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.
I listened to an interview on NPR with James Wood, literary critic for the New Republic and novelist, and in it the interviewer reminded him of his earlier critique of Zadie Smith (and others) in which he accused them of writing fiction that he labelled as ‘hysterical realism.’ Wood backed off that critique a bit, even claiming that he actually praised Smith’s White Teeth, so I thought I’d re-read and re-think the interview, which I found disturbingly condescending the first time I read it after finishing (and enjoying – full disclosure) White Teeth. A couple of thoughts on Wood and walking things back (assertions, diatribes, half-hearted utterings, and so on) follow…
- His critique is centered on Smith, but he also invokes Pynchon, Foster Wallace, and Rushdie. His comments on them are used to set up his argument about Smith, I’m guessing, to give him armor against charges of not valuing the voices of women and people of color.
- I understand his frustration with White Teeth in some ways, because it is not a perfect novel. With the exception of Middlemarch no such entity exists, and WT is Smith’s first publication – her subsequent writing has gotten calmer without losing its energy, a type of progress that I’m sure Wood would see as something he somehow predicted. But Wood keeps calling for the novel to be less frantic, more interested in developing the ‘humanity’ of its characters, claims that I don’t get because I found her portayals of characters as intensely, empathetically human. I’m trying *not* to read his critique as an essentialist, human=upper-middle-class-white-man attack, so I’m wondering just where his definition of human comes from. Perhaps Smith’s novel does invokes too many characters (thus minimizing our chances to know much about each, and making their individual portrayals feel cartoony in Wood’s critique), but in my mind that multiplicity is among the novel’s strengths. Because we see how all of these people interact on a day-to-day basis, the ways in which their lives all affect each other’s even if only peripherally, we get a well-rounded view of the strategies that folks develop to try to understand their roles in the world. In my mind that approach is relentlessly human…
- His inclusion of the word hysterical in his label is also less than compelling. I find it hard to believe that he doesn’t know the historical uses of that word, and invoking it to criticize Smith is loaded with all kinds of potentially misogynist overtones. Again, I think he looks for cover in the other authors he labels in this way, but I think it’s telling that he moves toward criticizing the way the novel uses spectacle towards the end of his essay rather than focus on his earlier term. Perhaps he has become less comfortable with that term by the end of the argument, a lack of comfort that I would find at least a bit reassuring.
- Perhaps I’m also so worried about the lens through which I read that I’m not fully acknowledging his point. Wood is far smarter than I, and hell he’s written novels, something I’ve never managed to accomplish. I’m pretty certain that there is a lens that fits someone like me, a person who doesn’t spend enough time reflecting upon experiences, and I am probably overvaluing my own experience and preferences.
- Still, my concern with Wood of course is best expressed in my last bullet, but I also think that his casual dismissal of the fact that Smith talks intentionally about novels as means of problem-solving also makes me wonder what he sees as the purpose of novels. One of the reasons I read folks like Smith (and Wood) is because novels represent to me a chance to observe an incredibly smart person wrestle with big social problems. These same authors might even offer solutions, but if nothing else they provide us an opportunity to see those problems more clearly.
- WT does exactly this, and it manages to be realistic, optimistic, funny, and sad all at the same time, no mean feat.
- I guess that perhaps the difference between what I value and what Wood does lies in the area we want to understand with more depth – I’m less concern with understanding individual human motivations, perhaps, and more with historical views of issues…
- All that being said, I’m a bit more geeked up than I should be that there are still conversations like this, I have to admit. I clearly think that Wood is way off, but the fact that he engaged feels monumental somehow. And yet when I read the casual condescension in his review, the use of ‘cartoony’ and ‘low comic’ as insults, I get frustrated and angry at his framing this debate as one of high vs. low art. A colleague of mine argued in a conference presentation that these low vs. high art invocations seem to occur just as the canon opens up (she was talking about a game studies scholar), and the contextualization she provides of where this sort of critique is coming from strikes me as particularly appropriate and useful. Wood’s own novels are much different (full disclosure – I have Upstate on hold at my library so I haven’t read it yet), and interestingly enough by chance I just read his wife’s (Claire Messud) The Burning Girl (which I liked despite it being outside my usual generic preferences).
- If Wood’s desire is to help shape the contemporary canon I can’t help but wonder what shape he thinks it should take. If he wants novels to be more human, more interested in developing the interior lives of characters, doesn’t that limit authors to what they have directly experienced? What if a character simply doesn’t have an interior life? What if the author’s definition of human relies less on interior monologues and more on the types of relationships that people build (or don’t build, or fuck up)?
Caddyshack has reappeared in my life a couple of times recently. It was released the year I graduated high school and left for college, and it played on the midnight movies a lot, so I saw it (a lot). I’ll not swear that I saw it in any clear-minded state, but oh my word I laughed a bunch, every time, so the fact that it has reappeared makes me happy, and makes me wonder…
I haven’t watched it in its entirety for several years, but when I saw it was on an option on a recent flight I didn’t hesitate. I giggled quietly and hysterically to myself for the next two hours, and since then I have sat down and watched it again. I’m a little embarrassed to admit this but I laughed at all the same places, most of which are here.
However, what makes me want to write about the film is what it satires. There are recent films (and series) that poke fun at the rich (the first two seasons of Arrested Development are genius, I think), but they seemingly can’t end without the rich people being either proven to be evil in some fundamental way or finding a way to redeem themselves. The idea that they have taken advantage of structural, systemic advantages in a skewed, unequal system seems impossible for contemporary Hollywood to comprehend, and the resulting cultural work that is done seems predictable – it justifies the rich and their place in our culture.
I’m not arguing somehow that the 80s films were better in a more socially conscious way – saying that Caddyshack is some sort of hyper-intentional shredding of the way that the rich function in our culture is a hard argument to make, and there are definitely indie films that satirize the uber-wealthy in funny and useful ways. Coming hard on the heels of the hyper-earnestness of the Sixties, films like Caddyshack got shredded by the left for reducing the debate about wealth accumulation to ridiculous levels and thus invalidating the entire discussion. There’s something to be said for that argument, of course. Continue Reading
I have only read Joy Williams’s non-fiction, and I love her fierce dedication to the natural world as expressed in biting yet idealistic prose. This novella felt just as fierce and just as idealistic, and just as dedicated to the natural world.
- I was very pleased to see that Williams hadn’t gone soft and written some bland insipid inspirational prayer book. I will admit to being a bit nervous that she had done an Eldridge Cleaver, so I’m happy that this text is a logical progression from where she’s been.
- Her conception of god is one that will probably confuse lots of people. God shows up in here, a lot. However, he is doing pretty mundane things – hosting dinner parties, visiting animal shelters, shopping, hanging out with wolves – and he’s pretty routinely confused by what has happened to the planet under the ravages of Western industrialism.
- The stories she shares are often pretty mundane, which I’m guessing is part of Williams’s point. In my mind writing a book like this that is about conceptions of the divine and that isn’t chock full of platitudes that pretend to be epic revelations is a subversive act. The fact that she makes them funny as hell and sharply observed helps.
Acceptance is the third novel of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, and if the reviews on Goodreads are any clue reaction to it was decidedly mixed. I loved what it does, even if the ways in which I was occasionally confused left me scratching my head a bit.
- This novel is a naturalist’s dream. Vandermeer clearly knows the Southern Reach area (somewhere on the Gulf coast at the crook of Florida) well, and he evokes its wildness in ways that are metaphorically immersive (if that’s a thing). It’s not the sort of area that evokes the type of rugged men in the wilderness stories that lots of naturalists love, but it is the type of natural area that screams wilderness that doesn’t need humans.
- My guess is that’s part of the reason that Vandermeer sets the trilogy here. In an interview that I can’t find again Vandermeer says that he sets the trilogy in the Southern Reach because he knows it intimately, having lived there for a number of years, but I’m guessing that he was inspired by the landscape as well.
- No plot spoilers here – as I think we expected, the island becomes the focus of the planet’s resistance. The twist this time is the lightkeeper’s story, which makes the novel more contemporary (the description of the blue collar life of the area is sympathetic and engaging) and to integrate humans into what happens in Area X.
- The remolding of individuals as animals feels hopeful to me, which is probably sort of goofy and points to my general curmudgeonliness. The fact that our molecules get absorbed into the ecosystem is just part of the natural order (if we’ll let it function), and the ways in which Vandermeer bases this third novel on that acceptance with a slight reward for those who get it feels like a beautiful thing.
- I enjoy this sub-genre of scifi alot, even if I’m not sure what to call it. It’s sort of eco-criticism, it’s sort of dystopic, it’s definitely hard science fiction but it’s also definitely not set in space. The ending is ambiguous, but I’m pretty sure that the novel posits that Area X is the planet’s most dramatic response to humans trashing it, rather than an alien invasion of some sort, and in my more pessimistic moments I can’t help but wonder if it’s not some sort of cosmic retribution.
This post will get a bit political, so hold on to yer hats and stop reading if you’re more interested in travel writing (I will touch on that as well, but…)
I’m preparing to teach a class next spring on mapping the city, a course I usually teach in Rome. I’ve been asked to reconfigure it for our rust belt cities, and moving from the glamor, squalor, and glamorous squalor (or squalorly glamour?) of Rome has been a bit of a haul. Rome after all is self-billed as the Eternal City, and there are no cities in the U.S. that have been around long enough to even be called the Been Here a Long Time City, so there’s a bit of a conundrum inherent in the conversion.
In the U.S., of course, we idealize small- and medium-sized cities much like the one that I live in. My neighborhood is one of those that fits the carefully-sculpted mainstream narrative – middle-class, mixed blue and white-collar, 99 percent white, 95 percent straight. The houses are older, so we all have front porches, which means that I often know more than I want to know about my neighbors’ business. We do have some immigrants moving in, but in general the neighborhood has not changed significantly in forty years. Continue Reading
This is book two of her Broken Earth series, and she’s not kidding about the title of the series – the earth is definitely broken. Unlike many of the fantasy series I’ve read recently this one takes place in a sort of identifiable earth from thousands of years in the future.
- This novel slowed down the action a bit from the first in the series (The Fifth Season, which I seem to have forgotten to review). Whereas the first one went dizzingly fast, not worrying about readerly comfort, this one took a second to allow us glimpses of the past in order to explain (ew) why the planet is so broken.
- It’s broken because of us, of course, but rather than make this series a dystopia Jemisin simply shows how she imagines humans (as well as the rest of the planet) evolving to meet these changed conditions.
- One of the ways that humans have evolved is that some of us (an important distinction) have developed another central nervous system stem, something she calls the sessinapae (it’s always italicized in the novels). This new organ is not exactly explained, but it has a mystical function – it enables those who have it to manipulate earth’s energies directly. The orogenes (the name for those who have this organ) can use these powers for good and protect human settlements from the earthquakes and other massive shakes of the earth’s crust that happen constantly.
- As with all human powers, of course, they’re also used for not-so-savory purposes – control, revenge, and so on.
- These unsavory uses are at the heart of the plotline, as characters try to focus their powers in ways to protect their kin.
- Jemisin neatly doesn’t focus much on the ways in which the planet was broken – this series is not a morality play. We do get the history in bits, though, and as one might expect it’s not pretty.
- It seems that climate change got increasingly more devastating (there are hints of gaia theory here, as the planet tries to shake off us human fleas), and we tried to mitigate its effects in increasingly more drastic ways. The final way we as humans tried to make the planet inhabitable despite these effects involved us somehow moving the moon (I guess in order to eliminate tides, which had probably grown into tsunami-sized events).
- This triggered the advent of the fifth season (the name of the book in the series), a devastatingly long disruption of the sun caused by volcanic ash and featuring toxic air being released from the earth’s crust.
- There are hints that all of this is intentional, but they are just hints, and the agent is the planet itself.
- The communities that survived did so barely, and often had to practice cannibalism to do so, so much so that while the characters talk about the practice with distaste it’s definitely not taboo.
- The orogenes come about because humans tried to adapt to the fifth season. Animal and plant species either died out or adapted in their own ways, and human evolution did the same thing. Our evolution, of course, is far less balanced.
- This is getting way too long, but there’s tons going on here, in addition to being a page-turning read. Jemisin is also offering us a look at how our lizard brains continue to want to divide us into tribes and constantly thwart our best, most idealistic impulses, and she posits a couple of different ways that humans can adapt (including beings called stone eaters that I don’t completely understand, as they seem almost god-like).
- There are also lots and lots of deadciv ruins that are often deadly and that current humans mostly leave untouched.
- I will be talking about this series more – it’s brilliant and fascinating.