the oldest literary genres.  Of Medea:  "If that is not a crime story, I don't know what is. My favorite crime fiction is MacBeth."  Using "a mirror of crime" may be the best way to examine and portray the world we are living in, and what is within ourselves.

Karin Fossum (Norway) describes her Detective Konrad Sejer:  "He's a very decent man! Well-dressed, polite, friendly, like Dr. Kildare."

Interviewer: He's so different from American detectives, with all their gunplay and rough talk.

KF:  Sejer "smokes one cigarette each night and drinks one whisky. He's very easy for people to like."   She's disappointed that people are interested in him; she didn't want him to be interesting, wanting the focus to remain on the criminal, the victim, the society. But readers have gotten attached to him; "they care what happens to him."

Interviewer:  People in your books who commit gruesome crimes don't seem totally evil.

KF:  "An evil person who commits an evil crime is not interesting to me, because he only does what he's meant to do. But a good person who commits an evil act -- that's really interesting!  My project is that you will sympathise with the criminal. That's what I want."

"One of my friends committed a murder, and it was a very special moment when we knew, because the moment you know the human beings behind the tragedy, it gets so real.  I know the killer, I know the victim, I know the flat where it happened, I know the particular room where the killing was committed, I went to the funeral, and so on and so on. It became so real to me."

A woman whom she'd known for 18 years as "a very good and very stable person" went mad and killed her difficult and troubled 5-year old son, then tried to kill herself.  Fossum wants to bring her readers closer to the more average people who snap and commit crimes next door.

Interviewer: Most American detective novels appeal primarily to men.

KF:  The Sejer books are enormously popular with women, as well, probably because they evoke real feelings.  "My wish for my books is that when you read, you really must be moved."

Arnaldur Indriðason (Iceland), describing Jar City:  "a gloomy, dim, horrible story about murder and rapes."

Detective Erlendur's wife hates him, his daughter is a drug addict, his son is in rehab. In an effort to distinguish him from the thousands of detectives already out there, Indridason decided "to make him as Icelandic as I possibly could. I made him grumpy and old-fashioned...  There's no fun in happiness, so there's no fun in writing about happy people."

Being very Icelandic, Erlendur is obsessed with vanishing:  People travel in the winters and there's a blizzard. They disappear entirely.  Maybe they're found 5-10 years later, or maybe never found. "This fascinates him."

Indriðason's style is social realism:  ordinary men & women in extraordinary situations, trying to manage. Action-packed James Bond-type dramas would never work in Iceland, he says.

"I'm writing for 300,000 people in Iceland in a language they say will die in 10 years because of the influence of English.  I'm writing for my little group of people in Iceland. Always."

Monday, June 6, 2011

An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro

The second of Ishiguro's novels, published in 1986, An Artist of the Floating World is set in post-war Nagasaki, the author's birthplace.  As The Remains of the Day was his dead-on portrayal of English propriety and restraint, so this novel is no less astute an observation of Japanese formality and custom in a time of great social change.

The narrator is aging artist, Masuji Ono, who finds himself somewhat adrift and bewildered in the years following the war. Japan's culture is in flux, the country rebuilds itself under the eye of the occupying Americans, and the younger generation does not venerate its elders in the way of the past.

As the book opens, Masuji relates how he came to own his grand house.  When he had been a younger man, the previous owner's heirs decided to interview worthy citizens and sell the house at a nominal price to the one they found most deserving. This is a value system that Masuji cherishes, and we get the sense that it's becoming a relic.

Besides, there was surely much to admire in the idea of “an auction of prestige”, as the elder daughter had called it. One wonders why things are not settled more often by such means. How so much more honourable is such a contest, in which one’s moral conduct and achievement are brought as witnesses rather than the size of one’s purse.

Now it is the late 1940s, however, and we learn -- through Ishiguro's typically indirect means -- that Masuji may not be held in the same high esteem anymore.  Much like the narrator of When We Were Orphans, Masuji quickly proves unreliable.  By watching and listening to the characters around him, we see that his view of the world is far from universal; in fact, he may be quite deluded.  Or he may simply be confused by a society that he finds increasingly hard to understand.

Masuji is trying to arrange the marriage of his younger daughter, Noriko. The last match failed because, he claims, the young man's family realised that he was not worthy of her. His two daughters' comments, however, suggest that there may have been another reason the negotiations collapsed.  Perhaps, the elder daughter timidly ventures, it had to do with Father's allegiances during the war.

The rest of the novel swirls around Masuji's reflections of his past, especially his role in the wartime years. At one time he suggests that he was painting works of nationalistic propaganda; at another time he recalls acting as a police informant, bringing about another artist's arrest and torture. He veers from denying any wrongdoing to humbly repenting his actions.  At times he claims he did what every loyal Japanese citizen was called upon to do -- show loyalty to Japan and the Emperor, yet at other times, he confesses his wish that he had made other choices.

At family gatherings, Ishiguro shows us both the classic Japanese formality and also the ways in which it had begun to loosen during the post-war years.  Masuji's daughters and students address him in the very deferential 3rd person:  "Perhaps Father could speak to his colleague", or "Perhaps Sensei could share his opinion". Masuji's son-in-law, however, having returned from serving with the army in Manchuria, speaks more freely.  At one family gathering, Masuji states that his son, Kenji, died bravely in the war, and this triggers the son-in-law's ire.
“Those who sent the likes of Kenji out there to die these brave deaths, where are they today? They're carrying on with their lives, much the same as ever. Many are more successful than before, behaving so well in front of the Americans, the very ones who led us to disaster. And yet it’s the likes of Kenji we have to mourn. This is what makes me angry. Brave young men die for stupid causes, and the real culprits are still with us. Afraid to show themselves for what they are, to admit their responsibility.” And it was then, I am sure, as he turned back to the darkness outside, that he said: “To my mind, that’s the greatest cowardice of all.”

His anger reminds me of the Vietnam protesters of the 1960s in the U.S., raging that middle-aged government officials were sending American youths off to die in an unjust conflict. Ishiguro makes it plain that many of the Japanese soldiers returned home with the same resentment, and they were no longer afraid to express it.  This outspokenness distresses Masuji, who is clearly more accustomed to deference and restraint.
But such a transformation is by no means unique to my son-in-law. These days I see it all around me; something has changed in the character of the younger generation in a way I do not fully understand, and certain aspects of this change are undeniably disturbing.

And what of the book's title?  The floating world, Masuji says, refers to Nagasaki's 'pleasure district'.  His own teacher, Gisaburo, had painted nothing but scenes from this area.
The best things, he always used to say, are put together of a night and vanish with the morning. What people call the floating world was a world Gisaburo knew how to value.

As Masuji begins to experiment with new styles and new subjects -- the very subjects that the Imperial government would find so patriotic and useful -- he breaks away from his teacher.
"Sensei, it is my belief that in such troubled times as these, artists must learn to value something more tangible than those pleasurable things that disappear with the morning light. It is not necessary that artists always occupy a decadent and enclosed world. My conscience, Sensei, tells me I cannot remain forever an artist of the floating world.” 

And so, all things prove to be transient:  the pleasure district is destroyed during the war and redeveloped as offices. Emperors give way to democracies. Manners change, and what was once revered is later reviled. We all dwell in a floating world.  

Fracture Zone: My Return to the Balkans, by Simon Winchester

While I was visiting Budapest, I saw the news that Serbian General Ratko Mladic had at long last been found and arrested and would be extradited to the Hague to face the war crimes tribunal.  It seemed an apposite time to read Fracture Zone by journalist, geologist and all-purpose polymath, Simon Winchester.

This blog is my personal diary, so with no demands for impartiality or objectivity, I freely admit that I worship Simon Winchester. Whether he's writing about the individuals who compiled the first edition of the Oxford English dictionary (The Professor and the Madman), a Cambridge don consumed by Sinophilia (The Man Who Loved China), the volcano that was seen and heard around the world (Krakatoa), his travels through a country that rarely gets any print (Korea) -- or a couple dozen more titles that I haven't yet read -- he never fails to enlighten, amaze and amuse me.  I pounce upon any of his books which cross my path, and I was sure he could help me make more sense of a very muddled region of the world.

Winchester had driven through Yugoslavia in the years before all hell broke loose and the country did its eponymous Balkanization. He returned during the chaos to try to get a grip on what he was reading in the press. The first thing that struck him was that all the combatants looked just like him -- European. I think it's difficult for Americans to grasp the impact of this shock to western Europeans.  The Balkans seemed, from America, still to be over there; the people were not us, but them.  As Winchester notes, the EU had diminished or dissolved borders between countries to the west, yet the former Yugoslavia was in a frenzy of creating new ones.  And the atrocities visited upon those who happened to land on the wrong side of the new borders were devastating, much too close for comfort:
And so my visceral reaction was simply that: That this was Europe, this was now, and here we were at the close of the most civilizing century we have known, and yet here before us was the diabolical, grotesque, bizarre sight of tens upon tens of thousands of terrified, dog-weary, ragged European people who were just like us, and who just a few short days before had been living out their lives more or less like us, yet who were now crammed insect-thick onto a carpet of squelching mud and litter and ordure and broken glass and dirt, while we climbed down from the kind of car in which they might have driven, after a breakfast of the kind that was customary for them to have as well, and watched and gaped and gawked down at them in uncomprehending horror and thought only, My God! This is too much. This is quite beyond belief.

Years before George W. Bush and his clique infamously and ludicrously underestimated the time it would take to convert Iraq into a peaceful democracy, the British general heading up the NATO troops confidently boasted that a few sorties would sort out the Balkan feuds.
“They’ll go back home, these people,” he said. “They’ll get their houses back, if I have anything to do with it. And we’ll find the people who drove them out. [These words spoken about two decades before Mladic's arrest...] A few weeks of bombing, believe me—that’s all. A few weeks and the Serbs will cave in. Then we’ll be taking these refugees back. By God, I hope so!” ...
Might it work? Could it take so short a time? The officer was confident. “Trust me,” he said. “These bombers are damn good.”

Winchester, sane man that he is, had his doubts, believing that the Balkan "fracture zones" (a term borrowed from his geological lexicon) had deeper, older origins.  The divisions between Serb, Croat, Albanian, Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox were not spats to be broken up by a playground monitor.  He suspected that the rifts began with the two empires on either side of the peninsula:  the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman. Thus he decided to make a crescent-shaped trek from Vienna to Istanbul, dipping southward into the Balkan states wedged between them.

In a Vienna coffeehouse, he chatted up some stately "ladies who lunch", reminiscing about the attempt the Ottomans had made to invade their fine city three centuries before.  Apart from fuzziness on one detail, the ladies -- waitress included -- spoke with assurance.
Those I talked to in the coffee shop that day seemed very well aware what was going on—and aware, too, of the extraordinary role that their city and their former Hapsburg rulers, as well as the sultans who nearly fell upon them, had played in bringing about this particular aspect of modern European history. Each nodded assuredly when I asked if there was a connection to be made between what was happening in Kosovo today and what had happened in Vienna three hundred years before. “Of course, of course,” one old lady said. “There can be no doubt. “Not for nothing had Metternich—oh, my, was it Mr. Metternich?” she asked the waitress, who shook her head “—said that the Balkans began at the Ringstrasse. Or was it Asia that begins at the Ring? Or the Orient? I can’t quite remember.”

In short, the Balkans occupied the buffer zone between the Ottomans and Hapsburgs yet were neither one nor the other, although both sides used them for this and that. Another of the ladies recounted the failed seventeenth-century invasion as if the smoke was still clearing.  Yes, we're definitely tied to the present-day mess...
"And then, we were very nearly over the edge, you know, in 1683... We all know that. We remember the Turks every day. The posters in the stores, and the bus stops. And then again things were bad for us in 1908, when we annexed Bosnia. Remember that? And once more in 1914, of course, when that Serb shot our archduke, in Sarajevo. And now here we are again today. All of it, everything going on down there, has something to do with the Viennese and the Ottomans. Or rather the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans. That’s why this is, for us, so very interesting.” And she smiled proudly at her eloquence, and puffed out her chest and looked most importantly Viennese as she asked the waitress for her bill.

Passages like these are why I keep coming back to Simon Winchester, again and again.  The image of these plump Viennese matrons will cement the memory of their words in my mind just as clearly as they seem to recall the defeated Turks dragging back toward Constantinople.  Winchester has a delicious fondness for the eccentric detail, and so he went from the cafe to the local museum to visit the head of the Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa, leader of the failed invasion.  He thought it would be a fitting way to start his journey to Istanbul.

The head, it turned out, was currently the subject of what he calls "a global sense-of-humor failure" on the part of the Turkish government. The Turks were demanding that the vizier's head be returned to Turkey for burial; the Austrians responded by moving it from its display case to a cardboard box in a storage room, carefully labelled with ballpoint pen, "Herr K. Mustafa".  Winchester recalls accounts of the Ottoman siege.  Although the campaign's failure cost the vizier his head (and that of his pet ostrich, whom he brought along), it did have its exotic aspects. It's no wonder that the Viennese were astonished.
What cannot be seen today, but is only known from contemporary accounts, are the Turkish encampments, with their enclosed gardens, mechanical fountains, the streams of perfumed water, the priceless carpets, the chandeliers, and the menageries with their exotic animals and birds (the soon-to-be decapitated ostrich among them) from which the old vizier was to take pleasure and relief. Both of these last were provided also by the vast personal traveling harem that Kara Mustafa brought to Vienna with him. Fifteen hundred compliant Turkish women, guarded by the usual elite corps of black eunuchs, were there to serve him day and night—their numbers topped up frequently with fresh supplies of captured Christian girls (who, according to the siege historian Thomas Barker, much preferred to stay with their captor than be returned to the miseries of the besieged city). When it was apparent that he had been defeated, and had to flee south and west back to friendlier lands, the vizier was said to be troubled by the possible fate of the woman he regarded as the harem’s most beautiful. To prevent her falling into the hands of the infidels he meted out the same fate as for his beloved ostrich, and had her head cut off as well.

While the people of the Balkans remind the western Europeans of themselves, the Ottomans (and their ostriches) were and are definitely other, and Winchester left Vienna with the sense that Austria still keeps a wary eye on its eastern border.

As he crossed the border into Slovenia, the author got his first taste of the disparate groups that Tito had bundled together as Yugoslavia.
These, then, were the first true Slavs we had encountered and if one wanted a reminder that the word Slav is a portmanteau term that encompasses as multiethnic and polyglot a group as it is possible to imagine, then this forlorn group of Slovenian frontier guards more than amply fitted the bill. One of them, the passport stamper, was very round and fat, with a shaved head, and he looked like an only very slightly animated potato.

The Slovenian guards, however, wore crucifixes around their necks and did not use the Cyrillic script, so were they really Slavs?   Or were they more like Serbs? No, not that either. This paragraph, written as Winchester first set foot in the Balkans on this trip, illustrates the tangle of identities that confounded him and pretty much anyone trying to gain some understanding of what the fighting is about.
So they may have been Slavs; they may have been, until 1991, part of the Federation of South Slavs that was called Yugoslavia, but they were not, in any sense, Serbs. The Serbs were Eastern Orthodox by belief, and such were their fraternal links with the Slavs of Russia they used Saint Cyril’s script as their own. In all other ways—except for their given names, which reflected their alternative pantheon of saints—the Slavs who were Serbs were the same people as the Slavs who were Slovenes, as here, or the Slavs who were Croatians, and whom we would encounter when we crossed their frontier in few hours’ time.

Perhaps his most poignant and downright tragic observation is that the divisions are in many ways artificial:
And this was one of the abiding complex absurdities of the Balkans: that almost all the people who have been so horribly at odds with one another are all, in essential ethnic terms, the selfsame people. This does not include the Albanians, as we shall see; but elsewhere, the Bosnian Muslims and the Croatian and Slovenian Catholics are of essentially the very same ethnic and genetic makeup as the Orthodox Christian Serbs—a people of whom, until lately, they were true and literal Yugoslav—south Slav—compatriots.

I confess that I finished the book still a bit confused by who hates whom in the Balkans and why. This is no fault of Winchester's. The larger and most vicious hatred of the Christian Serbs for the Muslim Albanians, dating back to the Ottoman invasions of the 17th century, stands out. One Serbian petrol station attendant spits out that the Albanians are "Turks, Muslims, Asians, godless fiends who have no business being in Europe in the first place."  The disputes, though, between various groups of Catholic and Orthodox Christians, while still resulting in atrocities and displacements, is harder to follow, since it pitted Serb against Serb. We have seen this type of intra-religion warfare in Europe before, of course, but Winchester insists that Northern Ireland has never approached the sheer brutality of  the Balkan conflicts.

At the end of his journey in Istanbul, he reflects that some places or states seem more able to accommodate a mixture of populations than others. He glances back at the glory days of the Ottoman empire.
For more than five hundred years, from before the Battle of Kosovo until well after the Treaty of Berlin in 1878, the Ottomans presided over vast tracts of territory—and, as the sultans liked to put it, seventy-two and a half races*—with magnificent and perfumed equanimity.
* the half a race was the gypsies 

The fracture zone of the former Yugoslavia has, as of today, produced 7 new nations:  Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Albania, and Macedonia (which the Greeks angrily refer to as FYROM, or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, to distinguish it from their own region of Makedonia, as if that adds any clarity to the matter.)  Are things all settled now? Will these seven neighbours co-exist in peace?  Winchester doesn't seem confident.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte

About Damned Time
No, there is no connection between a company that installs home security alarm systems and Wuthering Heights.  The logo is my embarrassed admission that I am a wee bit tardy in reading this classic for the first time. There are a great many books in my About Damned Time list, so this logo will be a handy short-cut in future posts for more verbose acknowledgements that I'm a literary late bloomer.

My parents had a gorgeous, boxed, hard-cover set of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, illustrated with dour engravings.  Did I ever do more than leaf through them?  Oh, no. I waited 40-odd more years and then read them on an [expletives deleted] Kindle.

My version of the e-book includes a brief biography of Emily Bronte and the introduction to a later edition written by elder sister Charlotte Bronte, author of Jane Eyre.  Charlotte noted that Wuthering Heights did not enjoy the critical success of her own novel.  Many contemporary critics wrote scathing reviews, suggesting that the novel was too coarse or vulgar to be tolerated. Yet we keep reading it and writing about it -- mountains of books, theses, term papers and articles about intolerable Wuthering Heights.  Of the classic English novels, after Pride and Prejudice, it's the second-most adapted to film.  (Haven't seen any of them yet, either.)

When I read Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence years ago, I remember setting the book down and realising with a shock how violent it is. There's not a speck of physical violence, nor even a raised voice, (heaven forbid!) but the sly, ruthless and repressive upper-class culture of New York at that time left the characters emotionally eviscerated.

Heathcliff is overtly savage; his rage is not bottled up like that of Wharton's characters, but that degree of ferocity must have shocked readers expecting a much more genteel novel from the daughter of a stern Yorkshire clergyman. Almost none of the characters in Wuthering Heights is thoroughly likable except, perhaps, the narrating housekeeper and a few of the dogs. Cathy is capricious, her brother is a spoilt sot, most of the Lintons are foppish and weak. Although I may not have liked or admired any of them, I empathised with nearly all at one time or another. Heathcliff's like a wolf with his paw in a trap. I don't want to go anywhere near him, but the sight of his agony just devastates me. It strikes me that these confusing and flawed and ambiguous characters are a testament to Emily Bronte's craft. And perhaps to her own pent-up and frustrated emotions.

That leads me to wonder about the two older Bronte sisters (and now I suppose I have to read Agnes Grey  by youngest sister Anne).  It's nearly impossible to avoid comparisons between Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, even if they don't sit on the shelf in one box.  Jane: self-sufficient, sensible, meek but strong. Rochester: Sombre, brooding, solid.  Cathy: Willful and fiery. Heathcliff: Obsessed, vengeful, vicious. Cathy and Heathcliff are the wild people of the moors; Jane and Rochester are much more domesticated. It seems clear from reading the novels that Emily Bronte's emotions ran much hotter than Charlotte's, and I wonder if writing the characters was her only release valve. This question obviously occurred to everyone else who's read Wuthering Heights, since the stack of Bronte biographies is as dense as the literary critiques.  (Sure, go ahead -- tack a few of those onto my reading list, too.)

I was nearly discouraged by my edition's introduction, which went on at great length about the negative reviews Wuthering Heights received. I picked it up while visiting Budapest, and my traveling companion there said that she hadn't been able to keep the Catherines and the Earnshaws straight and had found the plot a tangled mess; she much preferred Jane Eyre.  I almost tossed the book down before even starting it. After each day of sight-seeing or thermal bathing, however, I was eager to pour a glass of chilled Hungarian riesling and open the Kindle to see what Heathcliff and Cathy were up to. I just couldn't wait to read a few more pages. So often we read classics because someone else tells us that we should or that we must, but I don't have professors or parents devising my reading lists anymore. After the first few pages, I was reading Wuthering Heights for pure joy, and I'm sure that's what Emily Bronte had hoped for when she was writing it. I wonder what she would think of her wild novel turning into assigned reading for every English Lit student, fodder for countless dissertations...  Would she be pleased that her work had finally achieved the status of classic masterpiece, or would she walk out into the moors and scream?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes of New England, by Brock Clarke

The NY Times Review of Books referred to this novel as "cheerfully oddball", which is certainly apt. The author stresses in his preface that it is a work of fiction, adding that the Emily Dickinson house, which the story's narrator claims to have burnt to the ground is actually still standing, as are the other writers' homes that the story incinerates.  That the author thought this reminder necessary struck me as funny but true:  I can imagine skittish literary types clutching at their breasts in fear that their favourite author's home might be in peril or in ashes. 

And it's just this reader that Brock Clarke is playing to.  He's poking great fun at literature, but in a kindly way. He's not snide, nor malicious.  He is, however, laugh-out-loud funny.  This novel's humour reminded me of that in a couple of other books I've read recently: Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer and A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon.  All three were loaded with wit but equally with poignancy. They were not lightweight comedies.  

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes of New England opens with its narrator, Sam Pulsifer, in prison, where he is serving time for setting fire to the Emily Dickinson house in Amherst, MA.  Sam repeatedly maintains that the fire was accidental, something which occurred, as most of the events in his life, as a result of his chronic bumbling.  A group of his fellow inmates spends time hashing over the art of writing a good memoir, yet another thing Sam seems unfit to accomplish:
I also hung around this group of high-stepping bond analysts from Boston who were in the clink for insider trading. While they were inside, the bond analysts had set out to write their fond, freewheeling memoirs about their high crimes and misdemeanors and all the cashish ― that's the way they talked ― they had made while screwing old people out of their retirement funds and kids out of their college savings. These guys seemed to know everything, the whole vocabulary of worldly gain and progress, so I paid extra attention during their memoir-brainstorming sessions, listened closely to their debates over how much the reading public did or did not need to know about their tortured childhoods in order to understand why they needed to make so much money in the manner in which they made it.
I took notes as they divided the world between those who had stuff taken from them and those who took, those who did bad things in a good way ― gracefully, effortlessly ― and those bumblers who bumbled their way through life. "Bumblers," I said. "Yes," they said, or one of them did. "Those who bumble." "Give me an example," I said, and they stared at me with those blue-steel stares they were born with and didn't need to learn at Choate or Andover, and they stared those stares until I realized that I was an example, and so this is what I learned from them: that I was a bumbler, I resigned myself to the fact and had no illusions about striving to be something else ― a bond analyst or a memoirist, for instance ― and just got on with it. Life, that is.

Sam finally leaves prison and bumbles back to his parents' house in Amherst, where he reviews the stack of letters that people had written him over the years, much of it understandably hostile.
There were at least a hundred letters. Some of them, as I mentioned, were from scholars of American literature, damning me to hell, et cetera. There is something underwhelming about scholarly hate mail ― the sad literary allusions, the refusal to use contractions ― and so I didn't pay much attention to those letters at all.

Better yet, however, are the letters from people wishing Sam would burn down other literary holy sites.
A dairy farmer in Cooperstown, New York, wanted me to pour gasoline down the chimney of the James Fenimore Cooper House because the dairy farmer couldn't stand the thought of someone being from such a rich family when his family was so awfully poor. "I've had it harder than Cooper ever did," the man wrote. "That family's got money up to here and they charge ten dollars' admission to their home and people pay it. Won't you please burn that son-of-a-bitching house right to the ground for us? We'll pay, too; I'll sell some of our herd if I have to. I look forward to your response."

Sam, however, is a bumbler, not an arsonist. He really does just want to get on with his life, but life has its way with him. Sam is a man of few words actually, and he finds that things unsaid will wreak havoc with his life. Try as he might (and his efforts are prodigious), Sam cannot seem to shed his designation as the Man Who Burnt Down the Emily Dickinson House.

Is this really an arsonist's guide? No, it's more of a marriage and relationship manual. Sam never quite gets around to mentioning his past to his wife, and in the course of the book, he learns that there were a great many things that his parents never got around to telling him. All these unspoken facts are landmines, just waiting for a bumbling footstep.  When they start blowing up, Sam wonders to himself,

Why don't we listen to the people we love? Is it because we have only so much listening in us, and so many very important things to tell ourselves?