Top Fives for 2008

December 30, 2008 § 1 Comment

Every year Jaime and I send out a Christmas letter listing our top five movies, songs/albums, and books of the year. My books list is the only one that’s not really accurate: I leave out things that people seem to already know they should read. But hey, why not show both lists — the top five of lesser-known books, and the top five including classics?

First, the Christmas-letter list of lesser-known books:

5.  Lunar Follies, by Gilbert Sorrentino.  A really funny book, perfect for bedtime reading or picking up over breakfast or lunch.  Mostly very short pieces, each named after a topographic feature of the moon: descriptions of art installations, linguistic flights of fancy, satires on pretension.  My favorite might be “Appennines,” with its “magenta neon” sign reading “ANOTHER NAIL IN THE COFFIN OF BOURGEOIS GENDER ROLES.”

4.  The Wet Collection, by Joni Tevis.  I wrote about this a while back; it’s really good, falling somewhere among nature writing, experimental fiction, and memoir.

3.  End Zone, by Don DeLillo.  Do people already know they should read this?  I don’t know, I love DeLillo and I overlooked it for a long time.  Turns out it’s a really good book, and important for understanding DeLillo, nuclear paranoia, and football in Texas.

2.  City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff VanderMeer.  Because of travel, I didn’t have the opportunity to write about this much.  But, listen, it f’ing rocks.  It’s easy to underrate genres like fantasy lit because so many books are utterly derivative, and even if they’re not derivative they’re escapist or of interest only to a subculture you’re probably more comfortable not getting too deep into.  And it’s easy to overrate genre “classics” just because they are “influential”: sure, Tolkien’s inspired a lot of books, but how many good books?  But then you get someone like VanderMeer, creating a really compelling universe (the city of Ambergris and its environs) and using it to tell serious, interesting, complex stories, and you want to dive in, and never read anything else but books like this ever again.

1.  The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall.  I am not messing around here.  Read it already.  And I want comments, dammit.

Okay, and now the list of the books I most enjoyed, classics included:

5.  The Decameron, by Boccaccio.  Only one of the most important books in Western literature.  Combines my loves of heavily structured fiction, stories within stories and framing devices, and lusty Italians.

4.  The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow.  The quintessential Chicago book; one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read on the basic level of language, with its wild idioms, jargons, fragments, soliloquies; a colossus of a text, which took me the better part of last December and January to read.  I’m convinced: I must read all of Bellow.  Could’ve included Ellison’s Invisible Man here, too: another American classic.

3.  A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster.  This was the year I caught up with the rest of the universe and discovered that, yes, Forster was a genius: I was just too lazy in college.  The scenes in the Marabar caves are utterly unforgettable.

2.  The Golden Apples, by Eudora Welty.  Just an unbelievable book.  I can’t imagine reading this when it was first published; my head might’ve exploded.  “Moon Lake” is probably one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read, and it might not even be my favorite story here, because “The Wanderers” is just that good.  Difficult, obscure, and complicated in the best, most marvelous ways possible.

1.  Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.  Not as a quality judgment, necessarily (although I think it belongs in this company), but because it’s the book I’ll always think of when I remember this year.  In a year of awful surprises (and a few good ones), DFW’s death was the worst for me.  It’s funny: I first read this in the summer of 1999, right before we elected GWB; and I read it again right before Obama’s election.  Damn, but it’s been a long eight years, ain’t it?  DFW was always ahead of the curve, and so much of the book makes so much more sense to me now.  We’ll be a while in catching up to him.

Here’s wishing you all happy reading in 2009.

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).

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.

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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