While watching the opening ceremonies to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver I really had the urge to revisit Canadian literature. I so completely enjoyed the reading I did as a member of the 2009 Shadow Giller Jury, and despite the several comments from people who didn’t like the ultimate winner (of both the Shadow and the Real Giller), I still think we picked not only the best book on the list but also one of the best books published last year. I have a handful of unread Canadian books on my shelf, and they all looked great. Ultimately, though, I chose to satisfy my craving with Porcupines and China Dolls (2009), one of KevinfromCanada’s best books of 2009.
Gift copy courtesy of KevinfromCanada.
Porcupines and China Dolls has an interesting publishing history. I don’t know enough about it to go into any detail here, but it wasn’t first published in 2009. Stoddard Publishing issued the book in 2002, and then swiftly fell under. According to KfC, the book was then published by Penguin in 2004. And the version I read has a copyright date of 2009, by Theytus Books.
On the one hand, it’s a shame that this book is having such hard luck with publishers. The topic is not only interesting, it is important. I don’t believe that enough is written and certainly not enough is read regarding the abuses to the indigenous people of America. What we hear is often without nuance and it seems most of us pass it off as something of the past. It is heartbreaking to read about the abuse, but I think it is also important to read the reasoning behind some of it. It is often pure madness! And pure oppression under the cloak of noblesse oblige. To read how lawmakers and judges swindled the natives out of their land — honestly, a fascinating case is Johnson v. M’Intosh where the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that private individuals could not purchase land from Native Americans. Why? Because the Native Americans never owned it in the first place. It was “discovered,” and therefore claimed, by Europeans. It is a fascinating opinion, and I for one never knew exactly when John Marshall was being serious and when he was being ironic.
Often just as shocking are the attempts to atone for past mistakes, attempts to help the indiginouse people “rise.” This book deals with one such catastrophic failure. For over a century (1880s to 1980s) Canada had set up residential schools for the indigenous children. Under the law, these children were removed from their homes for years and forced to speak English — in fact, punished if they spoke anything else. In those years they were violently stripped of any identity. When their term was up, they’d go back to their homes (unless they perished in the intervening years) as shells.
The book opens up with a brief prologue introducing one of these shells. A man is wandering around a forest in Canada’s Northwest Territories:
After what seemed like a lifetime, he looked again to the sky and asked the question. Six billion people must’ve looked to the sky at one time or another. Six billion people must’ve asked it at least once in their lives. Why? Why me?
He waited for an answer and was not disappointed. Six billion people must’ve heard it at least once in their lives: silence.
Then the story introduces a topic it is highly concerned with: suicide. All of the characters are constantly contemplating going to the woods, putting a gun in their mouth, and pulling the trigger. This prologue ends with just that.
After this brief prologue, Alexie shows us some of the reasons behind this man’s suicide: he is empty, and most of that emptiness is a direct result of the abusive residential school he attended. The first part of the novel (around 50 pages) was, in my opinion, the most successful section. This section was a wonder to read because of Alexie’s clear, curt, and repetitive writing style. In it, Alexie gives his reader the background to the “Blue People,” a group of Native Americans, and their experiences in the residential schools over the century.
Soon after, the first mission boat arrived in Aberdeen, and thirty-five children were herded out of the Blue Mountains and dragged off to mission school. The People have no words in their language for mission school. The closest anyone has come to it is “hellhole,” but that’s beside the point. The point is that years later, twenty-four of the thirty-five would return. More importantly, eleven wouldn’t.
I loved the history and I loved the set up to the book, which eventually focuses in on two men, James Nathan and Jake Noland. After this first part, Alexie completely shifts the tone of the novel. Instead of a somber reflection on the past, we get a gritty, lengthy look at the stripped down state of these men and their community. There is constant intoxication leading to, or resulting from, or coinciding with sex. Everyone seems to be looking at everyone’s crotches as they go get another drink. It made my skin crawl, and I was completely disgusted — yet I think I understood what Alexie was doing. It is, to say the least, effective. And I don’t think it was over-the-top.
Above I said, “On the one hand, it is a shame that this book is having such hard luck with publishers.” Well, now, on the other hand, the gritty second segment soon transitions, not that smoothly, into the central portion of the novel. Here we discover that James and Jake, and many others, including the chief, were sexually abused by one of the priests who ran the residential school. After thirty years, they have decided to stand together, make a public disclosure about the crime, and see that justice is done. Interestingly, Alexie chooses to use an incredibly exaggerated tone during the pivotal scene (shown on the cover of my edition) where the two men and chief tell the town what has happened. It took me immediately to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, where the narrator would describe things with a anti-lyrical, twelve-year-old-boy style. And here are some examples from this book, each taken within just a few paragraphs of each other (and it was a fairly long section, reading like this throughout):
Jake started sinking into the floor, but James reached down and with an arm that looked like it belonged on Hulk Hogan, lifted him up from the steps of oblivion.
Mary Percy stood up and walked to the front and stood by her soon-to-be husband. She looked at her lover with the nice ass, smiled and nodded. Let’s rock ‘n’ roll.
People were almost blown off their feet. Mary Percy grew fifty feet tall and almost burst out of her tight-fittin’ jeans. Nothing was going to get by her and get to her man. Not now ‘n not ever!
So Alexie is definitely playing close to some line here. On one side is an oral style issuing from a chest full of rage, not even close to contained as it loses control and lets emotion and spirit and practically drunken energy fly. On that side of the line, it is very effective. But the other side of the line is a juvenile, antic style that distracts us from what is really going on, and can even offend us for misleading us into taking it seriously. I kept rereading passages to see just whether and when the line was crossed.
I would like to believe the style was not the result of Alexie’s own rage, and especially that it was not the result of some juvenile style, but some other examples, from other sections where the tone was much more serious, have me thinking some of this was just bad judgment. Here are some of those examples (again, these are not subsequent paragraphs and come from various spots in the book):
But he wouldn’t remember it. Or would he?
He knew there was no changing the past. At least not yet and maybe never. Not unless the USS Enterprise time-traveled back from the future and Scotty beamed Captain Kirk down to pick him up in a valiant effort to change the course of history for his People. He looked up and waited, but Kirk didn’t materialize out of thin air.
Cries. Whimpers. Same diff.
Now, despite the stylistic strangeness that makes the book feel a bit unbalanced, I found the book incredibly worthwhile. I would be on the side of those publishers who push the book forward. I would hope readers, initially put off by the apparent lack of judgment, would stop and consider just why the book is written in the way it is. There’s a lot in here. Though it sometimes flew well wide of the mark, when it hits its target, it is spectacular.
I don’t remember the PEN/Faulkner announcing finalists before announcing the winner. Have they done that in the past? I know that last year I only heard about the finalists when I heard who won, as is the case with the Pulitzer. This year they have announced five finalists from which a winner will be announced on March 23, 2010.
- Sherman Alexie: War Dances
- Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna
- Lorraine M. López: Homicide Survivors Picnic and Other Stories
- Lorrie Moore: A Gate at the Stairs
- Colson Whitehead: Sag Harbor
I’m afraid I’m not going to be any help here. Not only have I read none of the finalists, but I have no current plans to read one of them. I loved Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, but I have heard that The Lacuna has been a disappointment in comparison, and I’m afraid I would compare. I haven’t heard anything too positive about Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, even from lovers of Lorrie Moore, and I didn’t like the excerpt I read in The New Yorker. I also didn’t particularly like the excerpt from Whitehead’s Sag Harbor published in The New Yorker in 2008. Which brings up the side point that I rarely like these excerpts when published in The New Yorker (except for David Foster Wallace’s excerpts from The Pale King published in the last year), so perhaps I need to stop judging the novel on the short story. I have heard nothing about López’s Homicide Survivors Picnic. If you go search for it at Amazon, it appears almost no one else has either. There are no reviews of it up there yet, and I haven’t seen any in print or on blogs. I can’t even find a good description of the book except for on the PEN/Faulkner press release (available through a link on this page). It does look interesting, but in this case I’m going to wait for someone else to confirm that for me.
I’m a bit more interested in Alexie’s War Dances. I think Alexie’s a fine writer, and War Dances is apparently a freewheeling collection of stories and poetry and other mixes.
Still, not really compelled to read any of them right now. Perhaps that’s because it is February. I’ve never gotten on with February, and this latest blizzard I’m watching right now does little to lighten my mood. Maybe come spring one of the titles, if not the winner, will call my name.
I’m interested in any thoughts on the titles.
I have an extra brand-new, hardbound, New Directions edition of Roberto Bolaño’s Monsieur Pain, and I’d like to give it away blog style.
That is, if you want to be in the drawing to win, please just say so in a comment below. Will ship worldwide. I will conduct a drawing that considers all comments made before Monday, March 1, noon (according to the time recorded with your comment — so that’s 11:59 a.m. comment time and 10:59 a.m. EST).
Now, I might not conduct the drawing at 11:59 a.m. comment time, but when I have a winner I will email him or her and announce it in a comment below.
When I reviewed Monsieur Pain, I said, “For those of you who have been interested in but wary of Roberto Bolaño, you might find a friendly meeting place (more friendly than, say, 2666, which was my meeting place) in Monsieur Pain.” For those of you who have read and enjoyed Bolaño, you don’t need me to tell you to enter this drawing.
For those of you who have never left comments before, I have to approve your first comment on my blog — my way of stopping the spam that slips through. After I’ve approved you once, any later comments do not need to be moderated. Getting this little moderation-step out of the way is a good thing, because I’d like to ask the winner to return here and leave his or her thoughts on the book (or a link to his or her thoughts, if written elsewhere).
My wife and I are firm believers that reading to children is fundamental to their development. Plus, it is time well spent together. We have always made sure to read plenty to our two sons, and I’m proud to say their favorite place to go is the bookstore. We read flap books, toucy-feely books, picture books, classic children’s books, fairy tales, train tales, etc. But we also see no reason to avoid reading books we know they won’t follow yet, books with few to no pictures, books with long narratives. We just want to get ourselves — and them — into the habit of reading plenty together. And it’s surprising how much they tend to take in.
There are several books I never read as a child that I’ve thought I should have, and I’ve always been excited at the prospect of reading them with my own children. One of those was Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days (1873; tr. from the French by George Makepeace Towle, 1873).
Besides the chance of reading to my children and the opportunity to bask in some nostalgia, there’s another reason I wanted to read this book. Jules Verne’s books are highly influential. Many great books written in the subsequent years contain allusions or homages to his work. I felt it was important to my literary growth to go to the source to understand all of the allusions that come from subsequent books.
In Around the World in Eighty Days we have Phileas Fogg, the hero, and his assistant Passepartout. One is the reclusive yet staunchly disciplined rich man whose strict daily routine and relative frugality has helped him amass and keep a great fortune while accumulating a wealth of knowledge. His assistant is loyal to this noble type. So long as Fogg lives up to his ideal, Passapartout will serve him to the end. As long as Passapartout serves him, Fogg will grant him his respect and perhaps allow the servant to rise to the rank of friend. It’s simplistic, really, and though there are moments when the narrative suggests one of the characters may be less than what he seems, we readers never really doubt that both characters will live up to the ideal character the narrative proposes, despite the trials of circumnavigating the globe to win a bet or lose it all.
Before reading the book, I had full plans to get on here and write a review of Around the World in Eighty Days. However, when we finished it, I didn’t have anything to say. The book was fun but the things I usually look for, like strong character development or subtle narrative, just weren’t there. I couldn’t even think of any passages to quote — still can’t, you can see. I felt that the book was becoming more and more of a piece of history, something that shows us an exotic time when technology was allowing for more and more people to “discover” the world. I love that time period, by the way, and I like that sense of going into the unknown. It’s just that the book didn’t have much else to offer me. I’m not even sure in this age of television whether children will latch onto it as once was the case. I hope so, but that’s more for my own sense of nostalgia than for any sense of loyalty to the book.
So I decided that a review would be a waste of time. The book has lasted over 125 years, so what could I add? And I really didn’t want to detract.
Well, I still can’t really add anything myself, but the other day I saw how these books had inspired artist Jim Tierney. Over the last week I’ve seen several blogs feature his Jules Verne book covers, and I’m sure many of you have seen this elsewhere. But just in case! Because you don’t want to miss this!
What Tierney has created gave me all the feelings I’d hoped the books would — in an instant! Unfortunately for all of us book collectors, this really is just an exhibit of four fantastic books designed and produced for a senior project in the illustration department at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. I have no idea what the logistics are, but if a publisher produced these I’d have a very difficult time not buying them for me and for many people I love — whatever the cost (well, not entirely true, but I’d go pretty high). My wife and I are spending a lot of time reading to our children, hoping to instill in them a desire to read — but what could do that better than having these beautifully designed books, born from the passion we are trying to instill in our children, at their fingertips?
The feelings behind this exhibit are exactly the kind of feelings that I think these books inspire, particularly in youth. The discipline, the taste of adventure and discovery, the invigorating but rather tame sense of danger, the good fun of it all – these elegant yet whimsical book covers are, I believe, perfect. They make me want to read all of these books, to just enjoy the adventure and feel like a kid discovering a dreamy version of the world. I suggest you click here to read about the project and see how the concept developed.
There is so much to these covers that you should not miss going here to see the the artist’s webpage where there are many more views of each of the four books, descriptions of the concept behind each design, and a short video displaying the interactive features. Each book has a unique dust cover that works with the hard cover, so take a look — and if you can afford to commission a whole issuance of these beauties, let me get in the buyers’ line.
I’ve been slowly reading Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, which contains Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin, and I’m surprise, as I frequently am, at how such a great author can slip somewhat under the reading radar — at least, under my reading radar. I’m loving these books, so I decided to see if he’d published anything in The New Yorker. Turns out, he published two.
“I Am Waiting” was first published October 21, 1939, a momentous and fearful time for the world. This story appeared just weeks after the invasion of Poland. As suggested to in the book titles above, Isherwood had spent some some time in Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and he had spend much of the 1930s travelling Europe. He was very sensitive to the state of world affairs and to the general anxiety, and he plays with that in this very strange sad story.
Click for a larger image.
But before we look at that, let’s look at the beginning of the story, where Isherwood introduces us to his narrator and teases us with a vague allusion to the strange content we’ll be uncovering:
The incidents which I am about to describe are true, but I can offer you no proof — at least not for the next five years. By that time you will probably have forgotten you ever read this story. So please believe it or disbelieve it, just as you wish.
Today, October 17, 1939, is my birthday. At the age of sixty-seven I am what you, or anybody else, would call a failure. I have no career, no outstanding achievements behind me. I have never married and I cannot truthfully say that I have ever been loved, though half a dozen people are, perhaps, mildly fond of me.
This is very sad, though many of Isherwood’s characters are sad, and always in such direct prose. The narrator’s situation in life is made the more bleak when he tells us who those half dozen people might just be. He lives in his brother’s house. His brother is everything he is not: he is an energetic lawyer and successful family man. His brother is married to Mabel who is “very kind to me on the whole — as long as I am careful to be tidy and not unnecessarily visible.” His brother and Mabel have three sons who are all married and who all frequently visit — “All these people are well disposed toward me, I think.”
This seems to be developing as one would expect — though in better prose – until this line: ”With reference to the story which follows, I need only add that I have never at any time had reason to believe that I possessed psychic powers.”
I was not expecting anything like that to enter this story, even though the narrator warned us that we might not believe this story and that there would be no evidence for five years. But “I Am Waiting” turns out to be quite fantastic.
The narrator continues to describe a few occurrences throughout 1939 where he had some sort of foresight. Apparently he is actually travelling momentarily into the future.
No words of mine can describe the strangeness of those familiar words and sounds. I listened to them as a dead man might listen to the voices of the living. They were so near to me, and yet so immeasurably remote.
When he returns to the present he is invigorated, but there is still something pathetic about him. Just look how Isherwood has him describe his experience:
I was deeply excited and disturbed. Although it still wasn’t entirely clear what had happened tome, I was aware that something had happened, something so dimly tremendous that it dwarfed every other experience of my whole life.
To me, that is still very sad, for though he has had a momentous experience — travelling to the future is a big deal — he has brought nothing useful back. No one will know he’s even left the present. It is “dimly tremendous.”
A much more momentous event happens not long after, while he is rummaging around the trunk room. After a more violent sensation than before, he finds himself in the same trunk room, only now it is almost bare. After he finds that the door is locked, he begins to panic, only calming himself when he tries to do what he thinks his brother would do. In searching for any resources available, he finds some papers from a magazine published July 1944.
Only an archeologist can imagine the intensity of my excitement at that moment. Here was an actual tiny fragmnet of the future itself, palpable to my present-day fingers. It had been manufactured by men who could answer, off-hand, many of those burning questions which still perplex the wisest mortals of 1939. Shaking with eagerness, I began to read.
There is something prescient about the date of the magazine. Indeed, we know that many magazines from July 1944 would have a great deal of information of interest to someone in 1939. And even our failure of a narrator wants to know “Had the United States entered the war? Had there been a revolution? What is happening in Europe? In China? In the Near East?”
The rest of the story is brilliant. I’m sure some of you have more insights on it than I do, so please, offer them up in the comments.
Last night at Idlewild Books, just a short subway ride away from where I was sitting (wish I could have been there), the Best Translated Fiction shortlist was announced. The winner will be announced on March 10.
- Anonymous Celebrity by Ignácio de Loyola Brandão, translated from the Portuguese by Nelson Viera
- The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu
- The Discoverer by Jan Kjærstad, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland
- Ghosts by César Aira, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
- Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull
- Rex by José Manuel Prieto, translated from the Spanish by Alfonso González and Stella T. Clark
- The Tanners by Robert Walser, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
- The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer
- The Weather Fifteen Years Ago by Wolf Haas, translated from the German by Stephanie Gilardi and Thomas S. Hansen
- Wonder by Hugo Claus, translated from the Dutch by Michael Henry Heim
I have on my shelf The Discoverer, The Twin, and Wonder. In fact, I’ve already started The Twin, to happy results. Wonder looks phenomenal, and I can’t wait to read it. The Discoverer is part of a trilogy, the first books of which I do not have. I’ve heard that each books stands alone, though, so perhaps I should get over my normal need to conform to that kind of order. I hope to get through these three before the winner is announced, though that would still mean I only read half of the finalists listed, and this looks like an excellent group.
Of the ones on the longlist that I read but that did not make it to this shortlist, I’m not surprised that Death in Spring and The Skating Rink didn’t make it, though either probably could have. I didn’t like and didn’t review There’s Nothing I Can Do When I Think of You Late at Night, but I do feel I need to give it another look. I was surprised Desert didn’t make it, as that is an excellent book. That said, I think The Tanners and Ghosts are two of the other best books I’ve read in years, so I fully support their spot on the list.
When we were newlyweds, my wife enrolled in a World Literature class. I still remember how excited she was after reading a Japanese story, how it held on to her for days. Despite her excitement, I didn’t read it for some reason. From time to time over the years she has reflected on that story, only she forgot who wrote it and what it was called. When Patriotism (Yukoku, 1966; tr. from the Japanese by Geoffrey W. Sargent, 1966) came in the mail, I felt certain I had in my hand a nice copy of the story she had read and loved several years ago. I read the description to her, and all the excitement and awe came back in her face. It was the same story. And I have now read it too.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
A note on this edition: New Directions has just began issuing titles from its new Pearl series. The first issuance includes Patriotism as well as Federico García Lorca’s In Search of Duende, Javier Marías’s Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico, and Tennessee Williams’s Tales of Desire. Forthcoming are César Aira’s The Literary Conference and Jorge Luis Borges’s Everything & Nothing. In truth, some of these are shorter than novellas. Patriotism is only just over 50 large-type pages. Patriotism, though standing alone here, would be “Patriotism” and is available in a collection of Yukio Mishima’s stories also published by New Directions, Death in Midsummer and Other Stories. Whether you are willing pay for a stand-alone volume that forms part of a bigger series is up to you. Personally, I like having the story on its own, isolated from other stories. Plus, for collectors, the titles look great on the shelf together. And venerable.
I have one gripe: there were at least a handful of typos that interrupted my reading. In one place Reiko’s “sucks” slip on the floor — now I knew it meant “socks” but the error is jarring in its nature of being an error but also because of its preposterous albeit accidental imagery. I’m not sure what process was involved in pulling “Patriotism” from Death in Midsummer, and since I don’t have that volume, I’m not sure if the Pearl edition’s errors are new or have been part of the text for a while. You’ll notice in the paragraph below that there is an “eight-mat room of his private resident in the sixth block.” I’m pretty sure it should be “residence,” and if I’m right then there’s a silly error in the first paragraph. I have spent time in publishing. I know that errors get through, despite how many eyes cover the documents, but this had a large number of fairly obvious ones. I think I’m more disappointed due to the fact that this is part of a new series that will cost its readers a bit of money since each short story / novella is being sold for around $10.
Now, let’s move on from the gripe. New Directions does fabulous work, and I don’t want typos to distract us from the fact that they consistently acquire and publish at the forefront of world literature in striking editions. This is no exception.
Patriotism is a very strange story. First, you learn everything that happens in the first paragraph. I’ll start with it, since it provides a great summary of the story with preemptive spoilers.
On the twenty-eighth of February 1936 (on the third day, that is, of the February 26 incident), Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama of the Konoe Transport Battalion — profoundly disturbed by the knowledge that his closest colleagues had been with the mutineers from the beginning, and indignant at the imminent prospect of Imperial troops attacking Imperial troops — took his officer’s sword and ceremonially disemboweled himself in the eight-mat room of his private resident in the sixth block of Aoba-cho, in Yotsuya Ward. His wife, Reiko, followed him, stabbing herself to death. The lieutenant’s farewell note consisted of one sentence: “Long live the Imperial Forces.” His wife’s after apologies for her unfilial conduct in thus preceding her parents to the grave, concluded: “The day which, for a soldier’s wife, had to come, has come . . . .” The last moments of this heroic and dedicated couple were such as to make the gods themselves weep. The lieutenant’s age, it should be noted, was thirty-one, his wife’s twenty-three; and it was not half a year since the celebration of their marriage.
The style of this opening paragraph reminded me of the opening paragraph to a news report or maybe a short obituary. It lays out all of the facts of the story while only alluding to some of the emotion; in other words, the style itself here is not emotive. It is a striking contrast to the remainder of the story when two central events and their preparations are described in a direct yet lyrical style devoted entirely to bringing out the elevated emotions of its two characters.
Before the lieutenant even returns home two days after the failed coup, Reiko already knows what to expect. His closest friends were the instigators, but he cannot fight against them. His loyalty is to the Imperial Forces, so he cannot contradict their order. The only honorable way out is seppuku, the ritual suicide. Less than six months earlier Reiko had promised him she would follow him where he had to go. We get a glimpse of her cleaning the house perfectly to prepare for the solemn event.
It is difficult to describe the rest of the story because most of it is, as I mentioned above, a wonderful description of their complex emotions as they make love one last time and then commit suicide. But it’s not all emotion; there are some great questions being asked. Though the characters are composed on the outside, they are jittery on the inside. It’s not so much fear as it is anticipation of the great events — the love making and the suicide.
He folded his hands beneath his head and gazed at the dark boards of the ceiling in the dimness beyond the range of the standard lamp. Was it death he was now waiting for? Or a wild ecstasy of the senses? The two seemed to overlap, almost as if the object of this bodily desire was death itself. But, however that might be, it was certain that never before had the lieutenant tasted such total freedom.
Somehow Mishima succeeds in exalting sex and death, though he spends a great deal of time merely describing the physical details. For example, here is a passage that connects the imminent suicide with the current sex:
The lieutenant’s naked skin glowed like a field of barley, and everywhere the muscles sowed in sharp relief, converging on the lower abdomen about the small, unassuming navel. Gazing at the youthful, firm stomach, modestly covered by a vigorous growth of hair, Reiko thought of it as it was soon to be, cruelly cut by the sword, and she laid her head upon it, sobbing in pity, and bathed it with kisses.
There is also the great moment between the suicides that Mishima captures. I know the first paragraph of the story gives away the events, so I don’t want to describe too much of the emotion. Rather, I’ll leave this review with this interesting complexity:
Ever since her marriage her husband’s existence had been her own existence, and every breath of his had been a breath drawn by herself. But now, while her husband’s existence in pain was a vivid reality, Reiko could find in this grief of hers no certain proof at all of her own existence.
When I first started reading Roth, there was one of his early titles that sounded, well . . . interesting: The Breast (1972). I also knew the basic premise; it’s one people like to tell you for the reaction. One day a middle-aged man finds that he has turned into a 150-pound female breast. In Roth’s hands it is intriguing — it is, in fact, Rothian — but is it okay for me to consider this a serious reading project?
I have good news. The book takes only a little over an hour to read, so you’ll know the answer to that question soon enough. More good news now that I’ve read it: it is obviously a very strange book — but it is strange in a good way.
Probably the only reason I read this book now rather than later is because it is the first of Roth’s David Kepesh books (the others being The Professor of Desire and The Dying Animal). Since I finished Roth’s Zuckerman books last year, I thought it would be nice to get to know another of his famous serial characters. And before we meet David Kepesh in the latter two books (where I don’ t believe he is still a breast) we must first see him transformed into a breast, this is where I found myself.
It began oddly. But could it have begun otherwise, however it began? It has been said, of course, that everything under the sun begins oddly and ends oddly, and is odd. A perfect rose is “odd,” so is an imperfect rose, so is the rose of ordinary rosy good looks growing in your neighbor’s garden. I know about the perspective from which all that exists appears awesome and mysterious. Reflect upon eternity, consider, if you are up to it, oblivion, and everything becomes a wonder. Still, I would submit to you, in all humility, that some things are more wondrous than others, and that I am one such thing.
I would agree that Kepesh’s transformation into a breast began oddly, but “it” is what is truly odd. The result of this transformation would seem to render any discussion of the initial redness around the penis as neither here nor there. Alas, that is where Kepesh begins his book, and it’s not the most intriguing aspect of the book. I much prefer Kafka’s approach when he simply begins the story with the fabulous metamorphosis already having taken place. In this case, though, the fact that the transformation begins in Kepesh’s genitals seems to be relevant, particularly as an indication of why Kepesh might have transformed.
The Breastis about the banal. Kepesh is a man with a sexual appetite that doesn’t stope when he becomes a breast. He’s still flesh — only now he can never fully reach climax, but that doesn’t stop him from trying. Such scenes are not interesting, not to me, anyway. The novella becomes exceedingly interesting, however, when Kepesh tries to intellectualize himself around his problem:
When I came around, I at last realized that I had gone mad. I was not dreaming. I was crazy. There was to be no magical awakening, no getting up out of bed, brushing my teeth, and going off to teach as though nothing more than a nightmare had interrupted my ordinary and predictable life; if there was ever to be anything at all for me, it was the long road back — becoming sane.
Here, post-transformation, Kepesh decides he won’t accept what has happened. He calls it a crisis of faith, as he narrates this section after having accepted his lot in life. I was amused to no end as Kepesh tried to no avail to get his doctor (Doctor Klinger) to accept that he was mad and had not, in fact, transformed into a female breast.
“I am mad, though — aren’t I?” I asked.
I was set back only momentarily. I realized that I had inverted his meaning as easily, and as unconsciously, as we turn right side up the images that flash upon the retina upside down.
“I want to tell you,” I calmly explained, “that though you just answered yes when I asked whether I was mad, I heard you say no.”
He does finally overcome his crisis of faith, but that doesn’t make it any easier for him. Next he wants to know why; and furthermore why a breast?
Now, with Dr. Klinger’s assistance, I was trying to figure out just why, of all things, I had chosen a breast. Why a big brainless bag of dumb, desirable tissue, acted upon instead of acting, unguarded, immobile, hanging, there, as a breast simply hangs and is there? Why this primitive identification with the object of infantile veneration? What unfulfilled appetites, what cradle confusions, what fragments out of my remotest past could have collided to spark a delusion of such classical simplicity?
He persists in intellectualizing about his condition, posing questions, looking into his mind, looking into his past. He used to be a professor of literature, and for years he taught Kafka, Gogol and Swift. Perhaps there’s an answer there.
Didfiction do this to me? “How could it have?” asks Dr. Klinger. “No, hormones are hormones and art is art. You are not suffering from an overdose of the great imaginations.” “Aren’t I? I wonder. This might well be my way of being Kafka, being a Gogol, being a Swift. They could envision the incredible, they had the words and those relentless fictionizing brains. But I had neither, I had nothing — literary longings and that was it. I loved the extreme in literature, idolized those who wrote it, was virtually hypnotized by the imagery and the power — ” “And? Yes? the world is full of art lovers — so?” “So I took the leap. Made the word flesh. Don’t you see, I have out-Kafkaed Kafka.”
The intellectualizing doesn’t help, though. How could it have? He is a breast and that is that. He has his urges, and that is that. The world is banal. He is banal. It is time to accept it. These high-minded complexes Kepesh tries to create for himself simply won’t work for anything other than denial and diversion.
Of course, for a reader like me, a reader who was fed from the politicalized and psychologized interpretive schools for literature and life, a reader who much preferred the passages of intellectualizing to the scenes portraying the banal, it’s a difficult sentiment to buy. The book, then, remains not entirely successful. That’s not to say it isn’t worthwhile. It is very well written, of course. And though I found what it was saying much less satisfying than what it was decrying, that doesn’t make it less interesting, particularly in the hands of Philip Roth. How can I not prefer that fiction did this to Kepesh? And I’m happy to keep reading the fiction of Kepesh.
A few years back I read Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. In it I found evidence that Prose was an excellent reader, but for some reason I didn’t go further and test out whether she was also an excellent writer. I’m not sure why but, despite her prolific and relatively acclaimed output, her name rarely comes up when I’m talking with people about books — in fact, I’m not sure it ever has. I know this says much more about whom I discuss books with than about Prose and the reception of her books; she is an established writer, after all. However, I also don’t recall seeing her name come up on many blogs. I became interested in Goldengrove (2008), however, when I saw a few places where it was considered (derisively, I should add) to be a young adult book — a book that is great for those lower beings, but hardly worth the time of a serious reader.
Interestingly, there was little substantive criticism backing up the claim that this was a YA novel, as if that classification alone suggests the book’s perceived faults. Predictable? Unsophisticated? Sentimental? Clichéd? I don’t think these labels apply to Goldengrove. Furthermore, the more I put my head out there, the more I realize that these labels do not apply to YA as a category. I admit I have my own prejudices against what many (most) young adults read and against those authors who do little more than change characters’ names (or species) in a marketable formula. Of course, I have the exact same prejudices against what many (most) adults read and against those authors who do little more than change characters’ names (or psychoses) in a marketable formula. My wife has helped me to see what I always knew: there are brilliant writers writing for young adults who are just as skilled, who produce books that are just as complicated and subtle and provoking as the brilliant writers writing for adults. To suggest that YA is lesser is to do these important writers a grave disservice — which is exactly what’s happening. Admittedly, there’s a stylistic and thematic difference between YA literature and adult literature, but the idea that “if this book were written for teens I’d consider it a masterpiece, but if it is for adults it’s a major disappointment” doesn’t work for me. Good writing is good writing — to suggest a YA novel is lesser suggests that there are no intelligent young adults and that there are no YA writers who write for that crowd. It shouldn’t be reduced to “milk for babes.”
All of that is a tangent — Goldengrove is a highly self-consciously crafted novel; that is to say, Prose cleverly constructs a book whose substance as a book is as much the topic as is the narrated grief the characters suffer through — maybe it is the central topic. Adults, young and old, reading closely will find some fascinating play going on here.
Goldengrove‘s narrator is Nico, a thirteen-year-old girl. Perhaps that’s why some consider it YA. Or maybe it’s because the book is centralized around a summer of grief, familiar terrain in many books (good and bad) written for young adults. But this is not a book about coping with grief. Grief is present, and wonderfully — unsentimentally – rendered, but in Goldengrove grief is a vehicle to explore other ideas, ideas which seem to have flown by many readers, though I can’t help but think they are obvious. Then again — and I’m certainly a culprit here — when we read a book thinking we already know what it’s about, we often miss the points of departure in the narrative that will expand our experience.
“Goldengrove” comes from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child,” one of my favorite poems in my poetry reading days (I hope my ability to read and digest poetry will return to me). The word “grief” is used in that poem, but it is not necessarily a poem about “grieving” someone’s death — at least, not the way we commonly think of such grief. This book, however, is on the surface about grieving someone’s death. And admittedly, the first paragraph does seem to usher in a tone and setting that could be cliché:
We lived on the shore of Mirror Lake, and for many years our lives were as calm and transparent as its waters. Our old house followed the curve of the bank, in segments, like a train, each room and screened porch added on, one by one, decade by decade.
When I think of that time, I picture the four of us wading in the shallows, admiring our reflections in the glassy, motionless lake. Then something — a pebble, a raindrop — breaks the surface and shatters the mirror. A ripple reaches the distant bank. Our years of bad luck begin.
The “four of us” are Nico, her older sister Margaret, and their parents. Margaret, like the book, is named after the Hopkins poem. Margaret, who suffers some heart ailment, drowns in Mirror Lake in the first chapter, causing a summer of grief and emptiness for the surviving three (well, four — but we’ll get to the boyfriend in a minute). Goldengrove really could be a simplistic book about grief paying homage to a beloved poem. But there is another creature here.
Nico is named after the late German singer most famous, at least around my home, for her tenure with The Velvet Underground. So Nico, Margaret, and the book itself are named after something else. “Goldengrove” also happens to be the name of the father’s bookshop. So there’s something going on with the naming — or it could just be the way the author selects the names (I don’t believe that is the case). The lake is named Mirror Lake, and within the first few chapters we not only see several mirrors, but we have constant references to films that feature mirror-scenes: Persona, Ninotchka. Nico calls herself and Margaret the mimics. And now when Nico looks into the mirror she sees Margaret more and more each time. Something besides grief is going on in these pages — or these leaves of Goldengrove, if we want to bring another perspective of Hopkins’ poem here.
Again, there is a surface explanation. Aaron, Margaret’s grieving boyfriend, finds that it is easier to talk to Nico about Margaret’s death. They each feel they’ve found the only other person who understands. They attempt to overcome their grief together; part of that process involves watching some old movies (the book is full of film references). The book takes a very disturbing turn when Nico realizes that Aaron is trying to turn her into Margaret. There’s the reference to Vertigo.
But what of all of these references to film? To mirrors? To names? And that’s not all — there are many references to music and to painting, and probably several other forms of art. They stand out all over the pages. But I doubt I would have been able to put it together without the help from a review of this book by D.G. Meyers at A Commonplace Blog. There he illuminates the book by explaining that “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child” is itself derivative of another work of art: George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. Apparently Hopkins wasn’t inspired to write this poem because of some real life experience but rather by a literary experience. And Meyers suggests that there is evidence that Eliot’s book is also derived from another work of art. To me, this pulls together the aspects of naming in this book, as well as the various artistic references and the references to mirrors.
In a very impressive way, this book is self-conscious of its own derivation from art and its own status as a piece of art. Besides grieving, this book is about the role of art in interpreting our world. Only, it goes further than that. This is not art just to help interpret experience; this is art as a precursor to experience — or, in other words, art as the basis for experience.
I wasn’t sure about this angle as I continued reading the book. In fact, in the last few pages I felt that if Prose didn’t revisit this angle, it wouldn’t have actually been anything other than over-reading — but there it all comes together in a family trip to Rome where the father finds the perfect cover for his book Eschatology for Dummies– a picture of Fra Angelico’s The Last Judgment. And there’s the final scene where the adult Nico goes to an art gallery in France. When some clouds cover the sunlight, the pieces of art lose their shimmer and look more like mirrors.
There’s more to this book. Even reading it from the perspective outlined above leaves me feeling like I’ve only grasped a part of it. Somehow all of those artistic aspects are tied to the grief — and it’s saying a lot about this book that it convinced me it is worthy of closer readings in the future. That is not unsophisticated or clichéd. And I believe close readings would reward both adults and young adults.
If you have a print subscription to The New Yorker (which comes at the very reasonable price of $40 for a year’s worth of 47 issues — 5 are “double-issues”) you get access to their complete digital archive. I hope they never take away this perk. To me, access to every past issue of The New Yorker, in digital images of the original pages, is worth $40 per year on its own — more than $40, actually. There are countless treasures in there. I spend a bit of time each week going through old articles, particularly old essays, book reviews, and features on authors. With the death of Salinger, I was reminded yet again of the literary wealth found in these archives — most of his stories were originally published in The New Yorker. I thought, then, that it might be a worthwhile ongoing project to highlight some of the fiction from the past 85 years (The New Yorker was first published on February 21, 1925, so it’s almost anniversary time with its classic Eustace Tilley cover).
I plan on making this a regular feature on The Mookse and the Gripes. For now — and maybe forever – it is going to be called “The Clock at the Biltmore” as an homage to the place where J.D. Salinger and The New Yorker editor William Shawn met, a collaboration that in my mind represents a particular aspect of classic New Yorker fiction. William Shawn (besides being father to Wallace Shawn) was editor from 1952 – 1987, longer than any other. Franny and Zooey is dedicated to Shawn. “The Clock at the Biltmore” will also remind me of when I started this feature, and of this first post’s subject. Ideally I would have liked to have worked in some sort of reference to William Maxwell, who was the fiction editor from 1936 – 1975. While I believe The New Yorker has always had high standards and high quality, there’s no denying that these were fantastic years for fiction — American fiction in particular. I’ll just assume that William Maxwell met with Shawn and Salinger at the clock at the Biltmore too, and if someone could confirm that for me, I’d love it.
So here is the plan. Fortnightly I’ll revisit some piece of fiction first published in The New Yorker. I’ve already reviewed a few here: Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter” and “Sexy” and “The Third and Final Continent” in Interpreter of Maladies, Philip Roth’s “Defender of the Faith” in Goodbye, Columbus, Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl” and “Rosa” in The Shawl (I don’t count the ones like Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” or Tobias Wolff’s “Class Picture” because they were part of and became something else). Obviously, The New Yorker is a favorite of mine, so on The Mookse and the Gripes you’ll also find a round-up of all the fiction published in 2009. And, of course, there’s the new New Yorker fiction forum on the left sidebar where we discuss the fiction being published in each week’s issue – we’d like to get some more participants there, if you’re interested. Why all of this attention to The New Yorker when great short stories are also published elsewhere? Because The New Yorker has a corner on the market — and because I have a subscription for it.
This past week KevinfromCanada did a blog tribute on J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, and he spent some time focusing on that collection’s first story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” While Salinger’s death reminded me that I need to revisit Nine Stories (it had been a decade since I read them all in one day — along with The Catcher in the Rye), it was Kevin’s post that really prompted me into action.
Click for a larger image.
“A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” published January 31, 1948, was Salinger’s second story in The New Yorker, and it set the bedrock for a relationship that would help, in part, define the two. Also, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is the first of Salinger’s stories to feature the Glass family. Besides the ones found in Nine Stories, I’ve never read Salinger’s Glass stories, almost all of which (all but one) were first published in The New Yorker, so I’m hoping this project gets me to read them all finally. After rereading this story, I can’t wait.
Interestingly, the first member of the famous Glass family we meet is an in-law. Muriel Glass, “a girl who for a ringing phone dropped nothing,” is married into the Glass family by way of the oldest son Seymour. When the story opens Muriel and Seymour have been married for around six years (1942 – 1948), and they are in Florida celebrating a second honeymoon. Since they married, however, Seymour has been deeply scarred from fighting in World War II. People, particularly Muriel’s parents, have noticed. While the phone rings we watch Muriel fix her nails, slowly. When she finally picks up, she hears her worried mother. Seymour is the topic of this telephone conversation, and we’ll meet him in a few minutes, but this conversation says a lot about Muriel and her mother — a lot that helps understand the ending to the story. It’s been said ad infinitum over the past week, but Salinger is a master at dialogue. You feel like you’re in the room watching with an analytical eye.
“Muriel? Is that you?”
The girl turned the receiver slightly away from her ear. “Yes, Mother. How are you?” she said.
“I’ve been worried to death about you. Why haven’t you phoned? Are you all right?”
“I tried to get you last night and the night before. The phone here’s been — “
“Are you all right, Muriel?”
The girl increased the angle between the receiver and her ear. “I’m fine. I’m hot. This is the hottest day they’ve had in Florida in — “
“Why haven’t you called me? I’ve been worried to — “
“Mother, darling, don’t yell at me. I can hear you beautifully,” said the girl. “I called you twice last night. Once just after — “
“I told your father you’d probably call last night. But, no, he had to — Are you all right, Muriel? Tell me the truth.”
“I’m fine. Stop asking me that, please.”
“When did you get there?”
“I don’t know. Wednesday morning, early.”
“He did,” said the girl. “And don’t get excited. He drove very nicely. I was amazed.”
“He drove? Muriel, you gave me your word of — “
“Mother,” the girl interrupted, “I just told you. He drove very nicely. Under fifty the whole way, as a matter of fact.”
“Did he try any of that funny business with the trees?”
I love how Salinger conveys his information. We don’t even know Seymour’s name yet, but we have an accute sense of him that continues to build over the next few pages as the conversation continues to talk about him without ever approaching specifics. Much comes by alluding to something else — for example, Muriel asks her mother where that German book of poetry that Seymour sent her from the war is. It seems a minor point in the conversation — Muriel wants to know where it is because Seymour asked about it on the way to Florida, wondering if she had read any of it. The mother exlaims, ”It was in German!” The poet is never mentioned here by name, and the dialogue moves on, but by simply alluding to Rilke Salinger has added a whole new dimension to this very short story.
After the phone conversation, we move out to the beach where Seymour sits in a terry-cloth robe, conversing with the five-year-old (or so) Sybil Carpenter. He is very kind to Sybil, plays with her, tries to get her to be more kind to the three-and-a-half-year-old Sharon Lipschutz who sits by Seymour when he is playing the piano in the evenings (Sybil wants Seymour to push Sharon off the bench). There’s some vitality to Sybil, something pure, that Seymour loves, and he adores it — he kisses her foot. As kind as he is, though, we can’t help but fear him when he takes Sybil out to play in the sea, even though (or perhaps because) he is exciting the little girl with a nonsense story about bananafish eating so many bananas they get stuck in holes under the water.
There is much to this short story, and it completely stands on its own, meaning it does not require any knowledge of the Glass family at all. But, of course, there is much more about the Glasses — perhaps volumes and volumes more.