March 18, 2012 § 1 Comment
Finished: The Art of Fielding.
SPOILER ALERT: You’ll probably want to skip this post for now if you plan on reading The Art of Fielding anytime soon.
Given that the Bible is the wellspring of 2000 years of Western culture, it’s not surprising that the empty grave, and the resurrected body, should be recurring features in our literature. Early on in The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach (through his character Mike Schwartz) introduces a lesser-known example from the life of Emerson:
“His first wife died young, of tuberculosis. Emerson was shattered. Months later, he went to the cemetery, alone, and dug up her grave. Opened the coffin and looked inside, at what was left of the woman he loved. Can you imagine? It must have been terrible. Just a terrible thing to do. But the thing is, Emerson had to do it. He needed to see for himself. To understand death. To make death real….”
It’s a little surprising, when you start looking, how many of the open graves in our literature do not partake of the Christian joy and hope in resurrection: how many are full instead of terror, disgust, despair, existential questioning, grim humor. Hamlet, of course. The premature burials and morbid lovers of Poe. The countless tales of “resurrection men” in penny dreadfuls, ballads, and sensational stories.
In the coda to this book, Pella (with the help of Owen, Henry, and Mike) digs up her father’s body to bury him at sea, as she believes he would have wanted. Harbach is referencing a number of the empty graves in American literature with this finale — or at least, it reminded me of them. Most obviously, there is the coffin of Queequeg in Moby-Dick, rescuing Ishmael from the Pequod’s doom. The famous last word of that work is “orphan,” and orphans abound in this work: Affenlight’s death leaves Pella orphaned, of course, but Schwartz is also an orphan. You can argue that Henry is also a kind of orphan in this work, at least spiritually. His parents are nonentities in his life, objecting to the liberality of his college experience; further, his spiritual father, Aparicio Rodriguez, is present for his public humiliation, leaving him too ashamed to meet his hero.
The two other allusions are more subtle, but I think they are there. The possibility entered my mind thanks to the seemingly innocuous fact that Westish plays Amherst in the national championship game. Amherst: hometown of Emily Dickinson, and alma mater of David Foster Wallace. With this choice of opponent, Harbach introduces connections to both the American Renaissance that forms the background of his work and the contemporary milieu of his work.
Dickinson, of course, is one of the great grapplers with death and the afterlife, testing possibilities and asking questions throughout her poetic career, imagining both death in the grave and life beyond it. The questioning and constant self-inspection of Dickinson, and her interest in conceptions of an end to same, are reminiscent of Henry’s journey from “thoughtless being” to “thought” to “return to thoughtless being.” Further, Dickinson is a weighty counterpoint to Emerson and the traditional, male-centered view of American literary history. Pella objects to the Emerson story that Mike tells, “the namelessness of women in stories, as if they lived and died so that men could have metaphysical insights.”
Infinite Jest also contains (or at least looks forward to) the exhumation of a father: Hal Incandenza’s father James, whose head may contain the antidote to his unstoppably entertaining film. The allusion points out a number of parallels between Harbach’s book and DFW’s, especially the campus setting, casually precocious students, mysterious drive and stamina of gifted athletes, addictions to pain and painkillers, and battles with depression and stasis. But the different purposes for grave-robbing in the two novels point out the differences between the authors. I think, in this scene, that Harbach is referencing Infinite Jest (by way of Moby-Dick, and Hamlet, and Dickinson) to attempt to move beyond the postmodern condition which DFW critiqued and which Affenlight diagnoses earlier in the book, the crippling self-consciousness and “profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action.” In Owen’s eulogy over the body, he remembers Guert Affenlight’s belief “that a soul isn’t something a person is born with but something that must be built, by effort and error, study and love.” He asserts the continuation of Guert’s soul in the people he loved, the works to which he devoted it. The whole scene feels a little like a “didactic little parable-ish story” at the close of a tragicomic, linear narrative of liberal-arts education. But we’ve seen that it’s actually pretty complex, and that it’s about how to be an adult, how to move beyond education: how to choose what to think about. The orator of the 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech would be proud.
April 25, 2010 § 1 Comment
Now reading: Moby-Dick.
Rereading is a complex phenomenon, involving not only different interpretations of the text, but different interpretations of your past self: you can often end up “reading” your former readings, your former interests and states of mind. This is especially true when you’ve taken notes during your past readings, and kept them. You read a kind of palimpsest of text overlaid with memory overlaid with annotations, the things you saw as most important or necessary to remember at the time.
I never write in the margins of my books or underline or highlight or otherwise annotate: if I’m really invested, I write little notes on scraps of paper and tuck those into the book. I probably set my personal record for number of notes on my first reading of Moby-Dick. I’m kind of amazed at how much my 20-year-old self noticed in the book that I’ve since overlooked: the introduction of the imagery of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego burning “unconsumed” in chapter 48, “The First Lowering”; the discussion of “rings” in the frenzied chapter 40, “Midnight, Forecastle,” and especially the importance of the line “Why, God, mad’st thou the ring?” to the main themes of the book. Part of this is the benefit of rigorous reading for a class, and the ferment of learning from other classes. But Melville also just set my brain on fire in a way very few books ever have. It was the kind of book I wanted to exist but didn’t know actually did, much less had for 150 years.
On my second reading, a few years later and just because I wanted to, I read from the same copy, rereading my notes, but took far fewer new notes and spent more time trying to observe the book’s overall structure and intentions. I wrote a brief list on this reading of Melville’s possible intentions: “Entertain (more noticeable), Instruct, Enlighten, Ease His Possession.” I also noted that the comedy in the book was much more noticeable on the second reading.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m reading from a different edition on this reading. It’s a very different edition — a general-reading copy with large type, generous margins, and plentiful illustrations, but no notes, around 350 pages longer than the Norton edition I’d read from before. It’s already a very different experience just based on the editions. However, I happened to read chapter 47, “The Mat-Maker,” from the Norton edition. A note there from my first reading seemed to crystallize my different readings, and different kinds of reading, in the last ten years.
“The Mat-Maker” is a gorgeous chapter, transitional and quite short but very interesting, well-known and thoroughly studied. I wrote the following about the first section of the chapter: “Chance, freewill, & necessity in the making of a mat: Melville’s way of injecting mythic importance into minutiae, detail: the wondrousness of life”. I chuckled when I read this note. It’s a good note, and useful, but it reminded me of how enamored of Paul Auster I was in college. Of course I loved this section! It also reminded me of how much I loved (and love) the texture of the book: the close-grained observation, the colorful variation of style and format, the silky, lyrical language and far-ranging philosophical digression. And how cool it was that this all occurred to me in a chapter about weaving, just as Melville weaved together his story from various threads. It was dazzling.
My second reading did not focus so heavily on this section. My second reading was more for pure pleasure, and it was clear that after the first two, philosophical paragraphs, this chapter serves mostly to transition to the first attempt to capture a whale, leading to one of the book’s most exciting, entertaining, cinematic, beautiful chapters, “The First Lowering.”
And on this reading? I noticed the last words of the note, “the wondrousness of life.” That’s an interesting observation, I think, and one I wouldn’t have made on my own this time, when I’m more familiar with Melville, with this kind of writing. I meant that Melville was noticing the wonder of daily life, and its occasional, epiphanic revelation of the “ungraspable phantom” of life’s meaning, and thereby allowing me, the reader, to do so.
With the help of Howard Vincent, I also noticed the first paragraph’s emphasis on selfhood, “each silent sailor… resolved into his own invisible self.” But what struck me anew is the lyricism of the language, its sheer beauty and the way its rhythm echoes the “cloudy, sultry afternoon” portrayed, lulling you into ruminations on its meaning and significance — thereby heightening the surprise and frenzy of “There she blows!” and all that follows: the first appearance of Ahab’s hidden crew, the thrilling hunt for the whale. Then there’s the amazing return to quietude and slower rhythms at the end of “The First Lowering” — but deadly dangerous rhythms of possible abandonment and death at sea, this time — and Ishmael’s bookend of philosophical rumination in “The Hyena.” Language, meaning, structure: this section is just a sterling example of what a phenomenal writer Melville was.
April 14, 2010 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Moby-Dick and The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick.
A couple of short notes on the early sections of the book — things I hadn’t noticed before, or had forgotten:
-“The Counterpane” features an anecdote from Ishmael’s childhood, one of the few autobiographical hints we get about our ostensible narrator (“ostensible” since Ishmael largely drops out of the narrative in the middle of the book and becomes a floating, omniscience narrator before reemerging towards the end). I’d forgotten how perfectly told, how subtly creepy and folkloric, this little tale is: of Ishmael sent to bed early in the afternoon of the summer solstice as punishment, by his stepmother — stepmother, mind you! — and dozing off in the sunlight to find, in the darkness, “a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine.” It’s this perfect little short story; in fact, I seem to remember a similar story by Ray Bradbury, but can’t find it at the moment. This chapter, if it gets mentioned at all, gets mentioned mostly as the beginning of the affectionate bond between Ishmael and Queequeg. But the gorgeous little excerpt of Ishmael’s perfectly horrible fairy-tale upbringing in early America is the most complicated thing about it. Why is it here? Ishmael tells the story to compare the feeling of holding that phantom hand with the feeling of waking with Queequeg’s “pagan arm” thrown over him. But he tells us to remove the fear from his earlier feeling to understand how he feels under Queequeg’s arm. Now, the fear is the most important thing about that earlier sensation, isn’t it? Melville seemed to be simply compelled to tell this (autobiographical?) story, and to connect that uncanny sensation with the juxtaposition of Ishmael and Queequeg. It’s the quintessence of American Weird, plain and simple.
-Father Mapple’s sermon in the Whaleman’s Chapel is rightly one of the most famous chapters in the book, and Howard Vincent examines it admirably. However, he may have been a little straightforward in his treatment. Vincent reads it as a warning, plain and simple, to hubristic Ahab. And you certainly can read it that way. But the sermon is also one of Melville’s closest approaches to Paradise Lost, I believe. And like Milton’s great poem, it is profoundly ambiguous. Just as easily as you can read it as a reproach of Ahab and foreshadowing of doom, you can read it as a defense of Ahab. After all, doesn’t Mapple say that “Delight is to him — a far, far upward, and inward delight — who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self,” and “who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges”? Isn’t Ahab more like the prophet Jonah should’ve been, insisting on the wrongness of the evil perpetrated upon him, than the coward Jonah was, who ran away from his duty and was swallowed for his trouble? Is Mapple’s sermon an indictment of God, or of Ahab?
December 31, 2009 § Leave a comment
Just like last year, here are lists of my top five recent/lesser-known books read in 2009, and top five books read overall in 2009, including classics.
First, the recent/lesser-known list:
5. Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski. A truly astonishing book/performance art piece. I suppose I should really have it higher, but it’s like rating Finnegan’s Wake: it barely fits into the same category as other works of fiction. Certainly worth experiencing, but not exactly a beach read. (See my four posts beginning here.)
4. The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño. The second-most-exhausting book I read this year (see above), but much more readable. Astounding and encyclopedic in the Melvillean senses. It makes me both look forward to and dread reading 2666, which will surely eat up most of a summer’s worth of reading either this year or next. (See three posts beginning here.)
3. Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen. A really cool book about doppelgangers, the weather, paranoia and other delusional states, marriage, and how these things all fit together. It’s one of those books that doesn’t necessarily knock your socks off as you’re reading it, but sticks with you for weeks after you’ve finished. (See two posts beginning here.)
2. The Interrogative Mood, by Padgett Powell. I didn’t write about this for professional reasons, but speaking completely impartially, this book kicks ass. A series of questions — odd and banal, rambling and terse, hilarious and deadly serious — addressed to the reader by either the author or a slightly unhinged narrator, depending on how you choose to read it. It gets under your skin; you actually start pondering your responses to these bizarre rhetorical inquiries; you start examining your life, which is one of the things literature is supposed to help us do, after all. (I actually considered posting my responses to every question until I realized that this would take me weeks to accomplish and I would be revealing some seriously embarrassing things.)
1. Ms. Hempel Chronicles, by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum. I’m not sure if Bynum is underrated or overlooked or what, but she should be getting press, after only two books, as one of the great writers working in America today. This slim little book, a series of stories about the titular seventh-grade teacher, is moving like The Savage Detectives is never moving. It is gorgeous and thoughtful and it says something that my favorite book of the year is more or less realist literature. If only all realism were this well done. (See post here.)
And now for my list including classics:
5. The Interrogative Mood, see above.
4. White-Jacket, or, The World in a Man-of-War, by Herman Melville. Currently neck-and-neck with Pierre for second place on my personal list of Melville’s best books. A dry run of sorts for Moby-Dick, but quite a successful book on its own terms, as Melville finds his rhetorical voice and rails against injustice in the Navy in some particularly effective passages. The balance between narrative and digression is not quite there in the way it is in M-D, but it’s close. (See three posts starting here.)
3. Ms. Hempel Chronicles, see above.
2. Villette, by Charlotte Brontë. Just a fascinating work on every level, including its treatment of genres and its status as a post-Gothic feminist work. Lucy Snowe is one of the great Victorian characters and one of the great Victorian narrators. (See five posts beginning here.)
1. The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Jan Potocki. It amazes me that this incredible book, enveloped in layers of mystery in both the narrative itself and the history of its writing and publication, is not better known. (Obviously that’s what happens when you happen to be a Polish nobleman writing in French.) Exoticism, eroticism, colonialism, metafiction, writing within, across, and between genres, stories within stories within stories, secret societies — it’s tricky and weird and obviously too interesting to be taught in Lit classes though you can teach anything and everything from it. It helps that I read a lot of it while on a fun vacation to the Pacific Northwest (thanks again, Spiff!); I always remember books I read while traveling. (See six posts starting here.)
So those are the lists this year; perhaps I’ll post my top-ten of the decade in January. In the meantime, here’s wishing you happy reading in 2010.
September 8, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Dangerous Laughter, by Steven Millhauser.
Had it only been a gale instead of a calm, gladly would we have charged upon it with our gallant bowsprit, as with a stout lance in rest; but, as with mankind, this serene, passive foe — unresisting and irresistible — lived it out, unconquered to the last. -Melville, White-Jacket
Millhauser’s story “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman” reminded me of that passage, which had itself reminded me when I first read it of “Bartleby, the Scrivener”: the calm “I would prefer not to.” Of course, the ambiguity of Bartleby’s stand is legendary: it’s a very open question whether he died “unconquered to the last,” firm in his refusal, or died a broken automaton, something less than a human being, or somewhere in between. But Melville’s statement about the gale here did first bring to mind Bartleby — whatever he might have meant to Melville, he certainly has taken on heroic stature, or at least a kind of grandeur through boredom.
And Bartleby has stayed on my mind after reading Millhauser’s story. It’s a powerful story, itself like a calm at sea in its implacability and plainness. The only truly unusual rhetorical flash comes from the use of first-person plural in the opening, which dissolves into a somewhat generic singular. And it leaves you with the dual mysteries of what exactly happened to Elaine Coleman — who disappears from her apartment with no trace of abduction or escape — and how we should feel about this disappearance.
The story itself conveys an almost overwhelming sadness, and it is tempting to sympathize with the narrator when he finds himself, and the rest of his community, culpable for her vanishing, and for her apparently lonely existence as a wallflower, by their incuriosity about her. But of course, as with Bartleby, there is another way to see it: perhaps it was a heroic act, this vanishing. Perhaps it was the ultimate expression of Elaine Coleman’s contempt for her degraded world. Perhaps it was not a fate imposed on her by the absence of community interest, but a fate chosen, cultivated, and finally acted upon by someone who would prefer not to be seen. (You could argue that the first-person plural supports this argument, acting as a kind of homogeneous, mundane chorus — “For days we spoke of nothing else” — against which Elaine’s act seems even more radical.)
Ultimately, I think this — and, to a lesser extent, the depiction of Bartleby as tragic hero — is a rather strained interpretation. Both Melville and Millhauser see the need to be serenely, passively “unconquered to the last” as unspeakably sad. Bartleby is something singular: a cipher, but a necessary one, whose stand has a kind of meaning and merit that is made apparent even in the story’s bleakness and the pointlessness of his death. It is possible to legitimately make the argument for Bartleby as a symbol of passive resistance.
Elaine Coleman, on the other hand, is rather like Eleanor Rigby; the story gets much of its strength from her status as a kind of ghost flickering at the edges of the narrator’s vision, as he tries to remember her, incidents he might have shared with her, times he might have engaged her but did not. It is a kind of horror story, but a different kind than “Bartleby”: to me, at least, it feels more personal. There’s something horrifying about the idea of being this kind of marginal figure in even your own story — the kind of person that could vanish for lack of popular interest. I think Millhauser tried very hard to avoid being condescending to his absent creation, Elaine. Later stories in the collection show the author has deep interest in and sympathy for the Elaines of the world. It’s hard to avoid being maudlin about lonely people; hard for many people to understand that loneliness is not necessarily thrust upon everyone who lives alone, or that some people prefer not to be sociable (there’s that phrase again).
(Sidebar: is “Eleanor Rigby” maudlin? I think many people find it so, maybe mostly because there’s the intimation that Eleanor’s a spinster; I don’t know, I still find it more heartbreaking than maudlin. Hard to argue against it being at least a little condescending, though.)