The Shape of Water burst on the scene shortly before the re-issue of Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, but Ingalls beat del Toro to the story by 35 years as this novel features a housewife in a marriage that seems stagnant who falls for a sensitive male of another species. Water is definitely involved.
- Making the protagonist Mrs. Caliban is just one of the many brilliant moves in this novel. Ingalls calls attention directly to gender roles and expectations with the title, and by positioning the canon’s wimpiest monster opposite Larry (the monster in this novel) being someone who can kill – he does so out of self-defense, and does so brutally – reverses Prospero’s cultural dominance in favor of a monster who actually becomes the sort of ideal partner that Dorothy wishes she had.
- While Prospero tames Caliban, demonstrating masculine and English superiority over all types of Others, Dorothy falls in love in an almost traditional way with her monster. Their relationship is not one of master-servant (a trope for marriage that seems to fall apart while we watch among Dorothy’s social circle) but rather a contemporary good marriage, with a true partnership between equals rather than a series of passive-aggressive territory contests of the sort that middle class marriages degenerate into in the world of this novel.
- Larry seems more perplexed by the insanity of Dorothy’s world than she does by his. Of course we get to see her world and not his, but the ever-shifting alliances of marriages in Dorothy’s circle are hard to fathom, and become almost labyrinth-like. There simply are no good marriages, as men cheat, women cheat, and the ideal of the American household falls completely apart.
- The larger context that Ingalls works from is suburbia, and her portrayal of it makes middle-class citizens of the USA seem more savage than poor Larry…
- And by the way, this novel contains inter-species sex…don’t say you weren’t warned.
My quick tour of Lucia Berlin’s prose is complete as I have now finished A Manual for Cleaning Women, and I’m struck (again) by the intense clarity and pain that she invokes solely through language. My thoughts follow…
- Every single story is amazing, and can stand on its own. One of the most fascinating parts of her work in my mind though is how seemingly seamlessly (although not unjarringly) she moves through a whole series of approaches that should feel annoyingly crafty and calculated – telling the same story through a different narrative lens, revisiting scenes (a narrative device she will use in Evening in Paradise as well) and adding characters, leading us as readers to believe (against all evidence) that this time the story will end well (only to be gut-punched again at the end).
- Spoiler – these devices all work. I’m not sure I’ve read fiction that had me verged on the edge of tears so often…
- Part of the way she accomplishes this is through the casual ways she moves through class, ethnic, and gender lines. These stories move from remote mining towns in New Mexico and fishing villages off the coast of Chiapas (I think) to the hoipolloi of Santiago and El Paso to the ghettos of Oakland.
- Her narrators move with her, along those same usual suspect lines, with gender and class predominating – stories get told from the perspective of a white male civil rights attorney who defends a reasonable facsimile of Berlin as well as a teenage girlfriend of a drug-runner who has snuck across the US border from Mexico, with a whole range of voices in between.
- The voices form a chorus in the best Greek tradition, even as they speak from their own reality.
- They also stomp all over the border between classes, as Berlin herself worked in a wide range of jobs and can speak coherently and movingly about a dozen of them.
- I’m not going to try to write about each story – I hope to get thoughts down about them all later – but I can’t help but think about the ways in which her language grounds me in human experience that somehow doesn’t ignore subjectivity. I usually prefer reading prose (I’m better at reading poetry that is unstinting) that while acutely aware of the misery around us is either surreal or farcical enough to feel sort of light (I’m thinking of folks like George Saunders and Karen Russell, both of whom I love as writers as well). Her prose is never light; even when she’s funny the humor is thoroughly entombed in a graveyard.
- It’s not that her prose can’t be beautiful in any number of ways that we often think of as literary aesthetical gorgeousness – it’s just that she is hyper-empathetic and constantly aware of the sheer fuckery that most people go through as they try to combat what often seem to be intensely difficult mountains to climb.
- In Berlin’s world the panopticon is as fiercely internal as external – cultural forces and biologies combine to create pressures that crush all of us, albeit sometimes in subtle ways.
I’ve stumbled onto Lucia Berlin’s fiction late, and I read these in the wrong order, but I’m glad I did. Evening in Paradise is a collection of short stories that made me go ‘whoa’ multiple times. Thoughts below:
- The title story is emblematic of Berlin’s prose, in my mind, as it describes a few years in a family headed by a long-suffering partner and a recovering addict. They live in a paradisaical fishing village off the coast of Mexico, one that feels both timeless and rooted in contemporaneity.
- When a former dealer finds them, the addict falls back into using, and even when the dealer ODs and the partner essentially buries him at sea the story ends with a sense that the devil is right around the corner.
- This sort of ending is typical of Berlin’s prose – at the end of several of these stories she leaves us feeling like, yay, everything will work out, and then with one huge narrative stroke she undermines what we think will be the ending.
- These stories are semi-auto-biographical, I guess, although Berlin has said that she is far more interested in them feeling real than being true. I understand that that’s a fairly common writerly caveat, but based on the craziness of Berlin’s life that stretch can go a lot farther, I’m guessing…
- I often struggle with how to characterize what I think Berlin fictionalizes incredibly well – the moment of what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism,” when you realize that your optimistic, perhaps naive view of the ways that you can overcome trauma fail you, and you have to figure out what to do, often returning to well-worn and not necessarily helpful behaviors. There as many responses as there are people of course – for me I always feel unable to focus visually when my views of the world collide – and I think these stories describe a huge chunk of them.
- They are so full of these moments that I often read while holding my breath, and even if the characters plow through marks are left.
- This novel is social realism at its finest, perhaps because so much of it coincides with the author’s lived experience.
Michiko Kakutani has been a harbinger of good literature for a long time, and The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump gives her a chance to connect the ways in which traditional notions of argument have failed in the digital age. More thoughts below:
- The argument she traces convincingly in this book is the idea that Trump is the best player in this game, not a paradigm-breaker himself. Trump gets mentioned in her subtitle, but she’s more concerned about the ways that our notions of truth have changed, not how Trump himself uses them. The fact that he’s not desperately trying to stay out of jail as a failed grifter is a symptom of the age, not a sign that he’s, uh, got talent.
- She uses her amazing knowledge of literature and philosophy to trace the evolution of the distrust of being able to make objective statements about truth to the rise of Trump. She clearly hates Trump and what he’s done to discourse in the U.S., but she sees the long dark night of the soul that we face in this country (and in social media-saturated platforms) and describes it clearly and devastatingly.
- For instance, some of her most powerful critiques are not directed at the Breitbarts of the world but instead at leftists who jumped fully on board the postmodern train and contributed to what she sees as the source of much of the destruction of our ability to come to any conclusions about what is true in any specific situation.
- In some ways she’s almost too good of a writer – I had to willfully slow myself down as I read the book, because her prose is achingly beautiful at times.
- It made me think about my own relationship with the postmodernists. I think I was lucky – I came to them after their heyday, and as someone a bit older with a bit more experience of the world. While some of their methodologies were enormously useful – Foucault’s identification of power, Derrida’s Swiss Army knife tool of deconstruction, Spivak’s look at the subaltern, and Said’s look at the creation of oppressive tropes of representation in both high and low art are some that I found productive – in general the falling off the cliff that folks like Lyotard promoted made me queasy.
- The lived experience they spoke from seemed pretty ungrounded from the reality that I saw, and seemed to pretend that material conditions could be somehow transcended.
- That said, I think one of the most interesting dances in this is watching Kakutani’s sense of fair play at work. She is, after all, the critic who wrote one of the funniest and spot-on critiques of Norman Mailer’s stupifyingly binary oeuvre I’ve ever read, one in which she accurately depicts the enormity of the high art ego, and yet she highly values the cultural impact of social realism and high art in its novelistic form. The search for objective truth usually privileges canonical texts, and can thus miss places where resistance to entrenched power occurs if those places are located outside the canon.
- She tries to acknowledge these lines, but it’s a tricky walk to make.
The fiction coming from the refugee community has helped me better understand the trauma, joy, and grief that comes from the experience, and Statovci’s first novel is no exception. I feel grateful for these types of stories – without them I can barely imagine the lived experience that is reality for millions of people. Thoughts:
- This novel feels fairly autobiographical (except I’m hoping that there’s no talking cat, which felt straight out of Bulgakov), and the story’s multi-generationality made the identity issues clearer, I think…
- We follow two protagonists, one who seems to closely mirror Statovci and a character who is his mother.
- Geographically the novel moves from a small town in Kosovo to Finland, the site of the family’s relocation. We spend almost equal amounts of time in the two places, and Kosovo is split between the rural area the family first lived in and a (relatively) big city.
- The talking cat sneaks straight in from magical realism, and he serves as an alter-ego of sorts. I’m guessing the cat appears because the young man talks about how the ethnic Albanians who live in Kosovo do not like or trust cats, and this cat is not even a good pet, let alone a good roommate. He seems to be a stand-in for parts of the narrator’s personality that the man wants to leave behind, as well as a representative of the dangers of trying to center one’s identity.
- Once the talking cat leaves the protagonist’s life he becomes much more grounded in Helsinki, as he finds a partner and settles into a domestic routine that appears fairly western European.
- What this combination of stories does, I think, is help me realize that one of the fundamental questions that Statovci asks is who gets to live their fully authentic life. The young man struggles
- The refugees are often hated by Finns, just as they are by citizens of the U.S., but they are also encouraged to adopt Finnish ways, some of which are cosmopolitan and far more contemporary than what they left behind.
- The male protagonist is part of this – as a gay man he leads a life that I’m guessing is much different than the one he would have led in Kosovo, much less grounded in religion. He seems pretty secular here.
- His mom’s story is a nice addition, and I admire the fact that as readers we have to work to put together the connections between characters.
- She also gets to dream, I guess, once she reaches Finland, but her husband – who’s an abusive asshole – flounders, eventually relying on Finnish social largesse and plotting a return to Kosovo and revenge on the Finns.
- While she doesn’t necessarily become some idealized transnational ingenue, she does become more than the sum of her children, which seems to have been her fate if she stayed in Kosovo.
- Not that there’s anything wrong with raising her kids, but in this configuration she wants to do other things as well.
- The complications of identity for refugees are far more powerful than we are considering. Again, I’m thankful for these literary attempts to help us understand.
A Brief History of Seven Killings is the first Marlon James novel I’ve read, and it won’t be the last. It features multiple points of view as it wends its way through the attempt to kill Bob Marley (because he was thought to favor the socialist-leaning PNP in the upcoming election) in 1976 and then revisits the story of the subsequent rise of Jamaican drug lords in the crack days of New York in the 1980s.
- In the “Acknowledgements” section James identifies both Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Marguerite Duras’s The North China Lover as models for what he essentially thought was a huge mess of “anecdotes” and other “source materials.” I haven’t read Duras, but the multiple viewpoints of As I Lay Dying (as well as the invocation of different dialects) felt like the perfect starting point for ABHOSK.
- The viewpoint that seems closest to James is Nina Burgess, a Jamaican women who works her way to the States in as honest a fashion as she can. She has multiple names throughout the novel as she assumes identities, and she gets to finish the novel by getting a call from someone who I think is her mom (although I’m not sure of that by any means).
- She’s closest, I’m guessing, because she works multiple jobs after becoming the lover of a white American mechanical engineer who worked in Jamaica for a company mining bauxite. She ends up as a nurse, and I’m guessing that James is honoring that work in a fashion.
- She also has a tremendously complicated relationship with her home country, one which at the end has her being chastised by a young Jamaican woman sitting with her husband (who is in a coma after a gang war), imbibing the food and culture of Jamaica in a restaurant close to her home in Queens, throwing up that food after hearing of Josey Wales’s horrible death, ending with that mysterious phone call.
- I’m guessing James feels similarly.
- The folks who run Jamaica politically are rarely seen – instead, James presents the viewpoint of those who run sections of the various ghettos. One man, Papa-Lo, gets killed as he tries to bring peace; another man, Josie Wales, gets killed after his attempts to bring order fall apart when he murders everyone in a crack house. Both, I think, had gotten tired of the constant ways that their efforts failed.
- There is a lot more to talk about here, of course – a couple of white folks show up, a couple of characters are gay, the weirdness of Lester Bangs and all those Rolling Stone writers also appears as they become entranced by reggae and then find out that the scene that produces it is a brutal one.
- And the Singer (Marley, in the only way he’s referenced in the novel), gets lionized and idealized in a way that, as the Rolling Stone writer says as he’s being “corrected” about the story he’s publishing in The New Yorker, makes me “think even more highly of the fucker.”
- As we piece together our sense of American identity through the vast, often nearly indecipherable melange of immigrant voices – and their reasons for coming here – novels like this one will help us better understand the promise and perils of moving to the United States and trying to make connections here.
- Although the dialect may be off-putting, this was an amazing read, one that I am guessing will live in my mind for a while.
I was directed to Schweitzer’s collection of reviews, essays, and presentations while researching an article on the Malazan world and just war theory, and I thought I’d talk about it below:
- At times this collection was frustrating. He writes off any sort of literary theory that comes after the New Critics, and he dismisses it in what I always find the laziest way – it’s too hard, it’s not well-written, it eliminates the author, and so on. There are many reasons to find fault with the deconstructionists, Foucauldians, and the rest who revolutionized the way that literary criticism works, but these are not the ways to do so.
- He also diminishes a lot of the underlying issues of race and gender that mark these texts, in ways that seem very Gernsbackian.
- Even then, however, the reasons why I think I enjoyed this become clear, as one of the essays in this collection directly critiques Gernsback’s contributions to the field because of Gernsback’s well-known multiple faults…and he does this compellingly and disruptively (critiquing Gernsback can still draw fire from true scifi fanatics).
- Those critiques aside, I plowed through this and enjoyed a lot of it. I understand, I think, that he’s a writer who is too busy writing stories, etc, a publisher who is keeping generic short fiction alive, an editor who works with and encourages a lot of other writers, an agent who makes sure that we still have access to older texts, and a collector who wears out estate sales in order to find hidden gems that need to be preserved to spend a lot of time digesting contemporary theory.
- Taking the time to work through the potential benefits these theories offer by providing different types of lenses probably isn’t in the cards…
- His memory is amazing, nearly wikipedian in its breadth *and* depth. The number of texts that he refers to is mind-boggling, and I’m saying that as someone who spends way too much time reading myself.
- I’m also fascinated by the patterns he draws – he not only reads pulp and/or genre fiction, but he digests it, sees patterns between both stories by the same author and between that author and others.
- Finally, he’s definitely not only interested in texts from the genre. He casually mentions Marquez, Kafka, and McCarthy, drawing interesting parallels, and he has clearly read a lot of the high canon and thought seriously about it…