January 30, 2017 § Leave a comment
Just finished: Citizen, by Claudia Rankine.
Reading next: Edgar Huntly, or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker, by Charles Brockden Brown.
Citizen seems a more or less unclassifiable piece of literature, as you read it, but its genre is right there in the subtitle: An American Lyric. That’s a choice that points in multiple directions. Most immediately we think of song lyrics. While much of the book does not strike the reader as lyrical in this way — there are (what look like) paragraphs of prose along with sections that use line breaks we associate more with poetry — it’s a perfectly appropriate association for the kind of multimedia, multivocal, multigenre artwork that Rankine creates here. It also hints at the of-the-moment nature of the subject, of the violence that continues to be inflicted on black bodies, minds, and souls — particularly thanks to the book’s cover design, which pairs the title with artist David Hammons’ piece In the Hood, which immediately brings Trayvon Martin to mind (though its creation predates his murder by 20 years). Lyric can also refer to a certain clarity, lightness, and moderation in a singing voice; I’m not sure I see that definition applying here, but I’d love to hear from someone with more musical knowledge than I have about it.
Then there’s the other definition, less everyday to us now but perhaps more resonant here, of the millennia-old tradition of lyric poetry which is focused on the direct expression of the poet’s emotions and passions. Not epic, not drama: affect, not action. And a claim to a particularly American version of that tradition. The two valences of the title and its subtitle come together, in a way, in the work’s most famous passage, which is, I venture, the first iconic poetic verse of this century (at least insofar as we’re separating song lyrics from written poetry):
because white men can’t
police their imagination
black people are dying
That was really the only passage I knew from Citizen before reading it, along with the powerful “In Memory of” page it follows, which includes the names of African Americans killed by police in recent years (sadly updated with new names as the book is reprinted). So I was surprised to find that most of it is written in the second person, from the point of view of a nameless “You.”
This seems to me a bold, brilliant choice. The “You” narrator places the reader in an uncanny position. On the one hand, the reader is directly addressed, placed in the position of the subject of the work: the one experiencing the emotions, the reactions to the countless slights and aggressions and accumulation of daily “mistakes” that lead to the sense that “You” are something less than a full citizen of the nation. On the other, “You” has a peculiar distancing effect. Because we are much more familiar with works in the first or third persons, in which we immerse ourselves in the perspective of an “I” or a “he/she/it” with whom we can identify but who is distinctly not us, the narration introduces a kind of dissonance into the reading. There’s a numbness to narration by a “You,” a flatness. A sentence like “You are enraged by what you just experienced!” comes off as cartoonish. It wouldn’t work (or, rather, it works only in very specific contexts, such as text-based video games, role-playing campaigns, and some children’s books). Another master of the “You” narrator is Lorrie Moore, and many of her stories have a similar deadpan manner that introduces equal parts comedy and grief.
So much of what Rankine writes about here relates to the lived experience of the ideas of W. E. B. DuBois, Frantz Fanon, and many others, of African-American double and/or dual consciousness: of seeing one’s self through the eyes of the dominant, colonialist society, of the African, European, American parts of one’s heritage and culture leading to a feeling of fragmented identity. (Apologies for this surely gross oversimplification.) The “You” narrator allows Rankine a particularly powerful tool for expressing her experience across races and genders, and bringing readers into that experience. How is it received within the body of African-American readers, of African-American women readers? I’m curious.
Postscript: I tend not to read criticism until I’ve written something down, and I came across two wonderful series about Citizen from the L. A. Review of Books after writing this. All are quite a bit more cogent and fluent discussions of the book than mine and very much worth reading if you’re interested in the book; on the “You” narrator, see especially Evie Shockley’s “Race, Reception, and Claudia Rankine’s ‘American Lyric'” in Symposium Part 1: Roundtable Part 1, Roundtable Part 2, Symposium Part 1, Symposium Part 2.
January 19, 2017 § Leave a comment
Just finished: The Stammering Century, by Gilbert Seldes.
Reading now: Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler.
I still can’t believe it, honestly: that we went all the way down the rabbit hole and elected the demagogue. The racism, the sexism, the xenophobia: that was the worst of it, of course, but it’s not why I couldn’t bring myself to believe he’d be elected. No: I thought it was just so transparent that he was a fraud, a con man, a bad, bad salesman. Incompetent. Obviously in it for the “winning,” for the chase, and not for the opportunity to do something good or to serve the country.
Honest to God, I thought we were smarter than this. (The “we” here, throughout, stands for the citizens of the republic as a whole–we all get the same elected officials, after all, whether we voted for them or not–but this all happened because of we the white people. Particularly we the white men.)
Now obviously, had I thought about it and been less often curled into a mental fetal position of terror and rage and loathing, I would’ve recalled the long tradition of confidence men in American literature, who are there to point out that Americans love to be conned.
The Stammering Century is about radical religious movements in the nineteenth century, so of course it’s also about con men. It really seemed as though anyone in nineteenth-century America could proclaim himself (or, sometimes, herself) the Messiah and get at least a few people– including many socialites and nouveau riche and intellectuals–to follow along and do his bidding. One of the most compelling chapters concerns Robert Matthews, aka Matthias, who decided he was God and was put up in style in 1830s New York by his well-heeled acolytes, at least one of whom he very likely murdered by poisoning (after having been cut off monetarily by that disciple, and having taken the wife of another as his own).
People getting conned, over and over again, through the course of 120 or so years (the book was published in 1928), out of money and rights (given the timing of publication, there’s a lot about temperance and prohibition) and, yeah, immortal souls. If someone tells us with enough repetition and clarity that they are our ticket out of whatever horrible circumstances we think we’re in and back to or on to a new golden age, many of us buy it on whatever flimsy evidence. The Fox sisters, who are the focal point of another wonderful chapter, started the spiritualism craze in 1848 more or less as a goof by causing the sound of rapping under a table (thanks to the slightly dislocated toe of one of the sisters) in response to questions posed to the dead.
Of course, many of the self-proclaimed messiahs, then as now, believed their own bunk–either due to mental illness or by simply convincing themselves of their own righteousness. As George Costanza said: “It’s not a lie… if you believe it.”
January 8, 2017 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Cries for Help, Various by Padgett Powell.
Padgett Powell writes unclassifiable things that mostly get classified as “short stories” or “novels.” His newest book of short Powell-things contains a story, two pages long, called “Dizzy.” It’s a wonder, this very short piece of writing. It contains multitudes. To me, it feels a lot like being alive at the turn of 2016 to 2017.
I knew several distinguished older men who have died who had a better grip on things than I do. I wonder if they can see me floundering…. They had the astute capacity not to deign, presume, meddle. They hunkered down within the castle walls of their particular potency, whatever it was, and did not send loose emissary of themselves about the uncharted ground of their purlieu.
It seems to me that if you do not deign, presume, and meddle, though, that the forces of the world at large, sometimes in the form of a kind of anonymous aggregate power, will pile up on you in an ambient deigning and presuming and meddling that will render you helpless. It is this way today: I am helpless here, dizzy and looking through badly fouled glasses at the bright, challenging world.
That’s just the middle. Somehow this three-paragraph “story” also interjects an imagined discussion with the reader (also involving deigning, presuming, and meddling, which get interesting treatment throughout) and develops an inimitable voice that is distinctly Powell’s own: a succinct and cryptic mix of working-class syntax (“I need to drink me some…”), vocabulary b0th broad (aerie, purlieu, deign) and scatologically deep, eclectic but distinctly American and often Southern subject matter, humor from unexpected angles and unforeseeable juxtapositions, and a goggling disbelief at our infinite human absurdity that somehow leaves this overwhelming sense of loneliness and sadness lingering under everything.
Padgett Powell is, I’m afraid, the writer who most strikes me as laureate for this moment, in which it seems as likely as not that “loose emissary” from a thin-skinned old confidence-man with a Twitter feed and an a-bomb will get us all killed. Sorry, Padgett.
November 28, 2016 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Great Expectations.
There’s a theme throughout the second book of GE that feels uncomfortably familiar. It also feels very American, and very modern. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it handled quite so well.
Pip comes into money and leaves his rural home for the big city. He is ashamed of where he comes from, and who his people are — which is to say, who he is (and claims no longer to be).
It is the narration of GE that makes this so effective: since Pip is narrating the story from far into the future, as a bildungsroman, he realizes how shameful his earlier attitude is. On the other hand, he has also made great hay out of the homespun, undereducated ways of the folks back home, and will continue to do so with great clarity of vision. This beautifully written (fictional) memoir is a testament to precisely the good that comes from leaving home, and seeking wider cultural pastures.
Pip wants to “confess exactly” his attitude toward his hometown and the people he knew there: for instance, he receives the news that Joe, the man who has been both best friend and father-figure to him, is going to visit London, “with considerable disturbance, some mortification, and a keen sense of incongruity.”
The elder narrator Pip twists the knife in his subject — his own younger self — in a variety of ways in chapters XXVII through XXX. The excuses he makes for himself not to have to stay with Joe when he returns home; his narration of the fact that he keeps Miss Havisham and Estella strictly separate from Joe “because I knew she would be contemptuous of him” (and therefore believing her to be right in being so, to a great degree), just a day after his emotional reunion with Joe in London; many other lines and phrasings.
It’s not all gloomy, though. A lot of it is very funny. The best fun is reserved for “Trabb’s boy,” who serves as a kind of unwitting audience surrogate in his hilarious mockery of Pip the dandy. He struts through the streets like Pip’s own subconscious, “wriggling his elbows and body, and drawling to his attendants, ‘Don’t know yah, don’t know yah, pon my soul don’t know yah!” to humiliate Pip–rightfully so.
This comes to a head in chapter XXXV, when Pip returns for the funeral of his sister. His disdain for the artificiality of Victorian funerary customs is palpable, as is his disgust for the ways in which small-town funerals can so often become weird festivals of a kind: the sensation that something has actually happened overriding any sense of grief or loss, for those at the margins of that loss. Pip’s insistence that he will return often to check in on Joe and Biddy, and his older self’s admission that he would not, that he was a hypocrite and a liar, is really heartbreaking.
This is a particularly raw subject for me at the moment, I suppose, because of the complicated feelings about where I come from, dredged up by the past presidential election. I hope to God I’ve never been as insufferable as Pip; but in general, those thousands (millions?) of us who left small towns and rural areas for bigger cities do seem to share some of his attitude toward the place he left. We love those places — parts of them, anyway — but we prefer not to engage with their politics or their bigotry overmuch. Those of us who have the connections in those areas we come from probably have more talking to do (including about why we left) and more honest engagement with our people there — not to mention issuing more invitations for them to come visit us in the cities.
November 20, 2016 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens.
I recently finished Stuart Dybek’s wonderful book of short stories, The Coast of Chicago. It has an epigraph that sticks with me, by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado: “De toda la memoria, solo vale / el don preclare de evocar los suenos (Out of the whole of memory, there’s one thing / worthwhile: the great gift of calling back dreams).”
That’s an evocative, marvelous, ambiguous, highly arguable line, but I don’t mean to tangle with it here. I mention it, instead, because it’s been coming back to me throughout the first quarter of Great Expectations: the book (at least, so far) is like a recounted dream, as much as a recalled childhood.
And since it is, quite deliberately (and famously), a story framed as a memory of childhood, that makes sense: our dreams and our childhoods — when so many sensations are new and confusing, when so many of us are often confused and conflicted, when everything seems larger than life — are so closely connected. As with most of Dickens’s books, there are archetypal figures and scenarios from folklore and fairy tales near the surface of the text, particularly at the beginning when his protagonists are children. But to a greater degree than most of Dickens, from its very beginning, the emotions in GE feel heightened, jumbled, confusing, as they do in dreams. Pip introduces himself in the graveyard holding the tombstones of his parents and siblings, and then, by page two, we have abruptly shifted to Pip being accosted by an escaped convict.
That abrupt shift itself struck me as rather oneiric, but what follows is really the stuff of nightmares: the pervasive sense of being trapped and compelled to commit what seems a grievous sin (even if it is actually not, seen in the light of day), and the overwhelming fear of being exposed for your wrongdoing. The first seven chapters or so of the book are essentially an anxiety dream with melancholic interludes. I don’t mean that to seem negative. It’s shockingly effective. (The setting of the marshes also adds to this sense; I happened to begin the book on a very foggy day in Chicago, and reading on the train as we passed through white clouds made me feel slightly less than real.)
Then there’s Miss Havisham and her ramshackle house. The strangeness of Estella’s conduct toward Pip, the bizarre scene of Pip’s one-sided fight with the “pale young gentleman,” and of course of Miss Havisham herself, all feel like dream sequences. I can’t get over the weirdness of the scene that Dickens creates in Chapter XII. Pip’s routine upon his visits to her home is to “walk” Miss Havisham around her suite of two rooms, and then to continue by pushing her in her “garden-chair.” “Over and over and over again, we would make these journeys, and sometimes they would last as long as three hours at a stretch,” Pip says, and then states that he does this “every alternate day at noon… [for] a period of eight or ten months.” Finally, Miss Havisham commands that Pip sing as he’s pushing her in her chair, in an endless loop around two rooms, and so he sings the song that comes first to mind, the tune used by blacksmiths to keep time at their work, “Old Clem.” Miss Havisham likes it, so she joins in, and so does Estella at times.
This scene, of a boy pushing an old woman in a bridal gown around a closed circuit of two rooms, accompanied by a beautiful girl, all three of them chanting “With a thump and a sound — Old Clem! Beat it out, beat it out — Old Clem!” Amazing. Set it in Mississippi and I’d believe it was written by Faulkner.
November 14, 2016 § Leave a comment
It’s been over three years since I wrote anything here. There are a number of reasons for that: laziness, first and foremost, but also a busy and at times exhausting work life, and a feeling of burnout with my own thoughts on what I’ve been reading.
I’m restarting now, and committing to writing at least one weekly post here for the foreseeable future. Here’s why.
- To combat my own laziness. Reading literature has always been one of the most important parts of my life; I don’t feel like a whole human being if I go too long (like, more than a few days) without it. The impulse for this blog, way back in 2008, was to ensure that I was actually thinking through what I was reading — to engage, not simply consume. I need some form of accountability to ensure that that happens, even if it’s self-imposed, and making my engagement public (for a widespread audience of half a dozen people!) is a big part of that.
- For sanity’s sake. Every age seems a dark age, but some are darker than others, and it’s always a matter of perspective. My perspective is that we’re (I’m) going to need as much empathy, beauty, intelligence, artistry, complexity, and ambiguity as we can get in the coming years. I need to make myself as conscious of that as possible, and share it with people who might care. And I honest to goodness worry about what my media consumption over the past year has done to my brain. I need to slow down and step away from the churn of news and work more often, if only to step back with a greater sense of purpose and energy.
- I miss you all. People who mean a lot to me are strewn about the country and the world. I want to talk books with you, and I talk better in writing than in actual conversation.
- I’m going to be reading some really good stuff. My plans for 2017 involve a lot of poetry, particularly by black and indigenous poets, and a focus on gothic/weird American fiction. I want to savor these books, not just gobble them up and forget them, and my experience has shown that writing posts here helps me retain a lot more of what I read.
Happy reading. Talk with you soon.
August 17, 2013 § 2 Comments
Just finished: St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell.
Reading next: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline.
Right near the beginning of the first story in Karen Russell’s first book, there’s a short sentence like a litmus test:
The thunder has gentled to a soft nicker.
How’s that grab you? Out of context, at the basic level of language, I would say that it’s lovely: rhythm, assonance, the particular sound and sense of place and time that it evokes, the spice of unusual word choice and the use of the adjective “gentle” as a verb. Beautiful.
There are complicating factors, however. There’s that “has.” We’re in present-perfect tense, and the story as a whole is in the present tense. And there’s the fact that the story is narrated by a twelve-year-old. The twelve-year-old is not, apparently, any kind of savant, or genius, or literature aficionado. The twelve-year-old is a twelve-year-old, in a swamp.
So whether or how you can justify to yourself a twelve-year-old’s usage of the sentence “The thunder has gentled to a soft nicker” will go a long way to determining whether you can appreciate, or even tolerate, the stories in this collection. Many of them are concerned with and narrated by twelve-year-olds and others on the verge of adolescence, in the present tense. The situations in which they find themselves are brilliantly imagined and otherworldly, partaking of the “new weird” or new fabulist blending of genres. There are underwater ghosts and a sleepaway camp for those with unusual sleep disorders and a minotaur on something like the Oregon Trail and the titular home for the children of werewolves. And yet it’s hard to focus on any of that when the stories are perversely in the present tense, and narrated by twelve-year-olds who compose thoughts and/or sentences such as “The thunder has gentled to a soft nicker” but who are not, by all accounts, graduates of well-regarded MFA programs.