Opened Graves, Emptied Coffins

March 18, 2012 § 1 Comment

Finished: The Art of Fielding.

SPOILER ALERT: You’ll probably want to skip this post for now if you plan on reading The Art of Fielding anytime soon.

Given that the Bible is the wellspring of 2000 years of Western culture, it’s not surprising that the empty grave, and the resurrected body, should be recurring features in our literature.  Early on in The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach (through his character Mike Schwartz) introduces a lesser-known example from the life of Emerson:

“His first wife died young, of tuberculosis.  Emerson was shattered.  Months later, he went to the cemetery, alone, and dug up her grave.  Opened the coffin and looked inside, at what was left of the woman he loved.  Can you imagine? It must have been terrible.  Just a terrible thing to do.  But the thing is, Emerson had to do it.  He needed to see for himself.  To understand death. To make death real….”

It’s a little surprising, when you start looking, how many of the open graves in our literature do not partake of the Christian joy and hope in resurrection: how many are full instead of terror, disgust, despair, existential questioning, grim humor.  Hamlet, of course.  The premature burials and morbid lovers of Poe.  The countless tales of “resurrection men” in penny dreadfuls, ballads, and sensational stories.

In the coda to this book, Pella (with the help of Owen, Henry, and Mike) digs up her father’s body to bury him at sea, as she believes he would have wanted.  Harbach is referencing a number of the empty graves in American literature with this finale — or at least, it reminded me of them.  Most obviously, there is the coffin of Queequeg in Moby-Dick, rescuing Ishmael from the Pequod’s doom.  The famous last word of that work is “orphan,” and orphans abound in this work: Affenlight’s death leaves Pella orphaned, of course, but Schwartz is also an orphan.  You can argue that Henry is also a kind of orphan in this work, at least spiritually.  His parents are nonentities in his life, objecting to the liberality of his college experience; further, his spiritual father, Aparicio Rodriguez, is present for his public humiliation, leaving him too ashamed to meet his hero.

The two other allusions are more subtle, but I think they are there.  The possibility entered my mind thanks to the seemingly innocuous fact that Westish plays Amherst in the national championship game.  Amherst: hometown of Emily Dickinson, and alma mater of David Foster Wallace.  With this choice of opponent, Harbach introduces connections to both the American Renaissance that forms the background of his work and the contemporary milieu of his work.

Dickinson, of course, is one of the great grapplers with death and the afterlife, testing possibilities and asking questions throughout her poetic career, imagining both death in the grave and life beyond it.  The questioning and constant self-inspection of Dickinson, and her interest in conceptions of an end to same, are reminiscent of Henry’s journey from “thoughtless being” to “thought” to “return to thoughtless being.”  Further, Dickinson is a weighty counterpoint to Emerson and the traditional, male-centered view of American literary history.  Pella objects to the Emerson story that Mike tells, “the namelessness of women in stories, as if they lived and died so that men could have metaphysical insights.”

Infinite Jest also contains (or at least looks forward to) the exhumation of a father: Hal Incandenza’s father James, whose head may contain the antidote to his unstoppably entertaining film.  The allusion points out a number of parallels between Harbach’s book and DFW’s, especially the campus setting, casually precocious students, mysterious drive and stamina of gifted athletes, addictions to pain and painkillers, and battles with depression and stasis.  But the different purposes for grave-robbing in the two novels point out the differences between the authors.  I think, in this scene, that Harbach is referencing Infinite Jest (by way of Moby-Dick, and Hamlet, and Dickinson) to attempt to move beyond the postmodern condition which DFW critiqued and which Affenlight diagnoses earlier in the book, the crippling self-consciousness and “profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action.”  In Owen’s eulogy over the body, he remembers Guert Affenlight’s belief “that a soul isn’t something a person is born with but something that must be built, by effort and error, study and love.”  He asserts the continuation of Guert’s soul in the people he loved, the works to which he devoted it.  The whole scene feels a little like a “didactic little parable-ish story”  at the close of a tragicomic, linear narrative of liberal-arts education.  But we’ve seen that it’s actually pretty complex, and that it’s about how to be an adult, how to move beyond education: how to choose what to think about.  The orator of the 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech would be proud.

David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 17 and 18

January 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Finished: David Copperfield.

Approaching the end now.  There have been spoilers all along — and no one can be totally surprised by the end of a Dickens novel — so I’m not going to bother to warn you.  But I guess I just did anyway.

Favorite passages:

Chapter 51:

With a slight wave of his hand, as though to explain to me that he could not enter the old place, he turned away.  As I looked after his figure, crossing the waste in the moonlight, I saw him turn his face towards a strip of silvery light upon the sea, and pass on, looking at it, until he was a shadow in the distance.

There’s a melancholy air to this chapter that seems to me to overcome its more celebratory passages.  But melancholy isn’t even the word I’m looking for, exactly; more like elegiac, or a kind of contemplative, lovely nostalgic tone.  Whatever the case, this portrait of Ham comes after the message he passes to Emily through David; it may be standard-issue Victorian romance stuff, but it got to me in this chapter.

Chapter 52:

Uriah, more blue than white at these words, made a dart at the letter as if to tear it in pieces.  Mr. Micawber, with a perfect miracle of dexterity or luck, caught his advancing knuckles with the ruler, and disabled his right hand.  It dropped at the wrist, as if it were broken.  The blow sounded as if it had fallen on wood.

Master stroke, those knuckles of wood.  Herky-jerky Heep always had something of the malevolent marionette about him, but I’d never realized it until reading this line, when he, the scheming puppet-master, is turned into the puppet, like Pinocchio in reverse: the poor, wicked boy revealed never to have been human after all.

Chapter 53:

I have no favorite line in this, the creepiest chapter in the book, a truly disturbing piece of what certainly feels an awful lot like a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which Dickens/Copperfield get rid of a wife that was a “mistake.”  Not only that, Dickens transforms the wife from a silly young girl to a saintly portrait of calm death, not only accepting that her existence is over after 20-some years, but also confessing that she’s glad David won’t have to deal with her anymore.  It’s even creepier and more cloying than it sounds.

And then he fucking kills off the dog.

Chapter 54:

“My dear,” said Mr. Micawber, with some heat, “it may be better for me to state distinctly, at once, that if I were to develop my views to that assembled group, they would possibly be found of an offensive nature: my impression being that your family are, in the aggregate, impertinent Snobs; and, in detail, unmitigated Ruffians.”

I am really looking forward to seeing the 1935 film version in which W.C. Fields plays Micawber.  He’s not really the kind of figure I had in mind while reading the book, but darned if I’m not looking forward to some of his line readings.

Chapter 55:

There was a bell on board; and as the ship rolled and dashed, like a desperate creature driven mad, now showing us the whole sweep of her deck, as she turned on her beam-ends towards the shore, now nothing but her keel, as she sprung wildly over and turned towards the sea, the bell rang; and its sound, the knell of those unhappy men, was borne towards us on the wind.  Again we lost her, and again she rose.  Two men were gone.  The agony on shore increased.  Men groaned, and clasped their hands; women shrieked and turned away their faces.  Some ran wildly up and down along the beach, crying for help where no help could be.  I found myself one of these, frantically imploring a knot of sailors whom I knew, not to let those two lost creatures perish before our eyes.

This chapter, “Tempest,” is, as the title would indicate, high-Shakespearean Dickens.  It’s nuts, in a good way, with a Lear-grade storm making manifest the grief/guilt of David in a welter of jarring, confused, hyperbolic sensory experiences, followed by this nearly hallucinogenic shipwreck, its shocking cargo, and the apotheosis of Ham Peggotty.

Chapter 56:

I went through the dreary house, and darkened the windows.  The windows of the chamber where he lay, I darkened last.  I lifted up the leaden hand, and held it to my heart; and all the world seemed death and silence, broken only by his mother’s moaning.

Sentences like these are what make Dickens seems so cinematic before the cinema: you can see the sequence of shots here, of David walking through the house, the light changing to darkness, holding the hand of his friend, with otherworldly moans in the background, as we fade to black.  Another spectacular chapter for the unrivaled, long-repressed id of Rosa Dartle.

Chapter 57:

Among the great beams, bulks, and ringbolts of the ship, and the emigrant-berths, and chests, and bundles, and barrels, and heaps of miscellaneous baggage — lighted up, here and there, by dangling lanterns, and elsewhere by the yellow day-light straying down a windsail or hatchway — were crowded groups of people, making new friendships, taking leave of one another, talking, laughing, crying, eating and drinking; some, already settled down into the possession of their few feet of space, with their little households arranged, and tiny children established on stools, or in dwarf elbow-chairs; others, despairing of a resting-place, and wandering disconsolately.  From babies who had but a week or two of life behind them, to crooked old men and women who seemed to have but a week or two of life before them; and from ploughmen bodily carrying out soil of England on their boots, to smiths taking away samples of its soot and smoke upon their skins; every age and occupation appeared to be crammed into the narrow compass of the ‘tween decks.

An excellent description of an emigrant-ship to Australia, and what a bloody nightmare that trip must’ve been in the Victorian age.  Like months and months of the screaming-baby-one-row-behind-you-on-a-long-flight treatment.

Bloodlust and Burning Love

March 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Coriolanus.

Reading next: Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson’s Poems.

Perhaps it goes without saying, since he’s a tragic hero, but nevertheless: Caius Martius Coriolanus is one messed-up dude.  No matter how egregious your fatal flaw might be, though, no one gets messed up, much less dead, without a lot of help along the way.  And really, who better to help you along your way to a gruesome death at the hands of a bloodthirsty mob than your ambitious mother?

Volumnia’s the Lady Macbeth of this play, pushing her son to win glory and honor for his family on the battlefield and then in politics, by standing to become consul.  Coriolanus at least has the skill and inclination to perform amazing feats in war — though he’s a borderline berserker with little regard for tactical niceties.  Entering politics is something he has to be talked into, though, and Volumnia manages it.  It’s a bad idea.  It’s not in his skill set.  (He probably would’ve gotten away with it, though, if it weren’t for the newly appointed peoples’ tribunes.  Aside: it sometimes seems that our own government is composed mostly of people without the inclination for politics, and that in fact we’re looking for exactly the wrong sorts of people in our elections: those who actively scorn political processes and try to equate politics with bureaucracy and waste and faction, and therefore spend most of their time in politics trying not to let anything get done by exploiting the flaws in the system.  One of the most ingenious aspects of Obama’s campaign in 2008 was how he played both sides of this argument, explaining his dislike for bureaucracy and waste and faction but also making his case as a rational, level-headed participant who would operate efficiently in the political sphere.)

But she does talk him into it, and she is, in fact, even colder and more calculating than Lady Macbeth: she’s more concerned about his not embarrassing himself in combat than she is with his surviving battle unscathed (or at all).  You do get the sense, though, that she’s not just a stage mother or a striver.  When she saves Rome from her son at the end of the play, it kind of falls into place that she’s not just a fame-hungry monster, but also a consummate early Roman: republic before family.  Civic pride before flesh and blood.  Public honor before private grief.  Is the fact that the consummate early Romans were, in part,  fame-hungry monsters a big reason why they ended up ruled by Julius Caesar?  Well, sure, I’d guess.

It’s a weird relationship.  As in Lear, part of the weirdness comes from Volumnia’s widowhood and the utter lack of a mention of Coriolanus’ father.  Volumnia seems far more important to Coriolanus than his wife, who hardly ever speaks and whom Coriolanus never seems to consult for advice, sympathy, or much of anything.  It’s much more of a help-meet sort of relationship; there’s virtually nothing of maternal concern or even a sense of her age.

The fact is that there are two people in the play to whom Coriolanus seems to be married, and neither is his wife Virgilia.  Tullus Aufidius, the Volscian general, is his rival, and they are obsessed with defeating each other.  When Coriolanus comes to Aufidius to propose joining to sack Rome, though, in 4.5, we get this pretty amazing admission from Aufidius:

Know thou first,

I loved the maid I married; never man

Sighed truer breath.  But that I see thee here,

Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart

Than when I first my wedded mistress saw

Bestride my threshold.  Why, thou Mars, I tell thee

We have a power on foot, and I had purpose

Once more to hew thy target from thy brawn

Or lose mine arm for’t.  Thou has beat me out

Twelve several times, and I have nightly since

Dreamt of encounters ‘twixt thyself and me —

We have been down together in my sleep,

Unbuckling helms, fisting each other’s throat —

And waked half dead with nothing.

Shortly after, there’s this, from one of Aufidius’ servants: “Our general himself makes a mistress of him, sanctifies himself with’s hand, and turns up the white o’th’eye to his discourse.”  (For “turns up the white o’th’eye,” imagine the smitten damsel gazing up  at her valiant knight, batting her eyes.)  So, yes: the homoerotic elements of Roman military culture are in full force here.  However, Aufidius is important to Coriolanus as a perceived equal or near-equal: he seems to view nearly everyone else in the Roman military with either contempt or disregard.  But then comes Aufidius’ admission of admiration and love.  And very quickly, Coriolanus is treating Aufidius as just another subordinate, not as the equal partner Aufidius expected to be.  Affairs don’t last, and most don’t end well.

Ugly, But Not Irrelevant

March 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare.

Because I really know very little about this play, I’m feeling my way through it, and it’s interesting to read a play by Shakespeare where my preconceived notions and expectations are so few.  A few notes from the first three acts:

-I’ve never been a person who focused much on the cues to class and status in Elizabethan style, but Shakespeare really uses the transition between verse and prose here to great effect.  There’s a lot of prose, here, in a variety of styles and registers.  The patricians only versify with other patricians, the plebeians only speak prose amongst each other, but it’s really interesting to see how and when Coriolanus employs verse with the commoners he despises, and how the peoples’ tribunes shift between the two forms, consummate politicians speaking in the various registers depending on whether they need to sound like representatives qualified for their roles or sons of the soil.

-It’s always tempting to read Shakespeare as one great big tale, and so I can’t help but notice that this play, in some ways, picks up where King Lear leaves off.  In the last lines of Lear, Edgar exhorts his fellow survivors to “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”  And so, in Coriolanus, Shakespeare gives us a protagonist who does just that.  It just so happens that he’s pretty full of himself, and loathes the common folk, and tells them about it after they’ve been given the power to object to his rise to power.  Oops.

-This is probably the ugliest Shakespeare I’ve read.  The language is not pretty, and the play’s remarkably outward-focused, with very little introspection.  The major metaphorical tropes are cannibalistic, militaristic, and body-political.  It’s not exactly a recipe for a gorgeous play.

-And yet, is this the Shakespeare play most emblematic of the 2000s?  A tragic protagonist, eager for war, sure of the propriety of his ideals and the might of his military, unwilling (or unable?) to examine his own motives, scornful of a populace he’s forced to grovel to if he wants to gain power; a populace, in turn, which gives us very little cause to doubt the protagonist’s assessment of them as a dangerous, disinterested, gullible rabble; a bunch of middle-managing representatives of people and moneyed interests, less interested in the good of the republic than the power to be grabbed and clung to at all costs.  No one to root for, really.  No one rising above their own desires.  Ugly, yes.  Irrelevant, no.  (Just for fun, and so as not to end on such a down beat, my votes for other representative plays of the last 50 years: 1960s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; 1970s, Troilus and Cressida; 1980s, The Tempest; 1990s, Romeo and Juliet.)

Wicked Old Women in Parallel Plots

December 21, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Dombey and Son.

An interesting development as Dickens rebuilds his plot after Paul’s death: the introduction of a parallel narrative structure.

Florence is left alone in the Dombeys’ house as Dombey goes off with Bagstock to recuperate.  The opening of chapter 23 magnificently illustrates her lonely, heartbroken state with a survey of the loveless house in which she lives: the incantatory opening sentence appears with small variations three times, in this six-page tour: “Florence lived alone in the great dreary house, and day succeeded day, and still she lived alone; and the blank walls looked down upon her with a vacant stare, as if they had a Gorgon-like mind to stare her youth and beauty into stone.”  Surely I’m not the first to draw a line from this portrait of oppressive domesticity — a woman trapped in a horrible house by both society and her own (rather misguided) inclinations — to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s masterpiece, “The Yellow Wallpaper”?

Whatever the case, while Florence could be seen as another of early Dickens’ colorless, selfless heroes/heroines, I think she’s a bit more of a transitional figure: Dickens is starting to understand how to make his good people as interesting as his bad.  While her desire to win her wicked father’s love is undoubtedly annoying (and a little creepy), it’s a desire that’s made palpable enough — and that is unconventional enough — to keep the reader’s interest.  Further, Florence is good in slightly unpredictable ways: doing Paul’s homework to be able to help him at Dr. Blimber’s, promising to keep Solomon Gills company while Walter is gone.  Her constant craving for love is understandable enough, and shown in enough detail, to keep her interesting.

Most of all, though, interesting things have happened to Florence, and therein lies the key to the parallel plot.  Dombey begins courting a young widow, Edith Granger, with Bagstock’s assistance.  We might not have connected Edith to Florence, but for an incident shortly after we meet Edith: she is accosted by a “withered and very ugly old woman,” a fortune-teller who first offers to tell her fortune, and then threatens to, unless she receives payment.  Edith is rescued from this awkward scene — and perhaps from a curse that could’ve dragged her to hell — by evil Mr. Carker, Dombey’s right-hand man.

Right down to the description of a “very ugly old woman,” this scene casts our memory back to the first moment of real action in the book, young Florence being briefly kidnapped by “Good Mrs. Brown,” who steals Florence’s clothes and gives her rags to wear instead.  It’s one of Dickens’s typically memorable scenes of truly awful London street life, the old woman smoking a pipe as she takes a seat on a pile of bones and tells Florence, like any Hollywood bank-robber, “… don’t vex me.  If you don’t, I tell you I won’t hurt you.  But if you do, I’ll kill you.”

With the similarity between these incidents, we draw the parallel between Edith and Florence: good women with the misfortune to know Paul Dombey, Sr.  The fortune-teller even references Florence in the brief fortune she gives Carker: “One child dead, and one child living: one wife dead, and one wife coming.  Go and meet her!”  (At this time, Carker has never met Edith and has no idea that the woman he just helped is the one that Bagstock is arranging for Dombey to marry.)  They both lacked a proper childhood: Florence, looked over by old Mrs. Pipchin, and Edith, married off very young by her hideous mother, Mrs. Skewton, both deprived of the parents’ unconditional love that defines childhood.

Dickens takes his cue from Shakespeare, who used parallel plotting often.  The example I know best is King Lear, where he uses the parallel plots of Lear and Gloucester to heighten emotion and set his themes in high relief.  Here, he does the same, showing us the plight of these young women through a kind of echo chamber of similarities, heightening our emotions toward both of them as neglected human beings and oppressed women.  But the differences, too, allow us to connect to each of them as their own people: even early on, as we are just coming to know Edith, it’s clear that she’s much more embittered than Florence, much more cynical and knowing about the forces that are acting on her.  Edith seems to have given up hope, or very nearly so, where Florence seems to feel nothing but a constant cycle of hope, rejection, disappointment, and longing.  That these two are brought together at the end of chapter 28 — that Edith is to be Florence’s new “Mama” — promises fascinating developments.

Is it possible to imagine a feminist turn by Dickens, here?  Will Edith act as a catalyst for change in Florence, or will she confront Dombey in his coldness, refusing to give him another son?  Or will the women simply comfort each other as they are neglected and abused, and Dombey gets his comeuppance from some other (male) source?  Please don’t tell me Walter’s going to sail to the rescue, here, and make it all better.

The Ludic Game

October 22, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Nights at the Circus.

Now I am faced with a horribly difficult question, a question that has bothered me to distraction (no shortage of distractions on the good ol’ Web), a question I’m still not quite sure how I’m going to answer: just what do I think of these chimps and these clowns?

There are both, in spades, in the second section of this book, set in St. Petersburg.  There are also a communicative pig, two tiger attacks, and a very strange finale that I’ll also have to discuss.  But I keep coming back to the chimps and the clowns.  What the hell’s going on here?

This section reminded me of a favorite book, in need of rereading: Stephen Dobyns’ The Wrestler’s Cruel Study, which should be a cult classic, though I’ve never met anyone else who’s heard of it, much less read it.  (Maybe I just don’t get out enough.)  That book also involves some intelligent primates, and has a similar kind of madcap energy and balance of philosophical heft and absurdist incident to Carter’s book, and especially this second section.

But about the monkeys.  Chimps, actually, to be specific.  They are Lamarck’s Educated Apes, twelve of them.  When we meet them, they’re rehearsing their act, a classroom scene.  But they seem to be actually learning, and discussing; and, we find out later in the chapter, they can, indeed, write (or at least their leader, the Professor, can).  Lamarck is an abusive drunk; the chimps end up striking out on their own, after Colonel Kearney, the circus’s owner, cheats them.

And then there’s the clowns.  And there are twelve of them, too, actually — or is it thirteen, with Judas-Walser?  The comparison to the apostles is made explicit; Buffo the Great, the clown’s leader, as Christ.  After some earlier fun with a travesty of the resurrection, they have a travesty of the Last Supper, which leads to a very drunk Buffo losing his mind, trying to kill Walser and getting committed.

They’re a gloomy lot, these clowns, given to philosophy and quotations from somewhat unlikely sources.  King Lear, for instance.  The “twin” musical clowns, Grik and Grok, engage Buffo in an exploration of uselessness and nothingness:

“…turned into more than the sum of our parts according to the dialectics of uselessness, which is: nothing plus nothing equals something, once—”

“—you know the nature of plus.”

….But Buffo wasn’t having any.

“Bollocks,” he said, heavily, belching.  “Beg pardon, but balls, me old fruit.  Nothing will come of nothing.  That’s the glory of it.”

And the entire company repeated after him soft as dead leaves rustling: “That’s the glory of it!  Nothing will come of nothing!”

So what are we to make of these two groups of twelve?  The Professor and the chimps carry themselves with a dignity and sense of decorum all out of line with the behavior of the rest of the circus, and most especially with the obscene, scatological, debased clowns.  I am not sure what the import of all of this is supposed to be, quite honestly.  The messiness of humanity does seem to be part of “the glory of it,” in Carter’s eyes, and also part of the tragedy of it (see Mignon’s story, about as messy as it gets: the messiness of murder, and abuse, and abject poverty).

Colonel Kearney calls his circus “the Ludic Game,” and one wonders if that’s how Carter saw this book — or at least the Petersburg section of it: her mind at play, over matters serious and frivolous alike, amusing itself and hopefully others.  The section ends with what sure seems to be a flight into surrealism or plain and simple magic, as Sophie escapes an evil Grand Duke’s clutches by dropping a toy train onto his gorgeous carpet; we then find ourselves suddenly on the real Trans-Siberian Express.  It’s a disorienting section break, one I’m not exactly sure I’ve interpreted correctly, and one no author who wanted her readers to remain straight-faced would have undertaken.  But it also seems to fit with a St. Petersburg episode so superabundant with ideas, stories, and language.

Haleskarth, Contraband, Samsara, Samarra

July 19, 2009 § 1 Comment

Just finished: Only Revolutions.

I feel like I’ve been rather too crabby about the book in my previous posts.  It undeniably gets bogged down after the escape from St. Louis, around p. 220,  after the truly amazing and hallucinatory effect of the center of the book, when both sides of the narrative on each page mirror each other as well as mirroring the other half of the narrative retreating away into the other half of the book — it’s really wonderful, a genuine delight.  (It made me giggle.) From 224 or so to p. 312, it’s a slog.

But from then on, it’s a bloody miracle.  (You should probably stop reading this if you want to go into the book without knowing how it ends.)  The urgency and passion of the language in those last 8 sections is astonishing.  Somewhere along the line you realize you’ve been reading Romeo and Juliet again, only it’s as if Shakes had written R&J after King Lear. Just… heartbreaking.

And theoretically, at least, we’re unsure what has happened in the end, but then we’ve been bludgeoned over the head with the fact that the book is a circle — so conveniently it’s right there, on the flip-side of the final page.  And those mysterious first lines begin to make a kind of sense.

For Sam it’s “Haloes!  Haleskarth!/ Contraband!”  “Haloes”  neatly combines circularity with death-imagery and saintliness; “Haleskarth” is an obsolete word meaning “free from injury” (thanks, OED); “Contraband” is a tricky one with an obvious meaning which doesn’t make much sense.  Since Sam’s narrative starts in the middle of the Civil War, “contraband” has a very specific slang meaning at the time: a fugitive slave was contraband.  Is Sam “contraband” in that he’s escaped from the enslavement of death, or in that he feels himself as “smuggled” out of the grave into a new life?  Or is he (also) an actual fugitive slave — is that his role at the book’s opening?

Hailey begins with “Samsara!  Samarra!/ Grand!”  (Notice each begins their narrative with the other’s initial, and that second-line cross-narrative rhyme.)  “Samsara” is, in Indian philosophy, “the endless cycle of death and rebirth to which life in the material world is bound” (thanks again, OED).  “Samarra” is a kind of garment to be worn by those burned at the stake during the Inquisition, but it could also be a reference to An Appointment in Samarra: a commonplace for the inevitability of death.  “Grand!” could have some meaning of which I’m unaware, but I think it’s mostly just an exclamation of delight and surprise.

From these obscure meanings and their place at the beginning/rebeginning of the narratives, we can reread the early sections as a kind of reimmersion in life for both reborn characters: from these early indications that they know they’ve been reborn to their early characterizations as deities or earth-spirits of sorts, to their reimmersion in human life, to their conjoined lives and their love of one another, their placing another’s needs before their own.  Is it this that allows rebirth?

Good Country People?

April 12, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Bible Salesman.

The first Flannery O’Connor story I ever read was “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”  I was nineteen.  It pretty much made my head explode.  I’d also read King Lear around the same time, and I remember thinking about how the story reminded me of the play.  That same angry comedy of horrors; a similar sense of staring into a void; in both, an existential struggle with God or our sense of him.  The theatre of the absurd, on a country road, with a sociopath called the Misfit.

What’s “funny” in this story, as in much of her work, is rather savage and wicked.  O’Connor had a sneer behind an awful lot of her laughs.  Most of the comedic work is done by the two children, John Wesley and June Star, who are little caricatured monsters: reading their comic books, jaded and utterly bored with their world, they mock everything in sight.  They only come alive when their car wrecks.  “‘But nobody’s killed,’ June Star said with disappointment…”  Their true kin is the Misfit, with his classic closing statement: “It’s no real pleasure in life.”

The Bible Salesman has given me a good reason to revisit this story, a source for Preston Clearwater, and “Good Country People,” a source for Henry Dampier (but which contributed to Clearwater, too, it would seem — there’s something of the Misfit in this story, too).  To be honest, I’d forgotten all about “Good Country People,” which features a nihilistic Bible salesman who seduces a PhD in philosophy, only to steal the lonely woman’s wooden leg.  (Well, when I put it that way, the story sounds completely insane, but it’s great.)

Henry in TBS is a nice inversion of Pointer, the Bible salesman in O’Connor’s story.  While we start out with some doubts about Henry — he writes letters pretending to be a circuit preacher to get free Bibles which he then sells — he grows on us, and we see the goodness and sincerity mixed up with his attempt to make a few bucks.  We also follow his struggles to make sense of some of the complications and confusions in the Bible, and his struggles with faith.  On the other hand, Pointer (a pseudonym) begins with a measure of our trust, posing as a nice, naive young man, but he takes advantage of Joy’s own pose of worldly wisdom and existential ennui to allow her to think that she has seduced him.  In the end, he says to her, “you ain’t so smart.  I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!”

The comparison between the two is nicely encapsulated by Edgerton’s use of three of the important objects in O’Connor’s story.  Pointer displays for Joy like “offerings at the shrine of a goddess” a dummy Bible hiding a whiskey flask, a deck of pornographic cards, and a box of condoms.  The objects reveal his selfish nihilism, the dead end of humanity he represents for O’Connor.  Henry also has a flask, an “exotic” deck, and some condoms — “preventatives,” he calls them.  But they’ve lost their ugliness, and gained a context.  We know that Henry is not posing as naive, but actually is: a virgin, curious, and young.  The flask and condoms are used, lovingly, only after Henry has discovered in the Bible that extramarital sex is hardly the universally condemned sin his upbringing led him to believe: if it’s good enough for Abraham, why wouldn’t it be good enough for him?

Some of my favorite passages in this book are Henry’s attempts to read the Bible, baffled right off the bat at the contradictory accounts of the creation in Genesis.  In the truly lovely epilogue of the book, he reads an updated American translation, and finds his way to an understanding and appreciation of key passages of Ecclesiastes and Psalm 23.  It is not a stretch to call this understanding existential; and it seems to me to chart a middle path between the nihilism and uncompromising Christianity present in Flannery O’Connor’s work.

Henry’s sense of engagement, of wanting to understand something that does not make sense but which has always been presented to you as infallible truth (and which you, Henry, have yourself been presenting as the most important thing money can buy), also seems something of an attempt on Edgerton’s part to redeem the vapidity, materialism, and nihilism in O’Connor’s work — what she was bucking against with her stories in the ’50s.  Perhaps there are good country people, after all.

Dickens, Poe, Milton, Shakespeare

January 13, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Martin Chuzzlewit.

Just a few more words about Jonas Chuzzlewit’s demise and then I’ll move on.

I neglected to mention the two paragraphs before Jonas’s nightmare in my last post: they’re fascinating, haunting, beautiful.

The fishes slumbered in the cold, bright, glistening streams and rivers, perhaps; and the birds roosted on the branches of the trees; and in their stalls and pastures beasts were quiet; and human creatures slept.  But what of that, when the solemn night was watching, when it never winked, when its darkness watched no less than its light!  The stately trees, the moon and shining stars, the softly-stirring wind, the over-shadowed lane, the broad, bright countryside, they all kept watch.  There was not a blade of growing grass or corn, but watched; and the quieter it was, the more intent and fixed its watch upon him seemed to be.

And yet he slept.  Riding on among those sentinels of God, he slept, and did not change the purpose of his journey….

I love many things about this passage, but especially how it turns Jonas’s solipsism inside out.  Jonas, center of his own universe, for once is universally watched, as he sleeps.  I think this passage still puts us, somehow, in the mind of Jonas: he feels watched, he feels the night watching him, even as he sleeps, rocked by the motion of the carriage.  The world is alive with the “sentinels of God,” whose eyes he feels.  And the morning after the murder, he’s made uneasy by the mirror, into which he glances before reentering society: “His last glance at the glass had seen a tell-tale face…”  He has made the world in his own image, and now he can no longer stand it.

There’s something Satanic about Jonas, in the sense of Milton’s Satan, as this essay points out.  Although he has none of Satan’s majestic rhetoric or noble rebellion, he carries hell within himself, just as Satan does; and just like Satan, he seems to believe (at least for a while) that he can make a heaven out of that hell — but cannot, or at least does not.  Dickens does have an inclination towards Biblical syntax, cadence, and vocabulary in his weightier chapters (evident, I think, in that passage above), which reinforces this similarity for me.

And there’s some Poe in this chapter, too — or is it just coincidental, that “tell-tale” glance in the mirror?  The first number of Chuzzlewit appeared in January 1843; “The Tell-Tale Heart” was first published in January 1843.  There’s this passage, as well, in Jonas’s fitful night after the murder: “…the starts with which he left his couch, and looking in the glass, imagined that his deed was broadly written in his face, and lying down and burying himself once more beneath the blankets, heard his own heart beating Murder, Murder, Murder, in the bed…”  The beating of his own hideous heart, the image of this desperate man staring at himself in the dark mirror, trying to compose his features to eliminate the stain of his guilt: very Poe!  (Not the first time they crossed paths, either: there’s a talking raven in Barnaby Rudge.)

In Chapter 51, Jonas is finally exposed.  As he realizes his fate is sealed, he begs five minutes alone — with the unspoken understanding that he means to kill himself.  But he can’t do it.  (The officer finds him standing in a corner of the dark room, staring back at him; somehow, you can see this, as Dickens quickly sketches it, and it is awful.)  ‘You’re too soon,’ Jonas whimpers.  ‘I’ve not had time.  I have not been able to do it.  I — five minutes more — two minutes more!  — Only one!’

This is the culmination of Jonas’s consuming terror of death — the end of self, the end of everything.  It also strikes a chord, for me at least, with King Lear.  That bargaining for time, for a little more time in which to agonize and not do anything: it reminds me of the frittering away of Lear’s retinue by Goneril and Regan.  “What need one?”  Lear, another great solipsist echoed by Jonas.

Of course, my synapses probably wouldn’t have made this connection were it not for how the chapter ends (and probably not at all if Lear wasn’t more or less an obsession with me).   Jonas finally works up the gumption, once in the cart on the way to prison, and swallows his poison, which smells of peaches.

They dragged him out into the dark street; but jury, judge, and hangman, could have done no more, and could do nothing now.

Dead, dead, dead.

Where Cordelia gets five consecutive nevers, Jonas warrants only this simple prose epitaph.  It makes all the difference, doesn’t it?  Doesn’t it sound like clucking over a waste, that “dead, dead, dead,” as opposed to the staggering agony of Lear’s grief?  It’s so matter-of-fact, that line.  But somehow containing sorrow, too; as much sorrow as Dickens could summon for a character he despised.

A Monster of a Concept

August 17, 2008 § 2 Comments

Now reading: The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall.

It’s something of a commonplace that we look to find ourselves in art, and value the feeling of recognition when we do: the idea that there’s a kindred spirit, that we’re not so weird after all. We tend to think things that we understand — things that are close to our own experiences, thoughts, beings — are “good,” and those that aren’t are “bad” (if we bother with them at all).

I’m no exception here, although I wouldn’t consciously say that this kind of feeling is anywhere near the top of the list of reasons why I love to read. But there are a handful of books where I’ve experienced such an overwhelming rush of recognition that the feeling was almost appalling. Although it does involve recognition of self in deeper ways, as well, mostly it’s been such a similarity to something I’ve actually written, or at least an idea I’ve been playing around with, that there are mingled sensations of pride, envy, horror, and yes, kinship. (The short list, off the top of my head, for the curious: American Gods, House of Leaves, White Noise, a number of Bradbury stories.)

And now there’s The Raw Shark Texts. Lordy, what a first act; what a first 90 pages. I’m going to try to be even more cryptic than usual, because, frankly, you (yes, you, three people who read this blog, you, dammit) need to read this book. It’s awesome and brilliant. I mean, do conceptual sharks cruising communicative waterways for the chum of human memory and identity strike you as interesting? Come on. It’s irresistible.

(Actually, now that I think about this, you shouldn’t be reading this.

I shouldn’t be writing this.

Shit. There was even a warning about the internet.

Forget I said anything. No one reads this. Nice sharky.)

So I’ll just babble a little about four things I loved in Part One:

-Chapter 4, “The Light Bulb Fragment (Part One),” is almost unbearably poignant and touching and eerily familiar (not in the writerly ways, in the personal ones). Scary good. A DFW-level observation of a relationship, only it’s a great relationship, and we know he’s not into those.

-On p. 57-58, there are these two cool representations of a TV screen with something like (but then, very unlike) concrete poetry on their “screens.” A kind of creature made of typography, barely perceptible in the static (so the text tells us; the representation of the screen is just a blank rectangle with this typography-creature). The book has been fairly cinematic, so far — I mean, it’s extremely lucid writing, very visual, and intentionally so. But there has also been a lot of wrangling with “concept” versus “reality,” or the tangible, at any rate — the physical, the solid. (Brilliantly handled wrangling, I might add.) It made me wonder how this would be handled in (the inevitable, if there’s any justice) film adaptation, because it would be easy enough to just picture this creature as a creature, and it’s certainly a powerful enough image just as a creature, rather than a creature made of these words, this jumble of different-sized type. This is cool, after my late experiences with the “TV fiction” of Bear v. Shark and Vineland: finally, the screen makes it onto the page, only to be filled by words, letters, concepts.

-Letter #4 is awesome. This whole sequence of letters is like if Memento and The Matrix had a baby and The Crying of Lot 49 and “The Library of Babel” had a baby and those babies… well, you get the idea. (Yes, I loved Pineapple Express, too.) At any rate, I love the breakdown of the protective powers of “Books of Fact/Books of Fiction,” and this little doozy: “I have an old note written by me before I got so vague which says that some of the great and most complicated stories like The Thousand and One Nights are very old protection puzzles, or even idea nets…” If I were more ambitious, I’d found a whole school of satirical criticism based on this passage.

-On p. 86 we get a small passage which set bells a-ringin’ in my head: “I learned… how to attach the bracken and lichen of foreign ideas to my scalp and work the mud and grass of another self into and over my skin and clothes until I could become invisible at will, until anyone or anything could be looking straight at me and never see the real me at all.”

You may or may not know that I’ve been working on a piece of writing related to King Lear for a very long time. This passage sounds like Edgar transforming into Tom o’ Bedlam, the madman on the heath. And he’s doing something very similar: while his mud and grass are real, it is the other self he really is working into his skin, the mannerisms and the rantings of a being completely foreign to him, and that is mainly why he is not recognized.

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