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…
When I first read The Circle, it was 2014 and although Gamergate and worse had happened I refused to believe that social media and the alpha tech primadonnas could extend influence much beyond the confines of the diggerati. Re-reading it after the 2016 election reminds me that I’m a moron…
- Frustration with the cult of the tech alpha male in our culture seems to wax and wane, but Eggers clearly is more than frustrated. The three-headed monster that created the Circle neatly identifies what I think passes for the three sides of the tech alpha male – a sort of blind optimism about the perfectibility of humans (through technology, often developed by the alpha male’s company), financial smarts and a sort of willful ignorance about the dangers of monopoly capitalism, and sheer technical virtuosity.
- The fact that they’re all white guys is of course perfect.
- Eggers skips right over the usual binary – techno-optimism vs. techno-pessimism – and portrays those who want to uphold values like privacy as doomed. Mae’s ex-boyfriend Mercer gets particularly rough treatment…
- It’s hard not to read this as a sort of political thriller, one that ends badly.
- This novel ain’t subtle, all the way down to Stenton (financial guy) and his love of the voracious shark that eats the world and covers it in fecal material that is simply grey ash. The fact that the shark is transparent is another nice touch.
- I’m guessing that Eggers thinks this conversation is too important to be subtle about.
- The way that most of us so quickly immerse ourselves in the intensely anxious world of social media approval-seeking frightens me for the future, and makes Eggers’s vision particularly relevant.
- At the same time, Mae is so relentlessly caught up in the social prestige of being a bigwig at the Circle that I hope when she wakes up in twenty years that there is still a world.
- Every time I think Goodreads will offer me interesting conversation about a novel, I’m wrong. One of these days I will stop being surprised.
For a class I’m teaching I re-read Fight Club (for probably the fourth time), and since I have yet to blog about it now seemed like the perfect time. Thoughts…
- The components of masculinity that Pahlaniuk identifies are fascinating. He is of course satirizing the New Age Men’s movement, but the ways that he pulls this off show a construction of masculine identity that contorts the usual binaries…
- For instance, lots of this novel focuses on the unnamed narrator trying to understand his own feelings in a world in which he thinks he’s being asked to have them. The attending support groups, finding jobs that are seemingly intentionally emasculating (mostly because of where he fits on the corporate food chain), and even the selling of human fat-based designer soaps all make us think that this narrator is raging against what many in the old-school masculine camp would call the feminization of the US (which, by the way, is not a thing). That raging leads to his own destruction, though, and not in a poetic Richard Wright-sort of way.
- Having set up that binary, Pahlaniuk beautifully yanks the rug out from under oppressed white men everywhere by having them (us) pummel each other in dirty basements and think that that’s a good thing, rather than the product of intense insomnia brought on at least partially by an inability to reconcile oneself to the shit that one must do to earn a living.
- Which, lest we forget, is in our narrator’s case to be the point person on deciding on just how many people have to die for a manufacturer to admit a mistake in a production process…
- Another binary that he gleefully pulls apart is the observation/action conundrum. Masculinity equals action, right? In FC, however, observation and action blend and morph together, as shit happens:
- the steroids that Big Bob used when he lifted (active) have now caused him to be dying of cancer (the ultimate in passivity);
- Tyler’s job as a projectionist (passive) becomes active when he inserts scenes from porn films in the kid movies he shows;
- and many more…
- Of course, this novel is also saturated in identity, but when we start to believe our own bullshit the train runs off its rails, as Project Mayhem becomes a thing that even Tyler (or the unnamed narrator) can’t control.
- The supposed masculine love of being able to thrive in chaos results in the entire support group coming to rescue our narrator from himself as buildings collapse around them.
I just finished re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale (1986) for a class I’m teaching this spring. When I read it the first time I hadn’t read any of Atwood’s other novels – esp. the MadAddam series – and the explosion of dystopias hadn’t yet happened, so the experience was definitely different this time. My copy (Anchor House 1998) even includes an interview with Atwood in which she explains what a dystopia is. I’m guessing she wouldn’t need to do that today.
Full disclosure: I haven’t seen the teevee series…
Thoughts on this reading:
- I got a better sense of Offred as a character this time. I’m guessing I read it too quickly the first time, trying to find out what happened. She’s not just dislocated from what she knows; the process of making her into a handmaid is so thorough that she only has brief hints of who she is.
- And it’s not until the Commander takes her to Jezebel’s that she truly starts to break through and take chances. The complete and utter terror that she feels (combined with guilt) was much more evident to me, as is her descent into despair (and the chances that she takes because of that).
- She also lets us know in her narration what a failure she feels like, again especially at the end of the novel.
- We don’t get a lot about the transition to the Gileadean regime. We hear about the day in which they assassinated most of the members of all three branches of government, and we hear about a constant war, but we don’t know much about that war, and it doesn’t seem to have much of an impact on daily life (except for rationing, which might be caused by the Gileadeans inability to do anything right except sow terror).
- In the academic conference lecture and q/a session that serves as the epilogue, we find out that the Canadiens were reluctant to cross the Gilead regime, out of fear. That makes me wonder if the war wasn’t something out of 1984, where we have always been at war with Eastasia.
- The degradation of the natural land has definitely been a cause, though, as we find out that fishing stocks are down and droughts are more common.
- After all, that’s why they have the handmaids – birth rates have plummeted. Even having a baby is no guarantee – lots of children are either stillborn or deformed horribly.
- And undesirables get sent to the Colonies, where some unknown environmental catastrophe has happened and prisoners are sent (without protective gear) to attempt to do a clean-up.
- And the Gileads utilized religious and racial fears to justify the takeover – there is brief mention of the threat of an Islamic takeover, and the natural resource deprivations have made people afraid, the usual story.
- This is worthy of a bigger post, but it’s especially interesting to re-read this in the context of all the dystopias that have been written (and created) recently. The Hunger Games picks up on the deliberate oppression of women in these cultures; several series continue the conversation about roles and castes; and even Atwood’s own series looks at the ways in which environmental destruction causes the type of social disruption that makes authoritarian governments (esp. those promising to get back to godliness) seem like a return to what’s normal and safe.
- Even the fact that we don’t know much about the transition is a strategy that gets pick up in future dystopias. My guess is that the general sense of we’re sorta fucked that comes with the millennial worldview has been transmitted from Atwood, whose fierceness in writing this story in the early 80s (and deliberately invoking both Brave New World and 1984, dystopias that become canonical perhaps because they feature men is only offset by her determination to speculate seriously about the future.
I’m from north-central Ohio, and now live within spitting distance of Akron, so Ohio felt frighteningly close at times. Having just read it after a re-read of The Corrections, it also felt like a much different take on the midwest. Further thoughts below:
- Football culture is a thing – even today I still love the game even though I know what it does the people who play it, and how it warps our senses of justice and manliness. Markley’s depiction of just how much football dominates Ohio high schools is spot-on.
- He also I think captures the effects of what feels like a misplaced legacy (and anger). Ohio went solidly for Trump in 2016 despite the firewall provided by minorities, and in 2018 it was one of the few states to not participate in the blue wave. Even the lone Democrat to win a state-wide race, Sherrod Brown, did so because he taps into blue-collar anger and distrust.
- The fact that that anger and distrust is directed at minorities, immigrants, and liberal politicians says as much about race as it does about the ability of the companies that moved the jobs out of the country in order to make their stockholders happy to dodge responsibility.
- That said, Markley is not necessarily writing a social realist novel (as I expected after the first chapter, and I think the reason I put the novel down the first time I picked it up). The characters who potentially have something to offer the world leave the fictional town of New Canaan, with one exception, and their returns are short, alcohol-soaked, and generally destructive either to themselves or to the town.
- The generational divide is clear, especially since none of the characters we follow are older than 28. Markley took a chance and tried different perspectives, including a rape victim who gets revenge and an adjunct professor who claims her own sexuality (and who discovered it in high school without of course being able to come out). These differences in perspective don’t necessarily make the novel less realistic, but the way that this town seems to fling its best and brightest far outside the confines of their school district borders feels like a far different kind of realism.
- And warning – this novel gets dark by the end…very very dark…not that there’s anything wrong with that.
A re-read of The Corrections (2001) proved that a) my memory is definitely going and b) The Corrections is still my favorite Franzen novel. More thoughts below:
- I actually cared about the Lamberts as characters. I’m still sort of shocked by that, because so much of the contest for best novel from the U.S. these days features novels that have characters who are either so a) manic or b) despicable that caring about them is painful.
- That said, the Lamberts make caring for them not all that easy at points.
- As a reader I’ve been wondering lately why I invest so much energy into trying to guide characters into acting in ways that I want them to act – i.e., as decent humans. I run this gauntlet, for some reason – I don’t want the author to kowtow to some sort of redemption story (and thus save bad people with what almost feels like a deus ex machina ending), but I also get frustrated and sort of itchy watching these people do bad things. I’m worried about them being caricatures, and then I’m worried why I’m worried.
- I also spend find myself spending too much time trying to determine if the author is on the right side politically. That’s an irritating habit and one that I’m guessing I will constantly have to monitor.