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.
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)?
I read this immediately after finishing 99 Stories of God, because I forgot how much I admired Williams’s non-fiction. I was first introduced to it by an essay she wrote on hunting, in which she unabashedly talks about hunting as killing, and piles up animal corpses in an attempt to try to make the costs of hunting clear.
I’m more than a bit pissed at myself for just now discovering that Joy Williams writes fiction. As I noted in my post about her spiritual commentary 99 Stories of God, I knew her as an essayist, so finding her fiction has been both really cool and really frustrating. The frustration is all directed at myself.
- One of the fascinating things about her characters are how, when we as readers only hear their internal dialogue, seem to poised precariously on the tip of the abyss, but upon talking with their comrades they are reeled back in. I guess I could read this as an attack on the seeming placidity that conversation provides us – a way to pretend that we’re all okay – and that would be defensible.
- Instead, though, conversation – witty, humble, and humane – serves as an anchor, a way to pull those folks back from that abyss and ground them in the human. It’s not always the best of the human – dialogue in this novel does not save young women from the predatory desires of older men, for instance – but the grounding is unflinching.
- Oh, and by the way – who saves those young women? Themselves…as it should be…
- This novel doesn’t really concern itself with the idea of being saved or redeemed, however. The only character who sort of gets redeemed is the big-game hunter Stumpff, whose museum of his trophies gets taken over as a sort of hospice by Emily, an eight-year-old. His fascination with her and her cause results in him firing his taxidermist and driving Emily around town as she carries out her mission of mercy.
- It’s far more interested in the line between the quick and the dead. It features a mom ghost who is anything but motherly, a nursing home of sorts that denies people the right to die with dignity (our first view of it is as the head nurse washes down a patient who is strung up like an animal and who keeps screaming “I want to go home!”
- The border she’s elucidating has lots of components, and she treats animal deaths as seriously as she does human ones.
- As with 99 Stories, this one will come up in my own head again…
If someone had described Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle to me I don’t think I would have read it. I picked it up blindly, mostly because I wanted to read more magical realism (I have pretty much only read Rushdie, Marquez, and Borges). Even so, the first hundred pages should have turned me off – Toru Okada, the protagonist, spends most of it emotionally detached, halfheartedly looking for a missing cat while flirting detachedly from a teenager who lives in the neighborhood, all the while hanging around his apartment all day. The narrative doesn’t exactly careen forward from this point, but events get increasingly weird and increasingly intense, until Okada starts flipping relatively easily between parallel universes. Even the wrap-up felt unsettling and odd, as it was unexpected but also unexpectedly not a denouement as I think of them.
- The wind-up bird is the link between a whole bunch of wild stories. I guess it’s mostly noted for its annoying screech.
- Everyone who Okada meets comes back to play a part in the novel. Everyone.
- His wife (Kumiko) leaves him but we’re never sure why, and she reappears at a couple of points, one of which convinces Okada that he must save her. Despite beating someone to death in her hotel room, he can’t.
- His brother-in-law gets beaten into a coma (a man who hates Okada and who Okada hates back), but he doesn’t really, at least in the plane of existence that we are all on.
- Wells figure prominently, as Okada spends several days in the bottom of one, and Lt. Miyami, who was captured by Soviets in Manchuria during WWII, was left in one to die (he escaped).
- Okada is marked with a blue stain on his cheek that marks him as someone who can relieve people of inner turmoil and anxiety by touching them. Nutmeg (a rich woman who befriends him) has the same mark, and has been performing this task. In trying to get Kumiko back, he somehow becomes unable to do this anymore. What they were doing felt a bit like what sin-eaters in the middle ages did, especially in Ireland.
- Okada and Nutmeg have a conversation about meta-fiction at one point that is fascinating and I think either shows Murakami’s sense of humor or his willingness to stare right at the fourth wall and say “I see you.”
- I know that folks often say that they read to learn about other cultures. I always feel that this is an impossible task – in my mind knowing other cultures intimately is impossible (hell, I don’t think I know my own), and assuming that we pick up a book and are immediately experts in Japan is sort of foolish.
- That said, this book seems determined to be as anti-stereotypical Japanese as possible. Big lumps of it describe Japanese war crimes in Manchuria, for instance. It talks specifically about the military codes of Japanese soldiers and how stupid they were. Okada is dreamy, unemployed, more worried about cats than people, and not all that worried about cats – all characteristics that go against stereotypes of the Japanese as hard-working sarariman who will die at their desks rather than disappoint their company (and thus their country). I enjoyed this defiance, but it also made me realize how completely I had bought into the stereotype.
- Everyone will be happy to know that the cat is okay.
Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones became one of those books that I read too fast. I wanted to know that Randall was able to go to basketball camp and get out of the poverty trap, that Skeetah kept the puppies to make some desperately-needed money, that Dad was able to break out of his grief-inspired alcoholism, that Esch discovered having sex would make her pregnant and that boys are at best stupid and at worst evil, and that Junior had a chance at some sort of childhood. Most of all, much to my shame, I wanted to keep going to see if China survived. Spoiler alert – Ward ends the novel before we know…
- Esch is a marvelous character. She’s trapped since the death of her mother, and has had to watch the family slink slowly into a kind of sloth fueled by the fact that their dad has become non-functioning since Mom died in childbirth.
- She clearly relates to the Greek plays that they are reading in her school, and she feels close to Medea in all her forms. The interplay between Esch’s reading of Medea and her own life features her trying out Medea in a bunch of different roles and possibilities, trying to make sense of her own pregnancy and relationship with her baby’s father in the light shed by Medea’s own struggle for autonomy.
- Skeetah and China’s relationship also did not play out how I expected it to. I have no experience with people who fight dogs outside of reading of the horror of Michael Vick’s slaughter pit, and to have this relationship so lovingly sketched out, with the care that Skeetah takes for China and her puppies going far beyond the money they’re worth. China and Skeetah are in a mutual protection society, with China simply doing what her hard-wiring tells her to do, and the relationship felt so loving *despite* the fact that she had been bred to fight.
- Despite all the blood, no dogs are killed in these fights, which makes sense since the dogs are worth so much money and are so close to their owners in a physical sense. This is not a portrayal of the bloodthirsty, cold-to-their-animals type of dog fighting that I see in the media – these are people who are simply allowing the dogs to do what they do.
- Finally, the portrayal of the hurricane’s impact is powerful but not dominating. I cared about the characters long before the hurricane hit, and the gradually creeping terror that they felt resonated with me. It also felt like an accurate portrayal of how the power of these storms is hard to imagine, especially with the elders in a community disabled or gone.
- And dammit, I hope China survived…I was hoping that Ward would at least let them keep a puppy…
Ah, Salman Rushdie, bringing back memories of fatwas and Scotland Yard protecting an Indian-born writer from folks trying to get to heaven by killing just one writer…makes me almost nostalgic.
- I read this novel in my quest to read as much magical realism as I can, but I hadn’t guessed that Rushdie uses magical realism to create an allegory of the struggles India has gone through since obtaining independence from the British. In that sense he follows Marquez beautifully.
- Saleem Sinai, his muslim protagonist gifted with an extreme sense of smell, experiences all the joys and horrors of elections, independence, post-colonialism, and the split of Pakistan and India. Indira Gandhi is a particularly loathsome figure in her use of power, and the viciousness of the various wars and ethnic cleansings are also powerfully evoked.
- Rushdie uses women as ciphers in ways that occasionally make me queasy. His narrator is telling the story to Padma, his latest partner, and her impatience feels sort of uncomfortably shrewish. The sacrifice of the witch who gives birth to Sinai’s son also felt sort of yeah, once again the woman dies for the man’s sins-type story. My guess is that I’m selling Rushdie very short here.
- The widespread ethnic diversity of India becomes a part of the story-telling context in MC, and while I struggled to keep up (so many ancestors of mercenaries and emperors) the overall effect made me hope that India can continue to maintain its identity, while fearing for its very ability to do so.
- The move from the naivete of a radio contest for the child born closest to midnight to civil war and totalitarianism and ethnic cleansing struck me upon reading as sort of beautiful in a pen-and-ink sketch type of way. In this rendition India feels both like a hopeful vision of a future multicultural world and a descent into the worst that we can do to each other.
I re-read The Master and Margarita as a way to better understand the possibilities of KRZ, and wow…it brings back memories…
I first read it at the insistence of a guy I met working as a coder for EDS in Dayton. He had brought his family out of the Soviet Union, through a lot of risk and danger that I can barely comprehend, and he and I became friends, so much so that I learned how to drink pepper vodka (straight from the bottle, peel that foil cap off and enjoy!). He didn’t necessarily give me the keys to reading it, as there are so many layers that such a key would be as long as the book, but he gave me a firm sense of how important something like literature (and literary resistance) could be in a culture where the biggest lies were simply told as if they were truth.
This drawing is not of the cover, but it’s so gangster…
I’m sure there are no resemblances to the current moment.
And that brings me to the thoughts section of this post: Continue Reading