Tuesday, January 11, 2022

On John Wyndham's "cosy catastrophe" novels (from 2008)

I wrote this in late 2008 on spec for a publication, but it was never published. My notes remind me that after writing it I came across a post on the Penguin blog drawing this same connection. I don't think I unwittingly lifted the concept from them, but the link I had to their post is dead (link rot is the bane of the web), and it seems worth at least noting that up top in case I'm wrong and they deserve full credit. 

Thirteen years later, it turns out to have unpleasant resonances with our moment, all the way down to my mention of the possibility of a pandemic. 

For those of us fortunate enough not to have lost our jobs, and to still have our possessions in our houses rather than scattered about the lawn by sheriff’s deputies, the deepening financial crisis has been a bit hard to fully digest. Its causes are complicated and poorly understood, its effects (so long as we don’t look at our 401(k)s) still a bit distant. We know there’s a serious problem—such ordinarily staid figures as Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulson wouldn’t be looking so stricken were there not—and we extend real sympathy to those who’ve already felt its effects, but for the most part we’re left to go about our daily lives much as usual, the only change a slowly growing cloud of dread hovering just outside our peripheral vision. 

It’s a situation that would, I think, have piqued the imagination of British science fiction novelist John Wyndham (1903–69), and the half-dozen suspenseful, well-crafted novels he published between 1951 and 1968 seem the perfect literary accompaniment to today’s slowly growing disaster. Wyndham’s approach to science fiction, harking back to H. G. Wells, is rooted in the classic “What if?”, but his specialty was teasing out the ramifications of changes—often seemingly minor—to the basic ground rules governing human society. What if nearly everyone went blind, as happens in his best-known novel, The Day of the Triffids (1951)? What if science discovered a way to dramatically extend the human lifespan, as in the surprisingly feminist Trouble with Lichen (1960)? What if the children of a small village were to display unexpected—and unsettling—powers, as in The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)? What if the sub-prime mortgage market were suddenly to melt down . . . ? 

In The Day of the Triffids, the result of the mass blindness is an almost instant collapse of society (abetted, one must point out, by a particularly well-imagined species of ambulatory killer plant). The Day of the Triffids is dramatic and frightening, but it’s nonetheless a fairly straightforward apocalypse novel, if one of the best of the genre. But it’s in his other novels that Wyndham displays his particular genius. They’re less spectacular, but far more insidious—and much harder to shake once they’ve been returned to the shelf. For in them, nothing falls apart instantly; rather, the situation deteriorates slowly, and all the while the characters are forced to continue, more or less unchanged, their daily routines, shadowed by worry and never quite believing the widespread assurances that everything is going to be fine. 

The Kraken Wakes (1953) offers the best example of this approach. Mike and Phyllis Watson, journalists who write radio scripts (and whose banter and resourcefulness makes them seem like nothing so much as Nick and Nora Charles transplanted to an episode of “Lights Out!”), witness something inexplicable when they’re on a honeymoon cruise: a group of glowing red objects, somewhat like meteors, blazing through the sky and crashing into the ocean, where they disappear in a cloud of steam. Though the couple reports on the sighting, little is made of it, and even when accounts of similar events begin trickling in from around the globe, the prevailing public mood is one of curiosity rather than worry. Years later, Mike Watson reflects on that failure to understand the gravity of the sightings:
It began so unrecognizably. Had it been more obvious—and yet it is difficult to see what could have been done effectively even if we had recognised the danger. Recognition and prevention don’t necessarily go hand in hand. We recognized the potential dangers of atomic fission quickly enough—yet we could do little about them.
Over time, though most governments prefer to pretend otherwise, it becomes increasingly clear that the unidentified flying objects were an invasion fleet, and that some alien race has begun colonizing the ocean floor. Eventually, the problem becomes acute, as the aliens begin destroying naval vessels and disrupting shipping lanes, wreaking havoc on the global economy and leaving political and military leaders at a loss for effective responses. 

Yet even these earth-shaking events do relatively little to change the everyday lives of ordinary citizens. Living on land and unable even to see the miles-deep alien incursion, they are left to merely consume the limited available news and wonder what steps their government should take. As events slowly unfold over a number of years, the prevailing mood is one of dread and uncertainty rather than panic, and even when the aliens begin attacking coastal towns, and it becomes impossible to deny that humanity is in a struggle for its very survival, people’s panic has almost no outlet in action. Even Mike and Phyllis, who are attentive to the dangers from the start, and who have far better sources of information than the average citizen, aren’t sure what they can do: they attempt to take precautionary measures, like laying in stores of food, but the very uncertainty of the threat leaves them, for the most part, in a maddening state of abeyance. 

That is what Wyndham is best at: portraying the fundamental—and for the most part unacknowledged—uncertainty of life, and the essential futility of our attempts to control for it. Because we have little choice, we tell ourselves that tomorrow will be like today, but in reality we can never be sure. Wyndham’s work is shadowed by the Bomb and the disinformation of the cold war, but his lessons are no less applicable today; the immediate threat of nuclear holocaust may have receded, but the increasing interconnectedness of our world has opened us up to new dangers, from global pandemics to rippling financial crises. Human society perpetually teeters on a knife’s edge, and the smallest of changes to such a complex system could have entirely unforeseeable effects. Last time the global economy melted down on this scale, the result was the New Deal—but also the rise of fascism; who’s to say what will follow this time? 

Though Wyndham was always well-regarded in the United Kingdom, and nearly all of his novels remain in print there, in the United States his work has been largely ignored, aside from The Day of the Triffids. But the New York Review of Books has recently republished what may be his most perfectly realized novel, The Chrysalids (1955), a tale of post-apocalyptic fundamentalism, and apparently Steven Spielberg is planning a movie of his final novel, Chocky (1968), so maybe we are on the verge of a Wyndham revival. Would it be too much to hope that it might be accompanied by a financial revival as well?

Sunday, June 27, 2021

On movies and family

"How did you get over it?"

"I watched Sal Mineo in Rebel without a Cause, and I thought, 'I can't be the only person who has these feelings.'"

Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore (1996)


My parents got a VCR in 1982, more or less the minute they were available at a reasonable price. The passage of time helps me see how unusual that was. We were comfortably middle class, but we didn't watch much TV. We didn't have cable. We certainly didn't have the giant, space station–style satellite dishes that some neighbors had.

But this wasn't TV. It was movies. My parents loved movies, and where we lived, out in the country, they were hard to come by. We got about five TV channels. The single-screen theater in our small town went in and out of business over the years like a firefly blinking on and off. Once it opened for a few winter months but had no heat. Another time it opened but was so forlorn that the operator answered a phone call from my dad asking when showtime was with, "When can you get here?" Any time it was shuttered, the nearest movies were an hour's drive away.

So when my parents got the chance to bring movies into their home, they jumped at it. If seeing Star Wars in the theater at three years old was the beginning of my love of movies, our VCR was the beginning of my education in their history and breadth. My parents are not scholars, of movies or anything else, and our family viewing was that of enthusiasts. We saw a lot of recent films—if Siskel and Ebert gave it their thumbs up, we would rent it. When Hitchcock's color works were restored and released on video, we watched them all over the course of a year or so. We saw the movies my parents remembered from childhood and youth; my brother and I have seen Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956) more times than any Gen Xer should have.

What a lifeline it must have been for my parents.


Film curator and critic Michael Koresky published a book last month, Films of Endearment, in which he details a year of watching movies with his mom.

It was explicitly a project, with structure. The idea—disrupted slightly by the pandemic—was to watch one movie a month, progressing through the 1980s via a film from each year of the decade that the two of them had seen together when Michael was younger. And the films chosen all had women at their center.

Our parents' tastes tend to be the first we know, and the work of trying to understand them (then, for many of us, eventually rebel against them) occupies a lot of time in childhood and youth. Watching how our parents react to culture is one of the first ways that we attempt to grasp what it is, means, and can be in our lives, how it reflects and refracts and influences them. This new movie-watching project gave Michael a chance to revisit his early encounters with those tastes, to see them with the full experience of forty years of life and discuss them with his mother in the more open, knowing environment of a parent-child relationship in adulthood.

As Michael and his mother together watch 9 to 5 (1980), Terms of Endearment (1983), Aliens (1986), and many more, he draws a picture of a relationship, to each other and to culture, that is familiar, comforting, and sweet. Encountering these films again, he's reminded, and thus reminds us, how much of our early selfhood is built with the pieces of life, the alternatives and approaches, that we see played out on screen, and of how the work of culture is necessarily interactive—how we aren't always sure of our understanding of or reaction to art until we've had a chance to discuss it with someone we care about.

For the past few years, the water table of my emotions has been unusually high, so that even the most inadvertent or indifferent spadework will unexpectedly discover fresh springs. I don't think I'm alone in that. Michael's book, with its stories of family and movies and love and loss, kept bringing my heart right up into my throat.


In mid-March 2020, when so many of us went home from the office and battened down, I started using what had been my commuting time to watch movies. I've watched a movie nearly every day since. There were a few gaps here and there caused by travel or other interference; you shouldn't deform your life for a stunt unless you've at least got a book deal in hand. But I've seen about five hundred movies in the past fifteen months.

A run like this would have absolutely wiped out my childhood video store, a mom-and-pop operation out in the country that smelled like pipe smoke and shared space with the proprietor's homemade ceramics. (You could buy a mug shaped like a boob, if that was your thing.) Now, however, Criterion Channel alone would have been able to keep me going. As any serious film buff is quick to say, not everything is streaming. But, lord, it's a lot, and when I think of those early VCR days, and the dearth of options before that, I marvel.

When I was a teenager living in the country but pining for something more, I saw culture as a checklist. To quote Woolf, it was an "ingenious picture puzzle, to be fitted accurately together." You follow the lead of someone like Ebert, visit the monuments, and eventually you'll have seen and know it all. You'll then be complete, the sophisticated person you imagine you want yourself to be. Some people never grow out of that approach. But ideally you get knocked off your moorings pretty young and start to see that the world is bigger and more multifarious than your ability to organize or contain, and you learn to chart your path through it via some combination of inclination, enthusiasm, education, and experiment.

Watching five hundred movies in a year showed me that even if you've taken that approach to movies for decades, the breadth of film culture and history can still astonish you. Throughout the year, following the path of a star or genre opened onto rooms that turned out to be in mansions that were themselves in whole other countries. It was a delight every day to keep exploring, tracing threads—a week of Technicolor Westerns, a month of Joan Crawford, half a dozen Wong Kar Wai films—and making discoveries.

It was also a lifeline. I had a much easier year amid COVID than most people did, but I still needed distraction and comfort, and movies—many of them made by people born long enough ago that they lived through our last pandemic—helped provide it. I'll never not be grateful that movies, and the technology to deliver them to my basement or backyard, were there for me.


My paternal grandfather, Harold Stahl, died on May 31. He was ninety-five and had stayed in pretty good health up until very near the end. As passings go, it was about as peaceful and welcome as anyone could ask for.

Grandpa was born in 1925 in rural southern Illinois, one of six children in a farm family. In 1943 he was drafted; he had to wait until the war was over to finish high school. After the war, he returned to his small town and married his high school sweetheart. The marriage stayed strong until his death. Together, they set to farming. He would do that until retirement, raising two kids along the way, one of whom, my father, was his partner in farming for almost twenty years. It was a happy, successful life.

I sometimes imagine other paths for him. He worked as part of a team of medics during the war, and he was always interested in medicine. It's easy to imagine him having become a doctor. But neither he nor my mother's father took advantage of the GI Bill. I never thought to ask them why, but I suspect it had to do with a sense of urgency, of time rapidly being lost.They wanted to get their lives underway.


My dad's parents were never into movies. Their relationship to culture overall was always limited. They read the newspaper, and Grandma read some fiction. (Like every house in 1982, they had a paperback of John Jakes's The Bastard on the shelf.) They listened to country music, but casually, satisfied with whatever the radio offered up. They followed baseball, but other than that and the news, didn't watch a lot of TV. They got a VCR in about 1986, and they used it to watch a single movie, once: The Long Riders, a Western about the James-Younger gang that I remember seeing at our small-town theater in 1980. I was six, but I nonetheless recall enough of what I now recognize as post-Peckinpah blood to make me confident they disliked it.

That indifference to culture has always been hard for me to understand. I suppose you could see something admirable about it: Their attention, essentially, stayed local, on their own lives and the community around them. What they had sufficed; they didn't need other people's stories and dreams to fill their days. Wendell Berry's more grounded characters might understand.

What is it like to not have that part of the mind engaged? To not live with a constant background buzz of thoughts about narrative and Jimmy Stewart and genre and landscape and and and? What is it like to not engage with these other lives on the screen, to not have them as models and influences and springboards for thinking about how one might choose to live?

That lack always left a gap in our interactions. Scrape culture completely off the palette, and the conversational colors you have to work with start to show their limits. My maternal grandmother was a counter-example, engaged with culture until her death at age ninety-six. She loved going to movies, even as her sight deteriorated. One of my favorite moviegoing memories is of me and my dad taking her to see Star Wars on its re-release in 1997. Her husband, my maternal grandfather, had just gone through bypass surgery and was recovering, and we were with her in Oklahoma City to help out. That day, the way we could help was by joining her in distraction, and Star Wars was what she wanted to see.

That interest in culture meant that we always had something to talk about. We'd discuss family, talk news, but we also would chat about books and long-gone stars. We shared a richer world than what I shared with my dad's parents.

"It has always annoyed me when someone tells me I talk about movies too much," Michael Koresky writes in Films of Endearment. "My response is that talking about movies is talking about life."


Over the past year, I've watched dozens of postwar crime films, a genre that it's all but impossible to understand without taking into account the fact that nearly all the male characters had just come back from war. They had used weapons. Many of them had killed, and seen friends killed. As James Jones put it in World War II, on the return to civilian life:
The first sign of change was the coming of the pain. As the old combat numbness disappeared, and the frozen feet of the soul began to thaw, the pain of the cure became evident. The sick-making thoughts of all the buddies who had died. The awful bad luck of the maimed. . . . About the last thing to go was the old sense of esprit. That was the hardest thing to let go of, because there was nothing in civilian life that could replace it. The love and understanding of men for men in dangerous times, places, and situations. Just as there was nothing in civilian life that could replace the heavy, turgid, day-to-day excitement of danger. Families and other civilian types would never understand that sense of esprit, any more than they would understand the excitement of the danger.
The veterans of World War II were expected to come home and pick up life where they had left it, not missing a step of the march. But you can see the unacknowledged trauma of their experience throughout the art of the period, and particularly in noir. As Marc Svetov put it in an issue of Noir City,
The portrayal of veterans in such films as Best Years of our Lives, The Men (1950), Pride of the Marines is optimistic—hope for reintegration into society is never really in doubt. In film noir, by contrast, the fate of veterans is unclear; it’s unknown whether social integration or a good life will come to any of the men in High Wall (1947), The Blue Dahlia (1946), Nobody Lives Forever(1946) and many other noirs. In the more mainstream films of the era, servicemen are depicted as solid, functioning Americans, ready to return to society, in some cases as heroes. Film noir took a different tack. It put a question mark to all of it.
Sometimes war damage is explicit, as with a case of shell-shock in The Blue Dahlia. Most of the time it's implicit. I keep finding my thoughts returning to Robert Ryan's dangerously restless character in Clash By Night (1952). Bored by civilian life, he brims with a violence that has no acceptable outlet. The world is settling down around him, and he doesn't fit.

Grandpa Harold was fairly lucky in his experience of the war. Serving in Japan in the early days of the occupation, he certainly saw plenty of horror and destruction, but as far as I know he avoided actual combat. For him, the war was perhaps less traumatic for its violence and danger than for its disruption—the way it stripped four years out of his life. When I look at pictures of him and Grandma from the early 1950s and see how clearly determined they were to be immediately, wholly adult, I think of that, and understand the urgency they must have felt. They had to catch up to life.


If you want to sit for a minute with the seductive appeal of midcentury America, I know of a couple of ways. One is to stare at this photo of Paul Newman in Venice in 1963.

But that may just be me. One that's more likely to work for others is to go to Dodger Stadium on a June night, and, as twilight creeps over Chavez Ravine, let your gaze slip a little, your focus drift away from the game and toward the ballpark itself, its cleanly geometrical concrete and plastic, the hills, the perfect southern California sky. It's 1962. The postwar boom is underway, the future all potential. Lines on graphs only go up.

It's flawed, of course. There was rot and lies and cruelty underneath, as there almost always is when we're talking about a collective dream. Hell, Dodger Stadium itself was built on some of it. But good god, in a time when optimism—a creed I largely hold with—seems more divorced than ever from the facts, that moment when we looked ahead with hope can't help but shine.

I have a smaller, more personal point of reference for that feeling, too, one that could hardly be farther from the glamour and style of Los Angeles. In the early 1950s, my paternal grandparents bought a new house in the country in rural southern Illinois, a few miles from where they'd lived in the first few years of their marriage. It was a small house, surrounded by fields, with a barn for the animals and a shed for the tractor.

A gravel driveway covered the hundred yards or so to a two-lane state highway. Across the highway, a matching drive covered a similar distance to a house owned by another young couple, the Erkmans. Both couples would stay there, neighbors and friends, raising families and farming, for almost forty years.

A farmhouse in the country is an island. At night, it's the center of a circle carved from the darkness by a utility light on a pole in the yard. There's a feeling of the frontier about it,—hints of the farmstead in Shane—even if there's a neighbor in sight and a small town seven miles away. I picture those two young couples standing on their porches at the end of a day of farming, pausing for a minute and looking up at the sweeping rural sky slowly draining of summer light. The war was behind them. Their homes were here. Their toddlers were sleeping inside. Their neighbors were across the way, just in sight. Everything was heading the right direction.


We learn who and what we want to be from those around us, but for most of us that cast comprises far more than the people we actually know. We find models in the art we experience.

Not everyone sees a recognizable future version of themselves to aspire to on screen. Michael Koresky, who is gay, notes that in Films of Endearment:
I've often wondered if other kids were seeing themselves on movie screens. For me, movies were an escape, not a mirror. I felt an estrangement from what I was seeing, comfortable in the fact that these were other people's stories. Husbands and wives, people who worked hard in very adult-looking offices to have their two-car garages or palatial city apartments; men and women who had bouts of marathon sex, who went on expensive vacations, who remodeled kitchens and paid for elaborate weddings, who raised adorable children who never resented them. For reasons as yet unexamined, none of that seemed in the cards for me, so I saw movies as time marching forward, vessels for a linear progression perhaps not meant to include me.
I can't imagine how hard it must be to almost never see yourself in the stories on screen, particularly at the very moment in your life when you're most in search of models and guidance.

But I also can't imagine simply not looking there at all. I watch Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), with its distillation of the hopes and anxieties of the young couples trying to settle down in the wake of the war, and I wonder where, if not from sources like that, my grandparents drew their models for who they wanted to be and how they wanted to live in the coming years.

Was local rural society robust enough that it sufficed? Did they see there others living lives of a shape they wanted for their own? Perhaps. There was an oil boom on, and the local population was growing. The town nearest them, Enfield, was looking ahead to crossing the 1,000-resident line and changing, formally, from a village to a town. The nearby small town I grew up outside of would build a big new high school in the 1950s. Main Street would be filled through that decade with new shops owned by locals that would linger on into my own childhood, only to have Wal-Mart dispatch them in the late 1980s with all the dispassion of a paid assassin.

By the time I was growing up, the boom was long gone. Enfield never reached 1,000 residents, and it's still declining. My own hometown was looking ragged. It was obvious my siblings and I weren't going to stay. All I knew of urban life when I was sixteen was what I'd seen on screen, but I knew that it was what I wanted. For me, at least, it was going to be better than this.


Watch as many old movies as I have lately, and you end up spending a lot of time on Wikipedia. How old is Lizabeth Scott in Desert Fury? (A: 24.) What about Joan Crawford in The Unknown? (A: No one is sure, even now! (Probably about 25.)) You see the arcs of careers, the growth of talent, the shifting relationships, both work and personal.

You also see death. For every Olivia de Havilland, there's a Wendell Corey, dead from drink at fifty-four. Lee Marvin, that towering force of nature, only made it to sixty-three; Clark Gable didn't even reach sixty. Poor Carole Lombard, good lord. Marilyn Monroe was born in 1926, a year after my grandfather, and she's been dead nearly sixty years. What different lives the two of them had, on every axis.

Fate deals us all different hands, then it compounds the unfairness by how much or little we're made to pay for our mistakes or rewarded for our good choices. Bad habits or errors of judgment snuff out one life, while another person, similarly heedless, skates. Virtue is not always rewarded, vice haphazardly punished. To have made it to ninety-five in good health, with family around you, is to have been afforded an uncommon grace.


We went to the movies Friday night for the opening of F9. It was big and loud and deliriously, lovably dopey, and we were there with a group of friends and surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd and we loved every minute. We watched staggeringly beautiful people do staggeringly stupid things in a story that carries almost no lasting cultural, intellectual, or emotional weight, and it was glorious.

To have made it through the pandemic and be going to the movies again is a joy and a gift.

Thursday, March 04, 2021

On Ishiguro

 Below is a survey of Kazuo Ishiguro's whole career that I wrote back in 2009 for the "Quarterly Conversation" a site that, alas, seems to have wholly gone missing from the internet. Written on the occasion of the publication of Ishiguro's first book of short stories, "Nocturnes," it seems worth posting anew here the week of the publication of his new novel, "Klara and the Sun." 

For what it's worth--scorekeeping at a minimum, I suppose--I thought the one novel that Ishiguro published between this piece and "Klara," "The Buried Giant," was a complete failure, almost to the point of being unreadable. That said, I was no less quick to get the new one, and I am no less excited to see what he's done this time.

Were it not for the fact that Kazuo Ishiguro's six novels all share a fundamental concern with the way that people actively create the self they present to the world--expressed in each novel through tight first-person narration--it would be easy to think of him as two different writers struggling within one body. The first of those writers is a careful, understated realist, observing society and the attempts of flawed, frequently repressed individuals to find a place for themselves within it; think of a slightly less buttoned-down Henry James. The second is far stranger, influenced by Kafka and maybe even Proust, and he writes of individuals whose own self-deceptions, self-denials, and blind spots warp their understanding of the world to the point where we, the readers, can't even be sure that what they're describing bears any resemblance to reality. Though the separation isn't nearly so clean as such a classification scheme implies--there are interesting overlaps and resonances between the two approaches--it's nonetheless instructive to consider the differences they reveal.

The former writer, far better known and more widely appreciated, is most clearly exemplified by Ishiguro's most popular novel, The Remains of the Day (1989), which beautifully tells the story of the controlled emotional life of a head servant in an English country house as World War II approaches. That Ishiguro is also on display in An Artist of the Floating World (1986), which focuses on a guilt-ridden Japanese artist in the years after the war. Both these novels slowly reveal a meticulously calibrated consciousness, with which Ishiguro always plays a double game, here and there letting us perceive just a bit more about the narrators' feelings and lives than they are willing to acknowledge even to themselves; the meaning of a whole novel can turn on a word, an endearment, a phrase accidentally let slip that reveals far more than the narrator intended, or perhaps even understood. 

Looking back, we can see that the second, more unpredictable Ishiguro has also been present in some form from the start of his career. His debut novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982), which is narrated by a survivor of the Nagasaki bombing, subtly works against its realistic surface until by the end our faith in the narrator has been completely undermined--while our sympathy, and our even our pity, has only grown. But it wasn't until The Unconsoled (1995), a frustrating, flawed, but remarkably compelling doorstop of a novel, that we saw what this other Ishiguro was really capable of. Where his previous novels had been masterpieces of concision and clarity, The Unconsoled is, intentionally, a rambling mess, a relentlessly repetitive journey through one of one of those nightmares where we're constantly nagged by a sense of important tasks left undone. As an amnesiac pianist named Ryder wanders through a nameless Central European city, unsure about his relationship to the people he meets, let alone the obligations he's taken on, Ishiguro forces us again and again to confront Ryder's lack of understanding and his--and thus our--impotence in the face of a rebarbative and mysterious world.

The Unconsoled was published near the end of my undergraduate years, and a favorite professor and I discussed it at length. (She said, only half joking, that she washed her hair a dozen times in the course of reading it: overwhelmed again and again, that was the only way she could clear her head enough to allow her to return to Ishiguro's world. The novel does have that sort of effect.) Neither of us was entirely sure what Ishiguro was trying to do with the book, but nevertheless we were impressed, even astonished, by this unexpected change in his writing--and we both wondered, worried, even, where he might go from there. Not to make too great a claim for the book, but like Finnegans Wake it seemed to represent an end rather than a beginning, a playing out of an ultimately sterile--if fascinating--logic. To move forward as a writer, Ishiguro would have to figure out a way to reconcile this more complicated, experimental style with his earlier, more obviously controlled writing--to do otherwise would risk incomprehensibility on the one hand, stasis on the other. 

And with his next novel, it seemed that he understood that: for much of its length When We Were Orphans (2000) appears to be at least somewhat in the vein of Ishiguro's more realistic fiction. If his narrator--a self-described famous detective in 1930s England who is haunted by the loss of his parents years ago in war-torn China--is perhaps a bit more obviously damaged and unreliable than earlier characters, the trappings of the mystery genre with which Ishiguro dresses the story succeed brilliantly in distracting the reader enough that we don't realize how far gone the narrator is until he returns to China and his fragile psyche collapses, taking every hint of external reality with it. It's a dramatic and unsettling novel, but it's also unsatisfying: its two halves, rather than being united by the disintegrating consciousness of the narrator, remain in an awkward tension that ultimately spirals out of control, and the expectations raised by the realistic beginning are neither fully fulfilled nor fully confounded. 

It's perhaps understandable that Ishiguro followed When We Were Orphans with his most conventional novel since The Remains of the Day. Never Let Me Go (2005), despite some sci-fi trappings (and even a brief descent into memorable gothic imagery near the end) remains essentially a realistic novel, focused on the stunted emotional understanding of a young woman who slowly discovers the reasons she is condemned to second-class citizenship. In its close tracking of the narrator's efforts to construct a self that can fit into the limited place the world is willing to allow her, the novel harks back to the precision and clarity of Ishiguro's first novels, and it was extremely well received, being named, for example, by Time magazine as one of the hundred best novels published since the founding of the magazine. But as someone who still sees in The Unconsoled a breathtaking expansion of Ishiguro's powers, I couldn't help but be disappointed at its failure to break out of its self-imposed form; it may be churlish to be frustrated by a well-made book by a smart, talented writer simply because he's already shown a mastery of this approach, but that's what I felt, and it's what I still feel four years later when I return to the book. 

 * * *

All of which makes Ishiguro's newest book, Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, particularly interesting. A collection of short stories by an established novelist always seems like a stopgap--or at best a transitional volume, something to keep a writer's name in front of readers in the years between major works. But in the case of Ishiguro, who works slowly, the book can't help but take on more importance: despite the fact that he's been publishing for nearly thirty years, his output remains relatively slim, so any additions to his oeuvre are worth attending to. 

Befitting that importance, Nocturnes feels not so much transitional as oppositional, a working out of Ishiguro's two narrative approaches in shorter form. Ishiguro has explained that its five stories--all of which feature music or musicians in prominent roles--were conceived as a single, multi-part work; what's fascinating about that is that from story to story Ishiguro moves between his realist mode and his more subjective, even fantastic approach--and, in the stories "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Nocturne," for the first time he successfully marries the two. As we've come to expect from Ishiguro, all five stories are first-person accounts, tightly constrained by the consciousness and perceptions of their narrators. Characters recur, and the narrative voice, even as its owner changes, retains a certain casual, colloquial, even awkward tone that will be familiar to readers of Never Let Me Go. While the voice differs less than one might expect from story to story, its mimicry of the patterns and habits of thought remains convincing within each story nonetheless. 

Despite--or perhaps in a reflection of--the tension inherent in Ishiguro's exploration of his two modes, the structure of the book feels carefully planned, with stories gaining in resonance from the way they seem to comment on their neighbors, as well as by their place in the overall order. The stories that bookend the volume, told by a jobbing guitarist in Venice, are straightforward and beautiful, pitting the promise of music (and thus art in general) against the disappointments and compromises of daily life. Unusually for Ishiguro, they are mostly about people other than the narrator, who for the most part watches others and attempts to figure out their motivations. The resulting stories are closer to Henry James or Edith Wharton than anything Ishiguro's written since The Remains of the Day; ignore the colloquial tone of this opening passage from "Crooner" and see if it doesn't read like a set-up for a classic story from an age less skeptical of realist technique:

The morning I spotted Tony Gardner sitting among the tourists, spring was just arriving here in Venice. We'd completed our first full week outside in the piazza--a relief, let me tell you, after all those stuffy hours performing from the back of the cafe getting in the way of customers wanting to use the staircase. There was quite a breeze that morning, and our brand-new marquee was flapping all around us, but we were all feeling a little bit brighter and fresher, and I guess it showed in our music.

Those two stories are clear and straightforward, throwing into relief Ishiguro's recurrent concern with our ability to deny our deepest feelings even to ourselves, as well as, in the latter, the question of how to define and value creativity and artistry--and how they then define us as people--propositions that Ishiguro addressed explicitly in Never Let Me Go. The first time I read them, I thought them too simple, even half-formed, but the second time through they were powerful and convincing, "Crooner" even unexpectedly moving. 

The middle story, "Malvern Hills," is also entirely in a realist mode: a self-involved young singer-songwriter moves in with his sister for the summer, grudgingly working in her cafe in exchange for room and board. Despite some nice evocations of the beauty of the tourist-beset hills, it's a more awkward story than "Crooner" or "The Cellists," focusing more on the occasional eruptions of underlying resentment and misapprehension that we've seen before from Ishiguro's characters, and while the narrator's conflicts with his sister and brother-in-law are convincing, his casual encounters with a couple of Swiss tourists feel half-formed, and the story only half resolves, like a song that doesn't end on the tonic. 

Which leaves us the second and fourth stories, "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Nocturne," the most exciting in the collection, and the most exciting stories I've read this year. Both begin firmly in a realist mode, with clearly flawed narrators spinning somewhat self-justifying accounts of their lives leading up to the events of their stories--but before too long, both veer into truly strange territory. Strictly speaking, "Nocturnes"--which ultimately sees a jazz saxophonist who's undergone plastic surgery for the sake of his career sneaking around a deserted hotel in the middle of the night with a flighty female celebrity, both their heads swathed in bandages--manages to marry the strange and the quotidian the best. It shifts from realist to fabulous (and creepy) and back remarkably smoothly, the modes succeeding in commenting on each other--and their relationship to outside reality--in a way that Ishiguro has never managed before. 

That said, it's "Come Rain or Come Shine" that is the true standout. For the first twenty of its fifty pages, it, too, seems like an ordinary, straightforward story: the narrator, an itinerant teacher of English who is clearly too old to still be living such a rootless, hand-to-mouth existence, goes to stay with old friends from college. Though there are indications that, as so often in Ishiguro's work, the narrator is living in the past to an unhealthy degree, refusing to acknowledge the changes that time has wrought, when we learn that he has been invited as part of a misguided, even cruel attempt to patch up his friends' disintegrating marriage, we think we understand the rough pattern the story is likely to take--which makes it all the more surprising when Ishiguro instead plunges into the truly strange. The surprises in the story are a substantial part of its pleasures, so the less said the better, but the deftness with which Ishiguro moves from the world of ordinary human motivations to pathology and comic--yet troubling--absurdity is stunning, as is the resolution of the story, which is unexpectedly calm, kind, and even generous. 

An author who can keep you reading--and keep you anticipating his every new work--despite frustrations and disappointments is a rare and satisfying artist. I've not regretted any of the time I've spent reading Ishiguro's work; even the novels that aren't fully satisfying offer much to admire and think about. That makes it all the more exciting to read this collection--and especially those two crucial stories--and get the impression that Ishiguro has made peace with his warring tendencies, and that he finally may see the difficult but rewarding way forward.

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Haunting the autumn

Chicago closed its lakefront parks in mid-March, after an unseasonably warm day brought crowds of a size that was worrisome at that early stage of the pandemic. When the park reopened in June, one thing I noticed immediately was the disappearance of a number of familiar desire paths, those "paths and tracks made over time by the wishes and feet of walkers, especially those paths that run contrary to design or planning," as Robert Macfarlane puts it. With no feet to follow what Macfarlane calls their "free-will ways," the grass had reestablished dominance, obscuring the scars of human activity. 

By the end of the summer, most of them had returned. One, however, which has been a part of my running route for two decades, turned out, unexpectedly, to be an expression, it seems, of my desire alone. That's it below. Three months of treading it every other day, once in each direction, had just enough effect to make it barely legible. To the extent that you can pick it out, you're seeing an image of my devotion to habit.

There's so little to us when we're young. There was a time around age eighteen when I viewed, and presented, the fact that I was a Van Morrison fan as a salient aspect of my self. We have so little experience, have made so few lasting decisions, and the core elements that are likely to lastnamely, our relation to our family and the specific ways in which they've set us spinning and launched us into the worldare the part we're least likely to see the value of attending to or foregrounding at that age. It's no wonder we build a carapace of tastes and likes and call it a self. 

If we're fortunate, over time we outgrow that shell, and while we retain bits of itI'm still a Van Morrison fanthose become attributes rather than essence. (If we're not fortunate, we become one of those people screaming online about the need to release the Snyder Cut.) That fact, as much as a belief in the inherent dishonesty and toxicity of nostalgia, is what keeps me from pining for youth. I recognize the me of that era; I'm still keeping a number of the same desire paths visible through the undergrowth of adulthood. But the limits are so obvious, the center so ill-defined, that I can't imagine wanting to be back there. (When I read the Romantics, which I do with love, I nonetheless find myself, when I hit lines like this,

To spread a rapture in my very hair,

 -- O, the sweetness of the pain!

remembering when, age fifteen, I listened to Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" dozens of times on repeat, actively pushing myself to access some presumably deep, hitherto untapped, well of loss and pain.) 

Time builds the self that replaces the one we actively construct as teens. And it does so through accretion, less by way of active choices than by unthinking repetition. We make habits, then those habits make us. Samuel Johnson, one of our greatest thinkers about the good and the bad of the habitual, wrote in "The Vision of Theodore":

It was the peculiar artifice of Habit not to suffer her power to be felt at first. Those whom she led, she had the address of appearing only to attend, but was continually doubling her chains upon her companions; which were so slender in themselves, and so silently fastened, that while the attention was engaged by other objects, they were not easily perceived. Each link grew tighter as it had been longer worn, and when, by continual additions, they became so heavy as to be felt, they were very frequently too strong to be broken.
Habit is the stuff of adulthood, the organizing principle atop which is built the whole web of life and obligation that at times can feel inescapable, as Henry James notes in "The Great Good Place":

There was no footing on which a man who had ever liked life--liked it, at any rate, as he had--could now escape from it. he must reap as he had sown. It was a thing of meshes; he had simply gone to sleep under the net and had simply waked up there. The net was too fine; the cords crossed each other at spots so near togegther, making at each a little tight, hard knot that tired fingers, this morning, were too limp and too tender to touch.

Habit binds us, yes, but it also eases our passage through the world, freeing us from the risk of squirrel-like impulse or tharn-like terror. At the same time, however, it smooths the world's edges. Habit is the reason four years can pass in adulthood and leave little impression, whereas four years starting at fourteen remade our whole universe. 

The pandemic has thrown me more than ever back on habit. It was already my mode. Every morning, I think through how I'll organize the handful of things I do each day: Work, piano, dog walks, exercise. In normal times, however, that planning is frequently disrupted by outside events, activities as simple as going out to a movie or as complicated as a trip to Japan. Since March, however, the days have varied little. There's a comfort there, especially given how fortunate my family has been through all of this. But the risk of the deadening of impression is very strong. 

Autumn, therefore, came as a sort ofwell, salvation feels too dramatic. Correction, perhaps, is better. A distinct change in a way that the arrival of summer didn't present. As the shadows lengthened and the light slipped lower on the horizon and gained a golden tint (How much of our reaction to that light is atavistic, how much cultural?) I attended.

And here's where nostalgia comes into play. For years now at this season I have made a habit of reading ghost stories, tales of the weird or uncanny. It's the closest thing to a deliberate reversion to youth that I experience, and this year I finally figured out why it engages me. Even leaving aside my earlier caveats about our young selves, nostalgia is beset by the problem that the feelings of youth are hard to recapture, and even harder to re-create. Christmas morning will never again glow like it once did; first-day-of-school feelings are too dissimilar from what's evoked by the first day of a new job to re-emerge. But being scared? Oh, yes, that stays with us. And the sensorium of autumnso brilliantly evoked by Ray Bradbury,

October Country . . . that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and mid-nights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain. . . .

can still be potent enough to activate it in a way that is separate from our more mundane adult fears. 

Pressing deliberately on that feeling, opening myself up to the ways in which, to quote Mark Fisher in The Weird and the Eerie, "the domestic world does not coincide with itself," helps me to fully live in and engage with the season, to push back against habit ever so briefly. I may still be treading the same desire paths as always, but I'm not letting them pass underfoot without notice right now.

"Custom is commonly too strong for the most resolute resolver," writes Johnson, "though furnished for the assault with all the weapons of philosophy." The added weight of a pandemic, and its forced circumscription of life, adds to the challenge. Autumn, it turns out, is a more potent weapon than philosophy.

Winter, however, is wielded by the other side. And it's almost here.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Sumer is i-goin out


One of the very few notes of grace that has been vouchsafed us by this awful year is the position of Labor Day, which, perched as it is on the latest eligible day, allows us to retain summer, at least in a technical sense, as long as possible.


Summer comes, alleviating at least some of the strains of the spring, as it's always done, in times of plenty and times of plague.

Sing, cuccu, nu. Sing, cuccu.
Sing, cuccu. Sing, cuccu, nu.

Sumer is i-cumin in—
Lhude sing, cuccu!
Groweth sed and bloweth med
And springth the wude nu.
Sing, cuccu!

Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calve cu,
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth—
Murie sing, cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu,
Wel singes thu, cuccu.
Ne swik thu naver nu!


As a rural kid who didn't see much of his friends from the end of one school year to the start of the next, I've always seen summer at least to some extent as a time of transformation. I'd return in late August to a school whose people and relationships had been wholly transformed by the sun and heat and absence of responsibility. It could be unsettling, but, as I got older and, through access to a car, could better maintain those connections, it also proved to be both beautifully seductive and largely false. At that age, the changes are real, but they're time's doing, not summer's. And if you're lucky, you're still you at the end of them. 

I feel for those kids who, in the summer of 2020, are being denied those experiences by the virus. You get only so many summers; the summer when you're sixteen you get only once.


Part of the allure of summer is its sense of promise, of immortality. On a sunny day in mid-June, who can believe that time can pass, that all this can end? Our appetite in May is vast--we will squeeze every bit of life out of this coming summer! August arrives, however, and some afternoons find us inside, artificial aids helping us hide from the heat. Summers blur and blend and disappear in memory, though some stand out, for reasons obvious and not. The summer when I read the whole run of Ben Grimm's short-lived solo comic, much of it somehow while sailing through the air on a frisbee swing. The summer I first went to YMCA camp, and the one when I last did. The summer when I was in England for a few days and got to experience the late-night golden-warm light and wee hours birdsong. The summer when we got Jenkins, and together he and I discovered the joys of long, aimless, quiet walks.

Time has been strange this year, but I did not let summer pass without heed this year. Wordsworth was regularly in my ear.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.

This was our time to expand and experience. We won't forget the summer of 2020, in part because we'll need to draw on it to warm us through the fall and winter, as we're forced back indoors and away, once again, from loved ones. 

"When I think back to those days," one of W. G. Sebald's characters writes in The Emigrants, "I see shades of blue everywhere--a single empty space, stretching out into the twilight of late afternoon."


And then summer goes. Historically it's brought new tasks--harvest, canning, preparations for winter. We should take care this year to attend to that last task, in multiple ways. 

But it's also always brought a new beauty, explicitly evanescent in a way that summer's beauty hides. Here's John Clare:

The thistledown's flying, though the winds are all still,
On the green grass now lying, now mounting the hill,
The spring from the fountain now boils like a pot;  
Through stones past the counting it bubbles red-hot.

The ground parched and cracked is like overbaked bread,
The greensward all wracked is, bents dried up and dead.

The fallow fields glitter like water indeed,
And gossamers twitter, flung from weed unto weed.

Hill-tops like hot iron glitter bright in the sun,
And the rivers we're eying burn to gold as they run;
Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air;
Whoever looks round sees Eternity there.

Autumn has long been my favorite season, its colors and chills and the way that baseball simultaneously winds down and intensifies. I'll love it once it's properly here. The river birch in our back garden, which in six weeks will be shimmering with golden leaves, would on its own be sufficient to fire that love. As would be the ghost stories native to October. The migrating birds, the marvel of which our homebound life this spring enabled us to experience in a wholly new way, will come through once again, and we'll get to share the grace of food and water with them. 

Canada geese, as if to prove a point, honked overhead amid this morning's quiet rain, stretching their wings on practice flights.


"The days were few then at Dunnett Landing," writes Sarah Orne Jewett in The Country of the Pointed Firs, one of the great summer books, "and I let each of them slip away unwillingly as a miser spends his coins. I wished to have one of my first weeks back again, with those long hours when nothing happened except the growth of herbs and the course of the sun. Once I had not even known where to go for a walk now there were many delightful things to be done and done again, as if I were in London. I felt hurried and full of pleasant engagements, and the days flew by like a handful of flowers flung to the sea wind."


The theme to the 1963 film Summer Holiday, performed by Cliff Richard, was a huge hit in the UK but never made an impression over here. I didn't know Richards's bouncy recording of it when I came across the song in a collection of fakebook arrangements and learned it on the piano, and I've always heard it with a hint of melancholy. An end-of-summer song rather than an early summer song.

Here's my so-so playing, if you want to hear it.

Summer Holiday from Levi stahl on Vimeo.


Thomas Hardy can see us out. This is "The Later Autumn."

Gone are the lovers, under the bush
Stretched at their ease;
Gone the bees,
Tangling themselves in your hair as they rush
On the line of your track,
Leg-laden, back
With a dip to their hive
In a prepossessed dive.

Toadsmeat is mangy, frosted, and sere;
Apples in grass
Crunch as we pass
And rot ere the men who make cyder appear.
Couch-fires abound
On fallows around,
And shades far extend
Like lives soon to end.

Spinning leaves join the remains shrunk and brown
Of last year's display
That lie wasting away,
On whose corpses they earlier as scorners gazed down
From their aery green height:
Now in the same plight
They huddle; while yon
A robin looks on.


Sunday, August 23, 2020

Retreating from everyday horror into fictional horror


 Hoo, boy, it's been a long time since I wrote, huh? Back in late January, when I restarted this blog after five years away, I said my hope was to write at least every couple of weeks. And I did it. Until the pandemic. And then . . . not much. The days keep sliding by--"August sipped away like a bottle of wine," as Taylor Swift puts it on her new record.

I've got the time. It's not that keeping me from writing. It's that everything we can say about pandemic life is already starting to harden into cliche. Yet at the same time simply writing, "Here's what I've been reading" also seems false, like a denial of the conditions of strange dread under which that reading occurred. 

That dread, though--it's brought me back here because yesterday I read a novel that took me wholly out of it for a while, substituting its own horrors for the ones around us. Stephen Graham Jones's The Only Good Indians is a horror novel that shocked and surprised and even all but scared me at a couple of points. I started it in the morning and simply tore through it.

The novel tells the story of four male friends, all American Indians from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana, and the unexpected supernatural--or is it hyper-natural?--consequences of an incident ten years ago when they slaughtered some elk. To a genre that has long relied lazily on cursed Indian burial grounds and such, Jones brings the perspective of contemporary Native people, living in the twenty-first-century world while also engaging in different, often self-contradictory ways, with tradition.

One of the most satisfying aspects of the novel is the way Jones simply puts us into these people's lives. He doesn't over-explain or act as our guide--he simply shows what life is like for Indians living in or around a reservation today. That life is a lot like the lives of any Americans who are surrounded by poverty, deprivation, and disinvestment overlaid with racism. We're in a world of junk cars and hard-labor jobs and limited opportunity. But it's also a world, within the reservation at least, of long memory and familiar community. The young men mock the tribal stories they were told as children even as they tell and retell contemporary versions from their own lives. Jones takes that vexed relationship with tradition and makes of it something dramatic and compelling, unafraid to mix the quotidian contemporary and the elements of myth. There's a basketball game in this book played for life-and-death stakes against a not-wholly-human creature, for god's sake, and it works, both as Walter Tevis–style sporting event where we care about the moment-to-moment plays and as a full-on fight with death.

At this point, I should apologize: I didn't think I'd be writing about this book, because I haven't been writing, so I don't have the usual batch of passages to share. But this one, selected almost at random, will give you an idea of Jones's voice and of his easy way with the milieu:

Off-rez, people always used to default-think that Lewis and Gabe were brothers. Gabe, at six-two, had always been a touch taller, but otherwise, yeah, sure. In John Wayne's day Lewis and Gabe would have been scooped up to die in a hail of gunfire, would have been Indians "16" and "17," of fort. Cass, though? Cass would have been more the sitting-in-front-of-the-lodge type, the made-for-the-twentieth-century type, maybe even already wearing some early version of John Lennon shades. Ricky, he'd be Bluto from Popeye, just, darker; put him in front of a camera, and all he could hope to play would be the Indian thug off to the side, that nobody trusts to remember even half a line. Of Lewis and Gabe and Cass, though, he was the only one who could struggle out a sort-of beard, if he made it through the itchy part, and didn't have a girlfriend at the. "Custer in the woodpile" was the excuse he would always give, smoothing his rangy fourteen hairs down along his cheeks like Grizzly Adams.

At risk of sounding like the crime fiction reviewer who's only read Chandler and Hammett and thus compares everyone to them, there are definitely aspects of this book that called to mind Stephen King. The comfort with slang and multiple registers seen in the passage above, for example. Jones also shares with King the desire to have us to know almost every character who appears in the book; we're in and out of the heads of most of them at some point in an effectively kaleidoscopic way, and even those for which we're not granted that access are deftly, compactly sketched. What calls to mind King even more, though, is how well Jones depicts physical pain and endurance, and the strange alchemy of will and the body that enables people to keep going long after they should have given up. 

 That's where horror is at its best for me, when it reminds us that the one thing we have that the unfeeling world can't take away from us is our refusal to let it have its way. That is in a way a sentimental vision--eventually we all lose that contest, after all--but it's at the heart of what makes stories like these resonate and feel valuable, especially at a moment like now when our ability to exert our will on the world seems so limited.

If you're looking for a book to take you out of that world for a while even as it mixes its myths with truths about it, The Only Good Indians is waiting for you.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Deep in our own heads

Feeling a little scattered these days. Aren't we all? How to get back some coherence?

Henry James, from his notebook, March 29, 1905:
The question, however, is with, is of, what I want now,and how I need to hark back, and hook on, to those very 1st little emotions and agitations and stirred sensibilities of the first Cambridge hours and days and even weeks--though it's really a matter for any acuteness, for any quality, of but the hours, the very first, during which the charms of the brave handsome autumn (I coax it, stretching a point with soft names) lingered and hung about, and made something of a little medium for the sensibility to act in. That was a good moment, genuine so far as it went, and just enough, no doubt, under an artful economy, to conjure with.
Lord, I hope we're not still doing this when the "brave, handsome autumn" arrives, but I have my fears. The stasis we're in certainly doesn't feel anything like a "medium for the sensibility to act in." Differentiating moment from moment feels like the most I can manage right now, as a creature of habit who find himself now somehow even more of one, without the usual interruptions of outside activity to punctuate the days.

But it's worth remembering that these pains are minor compared to those being suffered by many of our fellows. And even more so when set in the context of a reminder like this, which opens Francesca Wade's new book Square Haunting:
A few minutes past midnight on Tuesday, September 10, 1940, an air raid struck Mecklenburgh Square. From number 45, John Lehmann heard gunfire rumbling in the distance, the hum of airplanes at an insistent crescendo until "three whistling, ripping noises" directly overhead were followed by the unmistakable tinkling of breaking glass. Climbing out of bed, he opened the blackout curtains to find his windows shattered and the London skyline obscured by flames. His friend Stephen Spender's house on nearby Lansdowne Terrace, usually visible from his second-floor window, appeared to be enveloped in a burning cloud. "Well," Lehmann found himself thinking, surprised at his state of calm, "poor old Stephen's the first to go."
As some of you will know, Lehmann was, fortunately, wrong: Spender survived the war and lived into the 1990s. The fear, however, was real. For most of us living in the shadow of COVID, the immediate fear for our lives has passed, transmuted into fear for our livelihoods and our communities. That's a wholly legitimate fear, but I will confess that reading even that one paragraph about the Blitz offered a bracing restoration of perspective.

We're all in our own heads a bit right now, aren't we? Even as we attend work meetings via video and chat with friends on the phone or partners or roommates (or pets) in person, our inner monologues, I think, are rising in volume. How could they not, as we're faced with such a strange combination of new experiences and stultification? The moment-to-moment living of our lives has shifted to autopilot, but the deep bass thrum of fear is ever present, telling our minds they need to work overtime solving the problem. But it's a problem our minds can't solve, so they simply . . . work. To little avail.

That situation made Anita Brookner's The Rules of Engagement seem wholly apt for our moment when I read it recently. The novel, which tells the story of Elizabeth, a middle-aged woman, and her mostly failed marriage and brief affairs, leaves the reader almost completely in the head of its protagonist. Relatively few novels strike a realistic balance between our external interactions and the movements of our minds--in most novels dialogue flows back and forth without acknowledging the unspoken reactions, the flights of thought and reference, the lightning interpretations that necessarily occur between the end of one person's speech and the start of another's. Anthony Powell, in his way, does this. James certainly does, sometimes to a fault. Brookner in this novel pulls it off brilliantly, and to an explicit effect: We are in Elizabeth's head primarily because that is where she is trapped. She has no real confidantes, in part because society refuses to admit that a married woman might need them, that her dissatisfaction might be legitimate.

What that means ultimately is that Elizabeth is not only always assessing her own thoughts and actions but also doing the same for those of the people around her--and rarely seeing or taking an opportunity to check those assessments. Here's a brief example:
"Thank you for dinner."

"It was my pleasure."

It did not then seem as if it had been a pleasure. He had retreated into his earlier mournful self. What he had no doubt wanted was not something I could supply. The brief recitation of his emotional history had served some purpose, but I was not able to evaluate this. No doubt it had been defensive, even pre-emptive, in order to forestall any more leisurely enquiries. It now seemed entirely irrelevant, yet I knew that I should give it further thought. He seemed to regret it, but it was in keeping with his general stoicism not to offer excuses.
As the advice columnists so often have to remind us, if we want to know what someone thinks or feels, our best course of action is to ask them. Yet again and again we don't. It's a default form of self-protection in many cases, rooted in fear of responsibility and involvement. Yet it's also a denial, one that can easily warp us, of the separate reality of those around us. James Schuyler, in "Hymn to Life," captures the problem in a plainspoken way:
Reticence is not a bad quality, though it may lead to misunderstandings. I misunderstood silence for disapproval, see now it was

I think far more often than is probably reasonable about Reed and Sue Richards of the Fantastic Four, and how many times Reed has discovered an existential threat to the cosmos and decided that he had to solve it himself, rather than burdening his wife and family with the terrible knowledge. Always, Sue finds out. Always, she's righteously angry. It's a playing out in superhero terms of a drama common to many a deep relationship. Reed substitutes his own judgment for that of his wife, assumes that she shouldn't have to handle the stress of his knowledge, shouldn't have to help bear the burden, rather than honor her separate existence and trust that she can be a full participant in their shared life. It's the purest solipsism, one that cuts us off from so much of what relationships have to offer.

Schuyler again:
You see death shadowed out in another's life. The threat Is always there, even in balmy April sunshine. So what
If it is hard to believe in. Stopping in the city while the light
Is red, to think that all who stop with you too must stop, and
Yet it is not less individual a fate for all that.
We are all in our heads. We are all there alone. But we can open the doors. Right now that's more than ever worth the effort.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Still at home

A mention by a friend on Twitter yesterday got me thinking again about the best new novel I read last year, Lucy Ellmann's Ducks, Newburyport. In my review of the book for the Seattle Review of Books, I praised it as the first book I've read that
that [. . . ] thoroughly acknowledges the toxic mix of guilt and dread that is the bassline of life in Western society amid a climate change disaster that our every action exacerbates.
For an educated, attentive Westerner, climate change, and the guilt and fear that accompanies it, has in the past decade or so become a constant part of thought. It's there eroding our wellbeing at all times, in ways that, relative to the scale of the disaster and human culpability for it, are extravagantly minor, yet that cumulatively steal a not-insignificant portion of life's everyday pleasures. A warm snap in February? No longer an unmixed good. The first arrival of goldfinches in the spring? They're awfully early again this year, aren't they? A hike in the woods? Yes, but we had to drive there.

Part of the problem is that the scale is all wrong. Individually, we can do next to nothing about climate change. Yet it is, in part, as individuals that we will experience, and suffer from, its effects. And it is as individuals that we confront, moment to moment and day to day, our thoughts.

Lately, our thoughts have been infected by a new strain of dread. Five or six weeks into lockdown, for those of us not in frontline occupations the immediate fear of infection has subsided. It's still there, but it's no longer a countdown clock ticking at the back of our minds from the last time we rode the subway. Now the fears have turned social, political, economic. If we're lucky enough to still have a job, the fears are about the larger economy, and about our seeming lack of a clear path back to even half-normal. (Or even a true acknowledgment that that path, wherever it winds, will not be short.) What do we look like on the other side of this?

I've spent my whole career working in or with bookstores, so that's where I find myself turning when the larger questions get to be too much. They're almost all closed right now, and they're hurting. But they're also taking orders and shipping, and I'm drawing at least the most modest of solace in ordering something from every store where I know a staff member. And, unlike the way I usually approach my reading, which mixes books new to the house with stuff that's been lingering on the shelves unread for years, I'm stacking my stay-at-home purchases and reading my way right through them, on the logic that something about the current situation led me to choose these books, so perhaps I'll find they have something to say to me right now. Wild, Cheryl Strayed's 2012 memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest trail certainly does. This bit rang particularly true right now:
I'd loved books in my regular, pre-PCT life, but on the trail, they'd taken on even greater meaning. They were the world I could lose myself in when the one I was actually in became too lonely or harsh or difficult to bear. When I made camp in the evenings, I rushed through the tasks of pitching my tent and filtering water and cooking dinner so I could sit afterwards in side the shelter of my tent in my chair with my pot of hot food gripped between my knees. I ate with my spoon in one hand and a book in the other, reading by the light of my headlamp when the sky darkened. In the first week of my hike, I was often too exhausted to read more than a page or two before I fell asleep, but as iI grew stronger I was reading more, eager to escape the tedium of my days. And each morning, I burned whatever I'd read the night before.
She's burning the book because she didn't want to carry any more weight in her pack than she had to, but even knowing that, there's a certain drama to the act, no? Strayed's book itself is just what I want right now: It takes me someplace I can't go (and, to be honest, was never going to go), and it has a strong narrative pull that enables me, for a bit, to keep COVID thoughts at bay.

Philip Ziegler's The Black Death is a different sort of response to the moment. It's a reminder that things could certainly be worse. We aren't losing a third to a half of our population to COVID, and while there's a lot we still have to learn about the disease, we at least understand the basics of how it works and how it might be stopped. Yet there are parallels, and Ziegler's book offers plenty of moments that snag and stick like burrs on a hike, discovered only much later, lingering in my thoughts. Like this:
But if one were called on to identify the hall-mark of the years which followed the Black Death, it would be that of a neurotic, all-pervading gloom. "Seldom in the course of the Middle Ages has so much been written concerning the miseria of human beings and human life," wrote Hans Baron, going on to refer to "the pessimism and renunciation of life which took possession of mankind in the period following the terrible epidemics of the middle of the fourteenth century." It was a gloom which fed upon extreme uncertainty and apprehension. The European of this period lived in a constant anticipation of disaster.
Climate change, considered seriously, has given us a trial run for that feeling. Yet we still--at least, I think, we reasonably well-off Americans--tend to default to the assumption that things are going to be okay. I'll cop to that. I've been extremely fortunate. My life has gone well. And narrative concepts and structures are so deeply embedded in me and my thinking that, as little interest as I have in being any kind of hero, I can't help but imagine myself as the protagonist of my own life--and to assume that life is ultimately a story that will have a reasonable, satisfying shape to it. Our current situation reminds me of how presumptuous that is, both on an individual and a societal level, even as it reveals how incredibly deep the roots of that outlook are in my personality.

COVID has laid bare so many of the underlying assumptions about our lives and society--and most of them do not put us in a good light. Inequality is deadly. Failing to acknowledge our interconnectedness is deadly. Neglect of infrastructure is deadly. Dealing with crises rather than working to prevent them is deadly. And we, myself certainly included, are complacent about what we have. A passage from Phil Christman's thoughtful new book about the Midwest, Midwest Futures, comes to mind:
That we take such a good place for granted, as though its usefulness for human life were proof of its dullness and interchangeability, allows us to misuse it, and ourselves, and each other, who are marked as boring by having come from this boringly good thing, or marked as threatening because they didn’t. It takes a thousand years for the earth to make three centimeters of topsoil. (Climate change encourages floods, which wash topsoil out to sea.)
At the same time, I hold with Joshua Marshall of Talking Points Memo that optimism isn't an assumption or a plan, but an ethical stance. It enables us to continue, to do the work that could help justify our belief in it. I can worry about worst-case scenarios, but I have to on a fundamental level believe we'll get past them.

In the current moment, that work, for many of us, consists mostly of letting time and distance do their work. So we try. I'm reading. I'm watching the birds at our feeder. I'm seeing a movie a day. I'm working on finicky little finger exercises for the piano, devised by Czerny to facilitate madness. I'm being grateful for my wife and our dog and cats. And I'm thinking about this line from Wild:
Each day on the trail was the only possible preparation for the one that followed.
That's as succinct an assessment of where we are right now as any I've come across. Stay strong and well, friends.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Staying home

{Anonymous art seen today on my block.}

I woke up this morning trying to remember whose was the last hand I shook. It was probably in the last days of February. It would also represent the last physical contact I've had with anyone other than rocketlass.

Today was the first day it felt at all eerie. Walking Jenkins, I arrived at Foster Avenue to . . . nothing. As someone who grew up in the country, I'm still, all these years later, pleasantly surprised by how quiet city Sundays can be. Even in Tokyo, out for an early run, I've found solitude. But this was different. Foster is always tough to cross with a dog, almost no matter the hour. But it was ours today to idle across at will. I was reminded, by their absence, of some of the images from James Schuyler's "An East Window on Elizabeth Street":
Across an interstice 
trundle and trot trucks, cabs, cars,
station-bound fat dressy women
In the distance, I spied runners, on opposite sides of the street, both heading towards the lake, towards the sun. Schuyler again, from his still-bustling city:
The furthest-off people are tiny as fine seed
but not at all bug-like. A pinprick of blue
plainly is a child running
Otherwise the street belonged to us, and the spring-bright cardinal singing from the very top of a bare tree, and the woodpecker diligently breakfasting, unseen, on another.

I watched an episode of Columbo last week and found myself tensing at the proximity of the characters during a dinner party. We are a malleable species. We make adjustments, and take them more deeply within ourselves than we realize, with incredible, perhaps even frightening, speed.

Everyone—and by everyone I mean, as we so often do, a small group of people I interact with online—is turning to Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year. Neither a work of history nor of journalism, though it draws from both wells, it uses the story of an outbreak of plague in 1664 to prepare readers for a potential future outbreak. We live in a different time, in largely different ways, but there are notes that resonate. Here is Defoe on how people respond to the threat of having their houses shut up, with them trapped inside, a virtually certain death sentence, which was prescribed by the authorities when members of a household were discovered to be infected:
It would fill a little Volume to set down the Arts us'd by the People of such Houses, to shut the Eyes of the Watchmen, who were employ'd, to deceive them, and to escape, or break out from them.
Thus far, in our plague, there seems to be less of that, and more of outright defiance, of pretending that youth or money or, quite simply, one's own essential position as the center of the universe, will protect one.

Defoe's opening calls to mind the early part of this year, up to the first days three weeks ago when we started seriously discussing at my office the possibility of having to send everyone home to work. At that point, though we knew intellectually that there was a threat, that information was hard to turn into suitable levels of fear or concern—everything still felt distant.
It was about the Beginning of September 1664, that I, among the Rest of my Neighbours, heard in ordinary Discourse, that the Plague was return'd again in Holland; for it had been very violent there, and particularly at Amsterdam and Roterdam, whither they say, it was brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant among some Goods, which were brought home by their Turkey Fleet; others said it was brought from Candia; others from Cyprus. It matter'd not, from whence it come; but all agreed, it was come into Holland again. 

We had no such thing as printed News Papers in those Days, to spread Rumours and Reports of Things; and to improve them by the Invention of Men, as I have liv'd to see pracstis'd since. But such things as these were gather'd from the letters of Merchants and others who corresponded abroad, and from them was handed about by word of mouth only; so that things did not spread instantly over the whole nation, as they do now. But it seems that the Government had a true Account of it, and several Counsels were held about Ways to prevent its coming over; but all was kept very private.
That last bit is familiar enough to sting.

If you've not read Journal of a Plague Year, the episode of the Backlisted podcast that focuses on it is a good starting point.

Thus far, my life hasn't changed dramatically. That's largely a mark of intertwined privilege and luck. Rocketlass and I both have jobs that can be done remotely, and neither of us works in a sector of the economy that's an immediate casualty. Like everyone, we're at risk from the larger catastrophe (to say nothing of the virus itself), but for now the only effect is that we're at home.

Our society has never been quite sure how to think about work relationships. With rare exceptions, they're not exactly friendships—but in a good workplace, they're also not not friendships. You care about these people and their lives. You appreciate their abilities and their character. You look forward to their insights, and their jokes. In a crowd of strangers, they glow like a lighthouse, guiding you to comfort and safety

At the core of the relationship, for most of us, is the simple dailiness of it. Every day, you're going to see these people, and—most of the time—you're going to see them in a situation where everything is nice and clear. You know what you're supposed to do, you know what they're supposed to do, and you'll do a lot of it together. Most of the time, that's a distinct comfort.

As I left the office a week ago, unsure when I'd go back, I did a mental count: Nine people in the Books Division had been there when I started, including three in my department. Nine people whom I have seen more or less every day, barring two-week stretches of vacation here and there, since 1999.

When Silicon Valley tells people they should bring "their whole selves" to work, they're trying to take advantage of people. You should never take your whole self to work. Work isn't buying your whole self. The realms should be separate. But that doesn't mean you can't be yourself at work. I'm largely the same person at the office as I am at home—marginally less sweary, but that's about it. As a colleague and a boss, I'm pretty transparent: I am who I seem to be.

Aside, that is, from one thing: At the office, managing a staff of twenty-eight, I am an extrovert. And I'm good at it. I'm there for my staff and my colleagues, and part of my job is, and always has been, going back to my retail beginnings, performing in that way. I like it. But it takes it out of me, and on the weekends I'm quiet. I have friends whom I love, but I tend to spend most of my off hours quietly, reading, playing piano, running, watching movies.

The stay-at-home order, therefore, represents no major rupture for me. I'm fortunate enough to have space, and a wife, and pets, and a tendency to live this way already. How are the true extroverts dealing with it?

I have long read Thomas a Kempis, not for his religion, but for his focus on quiet and solitude. He's apt:
The man who has not diligently practiced holy repentance is not worthy of heavenly consolations. If you want to experience this repentance in your heart, go to your room and shut out the din of the world, as it is written: commune with your own hearts on your beds and be silent. Retire to your room and there you will preserve what you usually lose by leaving it.

If you keep to your room you will find delight in it, but if you only visit it, it becomes irksome and annoying. If, at the time of your conversion, you had accustomed yourself to stay in your room and remain there, it would now be your good friend and a source of great pleasure to you.

"Enter into your room, and shut out the clamor of the world."

In part because of those general preferences, the crisis hasn't quite hit me emotionally yet. It's still mostly about logistics: How do we do this, how do we deal with this, how do we recover from it? Fears are mostly focused on the economic damage; somehow the human damage, perhaps unreasonably, is still hard to process. I'm fortunate to not know anyone who has been diagnosed, and to be healthy myself, thus far. And while I know all but nothing about medicine, I do have an educated layman's knowledge of business, the economy, and government, so I find myself thinking about the economy and tools for recovery. It's sobering. Even America—the richest society in the history of the world, one that, because of its role as the world's banker, can simply print money as needed—is going to have a hard time recovering. The prospects for the less well-off parts of the world are terrifying. We'll need a New Deal–level US recovery program, and a Marshall Plan on steroids if we want to help the rest of the world. And I worry about our ability, and willingness, to do either.

Regardless, we will come out changed. My city, your city, they'll never be the same. It feels simultaneously melodramatic and apt to quote Sir Edward Grey's remark on the eve of World War I:
The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime
As I walked this morning past shuttered stores and restaurants and bars and wonder which will be around to re-open, I found myself thinking of some lines from Jana Prikryl's "To Tell of Bodies Changed"
A painter once squared himself against a difficult question
and said no one could just create
a landscape,
but isn't it true
that expectation builds a neighborhood
and there is nowhere else that you can live.
What are my expectations, now? What will my neighborhood be?

Then there's the actual virus, and the fear of catching it (or having those we love catch it). Knowing its general latency period, it feels as if there's a stopwatch ticking in the background, counting down the days since we last interacted with possibly infected strangers. Every twinge in the throat, every flash of headache, every urge to cough . . . is it beginning? It's a special kind of horror, one that is wholly new to my life, and that I, at least, can only deal with by trying desperately to ignore it.

It keeps bringing to mind, not anything obvious like "The Masque of the Red Death," but rather my favorite J. G. Ballard story, "Escapement." A brief, potent story, it tells of a man who, while sitting with his wife one evening, realizes slowly that he's slipped into a time loop, wherein a section of time fifteen minutes long keeps repeating itself. Yet even as he begins to grasp this, his wife remains uncomprehending. The loop plays itself out—Ballard does something interesting where it tightens on itself until the kink straightens out, essentially—but then his wife, watching TV, says, "Why do they keep on doing that? . . . They've done it twice already." "No," he replies," I don't think they have."

It takes the husband a minute, but it clicks. She's slipped into it, and he's not going to be able to retain his knowledge of what's happening. And here, the end, is the bit I keep thinking of, as I wonder whether we're about to slip into something unpleasant:
""Darling," I said, putting my arm around her. "Hold tight."
"What do you mean?"
"This is the merry-go-round. And you're driving."

For now, though, I'm well and it's morning and it's quiet. The actions available to me to mitigate this disaster are few, and I'm taking them. I hope you are, too, and that you're well.

Sun helps. Pets help. Poetry helps. Specifically James Schuyler:
The day
offers so much, holds
so little or is it
simply you who
asking too much take
too little? It is
merely morning
so always marvelously
gratuitous and undemanding,
freighted with messages
and meaning
Stay well, friends. I don't know what the other side of this will look like, but I do know that I want to see you there.