Casey Back at the Bat

August 31, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: A Child Again, by Robert Coover.

Reading next: Dangerous Laughter, by Steven Millhauser.

Don’t we all find the postmodern retelling of the classic tale a little played out by now?  Aren’t we more or less sick of old stories from new perspectives (as my wife Jaime says, books following the The [insert traditionally male occupation]’s Wife/Maid/Daughter template have truly reached the saturation/nauseatingly trite level), contemporary retellings of “timeless” legends, extensions and expansions of bare-bones myths and folktales?  Or is it just me?  Is this, in fact, Barth’s “literature of exhaustion,” or is it me that’s exhausted?

Actually, though, to be honest, I’m more often exhausted by the idea than I am by the stories themselves.  I like this stuff — I like Barth, Barthelme, Coover, Gardner, all those scavenger-sorcerers digesting and regurgitating literary history.  (Did I just admit to liking literary vomit?  I guess I did.)  Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber might be my favorite example, but there are many, many others.

Coover has seemed exhausted a few times so far in this collection — especially the first story, “Sir John Paper Returns to Honah-Lee,” a little metafiction about Puff the Magic Dragon, which dragged on and on.  But other times he’s been in fine form; enough that I’ll probably have to do a little top-5 recap to cover all the stories I really liked here once I’m done.  I’m surprised that I bought this a few years back, and a little surprised I still wanted to read it: it contains a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, for chrissakes, which I really felt no need to read another version of after reading Angela Carter.  Also a ribald version of Snow White.  I have never said to myself, “Someone needs to write a ribald retelling of Snow White.”

And yet I’m still reading.  The story that kept me reading was “Playing House,” mysterious and wonderful and sinister.  The story that showed me something I didn’t know (or remember) about Coover was “The Return of the Dark Children,” which is a straight-up awesome horror story that happens to also build on the Pied Piper tale.  (This story could easily be a J-Horror blockbuster at a cineplex near you.)  And the story that crystallized for me why I’m still reading is “McDuff on the Mound,” which is “Casey at the Bat” from the pitcher’s point of view.

I value a story like this because it exists to make you think about why it was written, and why you are reading it.  It’s a kind of literary riddle, or postmodern thriller (which there is an actual riddle-story in this collection, too): the suspense builds from all the wrong angles, as you try to guess why it was written, and what the author will do with it.  Instead of absorbing you in the details of the plot, it absorbs you in the mind of the author, and in your own ideas about what literature is for, and why you value it.

In “McDuff on the Mound,” you get strangely sucked into the buildup of Mudville’s bottom of the ninth; McDuff, utterly fatalistic, feels wrapped up in a system beyond his control as two horrible hitters make it on base.  He feels the inevitability of having to face mighty Casey.  Astonishingly, even though you know exactly how the story has ended, you realize that you do not know that that is how Coover will choose to end it here; every retelling is an opportunity to rewrite, to find the recessive genes that were hidden within the DNA of the story.  (Incidentally, this is perhaps the most incredible thing about Inglourious Basterds, which I just saw last week.  Do you anticipate the audacity of rewriting history — of showing a revision of the world, in all its gory detail?  I found myself flabbergasted at the scene in the theater — still do, actually.)

Or not; it may be that the story exists to more fully map the story’s DNA, but not to change its ultimate expression.  And this is the true subject of these retellings: you and the author, thinking about why stories work the way they do, and what you want out of them.

Me, I suspect Coover began this story with (or perhaps wrote this story as an excuse to include) this kick-ass exegesis of the name Casey; certainly the slapstick passages earlier in the story feel like padding compared to the energy and enthusiasm in this paragraph:

And Casey: who was Casey?  A Hero, to be sure.  A Giant.  A figure of grace and power, yes, but wasn’t he more than that?  He was tall and mighty (omnipotent, some claimed, though perhaps, like all fans, they’d got a bit carried away), with a great mustache and a merry knowing twinkle in his eye.  Was he, as had been suggested, the One True Thing?  McDuff shook to watch him.  He was ageless, older than Mudville certainly, though Mudville claimed him as their own.  Some believed that “Casey” was a transliteration of the initials “K.C.” and stood for King Christ.  Others, of a similar but simpler school, opted for King Corn, while another group believed it to be a barbarism for Krishna.  Some, rightly observing that “case” meant “event,” pursued this meaning back to its primitive root, “to fall,” and thus saw in Casey (for a case was also a container) the whole history and condition of man, a history perhaps as yet incomplete.  On the other hand, a case was also an oddity, was it not, and a medical patient, and maybe, said some, mighty Casey was the sickest of them all.  Yet a case was an example, cried others, plight, the actual state of things, while a good many thought all such mystification was so much crap, and Casey was simply a good ballplayer….

So what do you think, with that setup in mind?  Knowing what you know (or don’t know) about Robert Coover, what’s he do with this story?  What do you want him to do?

Paper Matters

August 27, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: A Child Again, by Robert Coover.

I’m going to pick a nit today, because what good is having a blog if you can’t pick a nit now and then?

This is a McSweeney’s book, and as such a good deal of thought has been given to the book’s design: it’s a nice size, with cover art (no jacket, so hot right now, a trend started by McSweeney’s) that hearkens back to mid-century children’s literature.  There’s also a pocket on the back cover for a hypertext-y story on oversized playing cards.

So all I’m saying is, they put a lot of thought and effort into this book, as the folks there seem to do with most all of their productions.  As a matter of fact, I heard Eli Horowitz, publisher and managing editor for McSweeney’s, speak at a conference this summer, where he said in no uncertain terms that he feels that there has to be a reason to publish something in paper rather than online; that there has to be a reason to make a book of it.  The onus is now on the printed book, in other words, to justify its existence: by being beautiful, being cool, being interesting to look at and hold and read.

So what the hell’s up with the paper, here?  I am not a bibliographer; I am not a bibliophile of the kind that obsesses over the details of bookmaking materials (and yes, they are out there); I am not even all that picky, really, most of the time, when it comes to this sort of thing.  I read crappy paperbacks and books bound in library buckram all the time.  But the paper on which this book is printed is way too white.  Blindingly bright.  And there’s something about the feel of it, combined with the font (which seems to be the standard McS font, which I should know but do not — someone help me out here), which makes reading this book feel like reading a very nicely bound bundle of computer printouts.

Maybe it was just a mistake.  I don’t know.  Or maybe costs have to be cut somewhere when you’re paying for nice cover design and a pocket so Coover can have his crazy card-story.  Or — I wouldn’t put it by them — maybe McSweeney’s decided to include a wider variety of paper brightnesses and colors in their never-ending quest to invigorate American letters.  Whatever the case, it’s amazing how glaringly obvious an inappropriate book paper is.  A good paper, easy on the eyes, is one of those things you take for granted until it’s not there anymore.

Surgical Sentences

August 19, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading:White-Jacket.

Reading next: A Child Again, by Robert Coover.

One of my favorite chapters so far is “The Operation,” chapter 63.  In this section, Melville turns from the law to that other great area of professional expertise and control, medicine.

This medical interlude from chapter 60 to 63 is one of Melville’s great detachable narratives: I’d love to see a small press make a nicely printed volume of it.  It has action (the attempted escape and shooting of the seaman), character study (chapter 61’s sketch of Dr. Cuticle), light, black, grotesque, and gallows humor (Cuticle’s consultation in search of his own verdict with his fellow naval surgeons, and his handling of the operation), serious examination of a social problem (medical practitioners’ view of patients as subjects, their interest in complicated surgeries and treatments rather than in the well being of the patient), suspense (the gruesome operation itself, and the fate of the seaman), and irony (the reaction to the announcement of the seaman’s death).

It may just be me, but I also think that the last two paragraphs of chapter 63 contain some of Melville’s best writing; these paragraphs remind me a little of Stephen Crane, a little of Hemingway, but the details are pure Melville.  They form such a beautiful, poignant coda for this seaman, guilty of trying to take a day of shore-leave he’d been refused but not of anything to justify the butchery and carelessness to which he’s been treated.  I love a lot about these simple sentences.  There’s their rhythm, long and calm, like crashing waves.  And their careful control of emotion — only that “gold-laced” to indicate contempt, in the context of all that’s come before.  And the contrast of the straightforward narration of events here as opposed to the riotous satire, heavy with dialogue and jargon, that’s come before.  Maybe most of all, the fact that it is “remains” that are buried — suggesting there’s not even a “body” to dispose of — and that they are buried near the same “Beach of the Flamingoes” that officers were returning from a party on when the seaman was shot.  These two paragraph-length sentences, which seem quite modern to me — as I said, like Hemingway — combine to both strengthen the entire book and lift the episode out of the work, a perfect little gem:

The assemblage of gold-laced surgeons now ascended to the quarter-deck; the second cutter was called away by the bugler, and, one by one, they were dropped aboard of their respective ships.

The following evening the messmates of the top-man rowed his remains ashore, and buried them in the ever-vernal Protestant cemetery, hard by the Beach of the Flamingoes, in plain sight from the bay.

Blogging about Flogging

August 12, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: White-Jacket.

Melville is often cranky, but never a crank: he bitches for meaningful reasons, always (although I imagine his bitches were more scattershot and pointless  in his life than in his works).  The height of his crankiness in W-J comes in his masterful argument against flogging in the American navy.

The discussion of flogging is the most famous aspect of this book, and the portion I’m primarily discussing here (chapters 33 to 36) is not the end of it.  Nevertheless, Melville’s rhetoric in this section is so powerful, so fascinating, and so pertinent to the contemporary American reader that I’m compelled to discuss it.

It’s an argument against torture, essentially, and for due process, and for the necessity of all Americans living by American, democratic principles, in uniform or not:

Depravity in the oppressed is no apology for the oppressor; but rather an additional stigma to him, as being, in a large degree, the effect, and not the cause and justification of oppression.

In the American Navy there is an everlasting suspension of Habeas Corpus.  Upon the bare allegation of misconduct, there is no law to restrain the captain from imprisoning a seaman, and keeping him confined at his pleasure.

…we assert that flogging in the Navy is opposed to the essential dignity of man, which no legislator has a right to violate; that it is oppressive, and glaringly unequal in its operations; that it is utterly repugnant to the spirit of our democratic institutions…

And if any man can lay his hand on his heart, and solemnly say that this scourging is right, let that man but once feel the lash on his own back…

A little later, in chapter 44, there’s a startling example of the kinds of through-the-looking-glass abuses of power that can result from the absurd faith that those who inflict punishment — in the military, intelligence agencies, or elsewhere — are somehow beyond reproof, beyond oversight, beyond wrongdoing themselves:

The sailors who became intoxicated with the liquor thus smuggled on board by the master-at-arms were, in almost numberless instances, officially seized by that functionary, and scourged at the gangway.  In a previous place it has been shown how conspicuous a part the master-at-arms enacts at this scene.

Being chained and flogged by the very same man who has organized and profited from the smuggling that resulted in your punishment: priceless.  Worthy of Catch-22.

Then again, Melville’s argument also transforms, in his argument against naval precedents for flogging, into a stunning insistence on American exceptionalism:

But in many things we Americans are driven to a rejection of the maxims of the Past, seeing that, ere long, the van of the nations must, of right, belong to ourselves…. we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people — the Israel of our time… Long enough have we been sceptics with regard to ourselves, and doubted whether, indeed, the political Messiah had come.  But he has come in us, if we would but give utterance to his promptings.  And let us always remember, that with ourselves… national selfishness is unbounded philanthropy; for we cannot do a good to America but we give alms to the world.

As lamentable as the road this kind of proselytizing eventually led us down might be, the world would be a better place if we had kept foremost in mind the awesome responsibilities that would come with such an ambition.  In this argument, as in many other passages in this book which purports to show “The World in a Man-of-War,” Melville reveals himself (at this time, at this point in his life and career, or at least for this argument and in this piece of what he dismissed as job-work) as a True Believer — in America, in that “more perfect Union” that’s so much in the news recently.  (This is fascinating to me, because I think Melville was the foremost American pessimist of his time — the one who seemed to see most clearly how lofty and perhaps unattainable its ideals really might be, and what disastrous consequences such unrealistic hopes might have.  So rather than “revealed himself,” perhaps it’s safer to say that Melville, through his narrator White-Jacket, takes the persona of the American patriot, its Ideal Concerned Citizen.)

He is making his arguments on the assumption that Americans must be an example for the benighted, barbaric world: that they must hold themselves accountable.  And that especially in their implementation of military discipline and law they must conform to their democratic better selves.  As much as I hate to be one of those a-holes that keeps harping about it, it does seem to be a lesson we’re still in the process of forgetting.

Melville Patches His Jacket

August 6, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: White-Jacket, by Herman Melville.

It’s tough to read White-Jacket on its own terms, and not as The Book Before Moby-Dick.  Too much fun, for instance, to see how Melville’s approach to designing his narrative and combining his mini-essays, reminiscences, fictional events, and factual chapters into a cohesive whole changed from this book to his masterpiece.

Moby-Dick is, obviously, much more successful at this, but the earlier book is different in interesting ways.  W-J does not begin with a compelling narrative like the adventures of Ishmael and Queequeg, propelling the reader into the more various and philosophical chapters of the book’s middle; instead, it begins with a mildly humorous description of the eponymous white jacket, made of patches and scraps of fabric.  To the reader accustomed to Melville, the chapter and the device of the jacket are irresistible as a metafiction, a metaphor for the entire work, for his style in general: the patchwork, uncanny (“white as a shroud”), self-made, absorbent jacket is a fine symbol of Melville’s work.  Besides which, that whiteness: already creeping into (or back into, if such a coat actually existed) Melville’s mind, the pariah, mysterious whiteness.

(Also, as in M-D, the beginning of the narrative is not actually the beginning of the book.  Here, there’s a preface (in the English edition) or note (in the American) in which Melville states that he’s used his own “man-of-war experiences and observations” in the book.  Unlike the extravagant legend-building in the paratextual opening of M-D, here there’s an avowal of basis in fact and truth, in real life.  Melville still not over the sting of Mardi‘s dismissal, not yet ready to write another giant piece of fiction.)

After this opening, W-J slips into the kind of observations of nautical life loosely joined to a fictional framework which occupy much of M-D‘s middle — but without doing much of the work of helping us identify with the narrator or the other characters on the ship.  The observations are engaging enough, but the reader is left with a lot of unanswered, nagging questions about the narrator, and about how to read the book (interestingly, the preface in the English edition encourages the reader to read the book as fact-based fiction, while the American-edition note makes it seem a work of biography).

And yet the voice into which Melville is growing — has grown, it seems, by this point in his career — compels.  There’s a great section from chapters 16 to 19, including a furious chapter, full of complex, fascinating rhetoric,  about the injustice of war and worthless preparations for war; an ironic, contrapuntal chapter about the desperate attempts to save anyone fallen overboard on a man-of-war; a smooth segue into a beautiful statement of the man-of-war “full as a Nut,” a kind of floating city or world; and a gorgeous chapter, containing a premonition of the Icarus theme in M-D and a paean to sailors, who “expatriate ourselves to nationalize with the universe.”

Melville said he wrote Redburn and White-Jacket for the money, plain and simple; it’s a gross simplification, of course, because the man was full of interesting thoughts and interesting words, and got himself invested in whatever he was working on.  And yet (even a fraction of the way in, as I am into W-J) the difference is plainly there, between these works and M-D, or even between these and Mardi or Pierre.  To my own surprise, I find the difference is not so much one of sincerity, or deeper thinking, or even of finding a theme worthy of his best work.  No: the difference is one of artifice.  Melville was at his most rigorously artificial, his most fantastical and fictional, when he cared most, when he felt he was playing for artistic and aesthetic keeps.  For Melville, plain speaking could only lead to superficial understanding.

Teaching the Seventh Grade

August 2, 2009 § 2 Comments

Just finished: Ms. Hempel Chronicles, by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum.

Reading next: White-Jacket, by Herman Melville.

If I were to become a teacher, I’d want to teach the middle-school grades.  Kids then are old enough to learn about and understand some pretty complex material, but are also still kids, often interested in and involved with childish things: imaginative worlds, toys, made-up games, sleepovers.  They’re also on the verge of going to terrifying high school, and becoming adolescent: raging hormones, insecurities, mood swings, and cliques.  It’s the perfect time to be opened up to the right book, the right band, the right friend.  And maybe it’s just me, but I was most invested in my teacher in the seventh and eighth grades.  I wanted guidance, I thought he was cool, I craved his approval.

Ms. Hempel Chronicles is the best book I’ve ever read about teaching, about being a teacher; but then, I’ve never been a teacher, so that doesn’t really say much.  However, it’s also a great book about working in your twenties and trying to figure out what you’re meant to do and who you’re meant to be and how to do your job all at once.  This I have experience with.

Ms. Hempel teaches middle-school English, and the book is suffused with the perfect tone of sweet melancholy to help you connect the dots: the overlooked sadness of childhood passing away, for both the seventh- and eighth-grade students and for Ms. Hempel, their young teacher.  Passages in which Ms. Hempel, exhausted, grades papers and watches television, wishing she had the energy to do something creative instead, are spot-on: work taking over, youthful ambitions shunted aside.

And yet it’s not a sad book — or not only sad, anyway.  The first story, “Talent,” is downright joyous (and probably my favorite); and so, in its way, is the last, “Bump.”  It’s a slim little book, but it feels utterly full.  Beatrice Hempel occupies its space perfectly, a fully realized unreal person.

As Beatrice realizes a few years into the job, one of its horrors is that she is constantly repeating the seventh grade.  The students move on, while she’s left learning once again the level of history, the level of literature, that a seventh-grader can comprehend.  And it is amazing to think of career teachers doing this over and over for decades.

(Spoilers ahead.)  “Bump” is so fascinating in this respect, both because I didn’t see it coming and because it flips the whole book on its head.  While the story itself is quite happy and upbeat — since we’re occupying Ms. Hempel’s headspace, and she herself appears to be happy and upbeat — there’s a real sadness, too.  When Beatrice, now (I speculate) in her mid- to late-thirties, meets a former student, and hears how much she meant (still means) to this student and others with whom the student is still in touch, she is utterly overjoyed.  And yet it’s so heartbreaking: she’s not doing it anymore.  She’s left.  And it really does seem to be the best for her.  But I doubt, somehow, that it’s best for the kids she could’ve been teaching, could’ve been turning on to the right book, the right band, the right way to be in those difficult years of awkwardness.  The tragedy of teaching, I suppose, at least in the U.S.

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