I have loved David Mitchell. He wowed me with Cloud Atlas (I was not one who thought it was mere gimickry). And even though many thought it to be a lesser work, a kind of break from ambitious writing, I also loved Black Swan Green, his wonderfully structured and wonderfully described narrative of a small English town in the early 1980s told by a stuttering young boy. Nevertheless, when I saw that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was on the table, I was a bit nervous it would lessen my esteem for Mitchell. I’m sure this is due to the many glowing reviews it had received already, heightening my expectations to the point where I felt there was no way Mitchell could meet them. Well, if you’ve yet to read this book, this review might deflate some of your expectations, which I hope will be a service. For me, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a step backwards.
Review copy courtesy of Random House.
A step backwards from those earlier works doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. For one thing, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet took me to a place that I didn’t know existed, a small man-made island named Dejima, which sat in Nagasaki harbor during Japan’s period of Sakoku. I didn’t know what Sakoku was either. From 1633 – 1853, Sakoku was the Japanese foreign relations policy: no foreigner could enter Japan and no Japanese could leave. Violators were put to death. For two hundred years the little island of Dejima was a peephole into and out of Japan because it was only there that foreigners could come and trade goods.
For much of the time, the Dutch were the primary (if not the only) ones allowed to trade at Dejima, as is the case in July 1799, when this book begins. Jacob de Zoet has just arrived on Dejima. He is a young Dutch clerk working for the Dutch East India Company. A clerk of impeccable morals, he arrives with a new chief, Mr. Vorstenbosch, to clean Dejima of the corruption it had been suffering for years. The last chief deputy had been engaging in illicit trades and privateering. You already know that Jacob was not well received.
“To man its ships, maintain its garrisons, and pay its tens of thousands of salaries, Mr. Oost, including yours, the company must make a profit. Its trading factories must keep books. Dejima’s books for the last five years are a pig’s dinner. It is Mr. Vorstenbosch’s duty to order me to piece those books together. It is my duty to obey. Why must this make my name Iscariot?”
Even the fairly honorable among the workers stretch around the rules, which is somewhat understandable if you consider that they are stuck on a small island all year round; they’re not far off when they call it a prison. They really don’t want someone coming in to stop the only things that make working on Dejima bearable. Here’s an exchange where de Zoet expresses genuine shock that the illegal activities can go on under the noses of those in charge.
“The guards and friskers at the land gate don’t find this odd?”
“They’re paid not to find it odd. Now, here’s my question for you: how’s the chief goin’ to act on this? On this an’ everythin’ else you’re snufflin’ up? ‘Cause this is how Dejima works. Stop all these little perquisites, eh, an’ yer stop Dejima itself — an’ don’t evade me, eh, with your ‘That is a matter for Mr. Vorstenbosch.’”
To me, the first section was very good. In a way, the subtle development of subjugatoin and betrayal reminded me of the much better — because it is much subtler – first and last sections in Cloud Atlas. Getting to know de Zoet and watching him navigate the traps in his way is a real pleasure. De Zoet is the pragmatic and fiercely loyal type we’d expect to see wandering around yelling about “duty!” Back home he has left a fiancé whose father doesn’t approve of the match, so de Zoet is anxious to honorably claw his way to the top. We get the sense that he holds a lot of promise because of his loyalty to duty, but that that loyalty might just be his biggest obstacle. His motivation gets a bit muddied when he begins to fall in love with a Japanese midwife named Orito Aibagawa. The best advice he can get, though, is “If you do love her, express your devotion by avoiding her.”
The story, divided, essentially, into three parts, is very good. The first part focuses on de Zoet’s trials in his first months as Dejima’s despised sanitizer. The second follows Aibagawa to a monastery in the interior. The third features a menacing British frigate, come to use diplomacy or force to benefit from the Dejima trading post. It’s exciting and I didn’t want to put it down though there were two issues that bothered me from the beginning and that ultimately led me to the conclusion that an interesting story in a fascinating setting is most of what this book has to offer: (1) it became clear fairly early on that Mitchell was going to explain everything fairly nicely, taking me out of the narrative process, and (2) that the characters, once setup in clever passages, were going to be predictably good or bad.
Regarding my first issue, this is Mitchell’s first third-person narrative. In an interview with John Self he said in the past he had found this ”infinite” perspective a challenge because he never knew what to leave out. As clever most pieces were, I wish he’d left more out. The character’s thoughts were often shown in tell-all itallics (which leads to my next issue with the book). I kept trying to look for more complexity underneath what was being said and thought and then explained, but I always felt that it was all there on the surface. The plot brings out many of Mitchell’s main themes — the will to power, subjugation and exploitation, mortality and the fight to achieve immortality — but I felt these themes were there to make the plot interesting and not that the plot was there to explore these themes.
As for my second issue with character development, for the most part once Mitchell lays the first stone of character development, we know how the overall structure of that character is going to look. I found that lack of complexity frustrating. Though I felt the characters were likeably good or likeably bad, they never veered from that course, no matter what the plot threw at them. This made them, if not the plot, frustratingly predictable. The plot revealed what happened to the characters but that didn’t give them new contours for the reader to consider.
One of my favorite chapters in the entire novel — the only one in which I marked many passages — was the one small chapter done in the first person. I think Mitchell’s work is much more interesting when he takes that omniscience out of the formula and allows the intimacies of one human mind to suggest what’s going on, limited though that one mind might be in the grander scheme. This passage is told by one of deputy Fischer’s slaves (Fischer being one of the bad characters). The slave has just been deducing what he owns and what he doesn’t own, being a slave, finally determining that he himself owns his thoughts:
Master Fischer owns my body, then, but he does not own my mind. This I know, because of a test. When I shave Master Fischer, I imagine slitting open his throat. If he owned my mind, he would see this evil thought. But instead of punishing me, he just sits there with his eyes shut.
Once this chapter is over, the book resumes the third person and that intimacy leaves. So I enjoyed The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but I don’t feel the desire to read it again, and I feel it would have been better if I hadn’t read quite a portion of it the first time through.
I usually use The Clock at the Biltmore feature to highlight an older (hopefully classic) story from the magazine, but since this week is the mid-year mark (next issue will be July’s!) I thought it would be a good time to reflect on the first half of 2010. It’s also been my misfortune to have dug up a handful of old stories I didn’t like and didn’t want to write about, but I’ve got a good one for the next feature.
Click for a larger image.
Because it takes place in the interior of this blog, I’m not sure everyone who would be interested is aware of the New Yorker fiction forum. On the left-hand sidebar you can see the link to the forum’s main page, as well as the individual pages for the most recent five issues. I do my best to stay on top of the weekly fiction, offering my thoughts and hopefully taking part in a larger discussion about what’s good and bad there. The forum has been active since the first issue of 2010. There are many great comments. Not so many commenters recently, unfortunately. Is it summer? Have the lackluster stories put off readers? Are people not getting what they want from the forum? Perhaps any or a combination of those is the cause.
The good news is that any of you can help make it better (unless the problem really is the run of ho-hum stories — in that case, I’m afraid we’re in the hands of the editors). Most of the fiction is available for free on The New Yorker website, and I’ve linked to them in the individual pages here. If you’re ever interested in some generally good short stories and some always intriguing discussions about them, check out the forum and share your comments.
Furthermore, if you have suggestions for how to make the forum better, please leave your comments below or contact me via email if you don’t want to look critical in public.
Okay, on to the fiction.
There have been 31 pieces published so far this year. The next half of 2010 will have less, I presume; three of the five double issues will be published, and we probably won’t see another issue featuring eight pieces of fiction as we did in the recent June 14 & 21 issue. I’m hoping, however, that the latter half of 2010 has more top-tier stories. I’m afraid the first half has only a dozen stories I thought were worth reading, perhaps a dozen that were mediocre — the rest I thought were quite awful.
Though my general impression of the first half of 2010 is that there was more mediocrity than anything, when I look at the individual titles, I must step back and remember just how superb a few of them were. All in all, reading each issue was more than worth it. Yes, I read Joshua Ferris’s “The Pilot” (which I still think was just thrown in because the magazine wanted something from him), but I also got to read Philip Meyer’s “What You Do Out Here, When You’re Alone.” Also, just as finding a superb short story by an unknown author might lead to a very rewarding relationship over the years, the bad ones eliminate any desires I might have had to explore that authors work. Perhaps unfairly, but, hey, only so much time, etc.
So if I look at the first half of 2010 with those eyes, it has been a great six months. Here are my favorites of the first half of 2010. I’ve even tried to rank them.
- Philip Meyer: “What You Do Out Here, When You’re Alone” — I didn’t write much about this short story when I typed up my thoughts on it, but that isn’t because I didn’t like it. As you can see, I think it’s the best of the years so far, and I’ve acquired his novel American Rust and can’t wait to see if it’s as great. Sadly, this is the one story in this list that is not available for free online.
- Allegra Goodman: “La Vita Nuova” — Strangely, I also didn’t write much about this story. But I did put at the end, “This is what we read this magazine for.” Hopefully that was enough to tempt some to read this great story. I haven’t rushed out to read her other works though.
- Nicole Krauss: “The Young Painters” — This is the last offering of this half of 2010, and I loved it. I thought the writing exquisite. I’ve heard from others that Krauss’s novels are superb in parts and other parts not quite. I’m curious about how I’d feel. From this story, I certainly am excited for her new book.
- Claire Keegan: “Foster” — “Foster” has been a favorite of commenters. In fact, the page devoted to “Foster” has had more hits than almost any other post on this blog — if you don’t count my Home Page, it is number five in all-time hits. It’s an incredibly well written piece, very subtle and touching.
- Jonathan Franzen: “Agreeable” — Despite the fact that I’ve really enjoyed everything I’ve read by Franzen, I can’t bring myself to read his novels. Something tells me I’m going to be disappointed, though I like him a lot in these small doses. However, this piece has convinced me to give up my baseless prejudice and read The Corrections — I’m just not sure when I’ll do that.
- Jennifer Egan: “Ask Me If I Care” — After not enjoying, particularly, “Safari,” Egan’s first offering in 2010, I was surprised to find myself really enjoying “Ask Me If I Care,” which forms a part of her newly released novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. I haven’t read that novel yet — haven’t got it yet — but I am intrigued.
- Jeffrey Eugenides: “Extreme Solitude” — I look forward to anything I can get my hands on by Jeffrey Eugenides. The Virgin Suicides made me a fan for life, so not even my disappointment in Middlesex could take that away. This is a great short story that is derived from his future book.
- Janet Frame: “Gavin Highly” — Some commenters didn’t like this story at all, but I couldn’t shake it. I thought it was written so well and that it’s implicit reflection on story telling was superb. The story telling, from the perspective of a six-year-old, completely covers up the horrors going on — well, almost covers up.
So if I stop griping about “The Pilot” and focus on these eight (and a few others) then I realize how much I’ve enjoyed this year’s fiction up to this point. In the next 11 weeks we’ll see the stories submitted by the remaining 20 Under 40 authors. Hopefully they’ll all be great. Some I’m particularly looking forward to are Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chris Adrian, Daniel Alarcón, Yiyun Li, and Karen Russell (though, really, I’m looking forward to them all).
When I started to read Tobias Wolff, I made it my goal to read everything available by this very neglected American author. Reading everything essentially meant two memoirs (This Boy’s Life, In Pharaoh’s Army), two novels (The Barracks Thief, Old School), and four collections of short stories (In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, Back in the World, The Night in Question, Our Story Begins). I’ve finished the memoirs and novels, and I’d rank all of them highly (though This Boy’s Life and Old School were far above the other two). I haven’t been sitting around since finishing those, either; I’ve gotten a good start on the four collections of short stories, particularly since his last collection, Our Story Begins (2008), as well as offering ten new stories, pulls together several of the short stories from the earlier three volumes. There’s still quite a bit to be read, though, because this collection leaves out more than it’s put in, including the majority of the first two collections.
Though Wolff’s novels and memoirs have been well received award-winners, many still consider him a short story writer. There is good reason for this: his short stories are masterpieces of the genre. Wolff has control over what he’s doing, and his first sentence immediately gets us in the narrative; he knows his characters well and knows how to present them with economical detail so we feel we know much more about them than what is actually revealed; along those same lines, he writes prose so simple, clear, and concise that in just a few pages he’s able to give his readers a complete and enriching experience. We barely realize we’ve been reading at all.
Here is a good example from his story “Next Door”; Wolff jumps right in to the story, which, though it begins with quite a bit of action, is a very reflective first-person introspection.
I wake up afraid. My wife is sitting on the edge of my bed, shaking me. “They’re at it again,” she says.
I go to the window. All their lights are on, upstairs and down, as if they have money to burn. He yells, she screams something back, the dog barks. There is a short silence, then the baby cries, poor thing.
“Better not stand there,” says my wife. “They might see you.”
I say, “I’m going to call the police,” knowing she won’t let me.
“Don’t,” she says.
She’s afraid they’ll poison our cat if we complain.
Next door the man is still yelling, but I can’t make out what he’s saying over the dog and the baby. The woman laughs, not really meaning it — “Ha! Ha! Ha!” — and suddenly gives a sharp little cry. Everything goes quiet.
As I said above, this story becomes much more about the person telling it than these lines suggest. And the whole story is only a few pages long. Wolff can quickly pull a reader in, give that reader full characters, scenes, and emotions, and deliver a pensive and satisfying ending.
Though many of Wolff’s stories deal with soldiers or with troubled youth, he is generally varied in presentation. I spread this collection out over months, and I never felt like I was reading the same story over and over again. I doubt it would have been much different had I read them all together in one sitting, so varied are they. In fact, the only thing that was familiar each time I sat down to read one was the comfort I’d feel immediately upon digesting the first few lines. One story is a stretched-time account of a bullet going through the brain; it is aptly called “Bullet Through the Brain.” There’s also a very strange story called “Mortals” about a journalist who has little to wake up for each morning.
There was more to it than that. Since I was still on the bottom rung in metro, I wrote a lot of obituaries. Some days they gave me a choice between that and marriage bulletins, but most of the time obits were all I did, one after another, morning to night. After four months of this duty I was full of the consciousness of death. It soured me. It puffed me up with morbid snobbery, the feeling that I knew a secret nobody else had even begun to suspect. It made me wearily philosophical about the value of faith and passion and hard work, at a time when my life required all of these. It got me down.
Things get worse for the narrator when the subject of one of his obituaries comes to the office to visit: evidently, the subject is not actually dead.
Wolff’s stories, though written in a crystal clear prose with a narrative stream that sweeps you up and doesn’t let you go, are not actually “simple.” There are many layers and metaphors, so they work well for second and third readings. On a first read, I didn’t pay much attention to the sentence where the narrator lists his disillusionment of “faith and passoin and hard work” when that is exactly what he needed. Also, I didn’t catch the underlying imagery of closing line of “Mortals” my first time through it, but it’s clearly meaningful in the context of life and death, though the narrator is not dying at that moment:
I slipped him a quarter, hoping he’d let me pass.
As for the ten new stories featured in this collection, I feel I could pick out any one and we could have a long discussion about it. But I’ll choose one, “Nightingale,” and stick to my theme of showing the beginning, just to show how well Wolff expeditiously lays out most elements of a multi-layered story. Here are the first few lines:
Dr. Booth took several wrong turns during the drive upstate. It vexed him to get lost like this in front of his son, especially since the fault lay with the lousy map the Academy had sent him, but Owen was in one of his trances and didn’t seem to notice.
The strained father/son relationship is clearly established here; at least we feel the disconnect. We’ll see in a bit that it’s worse than that. Later the tension is built as we learn that Dr. Booth is taking Owen to the Academy as a kind of cure (or punishment) for being so distant and, as he feels, so lazy:
Dr. Booth could well understand why Owen didn’t want to go to the Academy. He was comfortable at home. He had his foolish dog, his lazy friends, the big house with all its sunny corners for reading, or for staring at nothing and making funny noises, or whatever he did all day. When Dr. Booth went into the kitchen, there was Owen. In the living room, Owen again. The front yard, Owen; the backyard, the basement, the hammock — Owen!
Of course, the thought of going to the Academy combined with the knowledge that it is meant to be a remedy, only makes Owen more despondent and more unintelligible to Dr. Booth. But back to the first lines in that first paragraph where Wolff is also laying out an important theme in the story when he describes the wrong turns and the faulty map. These wrong turns and faulty maps tie into fatherhood nicely, but never explicitly. And that first paragraph continues, only getting more complex:
His eyes were fixed on the far distance and his lips formed whispery sounds in a cadence that suggested poetry or music. Dr. Booth knew better than to try and make sense of it, but he couldn’t stop himself. He thought he recognized one word — nightingale — and that awoke a memory of three children, himself and his older sisters, sitting in a garden at dusk while somewhere above them a bird sang. It was, he knew, a trick memory, a mirage; there had been no such garden and no such evening. Still, the thought of his sisters, one drowned in a boating accident courtesy of her dimwit husband, the other far away and silent for years, made him even gloomier than he already was.
The story suddenly opens up in a strange way when we get this “trick memory.” Figuring out how it all fits together, digging into this story to understand the characters’ motivations (to say nothing of witnessing the horrors at the Academy), is a great treat — and it is, again, a very short story.
For those interested in getting to know Wolff, I am certain that if you start with these stories you, like me, won’t stop until you’ve read everything he’s written. Our Story Begins is a treasure.
Late last year I read Cormac McCarthy’s third novel, Child of God; if it wasn’t the most disturbing book I’d ever read, it was sufficiently disturbing to make me forget whatever was. Now I’ve read his second novel, Outer Dark (1968). Though I’ve read what some consider to be among the most shocking and violent of books — McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, McCarthy’s The Road — I don’t believe they transgress boundaries of comfort as much as these early McCarthy books. Child of God and Outer Dark are shocking, not because they are more violent than the others — in fact, they aren’t — but because they describe taboos even in today’s liberal society. That is not, certainly, to say they are bad books. Both are exceptional — but this review is about Outer Dark.
The first chapter of Outer Dark is one of the best first chapters I think I’ve ever read. I can say that without worrying about inflating your expectations for the book as a whole because it’s safe to say that it doesn’t quite get as good again. In fact, the first chapter could stand completely alone. After one of McCarthy’s strange italicized paragraph introductions, during which we really don’t know what is going on or who is doing it, McCarthy takes us into the tattered home of Culla and Rinthy Holme. Rinthy is on the bed about to give birth. I’m going to stand aside and let McCarthy introduce the characters in his subtle yet clear way:
Three days after the tinker’s visit she had a spasm in her belly. She said: I got a pain.
Is it it? he said, standing suddenly from the bed where he had sat staring out through the one small glass at the unbroken pine forest.
I don’t know, she said. I reckon.
He swore softly to himself.
You goin to fetch her?
He looked at her and looked away again. No, he said.
She sat forward in the chair, watching across the room with eyes immense in her thin face. You said you’d fetch her when it come time.
I never, he said. I said Maybe.
Fetch her, she said. Now you fetch her.
I cain’t. She’d tell.
Who is they to tell?
You could give her a dollar. Couldn’t you give her a dollar not to tell and she’d not tell?
No. Asides she ain’t nothin but a old geechee nigger witch noway.
She’s been a midnight woman caught them babies lots of times. You said your own self she was a midnight woman used to catch them babies.
She said it. I never.
He could hear her crying. A low bubbling sound, her rocking back and forth. After a while she said: I got anothern. Ain’t you goin to fetch her?
It had begun to rain again. The sun went bleak and pallid toward the woods. He walked into the clearing and looked up at the colorless sky. He looked as if he might be going to say something. After a while he licked the beaded water from his lip and went in again.
I thinks it’s perfect. The precarious circumstances are alluded to only. The tension is built with little dialogue, but it’s exact. In those first few sentences we know that Culla has been avoiding the inevitable. Somehow he appears to have hoped this baby would never be born, that time would stop and not allow the consequences of his shame take flesh. We don’t know how it happened, but, whether consensual or not, Rinthy is carrying her brother Culla’s baby. Which is why Culla wills time to stop and why he won’t call anyone to help. He can’t stop time but he’s going to do what he can to keep this secret.
A baby boy is born. Culla knows that, just as he couldn’t avoid its birth, he can’t avoid the day when his incest is revealed by the presence of the child. So, while Rinthy naps exhausted on the bed, Culla takes the child out in a storm to find a secret place to abandon it. There’s an awful image when Culla lays the child down and it kicks off its blanket, feet peddling in the air.
The next scene, particularly the thumping way McCarthy writes it (or perhaps that was only my heart mixing with my reading), is a mightmare rush through the pine boughs. It is raining harder and harder, with lightning flashing all around, and Culla seems to be running in circles until he finally rushes into a glade.
When he crashed into the glade among the cottonwoods he fell headlong and lay there with his cheek to the earth. And as he lay there a far crack of lightning went bluely down the sky and bequeathed him in an embryonic bird’s first fissured vision of the world and transpiring instant and outrageous from dark to dark a final view of the grotto and the shapeless white plasm struggling upon the rich and incunabular moss like a lank swamp hare. He would have taken it for some boneless cognate of his heart’s dread had the child not cried.
It howled execration upon the dim camarine world of its nativity wail on wail while he lay there gibbering with palsied jawhasps, his hands putting back the night like some witless paraclete beleaguered with all limbo’s clamor.
Say what you will about McCarthy’s language and syntax, be it poetic, Biblical, or overblown (all of those in this case), I think it works well in this passage. The image of that child shouting at the storm is the powerful way McCarthy ends this first short chapter.
What remains after that powerful opener is something quite different. The book becomes a road fable, reminding me at times of The Odyssey. After Rinthy discovers that Culla lied about the natural death of their child, Culla leaves to find work and Rinthy leaves to find the child. As they wander they run into a host of individuals, some very good, some bad, and three particularly evil. Throughout the novel, beginning with that strange itallicized introduction, we see these three malicious men have their way with the region in which Culla and Rinthy wander. So, as I’ve found to be the case with most of McCarthy’s work, McCarthy is exploring the boundaries of what is ugly in this world.
He does this with some of his key techniques. As is the case in most of his books, there is an element of play in the evil. In No Country for Old Men, for example, we have Chigurh’s conversation with the store clerk, asking him to call a coin toss. Chigurh never says, “Call this coin incorrectly and I’ll kill you.” The surface is innocuous: “Call it.” But that’s a very thin surface, and the malice is made worse when there is play and spurious innocence. It also creates that wonderful readers’ stress where we don’t want to read on because, this being McCarthy, we know it could end badly even for our favorite charater; but we also don’t want to stop because it’s just awful to leave that character in that situation. We must read on to get the character out of it, even if it means death because at least then the terrible moment is over. Here is what we encounter in Outer Dark:
He removed his hands from his pockets, locked his fingers and pushed them out before him until the knuckles cracked, raised them over his head and gripped the back of his neck with them. Kindly a pretty evenin, ain’t it? he said.
She looked up at a sky heavy and starless above them and laden with the false warmth of impending storm. It’s right dark, she said.
Now it is that, he said. Yes. It is a dark’n. He was looking all about him as if to see was it darker in some places than in others. You ain’t afeared of the dark are ye?
No, she said. I don’t reckon.
Shoot, he said. I bet you’re afeard of the dark. I bet you won’t blow out that there lamp. And me standin right here.
She watched him.
If you was to get scared I’d be right here. Bet ye.
Besides the play, there’s also that element of chance. “Bet ye.” “Call it.” So much of the ugliness is encountered by mere chance, and there’s a lot of it:
I’ll work it out, she said. I can work if I ain’t never had nothing.
Nor never will.
Times is hard.
Hard people makes hard times. I’ve seen the meanness of humans till I don’t know why God ain’t put out the sun and gone away.
For the most part, this book comes close to maintaining the high energy of that first chapter, and I found it was almost as compelling to read as McCarthy’s other fast-paced novels Child of God, No Country for Old Men, and The Road. At other the pace slackened and it became, in its meandering, a little boring. This went on for only a few pages at a time, and perhaps they were great pages, but I was always wanting the next scene. The stakes felt so high that I didn’t want to stop for long. So, maybe it’s because I just wanted to move on, but the stop-and-go pace of the novel didn’t work for me. I didn’t feel that the slower parts were necessary. We get enough food for thought and beauty of language in small doses like this:
Late in the day the road brought him into a swamp. And that was all. Before him stretched a spectral waste out of which reared only the naked trees in attitudes of agony and dimly hominoid like figures in a landscape of the damned. A faintly smoking garden of the dead that tended away to the earth’s curve. He tried his foot in the mire before him and it rose in a vulvate welt claggy and sucking. He stepped back. A stale wind blew from this desolation and the marsh reeds and black ferns among which he stood clashed softly like things chained. He wondered why a road should come to such a place.
Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin is the winner of this year’s IMPAC. I think it is very worthy! Click here for my review.
Bakker is not playing with body doubles here. He is not even, not really, playing with redemption of any kind. These are damaged, tired people. As painful as it is, it’s a wonderous experience to dwell with them for a time.
After finding that John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing “deserves to be sitting on the shelf with the great books of American literature, even those that speak with the authority of the American conscience,” I couldn’t wait to read more of his work. Sadly, his output is sparse, but it is so varied and alive that it is more substantial than the output of many more prolific authors. Butcher’s Crossing takes place on a buffalo hunt in the American west of the late-nineteenth century; Stoner (which I just can’t bear to read yet) takes place in an American university in the mid-twentieth century. For Augustus (1972; National Book Award), Williams takes us back to year 0, at the very beginning of the Roman empire — though I think he’s still writing, somewhat, about America.
The Augustus of the title is the original Caesar Augustus, the Revered One, the first emperor of Rome, née Octavius. Though I’m a big fan of classical history, I have to say that when I step away from whatever I’m studying much of it becomes a blur. I get the Roman emperors mixed up sometimes, and can never quite remember what is fact and what is fiction about them. When we recite their names, one after the other, so much of went on is completely lost, or is summarized in a few words. Not all historical novels work (and they are often the very reason I don’t know what is fact and what is fiction); but some of them do a wonderful job creating a texture for a time period, something to give a bit of contour and context to those summaries of dry facts we often encounter in school. And though they by necessity invent, the best seem to produce what Williams calls the “truths of fiction,” giving us great insight into these historical individuals as well as into their time that remains clear long after we’ve put the book down.
Last year I read and really enjoyed Annabel Lyon’s Giller-prize finalist The Golden Mean, a fictional account of the early years of Alexander the Great, written in the first-person voice of none other than Aristotle. I loved the texture Lyon accomplished when she wrote about the time and the place, but something else was missing, something in the characters themselves didn’t ring quite true — or, rather, something in the characters themselves was missing. In some regards, the characters still retained the single dimension we often find in historical summaries despite the first-person narrator. I did not find that to be the case at all with John Williams’ Augustus. This is a mighty work of art, fully fleshed.
In creating this master-work of historical fiction — this master-work of fiction – this master-piece of writing – Williams has chosen to present Augustus in a series of letters and journals from several of the main characters of the time: Julius Caesar, Marcus Agrippa, Maecenas, Cicero, Brutus, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Strabo, Nicolaus of Damascus, Horace, Ovid, Vergil, Augustus’s daughter Julia, whom he loved and had exiled. The list goes on, but it never feels like an attempt to bring the whole historical population into a book; though incredibly ambitious, it never feels overly ambitious. Each character lends his or herself to the narrative purpose of bringing to life Augustus Caesar, who came to power in a Rome “where no man knows his enemy or his friend, where license is more admired than virtue, and where principle has become servant to self.”
When the book begins, Augustus is hardly Augustus. He is Octavius, and not even Octavius Caesar yet. At age seventeen or eighteen, he has accompanied his uncle Julius Caesar on one of Caesar’s campaigns, but by all accounts the young Octavius was fairly weak and sickly and not that commanding of a presence. Caesar has no issue, and after this time with his nephew he has for no ascertainable reason chosen Octavius as his adopted son and his chosen heir. In the opening words of the book, Julius Caesar commands his niece Atia, the mother of Octavius:
Send the boy to Apollonia.
I begin abruptly, my dear niece, so that you will at once be disarmed, and so that whatever resistance you might raise will be too quick and flimsy for the force of my persuasion.
This is a good time to note that not only is Williams attempting to bring to life historical characters through their writing, but that these characters happen to be some of the greatest rhetoricians of all time. Consequently, within the letters there is a complicated authorial awareness to the rhetorical arts — but, and this is such a feat (a feat extremely rare in today’s showy literary culture), we never see Williams himself in the authorship of these letters: we feel the mind of the characters themselves behind the letters we read. Caesar, in his brief time on the page, is demanding, somewhat arrogant, and very intimidating. We know he is going to his death soon, but he is full of vitality. Here’s how he begins to wrap up his letter to Attia:
You will observe, my dear Atia, that at the beginning of this letter your uncle made it appear that you had a choice about the future of your son. Now Caesar makes it clear that you do not.
Behind their words, we read the characters’ ambitions and can discern the shape of their character. And as their audience changes, we see their rhetoric change. We get a new perspective on their ethos, and sometimes, when the audience is made of an intimate friend or even, in the case of journals or even notes for journals, themselves, we capture their fears and doubts. Here, for example, we have Julius Caesar writing to his chosen heir, the young Octavius:
How long have we been living the Roman lie? Ever since I can remember, certainly; perhaps for many years before. And from what source does that lie suck its energy, so that it grows stronger than the truth? We have seen murder, theft, and pillage in the name of the Republic — and call it the necessary price we pay for freedom. Cicero deplores the depraved Roman morality that worships wealth — and, himself a millionaire many times over, travels with a hundred slaves from one of his villas to another. A consul speaks of peace and tranquility — and raises armies that will murder the colleague whose power threatens his self-interest. The Senate speaks of freedom — and thrusts upon me powers that I do not want but must accept and use if Rome is to endure. Is there no end to the lie?
It is in this back and forth from public to private back to public character that this wonderful mode of writing succeeds in revealing and, thus, bringing to life these characters.
The characters are also brought to life as we see them struggle to remember what they write about. Williams structures this book in three parts, and within each part we have some characters writing contemporaneously to the events they are describing while others are writing thirty or forty years afterwards, when even to them the events seem like a dream from another life. There’s a realistic dreaminess, for example, when an elder Maecenas begins a letter to the biographer Livy with the news of the death of Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, a co-leader for a time with Augustus (who was still not yet Augustus) and Mark Antony but who, like Mark Antony, sought to push the young Augustus out.
He was our enemy — yet after so long, the death of an old enemy is curiously like the death of an old friend.
Most of the characters are deeply conflicted about the events they describe. It was a strange time, one with motives so conflicted and so complex they inspired a few plays from Shakespeare. I would say that Williams is a worthy successor to Shakespeare in casting these historical souls in tangible flesh: complexities are made understandable; within the seemingly simple is revealed the complex; and there is a longing that is so human it makes the reader ache for these long-dead.
It is only in the rather brief last part that we get to read the words of Augustus Caesar himself, and in these pages, though most of the action has long past as the now seventy-seven year-old leader is drifting on a boat awaiting his death, Williams gives some of his most sensitive prose.
For sometimes in my sleep there parade before me the tens of thousands of bodies that will not walk again upon the earth, men no less innocent than those ancient victims whose deaths propitiated an earlier god; and it seems to me then, in the obscurity or clarity of the dream, that I am that priest who has emerged from the dark past of our race to speak the rite that causes the knife to fall. We tell ourselves that we have become a civilized race, and with a pious horror we speak of those times when a god of the crops demanded the body of a human being for his obscure function. But is not the god that so many Romans have served, in our memory and even in our time, as dark and fearsome as that ancient one? Even if to destroy him, I have been been his priest; and even if to weaken his power, I have done his bidding. Yet I have not destroyed him, or weakened his power. He sleeps restlessly in the hearts of men, waiting to rouse himself or to be aroused. Between the brutality that would sacrifice a single innocent life to a fear without a name, and the enlightenment that would sacrifice thousands of lives to a few that we have named, I have found little to choose.
It is no spoiler, and it certainly showcases Williams sense of history and irony, to end this review with the final paragraph of the novel. In a letter written nearly twenty years after Augustus’s death, the physician who travelled with him on his final journey expresses his admiration of the first emperor and his hopes for the new Emperor. This letter is to the ill-fated Seneca:
Yet the Empire of Rome that he created has endured the harshness of a Tiberius, the monstrous cruelty of a Caligula, and the ineptness of a Claudius. And now our new Emperor is one whom you tutored as a boy, and to whom you remain close in his new authority; let us be thankful for the fact that he will rule in the light of your wisdom and virtue, and let us pray to the gods that, under Nero, Rome will at last fulfill the dream of Octavius Caesar.
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: Chris Adrian’s short story “A Tiny Feast,” about Oberon and Titania stealing a human child to raise as their own but who ended up having leukemia, was one of the highlights of my reading last year. It was unique and very emotional and plain old well-written. It might sound “too clever” but it is written in such a way that you forget it’s a fantasy: the fantastic elements seem normal, the ordinary elements are made extraordinary. I was happy to see Adrian on The New Yorker‘s list of “20 Under 40″ (being born in 1970, he just made the cut). I went back to see what his first piece published in The New Yorker was. Published on October 6, 1997, it is “Every Night for a Thousand Years: A story of the Civil War.” Incredibly talented at age 27, Chris Adrian shows here that he isn’t all quirk and that he has known how to make his story softly emotional for a while.
Click for a larger image.
When the story opens, I thought it might be quirky and somewhat surreal, despite the fact that we learn up front that the main characer is just dreaming:
He dreamed his brother’s death at Fredericksburg. General Burnside appeared as an angel at the foot of his bed to announce the tragedy: “The Amry regrets to inform you that your brother George Washington Whitman was shot in the head by a lewd fellow from Charleston.” The General alit on the bedpost and drew his dark wings close about him, as if to console himself.
When the forty-ish Walt Whitman woke up (already the author of Leaves of Grass), he was so upset that he set off for Washington to search for his brother in the hospitals. As it turns out, his brother is well:
A piece of shell pierced his wispy beard and scraped a tooth. He spit blood and hot metal into his hand, put the shrapnel in his pocket, and later showed it to his worried brother, who burst into tears and clutched him in a bear hug when they were reunited in Captain Francis’s tent, where George sat with his feet propped on a trunk and a cigar stuck in his bandaged face.
But rather than return home, Whitman stayed in Washington and began helping out at the hospitals. All of this is based on truth. Upon seeing the name “G.W. Whitmore” listed as dead or wounded in the New York Tribune, Whitman feared it was actually his brother and went searching for him. Whitman really did end up sticking around to help out.
As did “A Tiny Feast,” “Every Night for a Thousand Years” deals with a child facing death while the adults are powerless to put a stop to it and must simply show love. Here we and Walt Whitman meet Henry “Hank” Smith, a wounded boy travelling as part of a transport Whitman is taking back to Washington.
With every jolt and shake of the train a chorus of horrible groans wafted through the cars. He thought it would drive him insane. What saved him was the singing of a boy with a leg wound. The whole trip he sang in a rough voice indicative of tone-deafness. His name was Henry Smith. He’d come all the way from divided Missouri, and said he had a gaggle of cousins fighting under General Beauregard. He sang “Oh! Susana” over and over again, and no one told him to be quiet.
Hank still has his leg only because he pointed his daddy’s pistol at the doctor about to cut it off. His leg has been getting better at the hospital, but his fever keeps coming back.
This is a beautiful story, full of peaceful but lonely moments, like when Whitman wanders around Washington at night, going up and down the Mall, finding that he’s again at the foot of the Capitol, passing the President’s house where “[o]nce he saw a figure in a long, trailing black crêpe veil move, lamp in hand, past a series of windows, and he imagined it must be Mrs. Lincoln, searching forlornly for her little boy, who had died two winters ago.” Whitman has dreams of California and comforts Hank with myths of that state.
Again, this is a beautiful story. I have read only two pieces by Chris Adrian, and they have both been so strong, so well crafted in the way that you just can’t tell there’s a craft, so devestating and yet it’s that kind of devestation that makes you stop and look around in reverence. Which brings to mind the apparent source of the title, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous quote:
If the Stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smiles.
That glimpse at beauty that we take for granted, that beauty which if it came just once every thousand years would instill in us such a reverence for it — that is just what I’d say Adrian has captured here.
It’s obviously time for me to read more.
Yesterday Barbara Kingsolver won the Orange Prize for The Lacuna. When I heard I was mostly ho-hum, so I didn’t rush to post this notice. I know several people like The Lacuna, but in no review have I been able to grab on to something that suggests I might like it too (though I thought Kingsolver did an excellent job with The Poisonwood Bible). People who haven’t enjoyed the book, however: their qualms are the same qualms I would have, and they have pretty much assured me that I wouldn’t like it. They say it is formally ambitious but fails to deliver because the cobbled pieces of media are unconvincing and don’t feel genuine. The writing is flowery and more an attempt to show-off than move the narrative. It consistently tells you the story rather than let you live it. That may lead into the real reason I am sure I wouldn’t like it: they say Kingsolver is editorializing, that The Lacuna is a polemic. I am unpersuaded, so far, by the occasional reviewer who says that the human story rises above the polemic, and I’m just not interested in another novel that tries to tie together so many notable events and people in history (Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky, HUAC, Nixon) in order to drive home a point about modern society. I liked The Poisonwood Bible — quite a bit, actually – but it had its faults; from what I’ve heard The Lacuna keeps the faults, builds them up, and loses the rest.
That is all just my impressions from the reviews I’ve read. The reviews have left such a strong impression upon me that I don’t think I could force my way into this one.
I have been acquiring more and more books of poetry in the last year. When I was an undergrad, I read new poetry frequently and with a lot of joy. Why is it that that is such a popular age for people to get into poetry? Or is that just my impression? Anyway, when I moved on, I moved away from poetry. This was not by design. I think I just stopped buying them and then felt I didn’t know what was going on any more. Now, sadly, I feel I don’t know what to say when I encounter poetry, but there are quite a few recently published books of poetry that I think deserve attention. Since I’m still trying to figure out how to approach Anne Carson’s Nox, let me give poetry a shot with this recent collection of Edward Hirsch’s poetry The Living Fire (2010) — indeed, this is Hirsch’s first selected collection, and I think it will be an American poetry essential.
Review copy courtesy of Knopf.
Though I drifted away from poetry, Edward Hirsch has been writing it for long enough that I already knew his work. Also, as a prolific writer not just of poetry but also about poetry — for The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New York Review of Books, and most frequently (that is, weekly — but, alas, no longer) The Washington Post Book World — he is well known (relatively) by many who do not read poetry. I believe Hirsch’s ability to write broadly to a general audience finds its way into his poetry, which I find very approachable, though not simple.
This compilation pulls out selected poems from all of Hirsch’s past books, for better or for worse. On the one hand, these compilations detach poems from their original arc, if there was one, and makes them sit in unfamiliar company. On the other hand, such a compilation is great for those of us who probably wouldn’t go back and purchase all of Hirsch’s poetry from the last thirty-five years. This gives us some taste, and hopefully allows his poetry to be appreciated across a broader range of readers. Were it not for this book, and for Knopf’s review copy, I would probably never have gotten Hirsch’s poems in their original collections anyway, reading them instead one here and one there, all alone.
The Living Fire begins with thirteen new poems. I like the first poem in the book, “The Beginning of Poetry”:
Railroad tracks split the campus in half
and at night you’d like on your narrow cot
and listen to the lonely whistle
of a train crossing the prairie in the dark.
It’s a highly readable poem, one which evokes quite a bit in me. I’ve spoken of my undergrad years above. Well, for three of those years I lived in a small, second-story flat that sat about 15 feet from the train tracks. I loved hearing the train coming from far away, and it shook whole building when it went by. I wrote quite a bit about that train and those tracks. Little did I know just how common such behavior is!
I think one of Hirsch’s strengths is linking a mood or a yearning with a place or a very simple action. The next new poem is “On the Anniversary of Joseph Brodsky’s Death.” It opens with the “briny cold” of Archangelsk, a city in Northern Russia. He speaks of the “Arctic chill of the moon at midday” when “the sun shivered behind the smokestacks / Like a soldier frozen in place.” After this chilly opening, where one can practically taste the salt while shivering — all of which fits with my own preconception of such a northern city — Hirsch briefly speaks of Brodsky’s subjects in language that calls to mind the Cold War exile Brodsky suffered.
I’m not a fan, however, of all of the new poems in this collection. There’s one poem in particular that shows Hirsch’s genius and some of his weaknesses, which, if they are there at all, tend to be the result of some experimentation that didn’t quite land. The poem I have in mind is the linguistically playful thirty-part haiku cycle “Dark Tour.” Each part, except for two, is titled after some European city. The haiku themselves take their content from and play with the city’s name and form while they give a necessarily brief image of the city itself and (it’s incredible how he does this in just seventeen syllables) his own time in the city with a lover. The poem begins and ends with the city which is not located in Europe: “Concord.”
A discordant day
in the library leafing
through an old atlas.
The final haiku, also ”Concord,” follows this haiku:
Chords of music, chords
of light in the salt castle.
I think that all works very nicely, and there are some wonderfully playful and startling haiku in the cycle. But then there are the ones that didn’t quite work for me due to the force sometimes required to make the individual haiku come together:
No sight of Buddha
but a history of pest-
ilence and beauty.
And this one:
Mad at each other
in a romantic city.
Love got rid of us.
It’s not terrible, surely, but I think “Love got rid of us” is a stretch, a bit too obvious in its derivation from “Madrid,” and while it makes sense I don’t think it’s meaningful or poetic. Especially in relation to the other haiku, I found it a rather clumsy metrical phrase that throws off the rhythm. That may have been the point — the throwing off of the otherwise lovely rhythm; it just doesn’t feel good to me. Fortunately, the thirty-part cycle is mostly filled with pleasure, including this one which feels like it could have been written by Bash¯o:
Two things startled me:
the mountains over the lake,
your body at dawn.
By the way, this is a bit off the subject of Hirsch, but I would like to say that one of my favorite books of poetry is the $3 Dover Thrift edition of Classic Haiku. I immersed myself in that book, and this cycle, while not all to my taste, reminded me of the pleasures in this highly formal poetry.
Back to Hirsch; back to The Living Fire. Once we get past the new poetry, which is for the most part a pleasure, we go back to For the Sleepwalkers, Hirsch’s debut collection published in 1981. There we find the line “The weak survive!” in “Song Against Natural Selection,” which wraps up with the terrible beauty in which
losing itself becomes a kind
of song, our song, our only witness
to the way we die, one day at a time;
a leg severed, a word buried; this
is how we recognize ourselves, and why.
I think this is a good time to bring up another thought on Hirsch, just how well he meshes the melancholy with the sublime. Many of his poems are filled with some kind of mourning that is cast as a type of praising or joy. It can all go to that first poem in the collection where one almost basks in the loneliness of that lonely train crossing the prairie. To me, it’s like reading an Edward Hopper painting. (Full disclosure, I may have thought of that connection only because one of the poems in this collection is “Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad (1925)” — there’s that house on the railroad). To be able to put that into words is a kind of joyful fulfillment. I found, also, that being able to read that is a joyful fulfillment.
We have to drink the stupefying cup of darkness
and wake up to ourselves, nourished and surprised.
Now, I found this collection to be wonderful, just the kind of book of poetry I wanted. But I had the immense pleasure of reading a free copy. This book, as a hardcover, is priced at $27; that’s more than most new novels. Rest assured that this collection is also better than most new novels. In fact, it often left me feeling similar to how I felt when I was reading William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, one of my favorite books, though I can’t even say what that feeling is — some loneliness that feels like bliss, or something. It might be hard for those of us who already spend a lot of money and a lot of time in our attempts to read read read all the wonderful novels out there, but this book is worth the price.
Though Robinson has written only three novels, she is considered by many to be among the top American writers. I agree. My own experience with her three novels has deepened my thoughts and solidified my admiration for her. To me, Gilead is one of the best American novels of all time. It speaks of America’s young past in language that reminds one of the very past it is speaking of. It is crisp and clear yet intricate and syntactically complex. When reading it, we hear not just the Bible but also Melville, Emerson and Theroux. Because Gilead was so perfect to me, I have put off for a long time reading Robinson’s follow-up Home (2008).
It isn’t just because Home was Robinson’s next book that made me wary. It is because Home is a sort of retelling of the events we read about in Gilead. Gilead was a first-person letter/journal written by the Reverend John Ames, the leader of the Congregationalist flock in Gilead, Iowa. Ames is seventy-seven years old, but in his old age he has borne a son with a much younger wife. He knows he won’t be with them for most of their lives. Gilead is Ames’s extended letter to his young son, written over a period of several months so it almost becomes a type of journal in which, while attempting to convey wisdom to his young son, Ames explores himself, eventually coming to a major thorn in his side. During those months, Jack Boughton returns home to Gilead after being absent for twenty years. Jack, whose real name is John Ames Boughton, is the son of Ames’s best friend, the Presbyterian minister, Old Robert Boughton. Jack was an unending source of pain to both Old Boughton and Ames; indeed, he was a source of pain to everyone involved, his siblings not excepted.
Sometimes they made their father promise not to tell anyone, by which he knew they meant Reverend Ames, since he was far too discreet to repeat any confidence, except in the confessional of Ames’s stark bachelor kitchen, where, they suspected, such considerations were forgotten. And what was their father not to tell? How they informed on Jack, telling him what Jack had said, what Jack had done or seemed inclined to do.
“I have to know,” their father said. “For his sake.” So they told on their poor scoundrel brother, who knew it, and was irritated or darkly amused, and who kept them informed or misinformed and inspired urgent suspicions among them which they felt they had to pass on, whatever their misgivings, to spare their father having to deal with the sheriff again.
Jack eventually left Gilead after impregnating a young girl, only now to return inexplicably. The last parts in Gilead – after Ames has expressed such deep love of the individual, particularly of his young son, who, he says, he will love unconditionally – show Ames struggling to tolerate the very presence of Jack, let alone to forgive him and love him.
Home takes us to those same months but in the Boughton homestead instead of Ames’s study. Unlike Gilead, Home is a third-person narrative, closely tracking the mind and actions of Glory Boughton, Old Boughton’s youngest daughter. At the beginning of the book she has returned home after her own painful disillusionment — her fiancé of several years is actually a married man. She feels she should have known, if she had wanted to. Now, feeling like she’s regressed to being a child again, Glory takes care of her father as he slowly but surely creeps closer to senility and to the grave. “At this time she could decide nothing about her life. She did not want to think about her life.” Their quiet reverence is disrupted when Old Boughton gets a letter from Jack saying he’s coming home, after twenty years of almost no contact. Old Boughton gets a burst of nervous energy. He thanks God for this blessing and cannot wait to see his lost son. Glory realizes that she was just a young girl when Jack left Gilead; she hardly knows him, though as a young child she always wanted his affection. When Jack comes home, it is uncertain whether he has changed or not. It is also uncertain why he has returned home, though we get the sense that his return was the result of pain and loss, as Glory’s was.
As I read the first one hundred pages or so, I couldn’t let go of the fact that I was not reading Gilead, that Home didn’t match Gilead for its linguistic purity. Also, I loved reading John Ames’s elusively simple writing. The third person narrator doesn’t allow for that same intimacy. I was becoming sadly resigned to the fact that Home, while obviously excellent, would be a disappointment.
But some transformation occurred near the halfway point. Everything in the first 150 pages became deep and Robinson’s layered story took on a life of its own. I looked forward to seeing John Ames, but I didn’t need him in order for me to experience the bubbling life going on under the words. Despite the joy Old Boughton feels at his son’s return home, this is not a simple retelling of the Prodigal Son. Old Boughton can’t help but bring up old grievances. He seems to have forgiven his son, but he can’t help but be amazed at all he’s been through because of Jack.
“And then you really were gone, weren’t you. Twenty years, Jack!”
Jack drew a deep breath and said nothing.
“And why am I talking to you about this? But it was always a mystery to me. Be strict! People would say to me. Lay down the law! Do it for his sake! But I always felt it was sadness I was dealing with, a sort of heavy heartedness. In a child! And how could you be angry at that? I should have known how to help you with it.”
In many aspects Home has a polite, respectful surface. The characters have been brought up to be controlled and to worry more about others’ feelings than their own despair. Or, as we see above, at least cast their grievances as personal failings or incomprehensible aspects of human nature. But the dialogue is taut with distrust, or with moments meant to be light but that remind everyone of the past:
Teddy went to his brother and took Jack’s hand in both his hands and held it. “So it’s true. You’re really here. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve hardly been able to believe it.”
Jack laughed. “I could show you the wound in my side if you like.” Then, “Sorry.” And his head fell, and it was real regret. He was so tired of being himself.
The last half of the book is exceptional. Old Boughton becomes increasingly tyrannical, unrelentingly reminding Jack of just how hard he makes everyone’s lives. Sure, the dying man apologizes, almost immediately, but the intensity behind each attack builds until there are few moments of peace.
“Yes, well, maybe it’s a joke, I don’t know. Last night was about as bad a night as I have passed on this earth. And I kept thinking to myself, asking the Lord, Why do I have to care so much? It seemed like a curse and an affliction to me. To love my own son. How could that be? I have wondered about it many times.”
Beneath this story of human relationships is also a deeply touching, troubling look at human relationships to place, particularly home. I was awed by Robinson’s ability to maintain such a delicate balance between several interrelated elements, and always in that delicate language. The following lengthy passage comes late in the book after a particularly sad night.
And here is the world, she thought, just as we left it. A hot white sky and a soft wind, a murmur among the trees, the treble rasp of a few cicadas. There were acorns in the road, some of them broken by passing cars. Chrysanthemums were coming into bloom. Yellowing squash vines swamped the vegetable gardens and tomato plants hung from their stakes, depleted with bearing. Another summer in Gilead. Gilead, dreaming out its curse of sameness, somnolence. How could anyone want to live here? That was the quesiton they asked one another, out of their father’s hearing, when they came back from college, or from the world. Why would anyone stay here?
In college all of them had studied the putative effects of deracination, which were angst and anomie, those dull horrors of the modern world. They had been examined on the subject, had rehearsed bleak and portentous philosophies in term papers, and they had done it with the earnest suspension of doubt that afflicts the highly educable. And then their return to the pays natal, where the same old willows swept the same ragged lawns, where the same old prairie arose and bloomed as negligence permitted. Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile? Oh, to be passing anonymously through an impersonal landscape! Oh, not to know every stump and stone, not to remember the fields of Queen Anne’s lace figured in the childish happiness they had offered to their father’s hopes, God bless him.
This took me back to the magical work of Willa Cather, and not just because of the repeated “Oh!”
I believe Gilead is still the better book, still the one people should read. But Home is the worthy successor. I highly recommend reading it second — I’m not sure I believe those who say you can read them in either order. I think the perspective gained in Gilead, the voice of John Ames, is important to the structure of Home. But, Home – this is a magical literary connection to America’s own past, her own home. Perhaps it’s not a home we want to go back to, but I think many of us feel that sense of angst and anomie.