Earlier this year I reviewed Your Face Tomorrow, Volume One: Fever and Spear, and I didn’t quite know how to go about that task. I’m afraid it’s no easier trying to review the second volume, Dance and Dream (Tu rostro mañana, 2, Baile y sueño; tr. from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa, 2006). Ah, but what a fascinating book to think about! And now that volume three is available in English, it’s the perfect time to find out just why these books are so difficult to speak about. (Incidentally, if you are in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut area, Javier Marías is around you this week — details on New Directions’ webpage).
These volumes are dense, intimidating, full of sentences that weave in and out of themselves and each other — this is a remarkable feat of writing and translation. However, don’t get me wrong: I’ve found the books to be the type that, while intimidating and complex, is still approachable and incredibly gratifying. Perhaps — and I don’t know if I can really do this — I can show a bit of the sentence level style by divulging a bit about the overall structure of this volume.
The book begins where the last one ended: it’s night-time, and some woman who has been following Deza has just call him from the street. She wants to ask a favor, giving the book it’s opening lines:
Let us hope that no one ever asks us for anything, or even enquires, no advice or favour or loan, not even the loan of our attention, let us hope that others do not ask us to listen to them, to their wretched problems and their painful predicaments so like our own, to their incomprehensible doubts and their paltry stories which are so often interchangeable and have all been written before . . .
This sentence goes on for sometime before there is an end-stop, though it flows wonderfully, all the pieces tying together in a kind of spiderweb of clauses and phrases. But that is what the plot is too. From the encounter in the night, we shift to another evening when Deza is out with his boss, Bertram Tupra, entertaining a foreigner and his wife at a nightclub. Something goes wrong, and Deza is surprised when in the bathroom Tupra wields a sword and is threatening someone else with it. That particular part with the sword goes on for something like one hundred and twenty pages. Indeed, this is an example of where the global and local structure of the book mimic each other — there is a major delay before the end-stop comes. And intermingled in this scene that really lasts only a few seconds are dozens of tangents, each taking their cue from the story while at the same time priming the reader for what is to come. In a way the tangents teach the reader a number of perspectives for the actual action.
So what’s the point? Well, this is only volume two and, like volume one, it leaves many many things unanswered. But this is a fascinating narrative because the mind of Deza is always at work, analyzing and categorizing. That is why he has this secret job for the government — or so he thinks. Turns out there are private clients as well, so the job itself is part of the disturbing but ambiguous elements of the story.
I was glad to see that in the action, while a man wields a sword against another, Deza is able to find moments to devote to his wife. They’ve been separated for some time, and my last review ended with a very touching line about Luisa and Deza’s fading role in her life, the life they’d been doing together. Here is a sentence that takes us back to the first lines in the book while still moving the narrative along, taking us into their relationship and into some of the deeper themes in the novel:
Luisa did not get caught or entangled, but she did, once, become involved because of a request and a gift of alms and she involved me a little in both of these things too, this was before we separated and before I left for England, when we had not yet foreseen the deepening rift or our backs so firmly turned on each other, at least I had not, for it is only later on that you realise you have lost the trust you had in someone or that others have lost the trust they had in you — if, that is, you ever do realise, which I don’t really think you do; I mean, that only afterwards, when the present is already the past and is thus so changeable and uncertain that it can easily be told (and can be retold a thousand times more, with no two versions agreeing), do we realise that we also knew it when the present was still present and had not yet been rejected or become muddied or shadowy, how else would we be able to put a date to it, because the fact is we can, oh yes, we can date it afterwards with alarming precision: ‘It was the day when . . .’ we say or remember, as people do in novels (which are always heading toward a specific moment: the plot points to it, dictates it; except that not all novels know how they’re going to end), sometimes when we are alone or in company, two people summing things up out loud: ‘It was those words you came out with so casually on your birthday that first put me on my guard or began to distance me.’
And because, like I said, it is so very difficult to review this book intelligibly (you’ll just have to trust me and read them), I will end this review with another sad line as Deza mourns his loss. I think we’ll get quite a bit more of Luisa in the next volume.
They would last only until the disappearance once more of my renewed realisation that Luisa was not going to say to me: ‘Come, come back, I was so wrong about you before. Sit down here beside me, here’s your pillow which now bears not a trace, somehow I just couldn’t see you clearly before. Come here. Come with me. There’s no one else here, come back, my ghost has gone, you can take his place and dismiss his flesh. He has been changed into nothing and his time no longer advances. What was never happened. You can, I suppose, stay here for ever.’ Yes, that night would pass too, and she would still not have said these words.
Last year Harper Perrenial inaugurated their wonderful limited Olive Editions with three titles: Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, and Michael Chabon’s Mysteries of Pittsburgh. I wasn’t much interested in the latter two titles, but the Olive Editions got me to finally read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a book I’d picked up and put down in book stores so many times before. This year, they’re at it again. They’ve just release Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Na — what? Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation??! I guess there’s nothing in the term “Olive Editions” that delineates any set criteria, so we’ll have to trust that Plath, Pynchon, and Schlosser belong somehow in the same limited edition release. At any rate, for the second year in a row they got me to finally purchase two books that have been on my “I should have read that by now” list for years, the Plath and the Pynchon (I’ve actually already read — and taught from — the Schlosser; hello former students of rhetorical analysis!).
I love the simplicity of these covers, and I found that for once I genuinely wanted to read The Bell Jar (1963, UK; 1971, US) for its content and not just because I felt I should for the sake of some feeling of completion. What little of Plath’s poetry I’ve read, I’ve never really connected with, though I had the misfortune of being introduced to her in an awkwardly emotionally felt, terrible reading of “Daddy” that horribly emphasized the “oo” sounds running through that poem (I have since read the poem several times, and it is much better in my mind, but that first reading still haunts me, truly). So I’d pretty much avoided Plath through the years and cast The Bell Jar aside as a depressing bit on angst and suicide by someone who should have stuck to poetry. I thought it must be one of those pieces of art that has lasted mostly because of the author’s suicide, which occurred shortly after the book was released in the UK to unfavorable reviews. I’ve admitted to it before, so my ignorance should now come as no suprise to you. Hopefully my ignorance when it comes to Sylvia Plath is on its way out the door; during and after reading The Bell Jar, I have become fascinated by Sylvia Plath and plan to read more by and about her. A great place to start was this excellent (and refreshingly long) New Yorker article.
When I opened this book, I was surprised at how quickly the story wrapped me up, both because I was compelled by the substance and enchanget by its style. There’s something youthful and poetic about it. Here are the portentious first lines:
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about electrocutions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read in teh papers — goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.
In the first half of the novel we meet Esther Greenwood, a talented and hardworking young woman in 1953. That summer she was given the opportunity to spend a month in New York, all expenses paid, to intern at a large magazine. She lives in a hotel with a bunch of other young women, all of whom have promise — but for what? Her whole life she gotten the highest grades, has garned scholarships, and has been noted as a brilliant writer. Interestingly, for her the question isn’t whether or not she can achieve her dreams — even in 1950s America — but rather which dreams she should choose to follow. For her generation of women (and while much has changed since, this hasn’t changed much), choices were mutually exclusive.
From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.
I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them , but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
Not that any of us would have a great shot at achieving all of these dreams in one lifetime, and Plath doesn’t blame all of the problems here on Esther’s sex. However, sex does play another role in Esther’s frustrations. She’s tired of hypcrits, typically men, who profess to be virtuous and clean but have had a secret life of sex. Esther hasn’t had sex yet, but the man she always wanted to marry has. That in and of itself wasn’t the problem; the problem was that he lived as if he hadn’t; or, in other words, he led people to believe that he deserved a virtuous young woman in return for his virtuous life. And this is the world. Esther gets increasingly frustrated and despondent. The situation is exacerbated when Esther learns she was not accepted into an exclusive class taught by a famous author. She decides to drop out of the program, maybe out of the school. She attends therapy when she admits to her mother that she cannot sleep. The male doctor fails to understand her. Frightened to return to him, she tells her mother she will not go back, and her mother says “I knew you’d decide to be all right.”
But she is not all right. In the second part of the book, we witness her descent into (or the descent upon her of) depression and madness. I think it’s a strong point of the book that Plath doesn’t present as the proximate cause anyone in particular (the mother, the misdiagnosis, the boyfriend, the patriarchal society). Rather, all of these elements stand for themselves, and we are left to wonder which contributed, and to what extent, to the downfall of this promising young woman.
Her downfall is increasingly disturbing to read as she begins thinking about ways to take her own life.
After a discouraging time of walking about with the silk cord dangling from my neck like a yellow cat’s tail and finding no place to fasten it, I sat on the edge of my mother’s bed and tried pulling the cord tight.
But each time I would get the cord so tight I could feel a rushing in my ears and a flush of blood in my face, my hands would weaken and let go, and I would be all right again.
Then I saw that my body had all sorts of little tricks, such as making my hands go limp at the crucial second, which would save it, time and again, whereas if I had the whole say, I would be dead in a flash.
This chillingly disassociated language really works well to emphasize the disconnect between Esther and the world around her, the extent to which madness and depression numbed her to life. Like Sylvia Plath (this novel has many autobiographical ties), at this young age Esther almost succeeds in taking her own life. However, she is found, rescued, and institutionalized, something almost as painful to read about as her bout with suicide.
If any of you have, like me, put off reading The Bell Jar for whatever reason, let not that reason be because the book does not serve on its own merits. It might not have near the fame had Plath not put the final punctuation mark on it with her own suicide, but it would still be worth reading.
I’ve been looking forward to this book all year but not because I knew what it was about. No, I admit that in this case my anticipation was built up by something that could very well have been a mere gimmick. B.S. Johnson, who committed suicide in 1973, was an experimental novelist. Sometimes experiments in literary form are interesting only because they are unique but lack any other quality — in other words, they are experimentation for experimentation sake, and not because the unique form fits the subject and enhances a reader’s experience with that subject. Worse, experimentation can detract from the subject. So I was excited about this book, but I was afraid of being let down. By all accounts, though, Johnson knew what he was doing and garnered comparisons to Joyce and Beckett (though I actually found him to be much clearer). One of Johnson’s more famous literary experiments was Albert Angelo (1964). While reading, readers have the opportunity to glance at later passage in the book since many of the pages have holes cut into them. I haven’t read it, but reviewers I respect have, and they recommend it. This fall, New Directions has reissued B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates (1969), a book in a box.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
The Unfortunates comes in a box because it is a book with no binding. The first section and last section are marked, but the 25 sections in between, which range from a paragraph to 12 pages, are meant to be read in any random order the reader chooses. As we read them, in whatever order, the events coalesce into something congruent. That’s not entirely unique in today’s world of post-linear narrative. However, the fact that we the readers have a hand in ordering this randomness — that we get to exercise, and thus witness, arbitrary whims — does have an effect on our reading.
But still, here is the question I had upon approaching the book: Does the form become the subject, or does the form illuminate the subject? Johnson’s intent in experimenting with form was to mimic the randomness of memory. One bit of the past may pop up at one moment. In the next moment, any other can pop up in its place. Though random and arbitrary, the order in which memories pop up can have an effect on the way we remember something.
But the form here isn’t perfectly fit to convey the intended feeling. After all, if my mind is randomly retrieving memories while I walk around a city full of associations with my past, each discreet memory is still laden with the weight of all of the memories collectively, even those I’m not conscious of at the moment. But while we read these memories in random order, we don’t have the benefit of the whole until the end. So the first time we come across, say, Wendy, she’s completely new to us, and we do not know her relationship with the narrator. The way we’ve been taught to read books leads us to make assumptions and await further revelations, but that first passage of Wendy is completely unburdened by any even that came before or after the one we are reading. I don’t know how one could accurately mimic this in writing because, at least sentence by sentence, writing is linear when read even if the narrative is nonlinear.
Here the overlying narrative is simple. The narrator (Johnson himself) is a disenchanted (if he ever was enchanted) sportswriter. His latest assignment is to cover the City vs. United match in a city he hasn’t visited in a long time. Upon arriving he finds himself haunted by painful memories associated with the place. In particular, he remembers his friend Tony’s death from cancer. As we read, we might read first the touching short section wherein Tony dies, or perhaps the one just before Tony’s death when the narrator is standing by Tony’s bedside rushing a bit because his car is running and waiting for him outside (his life will go on). Or we might read first about a moment of hope, either the one when the doctors thought they had removed the cancer, or this one where we learn that before treatment, they hoped the lump would just go away:
But it did not, had gone on growing, when he eventually went to another doctor it was a month later, in Chester, he had been so busy and tired out with looking for somewhere for them all to live, he was in digs himself: and it had grown larger, rapidly, and this doctor, the new one, knew bloody well what it was, at once, was astonished that it had grown so quickly, sent him to hospital at once, they too had never, he said, known a tumour to grow so fast, and I clinically noted that yet again everything to do with him he believed to be the biggest, the most important, unique. And he ended tritely, with a warning, saying if ever I myself had a lump, which grew, or any lump, to go to a doctor straight away, not worry about overworking him, and not to hope, not to imagine it would go away of its own accord, for speed is of the essence, he said, the cliché, even a few hours, apparently, and it might be too late.
The arrangement of words in that passage deserves a post all on its own. Johnson’s abundant use of commas would be annoying in someone less skilled, but look how he uses them to interrupt us, forcing us to interpret what he’s written before he adds a new dimension by continuing the sentence. There’s the part, “And he ended tritely,” which, when I hit that comma, I took to mean that his death was trite. I believe Johnson intended the reader to think that, if just for a moment, though we see that phrase was really leading to this: Tony ended the conversation with a trite instruction and a trite cliché. There is also the “and not to hope,” which, set off by commas and then iterrupted from its flow by “not to imagine,” takes on a deeper meaning that ”not to hope . . . it would go away of its own accord.” It is on the local sentence level that Johnson really succeeds in mimicing the multifaceted randomness and revisioning of remembering.
That’s not to say that the book’s global form — the random sections — is ineffective. On the contrary, I think it was ingenious. It’s just that it’s more like we have stumbled onto an assortment of painful ruminations randomly ordered in a box. But it is also more than that. One reason this randomness works is because it mimics the randomness of emotion. At one time the narrator can be happily recalling times before Tony was diagnosed with cancer, a time when Tony and his wife and the narrator and his girlfriend were young and banking on the future. The next moment can be melancholy. The next cynical. The next acerbic.
However, there is a deeper, subversive current in this book on life and death where the experiment with the global form really hits the mark. The randomness enhances some underlying premises the narrator fully believes in: life is random, death is arbitrary, and both life and death through the passage of time are meaningless. And whatever the case, life and death definitely are not ordered. This worldview pervades the entire book, every section, every memory, every activity the narrator engages in. Giving the reader a hand in this arbitrariness also invites us to consider meaninglessness. One of my favorite sections in the book is the one where the narrator is composing his article on the incredibly dull City vs. United soccer game. As he composes and revises he constantly wonders if the way he arranges the words even matters, if the way he organizes the story matters, if the story itself even matters. Of course it doesn’t.
As a final coda to this review, I would like to disclose the final lines in the book. It is not a spoiler, but I think they showcase some of Johnson’s fine skill in arrangement (so strange to find such well executed organization in a “random” book). There are multiple ways to interpret this sentence because of the commas and the various ways we can rearrange the phrases with the other parts of the sentence, which is perfectly acceptable when the commas supposedly set-off non-restrictive phrases. But, more importantly perhaps, this sentence showcases the variety of tone and the depth of emotion that this book carries because of the multiple possible interpretations based on association.
Not how he died, not what he died of, even less why he died, are of concern, to me, only the fact that he did die, he is dead, is important: the loss to me, to us.
Young People’s Literature – Phillip Hoose: Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice
Poetry – Keith Waldrop: Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy
Nonfiction — T. J. Stiles: The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
Fiction — Colum McCann: Let the Great World Spin
Today the National Book Awards will be announced. Since the shortlist was announced the only finalist I’ve read was a particularly compelling YA finalist called Stitches (2009) (which also made the controversial all-male Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2009 List). I was drawn to Stitches because it is one of those rare graphic novels that gets taken seriously by book awards committees, not that I have any opinion on that – I don’t. But I find it interesting. This is only the second graphic novel to be a finalist in National Book Award history (in 2006, Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese was the first, also in the YA category). I have read and do like some comic books, though it has never come close to rising to the level of a guilty pleasure, but Seth’s George Sprott (1895 – 1975), published in the New York Times Magazine‘s “Funny Pages” back in 2006 and now available expanded in book form, was the first time my ignorant self realized that there can be high literary quality in graphic novels. I’ve taken them a bit more seriously since then too, though I’ve still read only Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen (loved the Tales of the Black Freighter substory) and Art Spiegelman’s fantastic Maus, which is the only graphic novel to have won a Pulitzer (albeit as a special citation and not in fiction).
I’m far from qualified to talk about the illustrations in this book. All I really know is that I really liked them, and I think it was primarily for their perspective, their lines, the fluid almost watery shading, and for the excellent way they combined with each other and with the text to convey David Small’s disturbing account of his childhood.
And what a disturbing account! It’s almost hard to believe it’s true, but it is. The central event — though not necessarily even the most disturbing event – in the book, the one where we get the surface meaning of the title Stitches, is when David wakes up one day to find he cannot speak. His throat has been operated on and is now stitched up. As it turns out, and this is only revealed to David little by little later on, he had cancer and wasn’t expected to survive. No one told him.
No one in his family said much of anything, actually. The book opens up with some wonderful renderings of how his family didn’t communicate. His father (a radiologist, by the way, who with his frequent x-rays of Davids sinuses probably caused David’s cancer) went downstairs and worked out with a punching bag. His mother slammed drawers in the kitchen. His brother beat drums. It’s a very violent and palpable depiction of family silence, emphasized by the drawings. This bitter, almost violent silence is a running theme in the book.
David’s own silence is a bit more constructive. To show his silence, Small treats us to wonderful renderings of the young David’s beginning drawings. It is one of the ways we see Small’s versatility as an artist as he goes from one style to another and then to another. Another way we see Small’s versatility is by showing us David’s young dreams (horrifying, with gothic cathedrals and bombed ruins) and his fantasies (cute cartoons David himself, a budding artist, would draw as an escape).
Source: Stitches Official Website
It’s very disturbing to see how the young David is treated by his family, but this is amplified when a growth becomes visible on his neck. It is frequently neglected as his parents squander their money on social positioning. If it weren’t for these social gatherings, however, it’s possible that David’s growth would have killed him since it was his father’s friends who showed the most concern and eventually organized his diagnosis, leading to his night-time emergency surgery. One of the darkest bits of comedy and emotion in the book is when David’s mother comes to ask her son what she can do for him. Bitterly David asks her for the book she took from him recently, a copy of Lolita. She walks away and eventually surprises David by bringing him the book. It’s touching. But all of that is undercut when she takes the book again after she’s found out he’s survived. And now David’s silence continues, but this time not of his own choosing — and he has a lot he wants to shout.
At home, late at night, I began to have the sensation that I was shrinking down . . . and living inside my own mouth . . . a hot, moist cavern, in which everything I thought, every word that came into my brain, was thunderously shouted back at me.
We watch David as he grows older, a slightly bitter, quiet young man who eventually teaches himself to speak with his one vocal cord. We watch as he flirts with the mental instability that we’ve seen in his grandmother and his mother and increasingly in himself.
Source: Stitches Official Website
It’s a wonderful book, and again the YA category proves that young adults should not be talked down to and that there are many writers talented enough to treat them with respect, giving them a compelling story that speaks to them without preaching to them. Indeed, my only problem with this book is that it’s incredibly short. Sure, it’s 336 pages, but because of the cinematic quality (much like The Invention of Hugo Cabret– ah-hah! I have read another graphic novel in the last few years!), you really speed through them. I think anyone could get through it in an hour. But as I hope I’ve shown, it does not lack depth of emotion. It’s just that I felt I was finally settling into it, I was really getting into the form and the substance, and it was over, and that left me feeling somewhat unfulfilled. But there are many well-controlled issues settled into these pages in text and graphic form. It deserves its spot as a finalist and as a Publishers Weekly best book of the year — even if it was written by a man.
I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book as disturbing as Cormac McCarthy’s third novel, Child of God (1973). It is my first venture to McCarthy pre-Blood Meridian (which I couldn’t finish at the time) when he was still writing about Tennessee. What surprised me most about this book, however, wasn’t necessarily how disturbing it was, though I certainly wasn’t prepared for that. No, what surprised me most was how absolutely wonderfully written it was. I guess I assumed, stupidly, that McCarthy had grown into his lyrical yet simple style, perfected in The Road. This book, however, shows that he had a gift for laconic depictions of depravity long ago.
Some people shouldn’t read this book. I’ll say it. Though not gratuitously graphic, in his exacting depictions of violence and degradation McCarthy drags the reader through the shocks. Right when you expect him to switch scenes and let us simply numbly imagine what is taking place, he keeps writing. And it’s so powerful, you stay around and watch (no wonder the Coen brothers connected with him so much — and I wonder if this book was where they got the idea of the wood chipper in Fargo – don’t worry: here the wood chipper is just a threat). This type of writing, so exact and able to pull at deeply rooted, hidden fears, is why I had to stop reading Blood Meridian — brilliant but I couldn’t tackle it at the time. While I believe sometimes such imagery is more powerful when done offstage, sometimes that is not the case. Much of this book is done offstage, but those parts that aren’t are importantly grotesque.
The subject character of this book is Lester Ballard, a type of villain that frightened me much more than Aton Chigur in No Country for Old Men and I think Ballard is, unfortunately, much more common. Here is how McCarthy introduces him:
To watch these things issuing from the otherwise mute pastoral morning is a man at the barn door. He is small, unclean, unshaven. He moves in the dry chaff among the dust and slats of sunlight with a constrained truculence. Saxon and Celtic bloods. A child of God much like yourself perhaps.
I’m not sure how to take that last sentence. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to find the humanity in Ballard (though Ballard is never excused or excused away by McCarthy) or if we’re supposed to find Ballard in the recesses of our own humanity. Probably it’s both at the same time, as might be suggested with this later exchange in the book:
You think people was meaner then than they are now? the deputy said.
The old man was looking out at the flooded town. No, he said. I don’t. I think people are the same from the day God first made one.
But still, Ballard is different. In some way — we don’t fully apprehend the scope — Ballard is mentally deficient. Though people comfort themselves by passing him off as a harmless, small-sized idiot, they recognize that his deficiencies are made menacing because he packs around a rifle and because of his threatening sexuality which is visible in the way he ogles at the women and girls. Understandably, no one likes the vulgar Ballard and his attitude. He’s a loner who gets pushed farther and farther out at the periphery of this community that already had plenty of unseemly elements pushed out to the fringe, like moonshiners and like this tragic (but darkly comedic) family:
The dumpkeeper had spawned nine daughters and named them out of an old medical dictionary gleaned from the rubbish he picked. These gangling progeny with black hair hanging from their armpits now saw idle and wide-eyed day after day in chairs and crates about the little yard cleared out of the tips while their harried dam [sic] called them one by one to help with chores and one by one they shrugged or blinked their sluggard lids. Urethra, Cerebella, Hernia Sue. They moved like cats and like cats in heat attracted surrounding swains to their midden until the old man used to go out at night and fire a shotgun at random just to clear the air.
When we meet him his home is being taken from him by the county. He ultimately ends up living in some caves away from the town.
The book presents Ballard from multiple perspectives. At times a third person close narrator is telling us about Ballard’s movements:
When he woke it was to agony. He sat up and gripped his feet. He howled aloud. With gingery steps he crossed the stone floor to the water and sat and put his feet in. The creek felt hot. He sat there soaking his feet and gibbering, a sound not quite crying that echoed from the walls of the grotto like the mutterings of a band of sympathetic apes.
At other times we get him from a group of men telling stories by the road. At others, it’s from someone deep in thought, reminiscing, like this one where we just heard about when the nine-year-old Ballard punched a boy named Finney in the nose:
The Finney boy just looked at Lester Ballard and went on up the road. I felt, I felt . . . I don’t know what it was. We just felt real bad. I never liked Lester Ballard from that day. I never liked him much before that. He never done nothin to me.
And then there are other times, and this is where this book seems particularly Melvillean, where the narrator, whoever it is at this point, discusses with the reader the horror of what we’re witnessing together:
He came up flailing and sputtering and began to thrash his way toward the line of willows that marked the submerged creek bank. He could now swim, but how would you drown him? His wrath seemed to buoy him up. Some halt in the way things seems to work here. See him. You could say that he’s sustained by his fellow men, like you. Has people the shore with them calling to him. A race that gives suck to the maimed and the crazed, that wants their wrong blood in its history and will have it. But they want this man’s life. He has heard them in the night seeking him with lanterns and cries of execration. How then is he borne up? Or rather, why will not these waters take him?He came up flailing and sputtering and began to thrash his way toward the line of willows that marked the submerged creek bank. He could now swim, but how would you drown him? His wrath seemed to buoy him up. Some halt in the way things seems to work here. See him. You could say that he’s sustained by his fellow men, like you. Has people the shore with them calling to him. A race that gives suck to the maimed and the crazed, that wants their wrong blood in its history and will have it. But they want this man’s life. He has heard them in the night seeking him with lanterns and cries of execration. How then is he borne up? Or rather, why will not these waters take him?
Again, is it a mercy to Ballard or to humanity that he drown? And again, that’s a false dichotomy. While McCarthy never suggests that Ballard is excused by his psychology or his past, I found the key to be that in the moment Ballard starts his steep descent into depravity he is most recognizable to us — as us. It’s a small moment brought about not by Ballard but by dumb luck, and Ballard has a choice to make. It takes him an excruciatingly long time to make the choice, and all the while we’re begging him to walk away, just walk away. He keeps stepping away and then stepping back for just a little bit more, and then the prescient words of the smith ring true: “It’s like a lot of things, said the smith. Do the least part of it wrong and ye’d just as well to do it all wrong.”
So, after moving straight to the top of my most disturbing book of the year if not of all time, I can look around the ugliness of the subject and see the power and the importance of the discussion. Some of you shouldn’t read this book — but you won’t be sorry if you do.
In a decision I and the rest of the Shadow Jury wholeheartedly agree with, the 2009 Giller Prize winner is Linden MacIntyre for The Bishop’s Man.
I’ve seen Mercé Rodoreda’s The Time of the Doves on several respected lists of favorite books. That said, I have never read it, despite its being on my periphery for some time. This past summer Open Letter Books published the first English translation of Rodoreda’s last work, published in Catalan after her death, Death in Spring (La mort i la primavera, 1986; tr. from the Catalan by Martha Tennent, 2009). Reviews have spoken about this book’s look at the oppression Rodoreda experienced in Franco’s Spain, and that’s a good way to look at it; however, it is so much more universal, an archetypal fable in fact. The cover, an image of a tree made out of bones, is macabre and compelled me to read the book as soon as it came in the mail.
Review copy courtesy of Open Letter Books.
Here are the first lines. Tell me if, thanks to the title, you get a similar feeling as I did:
I removed my clothes and dropped them at the foot of the hackberry tree, beside the madman’s rock. Before entering the river, I stopped to observe the color left behind in the sky. The sun-dappled light was different now that spring had arrived, reborn after living beneath the earth and within branches. I lowered myself gently into the water, hardly daring to breathe, always with the fear that, as I entered the water world, the air — finally rid of my nuisance — would begin to rage and be transformed into a furious wind, like the winter wind that nearly carried away houses, trees, and people. I had sought the broadest part of the river, a place farthest from the village, a place where no one ever came. I didn’t want to be seen.
When I first read this, the tone and phrases such as “the air — finally rid of my nuisance,” led me to believe this young narrator — a fourteen year old boy – was just about to step into the river to commit suicide. Turns out I was wrong. Kind of. The narrator is going for a swim. But the deathly tone is present throughout this beautifully written novel — this beautifully written and very very strange novel.
Death in Spring has favorable comparisons to Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” Here we have a civil society that feeds on violent, superstitious rituals. The village is built upon the rocks that cover a section of river. Each year, one of the village men is selected by lottery to swim under the city to see if the river will take the town. This invariably leads to the victim’s death or mutilation. Those who live mutilated are called the faceless ones. Here is one of Rodoreda’s accounts of this brutal ritual:
Two very old men had already prepared the hollow tree trunk with the short sticks. All of the sticks had sharp tips, except one, which ended in a fork. The man who drew the forked stick was forced to swim under the village. The faceless men, the noseless, the earless, all of them shut themselves into the stables so as not to dishearten the others. The one who drew the forked stick needed to be brave, brave as the sun. The hollow tree trunk with the sticks inside was painted pink, inside and out. It was repainted every year, just like the houses. The men and older boys had to run past the trunk and seize a stick. When a sharp stick was drawn, everyone was silent. When the forked stick was drawn everyone burst out laughing and the children jumped up and down.
A boy who was not much older than me drew the stick. His face was like others’, but his nose was straighter, his cheeks more delicate. When he glimpsed the tip of the stick, he turned pale with the pallor of fear, and everyone knew — even before seeing it — that he had chosen the forked stick. Always, always, the one who drew the forked stick turned pale.
The blacksmith and a group of men accompanied the boy to the upper edge of the village, where the water from the river thurst itself downward, toward darkness. The boy stripped, and they gave him a drink; while he drank, his eyes wandered from one man to the other. He took too long to dive into the water, and the men had to throw him in, alone and naked.
Our young narrator grows up with this yearly ritual, but this is only part of the brutality. When he was younger, each year all of the adults would lock the children up into the small spaces beneath the stairs while they went to the forest. As it turns out, this is the forest of the dead. When a person dies (and no one is allowed to die with dignity), they are entombed in a tree full of sap with a shovel full of cement shoved down their throat. Overseeing this oppressive society is the Senyor, an old man who lives above the city. But before you think he’s the cause of the trouble, I don’t think it spoils the book to reveal that he is as much a victim as anyone else.
This brutality is juxtaposed with beautiful language describing the wisteria that chokes the village, the bees that menace the inhabitants, and the soap bubbles that turn to glass. This book also has the most beautiful and aching account of a burial I’ve ever read. It is hauntingly beautiful, extremely unsettling. Those trees that house the bones of the dead come to represent cocoons of death, a kind of place where death dwells, waiting to be released. This motif is a surprising and illuminting way to examine life.
I wasn’t planning on taking a break from my reading the Giller Prize shortlist, but then Roth’s latest, The Humbling (2009), came out. And it’s so incredibly short — only 140 pages of large typeset — that I knew this minor diversion wouldn’t disturb me too much. Plus, Philip Roth is one of my favorite writers – he might even be my favorite. So in the middle, I stopped reading the Giller Shortlist and put this one under my belt quickly. But in the interest of getting the reviews of the shortlist out, I put off posting this review until now. That has worked two ways: first, it helped me really consider the book, especially in conjunction with Roth’s other late works (is it appropriate to use this term with a living, working author — I hope Roth’s late works go well into this century); second, some of it is no longer perfectly fresh in my memory. Please forgive me. And please enjoy one of the talented Milton Glaser’s exceptional covers.
Roth’s The Humbling is the only of his books — that I know of — to deal with the performing arts. And of his late short works, it is the most supremely strange. Everyman had a noble melancholy in its approach to old age and death (and is the best of the planned quartet, in my opinion). Indignation had, well, indignation and rage for a young life cut short the governing authority. Returning to a subject in his elder years (sixty-five), The Humblingis almost a farce in its treatment of old age and death – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also serious and devastating.
Here we meet Simon Axler, a famous stage actor getting on in years. He has been a performer — a very successful performer — all of his life. But now, that’s all gone. One day he got up and tried to do Macbeth, and it just didn’t work. Here are Roth’s first lines in this book, lines that in most any other Roth book would have been introducing a different form of lost power:
He’d lost his magic. The impulse was spent. He’d never failed in theater, everything he had done had been strong and successful, and then the terrible thing happened: he couldn’t act.
This causes Axler to lose other things. In his despair, his exhausted wife moves out. His will to live flees, and Roth doesn’t hesitate to introduce us to that famous theatrical shotgun. But like Hamlet, Axler can’t quite build up the courage — or perhaps its the right stage direction — to do the job and instead ends up in a clinic.
In great Rothian style, the book is conspicuously organized like a three-act play. The first act, the one dealing with all Axler has lost, is “Into Thin Air.”
Sitting there amid his books, he tried to remember plays in which there is a character who commits suicide. Hedda in Hedda Gabler, Julie in Miss Julie, Phaedra in Hippolytus, Jocasta in Oedipus the King, almost everyone in Antigone, Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Joe Keller in All My Sons, Don Parritt in The Iceman Cometh, Simon Stimson in Our Town, Ophelia in Hamlet, Othello in Othello, Cassius and Brutus in Julius Caesar, Goneril in King Lear, Antony, Cleopatra, Enobarbus, and Charmian in Atony and Cleopatra, the grandfather in Awake and Sing!, Ivanov in Ivanov, Konstantin in The Seagull. And this astonishing list was only of the plays in which he had at one time performed. There were more, many more. What was remarkable was the frequency with which suicide enters into drama, as though it were a formula fundamental to the drama, not necessarily supported by the action as dictated by the workings of the genre itself. Deirdre in Deirdre of the Sorrows, Hedvig in The Wild Duck, Rebecca West in Rosmersholm, Christine and Orin in Mourning Becomes Electra, both Romeo and Juliet, Sophocles’ Ajax. Suicide is a subject dramatists have been contemplating with awe since the fifth century B.C., beguiled by the human beings who are capable of generating emotions that can inspire this most extraordinary act. He should set himself the task of reading these plays. Yes, everything gruesome must be squarely faced. Nobody should be able to say that he did not think it through.
Act II, “The Transformation,” takes us a very different direction. Here Axler meets the daughter of some of his old friends from a performance forty years ago of Playboy of the Western World. The forty-year-old Pegeen was named after the heroine of that play. Though twenty-five years his junior — and a lesbian — Axler establishes a lusty relationship with Pegeen, much to the dismay of her parents. “The Transformation,” from one perspective, refers to Axler’s attempts to domesticate Pegeen, help her “to be a woman he would want instead of a woman another woman would want. Together they were absorbed in making this happen.” However, “The Transformation” also represents Axler’s own transformation from suicidal despair to hope. Over sixty, he feels his life is just beginning. At least, his life is re-beginning. He’s got a new role to perform, and his costar is playing the part.
Roth begin Roth, and this book being the third of a quartet of brief novels (Nemesis is due out next year), it follows thematic elements raised in Everyman (2006) and Indignation (2008), so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the last act is called ”The Last Act.”
With things unravelling, Roth plays with Axler’s perspectives on life and living, particularly the fact that Axler has always seen his life as a series of performances, making this look at the futile fight against aging and dying very unique: “If he were given this role to act in a play, how would he do it? How would he do the phone call? In a voice that was trembling or a voice that was firm? With wit or with savagery, renunciation or rage?”
If Everyman was a look at the inevitable decline to death and Indignation was a look at how events tramples over us, regardless of our will, The Humbling is a great look at the futility of trying to fight against other things aging takes from us. It is even better for begin skewed by Axler’s warped play-acting perspective. One can look at one’s life as a big performance and can react to the successes and flops accordingly, but our characters are shaped by more than our will. Axler come to this realization:
Shouldn’t he have played that line for a laugh instead of delivering it in a fit of anger? Shouldn’t he have been quietly sardonic, as though it were a deliberately needling overstatement rather than his sounding out of his mind? Oh, play it however you like, Axler told himself. Probably you’re playing it for laughs anyway without your even knowing it.
Alright, the Shadow Giller Jury deliberated and we have come up with our winner. It was a unanimous choice, though all of us enjoyed the shortlist. Please click here to be transported to KevinfromCanada’s blog where the winner is announced. It also contains details about when the real Giller winner will be selected, as well as an announcement that Alison Gzowski, fellow Shadow Giller Jury member will cameo on Canadian national television to announce our pick during Bravo TV’s Giller coverage.