In Faery Realms

August 5, 2012 § 1 Comment

Finished long ago: The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien.

Reading now: Mythologies, by William Butler Yeats.

The Third Policeman is one of those books that casts a kind of glamor as you’re reading it for the first time, making it impossible to recapture the mysterious feeling of experiencing its strange world.  As it happens, the book is less directly indebted to Irish mythology and history than O’Brien’s masterpiece, At Swim-Two-Birds.  But I’ve been reading Yeats’s compilation of Irish folklore and musings, and things like glamor are on my mind.

As different as Yeats and O’Brien seem to be, their books may both be read as explorations of the realm of Faery, which can also seem the realm of death, as well as the realm of both good-natured and menacing tricks.  As Yeats describes them, the “Good People” of Faery are everywhere just beyond our vision, capable of switching the bodies of those that seem dead to whisk them away to a better realm, or to steal a newborn or newlywed for their own revels, and good and evil are somewhat meaningless terms to them, their love and hate untrammeled by the moral ambiguity that mortals must always experience.

O’Brien’s book can also be read as a visit to a particularly dark and disturbing part of Faery, by a particularly unsavory individual.  In it, as in Yeats’s vision of Irish mythology, the twilight realms of death and Faery are always near:

It was some change that came upon me or upon the room, indescribably subtle, yet momentous, ineffable.  It was as if the daylight had changed with unnatural suddenness, as if the temperature of the evening had altered greatly in an instant or as if the air had become twice as rare or twice as dense as it had been in the winking of an eye…

Our narrator then finds himself face to face with what appears to be the man he had just helped to murder.  As in tales of Irish Faery kidnappings, the individual is uncannily changed from his former self:

But the eyes were horrible.  Looking at them I got the feeling that they were not genuine eyes at all but mechanical dummies animated by electricity or the like, with a tiny pinhole in the centre of the ‘pupil’ through which the real eye gazed out secretively and with great coldness.

O’Brien is the best writer I know for channeling the spirit of the Irish Sidhe, for he harnesses chaotic and mysterious plots to beautiful language and moments of joy and laughter.  The hilarious subplot in The Third Policeman of the bicycle-people, slowly becoming more and more centaur-like as they absorb more atoms of bicycle due to excessive riding, is a perfect example.  This is the kind of cock-and-bull story, and the kind of book, that rings both true and hilariously false, that brings together anarchic joy of making it up as you go along and a kind of commentary on humanity, on the limits of science, on our strange hybrid nature, machine and spirit and body all mixed up together.

Inside the Walls of Graceland: Four Views of Memphis

July 9, 2011 § 2 Comments

[Editorial note: And now for a departure.  I wrote the piece below in 2000.  It’s the work of a young guy in love (with the woman he’d eventually marry) who’d clearly been reading a lot of David Foster Wallace.  I’ve made a few minor edits but left the major faults unchanged.  Looking back over it recently, I decided to post it here before heading back to Nebraska to visit family: a paean to the Midwest, to summer, to Jaime, to hope.]

Inside the Walls of Graceland: Four Views of Memphis

Well there’s a Memphis down in Tennessee and a Memphis in my dreams, and there used to be a Memphis over in Egypt, back when it was the Memphis, and even if you don’t believe it there’s a Memphis, Nebraska. How much of each makes up the one in my dreams? The world may never know.

So I Had This Dream

a couple of months ago, before I was really aware of any of the Memphilia about to break through to my daily consciousness.

The dream took place in Memphis, it was understood, in that perfectly succinct way dreams have of establishing place — and, well, of establishing practically everything else, too. A lot of the dream is unimportant for these purposes, although I’m pretty sure my parents were around and I know my girlfriend was at least a figure in the dream, if not physically there. (It would help this whole thing gel a whole helluva lot better if Jaime were physically there, but such are the spoils of living apart.) Point is, I’d gotten myself to Memphis, somehow.

Memphis in my dream was a magical city. A holy city, perhaps the holy city. For some while I simply rode around in a car, looking out the window at the buildings (I got a feeling of dilapidation) and the sky (senses-heightening blue), hearing music in the background, always music. Then I was walking down a street, surrounded by green everywhere. The city was full of vegetation, lush, rich, overflowing, Hanging-Gardensish. Fertile. It was spring. I missed Jaime.

The music picked up here, as I recall: organs, ethereal dream-instruments. I was suddenly on what I’ve come to think of as Cathedral Row. There were massive temples here. They were stunning, and when I think of them even now I am struck with a profound sense of how truly gorgeous they were, in my dream. One was all stained glass, purple, made entirely of turrets and steeples and windows and Baroque and Gothic elements, rising high into the sky, a sacred Tower of Babel — so, perhaps not a Tower of Babel at all, but its antithesis. Another contained gorgeous sculptures everywhere, flanking the pulpit, jutting right up into the faces of overeager parishioners in the first rows. There were more: I have sinned, I have forgotten.

Duke Chapel, Durham, NC. Photo by Adam Gerik.

What’s Your Point? #1

I’ve never been one of those people that rolls their eyes at people who want to share their dreams. Seems to me that if you’re not interested in what people are dreaming, you’re just not interested in people. Perhaps I oversimplify.

But this dream most definitely had a point, which is, in a way, the following:

I remember writing to Jaime about it, about what a great dream it was, about how bizarre, to dream about Memphis. I wrote a short piece trying to capture the feeling of that dream, the kinds of things I was actually thinking in the dream. It was a “deeply spiritual” dream, if one is allowed to call anything “deeply spiritual” anymore. Put it this way: the Memphis in my dreams was not the kind of place where you have to put “deeply spiritual” in quotes, to show that you know how hackneyed and flaky you’re being, to show how worldly and un-naive and, well, godless you really are.

I love Jaime very much. We have grand plans to live quietly, happily, peacefully together forever after two years of living apart — right now she’s in St. Louis, I’m in Lincoln. I tell her my dreams; she tells me hers.

And it was on my way to see her, when she was home for the summer in Nebraska, that I ran across a sign for Memphis, NE. The sign (MEMPHIS 10) is posted on a shortcut to her house that I’d just recently begun to utilize. When I noticed it, I quite suddenly wanted to go there, to see the town, to write about it (never thinking even once about the dream I’d had, months before; that connection came later). Nothing glamorous, nothing all that smart, even. Just a piece about Memphis– or rather, Memphises.

How to Find Memphis, NE

From Omaha, take I-80 out of town to the Gretna exit. Go through Gretna, take Hwy. 6 down to near Ashland, then catch 63 through Ashland. After a few turns, you’ll be in Memphis.

From Wahoo, just catch 77 South to the turnoff for 63 East, right before you go through Swedeburg; 63 will take you right to Memphis’s doorstep. (But watch out for the turn, to the right; sneaks up on you. Look for the Country Keno sign.)

From Nebraska City, you’ve got a hike, but not too bad! Just take 75 N to Union, then hop on 34 E for a ways (25 mi?) ‘til you get to the intersection with 63 N (there’ll be a sign for Alvo), and take that right ‘til it ends, breaking off into 6 roughly E and W. Take E ‘til that same Ashland turnoff, 63, up to Memphis. You know the rest.

Or, if you’re coming from Lincoln, like us: you can take the N 14th St. shortcut to 77 (no gravel necessary!), or you can just get on I-80 E and take that to 77, go through Ceresco and Swedeburg to that 63 E exit. Skip Ithaca; get to Memphis.

Failing that, head toward Ithaca, Ashland, or Mead. You’ll find it eventually.

Some Interesting Connections

“Memphis,” the word, can be translated a few different ways (hieroglyphics being a tricky medium for even the most skilled Egyptologist), but it’s most likely that the name means “White Fortress” or, more poetically, “White Walls.” Memphis was the original capital of the unified Egypt, the city which brought together the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, perhaps 15 miles south of the apex of the Nile delta. As such, it was the home of pharaohs and, correspondingly, a religious center.

Temple of Isis at Philae near Memphis, by "Son of Groucho."

Elvis Presley, whatever there might be to say about his (un)originality or mimicry of black forms or rather simple and/or derivative sense of rhythm, was one hell of a singer and did much to unify the Northern and Southern halves of this country in a sound, in rock and roll (however short-lived it was). Would the Beatles have happened without Elvis? What about rap?

Elvis loved Memphis. He built his own White Fortress there, Graceland, a complex structure which allowed him to be simultaneously worshiped and utterly alone behind his many different walls.

Graceland, Memphis, TN, from discoveringelvis.wordpress.com

Most intimately linked to the ancient Memphis was Ptah, a creator-god (but so much more!) who had his main temple there. Ptah seems to have always been an anthropomorphic deity, but his humanity was almost completely concealed within a skullcap and tight-fitting cloth which resembled a leotard. Only his face and hands remained visible. One is somewhat reminded of Elvis’s sequined-jumpsuit Vegas days.

It’s tempting to consider Ptah as the very first rock god, predating Bacchus and Christ and Liszt and Elvis. Ancient Egyptian love songs often call upon him to bring lovers together at night — what more rock-and-roll sentiment exists? In those same songs, Ptah is often known by one of his many appellations, “Ptah Beautiful of Face,” attributable to the fact that Ptah’s skin was made of pure gold. It virtually begs for hieroglyphic newsreels of Ptahmania sweeping the Nile basin, girls swooning at his dreamy eyes, his full lips, his gentle-yet-powerful hands.

Then there are the representations of Ptah themselves, which offer perhaps the most perplexing and intriguing evidence of Ptah-as-superstar. The god is usually shown grasping a narrow staff which symbolizes royalty and which is topped with an ankh (life) sign. The whole thing, held close and directly in front of him, comes to roughly chin-height and is eerily similar in design and appearance to an old-style microphone — such as the one Elvis swings to the side in that very famous photograph, face contorted mid-croon, pelvis swiveled, knees buckled, hair pompadour’d. Ptah as king of rock and roll? Maybe so. Elvis as life-bringer and sexual liaison? Too obvious to expound upon.

The young god Presley, from (yes!) http://www.jesus-is-savior.com

Annoying (but Crucial) Autobiographical Information

We drove to Memphis, Jaime and I, on one of the hottest days of the year. July; mid-afternoon. We escaped from the hot tin box in which I lived and sweated, took off with windows down and radio up. That’s our sort of thing to do.

Embarrassingly, I have never been to Memphis, TN. Or Memphis, Egypt. I first saw the Atlantic Ocean last year. I have never seen the Pacific. I have flown on a plane exactly three times — each time to Boston, within the last year, to visit Jaime. This is, I think, not a terribly unusual state of affairs for a kid from Nebraska.

I’ve lived here my whole life, first in Norfolk (pop. 22,000 or so), then in Hastings (pop. 23,000 or so), then in Lincoln (pop. 150, 000 or so). I will more than likely be leaving it soon, quite possibly for a city with a pop. in the millions. I’ll miss it; I feel a kinship with this place, its people, its sky, its land, even though I’m not a farmer or a farmer’s son. (However, one doesn’t need to travel far here — either geographically or ancestrally — to feel that connection to place, to country.)

So this would be my first Memphis — at least, my first physical Memphis. It seemed fitting. I’d like to go to Tennessee, see Graceland, hear some blues — I’d like to go to Egypt, sometime, maybe, for a while — but Nebraskans like me, for better or worse, filter life through these tiny towns.

But so could I be more in love with this girl Jaime? It was the first summer we’d had together, and the trip to Memphis started, at least in part, as just an inkling of something I would like to do with her. She enjoys exploring such places as much as I do, I think. At any rate, we would get to ride around together, talking, listening to the radio, sweating.

We were doing just those things as we neared Memphis proper, and we actually missed the turn to the town, and had to turn around. As we did so, we found a radio station (I think it was NPR) broadcasting an interview with Charles Brown, the great blues musician.

And wouldn’t you know it, he was talking about meeting Elvis, the King.

What Memphis, NE Has to Offer

There are quite a few very beautiful trees standing in the midst of cornfields around Memphis. One gets to be a connoisseur of such things on the Great Plains; there are some fine examples of the phenomenon in the vicinity of Memphis. The road we took also has a lovely stretch upon which both shoulders are covered in vibrant purple wildflowers, the grass coming right up to the white lines. The flowers — and, hell, Highway 63 in general — are highly recommended in the early hours of summer mornings.

Memphis is also very near the University of Nebraska Agricultural Research and Development Center, which may not sound like a whole lot but is really a pretty big deal, taking up whole bunches of land for ruminant, porcine, and bovine studies, forestry training and research, innumerable crop yield projects, and Lord only knows what else. The site seemed to emanate a kind of mad-science vibe, for me. I think this comes partly from my own ignorance if not outright timidity when it comes to agriculture, and partly from the aura which surrounds the idea of Memphis. To me, the town’s name stands for magic, mystery, alignment with things I don’t or maybe can’t understand.

University of Nebraska Agricultural Research and Development Center.

As not-one-but-two signs point out at the turnoff to Memphis, the town also has “Methodist Church Worship” at 9 AM. I’m not sure if that’s everyday or just Sunday. In any case, worship services are available if you should want to visit: fear not for your soul’s constitution.

And while we’re on the subject, that same Methodist Church Worship is presumably held in the town’s dominant (and loveliest) structure, the Iliff Methodist Church. It is a simple, white, steepled chapel with some lovely painted-glass windows and a charming lack of improvements such as aluminum-and-glass doors or a message board bearing embarrassing inspirational messages.

Town hall in Memphis, NE. Photo taken in 2000.

Memphis has a town hall that looks an awful lot like a storage shed, but this seems to be the unofficial town hall; the other one is just a normal, modest structure, with an old, rusty basketball rim in the driveway.

There are those black sans-serif sticker-letters (the kind that usually advertise things like drink specials on Bud banners in the windows of bars) everywhere in town, including on the advertisements for Methodist Church Worship at 9 AM. Someone’s got a truckload of ‘em, but we never did ask who.

Memphis has a green rectangular sign proclaiming the existence of itself and its 117 inhabitants.

For the residents’ correspondence needs, there is an absolutely tiny post office in the middle of town which flies the American flag proudly, if not really all that high. One gets the sense that the flagpole is short so as to draw attention away from the size of the post office itself.

Memphis, NE post office. Photo taken in 2000.

But as bucolic as all of this might seem, Memphis surely sees periods of heavier traffic, for the town is also home to a state recreation area — a lake, in other words. The lake is man-made, and was created for the booming (now ailing, maybe dead) ice factory the town housed in the early twentieth century. It’s a small, peaceful, pretty lake which comes right up to the road and says hello. On the night we visited, it was completely untouched, completely still.

Near the lake, on the outskirts of town, is a big pink ranch-style house with a huge lawn. Jaime and I both found the house intriguing, partly because of the color and partly because of the proliferation of lawn ornaments (miniature porcelain gauchos, horses, a flamingo or two; oversized porcelain frogs) and partly because of the fertile garden in the backyard, replete with flowers and vines climbing the walls of an enclosed porch. It conjured images for me of the town’s “crazy lady,” living there for unknown reasons, generating gossip and willful tolerance in the other townsfolk. Tending her plants, talking to her lawn sculptures.

The town’s bar — Don’s Bar — is a nice enough place, with fairly good food and a prime rib buffet on Saturday nights. Stop by if you’re in the neighborhood, maybe, but listen, don’t go just for Don’s. It’s standard-issue small-town Nebraska.

Memphis has some streets named after places from antiquity or related to its namesake — Cairo St., for instance, but sadly, no Beale — and some that are just odd, such as Gahala St.

One of those streets leaves an indelible image on my mind’s eye. We turned onto this street, only to find it abruptly ending before us in a wall of wild grasses, trees, and brush. A fire hydrant poked out of the scrub near where the side of the road should’ve been, had the road continued; a cardinal perched on the ruins of an old foundation. How to explain such a scene? Perhaps as the place where a town simply ended, where the walls were erected when its capacity was reached.

What’s Your Point? #2

Perhaps there is no exact point, but a thought did occur to me, while trying to understand the significance of these Memphises. I was thinking of how a piece on Memphis, NE, might be perceived, and the imaginary catchphrase I kept attaching to it was “a travelogue from Real America.” And it kept ringing false.

Because, hey, look: if a fake America exists anymore– and by fake I mean an unseen, Dream America — if it even exists anymore, it is embodied in Memphis, Nebraska. Everything else has been made real, or has made itself real — and by real I mean visible, mediated, artificial — simply by showing itself to us again and again and again, over and over, via innumerable sources. The country is rapidly turning (or has turned) into a big dumb cruelly elitist entertainment complex, and Memphis is just about all it has left of a dreamworld. Not in a fantastic sense, or in an On the Road sense: in the sense of being simply unattainable. Mars, New York and every city on down the line, Tibet, the ocean deep, etc., etc. — everything else is far too real. But Memphis, NE — well, no one looking to make a buck has ever gotten Memphis quite right. Not many have tried. And not many will, more than likely. It’s a hardscrabble life in Memphis, and there’s no bureau of tourism to send out glossies of the buffet at Don’s Bar.

The white walls of this Memphis, while perhaps not intentionally erected, are certainly real and exist in the marrow of every villager. It’s not a matter of avoiding the world. It’s a matter of needing those outer walls to feel safe enough, perhaps, to dissolve those inner walls. Not easy to survive at the center of the universe; not easy to cope with depression and loneliness; not easy to live with the same 115 people every day; not easy to commune with the ones you love.

Why do I love and treasure that dream I had? Getting inside the walls. The walls of Memphis, my own walls. And to me, Memphis will always be a matter of love.

What I Wrote Right After My Dream (Which I Just Recently Rediscovered)

…Memphis is unbelievable. There’s all this greenery (just like You said Everything was so green You went Down South after I left and You loved how green everything was and You said Maybe someday we could live there and I laughed) and the weather is beautiful. Memphis is a revelation. (I expect Graceland…)

Suddenly I’m alone in Memphis (thinking I miss Her, She would love this) and surrounded by the most incredibly beautiful cathedrals. They are enormous and tall and I feel like a very small child looking up at them.

This one is painted green, yellow, and purple (purple Purple’s your favorite color how you would love this) and the whole building is covered in sculpture and it’s like Memphis is suddenly Oz.

This one is huge, wide, creamy brick with metal corners and somehow I know that it is alive.

This one is almost completely stained glass and there is a purple stained-glass fountain inside which makes me want to cry.

There are riots of flowers outside.

(I am not laughing anymore.)

When I Think of Memphis

my thoughts start to wander, and I end up thinking about all of them. It becomes a conflation of my impressions of those cities, centered on the small town I visited.

I think of Elvis, in his pink castle on the outskirts of town, not terribly unhappy, putting together lyrics from those black sticker-letters and strumming a guitar, sitting on his back porch, amid the gauchos and gigantic frogs and the other kitsch he’d strangely become related to in another world far away. The alchemists and oracles in the ARDC laughing madly over their magics, creating cows that never stop giving milk and ears of corn as big as Cadillacs. Pyramids on the floor of the lake, buried beneath water, their stone guardians and sloped walls defending their inhabitants from intrusion, violation. A jukebox in Don’s Bar playing Charles Brown’s blues. Kids coming together to walk after midnight, guided by Ptah to the Church at the heart of town, to walk the streets and hold hands and make love their own. The trees in the cornfields spreading their limbs over the cornstalks like revival preachers blessing their congregations. The white walls, too tall to climb, at the place where the streets end in a profusion of weeds. The whole town set down in the middle of the plain, encased, like the City of Gold, Jerusalem.

And I think of love, Jaime, and wanting to make those walls between us disappear. I think of times when they do, when they have — when we have walked the streets of Memphis together, amid the riot of flowers and through the towering cathedrals.

She’s in St. Louis right now. It’s only four hours from Memphis, Tennessee, she tells me. Will we get there? I can only hope; I can only hope we go together, hand in hand.

The American Nile floods Memphis, TN, 2011.

American Weirdness

March 9, 2011 § 4 Comments

Finished: Big Machine, by Victor Lavalle.

Big Machine left me with the odd sensation of hoping it is eventually adapted as a feature film: I had the feeling throughout that it wanted to be a movie in the first place.  It’s instructive, in this regard: there’s a piling-on of incident and image, a technique heavy on flashback and punchy, nearly noir narration (complete with terse, hard-boiled, “surprise” final sentences to many of the short chapters), and a transparent, unremarkable syntax and style that makes the book seem like its native form is the horror screenplay.

And yet all of that leaves me sounding down on the book, which I’m not, or not completely.  I love horror movies, after all.  And there are things that Lavalle does with the cross-cutting of his short chapters to tie the slowly illuminated events of the past with the book’s present day in all sorts of interesting ways.  It would be a fantastic movie, smarter than just about anything else getting made these days, especially in genre films.  It would involve poor people.  And black people.  And cults.  And drug abuse.  And monsters.  And abortion.  And weirdness.

Lots and lots of weirdness.  The book never reads like a dream — the language is too straightforward, the events too linear — but the linkages between fantasy and reality, between the supernatural and the mundane, and the characters’ acceptance of these linkages, do seem like a kind of transcript of a dream our culture’s having.  I guess this is what we normally call mythology.

The obvious and interesting comparison, at least for me, is with Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.  They’re both books that feel right, as mythology, but right in different ways.  One of the things that Neil Gaiman said about his book at the Gathering of American Gods that’s stuck with me is that the book was one of the ways in which he came to discover the strangeness of the country he’d adopted as his home.  It is a story by an outsider, of outsiders, those brought to the country with their own ways, and how those ways mutate in a new place with its own ways.  It feels very true, as that kind of story.  Big Machine feels true as a different kind of story: an inside kind of story, a story the culture tells itself.  The story of a black man whose people have formed the culture, despite all attempts to prevent them from doing so.

And so we get details like the Washerwomen, and their Bible rewritten to take place among Southern blacks.  While the Washerwomen are inventions, he’s not inventing the Biblical revision: a man named Clarence Jordan translated sections of the New Testament into American idiom, changed place names from the Middle East to the American South, and changed crucifixion to lynching.  We get an organization of “spiritual X-Men” who dress up as high-society swells in 1930s Harlem and track down the paranormal through small-town newspapers — printed newspapers! — in the age of the Internet.  We get the “big machine,” doubt, and a recommendation from a cult leader that it be considered a good thing, and that we remember “King Jesus as our greatest doubter.”  We get another big machine, a real machine, that maybe undercuts that suggestion. We get a couple of miracles and a really well done near-death scene with some freaky cats. Vengeance and forgiveness.  Terrorism and holy war.  Angels and demons.  Managing not to oppose these things, but see them as potentially just different perspectives on the same thing.  A whole country busy distracting itself from its overwhelming need to believe.

Various Nigerian Narratives, Part Three: Memory, Music, Tradition

March 2, 2010 § 1 Comment

Finished a while ago: GraceLand.

A quick catch-up post before moving on.  GraceLand is a complicated book in a lot of ways, not least in form and audience.  Its author is a Nigerian exile living in the U.S., and as such the book was first published in the U.S.  (though there may be — probably was — a simultaneous U.K. edition).  I’ve already given some examples of how the book acts as a kind of Baedeker to the Nigerian cultural and societal landscape of the author’s formative years.  It does this in well-integrated, well-written ways.  It does not in the least partake in the sort of anthropological objectification that Elvis would surely despise.

One example to add to the print and film cultural practices already described: near the book’s end, when Elvis hits the road with the King of Beggars and his band, we get a glimpse of how Nigerian concerts worked, and their parallels with past Western practices:

The evening’s show always started with a dance during which the band played all the popular tunes of the day.  The play followed, and then there was another dance afterwards.  For a big audience in a big town, the total number of songs played in one night came to about forty, not counting those played as part of the play.  Most evenings began at nine p.m. and finished at four in the morning.

It’s quite like Vaudeville, in other words.  The band members consider themselves primarily musicians, but must also act and canvass the town “displaying their instruments” to drum up interest.  The plays are mostly “didactic,” somewhat like morality plays or after-school specials.

Totally fascinating.  However, all of this is potentially fraught postcolonial ground — especially in a book that was featured as a selection of the “book club” on Today.  Who is Abani writing to/for: himself, a la Proust, as an act of memory?  The interested folk of his adopted country, who also happen to be the cultural and (in ways) economical hegemons of his homeland, and those of his homeland’s former colonizer, Great Britain?  His fellow expatriates, or those he left behind in Nigeria?

The form of the novel is interesting in light of these questions.  GraceLand is a synthetic novel, by which I mean it is made of different sorts of texts.  The vast bulk is the narrative of Elvis, a tale with incident, dialogue, and language deeply informed by Nigeria but with a form out of the Western canon (as mentioned before, it can be read as a Bildungsroman, with an interesting parallel plot with an Igbo twist in the tale of Sunday’s own possible spiritual maturation and transformation at the novel’s end).  I speculate that it is especially influenced by Invisible Man and Things Fall Apart: one American, one Nigerian.

But there are also interstitial bits of text, loosely connected to the narrative.  Between chapters we get recipes, descriptions and definitions of Nigerian herbs and plants, and pieces of different texts like the Bible and the aforementioned Onitsha Market pamphlets.  Many of these are (or at least could be) extracts from Elvis’s mother’s journal, we are led to infer from the description Elvis provides of the journal.  With this narrative connection, we, the Americans-ignorant-of-Nigeria, can read them as the cultural primer they clearly are, but can also read them through Elvis’s eyes, and/or Abani’s.  They can be read as expressions of  Elvis’s longing for and estrangement from the homelands of his mother and his country, added after the events of the novel.  The formal heterodoxy is a powerful tool to convey information to the ignorant, but also to reveal the novel’s meaning — its soul.

In addition, each chapter begins with two brief passages about the Igbo ritual of the kola nut, a powerful ceremony important in divination rites but also in hospitality customs and religion more generally.  The first of each of these passages, in regular type, is from the Igbo point of view and often contains a kind of mystical or oracular language.  The second, in italics, is rather more anthropological, talking about the Igbo rituals as objects of study and anthropological data.  Again, we see the dual consciousness of the expatriate.  But more than that, these passages are epigrammatic, and often indicative of the content of the chapter to follow.   This could suggest to the reader either that Abani wants to convey that the form of the narrative follows a persistent path in Igbo mythology, or that Abani has deliberately structured the events of the novel to do so.  The dual epigrams, perhaps, allow for both interpretations at once.  Joycean.  Ingenious.

Five Favorites, Five Mysteries from Only Revolutions

July 20, 2009 § 1 Comment

Just finished: Only Revolutions.

Okay, enough attempts at coherent thought: let’s do some lists on this soggy, boggy monster!

Five favorite things about the book that I haven’t discussed yet:

-The call-and-response of plants and animals, coming to life in the first half of each narrative and dying in their turns (boldface turned to gray).  The pronouncements about them maybe forming a kind of Whitmanian choral voice of “the land,” and an ecological message.  This is also one of the elements that seems to indicate that Sam and Hailey are more than human: symbols, but also perhaps gods — of nature and technology?

-The 10th section, p. 73-80, S&H’s adventure in New Orleans.  I love any epic poem which makes room for two different lists of pies.  Also love how this section leads us into the roaring ’20s in Sam’s narrative, and through ’68-’69 in Hailey’s: the mix of debauchery and darkness, plus the voodoo sexuality of The Creep (see below).

-HONEY.  I love honey.  When I worked for a food broker in Chicago, I got to know about the different grades and varieties, and totally fell in love with the stuff.  (As I told Jaime the other day: people should care less about wine and beer and more about cheese and honey.)  Here, it functions as something like ambrosia: the food of the gods, powering Sam and Hailey’s love.  Its gold color, the fact that it is one of the only foods which never spoils, that it is a completely natural product which requires husbandry rather than slaughter, and of course its relationship to stinging bees: it all seems perfect.  (I must say I’m baffled as to why they always have a half-jar left in their stash, though.)

-The mindbending, slapstick St. Louis center.  Especially the use of St. Louis’s awesome street names like Chouteau (although I was sad he didn’t use Kingshighway).  And throughout, the poetry of American place: “Mishishishi” (the S&H-centric spelling of Mississippi), Nauvoo, Hannibal, Keokuk.

-The language itself, with its loose poetry of rhymes and rhythms and portmanteau words, is often amazing.  A (less than amazing, but representative) example, from a random opening, and incorporating those place names I love: “Confined to no loss.  Beyond stops we all/ toss.  Because we’re emergent.  Allways divergent./  Down shifting only when we reach La Crosse.”  (As a footnote, I also really loved the use of allone and allways: allone, especially, really added something to the meaning of alone for me.)

And then five things I’m fairly baffled about:

-The Creep.  The villain of the piece, and I guess it’s possible to just see him/her/it as something like the twirly-mustache-black-cape figure of melodrama, but there actually is something creepy about him.  The book felt most like House of Leaves to me in his sections: the purple-pink in which his name appears somehow leaving you with this dread akin to some of the colored words and typographic effects in HoL.  He is described in such mysterious ways: he might be simply a concentrate of dark American impulses towards taking what we want when we want it, or a sort of “dark side” of Sam and Hailey, or something else entirely (in my brief dabbling on the OR forums on Z’s website, I came across a thread suggesting Creep might be the destructive aspect of Sam/Hailey in the other’s narrative.  Interesting, but I remain baffled.)

-“Flash, searing lime to wide.”  Wha?  I guess it’s the lightning to the “ThUuuUuunder” on the opposite side of the page.  But why lime?  Why wide?  And why the lightning/thunder at all?  I appreciate the assonance, and the attempt (maybe?) at the effect of really bright lightning on the backs of your eyelids.  It just seems so out of context whenever it appears.

-The small circles in the corners of a few pages.  These are black circles with gold or green “irises”, or near the end of each narrative, the book’s symbol of two lines in a circle.  Never really got my mind around what these were meant to indicate, except (perhaps) a restarting of the narrative for the two-line-circle symbol.

-The Leftwrist Twists.  Either watches or bracelets, made of materials from “Shit” to “Gold”; since the book itself is a timepiece of sorts, these are perhaps just a reflexive way of pointing to that fact.  Again, though, the frequent references to these are dropped into the narrative in a jarring, seemingly random (but surely not) way of which I could never quite seem to grasp the full significance.

-The marriage and consummation.  Somehow I’ve gotten through all this without discussing the sex.  It seems so out of step with the whole tone of the rest of the book that Hailey only comes, and Sam only refrains from withdrawing, after their marriage.  Why is this marriage necessary?  Is Z actually trying to say something about responsibility, abstinence, “safe sex,” or is it a contrivance to discuss prohibited forms of marriage in America, or a way to link to Romeo and Juliet, or what?  I think it does have to do with S&H committing to each other — valuing the other over the self — but for some reason the marriage bothered me, in such a heightened, stylized, idyllic work.

Everyone and the Dream

July 18, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Only Revolutions.

Reading next: We Always Treat Women Too Well, by Raymond Queneau.

Here’s a fact smuggled into the copyright page of Only Revolutions: the book has a descriptive subtitle.  It is The Democracy of Two Set Out & Chronologically Arranged.

The Democracy of Two: and right away, we are invited to view the work as an American allegory, something like The Pilgrim’s Progress.  (Side note: as a kid, when I first heard of that work, I thought it was funny that its author was named Bunyan, like Paul Bunyan.)  Plus one of the characters is named Sam, as in Uncle Sam.  And Sam and Hailey refer to themselves as “US,” in caps, throughout.

Then there’s one of the more compelling motifs in the work: the phrase “Everyone [verb]s the Dream but I [verb] it.”  The first time it appears in each narrative, in the fifth line, it is “Everyone loves the Dream but I kill it.”  And so we’re led to believe that “the Dream” is the American Dream.

But what’s the American Dream?  The meaning and its application are as fluid as everything else in this book, but Sam and Hailey, these apparent stand-ins for America, are constantly framing themselves as in opposition to it or outside of it: they’re eternal teenagers, after all (“allways sixteen,” in the book’s phrasing), with teenagers’ typical reflexive insistence on “individuality,” on rebellion against whatever’s there to rebel against, with no real examination of whether the status quo is worth rebelling against, or whether their rebellion takes worthwhile forms.

Then again, America is supposed to be the place where you are free to pursue happiness whatever it may be: the status quo is there precisely to be challenged, to be shown that definitions of liberty, happiness, and reasonable conduct as codified in such things as laws, business practices, and the arts become ossified and need constant reevaluation.  One of the most expertly executed facets of this book is the interplay between the real-world events in the chronological sidebar and the lyrical word-collage of the narrative thread.  Danielewski gets just right the allegorical import of Sam and Hailey’s adventures and the amount of period detail in the main narrative — such that in the two narrations of Sam and Hailey’s attempts at marriage, the 1990s attempt is equated with a homosexual marriage, the 1950s attempt with an interracial marriage.  (That these two marriages, like all of the book’s events, take place in precisely the same place in their respective narratives, thereby reflecting upon each other, is one of the payoffs of the book’s circular structure and repetitive style.  Personally, I found the dual marriages one of the more heavy-handed uses of this pseudo-historical technique, not to mention quite confusing in terms of S&H’s character development, but it works really well as agitprop.)

Freedom is what the Dream often comes down too, and the trickiness of negotiating the limits of that freedom.  Another of the book’s strategic misspellings comes into play: the word fear is here feer, a rearrangement of free.  The progress of Sam and Hailey is fascinating in this light: they are supremely “free” at the book’s beginning, insisting on their abilities to do whatever they want, to destroy and create, to impose themselves on the World: “I’ll devastate the world,” says Sam (Hailey uses “destroy”), “I will sacrifice nothing./ For there are no countries./ Except me.  And there is only/ one boundary.  Me.”  But as they come to know and love each other, this rhetoric softens: there is more “feer,” more concern for the other, less braggadocio and posturing (although it’s interesting to consider whether it is posturing, at the book’s beginning: or are Sam and Hailey also two aspects of a destroyer/creator god: a SHiva, of sorts?)  Freedom is the freedom to fear.

Madame Minerva Gravity and the Moon

February 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Villette.

About halfway through the book Lucy makes one of her recurring points about the misperception of her by those around her: Madame Beck thinks her learned, Ginevra believes her catty and bitter, M. de Bassompierre “the essence of the sedate and discreet,” M. Paul a wild woman.

This is an interesting aspect of the book, this ongoing calibration by Lucy of what others think of her compared to the turmoil she knows in her innermost life.  But I’m most interested here in the name she makes up for herself in the next paragraph, and imagines M. de Bassompierre calling her: “Madame Minerva Gravity.”

Gods (capitalized and not), angels, and demons appear throughout this work.  There are the two Christian Gods, the Protestant (Lucy’s) and the Catholic (all the non-Britons).  There are also the many anthropomorphized attributes that populate Lucy’s thoughts: her Reason, her Imagination, her Hope and Despair, many others.  But of all the powerful deities in the book, one stands out: the moon.

Lucy, for all her attempts to squash her inclinations, is a creature of longing and even passion.  At night, alone and unable to sleep, she thinks, and worries, and speculates.  The moon is somehow her companion in these lonely nights.  And she mentions the moon — how it looked, and looked down on the world — at most of the critical moments in the book.  At times it seems to guide, advise, or comfort her.

There are two remarkable instances of this very near the end of the book.  In chapter 38, “Cloud,” Lucy is given a sedative by Madame Beck when Lucy refuses to sleep, waiting for a visit from M. Paul.  Weirdly, the sedative has the opposite affect, reviving and exciting her.  In the reversal of the earlier chat with Reason, Imagination now bids her rise, and “Look forth and view the night!”  When she does so, Imagination “showed me a moon supreme, in an element deep and splendid.”  She has a vision of the moonlit park, and determines to go there.  It’s clear the moon equates with peace, clarity, and resignation, to Lucy.  But when she gets to the park, her hopes for moonlit peace and reflection are dashed by the false daylight of a festival, and an upsetting appearance by M. Paul and the Jesuit Schemers.

Later, at perhaps the happiest moment in Lucy’s life, the scene is moonlit again: “We walked back to the Rue Fossette by moonlight — such moonlight as fell on Eden — shining through the shades of the Great Garden, and haply gilding a path glorious, for a step divine — a Presence nameless.”  (This passage reminds me of the magical moonbeam of The Master and Margarita.)

Brontë employs the moon motif brilliantly: it figures in some of the most beautiful passages in the book.  The moon is traditionally female, of course.  It’s a satellite, a product of gravity.  And it reflects the sun’s light.  Minerva, as you probably know, is the Roman goddess equating to the Greek Athena.  She’s not the goddess of the moon, although there are some connotations (with owls, for instance).  Artemis is the goddess of the moon: both she and Minerva are virginal, but Artemis is a huntress and a woodswoman while Minerva is urban and rational.  You might say that Minerva stands for the cool, calming aspects of moonlight, and Artemis for the mysterious, mystical aspects.

Somehow the complexities and contradictions of moonlight are right for Lucy Snowe: the mingled traditions of tranquil cool calm and uncontrolled passion and mayhem (werewolves, witches’ rites) reflect her outer and inner selves, her desired and actual states of being.  Likewise, the moon’s status as a reflective satellite, and its presence as the symbol of the night, embody Lucy’s conflict between self-reliance and an utter dependence on those she cares about and that she thinks might care for her: like the moon gets its glow from the sun, she is happy only when basking in the reflected glory of her importance to those she loves.

There’s a bunch of stuff in here about the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, but frankly I think that’s all a ruse: I think Lucy Snowe is a pagan, or maybe an animist.

Teeth and the Man I Sing

April 23, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Sharp Teeth.

One last, short note on this.  I didn’t think about it much until I finished it — maybe I have allusion-fatigue after Welty — but the arc of this book’s plot does have some interesting parallels to the ancient epics, and especially the Aeneid.  It’s there explicitly in the first line, “Let’s sing about the man there…”

You have Lark losing his pack, wandering and finding comfort with a kind woman, then founding a new pack and going to war.  There are bits of Aeneas and bits of Odysseus here.  There’s maybe a sly reversal of the Circe myth in the story of Bonnie and Lark, in that unlike Circe changing Odysseus’s crew into wild beasts, Lark changes from dog to man under her nose, as she sleeps the sleep of the drugged.  Bonnie seems to kind of be Dido and Circe and Calypso and Penelope, at various times.

There’s also Venable’s great soliloquy in the third book (p. 175), on the violence to the earth done by the sprawling L.A. megalopolis.  The taming of the Italian wilderness, and the violence of that civilizing, is a theme that runs through the Aeneid, as well.

It’s all fairly subtle, and restrained.  Does seem to be there, though.

Dreamers and Wanderers

April 9, 2008 § 2 Comments

Just finished: The Golden Apples, by Eudora Welty.

I could write on and on about this, and I hope I’ll have occasion to revisit it as I come across articles, reviews, and editions in the course of work and play. For now, one last post, on the last chapter/story, “The Wanderers.”

It might be my favorite, right up there with “Moon Lake.” It’s an elegiac story about the funeral of Katie Rainey, her burial by her daughter Virgie (the great piano player, the girl who dazzled Miss Eckhart and played the piano for the silent movies, indulging in improvisations to the annoyance of paying customers, now all grown up, but still a bit too much of an individual for Morgana).

The first section is this incredible re-entry to the mind of the elderly Miss Katie, with whom we started the book. She’s had a stroke, she gets confused. I have a bit of myth-identification-fatigue, but there seems an allusion back to Yeats’s “wandering Aengus,” who in Celtic mythology apparently had love-birds flying about his head: Katie “heard circling her ears like the swallows beginning, talk about lovers.” She mixes up her own self and her daughter, in the talk she hears in her house by the road. Katie’s death is one of the (many) masterful passages in this book, and it’s one of the greatest pages or so of writing in American literature that I’ve encountered. It’s this amazing celebration of fertility and womanhood and the culmination, maybe, of the Persephone life-in-death theme running through the whole work. It’d make a fantastic monologue; there are some recordings of Welty reading out there, but I don’t see any of this work.

She was thinking, Mistake. Never Virgie at all. It was me, the bride — with more than they guessed. Why, Virgie, go away, it was me.

She put her hand up and never knew what happened to it, her protest.

And that’s just the start. There’s so much more I could go into. Virgie takes a dip in the Big Black River at one point (the Big Black, the other body of water here: the Styx, maybe the Lethe, too).

In the middle of the river, whose downstream or upstream could not be told by a current, she lay on her stretched arm, not breathing, floating. Virgie had reached the point where in the next moment she might turn into something without feeling it shock her.

The story’s true climax comes after the funeral. My favorite paragraph in the whole book might be this one, of Virgie reminiscing about her return to town at the age of seventeen. It’s kind of a throwaway paragraph, but it gets something just right, and reminds me so much of a certain kind of eternal late afternoon in Nebraska summer (strange, for such a Southern book, but to some extent I suppose country places talk to each other):

For that journey, it was ripe afternoon, and all about her was that light in which the earth seems to come into its own, as if there would be no more days, only this day — when fields glow like deep pools and the expanding trees at their edges seem almost to open, like lilies, golden or dark. She had always loved that time of day, but now, alone, untouched now, she felt like dancing; knowing herself not really, in her essence, yet hurt; and thus happy. The chorus of crickets was as unprogressing and out of time as the twinkling of a star.

Just after that, when Virgie’s gone to bed, there’s a knock at the door. A strange old lady gives Virgie a “night-blooming cereus” flower, “naked, luminous, complicated.” The woman says the flower “won’t do the dead no good.” And she remembers Virgie playing the piano at the movie theater. And then she’s gone, and Virgie, terrified, throws the flower into the weeds.

So who’s this woman? At first I thought her the ghost of Katie. (Juba says she’s seen Katie’s ghost, the next day.) Then I thought her the ghost of Miss Eckhart. Now I just don’t know who she is. Right after this Virgie thinks of the river, the moon, the mist. It’s another perfect paragraph.

But so Virgie leaves town. She’s a quester, a wanderer. She remembers a picture in Miss Eckhart’s studio, of Perseus holding up Medusa’s head. Welty does fascinating things with this memory: Virgie remembers that the picture “sometimes blindly reflected the window by its darkness.” The picture, in other words, covered by glass, is dark enough that the light through the window appears in it. (Aside: this reminds me of the complicated play with windows in the poem “Pale Fire,” in the novel Pale Fire.) As well as itself echoing the myth of Perseus seeing Medusa in his brightly polished shield, it’s a wonderful chiaroscuro image in a story and a book full of them. And then there’s the fact that Virgie remembers the elaborate, bourgeois frame around it that was “Miss Eckhart’s pride,” and that “In that moment [the moment of her remembering?] Virgie had shorn it of its frame.” She chooses instead to remember simply the image of triumphant Perseus, his “vaunting.” This whole passage on Perseus and Medusa is really complicated, as Welty provides lays out a kind of mythological explication on Virgie’s behalf, and shows how the myth relates to her relationship to Miss Eckhart, to herself, to her talent. It’s a fascinating passage, it seems something near a statement of purpose for Welty (but I’m speaking out of turn here: I don’t know enough about her to say that, it may only reflect on Virgie, although it sure as hell doesn’t feel that way).

Obscure Mythology

March 30, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: The Golden Apples, by Eudora Welty.

Of course there’s no such single thing as “Southern literature.” It’s silly to think so. But the term exists to be defined by writers like Welty; she’s one of the handful of names you’d think of in connection to it.

“June Recital,” a chapter/story in The Golden Apples, is willfully confusing, dense, allusive, tragic, and obscure. It’s a humid story. It feels like it’s been infected by the fever of the boy Loch Morrison, one of its two perspective-points (along with his sister, Cassie). Although no Southern narrative should be cursed with such cliche, it is, I am afraid, Faulknerian.

There’s the mysterious, serpentine path of the narrative, the way that the perspectives taken and the things they see seem somewhat random at first, working themselves out through the course of the story until they (maybe) make sense. So here we start with Loch, in bed, looking at the “vacant” house next door, and what he sees there is presented in a way that makes you wonder whether it’s a fever dream or actually happening: the house it called vacant, it is beautifully described as blending into its foliage, becoming part of the landscape, and yet there are hints that someone lives (or at least crashes) there, and we see two young people go in and start fooling around, and then a mysterious older woman goes in and starts putting up decorations made of newspapers, and then Fur Elise gets played on the piano. And Loch’s got his own impression of what’s going on, and it’s couched in a boy’s love of mystery and adventure and action (he wonders if the old woman is going to blow the house up).

Then we switch to Cassie, and her flashbacks to piano lessons with Miss Eckhart explain things as they are, we guess. Miss Eckhart is a strange German woman, who lives in the house (which used to be the MacLain house, the town’s nobility) with her elderly mother. Miss Eckhart, it seems, is now deranged. She had loved giving lessons to Virgie Rainey, who plays beautifully. Now, years later, Virgie the teenager is upstairs in the “vacant” house with a sailor, and Miss Eckhart is downstairs playing the piano and setting things up to burn the house down, which seems awfully convenient.

But then, myths often are, in that convenience is sometimes nothing more than fate revealing itself. (And one of the characters here is named Fate, by the way.) There seem to be echoes of the Arachne myth here, alluded to (perhaps?) by the tie-dying into the pattern of webs that Cassie’s doing to a handkerchief as she remembers her lessons, and in that Virgie seems to challenge her stern teacher and Miss Eckhart, just once, plays a grand, masterful, romantic piece for them one day when it’s storming outside. And the myth of Circe and Odysseus, as well, in more obscure ways: Miss Eckhart is explicitly compared to Circe. And Miss Eckhart’s ambition seems to be to keep Virgie with her, playing the piano for her in Morgana, as Circe longs to keep Odysseus forever. But then, in another possible allusion, King MacLain, the Zeus- and Odysseus-like serial fornicator, comes home after Eckhart’s attempted arson has failed, and sees her, and denies he knew her, and there seems to be something there as well. (But then, there’s also the way that Miss Eckhart’s hair catches fire, and this seems something like the scorn of Dido for Aeneas’s rejection of her, too.)

Maybe it’s obvious that Welty is not Joyce: there’s no one-to-one mythological resetting here, there is a web of meanings and significances. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve understood “June Recital.” I suspect this is one of the key passages:

…People saw things like this as they saw Mr. MacLain come and go. They only hoped to place them, in their hour or their street or the name of their mothers’ people. Then Morgana could hold them, and at last they were this and they were that. And when ruin was predicted all along, even if people had forgotten it was on the way, even if they mightn’t have missed it if it hadn’t happened, still they were never surprised when it came.

It’s this placing of people that King MacLain, especially, seems to escape. And it’s what is escaped, as well, through the flights that Miss Eckhart and Virgie both take in their music. The perspectives of Cassie and Loch fit in here: Cassie getting ready for a hay ride that night, full of pubescent sexual intrigue, and Loch just beginning to be curious about such things, watching Virgie and her sailor excitedly. Later that night, after the hay ride, Cassie thinks of when Virgie and Miss Eckhart passed each other after they’ve left the house, and how they didn’t say a word to each other:

Both Miss Eckhart and Virgie Rainey were human beings terribly at large, roaming on the face of the earth. And there were others of them — human beings, roaming, like lost beasts.

The story’s difficult and complicated, in that necessarily unnecessary way that I, for one, think of as Southern. Mythology can be this way too, although it tends to have at least a superficial clarity: it’s only when you get below the surface that things get murky.

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