More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #5: “Supernatural Superserious” and My R.E.M. Favorites Playlist

February 19, 2012 § 5 Comments

R.E.M. broke up last year, and I’ve been wanting to write something about them ever since, but I’m just now getting around to it.  This may be ridiculous to say at our particular, continually overhyped and hyperventilating historical/cultural moment, but I do feel like the breakup was a bigger deal, in fact, than it was made out to be.  R.E.M. was one of the world’s greatest bands.  For certain people — mostly (but not all!) white, mostly (but not all!) well educated, mostly (but not all!) creatively inclined — they were paragons.  They made art, not product.  They cared about beauty and integrity.  They cared about not selling out.  They were from Athens, not New York, not L.A.

I’m old enough to have cared deeply about R.E.M. when they were at their peak, but not old enough to have caught onto them when they were still under the radar.  But if you were listening to music when Out of Time, Green, and Automatic for the People came out, you went back and found the earlier stuff, too.  I mean, I went to a small Lutheran boarding high school in Nebraska, and our dorm supervisor had a t-shirt from the Automatic for the People tour.  Everyone loved this band.  They are now retired as a band (although of course there’s always the possibility of a reunion).  They would probably get my vote as the greatest American band, period.

Of course, there was that long trough between New Adventures and Accelerate — those three boring albums after Bill Berry quit the band.  But I feel like their last two albums made up for that: these were really great records, overlooked mostly, I think, because R.E.M. had just been around for so long, and they were always going to sell a certain number of albums.  R.E.M. embraced their status as elder statesmen on these albums; their songs weren’t preachy, but they often contained a message.  The sound seemed to epitomize what people think of when they think of R.E.M.

My favorite song from these two albums is probably “Supernatural Superserious” off of Accelerate, though there are a number of great tracks on Collapse Into Now as well.

This is, to start, just a great song, with that R.E.M mix of chime and jangle with power and hook.  I love basically any R.E.M. song that features Mike Mills chiming in on vocals, and this has some lovely harmony/background vocals by him.  It also features an especially inspired performance by Michael Stipe: he sounds like he cares on this track.  (My least favorite part of the song is probably the somewhat cutesy title.  I learn that the Coldplay dude renamed it from its superior working title, “Disguised.”  That would explain it.)

There’s a lot going on in these lyrics.  It starts with a terrific, epigrammatic first line: “Everybody here comes from somewhere that they would just as soon forget and disguise.”  And then we get this knockout verse:

At the summer camp where you volunteered

No one saw your face, no one saw your fear

If that apparition had just appeared,

Took you up and away from this base and sheer humiliation

Of your teenage station

Nobody cares

No one remembers and nobody cares

So we have a song about adolescence.  A summer camp; a hypothetical, perhaps hopeful “apparition”; teenage humiliation.  And this astonishing bit of advice: Nobody cares.  No one remembers, and nobody cares.  This is like the flip side of “Everybody Hurts”: everyone is disguising something they feel humiliated about.  Everyone is too wrapped up in their own dilemmas to care about yours.  That summer-camp humiliation?  Forgotten.  Not worth all the angst. The chorus (“Yeah you cried and you cried/He’s alive, he’s alive/Yeah you cried and you cried and you cried and you cried”) doesn’t sound uplifting based on the lyrics — at all — but it is, especially with those sweet Mike Mills vocals.  We have another implication of the supernatural in that repeated “he’s alive”: is “he” Christ? The teenager’s “apparition”?

This first verse and chorus remind me of a story by Reynolds Price entitled “Michael Egerton.”  It was written when Price was still a teenager, but Mr. Price seems to have been born something of an elder statesman.  It’s a summer-camp tale in which the title character is bullied for missing a championship baseball game, metaphorically “crucified” for his sensitivity.  (It also references the folk song “Green Grow the Rushes,” which is of course also an R.E.M. song.  Not that I think there was any influence by Price on R.E.M., just a funny coincidence.)

Stipe then builds in references to sexuality, theatricality, and S&M (safe words, chafing “ropes,” “fantasies” dressed up as “travesties”) to complicate these themes of disguise and “humiliation,” leading to a straightforward message: “Enjoy yourself with no regrets.”  And that’s as good an encapsulation of R.E.M.’s message as you’re likely to find.

There follows another great verse:

Now there’s nothing dark and there’s nothing weird

Don’t be afraid I will hold you near

From the seance where you first betrayed

An open heart on a darkened stage

A celebration of your teenage station

A seance that’s also a celebration, which was formerly a humiliation: that’s memory, folks.  That’s R.E.M.’s past, that’s the past for all of us.  You will end up celebrating, reminiscing about, calling up from the dead those events that were once so embarrassing.  Enjoy yourself, with no regrets.

***

In that spirit of celebration, here’s my R.E.M. favorites playlist (not in order of preference, but an order in which I enjoy listening to them — and apologies for whatever annoying ads you may encounter):

  1. Finest Worksong
  2. It Happened Today (this has a great video with extended version of the song, by the way)
  3. Swan Swan H
  4. You Are the Everything (sadly, no “official” version; this is a near-contemporary live version, and it’s beautiful, but I do miss Mike Mills’s background vocals from the album track)
  5. Don’t Go Back to Rockville
  6. Try Not to Breathe
  7. Man On the Moon
  8. Cuyahoga (fairly faithful live version, but no substitute for the original.  There’s also a very nice cover by the Decemberists here)
  9. Near Wild Heaven
  10. Sweetness Follows
  11. Driver 8
  12. What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?
  13. Orange Crush
  14. Turn You Inside-Out
  15. Supernatural Superserious
  16. Undertow (live version, but very close to the album track.  Note: I love the New Adventures in Hi-Fi album. It was tough not to include “E-Bow the Letter,” “Electrolite,” “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us,” and others.)
  17. Let Me In (there’s also a truly amazing live version from the Monster tour)
  18. Fall On Me
  19. Half a World Away
  20. Nightswimming

Joyce’s Epiphanies and “An Encounter”

February 12, 2012 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Dubliners, by James Joyce, and James Joyce, by Richard Ellmann.

Reading next: The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach.

I’ve been reading Ellmann’s biography of Joyce slowly, a chapter at a time here and there between other things, as part of my preparation for a trip to Ireland later this year.  (I’m not sure whether the voluntarily exiled Joyce would scoff at or be proud of this fact.  Maybe a bit of both.)  It is as great as everyone says, full of meticulous detail, useful insight, and a great balance between attention to Joyce’s works and information on his life.  And yet, now that I’m reading Dubliners, all of his incredible work tracking down real-life counterparts for characters and scenes can seem so pale and inconsequential — the stories are just that great.

But the book has been immensely interesting, and I’m very glad to be reading it.  Ellmann convinced me to take a look at the “Epiphanies,” some of Joyce’s earliest fictional or pseudo-fictional works to survive.  These very short works — we would call them short shorts or flash fiction now — are well known by just about every 20th century reader of literature, even if they’ve never heard of them, due to their immense influence.  Joyce explains them in his early version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man entitled Stephen Hero:

By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself.  He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.

Forty of Joyce’s epiphanies survive.  They don’t all live up to his own sublime definition, and they are most important as apprentice examples of a concept which would transform literature.  Many of them make their ways into his masterworks, put into minds and mouths of characters, allowed to bloom in their new environments, as we’ll see later.  The epiphanic structure of so much of modern literature is due largely to Joyce and the immense power of his use of the tactic in his fiction.  (I’m convinced, incidentally, that Joyce is the most influential figure of 20th century literature.  Beyond the impact of his works themselves, the arc of his career from lyrical poetry to short stories to autobiographical novel to monumental works of avant-garde literature has become the basic template by which authors are judged, everyone expected to produce something as crystalline as Dubliners and to move on from it to something as opaque and challenging as Finnegan’s Wake.)

Because this is Joyce, we’d do well to remember the multiple meanings of the chosen term for his invention (or “invention,” if you prefer).  Beyond its common meaning as a sudden flash of insight, Epiphany is the Christian celebration of Christ’s revelation as man (his “manifestation,” to use Joyce’s word), the celebration of the Magi’s visit to the manger or, especially in Eastern Christianity, of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River.  Joyce was constantly putting his Catholic education and upbringing to use in understanding the world in the most unexpected ways; here, he embues the Christian and emotional meanings of the word with new, Freudian significance.  An epiphany becomes a revelation of the true self to the world, or a revelation of the deeper self to the self.

One of the epiphanies (number 38 in the sequence as I read them, edited by A. Walton Litz, in Joyce’s Poems and Shorter Writings) appears, transformed, in “An Encounter,” perhaps the most controversial of the stories in Dubliners, central to its place in publishing purgatory for a decade.  Two boys skip school to see the sights and take a trip to the “Pigeon House” on the waterfront.  As the day wanders on they rest on a bank above the Dodder River and are met by a mysterious man.

"On the Dodder," Dublin, by Robert French, ca. 1880-1900. From the National Library of Ireland.

The 38th epiphany concerns a “Little Male Child” being asked about his “sweetheart” by two “Young Ladies” at a “garden gate.”  In “An Encounter,” this exchange is between the two truants, Mahony and the narrator, and this mystery man:

Then he asked us which of us had the most sweethearts.  Mahony mentioned lightly that he had three totties.  The man asked how many had I.  I answered that I had none.  He did not believe me and said he was sure I must have one.  I was silent.

-Tell us, said Mahony pertly to the man, how many have you yourself?

The man smiled as before and said that when he was our age he had lots of sweethearts.

-Every boy, he said, has a little sweetheart.

From there, things get very creepy indeed, the man revealing his interest in flagellation of young boys.  The complicated system of symbols and allusions in the story leads me to see a number of “sudden spiritual manifestations” in the encounter.  One is a possible reading of the incident as an allusion to the temptation of Christ by Satan in the wilderness: the narrator, an innocent away from his Christian school for the day, visited by a man with a sexual interest in pain and suffering, an interest in seeing the innocent defiled.  The narrator’s sudden realization that the man has green eyes — trickster’s eyes, the color of the eyes of Ulysses in medieval tradition — may have significance here.

I think this allusion is there, intended by Joyce, but more powerful is a reading of the man as a kind of epiphany himself.  Once the man begins on the subject of “sweethearts,” the narrator says, “He gave me the impression that he was repeating something which he had learned by heart or that, magnetized by some words of his own speech, his mind was slowly circling round and round in the same orbit,” and he begins to focus on boys, girls, and flagellation.  This is about as vulgar as an epiphany can get, this manifestation of obsessive, unhealthy sexual desire.

But the encounter here functions as a more mental, spiritual revelation, to the author (whom we can understand as Joyce or “Joyce”) and his audience, of the twisted side of Christianity.  “An Encounter” could be the encounter with Catholicism as obsession with the torture of an innocent child of God.

A Fop and an Androgyne

November 6, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins.

This is the first of Wilkie Collins that I’ve read, and I must say I’m pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoy the writing itself; I expected something more sensationally and less imaginatively written, whereas it has been (at least so far) quite strong.  In the early going, I’m most intrigued by a couple of characters whose parts I’m unsure of in the overall narrative:

-Frederick Fairlie, who seems a great type of villain: the foppish, indifferent hypochondriac.  Constantly using his supposedly fragile nerves and health as an excuse to get rid of people, and to have nothing to do with things he cares nothing about, he is revealed as a monster of solipsism.  He refuses to leave his room for any reason, and takes no considerations into account other than what will mostly quickly get him rid of whoever is bothering him.  He sets guidelines for when and how his niece Laura will be allowed to visit him before and after her wedding, imploring that she visit him “without tears!” to avoid upsetting his disposition.  Fairlie reminds me very much of Des Esseintes from Against Nature, here presented from the normal societal perspective on the worthlessness of such a self-centered aesthete.  I’ll be interested to see what’s done with him.  He’s a caricature as so many characters in Victorian novels are, but he’s one that’s particularly well done and interesting, I think, and one that can also strike close to home: that consideration for one’s own comfort whatever the consequence for others is a source of constant struggle, isn’t it?

-Marian Holcombe, who seems as though she may actually be our protagonist, or at least should be.  While Fairlie is presented as effeminate and delicate, Holcombe is given a statuesque body, a homely face, and any number of masculine sympathies and markers as something of an intermediary between the sexes.  Collins seems to set her up as a kind of sexless combination of what he sees as the best of each sex: the compassion, familial concern, and lively wit of the female, and the level-headedness and responsibility of the male.  And yet she is a strong defender of her sister Laura’s right to choose her husband, and to back out of a marriage that certainly promises to be loveless; she certainly sees the woman’s point of view.  Marian seems kind of fascinating, and I’m interested to see what Collins does with her, as well: does she become the authorial surrogate, interjecting Collins’s own views into the plot?  Or is she allowed to take a more active role, perhaps in solving the mystery of Anne Catherick?

I note that we get to know Marian much better than we get to know Laura, the object of so much attention but so little substantive description.  In combination with the ominous marriage agreement allowing (the wonderfully named) Percival Glyde to take her money in the event of her death before her 21st birthday, the lack of depth to Laura’s character makes me wonder if she’s not long for the narrative.  Not that it’s all that uncommon for a Victorian novelist to keep a young woman pure by sketching her as good and pure and beautiful without an ounce of actual character.  Marian’s too interesting to be loved, it would seem.

Hypochondria and the Gothic Imagination

January 31, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Villette.

There was a reading and reception for Poe’s 200th birthday yesterday at the Duke library — a fine event, with some exceptionally good readings of six Poe works (three prose, three poetry).  Ariel Dorfman, who read “The Cask of Amontillado,” made a great point about how appropriate it was that Poe lived and died in Baltimore, the dividing point between the cold, rational North and the Gothic South, just as his works feature both some of the first detective stories and some of the most overheated Gothic prose ever.

Plus I’ve been reading Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy very slowly, as bedtime reading, for the last few months.  It is really quite a fantastic read — a page or two at a time is perfect, since the whole book’s basically one big digression after another anyway.  And it has me thinking about all the things we’ve meant by “melancholy,” down through the centuries, and why and how the word and concept persist.

So: let’s talk about mental illness.  Specifically, hypochondria.  Ishmael’s famous “hypos.”  (And the comparison is illuminating: when Ishmael felt suicidal, he was able to run off to sea.  Lucy had no such option; her short trip across the Channel was harrowing enough, and then, if she wanted to keep a measure of independence,  she had to find some place to do respectable work — viz. the passage on p. 329-331 in which Lucy reveals to the de Bassompierres that she is a teacher.)

We now use “hypochondria” to refer to the condition of constant fear of illness; the meaning in the nineteenth century was similar, but referred more to low spirits, melancholy, a depression-like state, with no apparent cause.  I am not a psychiatrist, so I use the following terms as a layman, but what we now call bipolarity and depression seem to have been considered symptomatic of hypochondria.  Oh, and hallucinations could also be a symptom, in some cases.

Of course, you can find Gothic and/or Victorian attitudes toward psychology and mental illness discussed ad nauseam; and you can even find studies of Brontë’s writing and the psychology of the time in books like this.  It can all seem fairly played out.  But personally, I never seem to get tired of the subject: the time was the crossroads between so much superstition and speculation and so much new science, thought, and experimentation.  That pre-Freudian century contains so much potential energy in the enthusiasms for phrenology, spiritualism, evolution, utopian thinking and living.  Plus, no matter how much Brontë is contextualized and demythologized, Charlotte really does seem a special case, and Lucy Snowe — well, Lucy Snowe’s something else entirely.

(A crabby aside: the academic party line now seems to be contextualizing and historicizing the Brontës, products of their time and environment and all that.  I hear this from profs, I see it in books and articles.  Now, I know the Brontës have been considered these utter anomalies, writing their wild imaginings in the hinterlands, but must we really insist that no one is special, that there’s nothing strange or amazing about these sisters’ writings, that they’re just products of their historical moment((s), I’m sure the lit profs would add) like all the others?  Can we keep the humanities at least a little non-scientific, please, and savor something that smacks of miracle?  I know, I know: no one’s getting tenure savoring a miracle.  End crabby aside.)

Hypochondria pops up over and over again in Villette, and there are times when Lucy certainly does seem clinically depressed or manic.  The writing at the times of depression can be quite heart-wrenchingly sad and beautiful.  Chapter 15, “The Long Vacation,” when Lucy becomes desperately lonely and resorts to a Catholic priest’s confessional, and the beginning of chapter 24, as she suffers a seven-week silence from Dr. John, are especially memorable.  But the two episodes most directly touched by hypochondria (so far, at least) are the appearances of the ghost-nun and the king of Labassecour.

The nun, a legend of Madame Beck’s school, appears to Lucy in chapter 22, and the circumstances are quite intriguing.  Lucy has received her first letter from Dr. John, and read it in the garret, and been made very happy by its warmth and “good-nature.”  (Lucy, that tricksy narrator, is coy on this throughout, but I do think she is in a fairly conventional kind of love with Dr. John, even if she doesn’t admit it to herself.)  “The present moment had no pain, no blot, no want; full, pure, perfect, it deeply blessed me.” Then we get a remarkable run of paragraphs — I love how the textures and rhythms of this passage telegraph their Gothic-ness but nevertheless powerfully build suspense:

Are there wicked things, not human, which envy human bliss?  Are there evil influences haunting the air, and poisoning it for man?  What was near me?…

Something in that vast solitary garret sounded strangely.  Most surely and certainly I heard, as it seemed, a solitary foot on that floor: a sort of gliding out from the direction of the black recess haunted by the malefactor cloaks.  I turned: my light was dim; the room was long — but, as I live! I saw in the middle of that ghostly chamber a figure all black or white; the skirts straight, narrow, black; the head bandaged, veiled, white.

Say what you will, reader — tell me I was nervous or mad; affirm that I was unsettled by the excitement of that letter; declare that I dreamed: this I vow — I saw there — in that room — on that night — an image like — A NUN.

Dr. John soon diagnoses this as an effect of hypochondria, and I, at least at first blush, am inclined to agree.  The image of a silent, celibate woman — one of the dreaded Catholics, no less — appearing to Lucy after a glimmer of romantic hope is simply too powerful to resist as a figure out of her own mind.  The nun reappears to Lucy thereafter, and there remains some degree of Gothic mystery about whether the nun actually is a ghost.

But turn it around: what if it’s not a phantasm of sexual fear and frustration or some long-lost relative of Lucy’s, but a bloody ghost?  What if it’s an affront to Reason?  There is, after all, the remarkable dialogue between Lucy and her Reason on p. 265-6 (beginning at no. 19 in the e-text), and the ensuing castigation of the “hag” Reason to the glorification of Imagination and Hope. What if the nun is exactly what Lucy Snowe needs to acknowledge as the reason behind her impulse to flee to the continent — the missing (or repressed) part of herself?

The other remarkable passage on hypochondria is Lucy’s observation of the king, sitting in the royal box at a concert Lucy attends with Dr. John, and her recognition in him of a kindred spirit:

There sat a silent sufferer — a nervous, melancholy man.  Those eyes had looked on the visits of a certain ghost — had long waited the comings and goings of that strangest spectre, Hypochondria.  Perhaps he saw her now on that stage, over against him, amidst all that brilliant throng.  Hypochondria has that wont, to rise in the midst of thousands — dark as Doom, pale as Malady, and well-nigh strong as Death.

And but so here it is again, in another form: the great white shark of pain.

The Lost Art of the Complex Narrative Metaphor

January 24, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Villette.

I’m reading this book at the behest of my wife, Jaime; we occasionally like to make each other read something we love that the other probably wouldn’t get around to.  She read it after a long string of 19th-century books featuring typically selfless heroine-martyr female characters and was blown away by the complexity of Lucy’s character and narration.  “You’ve got to watch yourself with Lucy Snowe,” she told me.  “She lies.”

Brontë really does do some strange, brilliant things with her narrator: things that remind me of Nabokov, and maybe even Laurence Sterne.  As those names suggest, the book can feel both archaic and modern, sometimes simultaneously.

For instance: the beginning of chapter four.  The first two paragraphs of this chapter employ a technique that’s more or less never used anymore: the use of an extended, complicated metaphor as a narrative device, pushing the plot along in a kind of encoded message just short of allegory.  You see this in Victorian literature frequently; I think it died out with modernism’s disdain for the flourishes and fillips of Victorian prose.

Lucy refuses to say much of anything about her family (or lack thereof?); it’s impossible to tell if her family has died, or is estranged, or abusive, or what, exactly.  Instead of telling us what happens in the eight years after the opening scenes, she assigns to us, the readers, a “conjecture” that she was happy to go home, and spins around this a metaphor of a “bark” floating along merrily in the sunshine.  “A great many women and girls are supposed to pass their lives something in that fashion; why not I with the rest?”

So, okay, we’re already just playing along with Lucy, and already cannot say with any certainty what actually happened to her.  Then she says that, if that metaphor of the calmly floating boat was accurate, she “must somehow have fallen over-board, or that there must have been a wreck at last,” and talks of a “nightmare” along these lines of drowning; whether this is an actual nightmare or still a metaphoric nightmare of remembering something in those eight years is impossible to say.  Finally, “the ship was lost, the crew perished.”

Lucy moves us through eight years without actually telling us one thing that truly happened: instead, she employs a metaphor that she herself disputes the validity of.  It is impossible to say if the constituent parts of her metaphor (ship, steersman, storm, crew) function allegorically, standing for events and people in Lucy’s life, or are merely conveniences to capture the emotional landscape through which Lucy moves to the present of the novel.

This is brilliant.  We get a sense of what that time entailed, but more importantly, we get a strong sense of how powerfully Lucy wants to avoid confronting the details of that time; how deeply she feels it still and how distant she tries to keep it from her thoughts.  There is both expression and repression in the convolutions of metaphor.

She does it again in chapter 12, pages 124-25, provoked by a real storm this time.  (The Gothic and Romantic elements in the book are palpable here, and really quite ingenious, I think.)  This is another of my favorite passages in the book so far: Lucy looks at the moon on a calm night, and recalls how it looked “leaning back on azure, beside an old thorn at the top of an old field, in Old England,” during her childhood.  (What a brilliant turn of phrase — “leaning back on azure!”)  And it recalls her childhood to her.  Then we get what seems one of the key paragraphs in the book:

Oh, my childhood!  I had feelings: passive as I lived, little as I spoke, cold as I looked, when I thought of past days, I could feel.  About the present, it was better to be stoical; about the future — such a future as mine — to be dead.  And in catalepsy and a dead trance, I studiously held the quick of my nature.

I mean… good Lord!  What are we to make of that?  What are we to feel towards this girl, and towards the older woman recalling that level of repressed despair and grief?  That level of repressed life? (Well, here’s what I felt: sympathy; horror; some level of queasy recognition.)

But Lucy goes on to recount a night of thunderstorms; she gets out on the roof and sits in the rain, wind, and lightning, feeling a kind of wild, Romantic kinship with nature.  She feels a “longing” for a release from her “present existence.”  In the midst of this scene of psychology projected onto nature, we get another, stunning, bruising extended metaphor:

This longing, and all of a similar kind, it was necessary to knock on the head; which I did, figuratively, after the manner of Jael to Sisera, driving a nail through their temples.  Unlike Sisera, they did not die: they were but transiently stunned, and at intervals would turn on the nail with a rebellious wrench; then did the temples bleed, and the brain thrill to its core.

She then returns to the calm night, watching the moon, but extends the metaphor of Jael and Sisera (from Judges 4): Jael, “the stern woman,” watches over her captive Sisera, captain of the Canaanites’ army, while waiting for her husband, Heber, but does not drive the nail through his temples; instead, “something like an angel — the Ideal!” soothes Sisera, just as Lucy feels hopeful in “the cool peace and dewy sweetness of the night.”

So there’s some serious sexual longing and repression going on here.  Lucy’s calm hopefulness is shattered by a love letter falling down to her secret resting place; and while she says (to herself and to us) that she “did not dream… for a moment” that it was for her, we feel for her; we know she let herself hope, at least for a moment.  We read between the lines of her complicated metaphor to the desperate loneliness and desire she feels.  It was no easy thing, being an unattached, “independent” woman (voluntarily or not); does Brontë invite us to feel sorry or elated for her, that she so often drove the nail into the temple of her desire?

Wet Hot Mississippian Summer

April 8, 2008 § 2 Comments

Just finished (but need to keep thinking about for a little while): The Golden Apples, by Eudora Welty.

Reading next: Sharp Teeth, by Toby Barlow, and The Art of Memory, by Frances Yates.

A boy, Loch Morrison, patrols the outskirts of a summer camp for Christian girls and orphans, blowing reveille and fishing. Two girls from town are bedazzled by a firebrand orphan named Easter. A black boy tickles Easter on a diving board, sending her plunging into the lake, and Loch revives her with great difficulty. Later, exhausted, he undresses in his tent and the girls from town see him naked.

Doesn’t it sound like some coming-of-age movie? Kind of tired and nostalgic? It’s not. That’s the nutshell plot of “Moon Lake,” one of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever read. Like everything else in this book, it’s mysterious and complicated and its plot is crucial but can’t tell you what’s great about it. Just for starters, Easter’s name seems to really be “Esther”: but she pronounces it “Easter,” and Welty approves the decision. Certainly seems appropriate, for a girl who plunges out of the sky like Icarus and is brought back from the dead like Christ by Loch, a knight-errant if there ever was one.

It has layer upon layer, this story. Most obviously, it’s about community: in the ways that Easter remains aloof from Nina and Jinny Love, the town girls, and from everyone to some extent; and the ways that Loch and Exum, the black boy, circle around the camp, outside of its protective circle. There’s the scene when the girls try to take a boat out on the lake but Nina can’t get free of the chain binding it to the shore: she wishes she had Easter’s knife to cut it loose. (But would a knife do any good on a chain?) And there’s a lot of sex simmering here: there’s the girls with each other, there’s Loch, there’s Miss Moody, their minder, sneaking away for dates. But hiding in plain sight, I suspect, is Welty’s story about Christianity: about Welty’s strange view of Christian legend blended with a pagan, Greek sensibility. There’s the fold-up drinking cup that acts as a Holy Grail; the Easter resurrection; the swims in Moon Lake, like an extended baptism.

None of that, to be honest, is what makes the story so great. It simply has such a magical tone: a feel for incident, language, word play that seems to carry Welty away along with all of us reading her words. The girls are always getting slathered with Sweet Dreams Mosquito Oil, and the story is very dreamy indeed. There’s something unforgettable about Loch, the Boy Scout/Galahad, out in the woods, blowing his bugle in the morning: you can feel how he somehow loves this duty, his sacrifice of summer alone in his tent. Something so interesting in this pubescent boy in the swamps. There’s such a mystery in his resuscitation of Easter, after her plunge into the lake: the way it takes forever to revive her, the way he’s imagined as “joining with” her under the lake when he dives in to find her, and then as riding her like a horse as he tries to get the water out of her lungs. And the language: there are these amazing passages:

Nina and Easter, dipping under a second, unexpected fence, went on, swaying and feeling their feet pulled down, reaching to the trees. Jinny Love was left behind in the heartless way people and incidents alike are thrown off in the course of a dream, like the gratuitous flowers scattered from a float — rather in celebration. The swamp was now all-enveloping, dark and at the same time vivid, alarming — it was like being inside the chest of something that breathed and might turn over.

Or this:

Easter was lying rocked in the gentle motion of the boat, her head turned on its cheek. She had not said hello to Jinny Love anew. Did she see the drop of water clinging to her lifted finger? Did it make a rainbow? Not to Easter: her eyes were rolled back, Nina felt. Her own hand was writing in the sand. Nina, Nina, Nina. Writing, she could dream that her self might get away from her — that here in this faraway place she could tell her self, by name, to go or to stay. Jinny Love had begun building a sand castle over her foot. In the sky clouds moved no more perceptibly than grazing animals. Yet with a passing breeze, the boat gave a knock, lifted and fell.

And so much beautiful imagery, scenery, description. There’s also this passage early on:

As the three were winding around the lake, a bird flying above the opposite shore kept uttering a cry and then diving deep, plunging into the trees there, and soaring to cry again.

“Hear him?” one of the niggers said, fishing on the bank; it was Elberta’s sister Twosie, who spoke as if a long, long conversation had been going on, into which she would intrude only the mildest words. “Know why? Know why, in de sky, he say ‘Spirit? Spirit?’ And den he dive boom and say ‘GHOST’?”

Ghosts pop up in the book, or seem to, more or less always associated with or seen by the black population of the town; it’s another thing I haven’t figured out. But this passage, with its interesting juxtaposition of spirit/ghost (Holy Spirit/Holy Ghost?), is most mysterious.

One last rambling thing: at the very end of the story, Jinny Love says to Nina, “You and I will always be old maids.” In the very next story/chapter, we find that she married Ran MacLain, and has cheated on him. Something strangely both dark and sweet in this, it seems to me, this utterly incorrect prognostication at summer camp to a best friend — this utter lack of self-knowledge.

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