One of my favorite books, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer (my review here), was reported by Abebooks as one of the top ten forgotten Pulitzer Prize winning novels. Most of the books on the list were published between fifty and sixty years ago, but Martin Dressler was published only in 1997. Perhaps this is not a surprise to Millhauser who once told an interviewer, “I don’t anticipate the Pulitzer will change my life at all. I dare it to change my life!” Yet for decades Millhauser has been producing solid work, particularly in the short story form. I’ve been putting it off for a long time, certain that I would love the book, but I’ve finally read Millhauser’s also-neglected classic Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright (1972).
Let me start out by saying that this is quite the strange book — in a beautiful way — this biography by the young Jeffrey Cartwright about his young friend who died the moment he turned 11. It begins with a brief introductory note by someone named Walter Logan Wright, who first met Jeffrey Cartwright in the sixth grade. Apparently Jeffrey, at that time, was nothing special and had almost slipped from Wright’s memory when, ten years after their brief acquaintance, he came across this book. Wright’s introduction serves to blur the spotlight a bit. The biography, after all, is about Edwin Mullhouse, a young literary genius (according to Jeffrey) who wrote in the short time before his death, Cartoons. Yet Wright is more interested in the author of the biography, who, still young, has disappeared.
Meanwhile the search for Jeffrey Cartwright continues. I, for one, hope they never find him. Edwin’s novel, some will recall, was discovered in 1969 by the daughter of Professor Charles William Thorndike of Harvard: in a children’s library, of all places! . . . Professor Thorndike has called it “a work of undoubted genius,” and he is not a man given to hyperbole. I myself have sternly resisted the temptation to read Cartoons, knowing full well that the real book, however much a work of genius, can no more match the shape of my expectations that the real Jeffrey could, should he ever materialize. I shall probably succumb, one sad day. Meanwhile Edwin’s genius lives undimmed for me in the shining pages that follow. One can only regret that his work has proved less popular than his life.
There is a common complaint about this book: the prose is unbelievable; no child could ever write how Jeffrey Cartwright writes. As an example of this, here is how Jeffrey Cartwright describes Edwin’s Cartoons when he discusses it late in the biography (novel):
If, then, our first reaction upon plunging into Cartoons is that we have entered an unreal world, blissful or boring (as the case may be), gradually we come to feel that we are experiencing nothing less than the real world itself, a world that has been lost to us through habit and inattention, and that we are hereby being taught to repossess.
It’s true: that is not prose typical to a pre-adolescent. Perhaps it is not even possible for a pre-adolescent. That sentence becomes, then, a kind of gloss on Edwin Mullhouse the novel. Somehow Millhauser has managed to create an unbelievable character in Jeffrey Cartwright, who is unbelievably perceptive and sophisticated. Jeffrey Cartwright has managed to write a biography that, due to his age and experience, is unreal but, somehow because of this, feels very much like the real world, the real mind, however typically inarticulate, of these young struggling boys. It’s incredible.
Edwin Mullhouse is divided into three parts: “The Early Years: Aug. 1, 1943 – Aug. 1, 1949″; “The Middle Years: Aug. 2, 1949 – Aug. 1, 1952″; and ”The Late Years: Aug. 2, 1952 – Aug. 1, 1954.” We learn at the beginning, “Edwin Abraham Mullhouse, whose tragic death at 1:06 a.m. on August 1, 1954, deprived America of her most gifted writer, was born at 1:06 a.m. on August 1, 1943, in the shady town of Newfield, Connecticut.” Jeffrey Cartwright is Edwin’s neighbor, only six months (and three days) older. Yet Jeffrey’s memories of Edwin go all the way back to his birth (another bit of the unbelievable). Since Edwin’s birth, they were almost always together, and it seems Jeffrey treated Edwin as a subject even back then, analyzing his verbal development (“Adult speech, Edwin used to say, is ridiculously exclusive.”).
The Early Years is full of interesting looks at Edwin’s personality and perceptions. He doesn’t, in my opinion, sound that interesting on the outside. I doubt he’d be much fun, in other words. Yet Jeffrey Cartwright brings Edwin’s inner self to the surface with insights like this: “It is as if he assumed an earnestness in everyone in the world except himself — as assumption that revealed at once a deep self-disparagement and a subtle contempt for the imagination of his fellowman.” This is all part of Jeffrey’s goal, “for it is the purpose of this history to trace not the mere outlines of a life but the inner plan, not the external markings but the secret soul.” With that comes some of the secret tragedy of youth, which is nearly incommunicable to adults. Edwin’s mother, in particular, frets constantly because she simply cannot understand her son; here is one of her more innocent misunderstandings: “For the rest of her son’s brief life she would be plagued by his love of silence, never understanding that it was intimately related to his love of sound.”
As the book develops, the difference between Edwin and Jeffrey becomes more and more apparent. Here is an exquisitely written account of a “genius” who doesn’t seem like a genius much of the time. Rather, Jeffrey comes off as the genius. Jeffrey addresses this:
I wonder if I have sufficiently emphasized a major theme of this biography. I refer to Edwin’s naturalness, his distinct lack of what is usually called genius. He did not begin to speak at two months, or read at two years, or write brilliant stories at the age of three — or four, or five, or six, for the very good reason that he could not write anything but his name until the first grade. Nor was he lovably slow or backward in any way, with his talent standing against his stupidity like an emblematic lightning flash against a black thunderhead. No, he was only a normal healthy intelligent American child of the middle of the twentieth century, fascinated by toys and snow. Oh, he had what may have been an unusually strong attraction for books and words — an attraction amplified, perhaps, by the literary bias of this biography — but my own attraction was equally strong.
Of course, Edwin eventually writes Cartoons (and Jeffrey gives a nice summary), but for the most part he is a typical child, perhaps a bit more withdrawn. But one this that is special about Edwin is his youth, something Millhauser honors frequently in other works.
The important thing to remember is that everyone resembles Edwin; his gift was simply the stubbornness of his fancy, his unwillingness to give anything up. In the Late Years, when most of his contemporaries were already being watered down by a dreary round of dull responsibilities and duller pleasures, he alone refused to be diluted, he alone continued to play. Of course therewas the little matter of genius. But that is the point precisely. For what is genius, I ask you, but the capacity to be obsessed? Every normal child has that capacity; we have all been geniuses, you and I; but sooner or later it is beaten out of us, the glory fades, and by the age of seven most of us are nothing but wretched little adults.
But for Millhauser youth is rarely carefree. There’s haunting unrequited love worthy of Edgar Allen Poe when Edwin yearns for, and accepts the punishment from, Rose Dorn. Further, this book is full of death. We know from the title that Edwin will die, but he is not the only child who will die. Jeffrey himself has a darkness. Jealous of Edwin’s relationship with Rose Dorn (after all, it is distracting Edwin from his work), Jeffrey uses his more natural social skills to make sure that the other girls in the class will love him and not Edwin; and if he says he loves them all, how can Edwin show any interest.
And these girls are rather haunting themselves. One, named (coincidentally) Rose Black, is reclusive. Jeffrey writes her a poem:
Roses are red
Violets are blue.
I love a rose.
Do you know who?
Rose has an excellent (and passively pedantic) response:
This rose is black
And full of gloom.
Yet I too love.
Do you know whom?
Remember these are all young children, between eight and ten years old. It’s sometimes as if we’ve entered into an Edward Gorey book (which I’m all too happy to do). There’s a carnivalesque horror at times, and that aspect further underscores the burning mind of youth when a cartoon reality is perhaps closer to the truth than what we consider to be real.
The book constantly teases us about its darkest subject: the death of Edwin, the timing of which is too perfect to be coincidental. Well, I can say that the book becomes more and more horrifying as it goes on, and it’s a wonder any of us, as magical as it was, survived childhood.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Kate Walbert’s “M&M World” was originally published in The New Yorker‘s May 30, 2011, issue.
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Several years ago (more on the specific timing below), I read Kate Walbert’s debut novel The Gardens of Kyoto. I haven’t read a thing by her since, though her novel A Short History of Women was one of the New York Times’ top ten books of 2009, along side Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (a truly fantastic book). I’m afraid this story isn’t making me feel I’ve missed out, but perhaps that says more about me than the story.
“M&M World” is the story about an aging single mother named Ginny. The girls’ father (as he’s known throughout the story) left a while back, a departure they tried to handle as maturely and rationally as possible. It’s now a nice spring day in New York City. Ginny is walking with her two daughters, Olivia and Maggie, down Central Park West when they beg to go to M&M World. Walbert describes it perfectly:
Ginny had promised to take the girls to M&M World, that ridiculous place in Times Square they had passed too often in a taxi, Maggie scooting to press her face to the glass to watch the giant smiling M&M scale the Empire State Building on the electronic billboard and wave from the spire, its color dissolving yellow, then blue, then red, then yellow again. She had promised.
As happens, the promise was made on another day to put it off for some time in the future that wouldn’t come, or, if it did, the promise would be forgotten or perhaps something else could take its place. Of course, children a known to remember such promises and have their ways of making sure you keep them.
“All right,” she found herself saying. “Just once. Today. Just once. This is it.” Breaking her resolution to stop qualifying — five more minutes, this last page, one more bite — and wishing, mid-speech, she would stop. She has tried. Just as she has tried to be more easygoing, but when push comes to shove, as it always will, she is not easygoing. And she qualifies.
What we get in this story is more than a simple trip to M&M World, thankfully. It’s a look at this single mother, who seems to have lost herself along the way, who seems tired and unhappy, as much as she really loves her two daughters. The story flashes back to a trip Ginny took with the girls’ father to Chile when she saw a whale up close. The girls’ father was on the other side of the boat and promised to get her if he saw anythhing; she, however, keeps it to herself. It then flashes forward to the loud, rather obnoxious world of Times Square, and Ginny isn’t looking in the right direction:
There are other things to fix, not just her yellow teeth. She needs some spots removed from her skin; she needs to dye her gray roots, the stubborn tuft that refuses to blend. She could use somehting for her posture — Pilates — and she’s overdue a mammogram, a bone scan, a colonoscopy. She needs a new coat, an elegant one like those she’s seen on other mothers, something stylish to go with the other stylish clothes she means to buy, and the boots, the right boots, not just the galoshes she’s slipped on every morning all winter; it’s spring now, isn’t it?
Perhaps my principal issue with this story, which becomes tense and is, I think, quite well written on a sentence-by-sentence level (she paces her sentences nicely), is that this story of a is fairly familiar territory and I didn’t feel that adding the whale really elevated this story. Perhaps I’ll feel differently after I’ve mulled it over more in my mind, but I’m not counting on it. I remember almost everything about reading The Gardens of Kyoto. I picked it up late one night at a bookstore, attracted by its cover more than anything. It was an assignment for a class I was taking — go find some new book you have never heard of and read it. That night my car blew a tire and the next morning I read most of the book while waiting at the mechanics for new tires. The television was carrying the news of the Queen Mother’s death. For late March, it was beautiful weather in Idaho. I remember almost nothing about the book itself, though, which is strange because usually when I have such strong associations with my surroundings I can remember individual paragraphs and where they were on the page. I believe I will find this story just as forgettable, even if I’ll never be able to forget that M&M scaling the Empire State Building.
I purchased Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver (Den ärliga bedragaren, 1982; tr. from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, 2009) quite some time ago. I heard great things about it and found the cover, featuring art by Jansson herself, very attractive — as I always seem to do with books from NYRB Classics. However, when I pulled the book out in the dead of winter, its opening page made me colder and I put it up. When I pulled it out in the spring, well, again, it made me feel cold. A year later, the book has won the Best Translated Book Award, an award worth following faithfully. Obviously, that was the ticket. Here’s a quick spoiler to my review below: I liked this book so much I’ve since gone out and read the other two Jansson books that NYRB Classics has published — The Summer Book and Fair Play – and I liked them even more.
As I said above, the opening to the book is cold, which is fitting, yes, because it is an early dark winter morning, but also because we are meeting the coldest character, Katri. Katri is 25. She and her brother Mats, who is 15, live in a tiny room above the town’s shop along with the big dog, who has no name. Katri is coldly calculating, tremendously good with numbers, which is a gift of dubious value when she uses similar arithmetic, like an economist, to analyze other aspects of society. Nevertheless, her reputation for analyzing a situation and coming up with a fair, honest solution that adds up is such that many people in town come to her for advice:
Katri’s advice was widely discussed in the village and struck people as correct and very astute. What made it so effective, perhaps, was that she worked on the assumption that every household was naturally hostile towards its neighbors. But people’s sessions with Katri were often followed by an odd sense of shame, which was hard to understand, since she was always fair. Take the case of two families who had been looking sideways at each other for years. Katri helped both save face, but she also articulated their hostility and so fixed it in place for all time.
The advice she gives out matches her perception of the world, which is that it is self-interested and not to be trusted. She believes people’s affairs should be governed without emotion and her method of combatting emotion is through what she considers honesty, even if that honesty isn’t pleasant.
Katri is not satisfied with her and Mats’ situation, so she has a plan to make their lives more comfortable. Anna Aemelin is an older woman who lives alone. A celebrated children’s books artist, famous particularly for her incredible renderings of the forest floor when the snow is gone, she has plenty of money she doesn’t know how to handle, not that she cares. She and Katri are quite different, but both sit on the periphery of society. For Anna it isn’t because she’s cold and honest; rather, it’s her artistic temperament and her success: “she was only fully alive when she devoted herself to her singular ability to draw, and when she drew she was naturally always alone.” We know from the outset that Katri is searching for some way to move in with Anna. To start her goal, she goes to the town messenger and offers to take Anna her mail:
“Are you trying to help?”
“You know I’m not,” Katri said. “I’m doing it entirely for my own sake. Do you trust me or don’t you?”
The messenger, sure that Katri is the most honest person he knows — after all, she admitted right there that she’s delivering for her own purpose — gives Katri the mail, and Katri gets her first glimpse into the home of Anna Aemelin. She doesn’t say anything to Anna, but neither does Katri try to look inconspicuous as she scrutinizes the abode, knowing full well that it all adds up: she and Mats will live her soon.
Naturally she wants a fluffy floor. Carpet or no carpet, it’s all fluffy in here anyway — hot and hairy. Maybe there’s more air upstairs. We’ll have to crack the window at night or Mats won’t be able to sleep.
But there’s much more to the book than this. It is a rather dark character study, bitter yet empathetic. We sense personal demons on every page, even though for the most part the snow is falling in the dark and all appears at peace, or at least empty. As cool and controlled as Katri appears to be, we can feel a deep well of emotion under the surface. For one, she has a deep motherly love for Mats. She’ll do anything to protect him, and that is the main object of her plans to move in with Anna. She also has a deep hatred for the shopkeeper over whose shop she lives. Her objectivity is tested time and again as she claims he’s a swindler, an awful man. Perhaps he is, but we can’t fail to note that Katri hates him because he once loved her. Honestly, I don’t know whether he was dangerously lustful, which is surely what Katri thought, or if he was simply attracted to the woman. He isn’t nice to her, but she humiliates him time and time again. At any rate, her deep hatred of him, and some of the weight it puts on her, becomes apparent when she cleans the room above the shop in preparation for the move to Anna’s:
Katri had scrubbed the room above the storekeeper’s shop, scrubbed it with a kind of painstaking rage, the way women clean when they can’t lash out. She scrubbed away the neighbors’ shamefaced talk about envy and petty favours, she scrubbed away all the black night thoughts, and most of all she scrubbed away the doorway where the storekeeper used to loiter on some pretext, standing in hungry vigilance, waiting for some sign to tell him if he could go on hating or if there was the tiniest little handhold for his lust. The room became as clinically clean and naked as a wave-washed skerry.
Katri’s move to Anna’s happens early on. The bulk of The True Deceiver, this excellent book, deals with Katri’s insinuation into Anna’s contented solitude. The “dreadful Katri” (whom we feel for nonetheless) brings with her too much honesty, that refusal to overlook, which infects the old children’s artist: “Several neighbors passed by, but she didn’t notice their greetings, just wanted to get home, home to the dreadful Katri, to her own altered world which had grown severe but where nothing was wicked and concealed.”
Yes, you’ll need to put on a blanket when you read this book. Spring is late coming.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Ron Rash’s “The Trusty” was first published in The New Yorker‘s May 23, 2011, issue.
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Again The New Yorker reminds me of a relatively young yet relatively prolific American author whom I have failed to read ever. Over the last ten years, Rash has published four novels and three collections of short stories (his debut collection was published in 1994). Yet I hadn’t heard of Ron Rash until his novel Serena was named a finalist to the PEN/Faulkner in 2009, and I never really even looked into that book. From a quick glance around, it seems most of Rash’s books take place in the Southeastern United States (certainly that is true of this story), and it is there that his books have received the most recognition. Until recently, that is. Before being a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner in 2009, Rash was a finalist in 2008 for a collection of short stories called Chemistry and Other Stories. Then, in 2010, Rash followed-up being a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner when his collection of short stories, Burning Bright, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. But, on to “The Trusty,” Rash’s first piece of fiction for The New Yorker.
“The Trusty” takes place in South Carolina during the Depression. A chain gang is working away the hours. I didn’t know what a trusty was until I read this story, so I’ll pass that information on: a trusty is a prisoner who has been granted certain special privileges. In this case, Sinkler, the trusty, is in charge of fetching water from local wells; consequently, he does not wear restraints of any kind and is free to wander unsupervised for longer periods of time.
When the story begins, Sinkler is trying to find a new farmhouse with a well. The chain gang is moving further down the road, and each day his hike is longer and longer. In the second paragraph, he finds it.
The next day, Sinkler took the metal buckets and walked until he found a farmhouse. It was no closer than the other, even a bit farther, but worth padding the hoof a few extra steps. The well he’d been using belonged to a hunch-backed widow. The woman who appeared in this doorway wore her hair in a similar tight bun and draped herself in the same sort of flour-cloth dress, but she looked to be in her mid-twenties, like Sinkler. Two weeks would pass before they got beyond this farmhouse, perhaps another two weeks before the next well. Plenty of time to quench a different kind of thirst.
That’s the first indication that, while Sinkler may have been a trusty and while his crime might not be the type to put fear into the hearts of housewives (“What you in prison for?” / “Thinking a bank manager wouldn’t notice his teller slipping a few bills in his pocket.”), he’s not safe. In his long walks alone, he must think of hundreds of ways to take advantage of the bit of freedom he’s been given.
Much of this story unfolds as Sinkler insinuates himself into the mind of the young woman while her older husband works out in the fields. He plays with her own sense of being in a prison, until, as he hoped, she suggests they both make a break for it. She knows the terrain, after all.
Tension builds when we don’t know exactly what Sinkler plans to do with the young woman once they escape. It isn’t in his interest to keep her with him for long, but abandoning her too soon — or at all — might lead her to seek vengence by calling the law. At the same time, we become aware that the young woman is seeking out her own salvation too.
Philip Roth has won the 2011 Man Booker International (click here for the announcement on the Man Booker Prize website, which also has a recording of his acceptance speech). With sixteen reviews so far, Roth is by far the most reviewd author on this blog, and he’s likely to remain so indefinitely since I can’t think of another author I’m likely to read who has as much work. Perhaps some day I’ll start reading the complete works of Joyce Carol Oates. At any rate, congratulations to Philip Roth, a most deserving author, even if he doesn’t need the money.
I really liked “Blue Water Djinn,” Téa Obreht’s short piece published last year during The New Yorker’s ”20 Under 40″ season. However, when it was published in The New Yorker as the debut fiction piece in the 2009 fiction issue (June 8 and 15; my brief thoughts on this post), I was more or less indifferent to Obreht’s “The Tiger’s Wife” and wasn’t looking forward to the novel it was clipped from. But, sometimes unable to withstand the hype (though I still haven’t read my copy of Franzen’s Freedom), after reading glowing review after glowing review – including David Abram’s statement, “It might just be the most finely-crafted novel I’ve ever read. Ever.” — I couldn’t forgo the opportunity to see this literary phenom take off in her debut novel The Tiger’s Wife (2011).
Review copy courtesy of Knopf.
All of the proclamations that Obreht is a talented author — whether up against the young or the old — are well founded. Certainly she’s a voice to follow. But before I go on, I don’t want to hid the ball: as great as she is at writing a sentence and in creating an atmosphere for a scene, I didn’t think the book’s pieces came together satisfactorily, even though the individual segments (and they do sometimes read like segments) are set up around the concept of folk lore and around a few common themes. In all honesty, when about three-quarters of the way through the book I started a new chapter that promised to delve deeply into the past of a heretofore unmentioned character who was, it was safe to say, going to be merely tangential to the main narrative strands, I almost quit the book. I had almost lost patience with the process of finding out what happened, a process that is drawn out much as it is for the principal character, our first-person narrator Natalia.
Natalia grew up during an ongoing Civil War in an unnamed country in the Balkans (in The New York Review of Books, Charles Simic says it is clearly Yugoslavia before and after the wars in the 1990s). When the book begins, the war is over, and Natalia is just beginning her career as a physician. For her first real real position, she and a friend have chosen to travel across the border (which, at one time, was not a border) to inoculate an orphanage in desperate need, even more so after the wars made so many orphans. But even before she arrives, she phones her grandmother and finds out that her beloved grandfather, also a physician, has died. He apparently told his wife that he was going to meet Natalia and ended up dying in a poor clinic in some clinic also across the border, relatively close to Natalia’s destination. On the one hand, this is plausible; he was a bit concerned about her choice to treat children, once offering her this bit of wisdom he’d gleaned from a lifetime of treating the dying:
He sat up, pushed his chair away from the table and rubbed his knees. “When men die, they die in fear,” he said. “They take everything they need from you, and as a doctor it is your job to give it, to comfort them, to hold their hand. But children die how they have been living — in hope. They don’t know what’s happening, so they expect nothing, they don’t ask you to hold their hand — but you end up needing them to hold yours. With children, you’re on your own. Do you understand?”
On the other hand, his destination was far enough away from Natalia that it was just as likely he was not really going to meet her. Natalia knew what her grandmother didn’t — that her grandfather was dying of cancer — but even with that knowledge she has no idea why he took off to die alone in an “obscure town called Zdrevkov on the other side of the border” — Zdrevkov used to be part of their country, and then was the enemy, and is now another country.
Natalia and her grandfather had a very special relationship. He recognized in her someone with whom he could share those special memories you keep to yourself. One is the story of the tiger’s wife, which he shared with her when they were young and used to visit, frequently, the tigers’ cage at the zoo.
My grandfather never refers to the tiger’s wife by name. His arm is around me and my feet are on the handrail, and my grandfather might say, “I once knew a girl who loved tigers so much she almost became one herself.” Because I am little, and my love of tigers comes directly from him, I believe he is talking about me, offering me a fairy tale in which I can imagine myself — and will, for years and years.
But before we, or she, learn about the tiger’s wife and why she’s significant to this old man, we begin the story of another folkloric figure from her grandfather’s past: the deathless man. I very much enjoyed the handful of stories about the grandfather’s encounters with the deathless man, named Gavran Gailé, particularly the last one where they meet in a quiet restaurant as the loud bombings get closer outside. The waiter continues to serve them, as if it’s a matter of pride — which it probably is – to continue to do things right even in, perhaps especially in, the face of destruction.
The two stories of the tiger’s wife and the deathless man run through the book, interspersed with chapters focused on Natalia’s quest to find out more about her grandfather’s strange death. In a broader sense, though, The Tiger’s Wifeis a series of stories from this war-torn region of the world and how several of the inhabitants there have dealt with the wars and with death, in particular with superstition and story-telling. Outside of the orphanage, for example, a man drives his sick children to dig, dig, dig in a vineyard. Natalia tries to intervene, tell the man to let the children rest, or, even better, receive treatment from their obvious maladies. But treatment from her is not what he’s after; that won’t cure their sickness:
“We’ve got a cousin in this vineyard, Doctor.” He spread his armes and gestured to the vines, from one side of the plot to the other. “Buried twelve years. During the war.” He was perfectly serious. “Doesn’t like it here, and he’s making us sick. When we find him we’ll be on our way.”
After decades of war destroying their villages and families, death is part of life; it is, in many forms, in their stories, and consequently this book — for better or for worse — reads like a collection of folktales. For example, the tiger at the center of this story is not the tiger the grandfather took Natalia to see at the zoo. Rather, this tiger was an inhabitant of the zoo when the Nazis bombed the city in 1941. At that time, cautiously, the tiger left its cage. With her gift at its best, Obreht tells how the tiger journeyed from the zoo to the outskirts of the grandfather’s childhood village. But along the way, there is death, thrown in almost casually but still with respect.
[The tiger] was noticed, too, by the city’s tank commander, who would go on to shoot himself three days later, and who mentioned the tiger in his last letter to his betrothed — I have never seen so strange a thing as a tiger in a wheat field, he wrote, even though, today, I pulled a woman’s black breast and stomach out of the pond at the Convent of Sveta Maria. The last person to see the tiger was a farmer on a small plot of land two miles south of the city, who was burying his son in the garden, and who threw rocks when the tiger got too close.
Since learning the story of the tiger and his wife is part of the fun in this book, I won’t go any further. And that reminds me: even though I almost stopped reading at the three-quarter mark, and even though I ended it thinking Obreht is talented but that this book adds up to less than its parts, this is an enjoyable book by a very talented writer who shows her talents particularly as the story of the tiger’s wife and the deathless man develop. I suppose that was one of the reasons it was so frustrating at times to go on tangents that felt more like writing exercises (and possibly had their origin there) than like substantial pieces of the book. And so I remain on the positive side of neutral, understanding why some people praise Obreht as a major new literary voice but somewhat mystified that this book is being praised as a major new piece of literature. It’s fine, indeed, but I think she’s got better work to come.
Though I wanted to, I didn’t particularly like Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s ”The Erlking,” published in The New Yorker as part of its “20 Under 40″ fun last summer. I read it a few times, finding the language intriguing, hoping the concept would pay off, but I never felt it worked. Still, I was interested in looking at her so-far small back catalog. Her most recent novel, Ms. Hempel Chronicles, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner in 2009, but I went back to her debut, a finalist for the National Book Award, the incredibly bizarre, dreamy, erotic, fairy-tale-esque Madeleine Is Sleeping (2004). I was hoping that this novel would include some of the darkness and wonder that I felt was missing in her short reworking of “The Erlking.”
The cover — a picture by Lewis Carroll, whose work is certainly an influence here — is one of those pictures of children playing that nevertheless manages to be haunting. Why is death seemingly just out of the frame in these types of pictures? These children are not in any visible peril, but even their faces seem to show an awareness of mortality. Peril is already present.
Now, this is not exactly a book about death. Rather, Madeleine is simply sleeping, perhaps eternally. For whatever reason, her sleep has been a boon to her family, particularly to Mother.
When Madeleine sleeps, Mother says, the cows give double their milk. Pansies sprout up between the floorboards. Your father loves me, but I remain slender and childless. I can hear the tumult of pears and apples falling from the trees like rain.
Smooth your sister’s coverlet. Arrange her hair on the pillowcase. Be silent as saints. We do not wish to wake her.
But this is just an illusion of peace. In fact, Madeleine’s life is already in turmoil. In short episodes, usually no more than a couple of paragraphs and often just a few sentences (or even one), we enter into Madeleine’s dreams, which are filled with a host of strange characters. We feel drawn to these characters in sympathy or because they are kind and yet we are repulsed by their grotesquery. There’s an extremely obese woman who sprouts wings and flies around naked. A young woman is a viol maker’s object of obsession, and she’s eventually strung up as a viol herself. There’s the flatulent, symphonic man and his love affair. Shun-lien Bynum’s physical and often sensual language is magnificent as she writes these characters who attract and repulse.
The dreams get stranger. Incredibly curious, Madeleine treats the village idiot to a handjob, objectively examining the action and the result. This is followed by banishment from the pastoral village where she lives. As if remembering a story told to her when awake, suddenly Madeleine’s dreamworld transitions: “In an old house in Paris that is covered with vines live twelve little girls in two straight lines.” Her surroundings are a school run by nuns, and she is the storybook character Madeleine. This is her exile, for a time.
Meanwhile, in the waking world, a prince shows up to wake Madeleine with a kiss. And things really start to fall apart for Mother when the obese flying woman alights on top of the house in which Madeleine is sleeping; Mother rushes out to tell her to get off and get out. This is just the beginning of the messy line between Madeleine’s dreams and reality, whatever that is — and we have good cause to question that at the end.
Indeed, it is a strange book about adolescence, it’s apparent peace and its ugly other dimension. Where I found “The Erlking” lacking, I found Madeleine Is Sleeping full of meaning, wonderfully developed and executed, as Madeleine goes through her adolescent transitions and all the forces, for good or evil, that exert an influence. Even Mother begins to worry about how she’s shaping her children’s lives. Here is a full episode (all have a title):
House of the Sleeping Beauties
To marry, to rear her children, these things were on the surface good, Mother thinks. But to have had the long years in her power, to have controlled their lives, to have warped their natures even, these might be evil things.
Perhaps, beguiled by custom and order, one’s sense of evil goes numb.
This is a very strange book. I don’t believe that even after reading my thoughts above one could enter into its pages with a correct preconception of its contents. I consider that a good thing.
The book will frustrate some, even those who profess to enjoy the weird. In fact, when I first finished it, as much as I was enjoying it piece by piece, I just didn’t know what to make of it. It’s still very much a mystery, but in the time I’ve taken to reconsider it and put these thoughts together, it’s grown in my estimation.
Though I’ve not read many of her books, I have a suspicion that Francine Prose is one of our underrated — or, at least, underread – novelists. I very much enjoyed Goldengrove, and found much more to it than most critics, some of whom attempted to dismiss it as young adult (whether such a claim should be dismissive is another argument). Despite my good experiences with her, I wasn’t really looking forward to My New American Life (2011). The plot sounded too much like a polemic against the Bush-Cheney years. Not that those years don’t deserve their criticism; it’s that they do get plenty of criticism, every day, almost everywhere. What could this book offer? The cover didn’t add anything to my excitement nor did it do anything to dispel my wariness that this book might be a bit overstated.
Review copy courtesy of Harper Collins Publishers.
It turns out my wariness was justified. Despite the book’s strengths, it is rather blunt criticism, familiar to anyone who pays attention, of the last decade. It begins in October 2005, a little less than a year into Bush’s second term, which was already considered the Cheney administration.
But, all that aside for a minute, I must say that Prose can write wonders. I was fully engaged in the novel until about the last quarter, despite my belief that the characters were typical and familiar. She has a great pen, and her ability to tell a story is what pulled me through this otherwise disappointing novel.
It’s a fine day in October 2005. Lula, an Albanian immigrant who has been living illegally in the United States, has found a sponsor and is now living in my neck of the woods in the New Jersey suburbs of New York City. Her sponsor is Stanley Larch, an economist who gave up teaching at a univeristy (a job he loved) to make more money working at an investment bank. Of course, he’s now miserable but cannot afford to go back. It does his troubled heart wonders to help Lula. With the assistance of one of his childhood friends, immigration lawyer extraordinaire Don Settebello, Stanley has secured Lula legal status. It’s a wonderful morning. And Lula is happy to help Stanley and Don feel like they’re doing good:
Lula knew that some Americans cheered every time INS agents raided factories and shoved dark little chicken-packagers into the backs of trucks. She’d seen the guys on Fox News calling for every immigrant except German supermodels and Japanese baseball players to be deported, no questions asked. But others, like Mister Stanley and Don Settebello, acted as if coming from somewhere else was like having a handicap or surviving cancer. It meant you were brave and resilient. And being able to help you made them feel better about themselves and their melting-pot country. Their motives were pure, or mostly pure. They liked power and being connected, they liked knowing which strings to pull.
Lula’s job is fairly simple: don’t worry too much about the house, just focus on Stanley’s teenage son Zeke. About one year earlier, on Christmas Eve, Zeke’s mother abandoned him and Stanley. Lula feels she can be some sort of balm for this family, especially since Stanley and Zeke never see each other, and don’t particularly like it when they do. In her spare time, which is substantial, Lula, encouraged by Stanley and Don Settebello, writes stories from her homeland and about her new American life (they suggest she call the journal My New American Life). Lula passes the stories off as her own, though in fact they are not. Her life has been hard — she lost her parents during the UN bombings — but in fact the real drama she injects into her journal, the stuff that really makes her seem like a lost immigrant, comes from her ancestors or is made up. It’s not even fully true that her parents died in the bombings; her dad, drunk, was driving back to his homeland when the bombings were occurring – he wrecked the car.
But back to the first chapter, to that fine October morning. In the very first lines Lula sees a black Lexus SUV approaching. It passes the front of the house ominously but does not stop. Nevertheless, she’s nervous: “Blame her delicate nervous system on growing up under a system that thought the Soviet Union was too liberal and was best friends with China until the dictator decided that China was too liberal, and China cut them loose.” It’s here we get a bit of the backstory. But then the SUV approaches again. This first chapter goes back and forth in time, we constantly see the black Lexus SUV approaching, but it is drawn out nicely and fluently; the tension builds, but Prose moves away from that scene to the past so smoothly, we don’t complain. It isn’t until page 25 that the SUV finally stops in front of the house and three Albanian males get out.
They come because they found out — connections — that Lula was Albanian and granted legal status. All Albanians are family, they say, so they’ve come to ask a minor favor. Can she please just watch this gun for them. Obviously worried her fresh legal status is in jeopardy, Lula nevertheless complies. On the one hand, how can she say no now that they’re there; on the same hand, she’s extremely attracted to one of them — The Cute One. The Cute One, whose name, it turns out, is Alvo — at least, that’s what she knows him by — is the one in charge. In the days that come, rather than fret about her legal status, she cannot wait until Alvo comes back for the gun or for another favor.
From there the story continues decently as Lula’s relationship with Stanley and Zeke (and Alvo), and with American culture in general, develops. At the same time, the plot becomes more and more stretched to get around the book’s concepts. For me, the book is set up nicely, but this contortion of the plot prevents it from ever going deeper. It is entertaining, a nice read, but it doesn’t dig down and expose anything new or interesting. I’m pretty sure that, despite little description here, you already have a fine idea for just who Stanley, Zeke and Don Settebello are. I doubt you’re far off.
Nevertheless, as in Goldengrove there is more going on under the surface of the story: “the relationship, however regrettable, between deception and survival”; putting Lula’s story against this time in American history. Lula finds it to her advantage to make things up. Lying is, often, the most natural reaction in any situation. In fact, when she feels she can tell the truth, she’s relieved. Prose is digging a bit deeper here as some of the characters, because of deception lose “the right to say what had happened.” The journals are fake, much of who she’s presented herself to be is not true. Interetingly, Stanley and Don know this and
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Michael Ondaatje’s “Cat’s Table” was first published in The New Yorker‘s May 16, 2011, issue.
Click for a larger image.
First things first: months after releasing its iPad app, which was pay-by-issue for everyone, print subscribers can use the app for free. Who knows why it took so long, but at least it’s now happened. And that’s just how I read Ondaatje’s story this morning.
I’m not very familiar with Ondaatje. I’ve seen and quite liked the film The English Patient, but when I tried to read the novel I gave up after about 100 pages. I had the intent to start it over and give it another go, but that was years ago now, so who knows? Even after reading this story, which I liked, I’m still not convinced I’m really missing much by avoiding Ondaatje (perhaps KevinfromCanada will convince me otherwise).
“The Cat’s Table” is a nicely written reminiscene of a pivotal sea journey that marks the passage from one land to another and from youth to adulthood. When it begins, a young boy is being driven to the port in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where he will take a ship to England. The first small section is told in the third-person perspective and in the present tense:
He wasn’t talking. He was looking out the window of the car all the way. The two adults in the front seat spoke quietly under their breath. He could have listened if he wanted to but he didn’t. For a while, at the section of the road where the river sometimes flooded, he could hear the spray of water under the wheels. They entered the fort and the car slipped silently past the post-office building and the clock tower. At this hour of the night, there was barely any traffic in Colombo. They drove out along Reclamation Road, past St. Anthony’s Church, and he saw the last of the food stalls, each lit with a single bulb. Then they entered a vast open space that was the harbor, with a long string of lights in the distance along the pier. He got out and stood by the warmth of the car.
It’s not the most exciting first paragraph, but I like how it introduces a young boy setting out on a journey by describing the initial car journey to the port. There’s a sense that, though he recognizes some of the details of the journey, he doesn’t comprehend the journey at all, whether by choice because he doesn’t want to think about it or by the simple fact that he’s only eleven years old. Soon, we are introduced to a first-person narrator:
I try to imagine who the boy in the narrow bunk was. Perhaps there was no sense of self in his nervous stillness, as if he were being smuggled away accidentally, with no knowledge of the act, into the future.
In the next section, we find out this first-person narrator is that boy, now grown older, looking back: “It had been arranged that I would travel alone from Ceylon to England, where my mother was living, a twenty-one-day journey.” The bulk of the story takes place on the ship as the boy and two of his friends, Cassius and Ramadhin, sneak around the first-class deck in the pre-dawn, soak in the gossip, and cause a bit of trouble. But what I just wrote will not convey the correct tone of this piece: it is not one of a pre-adolescent free-for-all, something told before the narrator learns what it’s like to be an adult and have responsibility; rather, it is quite grave, reminding me at times of Nabokov’s “Colette,” as the narrator reflects on how, self-aware or not, he was already being deeply affected by the changes going on around him.
There are two individuals on the boat around whom the events of this story are centered. One is a wealthy man travelling to Europe to find a doctor who can cure him. He was cursed by a monk and then bitten by a rabid dog, or so the story goes. The other individual is the narrator’s distant cousin, Emily de Saram.
Because I had no brothers or sisters, my closest relatives were adults, an assortment of unmarried uncles and slow-moving aunts who were bound together by gossip and status. For many years, Emily, who was older than me and lived amost next door, was my link to their grownup world. I’d tell her of my adventures and listen to what she thought. She was honest about what she liked and did not like, and I modelled myself on her judgments.
Though the story developed slowly, I was always completely engaged and interested in the narrator’s experience on that ship with his two young friends, his cousin, and that doomed wealthy man.
This is an excerpt from Ondaatje’s forthcoming novel, and it shows at times. For example, the promise of the first few paragraphs — that disconnect between the narrator as an older man looking back on some boy who happens to be himself — is never fully realized. But this one worked for me. In fact, I was quite content with it in this form and might not read the novel itself unless it is on the Giller or Booker prize lists later this year.
When Lord of Misrule (2010) was announced as a National Book Award finalist, it was one of the only books on the list I hadn’t read that I was truly interested in looking up. It’s hard for a book published by a small press with a limited print run to get much notice, so I considered it a plus that this one did. For that book to be about a gritty horse racetrack in 1970s West Virginia . . . well, it certainly didn’t sound like the familiar story being rewritten year after year. It took me a while to get to reading it, primarily because, though attracted to it, I was also a little intimidated. After all, I know nothing about horse racing. Though knowledge of horse racing is certain to bring you closer to the book, I can say to those of you who may be wondering that such knowledge is not required to enjoy this remarkably unique novel.
Review copy courtesy of McPherson & Company.
This story takes place in the 1970s at an out-of-the-way racetrack named Indian Mound Downs in West Virginia. I think the book’s opening paragraph is fantastic as it introduces the Downs, the smells and redness , as well as the circular walking machine that is a metaphor for so much in the book.
Inside the back gate of Indian Mound Downs, a hot-walking machine creaked round and round. In the judgment of Medicine Ed, walking a horse himself on the shedrow of Barn Z, the going-nowhere contraption must be the soul of this cheap racetrack where he been ended up at. It was stuck there in the gate, so you couldn’t get out. It filled up the whole road between a hill of horse manure against the backside fence, stubbed with pale dirty straw like a penitentiary haircut, and a long red puddle in the red dirt, a puddle that was almost a pond. Right down to the sore horses at each point of the silver star, it resembled some woebegone carnival ride, some skeleton of a two-bit ride dreamed up by a dreamer too tired to dream. There’d been no rain all August and by now the fresh worked horses were half lost in the pink cloud of their own shuffling. Red dust from those West Virginia hills road in their wide open nostrils and stuck to their squeezebox lungs. Red dust, working its devilment, he observed to himself, but he shut his mouth. They were not his horses.
This paragraph also introduces Gordon’s ability with words — “woebegone carvinal ride” and “squeezebox lungs.” Her sentences, slightly off-kilter, manage to keep the already unique story that much more fresh, though sometimes they might be a bit difficult to read in their strangeness. That’s one great thing about this book: it can be a bit disorienting and may frustrate some, but that disorientation is part of what makes it worth reading. For example, in that first paragraph we meet Medicine Ed, an old man who’s spent his life on the racetrack, getting nowhere. What we read is a very close third-person narrative, so his diction comes out in the chapter. Each character has his or her own unique voice that carries into the fine writing. However, several times in the first 100 pages I got a bit lost when a new chapter opened. Who was speaking? And who were they talking about? This latter question arose because each character refers to the others in different ways. For instance, Medicine Ed refers to Maggie Koderer, the female protagonist, as “the frizzly hair girl,” and he refers to her boyfriend Tommy Hansel as “the young fool.” Until you catch on, it can be confusing.
It is not a fault; it’s simply a matter of getting into the rhythm of the book. Eventually we see that the multitude of characters wandering the Downs is actually only a few people. When that happens, we realize just how much we know about them, hearing about them from a variety of perspectives.
So above I said that one doesn’t need to have any knowledge of horse racing to enjoy this book. I stand by that statement, but there is one concept that certainly helps: the claiming race (which is explained in an epigraph). The claiming race, besides being the foundation for all of horse racing (apparently), is also one of the foundations of this book. It’s the only way that Indian Mound Downs keeps in business. It’s the only thing that brings these desparate characters together, a concept that represents hope and failure. It’s also what brings us four of our principal characters — Mr Boll Weevil, Little Spinoza, Pelter, and Lord of Misrule — the four horses these people bet their lives on, a process that brings them close together, whether for better or for worse.
At the center of it all is Maggie Koderer. Here she is, again from Medicine Ed:
For he liked the frizzly hair girl a little better now. Old Deucey had spied into the heart of this young woman and seen there slavery of the man-woman kind. Medicine Ed could see the chains on the girl. They were thick and heavy as railroad couplings, but they lay in a loose necklace round her neck and shoulders. She was no little bitty silky thing. The weight of them chains had raised muscles on her. She had a long bird neck with strong cords in it, and square shoulders. And Medicine Ed saw this: While the young fool ain’t looking — suddenly he had something else, probably the money he fixing to lose, on his mind — the frizzly hair girl lifted the heavy chains off her shoulders like a daisy chain and laid them down again. She stepped out from the place where the young fool thought she was and run away on goofered feet up into the clubhouse, gone to play some other horse than the master play. She was a slave but she had the power to ride the grandstand just like the master do, if she see her chance.
A lot goes unsaid, which matches the way these characters go about their life. The older woman Deucey shows up with her front teeth knocked out and that’s about all that’s said about it. I’m going to go along with this and not say much more about this book and all the terrible twists and turns it makes. It’s nice to leave with one more example of Gordon’s fine writing, though. Here she is describing the arrival of the most feared horse, the one that could make or break them all:
They were all looking for a van like a Chinese jewel box, like no horse van that had ever been seen on a backside, something red and black and glossy, with gold letters, LORD OF MISRULE, arched across each side. All the same when a plain truck with Nebraska plates rolled inot the Mound on the hottest day of the year, they knew who it was. They were watching, though the van was unmarked and dirty white, one of those big box trailers with rusty quilting like an old mattress pad you’ve given to the dog. The van bounced and groaned on its springs along the backside fence, headed for the stallman’s office. Red dust boiled around it. They blinked as it dragged two wheels through the puddle that never dried, the puddle that had no bottom. They all waited for the van to tilt and lurch to a stop; it didn’t even slow down. They peered through the vents when the van went by and saw the horse’s head, calm, black and poisonous of mien as a slag pile in a coal yard. He had a funny white stripe like a question mark on his forehead.