Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story made me question a lot of the things I think I know about story-telling and narration. There is almost no dialogue in this novel, very little description, and it takes place entirely in our unknown narrator’s head. In fact, it’s a story about writing a story, and I’m sad to admit that I rarely enjoy that type of novel because they often feel like exercises in ego.
This novel is anything but that.
- In some ways this novel feels like Davis is sort of revealing some of the narrative tricks that novelists use, perhaps because as a short story writer she’s messing with a form that she’s not invested in…
- More likely, she’s carefully identifying the lens through which she both reads and writes, being transparent in a way that feels somewhat deliciously uncomfortable…
- This narrator thinks herself brutally honest…but she’s also not all that self-aware.
- It’s not like she’s an unreliable narrator, exactly, but we get clues as to why she’s not necessarily seeing the world as it is…
- And I think that she also *knows* that she’s missing cues she should be picking up on, and that knowledge drives her obsession (or is driven by it)…
If you’re reading this blog for discussions of fancy European cities, sorry, this post will not meet your expectations. However…
I spent time in Dayton, Ohio recently, and got some visit time in with family. I did sneak in one decent walk, and that walk prompted these observations (and photos)…
Thinking I want one for my house…
- On the surface, Dayton and Akron (where I live) are very similar – mid-sized midwestern towns, each of which is close to a major city. Both have industrial pasts
that are part of their glory days, both have been (and still are, sort of) the corporate headquarters of major manufacturing companies, and both are relatively famous for major icons – Dayton is of course where the Wright Brothers got their start, while Akron is the birthplace of Lebron – j/k, the folks at Goodyear, with the still well-known blimp. Both have legitimate claims to being hotbeds of innovation in the industrial past of the US.
- These similarities made me of course lump them together in my head, a lump that was knocked out after spending a couple of days. The cities have some pretty distinct differences in architecture and infrastructure, and
Who doesn’t need a mausoleum in the backyard?
the differences are interesting and say a lot about some of the socioeconomic development of the two cities.
- In fact, some of Dayton’s architecture reminds me of Cincinnati, with the narrow houses built because the hilly city made cheap house construction difficult without terracing (in itself expensive).
- An exhaustive study is outside my realm of expertise (nice dodge that), but both are struggling with lots of the same issues – how to increase population, how to develop a solid economic base, how to keep young people in town. And, as in Akron, I saw lots of folks determined to make good, to help their city remain viable, livable, and functioning into the near future.
Empty park in the summer = 95 degrees/90 percent humidity
There seems to be a gradually increasing amount of fiction coming from American veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Vietnam produced some amazing work (see O’Brien, Tim, among many others), the most recent series of prolonged *conflicts* that we in the USA have engaged in hasn’t produced a lot yet. What it has produced, however, has been pretty amazing (mostly Philip Klay Redeployment, but there are several others), and Ackerman’s fiction meets that standard. I haven’t read Green on Blue (yet), but Dark at the Crossing was moving and intense.
- Ackerman includes only a couple of native-born American characters, and we see one in particular only in a flashback, through Haris’s eyes. This isn’t the sort of prose that sees Syria through an American lens specifically. As an American Marine, of course, Ackerman can’t completely escape that perspective, but he makes an honest effort that is still based on experience in the area as a reporter following his discharge from the Marine corps.
- The questions of identity that arise are powerful, as Haris feels American even though he is a native-born Iraqi. He worked with American soldiers (I think they were Army, and were definitely special forces), and developed an affinity and longing for going to the US as a result. He turns this longing into a move to the US, but seeing his sister grow up and leave the house (as the result of a marriage to a UAE prince) releases him from his familial duty.
- He never clearly explains his reasons for coming back to Syria. He wants to fight the Assad regime, but the idealistic rebels whom he wanted to join (and who were recruiting him) have been pretty much either driven out of Aleppo or killed. His desire to fight, though, doesn’t seem to make much sense in this context as he was not a soldier when he translated.
- Ackerman even offers him the opportunity to do grunt research work, through Amir, a job that fits with his (as the cool kids like to say) skill set. He keeps wanting to cross the border, though, still wanting to fight even though he will need to fight for Daesh.
- My guess is that Ackerman believes his desire to fight comes from his feelings that he betrayed the American soldiers he translated for (he did, but because he didn’t realize who the actual IED builder was, thinking that he was protecting a pre-teen boy rather than setting the Americans up for an ambush). If so, the complexities that Ackerman locates in one character spoke compellingly to me about a far more complex picture of the Arab world – especially the interconnections between ethnicities – then we in the developed nations usually have.
- Haris’s relationships with the platoon he translated for are complex. He admires the soldiers for their calm heads under fire and their attempts to bond with him, but he hates the casual, brutal torture they inflict in order to get information that they need. His betrayal of them haunts him – at one point Daphne tells Haris that she sees a lot of one former American soldier in him, as well as his other more local influences, and he doesn’t disagree.
- Some of what Haris reacts to is also a counter-reaction. For instance, he sees that his mission in life is to take care of his sister, who has emigrated with him. He works at menial jobs to make sure that he can support her, and he does this because his own father deserted the family while in Iraq.
- Finally, the figure of Jamil is also one that Ackerman places emphasis on. Haris meets Jamil on multiple occasions, and as a refugee child who has been forced to help a group of young children survive, Jamil claims space in Haris’s head. The fact that Jamil becomes enamored with one of the Daesh fighters and joins Daesh ends the novel, but Jamil also retains enough of a sense of loyalty or friendship to Haris and Daphne that he makes sure that Amir gets the book that Daphne took with her on her return to Aleppo back after her murder. He has even updated it, including information that will help Amir in his work documenting the horrors of the civil war.
- And finally for real, Daphne also carries a lot of narrative meaning. She is torn by grief for the loss of her daughter, killed as she was by what seems like friendly fire, and while she still talks about the revolution against Assad as if it is a real thing she is so haunted by guilt and pain that she becomes monomaniacly focused on going back to look for her. Her position as a educated, cosmopolitan, modern Arab women seems also like a loss, as the new Syria does not seem to have a place for her.
- Ackerman has been compared to Hemingway, and I’m not a big fan of Hemingway so I didn’t see it. I admire what Ackerman is doing here, and this book will haunt me too, I’m guessing.
- I read it on the heels of reading Junger’s Tribe, and I had trouble separating the two texts at times. Tribe is optimistic as hell, but Ackerman’s novel points to what I think is the dark side of tribes having a special, unifying purpose – even Daesh, who I associate with fanaticism, are seen as pretty normal until the crazy ‘special, unifying purpose’ comes out and drives them to murder and robbery. The assumption that I made is that the novel would portray Assad’s troops as cynical and apathetic to anything but getting paid, but Ackerman has the two sides blur at the end of the novel in a way that shows that they both have their own reasons for doing what they do. It’s not a pretty picture.
- As with any discussion of the Arab world I feel completely overwhelmed by the complications. I am often drawn by the intentionality of those who live there, and I admire those who try to forge something that I as a left-leaning Westerner can recognize. What they are trying to accomplish seems nearly impossible to me, though, and I find myself in a miasm of confusion and loss that I can’t penetrate.
Junger’s Tribe had me reading quickly and holding my breath, hopeful that maybe he had discovered some fundamental truth that we have been missing. I’ve backed off from that a bit after giving his premise some thought, I’m of the mind that perhaps the answers he offers are too idealistic for where we are now. Not that he actually offers answers…
- As a well-known war correspondent (and producer of the film Restrepo, which if you haven’t seen it you should), Junger has spent a lot of time traveling to war zones. In this book, he makes an argument based on these experiences, one that comes perilously close to a grand global theory and that also does a bit of idealizing of pre-modern cultures.
- That said, the arguments he makes are powerful ones, and they feel intuitively like they address big issues. He speaks especially coherently about young people and their integration into adulthood, describing how difficult that is in modern society.
- His big argument is that one of the main glues to any society is a sense of shared purpose. He feels that modern society does not allow us to feel this, and he has a lot of evidence.
- Finally, before this becomes too much of a book report, he talks about the ways in which we as a culture send incredibly awkward mixed messages, vilifying someone like Bob Bergdahl while letting the financiers who created the disaster of 2007-8 not only go unpunished but also reward themselves handsomely.
- There are many pieces to this that I want to believe, and I think I’ll keep working it around in my head, but I am leery of any grand narrative that relies too much on what feels like not-very-complicated looks at our evolutionary history.
My Joy Williams immersion continues, this time with The Visiting Privilege. Two thumbs up, way up…
- This is a collection of short stories from all over the place, so there is no set theme to them. That said, some of the usual Williams themes emerge – the gentle suffering of animals, the blurring of past, present, and future in the minds of characters if not the chronology of the narrative, the unexpected appearance of high art references (usually literary), and the refusal to have conversations end on winning notes.
- The gentle suffering of animals is not something I’d think of as part of her fiction if I hadn’t read her non-fiction. She talks bleakly about how badly we treat both animals and the landscape, but that theme never becomes dominant. I never get the feeling that Williams is preaching at me – instead, I think that I’m sharing her despair at our blind, unconscious destruction of the natural world.
- The blurring of time for her characters is a feature that often makes me laugh. Her characters sound almost Buddhist at times, with conversations about time that show it folding and looping and doing all kinds of funky non-linear things.
- The high art references always come in situations that I don’t expect, once again knocking me off my feet a bit as a reader. I wonder if Williams simply refuses to believe that life without literature (and art) is the way that most of us in the USA live…
- I particularly love how her conversations among characters often end. Rather than finishing with some sort of beautiful proverb or triumphant note, they usually simply end with a bland proverb or observation that actually isn’t all that relevant to the depth of what was just discussed. I have a half dozen examples marked, all of which I’m too lazy to look up, but she does this constantly, and I find it relentlessly beautiful because she manages to make the idea that conversations always have to be directed and have some sort of powerful meaning on its head in a way that yes actually moves what the writer is doing forward.
- She also willingly messes with our sense of the normal. She’s writing from the perspective of the white middle class, but the edginess and fear that are a daily part of this lifestyle are always just below the surface in ways that don’t so much explode as bubble up, oddly and with consequences that most often affect those around her characters instead of them directly.
- I think what her fiction does in this context is make what feels normal odd. Freud’s word is uncanny, but that label implies horror, and the only horror in Williams’s fiction is the blase attitude her characters take towards what feel to me like horrific breaches of propriety.