Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). T. Coraghessan Boyle’s “Los Gigantes” was originally published in the February 6, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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I am slowly but surely catching up — in the meantime, please keep the discussion going.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Alice McDermott’s “Someone” was originally published in the January 30, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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Just as I was crawling out of the hole I was in, my blog gets hacked! Things are back up, and I will finally start catching up on my reading of The New Yorker. I will have thoughts here soon.
I’m not one to go digging around for old psychological studies — or any old studies, for that matter. Because of this, it is unlikely I would have ever heard of Milton Rokeach’s fascinating The Three Christs of Ypsilanti (1964). Why did I end up purchasing and reading this? It’s an NYRB Classic. That’s enough. If they publish a psychological study from fifty years ago, that means it’s worth reading. This one is.
In 1959, Milton Rokeach, a social psychologist working at Ypsilanti State Hospital in Ypsilanti, Michigan, brought together three patients who each firmly believed he was Jesus Christ. Rokeach says, “Initially, my main purpose in bringing them together was to explore the processes by which their delusional systems of belief and their behavior might change if they were confronted with the ultimate contradiction conceivable for human beings: more than one person claiming the same identity.”
His study was inspired in part on an account set out by Voltaire in which a man, Simon Morin, believing he was Christ ran into another man proclaiming to be Christ. Simon exclaimed that the other must be crazy and, realizing what this meant, was cured of his delusion for a time (though he was eventually burned at the stake). As he introduces the study, Rokeach says, “This is the only study on which I have ever worked that has aroused the interest of children.” I must say, it’s easy to see why. This is a fascinating look into the minds of three disturbed men.
The three patients are not referred to by their real names, though the book is so well written that these names, as simple as they are, are permanently part of my literary consciousness.
Clyde Benson was the oldest. At 70, he had been hospitalized for 17 years after suffering from a series of tragedies in a short period of time that took from him his parents and his wife (in a botched abortion). Rokeach makes the case that Mr. Benson was never really his own man, that since childhood he had allowed others to make decisions for him, and the strain of losing these authorities in his life was too much. In this book, Mr. Benson is easily forgotten. He’s always sitting there during the meetings, but he rarely speaks, or if he does it is mostly gibberish. Perhaps because of this, Rokeach rarely has the book focus on him, though he does have some good lines, like this one:
Late at night. All fifteen patients in the dorm are in their beds, but there is a great deal of restlessness because one of the patients is snoring loudly. Finally one of the patients, exasperated, yells: “Jesus Christ! Quit that snoring.” Whereupon Clyde, rearing up in his bed, replies: “That wasn’t me who was snoring. It was him!”
Joseph Cassel was 58 and had been hospitalized for nearly 20 years. A timid man, he grew up with a strict father (who called him Josephine) in a french-speaking household in Canada. Perhaps as a response to the fact that he was not allowed to bring anything “English” into the home, Joseph, besides considering himself Jesus Christ, also considers himself a patriot of England, who protects him and whom he protects. One of the strangest accounts in the study is one when, in peril of losing his beloved placebos, Joseph still will not say that the hospital is not an English stronghold. He doesn’t even have to believe this to keep his placebos; he need only pretend — to lie. He won’t do it. Interestingly, Rokeach notes that had he lied, it would have been a sign of improvement.
The youngest was Leon Gabor, at 38, who had been hospitalized for five years already. Leon was raised by a super-religious mother who, by all evidence, was severely psychotic herself. She instilled in Leon a profound sense of sexual guilt that he struggles with through the entire book, particularly since he is probably gay. Leon receives a great deal of attention throughout the book. He’s vocal and causes the most conflicts. It also seems he is the smartest, or, at least, he is the only one of the men who doesn’t simply deny the others’ claims but tries to reconcile everything. Rokeach seems particularly hopeful that Leon can be helped.
So Clyde, Joseph, and Leon are brought together. They sleep in adjacent beds, eat in the same room, have the same work duties, and hold meetings each day. The meetings take up a large part of the book as we watch these men interact with each other, sometimes with a great deal of tension and sometimes with what can almost be brotherly love — I say “almost” because even though the relationship gives them some contact they desperately desire, they also desperately want to hold on to their beliefs and fret each time they are challenged.
Remarkably, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti is not clinical in tone. Indeed, Rokeach has a great sense of tone, understatement, and timing, that one would think he was also a great novelist. These men are brought to life before our eyes, and we feel their pain and feel compassion towards them. Some parts are funny (like the “squelch eye” incident), and many are incredibly sad.
Yes, it’s very sad, and we can credit Rokeach for helping us feel these emotions through his highly skilled presentation. However, we can also blame him for being the source of some of the more terrible passage. This is a deeply troubling book. In his afterword, written twenty years later, Rokeach doesn’t apologize for his experiment, but he admits that, in a way, there were four men who thought they were god — the three patients and himself, the psychologist who, albeit in the pursuit of knowledge and in the hopes of helping the men, played with their lives.
In the introduction, Rokeach explains that while the initial plan was to see what happened when these men were brought together, “[s]ubsequently, a second purpose emerged: an exploration of the processes by which systems of belief and behavior might be changed through messages purporting to come from significant authorities who existed only in the imaginations of the delusional Christs.” Fully hoping to help these men out, constantly scrutinizing ethical concerns, Rokeach assumes writes letters to Joseph and Leon pretending to be authority figures from their delusions. For example, Joseph rejects his real father (to an extent — he calls him Josephine after all) and has taken to calling the head of Ypsilanti “dad.” With permission from “dad,” Rokeach begins writing to Joseph, asking him to do certain things, hoping that because of his trust in this authority figure, Joseph will begin to changes some of his delusions. This failed, as shown above when Joseph simply would not disclaim that the hospital was an English stronghold.
But even more heart-breaking and cruel were Rokeach’s letters to Leon in which Rokeach assumed the guise of Leon’s non-existent wife. Though never married, Leon often buttressed his claims to godliness by giving details about fictional women in his life, many of whom were gods in their own right and who became his wife. But does Leon actually believe in these women? And what if he received a letter from one? Here is his response to the first:
Leon’s initial response is disbelief. Without divulging the contents of the letter, he tells the aide that although he has never seen his wife’s handwriting he knows that she didn’t write or sign this letter. He says further that he doesn’t like the idea of people imposing on his beliefs and that he is going to look into this.
A couple of hours later, during the daily meeting, we notice Leon is extremely depressed and we ask him why. He evasively replies that he is meditating, but he does not mention the letter. This is the first time, as far as we know, that he has ever kept information from us.
August 4. This is the day Leon’s wife is supposed to visit him. He goes outdoors shortly before the appointed hour and does not return until it is well past.
So, yes, both Leon and Joseph believe in the delusions they have constructed, and in assuming these authorities’ voices, Rokeach, in a way, assumes the role of a god in the lives of these troubled men.
As I said above, the book is hardly clinical in its tone. It does not read like a study at all but rather like a deeply felt narrative of the troubles of these three men who came together for a time in Ypsilanti State Hospital. I highly recommend it.
After working nearly 40 hours over the weekend, including all night Sunday, we finally finished a substantial part of the work that has kept me from my family and from this blog. I will have substantially more time! To ease back into things, a simple announcement everyone has probably already heard by now anyway: the NBCC finalists have been announced.
- Open City, by Teju Cole
- The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides
- The Stranger’s Child, by Alan Hollinghurst
- Binocular Vision, by Edith Pearlman
- Stone Arabia, by Dana Spiotta
- A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War, by Amanda Foreman
- The Information, by James Gleick
- To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, by Adam Hochschild
- Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary War, by Maya Jasanoff
- Pulphead: Essays, by John Jeremiah Sullivan
- One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, A Marriage, and the Language of Healing, by Diane Ackerman
- The Memory Place, by Mira Bartók
- Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America, by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
- It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing, by Luis J. Rodríguez
- Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War, by Deb Olin Unferth
- Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of the Revolution, by Mary Gabriel
- George F. Kennan: An American Life, by John Lewis Gaddis
- Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961, by Paul Hendrickson
- Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable
- Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, by Ezra F. Vogel
- Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything, by David Bellos
- Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews, by Geoff Dyer
- The Ecstasy of Influence, by Jonathan Lethem
- Karaoke Culture, by Dubravka Ugresic
- Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, by Ellen Willis
- Core Samples from the World, by Forrest Gander
- Kingdom Animalia, by Aracelis Girmay
- Space, in Chains, by Laura Kasischke
- The Chameleon Couch, by Yusef Komunyakaa
- Devotions, by Bruce Smith
Of the fiction, I have read only Teju Cole’s Open City, which I liked a great deal, though I have yet to review it here. I began The Stranger’s Child and simply wasn’t enjoying it enough to finish — and I don’t feel now that I should go back and try again. I have both The Marriage Plot and Binnocular Vision, and my plan for the last six months has been to read those, but other things keep jumping up the line. Soon, perhaps.
For the nonfiction, I have read many of the essays in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead that were published (perhaps in different form) in a variety of magazines and journals over the past few years. I think he’s an exceptional writer and a great essayist. This one goes highly recommended.
Then I have to skip down to criticism before I have anything else to say, and that is that I have read the title essay to Dubravka Ugresic’s Karaoke Culture and found it delightful and funny. I will review that book here when I get through more of the essays.
And for poetry, I’m only familiar with Forrest Gander’s lovely Core Samples from the World, which is a nice compilation of poetry and photography. I never know what to say about poetry, so I review it rarely here, but this is a nice book.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Roberto Bolaño’s “Labyrinth” was originally published in the January 23, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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I’m a big fan of Roberto Bolaño, though it didn’t come easy. My first encounter with the now legendary writer was in the earliest days of winter in 2008 when 2666 was published (my negative review here). It was powerful, but in the end I decided I didn’t like it. I shake my head at my not-much-younger self and now consider 2666 a true masterpiece. Naturally, any time something else is published by the prolific author, even if it’s just part of his computer files as is the case here, I’m on board. Sometimes I read one of these posthumous pieces and think, well, I’m glad we have that as it’s indeed Bolaño, even if it’s not very good Bolaño. That’s not the case here. I found “Labyrinth” to be an exceedingly powerful short piece that begins when Bolaño looks at a picture.
There are eight people in the photo:
They’re seated. They’re looking at the camera. They are, from left to right: J. Henric, J.-J. Goux, Ph. Sollers, J. Kristeva, M.-Th. Réveillé, P. Guyotat, C. Devade and M. Devade.
There’s no photo credit.
That’s how the piece begins. Not a particularly engaging opening perhaps, but where Bolaño is about to go who needs a good opening.
Incidentally, the photo is real. You can see it by clicking on the link to The New Yorker website above. It must have been taken in the 1970s (a good time for Bolaño fiction). Bolaño proceeds to pick the photo apart, describing each individual, what they do (the only one I’d heard of was Julia Kristeva), what they are wearing, etc. This is not as dry as you might thinkg, but the story really picks up when Bolaño leaves the photo behind:
Let’s imagine J.-J. Goux, for examle, who is looking out at us through his thick submarine spectacles.
His space in the photo is momentarily vacant and we see him walking along Rue de l’École de Médecine, with books under his arm, of course, two books, till he comes out onto the Boulevard Saint-Germain.
The piece goes back and forth from the photo to some imagined present for the individuals pictures (all real people — most relatively famous). And then there are two ghosts: “Let’s call these two beyond the frame X and Z.” Strangely, when Bolaño strays from the photo, we don’t feel he takes it too far; in other words, one feels Bolaño is being faithful to the image, even as the people suffer in their imagined lives. As usual, Bolaño sums it up best:
Literature brushes past these literary creatures and kisses them on the lips, but they don’t even notice.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s “A Brief Encounter with the Enemy” was originally published in the January 16, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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As you can see from my complete lack of posts and commentary, I’ve still been under the work bus. I’ll get caught up eventually — I promise!
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). John Lanchester’s “Expectations” was originally published in the January 9, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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I am, obviously, getting behind here. The culprit is work. I have been at the office from the wee hours of the morning until the wee hours of the morning for some time now, and I haven’t had a second to catch up. While there are a few more days that promise to be just as bad this week, there should still be some time to catch up on sleep and on my reading/reviewing. Until then . . .
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Etgar Keret’s “Creative Writing” (tr. from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston) was originally published in the January 2, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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This is an incredibly short story — only four columns — and for me it succeeded in presenting a troubled marriage very well in that short space. Aviad and Maya are not troubled by thoughts of infidelity, and there is nothing to suggest they are not in love. Rather, they’ve just experienced the trauma of a miscarriage, and they haven’t found a way to deal with this together. Aviad, for his part, “could always bury himself in work, but since the miscarriage, she never left the house.”
Maya is encouraged to take a creative writing class. Here is how “Creative Writing” begins:
The first story Maya wrote was about a world in which people split themselves in two instead of reproducing. In that world, every person could, at any given moment, turn into two beings, each one half his/her age. Some chose to do this when they were young; for instance, an eighteen-year-old might split into two nine-year-olds. Others would wait until they’d established themselves professionally and financially and go for it only in middle age. The heroine of Maya’s story was splitless. She had reached the age of eighty and, despite constant social pressure, insisted on not splitting. At the end of the story, she died.
As Maya is writing the story, Aviad gives his input. He doesn’t really get the story and thinks the ending needs a lot of work. Maya is thrilled, though, when at class she is complimented by everyone, including — particularly — the professor. This is the first sign that Aviad and Maya are dealing with things in different ways and that Aviad cannot comprehend what Maya is saying. That some professor got it only infuriates Aviad more. It infuriates him, in fact, to the point that he goes and buys the professor’s book of short stories (the novel was too long) and even signs up for a creative writing class himself.
As I said, the story is very short. It’s made even shorter due to the fact that there are summaries of thee of Maya’s stories and one of Aviad’s. Consequently, it’s a story of emotion much more than plot. And it worked very well for me.
I’ve felt I should read Denis Johnson for a very long time. I have most of his books on my shelf. The problem has always been that there are many other books on my shelf I feel I should read as well, so I keep pushing Johnson back. Fortunately for me, then, this past year FSG published in hardback a novella Johnson published in The Paris Review, Train Dreams (Summer 2002), which won the O’Henry Award in 2003. It was short enough that there was no good excuse to pass it up for another book.
Though it runs for only around 100 generously spaced pages, Train Dreams takes on one man’s entire life through snapshots and segments. Here is how it opens:
In the summer of 1917 Robert Granier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Reailway in the Idaho Panhandle.
In 1917, Robert Granier is around 30 years old, he’s married, and he has an infant daughter. But we don’t know any of that yet. Johnson allows this opening scene – where several men are carrying the Chinese laborer to a bridge where they plan to throw him to his death – to play out in its suddenness for the first few pages.
They all went down in the dust and got righted, went down again, the Chinaman speaking in tongues and terrifying the four of them to the point that whatever they may have had in mind at the outset, he was a deader now. Nothing would do but to toss him off the trestle.
Throughout his life Robert Granier will think back on this event with gut-churning horror. It’s not because he nearly killed someone, though he does feel some guilt about that (he can’t believe how quickly, how mindlessly he was embroiled in the commotion), it’s that the Chinese laborer cursed the group of men, and Robert Granier believes that the curse settled on him viciously.
From this compelling beginning, we move back and forth in Robert Granier’s life. He doesn’t know where he came from, only that in 1893 he arrived by train at his cousins’ home in Fry, Idaho. His cousins had various explanations for his origin, but they were contradictory; surely his aunt and uncle knew, but while they were alive he never thought to ask. Though there are pockets of what cannot quite be called happiness, most of Robert Granier’s life is incredibly lonely, passing with the seasons as if in a dream he’s not sure he wants to be part of. This is because, early on in the book and in Robert Granier’s life, the meager life he’s building for himself is completely gutted by “a fire stronger than God.” One day, after working many miles away, Granier returns to the valley where he’d built his small cabin for himself and his wife and daughter:
All his life Robert Granier would remember vividly the burned valley at sundown, the most dream-like business he’d ever witnessed waking — the brilliant pastels of the light overhead, some clouds high and white, catching daylight from beyond the valley, others ribbed and gray and pink, the lowest of them rubbing the peaks of Bussard and Queen mountains; and beneath this wondrous sky the black valley, utterly still, the train moving through it making a great noise but unable to wake this dead world.
Not sure what’s become of his wife and daughter, Granier enters a kind of fugue state (made worse by the smoke and ash he inhales while searching for his home and then for his family). This sets up the lonely, guilty life Granier will lead until his death sometime in the 1960s, becoming himself a kind of ghost of the region from a time almost forgotten, when forests were cleared and railroads spanned the mountain ridges.