Nick Flynn’s ”The Day Lou Reed Died” was first published in the November 25, 2013 issue of The New Yorker and is available here for subscribers.
Nick Flynn’s “The Day Lou Reed Died” is about his father’s death, and it is terrific. This poem is unavailable except with a subscription to The New Yorker, but to me this poem is why we subscribe.
Most of us have not had the life the poet has had – losing one parent to grandiosity, alcohol, and homelessness, and then later losing the other to suicide.
Any of us who have had even a brush with any of these things knows that these are hard waters to survive. A writer born of this kind of hopelessness could be undisciplined.
The writing could swamp the reader, be self-centered or dishonest, lack proportion or distance, embrace trite or overblown language, lack craft or art or both, take forever to get to the point, or offer false hope. You know the kind of writing I mean – the kind of untutored stuff we write, not in tranquility, but in the middle of the night trying to wrestle the unmanageable to the ground.
Nick Flynn is none of that.
Here’s the thing. When an impossible parent dies, the grief is, in a way, unspeakable. This parent is someone most people would have avoided in life. The poem mirrors that, respects that, in its title: the father is not mentioned, and is not mentioned until half way through.
Apparently, Flynn’s father really did die on the same day that Lou Reed died. Reed’s music, with its blunt anger and lyric sadness provides proper ceremony: wake, funeral, hymn, and priest. Another Johnny Cash, I see.
This poem brings me to a depth of sorrow that takes me by surprise. But the poem has led me to it, and I can stay with it. One thing that makes the poem work, I think, is that the reader is given time. The two line stanzas give the reader air and time to breathe. The organization prevents us from realizing until the second half that the poem is actually about Flynn’s father’s death. A tribute to a dead rock-star morphs into a question about how art lasts or doesn’t, then morphs again into the question of “knowing” an artist, then shifts abruptly to the uncanny fact that Flynn’s father died “on the same day” as Lou Reed. A bit past the halfway point of the poem, Flynn says:
They died on the same day, O
what a perfect day
These two lines that are perfection to the eye and ear. The jumbled sentiment – that a day of death was “perfect” – hints of the relief such a death brings such a son and the comfort that son finds in the life of Lou Reed.
And then, the shift: two phenomenal passages of eight lines each end the poem, each one an almost insupportable image, each one intensifying the other, each image slowly expanding through its assigned space of eight lines. The last sixteen lines of this poem are so good that I cannot bring myself to quote or describe them here before you have read the poem.
What we encounter in the poem’s first half is like a service or a funeral; what we encounter in the second half is the wake, when we stay up all night, waiting for the convincing chill that descends in 4 in the morning.
If you know the story of Flynn and his father, you should be moved by the way he only mentions his father’s failed life obliquely in the line “as if I were the one sleeping outside.” The line re-enacts the way such a parent’s life can push a son’s self aside, and at the same time the line allows for empathy, and therefore, acceptance, and maybe, forgiveness, if only for the moment.
And then you remember that the title never said this was the day the father died. The title says, “The Day Lou Reed Died.” There is so much about an impossible parent that is unspeakable. Unforgiveable. You can’t even speak the loss in a title. But circling back to the title’s Lou Reed after the end, you realize that this was also the day when the slight possibility that the father would ever realize any of his promise dies for good.
Flynn works against grandiosity in every line, so it feels wrong to say the poem has grandeur, except that it’s true. The poem builds to its last eight lines. The grandeur works because of the craft and art, and because you believe in the poet’s honesty.
It is the best of accessible poetry: it’s plain-spoken and astonishing at the same time. It works by virtue of its clarity, as well as its pace, ambition, associations, images, shifts, honesty, the complexity of its spirituality, and more. The complexity makes it tick. For all that it is homely and commonplace in its language and occasion, its honesty, physicality, psychology and restraint puts it in the territory of Frost’s “Home Burial.”
And, I would say, the way he uses Lou Reed works for me. The quoted lyrics are italicized, identified. The artist is clearly identified – no tricks, no coyness. We have enough information about Reed that the poem is comprehensible without any footnote. In addition, the “sampled” lyrics serve several functions in the poem. The rock music is not merely setting or mood. Reed is the priest at this funeral and someone who could embrace the untouchable. He’s the father’s alternate life. He’s the old man’s idealized friend and the poet’s idealized father. Reed’s is also an angry voice, and supplies the anger the poem requires if it is to stand. Reed is what the old man might have been, what comfort the son can accept. Reed, an alternate father, is comfort sought by the poet and the means of elegiac recognition for the dead father.
That the recognition is fantastic, grand, and dreamlike is fitting to the father’s dreamlike life, that the son’s grief is real is fitting to the life he’s lived as well.
It’s a poem fitted for unspeakable grief.
I thank Nick Flynn for it.
I’d like to begin this post by asking readers what they think of John Updike, as a novelist, as a critic, as a poet, and as a short story writer. That question is open even to those who haven’t read him. Perhaps it’s even better more of those readers answer, because I’d like perceptions of Updike as much as I’d like evaluations. It seems to me that he’s been falling out of fashion since his death in January 2009. These days, it’s more likely I’ll hear someone mock him than see someone reading his work. I may be misreading the times, of course, and, at any rate, this is hardly uncommon (may Norman Mailer’s work continue to drift away). Still, when I first read “A & P,” John Updike was one of the most written-about living American novelists.
In fact, “A & P” was the first thing I ever read by John Updike. I was working in a library and found a short story anthology. I remember sitting down in a soft chair and (it was a great job) reading it straight through . . . and having no idea what I had just read. I thought, therefore, that it might be a good place to start some periodic posts on Updike’s short stories, which were recently put together in a fantastic box set by The Library of America (I wrote a bit about the set here).
“A & P,” though not my favorite Updike story, is certainly one of his most famous. I think it is rightly well-regarded. It showcases how Updike can take an every-day ordinary event and open it up, show how it can forever change (maybe) the person who experienced it. That person in “A & P”? Sammy, the nineteen-year-old check-out boy at an A & P grocery store, who happens to be our narrator.
Sammy has grown up, presumably comfortable, in the 1940s and 1950s under the cultural norms of a conventional sea-side town above Boston. At nineteen, he is experiencing his first tastes of independence and independent thinking. By the end of the story, Sammy is going make a gesture of defiance against the culture of his cushy upbringing, and his boss is going to say, “Sammy, you don’t want to do this to your Mom and Dad.” Sammy thinks, “It’s true, I don’t.” He’s afraid of disappointing them. He may even be afraid of them. His parents have provided and will continue to provide stability he can depend upon. His boss, someone who has, in a sense, made it through this life, thinks practically. Certain thoughts and attitudes, like those Sammy is entertaining, make life harder to live. Why do that to yourself?
The story begins almost as if the narrator is beginning to tell a joke:
In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.
It would be somewhat shocking today to see three girls, who happen to be young teenagers, walk into a grocery store in nothing but bathing suits. Especially two-piece suits, which is the case here. I wasn’t there, but I imagine it was even stranger in 1960, when this story was written. Sure, this is a sea-side town, so girls in bathing suits are common, but not in the A & P. Everyone stops to watch the girls roam around in this setting.
You know, it’s one thing to have a girl in a bathing suit down on the beach, where what with the glare nobody can look at each other much anyway, and another thing in the cool of the A & P, under the florescent lights, against all those stacked packages, with her feet paddling along naked over our checker-board green-and-cream rubber-tile floor.
Essentially, here’s the story: the girls walk in, Sammy’s boss asks them to leave, and Sammy quits. Interestingly, Updike even takes the drama out of the most dramatic event in the book because Sammy doesn’t feel all that good when he walks out. For one thing, he mainly said he was quitting so the girls could hear him and be impressed. For another, it may be fatal to make a gesture and then wimp out, but it may be just as fatal to carry through.
There are many ways to look at this story. There’s the liberation angle. Obviously these girls are flaunting societal norms. They’re causing a scene, and they know it. They are acting inappropriately for all who are watching them. That was the point.They’re defying expectations and conventions. Sammy just wants to do the same, out of solidarity.
Then again, in the end, where does this get the girls? Perhaps a bit of trouble, but they were also subject to the eyes of everyone in that store, and our narrator in particular focuses on every bit of sexual energy their bodies are evoking. He’s invigorated by their gesture and, after his boss asks the girls to leave, decides to make one of his own. Before he makes the gesture, he says, “Now here comes the sad part of the story, at least my family says it’s sad, but I don’t think it’s so sad myself.”
This story was originally published in the July 22, 1961 issue of The New Yorker.
When the story ends, the narrator is looking forward to a harder life. He’s a bit nervous, he feels a sinking feeling, but he seems to accept that pushing oneself away from those who support you will make for a difficult but ultimately more rewarding life.
The interesting thing for me is Sammy’s revised reason for standing up to his boss. His dramatic gesture began in the hopes of pleasing some girls he was sexually attracted to; he wasn’t attracted to their principles, except to the extent their principles gave him a long look at their bodies. Yes, he wants the world to be free enough he can ogle at these girls. When they’re turned away, he wants to impress them. When they don’t hear him, he’s tempted to take back his gesture, but he’s too principled — or too arrogant. No, he doesn’t love his parents’ world, but his actions suggest he’s going to fit pretty well in a few years.
As I mentioned when I wrote about the release of the Library of America set, I hope more people will visit Updike’s short stories. For me, his best work is in this form, and I look forward to digging into more.
César Aira is a mad scientist. His short books are seemingly pieced together from segments of other novels, creating a Frankenstein of a story. Somehow he sends a bolt of lightning through it, and it haltingly comes to life. I’ve been a bit disappointed in some of the recent Aira books that New Directions has published (such as The Hare, which came out earlier this year, and which I reviewed here). I’m pleased to say that Shantytown (La Villa, 2001; tr. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, 2013), with its crazy threads that somehow come together — even if they don’t (it’s strange (that word’s going to come up frequently below)) — pleased me a great deal.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
This particularly delightful messed-up mix begins with a few chapters devoted to Maxi, a young (“he was entering his twenties”), relatively affluent body-builder who lives in a decent condo and suffers from night blindness. Maxi’s night blindness aggravates his acute sleepiness. Once it gets dark, it’s all he can do to get home before he falls asleep. These afflictions have not made it easy for him to find a life, but he sort of stumbles on a routine that gives him a sense of place: he helps the poor people who come in from the nearby shantytown carry the items they collect from the trash. He does this every day, for no pay.
It’s not too often that these social classes mix, so Maxi sparks the curiosity of Inspector Ignacio Cabezas, the policeman who is investigating the drug traffic to and from the shantytown. Inspector Cabezas is also investigating — or at least using to his own ends — the murder of a fifteen-year-old girl, the daughter of someone else who just happens to be named Ignacio Cabezas.
The first few chapters of the book go this way, and it seems that, though Maxi is unique, the story will be relatively straightforward and connected. That quickly changes. To get at Maxi, Inspector Cabezas approaches Maxi’s little sister, Vanessa. This scares Vanessa so badly that she tries to talk to the neighbor’s maid, who happens to come from the shantytown and whose boyfriend has disappeared. To reach the maid, Vanessa calls her estranged best friend, Jessica. Each and every one of these characters has their own story that begins when they greatly misinterpret someone else’s actions, and then their story takes off in some new direction. Aira calls it the “turmoil of speculation.” The more we follow their story, the further we get from any kind of solution or resolution: “Nobody can grasp the whole, mainly because in reality there is no whole to be grasped.” There’s something noirish there, and that’s just where this book is going to go.
But, much like the tangle of lights strung up in the shantytown, there are patterns and deliberation that come together in a fury. We come to learn that the best drug on the market is called proxidine; its effect “was to increase the proximity of things, applied above all to the elements of a problem: by bringing them into sudden contiguity, it brought them closer to the solution.” Yes, it’s like we are on a drug trip: the things that once made sense become strange and the strange things begin to make sense.
And, yes, this is a game for Aira. It’s well known by now that he writes his books one page per day, apparently with no revisions, and that each day’s project is to write himself out of the puzzle he created the day before while creating a puzzle for the next day. But Aira is the best puzzle-maker and puzzle-solver out there, and Shantytown is a puzzle I’d put up there with his best.
As a parent, I’ve learned to fear chance more than ever. Life is arbitrary, and that knowledge is an ever-present terror. Your child can simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and this can make an otherwise beautiful day turn into a horror from which we doubt we can ever recover. No matter what we try, recovery could never be complete. For these reasons, of the Ingmar Bergman films I’ve covered so far (the ones that come in the Criterion Collection box set, Ingmar Bergman: Four Masterworks: Smiles of a Summer Night (my post here), The Seventh Seal (my post here), Wild Strawberries (my post here), and The Virgin Spring), The Virgin Spring, if not my favorite, is the most horrific. I’d seen it before being a parent, but The Virgin Spring has only grown in power since I had children of my own.
Based on a 13th-century Swedish folk ballad centered around rape, murder, and revenge, The Virgin Spring takes us from the modern world of Wild Strawberries back to the brutal medieval world of The Seventh Seal. Unfortunately, Gunnar Björnstrand does not have a role in this film (he’ll be back in the next Bergman film I cover here), but we again get Max von Sydow, this time playing Tore, the proud father of the beautiful, young, tragic Karin (Birgitta Pettersson).
The story is simple. Karin, as a maiden, has the honor of delivering candles to the church, and her faithful Christian family sends her on her way, accompanied by the silent and paganistic (and scandalously pregnant) Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom, who has been with us in The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries but here finally comes a bit more to the foreground that she will provocatively take over in The Silence). Ingeri is jealous of her naïve foster-sister, and in fact has prayed to Odin that something wicked would happen to Karin. As they make their way to the church, the growing certainty that something bad will happen puts Ingeri on edge (us too). They have an argument. They split up. Oh, hopelessly naïve and now on her own, Karin shows kindness to a group of thieves (that is, two older thieves and one young thief presumably in the making).
You know what happens. It’s fairly early in the film, so I don’t think it’s a spoiler to share. Still, as early as it happens, we have already grown to care about Karin, despite her naivety and prancing. Most likely, we care so much about her because we can see her through the eyes of her parents: her mother, Märeta (Birgitta Valberg), loves her dearly and is jealous of the fact that Karin’s favorite parent is her father; her father wants to be more stern but is always disarmed by his daughter. But I do think we care for her on her own merits. Karin is charming, caring, and genuinely good — and I don’t think she comes off as an unlikely saint, again, particularly if we see her through the eyes of her parents. They begin to sense tragedy as night falls and their daughter has not returned.
It’s a powerful film about grief and the desire for revenge, and it only increases in intensity when Karin’s parents allow Karin’s murderers to stay with them for the night. They learn of her fate and plot their own imperfect and unsatisfying revenge, contrary to their own Christian faith.
The Virgin Spring also marks the beginning of a long-lasting film collaboration between Bergman and legendary cinematography Sven Nykvist. They had worked together before, but it was limited. From here on out we’ll see Nikvist’s powerful influence as Bergman moves away from the more theatrical look of his earlier films to the more rugged and natural look. They couldn’t have picked a better entry point into this new style. From here we move onto ever heightened struggles with Christianity and religious faith that Bergamn will continue to explore in a trio of films often called The Trilogy of Faith, which I plan to revisit for the n-th time and write up thoughts here. Therein lies one of my top three films of all time.
Those themes come front and center here, though. An innocent child is murdered, and her father cannot understand how it could have happened because, as he says, “God, you saw it.”
Besides the quotation, though, the shot above is thematically significant. Tore is looking up into the light, speaking to God. Often directors shooting similar scenes will position the camera above Tore and angle it down toward his face, as if God is camera, watching and listening. Even when the subject is angry with God, that would be the conventional camera position. Here, though, Bergman puts the camera behind Tore, and Tore is so far in the background, it’s not clear he’s even the frame’s subject. This suggests a couple of things to me: Bergman is saying that Tore is looking at nothing, and nothing is looking down on him. Or, if we are looking down on Tore from God’s perspective, then yes, God saw what happened, but only in the periphery. In either interpretation, Tore’s anguished prayer is pushed out of the foreground, as if it’s really rather meaningless.
It isn’t meaningless for Bergman, though, nor for us. This is torment, that moment when one’s faith is shaken, when one witnesses chance, arbitrariness. The film does end with a kind of miracle, slightly subverting this doubting camera angle, but this struggle with faith will not go away. I cannot wait to get to Winter Light, but next up is Through a Glass Darkly, if you’d like to follow along.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Rivka Galchen’s “The Late Novels of Gene Hackman” was originally published in the December 9, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
While I read “The Late Novels of Gene Hackman,” I am going to be quiet this week. This story is modeled on Roberto Bolaño’s “Last Evenings on Earth,” a story I love and reread in order to post here. As I put that post together, I realized that mostly what I was doing was praising Bolaño, not evaluating Galchen’s story, which I just didn’t like. Betsy, however, did. Not only that, but in the comments below she does an exceptional job comparing and contrasting the two stories. I simply have nothing constructive to add.
Rivka Galchen’s “The Late Novels of Gene Hackman” is a bit of a Rorshach test. There are enough disparate elements in it to attract a variety of readers, as well as a slightly hallucinatory quality that comes from being on a trip or being at a party or being old, all of which comprise the setting for most of the story. I read it through at one go, didn’t quit on it, enjoyed bits of it quite a lot, although I wondered the whole time where it was going. For instance, I liked some of the company, the old ladies in particular: Q, the hostess (Real Humans), as well as the old feminist who knew a lot about birds. There’s a young writer as well and some men, not to mention the presence of Gene Hackman in the background.
A bit of biography about Hackman (true or not) sets the inquiry of the entire story:
When his old teacher saw him working as a doorman in New York, the teacher said he’d always known he’d amount to nothing.
The speaker contributes another bit of information about Hackman that she had always believed but which may not be true. Accurate perception seems elusive here; understanding seems to be approximate.
I like Galchen’s work. Part of my attraction to her fiction is that I know she trained as a doctor, probably to please her parents, and studied psychiatry, probably to please herself, and then quit the whole thing to become a writer. I feel an attraction to her persona. She has a persona poets would die for.
I also really, really liked her story, “The Lost Order,” which was completely hallucinatory.
In “Gene Hackman,” a young writer (J) has gone on a junket to speak at a conference in Key West. She has taken her widowed Burmese step-mother, Q, because Q seems a little down. The young writer appears to like her step-mother, perhaps because Q is quite hands-off, quite undemanding, quite self-sufficient. Q groups up at a party really well and makes easy conversation with whoever is at hand.
Listening to Q talk at length about the peculiar health situation of a friend, J remarks about Q’s oblique manner of communication:
Now J was worried that Q didn’t have health insurance; this was how her secrets usually manifested, like a tuba sound straying into a pop song.
It’s the human limitation of half-knowing that seems to interest Galchen. She seems to accept the necessity of listening like a psychiatrist as the requirement of understanding: listening for the wrong notes, listening for the threads. The limitations of perception are the province of Henry James, and so I remind myself that the difficulties Galchen presents are the same difficulties James presents, and I like James enough I would take him with me to a Desert Isle. Well, I would prefer to have the entire oeuvre, if I were stuck there. I have the feeling that Galchen’s work, when it is accumulated, is going to inform on itself in a similar way, and I look forward to that.
An additional thread in this story is that the connections are approximate and off a beat: J’s mother is her step-mother; the expensive omelet turns out to be cheaper than the one down the street; Key West used to be fashionable, now it’s full of fat people; a person may experience relative comfort or discomfort depending on how thin or fat their company is; a patient is discovered to be missing a part, (but which part?); Gene Hackman writes novels (who knew?); a step-mother may be the real mother. So J, who is the speaker, may be half-reading her step-mother – but which half is correct?
In this story, a character at a cocktail party says, “Incidentalomas. That’s what you’re trying to say. That lots of things are just incidentalomas.” He’s talking about little cancers that go nowhere. Galchen is talking about how human communication contains lots of bits that actually go nowhere. It’s finding the big pattern or the crucial wrong note that matters. Or the crucial right note.
So I notice that toward the end J says of Q:
She couldn’t find her!
Then she found her.
As if the key thing is that we are always looking for that knowing assurance, and that it comes and goes.
But as I said, these Galchen stories have a Rorshach quality. You may see something entirely different here.
Galchen’s Page Turner interview with Willing Davidson is interesting in light of the discussion we have been pursuing regarding one writer using another writer’s story as a model (here).
Galchen says that a story by Roberto Bolaño (“Last Evenings on Earth”) is the starting point of this one. She says that the Bolaño story “coerces the reader into the son’s fairly melodramatic take on life, a take which it then undermines. That story was my model.” Galchen flips the sex from father-son to mother-daughter, and she blurs Bolaño’s story further in other ways. The title is very different, as a starter. I sense that she means the Bolaño story is a jumping off place, particularly in the sense, she says “of that Bolaño sort of arc”.
This seems a comment from The New Yorker on how to use a story as a model.
It will be interesting to hear from people who have read the Bolaño already.
“Princess Ida” is the third piece in Alice Munro’s second book, Lives of Girls and Women. For an overview with links to reviews of the other pieces in this book, please click here.
According to her Paris Review interview (here), Alice Munro began writing “Princess Ida” on a Sunday in January, and it was the start of what would become Lives of Girls and Women. It is about her mother and came first because “material about my mother is my central material in life, and it always comes the most readily to me. If I just relax, that’s what will come up. So, once I started to write that, I was off.”
It’s true that many of Munro’s stories go back to her mother or her relationship with her mother. Indeed, I believe Alice Munro became the author she is today (probably I feel that way because Munro herself has expressed something similar) when she wrote “The Peace of Utrecht,” an early story in which Munro confronts her mother’s death by Parkinson’s Disease in 1959 (see here our post about “The Peace of Utrect”).
In “Princess Ida,” Munro steps back a bit further to present a picture of a disappointed, middle-aged mother who is watching the promise of her life slip away. Del, an adolescent in this story, is writing this story from later in life, probably about the time she realizes just how sad her mother was.
Del and her mother — who is named, we find out here, Addie — have moved away from the house on Flats Road to rent a house in town. It’s not necessarily Addie’s attempt to get away from her husband, who has stayed on at the Flats Road and who, unless there’s snow, comes to town each night; rather, it’s that she had to get away from that house on the fringe, and her husband simply wasn’t enough to keep her there any longer.
It’s not Addie’s only attempt to get out and try to get ahead. She now goes out on the road selling encyclopedias — well, trying to. At first Del was fine going along with her mother. She loved that her mother could use Del’s own love for learning as a selling point. Del learns quickly, though, that showing her love for learning is strange: “I saw that to some people, maybe to most people, knowledge was just oddity; it stuck out like warts.” In fact, Del realizes something she’s always felt: her mother is a strange woman. At this early point in Del’s life, she doesn’t want to admit how much she’s like her mother.
I felt the weight of my mother’s eccentricities, of something absurd and embarrassing about her — the aunts would just show me a little at a time — land on my own coward’s shoulders. I did want to repudiate her, crawl into favor, orphaned, abandoned in wrinkled sleeves. At the same time I wanted to shield her.
On the surface, this is a story about a woman’s attempts, born of desperation, to take some control of her life that is running out of possibilities. But it’s so much more than that.
I truly feel that most writers would stop there, and I’d probably like it just fine, especially in a novel about a young girl’s coming of age. But in “Princess Ida” Munro shows her own struggle to bring to life the very life that seems to have been wasted, mostly through the writer’s imagination.
At first, we see that Del’s perception of her mother’s youth is naive. Like most of us, she is simply unable to comprehend all of the seconds her mother has spent alive and developing, suffering.
And my mother, just a little girl then named Addie Morrison, spindly I should think, with cropped hair because her mother guarded her against vanity, would walk home from school up the long anxious lane, banging against her legs the lard pail that had held her lunch. Wasn’t it always November, the ground hard, ice splintered on the puddles, dead grass floating from the wires? Yes, and the bush near and spooky, with the curious unconnected winds that lift the branches one by one. She would go into the house and find the fire out, the stove cold, the grease from the men’s dinner thickened on the plates and pans.
Del realizes that this is, in some way, false. It also leaves holes that will never be filled in, like this:
She became engaged to a young man who remained a shadow — no clear-cut villain, certainly, like her brother, or Grandma Seeley’s nephew, but not luminous and loved, either, not like Miss Rush.
“Princess Ida” is a story of intimations, of the glimpses we get into someone’s secrets, of the realization that we cannot comprehend the life of another.
Much of this comes to the forefront when we meet one of the “clear-cut villains,” Addie’s brother Billy. Successful now, Billy comes to visit, and Del’s sense of embarrassment of her mother and her desire to shield her mother couldn’t be stronger. Del does not remember ever meeting Billy, though she has heard about him for years. What she’s heard is disturbing.
It was the younger brother she hated. What did he do? Her answers were not wholly satisfactory. He was evil, bloated, cruel. A cruel fat boy. He fed firecrackers to cats. He tied up a toad and chopped it to pieces. He drowned my mother’s kitten, named Misty, in the cow trough, though he afterwards denied it. Also he caught my mother and tied her up in the barn and tormented her. Tormented her? He tortured her.
What with? But my mother would never go beyond that — that word, tortured, which she spat out like blood.
Del has her own suspicions, childish at first — “I was left to imagine her tied up in the barn, as at a stake, while her brother, a fat Indian, yelped and pranced about her” — but much darker when she grew up:
Nothing really accounted for her darkened face at this point in the story, for her way of saying tortured. I had not yet learned to recognize the gloom that overcame her in the vicinity of sex.
Munro’s story remains elusive. Any additional glimpse we get to Addie’s past is still just a glimpse. What we are stuck with is a disappointed woman, completely foreign to herself:
Had all her stories, after all, to end up with just her, the way she was now, just my mother in Jubilee?
“Princess Ida” begins with Del admitting:
I felt the weight of my mother’s eccentricities, of something absurd and embarrassing about her [. . .]. I did want to repudiate her [. . .]. At the same time I wanted to shield her.
What Del does in the end is write about her mother, the person whom other people seemed to think of as a “wild-woman.” What matters, of course, is that gradually Del realizes she is much the same. “Princess Ida” is also about how stories provide an education about the people we know, especially when we can run several different stories from several different people or several different times up against each other.
Munro describes her mother’s (Addie’s) eccentricities: the way she bucketed around Wawanash County in a thirty-seven Chevy selling encyclopedias; the way she wrote letters to the editor about women’s rights and education; the way she wrote flowery essays with “long decorative descriptions” and published them in the newspaper under the nom de plume of “Princess Ida.”
Del says: “I hated her selling encyclopedias and making speeches and wearing that hat. I hated her writing letters to the newspapers.” But in the course of time, as she learns more, Del moves from humiliation to curiosity to empathy.
Del’s aunts made fun of her mother, made fun of the mud on her boots, of the “beetles she had on her dress” the letters she wrote to the editor. The aunts and all the others in town who did not get her mother were part of Del’s repudiation. Addie insisted on joining the Great Books discussion group, and when that disappointed, she took a correspondence course on the Great Thinkers. With her husband’s support, Addie rented a place in town and took in a boarder so her children could go to school in town. There’s a satisfying congruence in the arc of Addie’s difficult life. Poverty or not, university or not, Addie is determined to learn. No matter what, Del and her brother would go to school.
In the second section of the story, Del reflects on Addie’s stories of childhood. Addie grew up in a house that was “like one where a murder had been committed.” Both Del and the reader learn it was a house where hopes, especially the hopes of girls and women, were ground to bits. Neglected by her parents, abused and maybe raped by her brother, and forbidden to go to high school, Addie dreamed of school. In an act of startling bravery, Addie ran away and worked in a boarding house to make school possible. Her zealously religious mother, being “in the last demented stages of Christianity”, had given away a bequest of $300 that could have sent Addie to college. The woman had bought Bibles instead, to distribute to the poor. Although Addie says this cured her of religion, what really matters is the way Addie’s wisecrack covers up her deep, deep disappointment.
All that Del knows about Addie’s youth comes from Addie. Del says: “In the beginning of her story was dark captivity, suffering, then daring and defiance and escape.” But Del comments on noticing the way her mother’s stories always seemed to have something missing.
The adult Del admits: “I myself was not so different from my mother, but concealed it, knowing what dangers there were.”
We have a premonition here of what is to come for Del. Del is for Munro what Rabbit is for Updike – what might have been. Munro has said that she was able to “prevail” over her circumstances. In this story, it is not clear, despite the brilliance of her writing, whether Del has the moxie or pointed ambition she is going to need to “prevail.”
In the third and final section of the story, Addie’s abusive (but quite successful) older brother makes a surprise visit from the States. No one is happy to see him. Long absent, his visit is another assault. He re-writes the past, making the neglectful mother a saint, making the farm a sylvan idyll, making the barn where he “tortured” Addie non-existent. He re-writes himself to be a benevolent man, and he makes a peculiar $300 bequest to the sister he abused in the barn, as in half-hearted atonement and sideways recognition of what the money might have originally meant to Addie. Bill insists to Addie: “you got your education”. Not really, given that she never got to go to college, and not really, given that some of her education was at his hands in the barn. In forcing Del to listen to his version of things, Bill’s storytelling is nothing but revision, nothing but a mask. He re-enacts his assaults with his assaults on the truth. His story-telling is a kind of rape of consciousness.
Del puts it all together. When her mother remarks she could use the bequest to “send away for a box of bibles” we hear what hurts the most. While Del knows that the uncle was cruel, while she knows the “gloom that overcame [Addie] in the vicinity of sex,” she also knows that the sharpest assault of Addie’s youth was losing the chance at university. Del sees her mother in that instant: “Just before Fern came in one door and Owen came in the other, there was something in the room like the downflash of a wing or knife, a sense of hurt so strong, but quick and isolated, vanishing.”
And then Addie resumes her crossword puzzle, searching her mind for the “Egyptian god with four letters”. Seth is the god of storms, disorder, and war. But Addie fights to keep chaos at bay, even if what she has to do is forget it. At Addie’s center is terrible disappointment, neglect and abuse interwoven with a rocklike unwillingness to give in and a life-long defiance of being denied.
Addie may embarrass her children, but she doesn’t destroy them, the way Amanda Wingfield does in “The Glass Menagerie”. There remains in Addie always some of the “priestess” that Del knew her to be as a child. Addie is no Amanda Wingfield, and Munro means us to notice it.
The paradoxical co-existence of opposites within one person or one relationship or one reality is key to Munro’s belief system. That Addie (or any parent) might first seem a hero, then seem ridiculous, and then finally seem familiar and empathetic is the paradox of learning about our parents. Another example of Munro’s co-existence of opposites is that education might be a university classroom, it might be the studied, untutored observation of consciousness, and in addition, education might be the experience of making sense of all the differences, inconsistencies, and incongruities in all the stories you hear.
After the abusive brother leaves, Del is with her mother and she senses something “in the room like the downflash of a wing or knife”. The feeling is of both the beneficence and threat, simultaneously. With her brother’s departure, Addie feels both the chaos he threatens, and the power she has to deny him houseroom. Addie was capable of not so much re-writing her life as editing what didn’t serve.
Del talks about being a child: “By getting to a certain spot in the mirror I could make my mother and Fern Dougherty pull out like rubber bands, all wavering and hysterical, and I could make my own face droop disastrously down one side, as if I had had a stroke.” Writing can distort things. Part of what the Munro stories charge you to do is this: do not distort; always look at what you at from every angle.
I like Addie a lot. She believes in education, and she’s willing to move to town, rent an apartment, and take on a boarder to make sure her children can go to a good school. My grandmother did that, too. In this story, Del calls Addie ridiculous, different, eccentric, reckless, powerful, guileless, absurd, stately, innocent, and unassailable. Munro also has Del call her a wild-woman, a priestess, and a princess, while also accusing her of being humiliating. In other words, Addie’s a person of paradox and complexity, just like the rest of us. The story sutures the comic into the tragic, the philosophic into the intensely personal. This is a sprawling story about heroism, women’s rights, education, and the childishness of children, as well as the nature of storytelling, all held together by Addie’s courage and Del’s daring to write about her, provincial, homely, and female though she is.
So, I was thinking what might make a good Thanksgiving post. Finally, it hit me! Let this dinner party gone terribly wrong be a lesson to you all as you gather with your families and friends for the holiday!
When I first watched The Exterminating Angel, I was still new to the Luis Buñuel game and had no knowledge about the film or its famous (I see now) concept. The Exterminating Angel is the second film in a type of trilogy that also includes Viridiana (which I posted about here) and Simon of the Desert (which I will post about sometime soon). And sure, the three films have some similar themes, but it seems the primary reason they are a trilogy is because each was 1) directed by Buñuel, 2) starred Silvia Pinal, and 3) was produced by Pinal’s then-husband Gustavo Alatriste (each film also has a role for Claudio Brook, but until Simon of the Desert his roles are relatively small). After Viridiana, which was filmed in Spain, caused so much controversy, Buñuel went to Mexico to continue his creating his inflamatory work.
We don’t reenact the First Supper or force an early Christian saint from his pedestal into a 1960s disco, but this is still a nicely strange story that, in the end, is not all that kind to a certain type of mindless group-think (and, we can deduce from the scene in which a group of sheep enter a church to the sound of gunshots on the street, religion and those who govern it or use it to govern). It’s safe to say that after Viridiana, Buñuel could not have made this film in Spain.
The plot itself is fairly simple; indeed, the original title, The Outcasts of Providence Street, says much. After a night at the opera, members of the high society gather for dinner. As the movie begins, almost all of the servants leave for inexplicable reasons. They just feel the need to leave the home they work at, the home that happens to be located here:
The dinner goes well enough, and the guests get together for a bit of light entertainment. Here’s Pinal, not feeling as chipper as the other guests, just for your benefit:
It gets later. The host begins to wonder why no one is leaving. It’s actually becoming quite rude. Then the guests, tired now that it’s early morning, start to remove their coats. What is going on, the host thinks, but not wanting to make anyone feel awkward he just removes his coat too. Everyone finds a spot on the floor for sleep. The next morning, everyone is slightly embarrassed, but, hey, it was certainly fun and interesting, definitely spontaneous. But still no one leaves; they make for the door when some thought causes them to turn back.
There is no physical barrier. It is some psychological block. The doctor begins to see what is going on, and soon everyone realizes the group’s plight. But not even with this knowledge can anyone summon the will to leave the room. Civility breaks down.
Meanwhile, the servants return to the street in front of the house only to find they cannot enter the house. No one can. Soon there is a host of people on the outside trying to help. A helpful suggestion: perhaps we could put up some loud speakers to let the people on the inside know we are out here trying to help. But the suggestion, which seems to make sense, is also ridiculous — why not just go use the front door?
It’s a brilliant satire!
Buñuel’s shots heighten the sense of the absurd. Some of those stuck in the room begin to hallucinate, and tempers shorten until it’s almost savage and they start looking to superstitions to fix the situation. All leads to a thought-provoking and controversial ending.
So, be wary tomorrow.
I announced a bit ago (here) that I’ve joined a new film podcast dedicated to discussing the films in The Criterion Collection’s Eclipse Series.
Here is my first substantive contribution: Episode 9 — Eclipse Series 31: Three Popular Films by Jean-Pierre Gorin.
This is an excellent set containing three . . . documentaries? I’m not sure they are entirely classifiable. They are: Poto and Cabengo (1980), which is focused on young twins Ginnie and Gracie Kennedy who, many thought, invented their own language; Routine Pleasures (1986), which focuses on a group of model train enthusiasts; and My Crasy Life (1992), which focuses on the Sons of Samoa street gang.
While each film is focused on these subjects, Gorin’s style allows many other threads into the fabric. For example, while Routine Pleasures is about that group of model train enthusiasts, Gorin also brings in the aesthetic philosophies of film critic and painter Manny Farber. Each film is about an isolated community, its language, and about how what we see when we peak in reflects the greater world.
I recommend each of the titles, and I think David and I have an interesting conversation that will hopefully illuminate the films if you’ve seen them or, if you haven’t, entice you to check them out.
Please find the podcast, the shownotes, and the links over at CriterionCast here.
Next, David and I are planning to discuss Eclipse Series 9: The Delirious Fictions of William Klein, which contains these three films: Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966), Mr. Freedom (1969), and The Model Couple (1977). At this point, I’ve only seen Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?, and I can attest to “delirious.”
I believe many of you have noticed that over the past week my site has been hit and miss. I apologize for the inconvenience and appreciate that many of you have contacted me about your problems, expressing encouragement rather than ire. As I’ve suspected all along, the problem is my host and not my site. I’ve spoken to them for the last week as they’ve told me to optimize this, reduce redundancies with that, and it just hasn’t been working. Finally today I spoke with the right person who knew what was going on.
It turns out my host’s servers are being attacked. He explained it this way: imagine I’m the server and I’m talking and listening to you. All of the sudden someone else comes along and starts yelling in my ear so loudly that I can no longer communicate with you. That other person is the malicious attacker. I guess they send so many invalid requests to the server that it often has a hard time hearing and responding to legitimate requests, like the ones for this website — and many others (this has nothing to do with my website individually).
While they are working on the problem, they didn’t pretend all would be well tomorrow. They’ve been investigating and sending out cease and desist orders and have been bulking up on their defense mechanisms, but obviously this is still going on.
I figure I’ll give them a few days to fix the problem, but if this persists then in the near future we’ll be looking for a new host (suggestions welcome). If that happens, nothing here should change, but it could mean some downtime while the switch happens. I’ll let folks know if that’s the plan.
Again, thanks for your patience. Despite this problem, this site has been getting a lot of traffic, suggesting many of you keep trying until you get through. I hope those that are blocked at the gate come back.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Romesh Gunesekera’s “Roadkill” was originally published in the December 2, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
Romesh Gunesekera, in both his story, “Roadkill,” and in his interview with Deborah Treisman, speaks of the effects of a long war, and of the survivors’ conflicting urges: to bury the past on the on hand or to inquire into it on the other.
He is speaking, of course, about the long civil war in his homeland. Sri Lanka suffered a twenty-seven year civil war when the minority Tamils attempted to secede. This war was brutal on both sides, and was only concluded in 2009. Gunesekera speaks about the small window available now for writers to record the aftermath.
In his interview, he mentions complicity, and in his story, silence is a character. In both those regards, this story is partner to Colm Toibin’s “Summer of ‘38.” Michael Ondaatje’s “Anil’s Ghost” also addressed the buried truths of the Sri Lankan civil war. For what will apparently be a book of linked stories, Gunesekera chooses a taxi driver as his speaker and he uses a style more initially accessible than Ondaatje. I welcome that accessible style when diving into a complicated country with a complicated political situation.
Vasantha, a taxi-driver, is conveying a rich man and his pregnant wife to the north, where they intend to look at a future home. They stop in an attractive new hotel in Kilinochchi, where until recently only the rubble of the violent war had stood. The assistant hotel manager is a young woman who can kill a rat with a bottle of beer, a woman who seems “to come from . . . somewhere dark and hungry and deep.”
She and Vasantha seem attracted to each other, but they speak as if from opposite sides. Even though she fails to conceal the scar that is sometimes visible from beneath her collar, she prefers concealment. She remarks that it is best to “bury the dead and move on.” In contrast, Vasantha is interested in knowing what’s what, saying, “We know so little, and the little we do know we get so muddled.”
“After a war, it is best not to ask about the past.” says the hotel manager. Privately, Vasantha thinks, “That is not true, I thought. After such a calamity, surely one should? How else will we know what really happened?”
In his interview, Gunesekera says people have a tendency “to seek safety in numbness.”
At this point I am reminded of the 1948 story by Vladimir Nabokov, “Symbols and Signs.” In that story, a schizophrenic boy appears to represent the post war — post holocaust reality for an immigrant Jewish family from Russia. Between the losses of the Holocaust and the 20 million deaths Russia suffered in World War II, mute schizophrenia seems an appropriate reaction. Gunesekera’s assistant hotel manager lives in this same nether world of silenced memory.
Vasantha’s story has a lot to recommend it: the post war setting, the unusual country, the taxi driver’s blunt narrative, the haunting assistant hotel manager and her half hidden scar, and the way he uses the images of big cats, the rat, and the little road-killed dog to allude to more than even he is at present able to articulate.