Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Much as I love end-of-the-world stories, my knowledge is pretty spotty; I'm always an amateur when venturing into sci-fi, and in a sub-genre as rich as this one, I'm sure to leave out bunches of good books. But here's my initial list, which is guided by a couple of simple criteria: the story needs to be reasonably plausible, and, while I like a bit of politics in my apocalypse, overall I prefer the gory to the allegorical.
George R. Stewart's The Earth Abides (1949) has to be there, as, from what I understand, it kicked off American sci-fi writers' interest in the idea of the end of humanity. The tools for destroying the world were, after all, suddenly at hand; who knew then that we'd succeed in getting through at least sixty years without using them again? And The Earth Abides is still worth reading for a lot of reasons other than its importance in the genre: for the picture it draws of America's pre-interstate infrastructure, the survivors' stubborn insistence on eating canned foods instead of learning to farm, and the post-apocalyptic community's unquestioned privileging of men--all of which place the book clearly in its time; for the scene where the reconstituted community has to decide how to handle a man set on disrupting what they've built; and for the way it highlights the reproductive dangers, both genetic and cultural, that constantly face small populations: if only one person has a particular skill or trait, the chances of losing it forever are staggeringly high.
Going back to the roots of sci-fi, I think War of the Worlds (1898) belongs, but what about The Time Machine (1895)? After all, although it's set in a future that hasn't arrived yet even within the story's own time, it does show us a collapsed society and a lost humanity. I think I'd include it.
Of more recent vintage, I'd have to include The Stand (1978), though I'd never recommend that anyone read the long version, as I did in high school. Even given that time wasted in high school is a lot like time not wasted at all, I'm not sure it was worth it--and that's all before taking into account that, as usual, King has no idea how to end the book. But I would never argue that it doesn't belong on my table; given King's popularity, it's the first apocalypse book a lot of people encounter.
Another contemporary novel I'd make a space for is Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake (2003). Though I was a bit unsatisfied with it overall, I'd include it if only because it's so bleak for so long--and frequently flat-out scary, as the surviving humans spend a lot of their time dodging packs of genetically engineered wolvogs, rakunks, and pigoons. Don't ask me what wolvogs look like--I just know they're very, very scary.
A Journal of the Plague Year definitely gets a place, despite not being about the end of humanity, because Defoe's descriptions of the streets of London are so similar to the descriptions of zombie-ridden cities in World War Z that, as a bookseller, I'd have fun recommending both to people.
World War Z would also go nicely with the five paperback volumes (so far) of Robert Kirkman's comic The Walking Dead (2003) (though I'm beginning to question Kirkman's attitude towards women--being contemporary, he doesn't have George Stewart's excuse for bad gender politics--though since the series is continuing Kirkman still has time, I suppose, to demonstrate that I'm misreading him). The Walking Dead so far demonstrates that zombie stories are well-suited to serial narrative: the world, as it were, can always keep ending. I'd also have to throw in a George Romero four-pack, even if my store didn't generally carry DVDs, because nothing I could do for George Romero would repay him for his role in clarifying the rules of zombification (just as, in a different way, nothing I could do will ever repay him for scaring me so much the first time I saw Night of the LIving Dead (1968)).
As being a good bookseller means knowing books you haven't read, there are quite a few of those I'd certainly think about adding. John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (1951) definitely belongs, but what about Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826)? I fear it may violate my gory/allegory rule. And do I really have to include Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006), even though the lines I've read in praise-filled reviews have been so implausibly overwritten as to make me laugh? If I were really running a bookstore, I'd probably have to.
What about Adam Johnson's Parasites Like Us (2003)--anyone read it? Or two established classics, Nevil Shute's On the Beach and Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon (1959)? Do they hold up well enough to be worth including?
Are there any crucial books I've missed-- like a nice radium-bound edition of The Revelation of St. John the Divine? Any books I've mischaracterized? Imaginary tables are by their nature accommodating, so I'm happy to take suggestions.
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Laurence Sterne had been on my mind since just after Christmas, when my friend gave me a DVD of A Cock and Bull Story, the 2005 movie of Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759). The movie, which I heartily recommend, stays impressively true to the digressive, hilarious, muddled spirit of the book; the sheer fun of it had me thinking that maybe I should read the novel itself again this winter. So a few weeks ago, as Stacey and I leaned against a wall waiting to be admitted to a different lecture (on bird song), having Sterne on the brain no doubt helped me pick out the poster for tonight's lecture from the usually indistinct mess of fliers and announcements papering the hallway.
Between work and the lecture, read a bit of Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), for which Maggie and Christmas are also, in a sense, responsible. When Maggie was in town in December, she was reading Robinson Crusoe (1719), our discussion of which made me think I should try A Journal of the Plague Year. However, it's unlikely that I'd have gotten around to it by now except that for Christmas Stacey got me Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map (2006), a history of London's 1854 cholera epidemic, and my brother got me Max Brooks's World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006). Clearly, if there was ever going to be a time to read A Journal of the Plague Year, it was now.
In the pages I read just before I left the bar feature Defoe's narrator, H. F., decides to flee London in the early days of the plague, only to discover that there are no horses available. Following that disappointment, he turns to bibliomancy to decide whether he will stay or set out on foot; he opens the Bible to Psalm 91, which exhorts him to
Say of the Lord, He is my refuge, and my foretress, my God, in him will I trust. Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler and from the noisome pestilence.Thus reassured, H. F. decides to place his hopes (and his soul) in God's hands and stay in London.
Arriving at the talk, I learned that it was to focus largely on the role played in Sterne and subsequent sentimental literature (down to Frank Capra!) by the ideas of the vehicle and motion. It was fairly heady stuff, exploring the real and metaphorical roles of actual vehicles and motion, as well as more abstruse spiritual concepts of vehicles for the workings (and movement) of the soul, the emotions, and sentimental communication. But it did immediately call to mind H. F.'s worries about transportation and his entrusting his soul to God for delivery, if not physically out of London, then at least safely into the afterlife. The soldiers and zombies of World War Z came to mind, too: the soldiers, forced by society's collapse to eschew the vehicles they had come to depend on, are brought face-to-face with the zombies, the ultimate expression of Descartes's concept of a body without a soul They're empty vessels, still animate but to no good purpose--and with whom there is no communication. No matter how earnest and heartfelt an entreaty one makes, there is no hope that they will be moved.
Finally, a mention late in the talk of J. M. Coetzee's most recent novel brought me, in a sense, full circle, as Coetzee's 1988 novel, Foe, is a reworking of the Crusoe story. Though it's not nearly as good as Coetzee's best, if you're a Crusoe fan it's worth at least looking at; I had just today reminded myself to send Maggie a note asking if she knew about it.
So what does all of this mean? As I said at the top, almost certainly nothing of substance. But I know that it--and the talk itself--got the wheels of my brain spinning, and they're still going. And I know that if I were to ever imagine coming to believe in a soul, its vehicle-of communication, transit to immortality, whatever--would most certainly be some form of that whirring activity.
Sunday, January 28, 2007
I couldn't put the book down, though, and I kept reading Block, going back and reading all the Matthew Scudder novels. The more I read--and the further I got from sixteen--the more I understood what Block was trying to do with Scudder's mix of strength and frailty. But I then went nearly fifteen years without reading any Lawrence Block; following an English degree with a couple of years working in a bookstore that had no mystery section caused me to forget all about him, along with a lot of other mystery writers. So I was pleased to find last week, on reading his 1964 novel Lucky at Cards, that he is as good as I remembered. I don't know if the Matthew Scudder novels would hold up to my teenage memories, but Lucky at Cards is really satisfying. It features a lot of good crime novel virtues: a compromised protagonist, a glimpse into the techniques of an illicit profession (in this case, that of a card "mechanic," or sharp), and a deceptively simple but pleasantly surprising plot.
Lucky at Cards also provides--simply by virtue of its age--a fascinating view of the mid-century old boy network in action (and of the world of male camaraderie that accompanied it), as the card mechanic infiltrates a group of business and professional friends who spend their weekends playing poker, drinking, and talking about investment syndicates. Because he has reasonable clothes, a convincing manner, and can play poker and say all the right things, it seems only natural for him to be invited to join their game, then their circle, then be set up with a job and a potential girlfriend. The webs of interconnection, the long-term plans seemingly being laid in quick-drying concrete, and the obvious group expectations all conspire to make the con man's whipsawing between disdain for and attraction to the straight life convincing, investing his tough decisions with the real uncertainty that's essential to a good crime novel.
On top of all that, Lucky at Cards has the best cover painting Hard Case Crime has commissioned yet. Now I'll have to pick up the other two Block novels that Hard Case has reprinted, which appear to have pretty great covers themselves.
Thursday, January 25, 2007
Johnson himself was a gadget person, but he preferred earthier uses: high-powered showerheads, special blades to cut thick steaks into the shape of Texas, an amphibious jeep that he loved to drive into his lake by "mistake" with unwitting passengers, and, mounted on his Lincoln touring convertible, a horn whose sounds stimulated the mating instincts of nearby cattle, producing sights that mortified those whom Johnson gleefully called "citified" guests.
And then there are stories of Johnson the master politician and manipulator, using his charisma, power, and understanding of people to get exactly what he wants:
The President announced on the way that he wanted [Sargent] Shriver to launch his new war on poverty.
Shriver replied nervously that he remembered reading in Pakistan or somewhere that Johnson had mentioned poverty in a speech, but he was sure the President could find someone better qualified. Besides, he was more than occupied as Director of the Peace Corps. Johnson said Shriver could run the Peace Corps and poverty at the same time, and Shriver escaped with a promise to consider the flattering proposal. Not knowing Johnson, he assumed the next move was his.
The next day, Saturday, February 1, a White House operator startled Shriver at home, and Johnson's voice came on the line: "I'm gonna announce your appointment at the press conference."
"What press conference?" asked Shriver.
"This afternoon," said Johnson.
"Oh, God," whispered Shriver, who began sputtering that he knew nothing about poverty. Johnson brushed him off. "You can't let me down," he said, "so the quicker we get it behind us the better." Shriver in full panic waved silently for his family to prompt him with excuses. "Could you just say that you've asked me to study this?" he suggested to Johnson, who said, "No, hell no." When Shriver begged politely for time--"I must say that I would prever it if I had forty-eight hours"--he got back a resounding preview of the morning headlines: "You're Mister Poverty."
"You got the responsibility," Johnson told him. "You've got the authority. You got the power. You got the money. Now, you may not have the glands."
"The glands?" asked Shriver.
"Yeah," said the President.
"I've got plenty of glands," said Shriver.
As with TR, the more I learn about Johnson the more I want to know. I going to have to read Robert Caro's biography after all. For now though, I want to end with one last exhortation, echoing what I said at the start of the week: read Taylor Branch's America in the King Years. I still have one volume to go, and it's already the best history writing I've ever read.
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
Staying on alone at the farm, [SNCC worker Hollis] Watkins gradually learned that the Dahmer family's Faulknerian bloodlines wandered across racial boundaries and taboos. Vernon Dahmer's mother, Ellen Kelly, had been one of four light-skinned mulatto daughters born during Reconstruction to a white plantation owner named Kelly, for whom their farm region north of Hattiesburg was named Kelly Settlement. Old man Kelly had no wife or other children, and he honored his mulatto family far beyond accepted custom. In the 1890s, Ellen Kelly caused something of a family crisis by entertaining a marriage proposal from George Dahmer, a most unusual white man--born illegitimately in 1871 to a transient German immigrant and a white woman who, during the chaos and destitution that followed the Civil War in Mississippi, had gone on to marry an ex-slave with whom she produced eight dark-skinned children raised as George Dahmer's younger siblings.
To the ex-Confederate planter Kelly, the problem with George Dahmer as a suitor for his daughter Ellen was not so much his bastard status or the racial confusion of a genetic white man living within Negro culture, but his lack of higher education. Kelly withheld consent until young George Dahmer completed courses at Jackson State, Mississippi's Reconstruction-built Negro college, but then he blessed the newlyweds with a full share of his estate: forty acres, a cow, two calves, and a feather bed. Although some of the surviving white cousins contested these gifts to Negroes as the folly of a lunatic bachelor, the bequest stood, and in time George and Ellen Dahmer gained possession of additional Kelly acreage.
In December of 1908, four months after Lyndon Johnson was born in the Texas Hill Country, Vernon Dahmer arrived as the eighth of twelve Dahmer children. He may have become the superior farmer of the lot in any case, but competition decreased significantly when three of his five brothers married "out of the race" into white society in the North, one as a church pastor. Not all family members on either side of the color line were aware of the secret. Among Vernon Dahmer's most delicate tasks as an adult was to maintain ties among the witting ones even while engineering an innocent extinction of bonds in the next generation. Life's passages--births, marriages, deaths--posed the most difficult decisions about which distant ones could be notified, and how to do so without risking the fateful curiosity of the unwitting. With time, the simplest family communications across the color barrier became trying and dangerous. On the Negro side, parents faced the crippling issue of whether to acknowledge the possibility that especially light-skinned children might cross over, and if so, whether it was mutually safe and emotionally tolerable to seek the counsel of those who had gone before.
Vernon Dahmer narrowed such dilemmas by choosing successively darker wives. After fathering three sons during the Depression who grew up to look like him and his father, George--that is, by all appearances as white as the governor of Mississippi--he married a darker woman who bore three discernibly Negro sons during the 1940s, and two years after the second wife died, he married Ellie Dahmer in 1952 and produced a son, Dennis, and a daughter, Bettie, his young tractor driver, also clearly of African descent. In public, Dahmer learned to expect different reactions according to which sets of children were in his company. Among strangers, he could pass with his eldest children as a white family so long as Ellie was not along, whereas with her and the younger children he functioned separately across the color line as an ambassador. On Southern highways, he easily picked up food from the first-class "white" side of segregated restaurants if his family remained hidden in the car. Less pleasantly, white strangers who encountered the entire family assumed sometimes that Dahmer was a white boss among servants. Some made collegial remarks to him about his niggers.
Dahmer was murdered by the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in January of 1966 for his work in support of voting rights. In 1998, more than thirty years later, the leader of the local Klan chapter, Samuel Bowers, was convicted, on the fifth try, of Dahmer's murder. Bowers died in prison last fall.
The complexities of race that Dahmer lived out, and the racism he fought against, are, of course, still with us. To take only one obvious example: Barack Obama, despite his multi-racial heritage, is almost exclusively identified as black, a point which will be hammered home over and over, with ever-less-subtle hints of racism, in the coming months. The lesson the GOP took from the 1960s was that they needed to make racism a prominent part of their playbook; should Obama's campaign continue to gather steam, we'll soon see them deploying the nastiest parts of it.
Monday, January 22, 2007
I've also written on this blog about how personal reading decisions are, how people read for different reasons and in different ways. I don't really believe that people should be reading a certain type of book in a certain way or that reading those books will make you a better person. Will serious reading of Tolstoy make you think deeply about how people live their lives? Sure, but so, in a different way, will reading Watership Down. If I had a book-related motto, it would be read what you want to read; take those minutes or hours to simply be, separate from the world and concentrating deeply on something that requires your active participation, your collaboration, your bringing to bear your lifetime of thoughts and experience Do that, and I'll call it good.
So if you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll realize how unusual it is that I'm saying the following: Every American who wants to understand this country should read Taylor Branch's America in the King Years. I read the first volume, Parting the Waters (1988) last January and it was so utterly involving that I had to take a break. I spent my Martin Luther King's Birthday holiday this year reading the second volume, Pillar of Fire (1997), and I'm going to have to take another break before I tackle the similarly acclaimed third volume, At Canaan's Edge (2006).
In the first two books, Branch performs the seemingly superhuman feat of covering every aspect of the civil rights movement from 1955-1963, with all its successes and failures, dramatic moments and dull meetings, charismatic leaders and brave followers--and making it spellbinding. The cast of characters is tremendous; King himself, at the center through the first volume, by the second volume is only the most important voice of many, disappearing from the narrative for pages at a time. Branch gives us real insight into countless figures, including the Kennedys, Malcolm X, Lyndon Johnson, Bayard Rustin, Bob Moses, J. Edgar Hoover, Adam Clayton Powell, James Bevel, John Doar, and Fannie Lou Hamer. Without ever sacrificing the tone of a serious historian, Branch makes moments of high drama such as James Meredith's integration of Ole Miss as gripping as any thriller, and he's equally good at explaining the intricate political maneuvering, both high- and low-level, that underlay every bit of forward progress. Somehow, he makes it easy to keep track of the movement's proliferation of acronym-named organizations and their leaders, as well as dozens of different protest actions in cities across the United States. There truly is never a dull moment.
Branch accomplishes both of what I see as the historian's highest goals, fully bringing the period and its people to life and making clear the very real possibility that these events, many of them completely familiar to us by now, could easily have happened in a different way, or not at all. The two goals are deeply interconnected: placing us so firmly in the time constantly (if indirectly) reminds us that progress is not inexorable and that history is the product of individual decisions, in this case often ones of jaw-dropping bravery at great personal cost. It's a stunning achievement, and it makes America in the King Years the best history writing I've ever read, hands down.
At the same time, by bringing to life the complexity underlying the simplistic national narrative of progress in civil rights, Branch points the way to an understanding of the following forty years of politics, from Nixon to Reagan to Bush, from the crumbling of the Solid South to the continuing (but nearly finished) realignment of the Republicans and Democrats into Southern vs. Northern, Rural vs. Urban, lily-White vs. multi-racial parties. If I were to teach a class in contemporary politics (for which I'd be astonishingly unqualified), I'd start my syllabus with this trilogy, Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001), and Garry Wills's Nixon Agonistes (1970); from them alone, I think even a novice student of American history could gain a working understanding of how we've ended up where we are as a nation.
But start with Taylor Branch. It will make you think in complicated ways about race, rights, American history, personal responsibility, bravery, non-violence, organization, power, and an uncountable host of other topics. In other words, I guarantee it will be worth your time.
Saturday, January 20, 2007
Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.
From Roberto Calasso's The Ruin of Kasch (1983, English translation 1994)
The metaphysical meaning of the secret services lies in the words that designate them: "secret services" because they appropriate all secrecy. Their meaning lies in their loathsome and dizzying conquests, but even more in the fact that they have violently forced secrecy to become apparent, too visible, as blatant as an advertisement posted on every corner. All secret services share a mission that is far more important and far more effective than all their conflicts: the annihilation of secrecy.
From Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters: American in the King Years, 1954-63 (1988)
Hoover had shifted the terms of debate. No longer was the Bureau expected to prove that the KGB or the American Communists were controlling [King aide] Stanley Levison, as King first demanded. Nor was it even required to show that Levison or [his employee Jack] O'Dell was conspiring with King to commit a criminal or subversive act. Those standards had vanished in concession to Hoover.
. . . .
The issue became one of associations rather than crimes or deeds, in a world of contamination of by word of mouth. Then the Jones wiretap picked up tantalizing hints of King's hidden sex life, enabling Hoover to suggest more strongly that the Administration was in league with a pack of guttersnipes. One character issue joined another, and the associations raised taboos that were chilling to most Americans, especially white ones, of Negro back alley and cutthroats and faceless subversives and hellish perversions. For the FBI, the true nature of King's movement reduced to the issue of whether he did or did not have contact with undesirables--an elementary question suited to the Bureau's skills and tastes. All it needed to prove or disprove these associations was comprehensive surveillance of King. For Robert Kennedy, the test soon became whether previous retreats before Hoover left any ground to defend.
From Javier Marias's Your Face Tomorrow: Volume 1, Fever and Spear (2002, English translation 2005)
Everything can be distorted, twisted, destroyed, erased, if, whether you know it or not, you've been sentenced already, and if you don't know, then you're utterly defenceless, lost. That's how it is with persecutions, purges, with the worst of intrigues and plots, you have no idea how frightening it is when someone with power and influence decides to deny you, or when many people band together in agreement, although agreement isn't always necessary, all that 's needed is a malicious deed or word that takes and spreads like wildfire, and convinces others, it's like an epidemic. You don't know how dangerous persuasive people can be, never pit yourself against such people unless you are prepared to become even more despicable than they are and unless you're sure that your imagination, no, your capacity for invention is even greater than theirs, and that your outbreak of cholera will spread faster and in the right direction.
From Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet (1998, English translation 2001)
Happy the creators of pessimistic systems! Besides taking refuge in the fact of having made something, they can exult in their explanation of universal suffering, and include themselves in it.
Monday, January 15, 2007
The satire really is brilliant, St. Aubyn's words are chosen with Wodehousian care. I've written about his prose briefly before, and the sharpness continues throughout the four novels. Here's a character reflecting on a diplomat he sees at a party:
Diplomats, thought Nicholas, long made redundant by telephones, still preserved the mannerisms of men who were dealing with great matters of state. He had once seen Jacques d'Alantour fold his overcoat on a banister and declare with all the emphasis of a man refusing to compromise over the Spanish Succession, "I shall put my coat here." He had then placed his hat on a nearby chair and added with an air of infinite subtlety, "But my hat I shall put here. Otherwise it may fall!" as if he were hinting that on the other hand some arrangement could be reached over the exact terms of the marriage.In yesterday's post I mentioned Martin Amis; here's a passage that strikes me as worthy of his father, Kingsley. Patrick, having just been treated to a lengthy disquisition by a tremendous blowhard, thinks:
The loop of his monstrous vanity was complete. He had been talking about a book in which he wrote about his photographs of the animals he had shot with guns from his own magnificent collection, a collection photographed (alas, not by him) in the second book.
The only place St. Aubyn's satire falls short is when his characters visit America in Mother's Milk. Even there, it's not unfunny, but most of his targets are familiar or too broad (obesity, guns, the Bush administration), whereas the best of his satire of upper-crust British culture is more carefully targeted. Yet sometimes his writing can redeem even a tired topic, as in this scene in a coffee shop:
"Have a great one!" said Pete, a heavy-jawed blonde beast in an apron, sliding the coffee across the counter."Heavy-jawed blonde beast." "Weimar of bullying cheerfulness." "Simpering." Those are the words and phrases of someone who has taken care with every sentence; they, far more than topics, are what separate great satire from pedestrian.
Old enough to remember the arrival of "Have a nice day," Patrick could only look with alarm on the hyperinflation of "Have a great one." Where would this Weimar of bullying cheerfulness end? "You have a profound and meaningful day now," he simpered under his breath as he tottered across the room with his giant mug. "Have a blissful one," he snapped as he sat at a table. "You all make sure you have an all-body orgasm," he whispered in a Southern accent, "and make it last." Because you deserve it. Because you owe it to yourself. Because you're a unique and special person. In the end, there was only so much you could expect from a cup of coffee and an uneatable muffin. If only Pete had confined himself to realistic achievements. "Have a cold shower," or "Try not to crash your car."
So should you read Some Hope and Mother's Milk? I laughed a lot, cringed a lot, felt dirty merely for being human, was aghast at cruelty and astonished at more simple meanness, and was totally wrung out by the end. If that sounds fine to you, read away.
Even as the narrative jumps ably from character to character, the sense of disdain remains, couched in lacerating descriptions, as in this introduction, from the point of view of a Melrose family friend, of an acquaintance:
His hair was blow-dried until it rose and stiffened like a black meringue on top of his skull. His clothes did nothing to compensate for those natural disadvantages. If Vijay's favorite flared green trousers were a mistake, it was a trivial one compared to his range of lightweight jackets in chaotic tartan patterns, with flapless pockets sewn onto the outside. Still, any clothes were preferable to the sight of him in a bathing suit. Anne remembered with horror his narrow shoulders and their white pustules struggling to break through a thick pelt of wiry black hair.
Had Vijay's character been more attractive his appearance might have elicited pity or even indifference, but spending just a few days with him convinced Anne that each hideous feature had been molded by internal malevolence.
Because loathing is an effective driving force of comedy, of course, the novels are funny—but they can also be drainingly unpleasant, like some of Martin Amis's darker novels. And there is where my reservations about recommending them enter. They're frequently as funny as Evelyn Waugh, who himself could be quite negative about humanity. But St. Aubyn's depictions of Patrick's father's cruelty are far more explicit than Waugh (whether because of his own temperaments or the limitations of the times) ever approached in his descriptions of depravity. Especially in the early books, St. Aubyn creates some awkward juxtapositions between truly disturbing scenes of abuse and more distanced dissections of essentially trivial human folly that are played for laughs. St. Aubyn might argue that both real suffering and the mock-horrors of a fancy dinner party share roots in a failure to conceive of the reality of other people and their pain, but that wouldn't make the mismatched tones any less jarring. It's a real problem, but ultimately it's one I'm willing to put up with for St. Aubyn's comedy and characters. I wouldn't, however, dismiss out of hand someone who wasn't.
There is a payoff, of sorts, for being willing to stomach the darkness of the first couple of novels, as in the most recent two we see Patrick—by no means free of his inherited demons—actively trying to become a better, more complete person, a person he would not instinctively loathe. Aside from the sharpness of the writing, that desire for self-understanding is the real reason to read these St. Aubyn novels. We get a sense, not just from Patrick but from other characters as well, of a real mind sifting through its impressions, feelings, and thoughts in a constant effort to understand itself, make its way forward, and both accept and rein in its worst impulses. That caliber of analysis of human consciousness and motivation is uncommon; to find it married to laugh-out-loud satire will make me forgive many a jarring shift in tone.
One of the reasons I started this blog is that I enjoy recommending books. It was fun when I was a bookseller, and I still enjoy it, only now the beneficiaries (brunt-bearers?) are my friends and family.
But I have a lot of respect for the fact that everyone reads differently and for a wide range of reasons. People look for different things from books, and their tastes differ accordingly. So my recommendations tend to be hedged about with caveats: A Dance to the Music of Time is my favorite novel, but if you get a couple of hundred pages into it and feel like it's a slog, it's probably not for you; if uncertainty bothers you, stay away from Murakami; and if you don't enjoy the Francis Bacon biography in Aubrey's Brief Lives, then Aubrey is not for you. My caution is also driven by my knowledge that your reading time is probably more precious to you than mine is to me. After all, this is what I do with most of my free time; you, on the other hand, probably have plenty to do and don't want to waste it gritting your teeth at something I've blithely recommended.
Which brings me to Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels, the three brief books that make up his mid-90s Some Hope trilogy and 2005's Mother's Milk. Each of the novels takes up a discrete period in the life of Patrick Melrose, troubled scion of an extravagantly wealthy—though rapidly declining—English family. The first finds him as a boy of five, suffering the depredations of his astonishingly cruel father. The second, set in Patrick's twenties, is a grotesquely detailed narrative of a weekend in New York during which he tries, without openly forming the thought, to kill himself by overdosing on the heroin and cocaine to which he has become addicted. The third finds him, thirtyish and a bit wiser, attending a country house dinner party, while the fourth introduces him to the joys of parenthood while reacquainting him with the pains of being parented. We get just enough detail about the interstices of Patrick's life to get a sense of how it has unfolded when we haven't been looking, and the result is a surprisingly rounded portrait of a deeply unhappy young man trying desperately to come to some sort of acceptable terms with himself and the world.
And oh, that world. St. Aubyn has clearly made a lifelong study of loathing—self and other—and now he is both its poet and its comedian. The world as Patrick sees it is comprised of so much tawdriness, dishonesty, and just plain crap as to make a real engagement with it nearly impossible, unless modulated by drugs, sarcasm, or ironic distance; nothing can be taken on its merits, because under Patrick's unforgiving gaze, those merits will, surely, soon be discovered to be chimerical—if not sinister. And for Patrick, there are few kindred spirits, few who prefer to see the world's true, unvarnished bleakness:
Patrick took his drink over to a small book-lined alcove in the corner of the room. Scanning the shelves, his eye fell on a volume called The Journal of a Disappointed Man, and next to it a second volume called More Journals of a Disappointed Man, and finally, by the same author, a third volume entitled Enjoying Life. How could a man who had made such a promising start to his career have ended up writing a book called Enjoying Life? Patrick took the offending volume from the shelf and read the first sentence that he saw: "Verily, the flight of a gull is as magnificent as the Andes!"
"Verily," muttered Patrick.
Saturday, January 13, 2007
Which is all a roundabout way of getting to the fact that, right after I finished my post about Deborah Blum's Ghost Hunters the other night, I realized that I should mention that it was, physically, a near-perfect book. The Penguin Press marketing department did its work, getting a great title and subtitle (Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life after Death), and the design department created a flawless cover, making use of striking spirit photography and a great typeface for the title. The interior design was excellent as well, clear and readable. There's not much more you could ask for in a mid-level trade book; congratulations are in order.
And while I'm praising Penguin, I should say that I love the recent redesign of the Penguin classics. I'm not talking about the Deluxe Editions, which are wonderful but have gotten plenty of press, but of the regular old Classics line. The covers have been simplified, with an image on the top half and black on the bottom, and both the design and the image choices have been spot-on. Now, they're still printed on some of the worst paper in the world, so they feel ancient about forty minutes after you get them home. but baby steps are still progress . . .
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
The late nineteenth century witnessed the birth of the spiritualist movement, as mediums, sensitives, and hauntings of all sorts made news (and lots of money) throughout the United States and Europe. James--who, as I wrote yesterday, was never one to close off the possibility of finding truth in unexpected places--was an early champion of scientific exploration into the possibility of spirit communication, and Deborah Blum ably details his efforts with allies of various levels of scientific integrity and credulousness to establish proof of paranormal phenomena.
From the vantage point of this more skeptical age, it's hard to believe just how worked up the public and the scientific community got over the work of mediums who almost all seem to have been utter fakes--and not very good ones at that. Yet Blum makes clear that James and company were risking their reputations with every foray into the spirit world, however carefully controlled and documented; the very fact that they deigned to investigate these disreputable performers was enough to raise significant ire on the part of many of their fellow scientists. James, however, with his characteristic openness, believed that it was just as unscientific to declare there is no chance of spirit communication as it would have been to blindly accept the word of any believer off the street.
So he and his colleagues devised experiments, some truly rigorous and others fairly suspect, and tested medium after medium. And, to no contemporary reader's surprise, they caught nearly all of them cheating: lifting tables with their feet, calling forth gauzy ghosts from curtains with hidden strings, steaming open envelopes, sneaking hands free in order to rap the table. Some of the researchers were gladdened by these results, because they were at heart debunkers. But many of them essentially wanted to believe--they only wanted some proof, both to back up that belief and to convince others--so Blum's book is, for the most part, a litany of disappointment.
But then there's Leonora Piper, a medium who once made, said William's brother Henry
an allusion to a matter known (so personal is it to myself) to no other individual in the world but me--not possibly either to the medium or to my sister-in-law, and an allusion so pertinent and initiated and tender and helpful, and yet so unhelped by any actual earthly knowledge on any one's part, that it quite astounds as well as deeply touches me.And Henry wasn't the only one; despite never being caught employing any sort of detective tricks, Piper is recorded as having delivered intimate messages to a wide variety of investigators and ordinary sitters. Here's the account of another investigator:
The professor had brought a single circle of gold, one that once belonged to his dead mother. The ring had been one of two, a set that he and his mother had exchanged on Christmas.
Each ring had been engraved with the first word of the recipient's favorite proverb. Long ago, he'd lost the one she'd given him. But the previous year, when his mother died, the ring he'd given to her had been returned to him.
The professor was holding that ring in his hand during the sitting, hiding the word as he inquired, "What was written in Mamma's ring."
"I had hardly got the words from my mouth till she slapped down the word on the other ring--the one Mamma had given me, and which had been lost years ago.
"As the word was a peculiar one, doubtfully ever written in any ring before, an as she wrote it in such a flash, it was surely curious."
How much credence to lend to these accounts after more than a century is, of course, difficult to know--after all, science's ability to test and measure has advanced tremendously, and we still have no data suggesting that paranormal phenomena are real. But Leonora Piper's readings were enough, at the time, for William James to begin to believe that there might be spirit communication. As he put it, "To upset the conclusion that all crows are black, there is no need to seek demonstration that no crow is black; it is sufficient to produce one white crow; a single one is sufficient." Miss Piper was his white crow, and even now, reading Blum's account of her sittings can bring chills.
And that brings me to the real reason I picked up this book, after I'd just read more than 500 pages about William James: the ghost stories. Ghost Hunters is chock-full of them, from a series of spell-binding accounts of death-visitations to psychic detection to some truly spine-tingling accounts of seances. Blum tells them well, allowing them space to be themselves, true in the telling, and only after they're finished allowing scientists and reality to begin to intrude. What more can you ask than a book that marries the spooky pleasures of ghost stories and the excitement of scientific discovery?
On that note, just for fun, I'll end with one of the accounts of a death-visitation collected by researchers for the Society for Psychical Research (of whose U.S. branch William James was head) and published in a book called Phantasms of the Living. You might check under the bed before you begin reading:
A British clergyman was taking a summer evening walk over the downs near Marlcombe Hill. He was composing in his head a congratulatory letter to a good friend whose birthday would be two days later, on August 20, 1874.
He had barely begun when a voice spoke sharply in his ear: "What, write to a dead man; write to a dead man?"
The clergyman turned hastily around, expecting to see someone behind him. There was only the fading light lazing the grasses with gold. "Treating the matter as an illusion, I went on with my composition." the same voice spoke again, this time louder and with some impatience: "What, write to a dead man; write to a dead man?"
Again, he turned around. Again, there was no one there. But now he was afraid that it wasn't an illusion.
After hurrying home, he wrote the letter and sent it anyway. "In reply [I] received from Mrs. W. the sad, but to me not unexpected, intelligence that her husband was dead."
Pragmatism, says James, accepts the possibility that the world is various, pluralistic, "made up of a lot of eaches." It accepts, too, the possibliity that all may not be at last right with the world. "I find myself," he says, "willing to take the universe to be really dangerous and adventurous, without therefore backing out and crying 'no play' . . . I am willing that there should be real losses and real losers and no total preservation of all that is . . . When the cup is poured off, the dregs are left behind forever, but the possibility of what is poured off is enough to accept."
Richardson's biography is first and foremost an intellectual biography of James, an exploration of the way that his ideas evolved in the context of late-nineteenth century scientific and philosophical thought. But he also delivers a detailed, compelling account of James's life as well, woven thickly with quotations from his writings, speeches, diaries, and letters; what emerges is a portrait of a man who, despite constant physical ailments, neurotic exhaustion, and various forms of depression, was vibrantly alive to new ideas and new experiences, always willing to consider new ways of looking at the world. Fighting against received ideas and philosophies that would limit the validity of human experience in favor of a concept of a purpose or an absolute, James continually returned to the primacy of individual experience and our efforts to make sense of it.
The story of William James also necessarily involves a biographer in the fascinating, complicated story of the entire James family. Of his brother, novelist Henry, William once said, "he is a native of the James family, and has no other country," and that could, it seems, be said of the entire family. His sister Alice is known to us now largely through her diary; she has been taken up in recent decades as a feminist icon, her physical and emotional problems seen as resulting from the strictures placed on women in those days. But none of the James children came through the hothouse childhood atmosphere created by their self-involved, independently wealthy father entirely intact. William and Henry suffered physical and emotional problems all their lives, while Wilky and Bob led difficult, seemingly unhappy lives, neither one ever quite finding his place in the world.
Despite that, the bond among the siblings remains strong and fascinating after all these years--especially the one tying William and Henry and Alice. William's letters to Henry, always full of interesting thoughts and opinions, become remarkably entertaining every time William reads one of Henry's novels: he invariably scolds Henry for not being clear enough, suggesting that he try, just once, writing a straightforward story. It's impossible for me to imagine the outcome had Henry, whose very instruments were occlusion and indirection, taken up his brother's challenge.
The desire that thought be expressed straightforwardly and openly also comes through in the letter William wrote to his sister when he learned she had terminal cancer. In closing, after a frank discussion of her impending death and the uncertain prospect of immortality, he closes with
It may seem odd for me to talk to you in this cool way about your end; but . . if one has things present to one's mind, and I know they are present enough to your mind, why not speak them out"It's the frankness of a philosopher and of a brother who knows his sister and her mind--and respects both utterly.
Richardson delivers that level of detail and nuance throughout William James. It's a tad too long, and he backtracks a bit too much, occasionally repeating examples, but it's all in service of giving as complete a picture as possible of the man behind the thought. And while Richardson doesn't whitewash James's faults, ultimately he presents a James who is admirable and inspiring. I put down the book seeing James's intellectual energy and openness to new ideas as a real goal to strive for; that, it seems to me, is surely the mark of a good biography.
Tomorrow, more on William James--but this time on James and spiritualism. That's right: ghost stories coming up.
Saturday, January 06, 2007
1) Wade Miller's Branded Woman (1952) and John Lange's Grave Descend (1971), a couple of Hard Case Crime novels that I read back-to-back, made a good pair. Branded Woman, set in Mazatlan, stars a tough woman, a jewelry smuggler who is searching for the mysterious man known as The Trader, who years ago branded her on the forehead as a warning to stay out of his way. Of course, the scar has the opposite effect, making Branded Woman a fine revenge tale as the woman wends her way through a fairly large cast of shady characters, double agents, and red herrings on the trail of The Trader. The rarity (for noir) of a tough female protagonist is enough to make Branded Woman worthwhile; that the mystery is sufficiently convoluted to keep me guessing was a bonus.
Grave Descend is also set on the water, this time Jamaica, and it stars McGregor, a diver and salvage man who gets hired—at a surprisingly high price—to investigate a sunken yacht. It won't surprise you that nearly everything about the set-up, from the guy hiring him to the story of the yacht's sinking, strikes McGregor as suspicious. But, like so many noir heroes . . .
"Hanky-panky," said [his co-diver] Yeoman solemnly. It was his word to indicate a wide variety of derangements and interesting activity.The set-up of Grave Descend is fantastic, an extremely complicated scenario involving insurance fraud and murder and art theft, but the payoff is a bit disappointing. The story devolves a bit into chases and fistfights—all very good in their place, but not quite as exciting as I'd hoped, considering how many balls Lange had tossed into the air earlier. But it was still a fun read, worth the time if for no other reason than McGregor's escape from the depths of a swamp, during which he has to fight a crocodile. He should have listened to Yeoman, but you already knew that.
"Looks that way," McGregor said.
"They setting you up for something?"
"Better get out now," Yeoman said. "We don't need no hanky-panky."
"well, no," McGregor said, and ordered a beer. "But . . . "
"You're curious," Yeoman said.
"Something like that."
"The curious fish," Yeoman said, "gets the hook."
[Bonus for those of you who don't click the links: Miller is a pseudonym for a pair of writers who, among other things, wrote the book on which Touch of Evil was based, and John Lange is the pseudonym of—wait for it—Michael Crichton, under which he wrote in medical school. The Wikipedia rules.]
2) I also checked in with Spenser and his entourage, reading Robert Parker's most recent account of his adventures, Cold Service (2006). It's been several years since a Spenser novel has done much for me, but they're worth the occasional Saturday afternoon. I think of them kind of like the soaps: you check in once in a while to see what the people you've been watching for years have been up to lately. Not much ever changes, but even that very continuity is somewhat soothing. Cold Service opens just after Spenser's best friend, Hawk the hit man, has been shot, near fatally. During his recovery, Spenser explains to Hawk's soon-to-be-ex girlfriend that the reason Hawk is almost never wrong is that he tries never to speak about anything he doesn't know. It was as succinct an explanation of Hawk as Parker has ever come up with, well worth the trouble of checking in.
3) It took my local bookstore a month or so to get it, but I finally got to read Allan Guthrie's first novel, Two-Way Split (2004). It's set in the same seedy Edinburgh milieu as his second novel, Kiss Her Goodbye (2005), and it even peripherally features Kiss Her Goodbye's two most important characters, leg-breaker Joe Hope and his boss, Cooper. This novel, however, is about a set of novice criminals who disastrously botch a bank job. Along the way, a couple of outsiders, find out about the job, and, for very different reasons, close in on the thieves. Disaster and violence—painfully well-described—ensue.
Guthrie loads Two-Way Split with effective details, carefully drawing the grubbiness that pervades his characters' lives. Take this passage, for example, wherein Pearce, a recent ex-con who has reluctantly taken some enforcement work to pay off a debt, enters a block of council flats looking for a man named Cant:
Cant's handwritten name was taped on top of the garish pink paintwork of his front door. The letter a had been scored out and replaced with a u. Pearce felt the corners of his mouth twitch. He slipped a fingernail under a burst paint blister, which peeled off like boiled skin.
Pearce's greatest asset is his formidable strength, and from the moment he's introduced he carries the threat of violence:
Winter in Scotland was far too cold to walk around bare-chested. That's why Pearce wore a t-shirt. His fists clenched, relaxed, and clenched again. His forearm muscles writhed under his goose-pimpled skin. He smacked his hands together.His challenge throughout the book is to overcome violence, get past those urges despite extreme provocation—and to accept an unexpected offer of what, against all odds, appears to be some sort of real future.
All the characters in Two-Way Split are damaged, one of them far, far more than is immediately clear (though as I look back through the book, I find that Guthrie drops hints from the very start); his fragility leads the novel into completely unexpected territory. But Guthrie pulls it off; right to the end he kept me guessing as to what decisions his characters would make—and, more importantly, caring about those choices.
When I read Kiss Her Goodbye this summer, I thought it wasn't entirely successful, the violence seeming disproportionate to the story and the characters. I think that if I'd read Two-Way Split first, I would have been more receptive to Kiss Her Goodbye—Two-Way Split seems a clearer exposition of Guthrie's themes. Or it's possible that it's just a matter of settling into his world, and either novel, read first, would have been tougher. Regardless, I'm now definitely ready for his next novel, Hard Man, which comes out next spring.
4) And, finally, over the holiday I read another Hard Case Crime novel, Richard S. Prather's The Peddler (1952), which tells the story of the meteoric rise of a small-time San Francisco hood named Tony to the high reaches of the syndicate that runs the city's brothels. It's a dark book, almost an inverse morality tale, where the protagonist becomes more and more successful while getting less and less human. Because Tony is the focus of the book, I kept ignoring the warnings his friends and associates—and his behavior—gave as to his utter amorality and self-centeredness, thinking that he'd eventually redeem himself. But as the book goes on, it becomes clear that Prather isn't pushing Tony to an epiphany. Tony is nowhere near trusting enough to learn any lessons; the only one on offer, therefore, is for us, and it's the old lesson that working in a dirty business will make you dirty.
I don't mean to make The Peddler sound like a drag—it's a completely gripping read. Early on, I found myself rooting for Tony despite myself; later I kept wondering, tensely, how his come-uppance would be delivered. And, oh, Prather has a way with slang:
Then Frame was saying, "He just went off his nut, see? We were plain' poker and the guy was drinkin' heavy. All of a sudden he goes off his rocker and yells at Sharkey, 'Get away from me—don't let him get me.' Then he yanks out the barker and bangs him. Smack in the biscuit. Then Romero flopped down on the floor, cold. I guess the sight of poor Sharkey's think-pot flying through the air like that put him under a strain." Frame grinned wolfishly, his stained, pitted teeth jutting under his pulled back lip.
I like a lot of different people for a lot of different reasons. I can get along with just about anybody. But if you don't appreciate that crazy run of slang, I don't know if I can be your friend.
Thursday, January 04, 2007
Until then, I'll leave you with a passage from the wonderful new William James biography by Robert D. Richardson, about which more later:
Benjamin Paul Blood was a writer of letters to newspapers. Ten years older than James, he was a nonacademic, a philosopher, a mystic, and, it would turn out, a pluralist to boot. . . . Blood was, delightfully, much more than am etaphysiciain. Interested in machinery, he had patented a "swathing reaper." He had been a gambler, making and losing, he told James, "bar'ls" of money. He had been a "fancy gymnast" and had fought "some heavy fights--notably one of forty minutes with Ed. Mullett, whom I left senseless." "I have worn out many styles, " he wrote James years later, and am cosmopolitan, liberal to others, and contenteed with myself. If Blood sounded like Whitman, he lookd like a cross between Ppoe and Nietzsche. He sent James a photo of himself at age twenty-eight, taken when he had just "lifted by a chain on my right shoulder and around my right arm 1160 lbs." "I never could value things at others' rates," Blood wrote James, "never was respectable or conforming. . . . The chaff blows off, the rain remains and I could borrow the city treasury if I wanted the money."
Richardson calls Blood "this Paul Bunyan of Amsterdam, New York," in one of the many fine turns of phrase that litter this fascinating, idea-filled biography.