Stylistics is the study of linguistic style in texts. It helps to explain how politicians mislead; how novelists and poets move their readers; how advertisers persuade us to buy their products and how the media influence public opinion. Stylistics empowers students to become critical readers by developing rigorous techniques of linguistic analysis.
Style in this course is defined as “linguistic choices made by the producers of texts.” I write a lot about what I read, and my primary focus is how a particular story or novel affects me the way it does, so I jumped at the chance to take a mooc that might help me better understand what I’m reading, and possibly communicate my understanding of it more effectively. This was an introductory course with no particular prerequisites, so it covered a few general topics and created (hopefully) the desire to learn more.
First up was foregrounding. We looked at how unexpected word choices or even spellings can emphasize some aspect of a text, and at the use of parallelism and defamiliarization. for a similar effect. Just yesterday I posted about a story’s use of repetition and what I called “almost-anaphora” in the opening pages, and I’m still debating some phrasing regarding the narrator’s gender and what it might mean.
Week Two featured characterization, and ventured into two areas that are of particular interest to me. One is Grice’s theory of implicatures, something I first came across in a wonderful logic mooc offered by the University of Melbourne (it is, sadly, no longer available), so I was thrilled to see this topic again here. Another topic I enjoyed was subtitles, and how these sometimes have to be altered to fit in allocated time and space. This week happened to coincide with several twitter comments about the English subtitles for The Squid Game, which some viewers felt left out a great deal. We also looked at bottom-up versus top-down processing, and how conversational style gives information on characters.
The third week took a look at speech presentation. Part of this covered the range of discourse from direct speech to indirect free discourse to narration and the implications of each level. We also looked at the more real-life situations of reportage, and how even accurate quotations can be used to convey something that was not said. Anyone paying attention to what is happening to news coverage, particularly of elections and legislative agendas, has some experience with this.
Finally, we looked at corpus techniques such as key words and collocations in connection with concepts such as semantic prosody. I confess I didn’t do much of the actual software work due to lack of time; I’d just taken the course using these techniques on Shakespearean writings, so I used what was provided rather than doing my own software runs. Nevertheless, the material included a lot of interesting tidbits, such as: the word “asked” appears quite a bit more frequently in The Wizard of Oz than would be expected, leading to the question, what might that indicate about the story?
Each week started out with a video introduction; written articles made up most of the rest of the material, except during the corpus section which included several videos on using the software. I tend to find this approach disappointing – if you’re going to do a mooc, why not use features that aren’t available in books and articles, like videos and animations – but since the course is likely to appeal to readers, it’s hard to complain about it. As with audited FutureLearn courses, there are no grades, although a brief quiz wraps up each week; I found them useful as a review of the material.
The message boards were active, and staff, particularly lead instructor Dan McIntyre, gave frequent feedback and answered questions promptly.
And, as with the mooc on Shakespeare’s Language from Lancaster that I took a couple of months ago, the discussion boards provided me the opportunity to ask a general question about the subject. That is, I asked, given that close reading usually generates the same insights that statistical examination of the text does, what is the benefit of corpus linguistics in literary analysis? I was not asking a hostile question, quite the contrary; the inquiry was generated by a nonfiction piece by Pam Houston I read in Pushcart 2019 (this is the second Houston essay that’s really given me something to bounce off of) which was in part dismissive of a corpus-based technique she referred to as distant reading. I wanted to know how to respond to such resistance, since I find the use of such analysis, as I’ve encountered it in three moocs now, to be fascinating. How does one respond, I asked, so such dismissal? Is there an example where statistical methods have changed traditional literary interpretation?
Prof. McIntyre took the time to give me a rather extensive response that included several points: evidentiary confirmation of intuition and rhetorical persuasion with evidence is no small thing in itself; and that changing interpretation is not the point, but adding greater nuance to existing interpretation is. He provided an example from his own work on Hemingway’s use of subordinate clauses (Papa H does not underuse them, as is often claimed, but uses them in direct speech rather than narration) and gave me the link to a paper using semantic prosody, one of the concepts examined in the course, to consider an alternative to irony in a particular poem.
It’s been my experience that discussion and staff participation is one of the strengths of FutureLearn. This is the second time I’ve received a detailed and specific response to a question related to, but slightly outside, the course material. It’s really quite exciting. This would be a great class for anyone who’d like to better understand how writing affects us, from how literature works to how politicians and salespeople try to influence our choices. Even those who’ve done significant prior work in literary analysis will probably find something new, particularly in the final week.
A few summers ago, during an intense mental crisis, I moved to Buffalo to sort myself out, get grounded. That was a summer of long drives…. I remember getting to the Mackinac Bridge, pulling off the highway, taking a picture of the water and huge sky. It’s hard to explain what I felt. Rebirth, I guess; drowned in natural splendor. I wrote this piece, which I hope turns into a novel, based off that feeling.
Gabriel Bump, Contributor Note
In a recent online reading group, we were all puzzling over a story when one participant said something like, “If the author wanted to make it clearer, they would have written it that way.” Sometimes, as with this story, I’m not sure if the author was deliberately being coy, or if I’m just dense. I’m not even sure whether the first-person narrator is male or female, let alone exactly what the relationship is with Pidge, who Flip is, and why they’re travelling to Buffalo in the first place (I’m still uncomfortable with they as a singular noun, but I’m working on it because it truly does make things easier).
I’m not sure any of that matters. The story is more about the feeling in moments, in bookstores in An Arbor, in Toledo, in Cleveland. On the roof of an office building. The next morning, leaving. I don’t really see the rebirth, the natural splendor, but Bump doesn’t say he’s writing about that, just that it was the feeling he was writing from.
Count the rhetorical repetition in the opening pages. The bookstores, for one. The decision to stop smoking “after just this last one” for another (yeah, we all know that one). The almost-anaphora of “At a liquor store in Ann Arbor”… “In a grocery store parking lot in Ann Arbor”… “Outside a house party in Ann Arbor”… “There was a bookstore in Toledo”.
I wasn’t confused about gender at first; I’d assumed the narrator, whose name we never learn, was male, simply because the author is, presumably, based on his name, male. We’re going to have to start watching those assumptions, aren’t we. The self-description could’ve gone either way, but I read it unquestioningly as male:
Here’s how I look: tallish; medium-brown freckles around my nose and eyes, on my ears; a broad nose with a little point, a little hook; strong-chinned; weak-bodied; soft, thin, broad-shouldered; my nails get too long before I chew them down; my foot arches are too high; without thinking, I walk on my toes; if I’m not mindful, my eyebrows can meld into a single thicket.
I have this ambiguous brown skin. People wonder if I’m Egyptian, Aboriginal, Brazilian, Mexican, Dominican, half of this, a quarter of that.
I have this long hair that grows up and out in curled waves. People don’t know what to make of it. In middle school, this classmate would pull at my hair, try to yank strands out, hold my curls up to the light.
I’m guessing, since “when I was little, people thought my mother was my nanny,” that Mom is black, and Dad is white, making our narrator biracial, but of course there are lots of shades in between those. I’m not sure it makes a difference in this story, though it always makes a difference, doesn’t it. Then there’s this:
Before I left, my mother gave me an industrial wrench for protection, in case my car broke down in Ohio and some local boys wanted to take advantage.
That phrase – “take advantage” – sounds far more like something a mother would say to a daughter than a son. But we could, as with race, be talking some in-between here. I know a lot of people don’t think there is an in-between for gender, but it seems more and more people are finding out there is. Maybe ambiguity is the better word for it.
What’s really interesting, and a lot more pertinent to the story, is the narrator admits he’s terrible at telling stories. This reminded me of something George Saunders wrote, in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, about the story “Singers” by Turgenev, that maybe he knew he wasn’t good at traditional subtle, smooth transitions so he made them massive and intrusive to turn them into an asset. I don’t think it’s that Bump knows he isn’t good at backstory – I have no doubt he could have written this one in perfectly linear form, given how the rest of this story proceeds – but I think he didn’t want to be bogged down by it all, and wanted to leave it vague and disjointed. This especially makes sense since I gather this is now part of a novel. This vague, partial backstory gives us a sense of confusion and a lack of stability that sets the stage for the confusion and lack of stability that follows, which, by the way, the narrator tells perfectly clearly. I love that: tell the truth but tell it slant; tell the confusing parts clearly and the clear parts confusingly. The heart of the story begins when our narrator meeting a carpenter in a bookstore:
There was a bookstore in Cleveland. There were stacks so tall you needed a ladder to reach the top. I asked a man with a ponytail if he could help with those Raymond Carver collections up there. He was a carpenter, not a librarian, he told me as much, hand on his hip, other hand holding Joyce and Morrison. He told me to climb the ladder myself, it wasn’t that high, I wasn’t that small.
When I came down, the man asked me to drink with him.
This scene starts out one way – rude, aggressive – then turns into something more like amiability. I have a feeling the carpenter asserting dominance and forcing the narrator to climb the ladder himself is key. How badly did he want those Raymond Carver collections? And, while it sounds so sophisticated that they’re reading Carver, Joyce, and Morrison (presumably Toni), if they’re that sophisticated, why don’t they already have copies?
A couple of girls join them at the bar (bolstering the case that the narrator is male, btw; two women would be far likely to join two men than a male-female couple) and the literary display increases: the carpenter gives his name as Sancho Panza, the girls choose Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker, and our narrator is… Invisible Man. “The lights!” yells one of the girls. Yeah, the lights. That was nice; presumably he’s not referring to HG Wells.
Through all this we’re still hearing about Pidge, so our narration is still a bit confused. We find out more, but still have no clear idea what the narrator is doing here.
But it no longer matters once he starts doing it: the carpenter takes them up on the roof a three-story office building he owns. Then he hands out pills. “That wasn’t the first time I had taken pills from a stranger’s pocket,” our narrator tells us, then we hear about that time in high school in the abandoned house with the (probably hallucinatory) muskrat in the sink (maybe). I’m not a big fan of drug scenes, but that night on the roof – and remember, it’s only a three-story building, we’re not talking a skyscraper – is pretty cool.
Back on the roof in Cleveland, Sancho Panza wanted to know if the pills we’re working — could we feel ourselves turning inside out, exploding like a flower?
“I could wake up in Egypt,” Jordan Baker said.
“What difference would it make?” Daisy Buchanan asked.
“I’d have all the sand I could want,” Jordan Baker said.
“There is sand in Ohio!” Daisy Buchanan said.
“Not the same,” Jordan Baker said, sat on the ground. “It’s just not the same.”
I found myself yards away come up walking in a circle, counting at my revolutions.
Sancho Panza grabbed my ankles, begged me not to let him drown.
I had my hand on Sancho Panzas collar when I noticed the sky, swirling and wavering, preparing to rupture. Out there in the distance, toward downtown, the sky sucked up tall buildings.
“It’s coming for us,” I said.
Sancho Panza had stopped swinging at my throat and screaming. He went limp, took deep breaths, turned an ear to the roof, coughed, and spit up thick brown mucus.
“They’re working,” Sancho Panza said. “I think they’re working.”
Interesting that the guys (?) are having frightening hallucinations, while the girls are talking about sand. But it’s the use of full literary names that makes this particular drug scene appeal to me. Not Jordan or Sancho, but Jordan Baker and Sancho Panza. They aren’t names with two pieces; they’re labels, one piece. Sancho Panza, the helper who serves the make-believe Don in the hopes of governing his own private island, then discovers being in charge isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The sanity to Quijote’s madness. Daisy Buchanan, the clueless romantic. Jordan Baker, the hardened realist who is willing to cheat to get what she wants.
They go inside the building and have a good time raiding desks (Family photos! All that liquor stashed in bottom drawers! A “list of underperforming employees”! I’d love to do this kind of thing) then fall asleep.
Curled up against these whacked-out strangers, I felt a unique warmth, one I hadn’t known before. I felt clear and directed, anchored. I had found peace. Here, I belonged.
Of course. Because, first of all, you’re drugged, and second, with strangers, there’s no history, no tomorrow. You don’t have to worry about anything but now. With family, with friends you’re going to see every day for years to come, there are debts and obligations, apologies to make. Again there’s this mismatch: peace comes from being anchored in the moment, versus the chaos of being attached for a lifetime. And of course he dreams of Pidge (yes, I’m going with male, the mother’s comment notwithstanding. It’s just one more mismatch).
The last two paragraphs return us to travel; they’re beautiful, in a plain-spun way, and carry us into the future, to Buffalo, or wherever he’s going.
Ward put this story in the “transformation of place” category, and it’s easy to see why. The rooftop becomes all sorts of things; the offices below become a playground, a bedroom, a place of peace rather than somewhere boring people do boring jobs filing papers and writing emails. But the story surrounding the office building makes me curious about the narrator, why he’s headed to Buffalo, and what he’s going to do once he gets there. I hope he remembers what it feels like, that sense of peace, direction, solidity. I hope he finds it again, this time with people who will be around for a while.
This story largely started out as a joke. While I was playing the video game Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, the first third of which is set in Kabul, Afghanistan, I joked to my brothers that I should have Big Boss journey south to Logar in the video game and see if he could help our father and his family fight the Soviets in their village. We laughed at this idea, but it stuck with me.
Jamil Jan Kochai, Contributor Note
I’ve never played a video game (unless Pong and PacMan count, which I gather they don’t). So when this story started with Zoya setting out on his bike to buy a highly-anticipated new release of a popular series (I don’t even know if I’m saying that right) I kind of gritted my teeth. But it was in second person, which I always find interesting, given how allergic editors are to second-person stories; they tend to be good stories because they have to be to break through that prejudice. There’s something about Zoya’s dad being out of work for years, and about “kids in Kabul are destroying their bodies to build compounds for white businessmen and warlords.” Which maybe meant it was not going to be your typical teenager-with-a-joystick story (do they still use joysticks?).
And sure enough, on the second page as Zoya returns home with his prize – a prize he hides in his underwear so his father won’t see it – something shifts.
…[Y]our father is ankle deep in the dirt, hunched over, yanking at weeds with his bare hands the way he used to as a farmer in Logar, before war and famine forced him to flee to the western coast of the American empire, where he labored for many years until it broke his body for good, and even though his doctor has forbidden him to work in the yard, owing to the torn nerves in his neck and spine—which, you know from your mother, were first damaged when he was tortured by Russians shortly after the murder of his younger brother, Watak, during the Soviet War—he is out here clawing at the earth and its spoils, as if he were digging for treasure or his own grave.
Dad has something he wants to talk to Zoya about (I initially typed “you” instead of the name, this second-person voice is powerful) but the kid hightails it off with a thought from Harry Potter (another piece of culture I haven’t participated in) about escaping this life and entering anew one as a Mudblood “without the weight of your father’s history, pain, guilt.…” Yeah, this isn’t really about a video game.
Except it is, because the game is set in 1980s Afghanistan.
…[T]he fact that nineteen-eighties Afghanistan is the final setting of the most legendary and artistically significant gaming franchise in the history of time made you all the more excited to get your hands on it, especially since you’ve been shooting at Afghans in your games (Call of Duty and Battlefield and Splinter Cell) for so long that you’ve become oddly immune to the self-loathing you felt when you were first massacring wave after wave of militant fighters who looked just like your father.
This is the power of story. What it would feel like to be an Afghan kid, shooting Afghans as part of a game; it never occurred to me to wonder about that. The closest I can come is the cowboys-and-Indians of my childhood, and how it must’ve felt to be an Indian child, to always be the bad guy when you hadn’t done anything wrong, and the stories your family told were quite the opposite. Our deepest prejudices are enshrined in recreation; it’s no wonder they are also perpetrated in attempts at AI while claiming the algorithm is above all that. The algorithm, like the video game, is written by people with agendas, and one of those agendas is to appeal to a mass market. In America, that doesn’t mean kids whose families come from Afghanistan, even though it’s those kids who scrimp and save so they can pedal their bike to the store and buy the game on release day.
But the best is yet to come. I’m given to understand that’s a song from the game. It’s not the Frank Sinatra croonfest (damn, I’m old, it’s a good thing I read stories by younger people or I’d be hopelessly out of touch) but is instead a haunting Gaelic song.
I thought to myself, What if, while playing Metal Gear Solid, an Afghan gamer did discover his family inside the video game? How might he react? What might he do? And how might this experience change him and his relationship to his family and their history?
Jamil Jan Kochai, Contributor Note
This, too, is the power of story: Zoya gets a chance to set it right, to save his father, and even his dead uncle “Watak, your father’s sixteen-year-old brother, whom you recognize only because his picture (unsmiling, head shaved, handsome, and sixteen forever) hangs on the wall of the room in your home where your parents pray…” by playing the hottest video game of the year.
I read this story in public; in the grocery store, actually, after I’d finished my shopping and was waiting for the bus, indoors this time because it was raining, so I was wearing my mask. As Zoya’s game character ran into the cave “with your father on one shoulder and your uncle on the other,” I discovered how messy it is to cry while wearing a mask.
Ward classified this story as “transformations of place” and it truly works that way, as Zoya’s bedroom becomes Afghanistan. It could also be considered in the “transformation of time” category – in fact, I got confused and thought it was – as Zoya is drawn from the present into a before time, where it’s still possible to fix things, and plays the game like his life, like his father’s life and his uncle’s life, depends on it. Even the game’s song captures time, translated to: “Can you still remember / When little things made you happy?….Life can be simple if you can only see / The best is yet to come.” Time past, present, future, all in Zoya’s bedroom. It would also fit her “immersion” category, since I was captivated by this story I didn’t think I’d like. It’s all these things, and more.
I noticed something as I was pulling quotes for this post: Each paragraph is one sentence. Some of the paragraphs are only a line – or even a word – but others are half a page, and this style choice gives those a breathless quality, while the single-lines allow breaking it up, adding a stacatto note. I’d like to know more about this, the reason Kochai chose to do it this way, the effects it generates.
In his TNY interview, Kochai gives his reasons for the second person voice, related to his sense of intimacy and alienation, the disrupted subject-object relationship he felt when playing videogames:
For me this sense of becoming the shooter in first-person gameplay was often disrupted by the depiction of the enemies in video games like Call of Duty. There I am in the game, playing as a white soldier, and all of a sudden I’m murdering an Afghan man who looks just like my father. Or even like me. My status as the hero facing the enemy, as the subject facing the object, falls apart. “I shoot you” becomes “I shoot me.” I wanted to capture that sort of alienating intimacy in my story. Second person seemed like the best way to go about it.
Jamil Jan Kochai, TNY Author Interview
So he rewrote the scenario, changing the player from murderer to savior, repairer, hero. The power of story.
For a story to resonate with me, it had to feel urgent during a time when even going to the post office held real danger. A story had to ring loudly with some kind of deeply necessary truth or humor or wisdom.
….These stories gave me the chance to align my own anxious, isolated heart with others. More than once I could feel these stories in my body. My breath caught, my pulse sped. They bowled me over with their beauty, authenticity, imagination, and strength. I’m grateful to have been able to help gather these important voices in one place, especially during such a troubled time. And I’m thrilled to offer them to you.
Heidi Pitlor, Series Editor: Foreword
Today was my local public library’s biweekly meeting of the Blurb Club, a chance for the six or ten people who show up to talk about books they’ve read or are reading so that we can all get a look at reading beyond our usual input channels. I brought along, among other things, BASS 2021, and began my pitch with: “I know a lot of even the most voracious readers somehow hate short stories…” (cut to several friendly, smiling faces wrinkling their noses and nodding) “…and I’m here to put in a good word for them through this series.” I talked about the different versions, about the Contributor Notes that aren’t just bios but give a sense of where the stories came from, of the difference between one year and the next, of the variety and diversity within each volume. When I was done – and after I’d blurbed another book, a math book for Zeus’ sake, what, is she crazy, bringing a math book to a group of readers, but I made a case for it not being a math book – one of the nose-wrinklers said, “You’re a really good blurber, I don’t like short stories and I have no interest in math but I really want to read both of those.” Hah, got another one!
I took a look back on the introductory post I wrote for last year’s BASS. COVID, The Post Office, the Presidential election, the death of Alex Trebek, social media as a performance (and book tour) venue, the hope for a vaccine, essays about reading through it all. And now, a year later, we’re all about… well, COVID antivaxxers seem to want to keep the pandemic going, the Post Office is still manufacturing delays, the Presidential election has spawned J6 hearings, recounts, and voter supression laws, and Jeopardy screwed up its search for a new host so badly, they’re trying again, less publicly this time.
It’s like Groundhog Year.
(What were the Introductions and Forewords about before the world went sideways? That might make an interesting project for my closing post later this year).
But the good thing about repetition is that BASS is out again, so it’s time to start blogging them, two or three a week. Here as well I’m facing an adjustment: after years of tandem posts, my blogging buddy Jake Weber will be concentrating on other things. So it looks like I’m on my own this year, supplemented as always by my writer friend Andrew, and whatever other readers might come along, adding comments to help me better understand these stories, to see other angles and find little delights I may have overlooked or misinterpreted.
The good news – the GREAT news – is that I just discovered an online group reading through BASS via Zoom.
A couple of weeks ago I noticed a referral from meetup.com, and when I checked it out, found the Novel Lovers of Sonoma County had a subgroup dedicated to reading BASS 2020, one story every two weeks. Turns out they aren’t any more picky about Sonoma County than they are about novels, so I went to my first meeting last Sunday for the discussion of William Pei Shih’s “Enlightenment” from last year. It was a story that puzzled me; apparently it puzzled others as well. As one member said, “If the author had wanted to make it clearer, he would’ve written it that way,” which made me feel better. It’s a great group; the exchange of ideas about various aspects was terrific, and I feel far more appreciation for the story as a result. They’ll be finishing up BASS 2020 over the next month or so and then starting 2021; boy am I in!
Throughout this terrible pandemic year, this year of low after low, we clung to story. Story sustained us, and we gripped the planks of narrative so that in the immersion into story, we might have togetherness and hope and drama and laughter and beauty, might revel in all that binds us together as human. This is what kept us afloat on the sea of grief.
Jesmyn Ward, Editor: Introduction
Each year, I start with the Foreword and Introduction, as a warm-up. This year’s Introduction by editor Jesmyn Ward not only has me excited about the stories that lie ahead, but has inspired me to change up my usual front-to-back reading pattern of the anthology. Ward has grouped the stories in categories, and I want to read the stories by category, keeping her descriptions in mind. I’ll be starting with the category I’ll call transformation of place:
…. I encountered stories that twisted the realities of the world’s the characters inhabited, that turned surreal and beautiful all at once; these stories drew me into difference…. In each of these stories a transformation of place occurs, and reality changes from familiar to menacing, from known to unknown. These changes mirrored the world I lived in during the past year, and while disorienting, these stories, these surreal transformations of world and circumstance at character, made me feel less lonely.
Jesmyn Ward, Editor: Introduction
By starting here, I start with the first story in the book, bouncing off my old tradition while changing it at the same time. I’m not familiar with any of these writers – Gabriel Bump, Jamil Jan Kochai, and Vanessa Cuti – so I will be interested to expand my own horizons.
Next, I’ll read the group of stories Ward sees as focusing on young people:
The young protagonists at the center of these stories are desperately grasping towards adulthood. Perhaps I chose these stories because this year, in many ways, made me feel unmoored in a way I hadn’t since I was a teenager….. The young people in these stories are compelling and unruly and imperfect, and perfectly heartbreaking.
Jesmyn Ward, Editor: Introduction
I’ve previously encountered three of the writers in this group – Kevin Wilson, Nicole Krauss, and Mahhuri Vijay – and will be discovering Jenzo duQue, C Pam Zhang, and Rita Chang-Eppig as well, as I read through this group next. BASS often includes several coming-of-age stories that occur at different ages, from children too soon becoming adults, to adolescents discovering responsibility, to adults recapturing their own childlike needs and assets, so I’m looking forward to how these stories investigate youth.
I’ll continue with another category I’ll call troublesome characters. Ward’s description:
Some characters were more opaque, less open, raw, and vulnerable than the younger characters I encountered; some were even downright unlikable, but they were still irresistibly compelling…. Each time these characters surprise us by exposing a flicker of vulnerability, they demand we look beyond their thorny outsides to their soft insides. These characters, like all the people I encountered in my grandmother’s stories, are deeply flawed and deeply conflicted but still empathetic at heart, still recognizable, and we as readers are able to see ourselves in their humanity and their inhumanity.
Jesmyn Ward, Editor: Introduction
I’ve been watching a popular television show with my friend Andrew, and one thing that keeps coming up is how flaws and contradictions make characters interesting. I don’t know the three writers Ward has gathered in this group – Yxta Maya Murray, Bryan Washington, and Stephanie Soileau – so again, I’ll be working with a rather blank slate, and acquiring new authors.
The next category I’ll tackle I’m referring to as tumult of time, a phrase direct from Ward’s intro:
[T]hese artful, beautifully constructed stories tell a tale of time, of how it is mutable, alive, mysterious, and real. How all we have in this strange and bewildering present are those we love, and how even when the times turn terrible, that love remains. In this pandemic year, this was a particularly valuable lesson to read and remember, lost as we all were in the tumult of time, the uncertainty of living through a moment that felt novel and familiar at once in its unpredictability, in its ugliness, in its loss.
Jesmyn Ward, Editor: Introduction
I happen to have read both of the authors in this category: Jane Pek, whose use of Chinese myth charmed me last year, and George Saunders who just taught me to read Russian literature.
I’ll then turn to Ward’s immersion category:
This immersion in other people through short stories fed something in me; it sated a very human need to sink into another’s reality, to inhabit another’s experience, and in doing so to understand my own little world, my own wandering, bewildered self a bit better. In these stories I experienced companionship and communion in words. When I read their last lines, when I ascended out of their worlds, I could breathe a little easier in my own skin, my own life, because I knew friendship.
Jesmyn Ward, Editor: Introduction
I’m not precisely sure what this category entails – isn’t the point of all stories to immerse onesself in another’s reality? – but I understand that sense of loss, of “I miss you” when a story or novel ends and a character leaves my consciousness and returns to the page. Of these authors, I’m familiar with David Means, and look forward to meeting Tracey Rose Peyton and Christa Romanovsky.
The final category is surprise – literarily speaking, in terms of language use, or in terms of story.
[S]ome stories enthralled me because they surprised me. Many of them surprised me in terms of language, language that was layered and textured and rich and took unexpected turns and played with rhythm and phrasing. Some of these same stories also surprised me in terms of endings, in how plot evolved in the world of the story….. In these tales, the surprise of the flowering of a human being, the evolution of character, reminds me that this too can be true of human beings in real life.
Jesmyn Ward, Editor: Introduction
I’m taking a mooc covering basic Stylistics right now (or I would be if I could get caught up in my other moocs and get back to it) and am interested to see if I can recognize the language surprises here. I’ve read brandon Hobson once before; Eloghosa Osunde and Shanteka Sigers will be new for me.
I’m excited about reading the stories this way. One method of adjusting to change is to root onesself in whatever stability remains, but another way is to mix everything up so that the change of concern is not as noticeable among the other changes (Can you tell I’ve done a lot of work on adjusting to change? It’s not my favorite thing, and over these past several years, it seems like there’s been a “new normal” every other week, with them now coming at an accelerated pace as we work our way thorough a pandemic, and a political crisis, that changes almost daily. Can chaos get so common as to become boring?).
Whatever the chaos, there’s still Best American Short Stories, my annual project for October through December since 2010. May that continue for as long as I can read and type.
Transitions are hard. Even when you feel like you’re done with where you are, and you’re looking forward to the next place you’re going to be, it’s hard to leave the cozy familiar. That’s what these intro and exit posts are for: they help me close out one thing, feel truly finished, before starting another.
In contrast to last year’s In-Between Reading during which I blogged through 29 books, or even the year before when it was 22 books, this year was less productive in terms of numbers: 18 books. I didn’t complete my list from the Intro post; I saw those thick volumes of Heinlein and Wouk, and decided this wasn’t the year for them. And I still took a long time reading, mostly, shorter books.
Part of that was unavoidable. I decided to re-do a couple of heavy-duty science moocs, entering them into Cerego as I did, and that took enormous amounts of time. It was, however, greatly beneficial, so no regrets. I also just had trouble getting down to brass tacks on everything, including reading.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed this year of Re-Reading. I got re-aquainted with a couple of classics I hadn’t read since high school or college (Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby). I read about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the middle of our current pandemic, and noted the differences and, alarmingly, the similarities. And I found a (perhaps invented) link to Kierkegaard in a favorite pop novel I hadn’t read in over a decade.
My luck with recent releases was mixed. I loved the Saunders take on Russian short stories, and I think I learned something about keeping expectations in mind while reading: what is the author setting up? Why would they challenge that expectation? The new short story collections were delights, but the novels, not so much. They weren’t bad, by any means, but I was disappointed. Maybe the hype had me expecting more. In the past, I’ve rarely read new releases, because of the hype factor; I think I’ll stick with that policy from now on.
I did much better on older novels and story collections. The hands-down winner of this In-Between session was Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai; runner up is Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World. I’ve always said I love a book that teaches me something, and these both did.
And now its time to focus on short stories again. I read differently when I’m doing one story at a time, as opposed to a collection or a novel. It’s time to make that transition. And I’ll start putting aside potential reads for next year’s In-Between.
Experimental surgery always carries with it both “can” and “should”: the philosophical question of whether a thing ought to be tried at all. Transplant isn’t just about practical medicine; it involves questions about bodies and souls — the animating principle, however you define it. What is a meaningful life? Who decides it’s worth and value? Who decides when it ends?…. Transplant surgery asks hard questions about where the body ends and we begin. Who are we? Where are we? And what, for better or worse, does that mean for the future of bodies, brains, and the human soul?
I’m of two minds about this book (Ms. Thoughtful Reader and Madame Ranting Critic, if you will). I enjoyed it greatly; I’ve had a lot of trouble finding medical nonfiction aimed at the general reader over the past couple of decades, and this was full of technical details at just the right level. And, wonder of wonders, it was written with great narrative drive; I really had to finish many sections, though I had other things to do and other places to be. So it was a very good book.
Because it’s a good book, I’m quite disappointed in what seems to me to be an attempt to jack it up with the title’s reference to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as well as the overhyped subtitle: “A Monkey’s Head, the Pope’s Neuroscientist, and the Quest to Transplant the Soul.” These elements evoke an image of a staid doctor by day who goes rogue in his basement at night on some semi-psychotic pseudo-religious quest. That is not at all the case. According to the text, Dr. Robert White was a talented surgeon in good standing all his life, a devout Catholic who was invited to an audience with the Holy Father after a neuroscience conference on transplants, and conducted all of his research in a university hospital under laws and norms of the time. There’s no secret here, no hidden cabal with twisted motives. In spite of the frequent references to Dr. Frankenstein, often by Dr. White himself, there is simply a surgeon hoping that transplanting a brain – or, more accurately, transplanting a healthy body to a patient’s head when the body is failing – would save lives.
Ok, so it isn’t simple. It isn’t simple at all. But that’s what makes it interesting.
After a brief introduction to Dr. White, Schillace takes us to the world’s first kidney transplant in 1954. Dr. White is in the gallery, observing, and begins to form the ideas that will propel him throughout his career. I found the medical details of this historic surgery, and the surgeries that led to it, fascinating; those with less of an interest in what I airly refer to as “medical stuff” may be less entranced. In any case, it serves as a beginning to Dr. White’s story.
One of the more interesting philosophical issues raised throughout the book is the location of the soul. This has been pondered since people were people, and some of the history is given here. It was Dr. White’s belief “that all of the so-called human element resided in the brain as a soul,” both that which he believed survived after death, and the consciousness, the individual personhood.
The soul need not have a physical structure that we can detect, he explained, because it existed in “the fourth dimension.” We must look beyond a mind-body relationship, he insisted, and understand the more philosophically complex mind-soul-body relationship…. This strange metaphysical connection, in all its complexity, he called “the White principle.”
Science demanded proof. Catholicism required faith. White never considered them opposed, but as he aged, he went further in trying to unite them through his own philosophical doctrine.
He also believed that animals did not possess souls. Whether that was theologically-based, or convenient, is unclear. But from the moment he heard a Russian Soviet doctor had transplanted a second head onto a dog – resulting in an ultimately disappointing visit to Moscow – he knew he had to research brain transplants. And that meant dogs. And monkeys.
The experiments are described in detail, and can be hard to read for those of us who have loved our pets and never questioned their ensouledness. Much of the book concerns this battle between animal rights activists – from the fledgling PETA to Peter Singer – and medical research. For Dr. White, it was clear: his animal research saved human lives. He had specific patients he’d saved using techniques he’d developed in the lab on monkeys. He was eventually nominated for a Nobel Prize for his work in hyperthermia, the discovery that cooling the brain reduces metabolism and so allows it to go without oxygen, as in major cardiovascular surgeries, for longer periods of time. But the epithet Dr. Butcher arose for a reason (Mr. Humble was his own self-generated epithet).
His dream was, of course, to transplant a human head. His dream subject would have been Stephen Hawking or Christopher Reeve. It isn’t until fairly late in the book that we discover the catch: no, he hadn’t discovered the secret to reconnecting the spinal cord. Mr. Reeve’s head would have sat atop an equally paralyzed body. This makes the idea of a head transplant seem rather questionable, and is a good reason he never got that far.
However, the book goes on to cover more recent research into the brain-body connection via computer chips. Grey’s Anatomy viewers are familiar with those. There are ways to bypass the spinal cord and control devices, including prosthetics and computer consoles, by thoughts, and some progress has been made in controlling muscles. This would make Dr. White’s head transplant far more useful. But it’s still years away, and Dr. White didn’t live to see it. It is nonetheless a truly fascinating section of the book.
Schillace maintains a non-judgmental tone as she presents White’s work, allowing readers to make up their own minds about his research and larger questions of animal rights, the soul, and transplants. Dr. White’s enthusiasm and his motivation of saving lives are equally strong as the voices of his critics.
I discovered this book through the FiveBooks weekly “What are you reading this weekend?” thread. It was an impulse addition to this year’s in-between reading, and a successful one.
My sister’s voice was like mountain water in a silver pitcher; the clear blue beauty of it cools you and lifts you up beyond your heat, beyond your body. After we went to see La Traviata, when she was fourteen and I was twelve, she elbowed me in the parking lot and said, “Check this out” And she opened her mouth unnaturally wide and her voice came out, so crystalline and bright that all the departing operagoers stood frozen by their cars, unable to take out their keys or open their doors until she had finished, and then they cheered like hell.
That’s what I like to remember and that’s the story I told to all of her therapists. I wanted them to know her, to know that who they saw was not all there was to see.
After I’d read most of the stories in this collection, I went googling for some insight. I discovered Bloom was, before and during her writing career, a psychotherapist. Something clicked: the central plots of these stories could be summed up by a therapist in a sentence or two. It’s the stories’ job to show us what else there is. And these stories do their job well.
Many of the stories deal with adult romantic relationships beyond the traditional boundaries of marriage. Several deal with mental illness and/or therapeutic relationships. A couple deal with children who experience things they shouldn’t have to handle. Some include more than one of these elements. Some are linked. Many include a bit of humor, but the last one leaves us laughing out loud.
I decided to read this book last April after the second (and, apparently, final, heavy sigh) Zoom meeting of the Short Story Club, a discussion of a selection of works chosen by Vince Scarpa. “Silver Water” was the story covered in that meeting; the opening paragraph is quoted above. It’s the reminiscence of the sister of a mentally ill woman who found relative peace for a few years in the hands of a skilled psychiatrist, then foundered when he died. It leaves us with the question: Is suicide always a tragedy? Is it possible some people just know when they’ve had enough? How does one react when faced with another’s decision, and how does one live with it afterward? For me, it was the most intense story of the book. Other stories include:
Love is Not a Pie
I called and John was very sweet, asking how was feeling, how the memorial service had gone, how my father was. And I told him all that and then I knew I couldn’t tell him the rest and that I couldn’t marry a man I couldn’t tell this story to.
“I’m so sorry, Ellen,” he said. “You must be very upset. What a difficult day for you.”
I realise that was a perfectly normal response; it just was all-wrong for me. I didn’t come from a normal family: I wasn’t ready to get normal.
Clinical note: Subject has trouble with “normal” men, so has decided not to marry her fiance after all. Possibly related to her discovery, at age 9, of her parents’ intimate relationship with a family friend.
The title comes from Ellen’s mother’s explanation that the love she and her husband have for each other is not diminished by the addition of a third party into their sex life. That Ellen spent many years before asking about it – not until the man’s funeral – and that she recalls this advice during her mother’s funeral, underlines the importance of the discovery, but also convinces me that, although her family’s approach to marital monogamy may be unusual, the family itself is not really strange at all.
Marie has fallen in love with beauty.
The clinical note: Pt. has sexual relationship with transvestite, ? transference.
Marie, who watched her husband become entranced by a Beautiful Woman in a linked story, now has the chance to become beautiful herself, or at least to see herself as beautiful. So she fixates on her hair stylist, who happens to like dressing up like her. Think Jenna learning to love herself through Paul on 30 Rock.
All-night grocery stores seem to be the personal savior and favorite haunt of dazed young women of all colors, who haul their crumpled sleeping babies like extra items in the cart; of single middle-aged men and women, to healthy and too lonely to fall asleep at ten o’clock; and of people like me, who are scared to go home.
Clinical note: Pt. preparing for widowhood at young age; husband much older.
A once-scandalous May-December marriage grown ordinary over ten years is now drawing to its inevitable, and extremely ordinary, end: death. There’s enough tenderness in her last night with her husband to convince me she didn’t marry him for his money. And the observation about grocery stores is so spot-on, I nearly stood and applauded.
I would tell him that we were looking at wreckage and he would not want to know.
Clinical note: Pt. unsure how to react to sexual encounter with stepson following his father’s death.
This would be my candidate for the most shocking story of the collection. Does it count as incest if you aren’t related by blood? Or, maybe, what the hell was she thinking? The portrait of the marriage is generous and loving, so the nighttime visit feels like a record scratch. Wreckage is the right word. The story does include another perfectly observed grocery store moment:
I went to the grocery store and bought weird, disconnected items: marinated artichoke hearts for Lionel, who was dead; red caviar to make into dip for his son, whose life I had just ruined; peanut butter with the grape jelly already striped into it for Buster, as a special treat that he would probably have outgrown by the time I got home; a pack of Kools for me, who stopped smoking fifteen years ago. I also bought a wood-refinishing kit, a jar of car wax, a six-pack of Michelob Light, five TV dinners, some hamburger but no buns, and a box of Pop-Tarts. Clearly the cart of a woman at the end of her rope.
Am I obsessed with grocery stores, or is Bloom?
Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines
The pleasure on Mr. Klein’s face made me forget everything I had heard in the low tones of my parents’ conversation and all that I had seen in my own mirror. I chose to believe Mr Klein.
Clinical note: Childhood abuse; distant parents.
We’ve finally learned that it’s not the weird guy in the trench coat you have to watch out for, but the nice guy the kids love. A little girl whose parents see her as not-good-enough finds validation modeling fur coats for a shopkeeper. The hair didn’t start to stand up on my arms, however, until, the modelling sessions halted by the man for unspecified reasons, the piano lessons began. It’s like cross-abuser grooming.
When the Year Grows Old
When Laura failed to smile triumphantly, Kay’s heart sank. It was not a contest, after all.
Clinical note: Pt’s mother bipolar.
And again we have a child dealing with something no child should have to deal with, but nevertheless they do. Kay’s somewhere in her tweens, perhaps, before she sees her mother experience a full-blown psychotic break. She’s ready to side with Mom against Dad, having been alienated from him for unspecified reasons, but that’s when she thinks Mom is just dramatizing a fight.
Psychoanalysis Changed My Life
On Tuesday, Dr. Zurmur interrupted Marianne’s memory of her grandfather shaving with an old-fashioned straight razor to tell her that beige was not her color….
During the next week’s sessions, Dr. Zurmur gave Marianne the name of a good masseuse, an expert hair colorist, and a store that specialized in narrow-width Swiss shoes, which turned out to be perfect for Marianne’s feet and sensibilities. At the end of Thursday’s session, Dr. Zurmur suggested that Marianne focus less on the past and more on the present.
Clinical note: Hmmm, kill two birds with one stone?
When therapist turns matchmaker.
I’ve said before I’m not a huge fan of domestic realism, but I’ve also come to realize there’s value to recognizing stories well-written, even if they aren’t going to be my favorites. These are very well done, keeping my attention with astute observations and small cross-threads while pursuing a deeper emotional vein beneath the everyday foibles evident in most families. There’s always a pulse beneath the clinical note.
I would say that having a subject, or at least an idea that sparks my interest, or that I’ve been chewing on for a while, is important to me. I usually have an idea, or the seed of an idea, or a memory, or a word that’s nagging at me. The poem around the idea nags at me until I sit down to write it. And I write the poem mainly to get it to stop pestering me and leave me in peace. I do not consciously impose limitations, but I probably do limit myself in ways I am not aware of. We all do this, I think. We impose writing rules on ourselves that we don’t even know we have. I think when you discover what rules you’re imposing on yourself without meaning to, that’s when you have a breakthrough. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately: what are the rules I’m following that I don’t know I’m following? Of these rules, which ones are serving me well and which ones are holding me back?
~ Kathleen Balma via email
I came across Balma’s work several years ago, via Pushcart 2013, when her prose poem “Your Hostess at the T&A Museum” captivated me. We had a conversation about Juggalos, of all things, and the reaction of her hometown neighbors to a nonfiction article in the same Pushcart volume about the time the Insane Clown Posse came to town. Let’s just say they weren’t thrilled with how the were, and weren’t, represented.
Then, last year, I came across Black Spring Press Group’s Lockdown Series #4, videos of poets reading their work, on Youtube. Balma was featured, reading her poem “The Forgiveness Project.” I was captivated: at first, by the dog that kept interrupting her for the first minute, then by the poem itself.
I’ve said many times I’m not a poetry person. I stopped blogging most Pushcart poetry a couple of years ago, because I got tired of typing “I have no idea what to say about this poem” over and over; now I only blog poems that strike me in some way, either content or form or both. I also stopped buying poetry books, hoping they would show me what I was missing, but none of them did, they just repeated the same poems and talked about feelings that I didn’t feel.
But when a poet comes up with two – two – poems that really strike me, I have to check that out. I saw Balma had published a chapbook, Gallimaufry and Farrago.
My first thought was, “I wonder who Gallimaufry and Farrago are.”
Yes, I really am that stupid.
Turns out those two words are centuries-old references to food mixtures – a stew, and grains – that have come to mean a hodgepodge, a jumble of things.
The twenty-six poems in the chapbook fit that description. Some are humorous, some somber, and a few start out one way and end up another. Subjects range from Job to Abraham Lincoln to Sid Vicious. Many of the poems are about travel, particularly around Italy; some are rooted firmly in Balma’s Midwest. The book begins and ends with oysters (I’ll let that ring in the air a bit; I’m still thinking about it).
I’m (still) not a poetry person, but several of these worked for me. I’ll chose a few, culminating in the two – still my favorites – that originally brought me to this book.
A Tour of Pompeii’s Red-Light District
Along the top
edge of hall
(where a wall-
might go) is porn so old
we feel safe
Most of us have, at some point, in some way, encountered the remains of Pompeii, frozen in time by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. We may have heard of the plaster casts showing the last moments of those caught in the downpour of ash: a dog on its back, a pregnant woman prone, a man reaching for something, maybe a way out he never found.
But while we thought of homes and farms and markets, did any of us think of the brothels?
Yet, the brothels are there. Hey, even The Economist did an article on them. Penises are engraved on walls and floors. Menus of services, graffiti, all the things you’d expect. All from 1700 years ago. It’s… well, it sounds irreverent to say “funny” in this city of tragedy made concrete, but, come on, it is. Balma’s poem leads us there. Then it takes us back:
No poems here,
it seems –
this blunt graffiti
all that’s left.
No bodies either, now,
just ghastly casts
in vast museums, or
for those who hear
through time and ash:
This is one of the few poems where the sounds feel crucial to me: sounds that repeat across stanzas (“safe/saying”, “edge of hall/(where a wall”,) and, at then end, almost parenthesize the sharp stab to the heart we feel having just giggled at the idea of raunchy graffiti now immortalized: “ghastly casts….ghostly gasps.”
I associate two-line poetry with several things: conversations between two people, indecisiveness, and walking. Yes, I know, Dante cornered the market on walking meters with terza rima, but for the simpletons among us, two feet, two beats per step, it fits. That this poem is titled as a tour makes that a fairly good bet. But there is also that conversation with those who, so long ago, lived so much like we do. What would the ash catch us doing, what graffiti would we leave behind, if it fell right now?
“With his own two hands, Abe Lincoln built the log cabin he was born in.”
— from an American college student’s history paper
Theory 1: Out-of-Body Abe
The ghostly glob of fetal Abraham sneaks out of his mother’s womb at night with architecture on his budding mind….
Theory 3: Authorial Abe
Like many Abrahams before him, Lincoln enjoys limited omniscience whenever he writes speeches, treaties, bills, or commandments, and this has begun to affect his mind in arboreal ways. He often imagines what it must have been like for his Pa to construct their homestead. How many times has the teenage Lincoln built that same boxy lodge in his mind, amputating trees and sanding them to naked plainness, putting, perhaps, more care into it than his own father had? …Since the war began, he’s been adding rooms that were never there in his youth, and the walls are getting higher, so high the house is now a tower he must climb and climb.
This is just pure fun, but it’s also an interesting exercise in metaphor. How many ways can you figure out to have Abe accomplish the task credited to him by a student overtired from an all-nighter? And that last theory sends me right back to Richard Osgood’s “Millennium House”.
What the Traveler Knows
Every country is a cure for something;
…If you are irksome and rude
in your own land, there is another
where you are witty and direct; your voice,
once a pastel whine, now an atonal woodwind
I left home when I was eighteen because I knew I had to find my cure. The problem is, after that, I tended to get stuck. I stayed in places I hated because I was sure I’d never find anything halfway as good, that they were the best I deserved, that to look elsewhere would be arrogance, or pride. I wish I’d known this poem. This idea, that there is a place where even I might fit.
From the highly – maybe overly – florid phrases, we suddenly get real, almost Beckettian:
Look there, that palace, this tower,
yonder mountain peak – it’s the view
you were born to see, the perfect
finish to the shelf song of your life
so far. The end. Keep looking.
The end. Maybe tomorrow. The end.
Almost there. The end.
And yet, the end keeps getting put off, because there will always be another chapter to your life, every place will become a place to escape from. For some, at least. I think for me, I’ve found the place I want to die from. But who knows what may happen that changes my mind. The end? Keep looking. The end? Maybe tomorrow. The end? Almost there…
The Forgiveness Project
— after Szymborska
Who runs the project and for how long?
Are reservations and appointments a must,
or is it first come first serve?
Is there a suggestion box? A gift registry?
Will I need a witness?
Forgiveness is a core issue of mine, and this poem, by asking questions, raised more thoughts than even I had. It’s interesting that it’s the wrongdoer who is the focus here, not the wronged party. Forgiveness is a change in the wronged party. Nowhere do I see a guarantee that if one asks for forgiveness – presumably in all sincerity – it will be granted. Just like real life.
Maybe the confession booth has given us the impression that forgiveness is a transaction, as routine as buying a box of cereal or an indulgence. The poem underlines that by treating it lightly, but there’s a seriousness underlying that levity. I can’t define it, but I feel it. And here I am, sounding like one of those teachers I get so irritated with, declaring feeling with no evidence. But by making light of the subject, the rock-hard truth – that forgiveness implies a wrong, the infliction of pain, that “I’m sorry” doesn’t always heal even when it’s sincere – becomes more visible. Maybe it’s our irritation with playfulness on such a serious subject that stresses the reality.
But what if I take a different approach: what if apologies were offered by appointment, en masse? This is something like my (admittedly flawed) understanding of Yom Kippur. What if our errors were catalogued? Isn’t this what we imagine God doing – or even Santa Claus, keeping track of who’s naught and who’s nice? In Christian theology, sins are erased by grace, but does Santa keep track, we were not as naughty at age 8 than we were at age 7?
“Do poems count as admissions of guilt?” asks the poem. I remember (I hope; sometimes I worry that I just make these things up when I can’t document them later) that someone important in media said that America apologizes through its movies: for Vietnam, for Korematsu, and, someday maybe, for Guantanamo. But it isn’t America, the nation, that’s making these films.
I had to look up Wisława Szymborska, and discovered a Nobel laureate from Poland. There is a certain similarity to some of Balma’s work, but I’ve never been sure what “after” means; sometimes it’s a clear copy of a story, sometimes it’s a reply. So I asked Balma, with whom I had a wonderful email conversation. Her explanation:
Szymborska is and always will be my favorite poet. I understand the “after” to mean, “written as a conscious imitation of …”
“The Forgiveness Project” was written as a conscious imitation of a Szymborska poem that consists of a series of questions. I liked the form, so I wrote my own series of questions.
~ Kathleen Balma via email
I found a Szymborska poem titled “Questions you Ask Yourself” which could be a likely origin, but that requires confirmation.
From Your Hostess at the T & A Museum
If you will not tip me for my dance, tip me for daring to ask…. Tip me for staring back so hard it puts even Olympia to shame and makes her chat noire slink ever closer to her overlooked and under-rendered black maid…. Tip me for what you don’t see: the abstract; the invisible; the squiggly outline of the model’s brain matter in silhouette; the negative space plastered between fleshy objects like some happy vacuum, giving form to the nothingness between us.
I loved the return of the Male Gaze in this poem, the dare, the refusal of any shame; the redirection of embarrassment to the customer. Women have since Eve borne the burden of shame for men crying “Look what you made me do” like any five-year-old. No, says this character. Look what you are doing. I love the reference to Olympia, Manet’s painting showing a courtesan staring back at the viewer in a then-unexpected pose likewise free from shame. I love the use of anaphora (ha, see what I’m doing here) in the repetition of “Tip me.” And I love the closing line, though I’ll admit it’s a curious admiration, more of a desire to parse it, to get it right than an understanding of it.
When writers are kind enough to respond to my questions, seeing as I’m not exactly the New York Times Review of Books here, I like to give them a chance to add anything they wish. Sometimes they’ll mention an upcoming project, sometimes it’s more explanation of the work under discussion. And once in a while it’s something completely unexpected, like when I asked Robert Foreman what he wished someone would ask him, and he replied, “I wish people would ask me why I’m the way I am all the time. Like, what’s it like to wake up in the morning and be like that? My answer is that it’s really terrible, I hate being like this.” I didn’t know if I should pursue that line of thought, or call in a counsellor.
Balma’s reply was a little less off-the-wall, though unique enough to be intriguing: she got an outside opinion.
I just asked my partner, “Is there anything people never ask me that you think they should be asking?” He said, “I would ask you about your sentences,” and I laughed. I asked him to clarify. He said, “I’d have to research it to really articulate what I’m after, but I guess, not why you write but how you write, the particularities of your style. Your syntax. Your registers. Those are things I’m interested in.” I said, “You’d have to research your girlfriend’s poetry before you could ask her a question about her sentences?!” And he said yes. Then he said, “You write with subjects, sometimes themes. How important is having a subject that you’re interested in, and do you impose any limitations that relate to the subject? These are not very sexy questions. I’m sorry. I’m about to go get some fish. Is there anything you’d like?”
So that’s what conversations are like at our house.
~ Kathleen Balma via email
Then she turned that around into the opening quote above, a thoughtful consideration of process, what it is, and what it could be.
I enjoyed the chapbook, and I enjoyed the conversation. One of the most fun parts of writing these posts is that occasion, not a frequent one but often enough, of meeting a writer on, and off, the page.
Balma has a new collection, What the Traveler Knows, coming out soon; it includes most of the poems from this chapbook, plus a longer poem.
* * *
Kathleen Balma, Website and forthcoming collection
“Abraham, Honestly” – Poem by Kathleen Balma, via Cutbank, 1.75
“From Your Hostess at the T & A Museum” – Poem by Kathleen Balma at The Café Review, Winter 2011
“The Forgiveness Project” – Poem by Kathleen Balma, poet reading for Black Springs Press Group on Youtube
“Imprisoned in Ash: The Plaster Citizens of Pompeii” – Atlas Obscura on Slate
“The Grim Reality of the Brothels of Pompeii” – Marguerite Johnson, Professor of Classics, University of Newcastle, for The Conversation
“Millennium House” – flash fiction by Richard Osgood (Tin House)
It was both odd and unjust, said Gauss, a real example of the pitiful arbitrariness of existence, that you were born into a particular time and held prisoner there whether you wanted it or not. Each gave you an indecent advantage over the past and made you a clown vis-à-vis the future.
Eugene nodded sleepily.
Even a mind like his own, said Gauss, would have been incapable of achieving anything in early human history or on the banks of the Orinoco, whereas in another two hundred years each and every idiot would be able to make fun of him and invent the most complete nonsense about his character.
Aha! Enter Daniel Kehlmann with his fictionalized biography – a dual biography, in fact, of both Gauss and Alexander Humboldt – ready to supplement history with a little fun, slipping in “complete nonsense” as well as sly meta-comments along the way. It’s great fun to read.
Alexander Humboldt and Carl Gauss: The two men were contemporaries, were both famous in Europe, and published vast works that established new fields of science and mathematics. Yet they were quite different. One was from a wealthy Prussian family, the godson of a Duke, and was made a Baron; the other was the son of a German gardener. One wanted nothing more than to explore and document the world; the other preferred to stay home and work in a room, reasoning out abstractions. One never married; the other took a second wife to make up for the loss he felt when his first wife died. And yet, by the end of the book, they have more in common than we might suppose.
I spent a lot of time initially trying to determine what was documented fact and what was fancy, but eventually gave that up. I found an article by an eminent Dutch mathematician (all links provided below) castigating Kehlmann for taking such liberties (I hope he never reads Irving Stone or watches Amadeus). Then I found a Harvard mathematician who was a lot more enthusiastic, particularly about the film made from the book.
One of the scenes that so irritated the Dutch professor concerned a balloon ride that almost certainly never happened, as it appears to have taken place after the balloonist died (in a balloon accident, tragically). It’s one of my favorite passages:
And seizing him partly by his collar, partly by his hair, he hauled Gauss up.
The curve of the earth in the distance….
This is how God sees the world, said Pilâtre.
He wanted to say something back, but he’d lost his voice. How fiercely the air was shaking them! And the
sun—why was it so much brighter up here? His eyes hurt, but he couldn’t close them. And space itself: a straight line from every point to every other point, from this roof to this cloud, to the sun, and back to the roof. Points making lines, lines making planes, planes making bodies, and that wasn’t all. The fine curve of space was almost visible from here. He felt Pilâtre’s hand on his shoulder. Never go down again. Up and then up further, until there would be no earth beneath them any more. One day this is what people would experience. Everyone would fly then, as if it were quite normal, but by then he would be dead. He peered excitedly into the sun, the light was changing. Dusk seemed to be rising in the still-bright sky like fog. A last flame or two, red on the horizon, then no more sun, then stars. Things never happened this fast down there.
We’ve started to drop, said Pilâtre.
No, he begged, not yet! There were so many of them, more every moment. Each one a dying sun. Every one
of them was decaying, and they were all following their own trajectories, and just as there were formulae for every planet that circled its own sun and every moon that circled its own planet, there was a formula, certainly infinitely complicated, but then again maybe not, perhaps hiding behind its own simplicity, that described all these movements, every revolution of every individual body around every other; maybe all you had to do was keep looking. His eyes smarted. It felt as if he hadn’t blinked for a long time. We’re about to land, said Pilâtre.
No, not yet! He rose on tiptoes, as if that could help, stared upward, and understood for the first time what
movement was, what a body was; most of all, what space was, the space that they stretched between them, and thatheld them all, even him, even Pilâtre and this basket, in its embrace. Space, that …
They crashed into the wooden frame of a haystack….
Now he knew, said Gauss.
That all parallel lines meet.
Fine, said Pilâtre.
His heart was racing. He wondered if he should explain to the man that all he would need was to add a
hanging rudder to the basket, and he could turn the air current to make the balloon move in any specific direction.
But he kept quiet. Nobody had asked him, and it wouldn’t be polite to force his ideas on these people. It took no stretch of the imagination, and one of them would think of it soon.
But now what this man wanted to see was a grateful child. With an effort, Gauss put a smile on his face,
stretched his arms wide, and bowed like a marionette. Pilâtre was happy, laughed, and stroked his head.
I’ve found several sources that credit Gauss with coining the term “non-Euclidean geometry” and conducting an exploration of the Fifth Postulate as a way into the curvature of space; he never published anything on these topics, apparently feeling it would seem too fanciful, but the ideas were passed down to others, culminating in Riemann and Einstein. So while this particular incident may never have happened, its point – that inspiration and insight, comes from many other sources other than the hard work credited with 99% of genius – is well-taken.
Kehlmann relates the more familiar story of the discovery of Gauss’ mathematical talent by a schoolteacher who, as punishment or pedagogy, who knows, has the young children add the numbers from 1 to 100. Gauss completes the task in moments, using the method that is now codified for summing consecutive integers, and is thus vaulted into serious mathematical study. Whether or not this tale, which exists in several versions, is true is debated; maybe it’s more like George Washington telling the truth about cutting down the cherry tree, a legend that has become so ingrained it’s inseparable from fact. In any case, it’s told charmingly. Humboldt’s childhood inspiration was a bit different:
Once they stumbled on a story about Aguirre the Mad, who had renounced his king and declared himself emperor. He and his men traveled the length of the Orinoco in a journey that was the stuff of nightmares… Hardly any scholars had ever penetrated this region, and there was no reliable map.
But he would, said the younger brother. He would make the journey.
Naturally, the elder brother replied.
He really meant it!
Yes he understood that, said the elder brother and summoned a servant to note down the day and the exact time. The day would come when they would be glad they had fixed this moment.
The chapters alternate between Gauss and Humboldt, proceeding chronologically after a brief opening section preparing us for their eventual meeting later in life. Possibly because Humboldt’s life reads like an adventure novel while his personal life was rather limited, we see a great deal of him travelling, particularly of his trip to Latin America, collecting samples, and, indeed, measuring the world. Gauss’ studies, once his Disquisitiones Arithmeticae was published in his early 20s, are more summarized than dramatized, at least until his work with Wilhelm Weber on magnetism later in his life.
Yet Kehlmann gives us a picture of him through various short scenes, such as the (presumably fictional) moment he met his first wife, Johanna, while working as a surveyor shortly after qualifying for his doctorate:
He climbed over a hedge and landed panting, sweating, and strewn with pine needles in front of two girls. Asked what he was doing here, he nervously expounded the technique of triangulation: if you knew one side and two angles of a triangle, you could work out the other sides and the unknown angle. So you picked a triangle somewhere out here on God’s good earth, measured the side that was most easily accessible,and then used this gadget to establish the angle of the third corner. He lifted the theodolite and turned it this way,and then this way, and do you see, like this, with awkward fingers, as if doing it for the first time. Then you fit together a whole series of these triangles. A Prussian scientist was in the process of doing exactly this among all the fabulous creatures in the New World.
But a landscape isn’t a flat surface, retorted the bigger of the two.
He stared at her. There had been no pause. As if she had needed no time to think it over. Certainly not, he
A triangle, she said, had one hundred and eighty degrees as the sum of its angles on a flat surface; but it was
on a sphere, so this was no longer true. Everything would stand or fall based on that.
He looked her up and down as if seeing her for the first time. She returned his look with raised eyebrows.
Yes, he said. So. In order to even things out, you had to scrunch the triangles, so to speak, after measuring them until they were infinitely small. In and of itself, a simple exercise in differentials. Although in this form …
He sat down on the ground and took out his pad. In this form, he murmured, as he began making notes, it’s never been worked out in this form yet. When he looked up, he was alone.
The Prussian scientist mentioned is, of course, Humboldt, off looking for the mysterious channel between the Orinoco and the Amazon. This was a culmination of sorts for him; we watched him attend the completion of the triangulation of longitude that defined the meter: “People wanted to name it ‘the meter.’ It always filled Humboldt with exultation when something was measured; this time he was drunk with enthusiasm.”
Both men had to search for funding for their projects, as much a major, if unpleasant, effort then as it is today. Kehlmann’s fiction has a lot of fun with some of this: as Humbolt is trying to charm sponsorship out Mariano de Irquijo, the minister of Madrid (who did initially sponsor him), he is mistaken for a physician there to provide the regent with an aphrodesiac (“His power over the land rested on his power over the queen. She was no longer a young woman, nor was he a young man now.”) Quick-thinking Humboldt starts listing ingredients from all over the world, and offers to collect them to make a superb remedy. “Never before had foreigners received such documents.”
This use of humor is, for Kehlmann, the point:
Some readers, he concedes, may have bought it because they were flattered to be reminded of Germany’s role in the Enlightenment’s avant garde.
In fact, he says, it was intended as the antithesis of that – “a comedy about German high culture, about the German cult of genius”. “I have met people who didn’t want to read Measuring the World because they thought it was a serious, educated, self-important book about intellectual history. It has gained an aura that is the very opposite of what it really is, and I do regret that a bit. I also think it’s problematic that it is now on the school syllabus, because, in reality, it’s a parody about how we deal with educational values.”
Interview in The Guardian with Philip Oltermann
One of the clearest examples of this poke at German genius comes from Humboldt’s measuring of a solar eclipse while in South America. His assistant/collaborator, Aimé Bonpland, was astounded by the fading light, the momentousness of it all. Humboldt was too busy taking measurements to pay attention. “Did one always have to be so German?” sighs Bonpland.
Some of that humor has an ironic bite. While discussing the miracle of a parrot who is the last surviving speaker of a tribal language, Bonpland asks the head of the mission where the scientists are staying what happened to the tribe, why it disappeared.
It happened, said Pater Zea.
Pater Zea stared at him with narrowed eyes. It was easy to be like that. A person came here and pitied anyone
who looked sad, and back home there would be bad stories to tell, but if that person suddenly found himself with fifty men ruling ten thousand savages, wondering every night what the voices in the forest meant, and being amazed each morning to find himself alive, perhaps he would judge things differently.
A misunderstanding, said Humboldt. Nobody had intended to criticize.
On a later stop in Mexico (New Spain at the time), Humboldt recommends to the Spanish overseer that the mine passages be repaired, to reduce accidents. “They had enough people, said Don Fernando. Anyone who died could be replaced. Humboldt asked if he’d read Kant.” This sly way of bringing up the categorical imperative to treat people as ends, not as means, doesn’t land for the overseer, but it does for the reader.
And also in Mexico:
Shortly afterward, as Humboldt packed up his instruments, he knew that on the day of the solstice, the sun when seen from the highway rose exactly over the top of the largest pyramid and went down over the top of the second-largest. The whole city was a calendar. Who had thought it up? How well had these people known the stars, and what had they wanted to convey? He was the first person in more than a thousand years who could read their message.
Why was he so depressed, asked Bonpland, awakened by the sound of the instruments being closed.
So much civilization and so much horror, said Humboldt. What a combination! The exact opposite of
everything that Germany stood for.
That Spain inflicted horror on the New World is without doubt, but those of us who are familiar with the 20th century, yet future to Humboldt, might find somber irony in his exclamation.
I’m impressed with Kehlmann’s ability to compress these ideas into short statements, but the best is yet to come. Towards the end of his life, Humboldt and his brother, always close, speak of destiny:
Nobody, said Humboldt, had a destiny. One simply decided to feign one until one came to believe in it
oneself. But so many things didn’t fit in with it, one had to really force oneself.
The elder brother leaned back and gave him a long look.
That exchange of five words carries great impact. Yes, biographers and scholars of Humboldt’s travels have assumed, with varying degrees of certainty, that he was gay. I keep thinking of a trope that runs through the Gauss chapters, how he recognizes, as in the first quote above, that the state of knowledge, and society,, is always in flux, and what we accept today will most likely be different in fifty or a hundred or two hundred years. Humboldt didn’t have the luxury of waiting around for acceptance; I think that underlines some of his obsessive work.
Last year I read Kehlmann’s more recent book, Tyll, and enjoyed it so much I decided to read this earlier book. I’m glad I did. While the august personages, mathematics and science might intimidate some readers, it’s not a problem. Of course, the more one knows, the more one gets out of it (I love recognizing things I’ve heard of), but Kehlmann makes a point of not worrying about explaining background, be it of the Thirty Years’ War in Tyll, or the discoveries of Gauss – or, for that matter, the Napoleonic Wars which play in the background as Gauss moves from one university town to the next in search of a position.
I feel like you can never leave out enough explanation. We humans are actually used to working with incomplete information, for all our lives, all the time.
Measuring the World was a novel about two German scientists. It did very well in Germany, but then foreign publishers said, “We need footnotes because in our country nobody knows Carl Friedrich Gauss.“ I said, “Very few people in Germany knew Carl Friedrich Gauss either!“ When I read Dostoevsky, there’s so much about the politics of nineteenth-century Russia that I don’t understand, but it doesn’t matter at all. I feel like we should always trust the reader to deal with incomplete information—because that’s what all of us do all day long anyway!
Interview in Bomb Magazine with Álvaro Enrigue
The book ends not with the deaths of the scientists, but with Gauss’ son, Eugen. Throughout the book, Gauss has dumped on the poor boy, disappointed that he had little facility for mathematics. In more historically accurate materials, he urged the boy to go into law rather than science, fearing he would not be able to uphold Gauss’ name. Eugen leaves Germany, travelling somewhat the same route as Humboldt many years ago, but missing the excitement the journey brought the naturalist; he clearly doesn’t measure up to either man. He ended up in America, and, in historical accounts, became quite a successful businessman. The last word of the book, in fact, is America. If one wishes to deduce a shift in polarity from this, from Gauss the father, German genius, to the son, American entrepreneur, one is free to do so.
But I found the emotional end of the book to be earlier: as they exchange letters towards the ends of their lives, they end up feeling sorry for each other. Gauss pities Humboldt because he can’t explore Russia with the degree of freedom he needs, and Humboldt feels bad that Gauss has seen so little of the world. Humboldt, who yearned for travel and direct experience to measure everything in existence; Gauss, who valued thinking through principles to find truth. Yet, like those parallel lines that intrigued Gauss from an early age: seemingly different, yet they meet.
Kehlmann’s book made me want to read more factual biographies of both men, and I can think of no greater compliment for fiction.
* * *
Philip Oltermann,The Guardian, 11/15/2014: Interview, “Daniel Kehlmann: ‘German writers have been taught to hide their humour'”
Every review of this book mentions it’s about Artificial Intelligence. And it is, of course. But to my surprise, I found it to be very much about the spiritual realm as well. I may add it to my under-construction Five Books list of Books about Relgion for People who Don’t Do Religion (to go with my existing list of Books about Math for People Who Don’t Do Math).
Our first-person narrator is Klara, an Artificial Friend available at the local department store. On the plus side, this allows us access to Klara’s reasoning process. On the minus side, it gives the novel a YA feel (we are dealing with a teenager, teenage love, teenage decisions, coming of age stuff) and it’s sometimes hard to understand what’s actually going on. I’m still not sure of the overall environment; it seems stratified by genetic manipulation, but some people have been “substituted” and there’s mention of fascism and white gangs and I’m not really clear on all that. However, I didn’t try very hard. I get enough of that on the news.
Klara is not one of the intellectually-brilliant-but-socially-inept androids science fiction so loves to throw into human chaos; in fact, it’s somewhat the opposite. She has what contemporary education theory might call emotional intelligence, the ability to read cues from people’s words and actions and know what they are feeling, what they want, what is expected of her. She’s quite attuned to relationships, to love and loneliness, and to motivations. But her logical processes are far less sophisticated when analyzing how the world works, showing – sometimes – a strong predeliction for post hoc ergo proptor hoc.
The pace of revelation is carefully controlled, allowing several important threads to develop both consecutively and simultaneously. Part 1 takes place entirely in the department store where Klara is for sale, allowing us to understand her view of the world. Yet it also introduces Josie, the teenager whose mother will buy Klara, and it will introduce two events Klara observes on the street: a woman and a man – the Coffee Cup woman and the Raincoat Man – meet coincidentally after what Klara surmises is a very long time, showing both joy at the reunion and sorrow at the time gone by; and the Begger Man and his dog seem to die (though they merely went to sleep in a doorway), but are brought back to life by the Sun.
The Sun was pouring his nourishment on to the street and into the buildings, and when I looked over to the spot where Beggar Man and the dog had died, I saw they weren’t dead at all – that a special kind of nourishment from the Sun had saved them…. They were both hungrily absorbing the Sun’s special nourishment and becoming stronger by the minute, and I saw that before long, perhaps even by that afternoon, Beggar Man would be on his feet again, cheerfully exchanging remarks as always from the blank doorway.
This can only be called Sun Worship: the attribution of both power and the will to use it to a Being who is out of the range of communication. Klara is dependent upon solar energy (as are we all) so assumes everyone is likewise energized by its rays. This becomes central to the overall story. I find it fascinating that, in a world that seems quite done with humanism, it’s a machine that re-invents God and faith, and that acts out of self-sacrifice for the benefit of another. Is that because she is not fully rational, or is it something programmed into her? A great deal of research is showing how algorithms that are supposed to be unbiased show precisely the bias of the people who wrote them; in a world where people are abandoning not just God but their own humanity, is it possible they have subconsciously re-recreated God through AI?
This religiosity goes beyond merely seeing the Sun as a god. To save Josie, Klara prays to the Sun, offering to perform a service she thinks will please It. It turns out this involves a rather large sacrifice on her part, but she gives it willingly. Alas, she discovers the task was a waste of time (very faulty logic, but a human joins her in this and he isn’t any wiser, while I’m shouting “There are other machines!” from my living room), so she prays again, this time relying on faith in the power of human love. This is in line with the Protestant catechism: we are not saved by anything we can do, for our actions are always insufficient; it is only by faith that we can please God and receive His salvation.
There is another course of action, and as we learn more about it, we come into the discussion of whether people have a soul. The word soul is never used, but it seems clear to me that’s what they’re talking about.
‘Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t mean simply the organ, obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?…’
‘The heart you speak of,’ I said. ‘It might indeed be the hardest part of Josie to learn. It might be like a house with many rooms. Even so, a devoted AF, given time, could walk through each of those rooms, studying them carefully in turn, until they became like her own home.’
‘But then suppose you stepped into one of those rooms,’ he said, ‘and discovered another room within it. And inside that room, another room still. Rooms within rooms within rooms. Isn’t that how it might be, trying to learn Josie’s heart? No matter how long you wandered through those rooms, wouldn’t there always be others you’d not yet entered?’
I considered this for a moment, then said: ‘Of course, a human heart is bound to be complex. But it must be limited. Even if Mr Paul is talking in the poetic sense, there’ll be an end to what there is to learn…’
So even Klara, the most soul-conscious of the bunch, sees the heart, the soul, as finite. What if it isn’t? That Mr. Paul, an outcast in this society by virtue of having been substituted out of his job, is the advocate of an infinite human heart, which I am calling a soul, seems telling. This conversation takes place in a context that makes this more than just late-night dorm room stoned gab session, by the way; it’s central to the story, but I’m trying to be discreet about spoilers.
Several other powerful threads run through the book. The process of lifting apparently is only possible for children. There are benefits for both the child and the parents who make the decision, but there is also a significant risk. This brings guilt and forgiveness into the equation, and makes some interesting reading as we in the here and now struggle through the pandemic.
Then there’s the whole issue of Klara’s status as an AF. As readers, we naturally form an attachment to her, but she isn’t a person. Or is she? Forgive me if I lapse into ST:TNG for a moment (you knew I’d go there): “Data is a toaster.” There’s a reason art keeps creating machines and daring us not to care about them. Again, the question comes up: Can a person care about a machine? Does Klara have a soul? Can she even be likened to a service or sporting animal who is eventually retired? Do we owe her anything in that case? We just saw great outcry about military dogs in Afghanistan; does Klara, as a machine, earn that level of respect, or is she a toaster, to be thrown out when she’s no longer needed?
I was surprised by the book; it was less than I’d expected, even though I found the religious aspect compelling. I think I was put off by the voice. The only other Ishiguro I’ve read is The Consoled, and a short story “A Village After Dark” which turned out to be a practice piece for the dream-grammar of The Consoled. I wasn’t going to read Klara at all; I’d just read a Ted Chiang novella about AI and wasn’t really eager to read another. But I read a review or a comment somewhere that caught my attention, so I put it on my list; alas, I can’t remember what it was that interested me, or where I found it. I’m guessing it had something to do with religion.
But, in addition to thought-provoking threads already mentioned, it does have these drop-dead moments: the trip to Morgan’s Falls, which has all sorts of foreshadowing; the interaction meeting, a sort of social therapy group since no one goes to school any more, which gives a better idea of what kind of society this is; and, perhaps less importantly in the grand scheme of things, but just as dramatically, Klara’s impression of a bull in a field:
I was so alarmed by its appearance that I gave an exclamation and came to a halt. I’d never before seen anything that gave, all at once come up so many signals of anger and the wish to destroy. Its face, its horns, its cold eyes watching me all brought fear into my mind, but I felt something more, something stranger and deeper. At that moment it felt to me some great error had been made that the creature should be allowed to stand in the Sun’s pattern at all, that this bull belonged somewhere deep in the ground far within the mud and darkness, and its presence on the grass could only have awful consequences.
I crammed this in to this post where it doesn’t belong because it gives me the chance to use the word chthonic, something that doesn’t come along every day. Where there is God, there must be Evil.
It might not be the first book I’d recommend, but with all the threads it contains, it’s worth reading.
* * *
A Very Particular Risk: Aimee Bender on Jane Campion and Kazuo Ishiguro at Literary Hub (lithub.com)
Another Literary Novel About Androids Passing for Human – post by James Wallace Harris
Even if the tale had begun and ended with the first five black women who went to work at Langley’s segregated west side in May 1943—the women later known as the “West Computers”—I still would have committed myself to recording the facts and circumstances of their lives. Just as islands—isolated places with unique, rich biodiversity—have relevance for the ecosystems everywhere, so does studying seemingly isolated or overlooked people and events from the past turn up unexpected connections and insights to modern life. The idea that black women had been recruited to work as mathematicians at the NASA installation in the South during the days of segregation defies our expectations and challenges much of what we think we know about American history. It’s a great story, and that alone makes it worth telling.
I’d wanted to see the film version of this book, but for various reasons that never happened. So when someone recently mentioned it, I added it to my reading list, another “unusual career paths” book like others I’ve read before. It’s not that the careers are that unusual, but as the author says, the circumstances made them notable.
I was surprised to find out that the story of these women, the West Computers, started during WWII, when NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, predecessor to NASA, worked on warplane design. Reducing drag seems to have been the biggest problem. Though different types of planes – bombers, fighter planes, transports – had very different requirements.
Of course, the technical information, though interesting, isn’t the focus of the book. NACA was located at Langley in Virginia, a state where segregation was still law. Hence, the West Computers; the East Computers were the white women who did the same job, in a different building.
I kept reacting to the word “Computers” being used to denote people. I have a dictionary that was published in the 30s; I knew a long time ago that it defines “computer” as “one who computes,” so it’s not a new usage to me, but it still sounds strange. Then again, a lot of the language in the book, the language of the time and place, has an even stronger effect, as the battlefield against racial discrimination took place in strange ways:
Most groups sat together [in the lunchroom] out of habit. For the West Computers, it was by mandate. A white cardboard sign on a table in the back of the cafeteria beckoned them, its crisply stenciled black letters spelling out the lunchroom hierarchy: COLORED COMPUTERS. It was the only sign in the West Area cafeteria; no other group needed their seating proscribed in the same fashion. …
It was Miriam Mann who finally decided it was too much to take. “There’s my sign for today,” she would say upon entering the cafeteria, spying the placard designating their table in the back of the room. Not even five feet tall, her feet just grazing the floor when she sat down, Miriam Mann had a personality as outsized as she was tiny.
The West Computers watched their colleague remove the sign and banish it to the recesses of her purse, her small act of defiance inspiring both anxiety and a sense of empowerment. The ritual played itself out with absurd regularity. The sign, placed by an unseen hand, made the unspoken rules of the cafeteria explicit. When Miriam snatched the sign, it took its leave for a few days, perhaps a week, maybe longer, before it was replaced with an identical twin, the letters of the new sign just as blankly menacing as its predecessor’s.
This process of removing the sign, waiting for it to show up again went on for quite a while before whoever placed the sign gave up. The women still sat at the same table, but the stigma, the shame, was gone.
Race wasn’t the only issue, of course. Women who worked with engineers on extended projects wouldn’t be credited on reports, the public recognition of their expertise. “Why would the computers have the same desire for recognition that they did? many engineers figured. They were women, after all” muses Shetterly.
Then there was the question of attending an important weekly meeting. Katherine Goble asked to attend the meeting; she was refused. She asked again the next time, and again was turned down. Eventually, she was allowed in, and, wonder of wonders, the sky didn’t fall. Persistence once again paid off. But it was never a given: “Whether or not a woman was promoted, if she was given a raise, if she had access to the smoky sessions where the future was being conceived and built, had much to do with the prejudices and predilections of the men she worked for.”
The story is carried along a broad outline of history that intersects with both the mission of NACA/NASA and the Civil Rights movement. WWII, breaking the sound barrier, school segregation (one county in Virginia closed its schools rather than comply with integration), Sputnik and the space race, and voting rights, all blend together. John Glenn’s orbit and safe splashdown became a turning point for Katherine Johnson, who undertook the assignment of figuring out how to make sure the capsule ended up near the ship that would recover Glenn:
“In the recovery of an artificial earth satellite it is necessary to bring the satellite over a preselected point above the earth from which the reentry is to be initiated,” she wrote. Equation 3 described the satellite’s velocity. Equation 19 fixed the longitude position of the satellite at time T. Equation A3 accounted for errors in longitude. Equation A8 adjusted for Earth’s west-to-east rotation and oblation. She conferred with Ted Skopinski, consulted her textbooks, and did her own plotting. Over the months of 1959, the thirty-four-page end product took shape: twenty-two principal equations, nine error equations, two launch case studies, three reference texts (including Forest Ray Moulton’s 1914 book), two tables with sample calculations, and three pages of charts.
A woman receiving credit for her own work was almost as big a deal as the successful recovery using her work. It’s quite a joyous chapter.
And yet, it’s not so much the story itself as the very telling of the story that I keep thinking of. I’d certainly never heard of these women. It seems they did a fair amount of public speaking, but national recognition never came their way until a chance comment moved Shetterly to interview some of the women and research the book in order to tell the story. This is the importance of diversity, of access, of different voices in the room. As Shetterly says in her Epilogue:
Most people are astonished that a history with such breadth and depth, involving so many women and linked directly to the twentieth century’s defining moments, has flown below the radar for so long.
….For too long, history has imposed a binary condition on its black citizens: either nameless or renowned, menial or exceptional, passive recipients of the forces of history or superheroes who acquire mythic status not just because of their deeds but because of their scarcity. The power of the history of NASA’s black computers is that even the Firsts weren’t the Onlies.
…For me, and I believe for many others, the story of the West Computers is so electrifying because it provides evidence of something that we’ve believed to be true, that we want with our entire beings to be true, but that we don’t always know how to prove: that many numbers of black women have participated as protagonists in the epic of America.
The history that spans from the personal to the national to the scientific makes this interesting reading for a broad audience. That may be why there’s also a Young Reader’s edition and a Teacher’s Guide, as well as the film. But I was perfectly happy with the original.
Her phone rings, startling her. Unknown Caller, it says.
She answers with the speakerphone: “Hello?”
“Two things you must remember,” a voice says through some kind of speech-distortion machine. “Number one: you are not the first and you will certainly not be the last. Number two: remember, it’s not about the money—it’s about The Chain.” This has to be some sort of prank, one part of her brain is saying. But other, deeper, more ancient structures in her cerebellum are beginning to react with what can only be described as pure animal terror.
“I think you must have the wrong number,” she suggests.
The voice continues obliviously: “In five minutes, Rachel, you will be getting the most important phone call of your life. You are going to need to pull your car over to the shoulder. You’re going to need to have your wits about you. You will be getting detailed instructions. Make sure your phone is fully charged and make sure also that you have a pen and paper to write down these instructions. I am not going to pretend that things are going to be easy for you. The coming days will be very difficult, but The Chain will get you through.”
What would you do to save your child from a horrible death? Most parents immediately answer, Anything, of course, but what if it means acting so far outside your life experience you couldn’t have ever imagined it, if it means doing something unthinkable? What if it means killing someone else’s child?
These aren’t academic questions anymore for Rachel. After years of putting her husband through law school, then a divorce, then working while finishing her own education, then beating cancer, she thought she was home free. She and fourteen-year-old daughter Kylie were about to start a new chapter as she took up her first academic job, teaching philosophy at a local community college.
Then the Unknown Caller comes into her life, and plans go out the window.
Apparently there’s something called Mexican kidnapping which involves substituting one victim for another; McKinty got the idea for this book from that, but he developed it into something bigger. When Rachel’s child is kidnapped, she has to kidnap someone else in order to get her back. She has to hold her victim until those parents kidnap yet another child. The chain can’t be broken; if anything goes wrong, kill the victim and start over, or your child dies. And in the meantime, Unknown Caller has a secret army of former victims available for threats, enforcement… whatever it takes.
The book has three main parts. Kylie is the focus of the first, and longest, section. Then there’s a problem with the next link in the chain, and Rachel is commanded to fix it, or the secret army will come after her and her daughter; you’re never out of danger in The Chain. And finally, there’s a showdown, an attempt to out the Unknown Caller, because nightmares and crushing guilt are only the beginning, and there will be no end, as long as The Chain goes on.
This book won several prestigious awards – including the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, billed as Britain’s most prestigious crime novel award – and has a cover blurb from Stephen King. I heard about it through Five Books, where Anthony Franze put it on his list of Best Thrillers of 2020.
I’m afraid my reaction isn’t as enthusiastic. I found it tense rather than suspenseful. The brief conversations with the Unknown Caller should have created suspense, but it seemed like bad TV movie dialog to me. Fans of surveillance technology will probably appreciate the final sections, but I wasn’t interested. A character was added and removed, which seemed too random to me. The big question throughout the book is where did The Chain come from, who is running it, and why? The answer felt disappointing. Then again, it did underline the whole banality of evil thing pretty definitively. It’s not a bad book; the idea of the victim becoming victimizer is intriguing. There’s a particularly gripping scene as Rachel must decide if she’s going to let a child die in front of her, or get medical help that would undoubtedly risk the secrecy of her operation and Kylie’s life. A few side issues – a possible recurrence of breast cancer, a romance – grounded it in real life. It just wasn’t enough to keep me interested.
I have to admit to a personal bias: I never get, in kidnapping movies or TV shows or books, why no one goes to the police. Yes, of course, they’re told not to, and the stakes are very high, but it still seems strange to me. Then again, I have a tendency to overvalue institutions and authority; those more self-confident may well prefer to handle things themselves.
I used to read series thrillers back in the day – the Kellermans, Stephen White, Patricia Cornwell – but they all had a strong medical or psychological aspect to them that interested me. So this was an experiment. I’m not sorry I read it. I just can’t get excited about it.
William Shakespeare is a global phenomenon, yet there is actually relatively little work specifically devoted to his language, and even less deploying the latest techniques from linguistics.
On this course, you will explore Shakespeare’s language and, more generally, the language of his time.
Over four weeks, you will be introduced to “big data” corpus methods (methods that use computers to explore large volumes of language data) which you can use for your own investigations, and will explore how words and meanings pattern across plays, characters, and more.
Along the way, you will find out why various beliefs about Shakespeare’s life and language–like that he coined an extraordinary number of new words–are actually myths.
I’ve taken several moocs on Shakespeare over the years, from the thorough reading of Young Love/Tragic Love offered by Wellesley, to the more emotional focus on individual scenes via Adelaide University’s Shakespeare Matters, to Stephen Greenblatt’s cultural and historical approach of Othello’s Story. Now add to those this linguistic examination of the language used in, primarily, the plays, with the assistance of corpus linguistics – augmented by a bit of myth-busting.
We started with a general examination of Early Modern English and the printing methodologies in use during Shakespeare’s time. That, combined with frequent use of CPQ Web to look up word frequencies and collocations, helped set the stage for the myth busting segment: Did Shakespeare really invent 1700 new words? When viewed through software including the amassed work of the period, that number seems to fall, and other possibilities (collaboration, printing-induced revisions, the difficulty of recording spoken language), it falls even more. Other sections looked at questions about Shakespeare’s vocabulary – was it more extensive than other playwrights of the day? – and his supposed lack of training in Latin.
It was great fun to explore these questions using the tools made available in the course, with the help of videos providing detailed instruction. I was surprised to find I still had a CPQ Web account from back in 2014, when I took Lancaster’s Corpus Linguistics mooc, one of the first moocs I ever took (and, I still say, one of the best designed, particularly for learners of different levels from novices like me to professional linguists and professors looking to add CL skills). All I had to do was add permissions for the Shakespeare corpora, and I was good to go.
The focus on language gave a different way of looking at Henry IV, Part I. Is the focus on Wales more about the Elizabethan view, or about an individual character? How can Falstaff’s “verbal dexterity,” or just his oaths, be examined in context? These sections were very brief, but served as introductions that made me want to know more.
The lectures were very short (generally about 6 minutes) and highly structured in the traditional manner: tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em, tell ‘em, then tell ‘em what you told ‘em. Futurelearn doesn’t do grades for auditors, but does have periodic “Check Your Knowledge” quizzes which are quite sufficient for keeping track of which points you’ve retained and which you need to review.
As a fun postscript: After I completed the material, an article came across my twitter feed (I can’t find exactly how, one of the literary/language accounts I follow must have retweeted it) titled ‘How Data Science Pinpointed the Creepiest Word in “Macbeth”’, written by Wired columnist Clive Thompson. It reports on an academic article by Jonathan Hope and Michael Witmore titled “The Language of Macbeth” on keywords in the play, in particular, an examination of the word “the” and how it contributes to the “creepiness” of the play. This is exactly the kind of thing I’d just been learning about! It’s quite exciting to come across something in the wild that relates so directly to course material.
The scheduled portion of the course was over; we were in the 10-day “catch up” period included (for those of us auditing) but I posted a comment anyway, to see if anyone else had any thoughts on this, particularly the question I didn’t really see answered in the article: how does that keyword statistic stack up against the other plays, particularly the tragedies? A student responded with the results of his investigation, which was helpful. Then, to my surprise, Prof. Andrew Hardie, who’d guided our CPQ Web adventures via video and provided discussion board feedback throughout the course, replied in detail. He put the article in context and recommended some alternate approaches using corpus linguistics combined with grammatical theory to examine the question of informational vs interpersonal interactions. It was a real treat to see this kind of response; this is what moocs can be at their best.
There’s frequently a negative bias towards data-driven analysis of literary work. I remember reacting strongly to Pam Houston’s exasperation on hearing about “distant reading” (a specific type of analysis using similar technology, as far as I can tell) in her article “What Has Irony Done For Us Lately?” from Pushcart 2019. Rather than replacing close reading – which, by the way, itself was a new technique less than a hundred years ago according to the Yale Theory of Literature OCW – corpus linguistics and related data-driven methods offer other ways of examining questions of meaning as well as questions of literary history and development.
I’d highly recommend this course to anyone who’d like to think about Shakespeare in a way that’s perhaps different from the hushed reverent tones of traditional literary analysis, and to anyone who enjoys thinking about how language works to convey meaning. I only wish it had been more extensive; perhaps there will be other moocs that continue to explore questions like these.
The nine tales in Give My Love to the Savages illuminate the multifaceted Black experience, exploring the thorny intersections of race, masculinity, and Black life through an extraordinary cast of characters. From the absurd to the starkly realistic, these stories take aim at the ironies and contradictions of the American racial experience. Chris Stuck traverses the dividing lines, and attempts to create meaning from them in unique and unusual ways. Each story considers a marker of our current culture, from uprisings and sly and not-so-sly racism, to Black fetishization and conservatism, to the obstacles placed in front of Black masculinity and Black and interracial relationships by society and circumstance.
Setting these stories across America – in large and small cities – Stuck uses place to expose the absurdity of race and the odd ways that Black people and white people converge and retreat, rub against and bump into one another.
Chris Stuck does a number of things I really like in this volume. He plays with names. He varies the tone from one story to the next, sometimes even within a story. And boy, does he ever stick the endings.
Although all of the stories focus on Black or biracial men, there’s a lot of diversity. In several of his interviews, Stuck mentions that he wants to balance out the books that show Black people poor or oppressed or in danger, show more successful Black people. There are indeed successful Black men in these stories, but there are also those who have lost, or are losing, that success, and those who haven’t quite gotten there yet. Ages range from teens to middle age; a few stories are second person; one reads like a memoir. Not all of these men seem like good guys at first, but they’re all struggling to figure it out, and that generates a great deal of empathy.
The opening story, “Every Time They Call You Nigger,” sets a contemplative tone, recounting this specific event that remains ingrained in the memories of so many Black people. But there’s humor, too, as both Black and white people try to figure out the rules for when it’s ok to use this reclaimed, rehabilitated term. But our protagonist “never had the right cadence” so he skipped it. It’s weird how angry some white people get when they find out they can’t do something a Black person can. Sometimes they ask questions about it. Usually they’re just being dicks.
Which brings us to the second story. It seems to track with several other stories in the collection, stories I’d call “looking in the mirror and not liking what I see.” In “How to Be A Dick in the 21st Century,” Richard Dickerson knows he’s a dick. He’s always known he was a dick. It didn’t seem like a problem.
The testosterone, it was how I got ahead, my assertiveness, my swagger. As a man, it was expected of me. As a Black man, it was required. Every single morning of my adulthood, as I took a leak, I adjusted my medicine cabinet door so I could get a glimpse of my morning wood in the mirror.
Somehow, everything would then seem right, if not in the world then at least in my life.
Until he woke up one morning as a six-foot penis.
I’m still somewhat under the influence of George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, having just read it a couple of months ago, so I couldn’t help but compare this story to Gogol’s “The Nose,” discussed in that book. It’s a very different story: Dickerson is a lot less upset at his predicament than Kovalyov was at his. Instead of running to a doctor, he figures out how to walk on two testicles and how to dress so as to cover the most shocking aspects of his new appearance. He knew, after all, that he was a dick in the first place.
But I also see a real similarity to Gogol: as Saunders puts it, “[T]he meaning of a story in which something impossible happens is not that the thing happened… but in the way the story reacts to the impossibility. That is how the story tells us what it believes.” What this story believes is that change is possible. It may take a massive shock to bring it on, but once you face your dickishness, you can do something about it, if you choose. And this is one of those beautifully stuck endings, as Richard has a brief exchange with a doorman who seems to feel as though he’s lost something, while Richard feels he’s gained.
Another facing-yourself story, though in a far more realistic vein, is “Cowboys.” A wax museum guard decides to make some extra cash by helping his co-worker’s brother track down a bail jumper. Things get a little rough, and he has a moment: “I couldn’t believe I was standing there with two white dudes I barely knew, over the body of a woman I just helped hunt down, a Black woman.” There are a lot of funny moments in this story, but that isn’t one of them. But again, change is possible.
Then there are those who don’t change, who get impossibly stuck, and it’s not entirely their fault. In “This Isn’t Music,” there’s disappointment and tragedy all around. Nick’s career that stalled out, and he had to return to his childhood home to take care of a father who doesn’t recognize his son (“My son doesn’t look like you….Well, for one thing, you’re Black”), who can’t tell the difference between an electric shaver and a cornet. A wife who’s happy there. And an old girlfriend. They only sleep together once, but Nick’s clearly having what the Twelve Steppers call an emotional affair. Names play such an important role in the story – the white wife’s name is Lily, the Black girlfriend’s married to “the only white guy in the world named Tyrone.” All of these things could be played for laughs, but the tone is too bleak to create humor.
The very geography of the road sums it all up:
You are 286 feet below the surface, in the bowels of a man-made crater, a big-ass hole.
It was all the entertainment you had. A bump. A bump to jump, you used to say. Bumps are hard to come by here, since it’s so flat. You both loved the launch, that moment of flight. It was better than drugs, better than sex. You’re an asshole, but there are still some things you can appreciate.
Yes, the self-recognition is there, but the weight of the air is just too much to allow for change.
“Chuck and Tina Go On Vacation,” on the other hand, is hilarious. They don’t so much want a vacation as they want to post vacation photos to impress the friends who’ve been posting their own vacation photos. It’s Keeping Up with the Joneses on Social Media. And though they pay for it in a couple of ways, they still don’t get it. Some people are too self-absorbed for change.
For showing how change can happen after self-recognition, the prize goes to “The Life and Loves of Melvin J. Plump, Esq.” Melvin is a Black conservative political operative who cut a few too many corners, and found himself in court-ordered therapy. His therapist urges him to take a cruise for unseen souls: “People who are shunned by society because of their physcial appearance. It’s just like how it sounds. Unseen souls, Melvin.” And why should he take that particular cruise? He’s developed vitiligo; his formerly dark skin has turned pink-white.
Malavika Praseed of the Chicago Review of Books felt this story was off: “the catchiness of the premise trumps the events of the story itself.” I strongly disagree; the whole idea of a cruise of disfigured and/or disabled people felt disgusting to me, but by the end of the story, I’d forgotten all about the vitiligo, about the politics, about the therapist, about my disgust. It’s a longer story, so that allows for a lot of development as Melvin meets Zarrella, another unseen soul.
…[S]he was obviously bookish but then again obviously not. There was something else there, a variety of roughness I couldn’t place. Perhaps she was a reformed thug with a knack for words. Whatever it was, it made her interesting. She was tall, possibly well proportioned if you squinted a little. There was a certain dignity in the way she could disregard people, even me.
She’s fascinating, and their relationship goes through many twists and turns, culminating in a beautiful moment that works as metaphor and as plot, as it provides the impetus for Melvin to change. Maybe not a lot – he’s probably still a conservative – but enough to provide that empathy story readers look for.
“And Then We Were the Norrises” is another story that rode relationships beautifully, in this case a couple of relationships in the life of a teenager in Witness Protection due to some shenanigans by his parents. Stuck plays with names again; this time, unlike in “Music,” we can enjoy the humor as we find out the boy’s newly assigned name is Chuck Norris, and his newly found friend is Sterling Silver. Man, that’s child abuse, y’know? But the two boys developing feelings for each other, dancing around the edges of homoeroticism without actually going there; it’s a high-wire act. The other relationship is with the agent assigned to look out for the family, a crank who only becomes genuine when he faces a personal loss. It’s perhaps a tad unrealistic, but it was drawn so nicely, I just went with it. Reason as slave to the passions and all that.
The title story is last; I read it in this year’s Pushcart (and discussed it then), and that’s why I decided to read the collection. I was going to wait for the paperback, but I got impatient. I’m glad I did, because I would have missed what is one of the nicest dust jackets I’ve seen in a while. The art, by Arnold R. Butler, is cool enough, but it’s magnificently rendered: gold foil, and a slightly rough texture to the heavy paper, with the title in smeared white. Photos don’t do it justice.
One of the things that interests me about short story collections is how authors put them together. Stuck has said in several interviews that he wanted stories about biracial men to bookend the collection, a clever idea. He’d tucked the penis story in the middle, hoping readers would have a sense of his writing before they came to it, but his agent wanted it right up front. That makes a stark contrast with the contemplative first story, but seeing as it grows contemplative itself, it works. The cruise story, being longer, went next-to-last because he’d read that’s where authors put novellas in collections. I can’t find examples, but it works where it is, so I have no complaints.
In fact, I have no complaints at all about this book. I enjoyed it all around, and I’m glad I ran across the story that led me here.
* * *
An Interview with Author Chris Stuck by Tom Williams – mixedmag.com : “But I want to see more successful black folks in books. For whatever reason, the publishing industry has a predilection for black trauma stories, black folks being held down by a system of oppression. It seems like those are the only stories that get out there. We’re not all from the ghetto or the inner city or the poor south or gang-infested west. Those realities exist, of course, but I just want to balance the representation, complicate it.”
Malavika Praseed for Chicago Review of Books : “To me this collection helps debunk the idea that men are not privy to their own flaws and insecurities. Rather, when these are claimed and understood, art can result.”
Chris Stuck, in conversation with Chris L. Terry at BookSoup: “I don’t plot before writing; I freewrite and discover as I go. Most of the time I have an idea and try to figure a way into it, like the first sentence. Then I just explore the voice or whatever is happening in the story. At some point I realize I need the narrative drive, or something to riff on in the story… The plot comes out of trying to figure out what I’m doing.”
Say you grow up in the type of place that is excited to be getting its first motel, moving from town to town as one motel is finished and another begun. You are naturally not enthralled by school and achieve a solid B- average. Presently you take Scholastic Aptitude Tests and astound everyone by a degree of scholastic aptitude which places the B- average in an entirely different light. Your teachers take the result as a personal insult. You apply to various colleges, who ask for references, and teachers who have reduced you to speechless torpor write complaining of apathy. You are interviewed on the basis of dazzling scholastic aptitude and you are asked about your interests and you have no interests. You have no extracurricular activities because the extracurricular activity was the Donny Osmond Fan Club. Everyone turns down your application on grounds of apathy.
One day you are lying on a bed in one of the motel rooms. Your mother is having a bad day: she is playing Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude for the 63rd time on the piano in the adjacent room. Your father is having a good day: a member of the Gideon Society has come to suggest placing Bibles in the rooms, and he has been able to state categorically that he is not having that piece of trash in his motel. Each bedside table, he explains, has a copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species in the top drawer. In fact it’s a really good day because that very morning one of the guests stole the Origin of Species instead of a towel. You stare apathetically at the TV. They are showing A Yank at Oxford.
Suddenly you have an idea.
Surely Oxford, you reason, would not hold non-membership of the Donny Osmond Fan Club against you. Surely Oxford would not insist on mindless enthusiasm just to prove you can be enthusiastic about something. Surely Oxford would not accept hearsay as evidence. Surely Oxford wouldn’t hold a reference against you without knowing anything about the writer.
Why not apply?
I thought: I could leave Motelland and live among rational beings! I would never be bored again!
I had reckoned without Roemer.
Short version: I loved this book. And yes, this is going to be one of those posts that goes on and on to record some of what I saw in it – there are plenty of professional reviews around for those who need that sort of thing, I’ll provide links at the end – but let’s clear something up right now: it has NOTHING WHATSOEVER TO DO WITH THE TOM CRUISE MOVIE. That should be evident from the above quoted passage, but I’m not taking chances.
It does have strong ties, however, to another film: Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, which, sadly, I’ve never seen. Fortunately, Sybella, who found Oxford just as boring as Motelland, by the way, and her son David/Steven/Ludo, watch the movie obsessively, describe scenes in detail, and provide analysis as they find opportunity to apply the themes and processes of 16th century Japan to their own lives. The plot of the book turns into the film. And I understand, from those who know more than I about the movie and about cinema in general (again links provided below), the structure and style of the novel mirrors Kurosawa as well.
I just know I adore this book. It’s another one of those Why Hasn’t Someone Told Me About This Before books.
As with most complex things, it’s easy to state the general idea: A single mother educates her child – who may be a prodigy, a genius, or just an ordinary kid in the right circumstances – far more than anyone would believe possible, which prepares him, at age 11, to seek out his father. When he finds his father doesn’t meet his expectations, he seeks out a more suitable father. And as with most complex things, that overview should be thought of as a container for delicious wonders within, all of which are linked together in sometimes clear, sometimes hazy ways.
I’ve always said I love a book that teaches me something, and this book teaches me so many things I’ve lost count. In fact, it teaches about teaching, about learning.
What’s so damning about knowledge porn is that it’s often written with the same basic level of intelligence as any other work of mainstream literary fiction. Which ruins the whole premise…. You can’t footnote a cliché and call it genius….
Fortunately for us, The Last Samurai is better than that. It’s a rare work of knowledge porn that actually conveys knowledge. Flip through the book and the first thing you’ll notice is Greek writing, or Japanese writing, or impossibly long strings of numbers. As Ludo studies, DeWitt folds his material into the text, and a patient reader will learn that, in Japanese, JIN is an exogenous Chinese lexeme, while hito is an indigenous Japanese lexeme; that in E.V. Rieu’s translation of The Odyssey (yes, it’s a real thing), Odysseus calls his companions “lads;” and that in the sum of any sequence n + (n+1) + (n+2) + (n+3) etc. is simply half of the sum of the sequence added to itself backwards. DeWitt doesn’t just tell us her characters are smart; she builds the truth of that assertion into the book, and she makes us smarter for reading it.
Brian Hurley, “Knowledge Porn: On Helen DeWitt’s ‘The Last Samurai’” available online at The Millions
I love that phrase, knowledge porn; it’s often applied to Rushdie or Wallace, or the Crown Prince of Knowledge Porn, Umberto Eco, and it fits here, too. Yes, that makes it challenging reading. But that’s one of the themes of the book: we’re all so fucking lazy we just play video games and watch reality TV when we could be learning Greek or Japanese or music or reading the foundational literature of humanity, or reading a book referencing diverse subjects we can always look up on our computers that are more than game devices, because it’s hard, it requires thinking. And we put our kids in front of Sesame Street because we think that’s age-appropriate, we don’t think they can learn languages until high school or college (which is completely backwards from any language acquisition research).
The thing is, they have to be curious, interested, as Ludo is. He wants to know what the funny letters in the big book are. And when he watches The Seven Samurai, with its subtitles, he wants to learn Japanese.
I tell L that in the autobiography Kurosawa has nothing but praise for the marvellous Mifune except possibly that he had a rather harsh way of talking which the microphones had trouble picking up. I say that it’s very charming the way the translators have translated the Japanese into Penguin.
L: What’s Penguin?
I: It’s what English translators translate into. Merely had a lot of fighting experience! Determined to follow you! As it happens most English speakers can understand Penguin even if they wouldn’t use it in daily life, but still.
L: Isn’t that what they say?
I: They may be speaking Penguin Japanese, we can only surmise. Kambei says Tada kassen ni wa zuibun deta ga, tada, just, kassen is battle or combat according to Halpern (but I wonder whether that isn’t just Penguin infiltrating the dictionary), ni in, wa topic particle, zuibun a lot, deta happened, ga another particle which we won’t go into now but which seems pretty common, it’s hard to believe it is giving the flavour of Penguin to the
L: When are you going to teach me Japanese?
I: I don’t know enough to teach you.
L: You could teach me what you know.
I: [NO NO NO NO] Well
Voice of Sweet Reason: You’ve started so many other things I think you should work on them more before you start something new.
L: How much more?
L: How much more?
The last thing I want is to be teaching a five-year-old a language I have not yet succeeded in teaching myself.
I: I’ll think about it.
HOW MUCH MORE?
HOW MUCH MORE?
HOW, MUCH, MORE?
I: Well if you read the Odyssey and Books 1–8 of the Metamorphoses and the whole Kalilah wa Dimnah and 30 of the Thousand and One Nights and I Samuel and the Book of Jonah and learn the cantillation and if you do 10 chapters in Algebra Made Easy then I will teach you as muuch as I can.
L: Then that’s what I’ll do.
I: All right.
L: I will.
L: You’ll see.
I: I know.
L: Will you teach me the alphabet while I’m working on the rest?
I: It doesn’t have an alphabet. It has two sets of syllabaries of 46 symbols apiece, 1,945 characters of Chinese derivation in common use since the Second World War and up to 50,000 characters used before then. I know the syllabaries and 262 characters which I keep forgetting which is precisely why I am not really qualified to teach it to you.
L: Then why don’t you get a Japanese to teach me?
This is a wonderful idea. I could get a benevolent Japanese male to act as an uncle substitute for L! A benevolent Mifune lookalike to come and talk about stamp collecting or football or his car in a language which would conceal the diabolical tedium of the subject. But he would probably want some money.
I: I don’t think we can afford it.
Please forgive the unusually long quotes; since it’s a 482-page book (don’t let that scare you off, it reads rather quickly and is highly engaging, if sometimes mysterious about what it’s doing), I feel like some excess is justified, and to cut it too much would be unfair. Also forgive the approximation of the typography; see the book for details, I have technical limitations on this blog.
I did leave out a part, as you may have noticed, which is one of those inserts that a thinking person sometimes runs through when doing something else, and includes another, thankfully briefer, theme of the book: “What I mean is that I have read books written 2,000 or even 2,500 years ago or 20 years ago and in 2,500 years they will need everything even Mozart explained and when once you start explaining there is no end to it.” Yes! Once you learn something, you realize you don’t know something else, so you have to go back and learn that, which requires learning yet another thing in a whole different discipline, and you have to stop at some point, but most of us stop way too soon.
And did you catch that Ludo is five years old in that quote? What’s amazing is that there’s the discourse pattern of a five year old – demanding, nagging, driving Mom crazy with his persistence – but the content is learning another language on top of the Greek he’s already learned.
We watch Ludo’s attempt at school, which goes about the way you’d expect and seems to last about a week. And we watch Sybella worry about how to teach him, yes, but also how to deal with the father issue. She’s read that a single mother needs to supply male role models for a boy, and here he is with no uncles or family friends to fit the bill. Oh, but wait –
I suddenly realise that everything is going to be all right, I am providing my fatherless uncleless boy not with 8 male role models (6 samurai 1 gatecrashing farmer’s son 1 fearless farmer) but 16 (8 characters 8 actors) 17 including Kurosawa who does not appear. Only one of the characters is a perfectionist in the practice of his art but all 8 actors & the director who does not appear show this terrible perfectionism making a total of 17 male role models (not including the extras)
There’s also a moment of self-referential meta-analysis as she contemplates the overall structure of Kurosawa’s film:
A striking peculiarity of the film is that though it is called Seven Samurai it is not really about seven samurai. Bandits are about to attack the village and only one farmer wants to fight; without him there would be no story.
I keep going back and forth as to whether Sybella, or Ludo, is analogous to the farmer.
The book starts with a Prologue that outlines the intellectual tragedy of Sybella’s father, cheated at age fifteen out of a Harvard scholarship to study the science he loved by his father, a minister, who talked him into going to a mediocre Divinity College in order to “give the other side a chance”. He spends most of his Divinity time playing pool, so he has some money when he finishes, but not much in the way of grades, and Harvard is no longer interested. So he builds a string of motels around the country.
We also have an Interlude – and I can’t verify this is accurate, but it seems to me “prologue” is primarily a literary term while “interlude” is more of a musical one, blending music and text – in which we learn about Sybella’s mother, a self-taught musician who managed to talk her way into an audition at Juilliard and is sent away with an exercise she is to play on the piano every day for four hours; she will then be allowed to return for a second audition. And of course that never happens, but her family is always there to say, “It’s not so bad being a secretary” and to her brother, “Is being an accountant so awful?” So Sybella comes from thwarted dreams and failed institutional educational practices.
It’s interesting that DeWitt (who, by the way, completed a Classics PhD at Oxford) uses this structure to convey Sybella’s background. They’re funny/sad chapters, captivating to read, and give us some idea of her motivation to learn everything important, and to instill a passion for rational thought and for learning in her son, without the limitations so many assume children must be subjected to.
When Ludo is still very young, Sybella takes him on the London subway to keep warm, since she can’t really afford to heat their flat all the time. It turns out the Tube is something like a precursor to Twitter: everyone has an opinion, and insists you hear it. In another of the more humorous moments of the book, Sybella keeps track of how many people think a five-year-old reading the Odyssey in Greek is 1) wonderful, 2) a great way to learn about spelling and grammar, 3) too hard for his age, etc. etc.
Faced with officious advice feel almost overwhelming temptation to say:
You know, I’ve been in a terrible quandary over this, I’ve been racking my brains for weeks trying to decide whether I was doing the right thing, finally this morning I thought—I know, I’ll take the Tube, somebody on the Tube will be able to advise me, & sure enough you were able to tell me just what to do. Thank you so much, I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t come along—
So far have been able to resist temptation 34 times out of 35. Pas mal. When able to resist temptation I say (which is perfectly true) that I never meant this to happen.
Ludo’s amazing learning adventure does come about as something of a surprise, generated by the boy himself. Sybella only wants to teach him a word every day, an English word from Hop on Pop, but he starts demanding more, and it grows from there. This isn’t a case of an overzealous mother trying to live vicariously through her son; it’s a case of the son having an innate desire to learn and dragging his mother along with him. Is this inherited? Brought about by nurture and example? If she’d told him in the beginning, “No, you’ll learn to read when you go to school,” would he have retreated, or would he have found other ways to learn? If Ludo is gifted, It’s this desire to learn that is the gift, not points on an IQ test. I’m reminded of the quote paraphrased from The Little Prince author Antoine de Saint Exupéry: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” It isn’t a matter of skill drills or discipline, but a desire to know.
Ludo’s father first comes into the picture when Sybella, working as a secretary in a publishing house, goes to a party where he, a Famous Travel Writer, will be. She refers to him in the book as Liberace: more flash than substance, “slick, buttery arpeggios, the self-regarding virtuosity,” a kind of showman adored for his lack of intellectual rigor. I keep reading of their night together, because it’s hilarious: she kisses him because she wants to shut him up and that seems a non-rude way to do it, and sleeps with him for much the same reason. That, too, is a Liberace performance:
No sooner were Liberace and I in his bed without our clothes than I realised how stupid I had been. At this distance I can naturally not remember every little detail, but if there is one musical form that I hate more than any other, it is the medley. One minute the musician, or more likely aged band, is playing an overorchestrated version of The Impossible Dream; all of a sudden, mid-verse, for no reason, there’s a stomach-turning swerve into another key and you’re in the middle of Over the Rainbow, swerve, Climb Every Mountain, swerve, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, swerve, swerve, swerve. Well then, you have only to imagine Liberace, hands, mouth, penis now here, now there, no sooner here than there, no sooner there than here again, starting
something only to stop and start something else instead, and you will have a pretty accurate picture of the Drunken Medley.
The Medley came at last to an end and Liberace fell into a deep sleep.
I wanted to clear my head. I wanted strangeness and coldness and precision.
She decides to leave, but again worrying about appearing rude, decides to leave him a note, “to imply that we had had an interesting conversation.” That emphasized “imply” reinforces just how she feels about the guy. She hits on the idea of a Rosetta stone, something she’d mentioned in their conversation during the evening though he didn’t seem interested, but to follow up would, again, imply, that he was a person capable of appreciating such things. It takes her five hours. When Sybella writes a Rosetta stone, she doesn’t fool around.
Eventually, of course, Ludo wants to know about his dad, and the puzzle she presents – figure out what’s wrong with three different artistic expressions, plus the hiding of an envelope “To be opened only in the event of my death” – reminds me a bit of Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Sentinel,” the story that was the basis for 2001: A Space Odyssey (and given the prominence of the original Odyssey in the novel, this doesn’t strike me as too strange) in that an object was left on the moon to signal an advanced civilization that the beings of Earth had finally figured out how to get there. When Ludo has the rationality to either decipher her riddle, or find the envelope, he will be ready to meet his father, armed with enough intellect to resist being snowed by Liberace slickness.
When Ludo does meet his father, it’s five pages of rich dramatic irony, as the dolt keeps saying things that mean one thing to him, and another to Ludo, who keeps thinking, He knows. But he doesn’t. He assumes, when Ludo says he’s read all his books, that he did so because he liked them, while of course Ludo had another motivation. It’s wonderful.
I mentioned the blending of music and text. Music seemed very important to me throughout the book, though it was at times subtle. In fact, it forms what I see as the axis of the book. I’ve read that The Seven Samurai opens with three minutes of drums over the title card opening typical for Japanese films of the time. The Prologue might be seen as that kind of introduction, since it gives us the genesis of Sybella’s distrust of institutional wisdom, and drums are a crucial element sprinkled throughout the book. The Interlude again uses music in relating her mother’s intellectual trauma.
Then we have the subplot describing an erratic but brilliant pianist Yamamoto, one of the artists/heroes who Ludo sees as a mirror for the Samurai. This is another feature the book shares with the movie: Kurosawa tells little stories of all the Samurai while working his way through the main plot of rescuing the farmers from the bandits, and DeWitt also tells us stories of various artists and heroes through the book.
Specifically, Yamamoto was struggling with the idea of piano, his instrument, as percussion, whether the music of the piano should compensate for its percussive nature or revel in it. He reads a (fictional) book about an Australian’s visit to Africa:
The sun was near the horizon; at any moment it would be dark, for it sets quickly in the tropics. The sky was a deep dark blue. The men tilted the drums against wooden rests; they began to tap the drums very lightly with sticks, and the sound seemed to melt away over the lake. Then they stopped, and at a gesture from the leader they struck the drums a single louder blow. They stopped. Another beat. Another beat. Another beat. When they had struck the drums six times like this the sun vanished and they struck the drums once, very loudly, and stopped. Several seconds went by, until at last, from over the dark water, the sound of the drums came back. Again they struck the drums, and again the sound came back, and when this had happened seven times they laid down their sticks and walked away, and the women picked up the pallet and walked away, and McPherson saw that the boy was dead. In the morning the drums were gone.
This idea of the drums fading away and coming back – of people, of life, fading away and coming back – haunted me, and in retrospect I see it all over the book. It appears in broken form in Yamamoto’s own story, as his visit to Chad to hear the drums himself has a tragic end, a fading away without a coming back. Its not by accident that there is a fading away – and, blessedly, a return – more specific to Sybella in connection with a Yamamoto concert. It is Yamamoto’s segment that had me looking up Schoenberg’s opera, Moses Und Aron, to be sure I understood the description of Sprechgesang, the rough speaking voice of Moses; and by the way, Messiaen. Years ago I sang O Sacrum Convivium, a motet with nightmare harmonies, during one of my many choral adventures, but here we focus on his piano work Mode de valeurs et d’intensités, a study of “the dying sound.”
The idea of the musical axis, however, didn’t occur to me until the very end, when the book concludes with a kind of return, the echo of resurrection when Luco finds this Samurai. Sublime.
Although I’m no Ludo (if even Ludo is a Ludo), I found the book highly validating. I’ve often faced a sneering consternation in others when they find out so much of my time is spent taking moocs (I don’t have an accurate count, but it’s at least 163) in subjects that have no practical benefit whatsoever. Even mooc providers have moved on from 2012’s “Let’s Teach the World” to “Let’s Sell Certificates,” and the only people who will pay for certificates are those looking for work credentials, so not only are universities turning into Vocational Training Centers (a drum I’ve been beating since the 80s, and DeWitt’s Afterword somewhat echoes it) but now moocs are mostly business and computer courses. Me, I take anything but. Biology, of course – I mean, come on, our lives depend on something like 37 steps between glucose and the last oxygen being taken up by two hydrogens, it’s a miracle this happens at all, let alone at a pace that keeps us breathing, yet for some reason everyone’s studying cloud computing and how to come up with the next Angry Birds?? – and math, of course, as an instrument since that’s needed to understand the bio and chem, even though I’m a senior citizen and will never set foot in a lab but damn, this is amazing stuff. But let’s also do Balinese Gamelan music, or Kabbalah, or Codicology and Paleography of Medieval Manuscripts, and what about Icelandic Sagas? Sure, and when I ran into Njals Saga and the Althing on Ludo’s birthday I feel a kind of joy – hey, I know what those are! And of course the Greek literature courses gave me enough of the Odyssey to feel some kinship with him there as well, knowing why Sybella is helping him with the word for weaving and what the Cattle of the Sun had to do with HC’s climbing the mountain to save the outcast child.
And then there’s the math, oh, the math I took for years, trying to fix whatever damage I did to my math brain back in the 60s in high school. Why are you doing this to yourself, a friend said, when I cried because I could not do u-substitution. Why indeed, because I want to learn it – and then this book comes along, and one of the heroes/samurai stories concerns a mathematician/physicist whose plane crashes in the Amazon and he takes a boy under his wing, hoping to teach him mathematics though they can’t speak each others’ languages, and all is well until they get arrested and the only chance is to bring the British Consulate in to rescue both of them, presenting Pete, the boy, as a genius:
Sorabji looked at Pete. His head had fallen back, and the whites of his eyes were showing. He would die soon but that was not good enough. He could probably get a decent mark at O-level; it was a miracle of sorts but not good enough.
Sorabji said: He is a mathematical genius. I shall take him back to Cambridge.
The consul looked at Pete. If you are a consul people are constantly spinning you ridiculous stories and expecting you to believe them, but this was the most ridiculous he had ever heard. He said correctly: If he is a Brazilian national I’m afraid there is nothing—
Sorabji said: You. Stupid. Ignorant. Bureaucrat.
And he said: Newton is sitting in this cell. If I leave they will kill him. I shall not leave this place unless he goes with me.
But what exactly do you think I can—
Sorabji said: Do you have a piece of paper?
He was handed a piece of paper and a pen, and he wrote on it
and he said: How long do you think it would take you to add it up?
The consul hesitated—
That boy, said Sorabji very gravely, can add all the numbers between 1 and 500 in 20 seconds.
The consul said: Hm.
And if all this again reminds you at all of Kurosawa’s Samurai shaving his head to save a child, well, it does, doesn’t it. But I was talking about validation – and here, I forgot my faith, and was truly depressed, because this author was going to pass off a parlor trick, one I happened across in the Mathematical Thinking mooc that changed my way of looking at math (though it didn’t help with u-substitution), as genius. O ye of little faith, because the next sentence…
Sorabji was a Zoroastrian but he was not much of a believer, and he had been to chapel a lot at school but he believed even less in that, and yet he found himself saying Please Please Please Please. Please let him not know about Gauss please please please please please.
And again, I felt a kind of joy, like I had an answer to Why are you doing this to yourself? Because it’s what some of us do, and there’s so little reward, but here it is on this page. Ii know why he hopes the consul hasn’t heard of Gauss.
I’m getting carried away (the validation, it’s such a high), it must be time to stop, even though there’s so much more.
I’ll have to read this book again, of course; there’s way too much to get it on one read. I want to study the film first, something I should have done this time, but I wasn’t aware how central it was.
I don’t even remember how I discovered the book; somehow I came across a review proclaiming it a Best Book of something (the century?) and I was puzzled, since I was still thinking Tom Cruise, so I read a little about it. All I remember is something about an American woman in England, but it must have been more than that to find its way onto my list. I would assume I saw the Millions and Paris Review articles back in 2016, but dismissed them out of confusion with Tom Cruise (I’m surprised I don’t remember being puzzled back then, but maybe something else was going on).
It had a complicated publication history, which DeWitt explains in her Paris Review interview (link below): first published in 2000, it went out of print when the publisher got gobbled up in a merger, and it was hard enough convincing a publisher to tackle it the first time (all those languages!), but somehow that happened. I’m so grateful. And if you’re still here – I expect most people stopped reading a few sentences into the opening quote (oh no second person! Don’t worry, it’s just a few paragraphs) or by the first few sentences of my rambling – chances are you’ll be grateful as well.
* * *
The Trouble of Rational Thought: Miranda Popkey for Paris Review, June 10, 2016 “Trying to guess which contemporary novelist DeWitt might be eviscerating is one of the many delights of The Last Samurai.”
Helen DeWitt in the My First Time video series (Paris Review): “Different people liked different parts of the book, and so each person would feel that with some assistance I could be helped to make the whole book like the part that they liked, or maybe we could just get rid of all the parts they didn’t like and just keep what they liked.”
Knowledge Porn: On Helen DeWitt’s ‘The Last Samurai’ (Brian Hurley for The Millions): “As the father figures try to explain themselves and dish out advice to their not-quite son, Ludo gains a variety of perspectives on how he might conduct his own life.”
Do you think you know how cells grow and divide? Professor Iain Cheeseman will challenge you to see the cytoskeleton in new and beautiful ways. You will explore these structural elements of cells with an expanded toolkit to better understand the dynamic processes that generate incredible amounts of force and regulate function throughout the cell cycle.
The MIT series on cell biology continues with this third installment. Most of the segments covered actin and tubulin: how they form, what their function is, and how that function is examined and the force they generate is measured. The last segment showed how these structures fit into mitosis in the form of mitotic spindles and chromosome segregation.
I think COVID hit this course hard. Prof. Cheeseman, who was also an instructor in part 2 of the series, mentioned at the outset something about fewer people being around, and it appeared he was talking to an empty classroom (except for someone handling AV recording, presumably). I’m not sure why that would be such a confounding factor, but something was off here. Perhaps it was missing support staff, the people who do the diagrams and animations that help explain a lot of the material. I found the lectures themselves to be a paradoxical combination of low-content and confusing. Maybe there just isn’t that much to say about the cytoskeleton; things picked up a lot when we got to the cell cycle.
It could be I just am not interested in actin. I was doing a rerun of biochem at the same time (creating Cerego sets for the material, something I haven’t been doing with the MIT courses, but I think I should because it really helps) and was very into it; then I’d switch to Actin, and I still have only the vaguest idea what actin does.
Tubulin was a different matter, since it’s one of the most visually spectacular aspects of cell biology. First you have the structure, a tube of small proteins, which undergoes a process of deconstruction called catastrophe that looks like an exploding firecracker. Then you have motor proteins that quite literally walk along the tubules, dragging various substances from one part of the cell to another. If you take a look at the video Inner Life of a Cell, the animation is just amazing.
The problem wasn’t Prof. Cheeseman either. He put himself into the course 100%, telling stories of his early days in biology and how he at first thought actin was boring (I could sympathize). He brought pool noodles in to show how sister chromatids were bound together, and socks to demonstrate other chromosomal segregation patterns. Then there were the dance moves he used to demonstrate how different motor proteins “walk” along tubules in different ways.
I appreciated the cell cycle material after the fact, since I started the Molecular Biology series (all about DNA replication, repair, transcription, and regulation) just as this course was winding down, and the cell cycle is an important part of that.
So whether it was distraction, or COVID-related furloughs, or some other factor that made this course one of the less successful ones from MIT Bio, I still can’t complain; their mediocre courses are still quite good. There’s one more course to go in the series, and then I plan to take them all again, putting the material into Cerego which keeps it active in my mind as I review even months down the line. Maybe I’ll find a lot more to appreciate about actin then.
This is not for pretend.
As we’ve done three or four times a week since January, my Basic Cuisine class gathered this morning en masse, on time and in uniform. We first watched a chef move through a three hour demonstration; we anxiously take notes, as we must repeat his lesson in a training kitchen later. This afternoon, I’m searing thick magrets de canard for a classic preparation of duck à l’orange. Magrets are the breasts of Moulard ducks force-fed corn to fatten their livers for foie gras, a process that fattens everything on the duck. We must take care with the sauce, a slightly complicated preparation that requires cautious reduction of veal stock and orange juice, the sweetness tempered with vinegar. Our potatoes and carrots must be “turned” – a cut that transforms an otherwise unremarkable vegetable into a precise seven-sided torpedo shape.
This is my life now.
Kathleen Flinn, food enthusiast and journalist turned software manager, found herself merged out of her upscale corporate job in London. She considered returning to the States, but instead, with the advice of her long-time-friend-turned-recent-boyfriend Mike, decided to do what any level-headed person would do under the circumstances: she cashed in her 401K and plopped down $26,000 to take a three-part Cuisine course at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. “I don’t know that I want to be a chef, or that I particularly want to work in the food industry when I am done with my training…. I just know that going to Le Cordon Bleu is something I have to do,” she wrote in her application’s “statement of motivation.”
It would be easy to ridicule that step, but I get it. No one understands why I spend time reading stories and books, then writing about them in a blog no one reads, or why I spend so much time and effort taking moocs of no practical use whatsoever. The price tag may be a little different, but I get the power of internal motivation.
I got this book on impulse after I saw it mentioned in my Goodreads feed. I didn’t have any “weird career/educational move” books on my list for this year’s In-Between Reading, and I’d enjoyed the art school book, the trucking book, the football-player-turned-mathematician book from prior years. So I added it in.
My first thought was: This book really wants to be Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia, with a fired marketing manager heading to Le Cordon Bleu played against Audrey Hepburn as Sabrina. But the timing doesn’t fit; Flinn’s time in Paris roughly overlaps with the time Powell was writing her book, and was published before the movie (one of my favorites, by the way) was released. In my view, it suffered from the comparison, but that’s my failure, not the book’s.
Flinn goes through three levels of Cuisine (the savory side, as opposed to pastries and desserts): Basic, Intermediate, and Superior. She describes her struggles to produce the dishes required:
I put together several little vols-au-vent. They look as if a kindergartener put them together with Play-Doh. I agonize over my leeks to cut them into a perfect julienne. Then, I work on my eggs. We must make them the classic way, by dropping them in simmering water with vinegar and, with a ladle, wrap the egg white around the yolk as it cooks. Poached eggs should look like shiny, smooth parcels. Mine look like gnarled creatures from a horror film. As I finish the last egg, a strong burning smell hits me, a mix of burned grass and onions. I forgot my leeks. They’ve burned to black.
There’s a hilarious story of a duck dropped on the floor, and the decision to serve it anyway. Flinn even took it home with her after grading (permitted, even encouraged, so no food would be wasted) and the leftovers for her own dinner. “Don’t eat the skin,” she advises her boyfriend.
By the time she gets to Superior Cuisine, more is expected:
“La sauce n’est pas chaude,” says chef du Pont. He holds his wrist to the plate and looks at me with alarm. “L’assiette n’est pas chaude.”
He waves me away. “Nous sommes finis.”
How could I be so stupid? I’d forgotten to heat my plate – an utterly simple thing that I’ve learned the first day in . “We’re finished,” he says, ending his critique abruptly. He doesn’t taste anything. But for this, I can not blame him. In Basic Cuisine or even Intermediate, I might have gotten marked down for a cold plate. But in Superior Cuisine, it’s inexcusable.
Each chapter ends with a recipe based on the dish from class, or a thematically related dish. From simple veggie soup to pastry-wrapped fish and delicate sauces, there’s a lot of food info here.
There’s a lot more as well. During class, chefs relate various trinkets of information: the history of the word and entity restaurant (based on the French for restorative, meaning soup), and the origins of the term cordon bleu (a medal given to honored knights; it became associated with grand food when banquets were thrown in their honor). Flinn also explores Paris and relates her experiences, not just at markets and restaurants, but in various neighborhoods and, eerily, in the catacombs created in the late 18th century when the contents of graveyards were consolidated in underground quarries.
There’s also some rumination on wider implications of various aspects of her experience:
Who decides what is quality cuisine anyway? Some of the sauces we learned in Basic were once thought daring, revolutionary. The unusual combinations we’re learning in superior are trendy; unconventional pairings with classic technique are common on haute-cuisine menus. But it makes me wonder more about the general nature of evolution. We can reinvent anything, even ourselves, and some things will change, but in the end, something familiar always remains.
We also see, through Flinn’s eyes, the other students – Le Cordon Bleu attracts an international student body – including a super-competitive woman who’d been a lawyer before coming to the school. Flinn wonders if her attitude is acquired of necessity in the corporate world, where creativity and cooperativity take second place to “winning.”
I was surprised at how resistant I was to the occasional appearance of what I perceived as Hallmark Card sentimentality. At one point, after working on her consommé to get the right degree of clarity, Flinn writes, “I consider how wonderful it would be to toss some hamburger, egg whites, and tomatoes into the soup of life. Suddenly, everything which we clear and the purpose of it all would be revealed,” and I wrote in the margins, “Oh, please.” I’ve been reading too much edgy fiction and academic nonfiction, perhaps, nudging my reading style into a kind of intolerant cynicism. I’ve got to keep an eye on that. A little skepticism is fine, but I don’t want to start sneering at felt words from genuine hearts, whether I feel them or not.
Flinn has since written two other food-related books, gives classes (online during the pandemic), and hosts a podcast, all available via her website. I’d say she put her education to good use, if not in the most typical fashion. And she’s earned that cherished line in her obituary: “Graduated from Le Cordon Bleu.”
I view everything through absurdism and humor. I think humor works best in literature and fiction when it’s borne of deep feeling, and the deep feeling it’s borne of here is fear, and then the crazy things people do to cope with fear to maintain control, which is really human…
I do write to figure things out, either internally or externally, something that I find really troubling. So I stared writing the other stories in response to things that were going on. … writing is a way of controlling chaos, a way of controlling what is difficult in life, and I’ve found it a comfort to me all my life.
Karen Bender, interview with Charity Nebbe on Iowa Public Radio
As soon as I finished reading Bender’s short story “The Shame Exchange” in 2021’s Pushcart, I went looking for something else she’d written. Out of the five choices, I picked this one, partly because of the description that promised it “boldly examines the sense of instability that has grown stronger in American culture over the last two years through the increasing presence of violence, bigotry, sexual harassment, and the emotional costs of living under constant threat.” That, it does.
Several of the stories are told from spaces adjacent to violence; they’re not about acts of violence or the people directly affected, but about how people removed from the violence react to it. That is, it’s about most of us.
“Where to Hide in a Synagogue,” the first story in the book, is one of these adjacent stories.
“Come on,” I said. “We can set out a policy. If there is an attack, congregants are permitted to remove the Torahs from the Ark and climb in for safety purposes.” I paused. “We can add, ‘Congregants removing Torahs are responsible for getting them back into the Ark after the shooter has left.’” I thought to add if they are alive, but I thought I’d leave that out.
Eva and Harriet have been appointed to their synagogue’s advisory Board for Safety and Well-Being following the attack on churchgoers in Charlottesville. They’re walking through the sanctuary in order to come up with a report of strategies to protect congregants in case of an attack. In real life, Bender started this story as a flash after hearing her daughter and friend discussing how they’d hide if shooting broke out in their movie theater; it changed after Charlottesville, moving to a synagogue.
The two women, long-time friends, argue about whether the Torahs or the safety of people should be prioritized, about how much normality can be sacrificed to safety: a dress code requiring sneakers for faster escape? Flower arrangements including thorns for potential defense? It shows how the perception of threat can divide even those who are close; is it any wonder the question of what is and is not a threat is a major wedge issue today?
The story balances on the edge of tragedy and humor; Bender’s fondness for absurdity, in its everyday form rather than its more extreme avant garde form, more often tips it into humor, but it is that tipping that underlines the tragedy.
The story ends with an everyday occurrence perceived as threat, and leaves us wondering if they would perceive it that way if they weren’t already immersed in an atmosphere of threat. That’s of the many costs of pervasive violence, isn’t it: an air of suspicion, dividing friends, invading even a house of worship.
There is a horrific real-life connection to this story: ten days before the book was released, eleven congregants of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh were murdered in an attack. No wonder Bender’s voice shook as she discussed the story in her interview.
The title story, “The New Order” is also a violence-adjacent story.
I felt powerful for the first time since the incident, as though I had to become a steel spike, completely hard and sharp; but I also trembled, for I simultaneously felt a plunging sense of loss. It was confusing to experience both of these at once. I realized then how much I admired my friend, even loved her, and that I had damaged something I could not see. Lori didn’t stand up and walk away; she changed the subject to the staleness of the carrot cake on our plates, but it felt as though something finished between us, and that we were now unknowable to one another, separate, an ostrich and a bear.
This story starts out back in the 1970s, when school shootings weren’t a social phenomenon yet, but just got described as some guy brought a gun into the cafeteria and shot two teachers and a student, for reasons unknown. The student, Sandra, seemed to be collateral damage, but it’s her seat in the cello section of the school orchestra that must now be filled.
For those who never paid attention to the intricacies of school music programs, seats for each instrument are doled out based on merit. In my school, anyone could challenge for a better seat at any time, giving a week’s notice or so. In this story, it seems the auditions are scheduled instead.
The story centers on our narrator and her friend, Lori, who are both preparing to audition. Their relationship, the conflict between competition and generosity, is the focus of the first two-thirds of the story, though it’s all infused with the reason for the audition: the empty chair where Sandra used to be. The title of the story, and the contemporary reader’s knowledge that school shootings are going to become a lot more common, also adds to the painful atmosphere.
What makes the story compelling is the jump to thirty years later when the two friends meet again for the first time since audition day, and the echoes of the past get updated.
In the interview quoted above, Bender said she wanted to write about a misunderstanding, and was inspired by Alice Munro’s short story “Fiction,” a story I haven’t read but now must. And again, the way Bender writes about, not the shooting, but one small slice of aftermath, is equally terrifying and impressive.
“This is Who You Are, ” the longest story in the book, is violence-adjacent on two fronts.
“What do you think they were thinking?” I asked.
“What are you talking about?”
“Right before the grenade. When they were in the corner.”
I didn’t know what I wanted from her. Diane was just fourteen, two years older than I, but all of her ballet training gave her a straight, proud carriage that she made her older than she was. She touched her tongue and picked a loose hair off it. Then she took a deep, crinkly breath.
“How to get out,” she said. “I bet that’s what they thought. Where can I go.”
It’s another story set in the 70s and is far more plotted than most of the others, which focus more on ideas.
It’s something of a partial coming-of-age story. Coming of age doesn’t happen all at once, after all; here, Celia is dealing with a couple of issues at the tender age of 14. One is the attack on a group of schoolgirls in Israel, an event she only knows about because it was brought up in her weekly Hebrew school session. The teacher has them write letters to the families of the murdered girls, which seems a little creepy to me but it’s presented as supportive, so I’ll go with that. Celia becomes a bit enmeshed with the girl she has chosen, Ilana, imagining she has survived after all:
I had a secret: in my locker, I stored some extra clothes for Ilana. An old sleep shirt and shorts and flip-flops. While I was somewhat embarrassed that I had done this, I was also a little proud, for I wanted to take some, any, action; I felt I was preparing for her arrival. When I had trouble focusing in class, I imagined her trudging up to the locker, perhaps at night, her clothes smelly from her long trip; I imagined her wandering through the junior high school to my locker, changing her clothes right then, and slipping on the shirt and shorts I had left for her. She would thank me; she would be grateful that someone believed she was not doomed but could get out of that classroom. I saw her letting out a breath when she had the right clothes, turning around in the warm, honeyed silence, trying to decide what to do next.
Celia is also dealing with a different kind of violence at her high school: a predator coach. In the 70s, it was the creepy guy in the trench coat everyone worried about, not the teacher who got girls to sit on his lap before he signed their late slips, the coach whose office was papered with glossy images of women in swimsuits and skimpy, sweaty athletic gear. One of Celia’s friends brings the violence more adjacent than Celia is comfortable with; in a special twist of irony, Celia mentions that Laila is not allowed to see R-rated movies because her mother thinks she’s too young to handle that kind of imagery, while she’s handling a lot more than that when she meets up with the coach at the beach.
A couple of the stories are overtly political. “Mrs. America” follows a senatorial candidate on a trail of attack. In her interview, Bender says Sarah Palin was the inspiration for this story; she wanted to explore how a decent could compartmentalize indecent actions. It’s my least favorite in the book; it seems over the top, and while that might be this current of absurdity that runs through many of the stories, instead of illuminating anything, it just seems like a hatchet job.
“The Good Mothers in the Parking Lot,” on the other hand, is shockingly familiar. A woman watches other mothers pick up their kids from a field trip and wonders which ones voted for the guy. Yeah, you know which one. She’s amazed that these women, friends, fellow bake sale veterans and committee co-chairs, could be the ones who did this, who changed everything.
They walk through the world as though it is still the world. Their innoence is a sort of violence and makes you want to look away.
I’d just read Danielle Evans’ The Office of Historical Corrections last week, so ringing in my head as I read this was its epigraph from James Baldwin: “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” And of course I was struck by how I’d written a blog post, four days after the election, with pretty much the same sentiment. My tirade took place in a supermarket, pushing my cart and watching other shoppers, wondering “Which ones?” The story – and it’s not really a story, since there’s no plot, it’s more of a scene – felt like a mirror. I was very grateful.
Other stories, like “The Department of Happiness and Reimbursement,” were also inspired by current events. Bender tells us she wrote this in response to non-disclosure agreements between women and their harassers, and wondered what it’s like to be part of the mechanism that arranges such things. Not the harasser or the victim, but the lawyers, and the accountants to figure out what category the expense goes into. It’s an interesting story, though I found the preamble a little long. Necessary, but too long.
The book closes with “The Cell Phones,” another story that’s more concept than a plot, but a great way to end. You know how it is, there’s always someone in the meeting, audience, or service who forgets to turn off their cell phone. This time, it’s a little more complicated than that. It’s really quite wonderful; Bender said she wanted to end on a hopeful note, and she did.
I very much enjoyed this book; I can’t help but wonder what kind of pandemic stories she might come up with. I think I might check out one of her novels, see what she does with more plot. Though I have to admit, I’m very fond of concept as a genre.
I do think the calibration of a collection is ideally to make it feel like you’re talking to yourself but not repeating yourself. So, the book opens with the story that I think contains the collection in miniature in some way. All of the themes that come up again—grief, racism, our weird ahistorical fetishizing of history, commitments, sex, anxiety about the future, mothering, daughtering, depression, ambivalence about becoming a parent—start there. And then ideally I think the next few stories in a collection should offer some form of complication or surprise about what the collection can contain. And then I just tried to avoid either jarring transitions or stories with a lot of themes in common until the last story, which I hope circles back to most of the themes in the first story, but in a different light.
Danielle Evans, interview with Melissa Scholes Young at Fiction Writers Review
I’d originally planned to get this book in paperback for next year; I prefer paperback editions whenever they’re available. But as the heat around who gets to define history got turned up in real life, I decided I couldn’t wait. I’m really glad I did that. As I read, I kept nodding, seeing contemporary life in every story, but seeing other possibilities, other viewpoints as well.
I could almost call it part of my Re-Reading project, since it contains two stories I read when they appeared in the 2017 and 2018 editions of Best American Short Stories. “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain” and “Boys Go to Jupiter” both stand up well to re-reading, expanding to accommodate a reader’s growth in both lived experience in a time of upheaval, and in the act of reading itself.
“Alcatraz” shows us an attempt, via a visit to the historic prison, to put a family back together after circumstance and human frailty took it apart.
I had orchestrated the visit confident that my mother’s cousin would be grateful for the chance to make amends, that she and her family would be eager to prove themselves better than the people who raised her. It had honestly not occurred to me that my mother and I would have to make a case for ourselves, that conditions could possibly be such that we were the ones who were supposed to impress them.
Cecilia had the idea to go to the source: the prison that housed her great-grandfather for a crime he didn’t commit, an acknowledged mistake that her mother has been trying to fully purge for decades with no success. At the prison, Cecilia notices signs about Indians and the military and penitentiary life: “All that history, bleeding into itself in the wrong order.” That’s the story of this family, right there. I had a surprisingly hard time getting the family relationships straight, partly because I’ve never understood cousins, but mostly because family members are viewed at several different ages – all that history, bleeding together – and one is absent; or, more accurately, was barely there to begin with.
The story ends in the Alcatraz gift shop. Wrap your mind around that: Alcatraz has a gift shop, where you can buy, among other things, replicas of keys to the cells. In the Fiction Writers Review interview mentioned above, Evans reveals that she only realized that two stories ended in gift shops (with a couple of other stories including gift shops in less dramatic sections) when the collection was about to go to press: “I freaked out and rewrote the ending,” but her agent talked her down. I’m glad, because it’s perfect.
“Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want” is another extraordinary story that skates on brittle humor over hot, vicious depths of truth.
When the apologies began, they were public and simultaneous. It was late summer, and they appeared suddenly and all at once, like brief afternoon thunderstorms. The High School Sweetheart’s apology came over the PA system at the grocery store where she was buying bread and cheese… the Long-Suffering Ex-Wife’s came as a short film projected on a giant screen in the park nearest the house where she lived with their daughter. It played in the loop until the city took it down. The daughter’s apology was posted on Instagram….
They were unlike him in that they were, in fact, actual apologies, and in that way for no resemblance to his previous efforts at making amends….
As I was reading about these apologies, it occurred to me they were actually additional abuses. Maybe some of the women had made their experiences with this man public, but others had not. This brings to the fore the question of why the abusee, rather than the abuser, is often the one embarrassed by revelation of the abuse, a quirk abusers use to their advantage. That the guy then turns the apologies into a literal art exhibit, featuring a volcano (apparently inspired by some literary magazine joking about a “throw men into a volcano” issue) and a dare, brings Evans’ point out clearly:
The second-to-last thing I wrote for the book was the story “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want,” which in some ways is an outlier, but in other ways, it revealed the thematic core of the book, which is apology and correction. I’m interested in this emotional question of apology and what we want in an apology, or what it means to try to correct something that in some ways can’t be fixed, but I’m also interested in who the narrative of apology belongs to.
Danielle Evans, interview with Adrienne Westenfeld at Esquire
In a collection where nearly every story is a standout, the title novella stands out among the standouts, and carries forward with this idea of correcting what can’t really be fixed but that’s no excuse for not trying.
We were not supposed to be aggressive in demanding people’s time – correct the misinformation as swiftly and politely as possible (guideline 3) – but we were supposed to make it clear we were available for further inquiry or a longer conversation if anyone wanted to know more (guideline 5). We were supposed to be prepared to cite our sources (guideline 7).
Envisioned as a “public works project for the intellectual class,” including our protagonist, Cassie, a history professor disenchanted with academia, the OHC has been compressed and blunted into uselessness. Or had been, until Genevieve came along. Cassie and Genevieve, frenemies, go way back to when they were the only Black students in an exclusive prep school. Genevieve was Genie then, polite and obedient to authority and annoying as hell to Cassie. They ended up in the same graduate program by chance, where Genie made all her milestones – marriage, children – while Cassie just did her work.
And now they both find themselves in the same office. Genie has become Genevieve, divorced, and a lot less deferential to authority.
The Genie I remembered would have had expansive ideas about our mission but would have spent years charming the director into coming around to them, while parroting her parents on the virtues of treading lightly. Genevieve said in our first office meeting during her first week that we were tiptoeing around history to the point that we might as well be lying to people. She wanted a guideline emphasizing that lies of omission were still lies. In the field, she amended a sign quoting the Declaration of Independence with portions of the worst of Notes on the State of Virginia. She was instructed not to come back to the National Portrait Gallery after she stood in front of the Gauguin for hours telling viewers about his abuse of underage Tahitian girls. She made a tourist child cry at Mount Vernon when she talked about Washington’s vicious pursuit of his runaway slaves, and she was formally asked by the only Virginia field historian to avoid making further corrections in the state….
My problem, alas, had never been a simple as Genie being wrong.
Predictably, Genevieve doesn’t last in the job, and leaves behind a pile of corrections to her corrections. One of them involves a long-ago incident in Wisconsin and a Black man who may or may not have been killed when a town mob burned his store to drive him out of town. Genevieve only wanted to expose the murderers, but now Cassie finds a few mysteries about the whole affair: did the man survive, and why did he go there in the first place, to a town that clearly didn’t want him?
I’m impressed by how much Evans puts in tnis story without losing its forward motion. Everything from the woes of academia – “Landing a good academic job here was serendipity bordering on magic in a market where ‘professor’ increasingly meant teaching seven classes on four different campuses for no health insurance and below minimum wage” – to the tension of what I call casual racism, to an old relationship and a new relationship and Genevieve and victims and perpetrators and a domestic terrorist viewed as a goofy kid – “Either a town is going to let a person run around goddamn calling himself White Justice or it isn’t” – and several shades of family secrets. Yet it’s something of a page-turner, particularly in this moment when the question of who has the power to decide what History is front and center.
In re-reading “Richard of York…,” I was impressed all over again with Evans’ way of ending a story: not with a bang but an echo. She does that here in this novella as well, turning from high drama to a flashback from a moment in high school: she wasn’t aware a shooter drill had been scheduled, so hid in earnest, and was found by Genie, of course, when she never came out of hiding.
“You always think when something like that happens you’re going to be the bravest version of yourself. I thought I was ready, and I wouldn’t be terrified.”
“Oh Cassie,” Genie said. “No, you didn’t.”
I’m still mulling this over. In her interviews, Evans talks a lot about “the gap between our internal lives and our external lives” and how we are often performing rather than being. I wonder how much each girl is performing in that moment, and how much is real. Is Genie just being her usual critical self, or is she on to something? In the context of the story, the scene shifts – or does it? I see Cassie as being quite genuine throughout, and Genie/Genevieve as being all about performance, but what if it isn’t that simple?
Evans discusses how she ends a story, and that, too, illuminates the scene:
I think of stories in terms of their operative questions. First there’s the active question (or the narrative question, or the “small” question)—the question I owe it to the reader to resolve. Gradually, the larger, thematic or moral or intellectual questions of the story arise, and that’s what I intend to leave open for the reader when the story closes. I rarely know how a story ends before I start—I think it’s only happened twice. But I usually recognize the ending when I get there, because by the time I get to the end of the active plot, I’ve already written past and recognized the open question, the thing I didn’t know the story was actually about until I got there, and once I get there everything else about the arc of the story becomes clear to me. I’m waiting usually not for the moment when I’m certain of the plot, but the moment when whatever’s underneath the story comes to the surface and illuminates the project for me.
Danielle Evans, interview with Lily Meyer at Believer
That’s what is so satisfying about the novella, about all the stories in this book: they leave a lot for consideration, like a song that gets stuck in your head and seems to change with every mood and every situation you find yourself in. The themes of grief, performance/interiority, quotidian racism (a superb phrase Evans uses in that FWR interview), the power to dictate history, weave together throughout each story and throughout the book, leaving the reader with a lot more to think about beyond characters and plots and resolutions. That every page seems to reflect today is either a bonus or a curse. I want to put it into a Re-Reading project for twenty years from now, and see how it reads then. I doubt I’ll be around then, but maybe someone else could do that for me.
People died while Reagan administration officials ignored pleas from government scientists and did not allocate adequate funding for AIDS research until the epidemic had already spread throughout the country.
People died while scientists did not at first devote appropriate attention to the epidemic because they perceived little prestige to be gained in studying a homosexual affliction . . .
People died while public health authorities and the political leaders who guided them refused to take the tough measures necessary to curb the epidemic’s spread, opting for political expediency over the public health.
And people died while gay community leaders played politics with the disease, putting political dogma ahead of the preservation of human life.
… It is a tale worth telling, so that it will ever happen again, to any people, anywhere.
When I first read this book back in the 90s, I was most interested in the medical aspects, and secondarily in the politics. Over the years, I became quite fond of some of the people who appear within – and enraged with others. Because, although this is a work of journalism filled with details of budget battles and political wrangling, it’s also an engaging narrative, using recurring motifs, highly personal stories, and occasional lyricism to enhance its readability for the general public.
The Bicentennial Parade of Tall Ships in New York begins the book, and is referred to several times thereafter as a possible beginning to the epidemic, at least in the US. This theory seems to still be considered; a casual google didn’t turn up anyone objecting to it.
July 4, 1976
New York Harbor
Tall sails scraped the deep purple night as rockets burst, flared, and flourished red, white, and blue over the stoic Statue of Liberty. The whole world was watching, it seemed; the whole world was there. Ships from fifty-five nations had poured sailors into Manhattan to join the throngs, counted in the millions, who watched the greatest pyrotechnic extravaganza ever mounted, all for Americas 200th birthday party. Deep into the morning, bars all over the city were crammed with sailors. New York City had hosted the greatest party ever known, everybody agreed later. The guests had come from all over the world.
This was the part of the epidemiologists with later note, when they stayed up late at night and the conversation drifted toward where it had started and when. They would remember that glorious night in New York harbor, all those sailors, and recall: from all over the world they came to New York.
The Feast of the Hearts, a Danish tradition, ties together with the 1977 death of a Danish physician who worked in a clinic in Zaire (today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo). She may have been the first European, first Westerner, to die of the disease, though it mystified doctors. A friend and physician wanted to study Pneumocystis after she died, but was discouraged from doing so because it was so rare; his tropical disease research later points to an African virus, which is, as I understand it, the current theory. The recurrence of the Feast of the Hearts is one of the most touching echoes of the book.
Another effective trope is Before and After, both as an overall structure and in the lives of various people who came to realize, at varying times, that this was not something that would go away in a few months.
….Before and after. The epidemic would cleave lives in two, the way a great war or depression presents a commonly understood point of reference around which an entire society defines itself.
Before would encompass thousands of memories laden with nuance and nostalgia. Before meant innocence and excess, idealism and hubris. More than anything, this was the time before death. To be sure, death was already elbowing its way through the crowds on that Sunday morning, like a rude tourist angling for the lead spot in the parade. It was still an invisible presence, low, palpable only to twenty, or perhaps thirty, gay men who were suffering from a vague malaise. This handful ensured that the future and the past met on that single day.
Then there are the personal stories. Some are of the major players: Bill Krauss, Cleve Jones, Larry Kramer, told alongside more journalistic accounts of their actions. Or Paul Popham, who presents a complicated picture (an activist who is closeted in his work life) but watches friends who shared a house on Fire Island with him one summer die one by one:
A year ago, he had come here with the ashes of his friend Rick Wellikoff. It had been a sunny, melancholy day, warmed by the sharing of grief with Rick’s surviving lover and friends. Now, Rick’s lover was ailing too, the fourth person from the house on Ocean Walk to be stricken by this new plague, and Paul was alone with the ashes of Jack Nau.
The cold white fingers of the sea stroked the indifferent sand, littered by a winter’s worth of misshapen flotsam. Paul open to the box and shook. The sea’s fingers reached to grab Jack’s ashes and pull them into the brine. Paul gazed out to where the leaden sky met the gray Atlantic and wondered when it would all end. This can’t be happening, he thought, it’s simply too unbelievable. Yet, as he shook the last of the bone dust that was once Jack Nau into the sea, Paul knew that it was happening and it was all too believable.
Some are practicing physicians who watched patient after patient get sick and die. Some are public health officials, who fought the good fight against a unopposable foe for every small victory they could achieve. And some are just people caught in the crossfire. People like a woman who goes in for hip surgery and refuses a post-op blood transfusion, unaware she’d been transfused while under anesthesia. She later learns she has AIDS from a newspaper story. People like a kid from the midwest who came to San Francisco to get away from bigotry, but favored close relationships instead of the bathhouse scene. People like a flight attendant who refused to believe his KS was contagious so entered into three-city sexual liaisons with gusto, only to be labeled (incorrectly, as it turned out) Patient Zero.
And Rock Hudson, whose death somehow changed everything.
I chose to include this book in this year’s Re-Reading Project primarily because of COVID-19; that my reading fell during Pride Month was a happy coincidence. I’m well aware that AIDS and the corona virus are very different diseases and the epidemics have vastly differing courses and effects, but I wondered if reading in this moment showcased any similarities. Boy, did it. To wit:
The conflict between public health and politics\profit, with public health on the losing side most of the time. In the case of AIDS, this was most specific to shutting down the bathhouses (which both the gay community, and the bathhouse owners, vehemently opposed) and keeping the blood supply safe by banning donations from gay men (which, again, was opposed by blood banks and by the gay community). Shilts makes the community opposition to these measures seem more understandable by rooting them in the time, when gayness was far less accepted than it is now (and let’s face it, it’s not exactly popular in a lot of places even today) and owning one’s sexual preference was a new freedom in places like San Francisco. With COVID, there were early assurances from the highest levels of the Federal Government that this was “just the flu” and panic wasn’t necessary, to forestall an economic slowdown. Six hundred thousand deaths later, there are probably those who still feel that way.
Poor communication from medical experts to the public, even when the attempt to communicate was genuine. To my surprise, Anthony Fauci turned up in this category. He was just a name the first six or seven times I read the book, but of course he’s practically a celebrity now. In the early 80s, while considered a hero dealing with the epidemic on public health grounds, he made a comment about household contact, then walked it back as being out of context and remarked that the public didn’t understand the language of science.
This eerily parallels his early remarks on the inefficacy of face masks – which he also walked back as being out of context and in reaction to the shortage of protective equipment for hospital personnel. Even heroes trip over their feet sometimes.
Political animosities and personal grudges became higher priority than health. The most grotesque example of this from the 80s comes from a San Francisco newspaper editor, outraged when a group of gay readers wrote a letter calling for his resignation over poor coverage of the epidemic.
Paul Lorch decided to exact his own revenge. He took the letter demanding his termination and the list of all the people who signed it, and set it aside. One by one, as they died, he crossed their names off the list, gtting the last laugh, so to speak.
I usually think I’ve seen enough of this world to no longer be surprised by any depravity, but this shocked me.
Denial, willingness to believe hoaxes and rumors. This was not just a problem in the general public; for a year or so, much of the medical and research community did not believe the cause of the various illnesses could be a single virus, and a new virus at that. A significant portion of the gay community didn’t believe the disease – which at first appeared as Kaposi’s sarcoma – was contagious at all. Fear of homophobic reprisals kept a lot of the medical information more restrained than it should have been. As for COVID, I don’t have to go into it, do I? From “just the flu” to “the vaccine makes you magnetic,” it’s been a wild ride.
Perception of victims as unimportant.
The NCI conference fueled Gottlieb’s suspicion that no one cared because it was homosexuals who were dying. Nobody came out and said it was all right for gays to drop dead; it was just that homosexuals didn’t seem to warrant the kind of urgent concern another set of victims would engender. Scientists didn’t care, because there was little glory, fame, and funding to be had in this field; there wasn’t likely to be money or prestige as long as the newspapers ignored the outbreak, and the press didn’t like writing about homosexuals. So nobody cared….
This might not seem to have much to do with COVID, but I remember a lot of talk about old and sick people who would’ve died anyway. It’s amazing how callous we can be when the stock market is our only metric.
The federal government’s unwillingness to spend money or take any role at all. Shilts outlines this with exquisite clarity: the CDC couldn’t provide airfare for epidemiologists to visit outbreaks and interview patients; even a textbook was out of the question, a virology lab, with the necessary precautions, was a pipe dream. Another agency waited two years for a centrifuge to conduct basic experiments. When pressured, officials lumped together all kinds of spending as being related to AIDS, though the link was tenuous at best, and insisted everyone had enough money. Remember the bidding war over respirators and PPE in the early months of COVID, because the Feds let the states fight it out? The vaccines started out that way as well but fate intervened in the form of an election. In January 2021, when the vaccines were first approved, my local health service predicted my age group (65 to 70) would be eligible in June or July. The feds got involved in late January, made vaccination a priority, and I got my shots in March. Elections matter.
I confess, I started skimming around page 400. There is a certain repetitiveness to the major themes: lack of action, lack of money, inability to convince the community of the danger, divisions within both the public and the research communities. The fight between NIH and the Pasteur Institute, as well as the CDC, is the stuff of legend, and shows the worst side of some people. Every time I’ve read the book, I’ve become lost in the timeline, though it’s clearly indicated nearly on every page and chapters are separated by the year in which they occur. Still, it has a sameness, with escalating numbers.
It’s a monumental work of journalism, covering three cities in detail, plus a host of government agencies, health facilities, and ordinary lives. Yet it’s the humanity that makes it a beautiful read. Shilts, a gay man, decided not to find out his HIV status until he’d finished the book, in the interests of journalistic integrity.
“HIV is certainly character-building. It’s made me see all of the shallow things we cling to, like ego and vanity. Of course, I’d rather have a few more T-cells and a little less character.