What to say about a writer who dares rework Homer? Madeline Miller does just that in The Song of Achilles, and, uh, she’s got huevos is all I can say. Thoughts below:
- She uses Patroclus as first-person narrator, even after he dies (!). That enables her to use the narrator’s tone (humble, self-effacing, insecure) to make what seems like a relationship that makes little sense – Achilles is the greatest warrior of his time, and Patroclus is a nobody who has been exiled from his home, so why exactly does Achilles for him?
- Their love becomes easily the best relationship in the story, with only Odysseus and Penelope coming close.
- Miller makes a point of noting that Odysseus’s love and respect for his wife was abnormal, so Achilles and Patroclus are even more revolutionary.
- I doubt I will ever get a good explanation of this, but ten years at ten casualties a day is a lot of dead Greeks and Trojans.
- I know, I know, we don’t read Homer for depictions of military conflicts.
- That said, the power of the hero in ancient Greek culture is fascinating, and Miller’s focus on the tragic part of heroism (we get a litany at one point that includes Herakles killing his wife and family as part of the typical fate of Greek heroes) – a bit different than the always-triumphant heroes of the US.
- I also found her depictions of the gods and goddesses compelling. Greek gods were best propitiated; calling attention to yourself was risking humiliation and worse, as the gods were certain to reinforce the hierarchy of mortal/immortal, and brutally.
- This conception of the supernatural always felt to me to be spot-on, and always made me realize what a radical Jesus and the Buddha are. In my mind, the capricious qualities of life favor a view of the divine that seems at best indifferent and at worst outright hostile. To be able to conceive the divine in terms of what now seems clearly to be the best of being human takes a special sort of disruption.
- Miller is a high school teacher, and I’m guessing she at least partially has that audience in mind as she writes, but I would have trouble assigning this to a high school class. She’s accurate in her portrayal, but the prevalence of sexual violence is very high in here, and would have multiple trigger warnings.
- Achilles and Patroclus have the most clearly loving and mutually satisfying sexual relationship, which would probably make some heads explode.
The Corpse Rat King is an interesting take on the hero’s journey. I have no idea whether Battersby has even heard of the hero’s journey or Joseph Campbell, but his hero mimics the journey that Campbell describes in interesting ways…
- The narrator is Marius don Hellespont, and his class standing enables Battersby to make this a story about class as much as it is anything else. I’m guessing that Hellespont’s journey to find the dead a new king invokes several class levelers (the narrator gets left on an island, made homeless, forced to pose as a eunuch and to become a prostitute, among a whole series of situations) because part of Hellespont’s world-building involves a medieval world that also, I think, provides a look at how structures of rich and poor develop.
- He’s not critiquing capitalism in this necessarily, but by depicting a rich man’s son who is so desperate for a world that feels more real than what he grew up in that he becomes a con man, Battersby satirizes the collection of wealth as a means in and of itself.
- The boon that he brings back to the world of the dead, then, is of course the king, but I don’t think that the dead necessarily felt the need to be ordered about. Instead, the king seems to a stand-in for the state of death itself, an ontological metaphor that grants them a sort of peace that they don’t otherwise seem to have.
- The granting of community status to the dead feels righteous somehow, in a vaguely non-threatening way. We all will be there after all…
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.
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)?
Jemisin’s fiction (@nkjemisin) constantly amazes me – it can be incredibly subtle and also inexorably direct and clear; it can be wildly imaginative and yet also pay homage to its sources straightforwardly; it can be maddeningly obtuse and frighteningly transparent. The Kingdom of Gods, the third and final novel in the Inheritance trilogy, lives up to all of these prosal characteristics, and like every other novel of hers that I’ve read I had trouble putting it down.
- This series (much like the other series of hers that I have read, the Broken Earth series) is chock full of discussions of identity and essential natures. Jemisin is way too smart to offer us easy answers to these questions, and her usage of Sieh as a first-person narrator in this novel fits that pattern.
- Sieh is a trickster god, an honored tradition in many pantheons. In the first novel of the series we see a lot of Sieh, and he’s pretty repellent, a childish purely libidinal creature with the powers of a god.
- That changes in this book, mostly because of the love he has for two mortals. Sieh talks about being true to his own nature, but he is able to transform by the end of the novel (no spoiler alert because I won’t say how).
- Jemisin doesn’t make that change an easy one. In fact, it requires enormous sacrifices on Sieh’s part, and because we are in a first-person narration we get Sieh’s not always completely self-aware understanding of how and why he is changing.
- From my perspective this approach to the essential nature of identity is a compelling one, especially in a fictional genre that tends to deal in often overblown archetypes. Jemisin’s insistence that we have no essential nature makes more sense when presented in this context, I think, because rather than assume that there are unchangeable parts of ourselves what we see are the ways in which cultural training in combination with our own reactions, strategies, and hard-wiring make certain combinations of actions seem inevitable, and thus natural.
- This approach is an incredibly complicated one to pull off, and I found myself looking constantly for markers that helped me locate my own reading experience. I wanted desperately to make the gods Greek, a fallback based upon my own training in the canon and the fluid sexuality of many of her characters. That approach is limited, but I think it sort of helped.
- I then kept thinking of trickster characters, especially the ones that I know from southwestern religious structures. Jemisin’s focusing this novel on Sieh as trickster nicely sets up this discussion of essential natures, especially since it follows other novels in which she has a mortal become a founding god because the essence of a founding god has been located in her.
- Yien, that god, transforms the one who was hidden in her, a comment perhaps upon Harry Potter and embedded wizards and such.
- Sieh, though, is forced to grow up, and that process changes him utterly in ways that trickster gods should not adhere to – he becomes interested more in stability than chaos, and becomes an actual change agent in ways fit neatly with these ideas of how identity changes.
- All of this is done while simultaneously exploiting the generic obsession with stable characters. Wow…