Jane Pek: The Verifiers (Vintage 2022) [IBR2022]

One thing I wanted to raise is that generally, when we interact with technology, we provide a lot of data about ourselves. And we do it without really thinking because it makes our lives more convenient. And then at a certain point, it’s almost like, there’s no way you could go about your days without Google Maps and without Amazon and without Netflix. In terms of online dating with the world that I created, online dating is really driven by data and algorithms and all that.
Because romance is so essential, finding your significant other is so essential to our conceptions of what we want our lives to be. And in order to have the best match possible, you actually want to get out as much data as you can about yourself to get a more accurate result. I don’t want to say that it’s like, definitely bad or good, but I do think it’s something worth thinking about in terms of what we put out there and what we get out of it.

Jane Pek, interview with Angela Qian at Hyphen Magazine

I became a Jane Pek fan when I read her two BASS stories – one in 2020 and one in 2021 – presenting female characters from Chinese mythology in a more positive light than the original tales held them. When I found out her debut novel was a mystery involving computer matchmaking, I was… ok, yeah, I’ll admit it, a little disappointed. But in the end, I went with my faith in her ability to weave story lines together and keep me reading. And guess what – faith works.

The book features Claudia Lin, verifier for a secretive company that checks out whether the person you’re chatting with on a computer dating site is telling the truth. A client has some unusual requests, which leads to several mysteries. I’m being obscure here because the pace of revelation is part of the pleasure of the book; Pek resolves one question only to raise another and keep us curious about what’s going on. Those who want more details can find plenty of reviews (I’ve never considered these posts reviews; I have no training for reviewing. I’m instead recording my reading experience so I can remember what was important to me years later) that provide a bit more without being spoilers.  

At my verifier interview, when Komla explained what Veracity did and I said, maybe with a tad too much enthusiasm, “Like a detective agency?”, he looked faintly perturbed – which, I’ve come to realize with Komla Atsina, possibly meant he was one wrist flick away from consigning my résumé to the shred file. That man is harder to read than Finnegans Wake. A detective agency might seem like an obvious parallel, he said, but he tried to dissuade clients from viewing Veracity as such. The verifiers didn’t solve crimes, and they didn’t intervene in the course of events beyond reporting their findings to their clients. Think of us, he said, as a personal investment advisory firm.
A month into the job, it’s obvious to me that all our clients think of us as a detective agency.

I should make a confession here about one of my guilty pleasures: back in the 80s, 90s, into the aughts, I frequently read a small group of murder mystery series writers. It was mostly the hook on top of the mystery that got me interested: Jonathan Kellerman’s psychological and medical settings, Faye Kellerman’s exploration of Orthodox Judaism in contemporary life, Stephen White’s humor (which he dropped after the first two books, but thankfully resurrected later with an entry that had me giggling throughout) and psychological insight, Patricia Cornwell’s detailed explanations of the science used in postmortem exams and crime scene analysis (pre-CSI, by the way).  But even the best series gets old after a while, or takes a wrong turn; I lost interest in them and never found replacements. Then I started reading literary short fiction seriously, and blogging, and taking moocs, and left the mysteries behind. Literally – they (along with other casual fiction) are stashed on a bottom shelf of the bookcase behind my bed, so they’re the last thing anyone looking at my books will find. One of these days I may post about them, just to atone for that.

So in a way, reading The Verifiers was nostalgic, a trip back in time. But better. Because even though the tone has a crisp factual modernity rather than the smooth emotive romanticism of her short fiction, I still love how Pek writes.

She does a lot with this book while keeping the mystery front and center. For example, a minor character is a writer. “Lionel writes the kind of story you read in The New Yorker, where nothing happens but the characters are all thrumming with anguish.” I read that passage within a few days of posting about Iris Murdoch’s A Word Child, about which I’d written, “a self-obsessed man basically muses about how miserable his life is for the first 100 of 400 pages. Then something happens, and we get some crucial story, but it’s back to 50 pages of navel-gazing and description before anything else happens.” (In my – and Murdoch’s – defense, I did find some academic papers that gave me a better understanding of all that nothing-happening).

Lionel isn’t having a good time of it: “The writer’s life, going by Lionel’s example, is a hamster wheel of submission and rejection. He’s told me he has an email folder labeled Dreamcrushers, where he archives all the rejection notes he has ever received.” Well, sure, even I have one of those.  But it’s a kick to see how she works this into the overall story.

Lionel and Claudia tease each other about the stock phrases so many book reviewers use; “beautifully written,” “gorgeous sentences.” As it happens, I made a proposal years ago to my blogging buddy Jake Weber:

I keep thinking about the drinking game – take a shot every time someone… writes a sensitive coming-of-age scene with an age/race gap? Or eloquently portrays the end of a marriage? Nah…I don’t know, there’s something out there. Unnamed first person narrator. Unnamed third person protagonist (“the boy” or “the woman” – man, I hate that). Drawing blanks here, but I’m sure there’s a drinking game in there somewhere.

Me, in an email to Jake Weber

Every once in a while we still refer to it in one of our posts – in fact, Jake just gave me such a shoutout (“Karen! The drinking game begins with the first story!”) when he recently began his read/blog of BASS 2021. One of the reasons I so enjoyed this book was that it fit into my life so well.

Then there’s a wonderfully sly reference to writing in a scene at a Halloween party. She’s introduced to Rina, and they begin one of those conversations that in subtle ways has them both figuring out if they’re interested in each other. Claudia picks up on something:

That tangents us into a discussion of buttermilk versus ricotta, fluffy versus chewy, toppings versus fillings, and where to find the best pancakes in New York. Rena stakes all nine of her cat lives on a breakfast-only restaurant in Harlem called the Fitz. “When I lived up there I went every weekend,” she says. “I was on a mission to get through their entire menu.”
There’s a slight hitch in the rhythm of her statement, as if, maybe, she had been about to say when we lived up there. Now I get it. The Very Recently Single And Unhappy About It. Not any kind of situation I’d want to insert myself into; I’d be like the chapter in a novel that the author clearly wrote because their editor told them it needed some sort of transition between Exciting Event A and Exciting Event B.

What makes this particularly sly is that it’s in a transition section between one exciting event and another, between one discovery about character related to the murder and her confrontation with him. I just want to jump up and down and say, “I see what you did there!” That’s something I saw in one of her stories as well: she sneaks in Easter eggs everywhere, and I’m probably only noticing a fraction of them. And I just found another while writing this post: Claudia was recruited to Veracity via an online mystery game, which brings to mind the crossword puzzle used in the film The Imitation Game to recruit cryptography staff (a fictional technique, as it turns out).

She brings in literary references as well, channeling Chaucer’s Wife of Bath with advice on timing of romantic advances, and mentioning Jane Austen and Henry James. She has a lot of fun with Inspector Yuan mysteries, a (fictitious) detective from a mystery series set in the Ming dynasty. She recalls his techniques as she tries to solve the murder of a client. Sometimes they help her (“Right then it comes to me that I’m in the information-asymmetry scene in every Inspector Yuan novel where one out-of-the-loop character keeps asking questions so everyone else can reveal important information in a vaguely naturalistic way”); sometimes it’s more like “How come Inspector Yuan never had to worry about this?” That information-asymmetry is a real thing, by the way, from, of all things, economics.

One of the more emotional stir-ins concerns Claudia’s family, which has some psychodynamic similarities to the family of the woman whose murder she’s investigating. There’s an incredibly touching scene late in the book as she realizes her brother Charles had been fighting his own demons all along. He tells her he’s always acted in whatever way was expected, to prove to their mother that he was “an asset, not a liability” out of fear that she might escape with Claudia and leave him behind:

My brother loves me, I’m sure he does. I’ve felt it any number of times. When we are in his car and he brakes suddenly, he will fling his arm across the passenger seat like seatbelts are a scam and I’ll crash-dummy out through the windshield otherwise. Every time I’ve asked for help he showed up, making sure to nag me halfway to hell. But: what he said to me while we were driving through the hushed, late-night Queens, Symposium a melancholy sweetness through the speakers. You become something if you act that way for long enough. Maybe that’s the truth of why my brother loves me. And it might have made him a better version of the person he would have been otherwise, but the fact that he felt he had no choice but to be that way – it hollows everything out.

This leads Claudia to understand more about the key element in the mystery. But what strikes me is: This idea of becoming what you practice is straight out of Confucius. One of his most famous quotes is how he started to study at age 15, and by the time he was 80, he could act morally because he’d been practicing all his life and no longer wanted to act any other way. I’m no expert on Confucius, but Harvard’s Michael Puett is, and in his mooc “The Path to Happiness: What Chinese Philosophy Teaches Us About the Good Life” he says, “For Confucius, a ritual, in other words, is not a habit. It’s what breaks us from our habits and begins the possibility for us to become good….The ritual forces you to become a different person.” (This is also closely related to the Twelve-Step mantra, “Fake it ’til you make it.”) Claudia mentions Confucius a few times, and it turns out this is one key to understanding the motives behind the overall mystery: how to be our most authentic selves in order to connect with our best romantic partner.

I’m also impressed by what Pek doesn’t do.

I didn’t want this novel to be about what it means to be gay or what it means to be Asian, or what it means to be a gay Asian. It’s just the fact that Claudia is both gay and Asian, and she’s living her life in New York. There are some ways the world is shaped by those traits of hers, but there isn’t a deep dive into what either of those two things mean….I just wanted that to be part of the character, the same as how she works as an online-dating detective and she likes cycling and she likes reading mysteries.

Jane Pek, interview with Angela Qian at Hyphen Magazine

She doesn’t ignore those details – part of the tension of the family scenes comes from her not having told her mother she’s gay, and she both resents and uses the assumptions so often made about any “soft-spoken petite Asian female,” sometimes kicking back against it, sometimes allowing it to shield her from unwelcome scrutiny when she’s trying to fly under the radar. And, as I just mentioned, there’s Confucius. But it’s all presented as who Claudia is, not as a key to her conflicts or as any part of the mystery.

There’s a more technical aspect I’m wondering about, having to do more with stylistics than with content. More than halfway through the book, I tripped over this passage:

“Wait,” he says. “I… There’s something I would like to do for her.”
“What?”
“The story she was working on. She thought it was about something important.” He sighs. “Enough to get back in touch with me.” He would like to complete it for her and have it published posthumously under her name. “Will you help me with that?”
And now I feel like an ass.

It strikes me as odd that in the third paragraph here, the discourse changes from direct speech to indirect speech (I’m a little hazy on the terminology, so forgive me – and please correct me – if I’ve got it wrong). That is, there’s a sentence in quotes, a sentence as narration, and a sentence in quotes. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it strikes me as unusual, particularly with single, fairly short sentences. I would normally think of this as being used to compress an idea that might be complicated to express in speech. But here, it would be just as simple to have the indirect sentence as “I would like to complete it…” and keep all three sentences in a single quote block.

This stuck with me so strongly, I went back after I finished the book to see if I’d overlooked other instances. I found a few other similar passages, but they had other elements that made the switching less unusual: an attribution, an explanation that required narration, and different position. I even re-read Pek’s short stories from BASS to see if this was just a writer’s quirk, but didn’t find much; those stories were in past tense and had less dialog, and in one, the dialog was presented as italics, so it was harder to figure out.

Maybe it’s insane to obsess about 45 words out of a 350-page book, but is there some reason for the switch? I wonder if it’s meant to trip up the reader, cause us to slow down and pay attention, but I don’t really think so; it’s no more crucial than dozens of other spots. It also occurred to me it could be an editing artefact: a longer passage was cut down, but the quote structure wasn’t changed. That would be highly unusual for a fairly high-end publisher and a meticulous writer. Maybe it’s just how Pek hears it as she writes, the way I start a lot of sentences with conjunctions (yes, I know, that makes them incomplete sentences and when writing more formally I edit them out, but it’s how I hear what I’m writing).

As for the central mystery, I have to admit being less than horrified at the “oh, so that’s what’s going on” moment. It’s hard to discuss without revealing way too much, but I have a feeling my lack of concern reveals more about me than it does about the book – which is a really interesting point, by the way.  I’m not sure if I’m particularly cynical about the standards being violated, or if I just have a pessimistic view of reality and feel less threatened by the irregularities. This all goes back to the interview quote I opened with: how do we evaluate what we put out there, and what we get from it – as well as what the risks are, particularly given the unstable political environment we find ourselves in. I’ve pretty much decided we’re doomed (by several present threats), but I’m old enough to not have to worry about it for that much longer.

The very ending of the novel is wonderful, bringing both a sense of resolution, and of the future. There’s an even that could be setup for what could be another mystery; Claudia, at home with her family for Christmas, texts her colleague, now partner in detecting, who warns her to stand down. Then she gets another text:

And this time if you do anything stupid, God help me, I am going to kiss you.
*KILL YOU. Fucking predictive text. I mean: I am going to kill you.
One thing happens and then another. Maybe all of it means nothing, or maybe everything has already changed and the question is what happens next. I type my reply and hit send. Suddenly I can’t wait to find out.

What a great ending for this particular book! Autotext is frequently hilarious; switching kill to kiss would seem to be benign, but it’s followed by the all caps correction KILL YOU which is a lot less benign, and then the question of attraction is subtly sprinkled into the mix, completely accidentally. And of course it could, but doesn’t have to, serve as a springboard for another book – or just a reference point in a second book, linking it back to this one. Such a smart ending.

I’m quite delighted with the book. Sure, I would’ve liked more Chinese mythology, but I can see where that could get old, too, and as Pek writes it, this is not just another mystery. She’s mentioned in interviews that she’s working on something new, and isn’t saying what, but the idea of continuing with Claudia is something she’s considering. Will I be adding a new mystery series? Or finding something completely different?  And suddenly, I can’t wait to find out, either.

Bertrand Russell / Bradley Trevor Greive: In Praise of Idleness (St.Martin’s 2017) [IBR2022]

Russell’s message changed my life. Not immediately, perhaps – at least not visibly. But I started to look at my spare time differently, and then my time on earth in general. I tried to cut back on passive entertainment and move towards more active interests.
…. Given how impactful Russell has been in my own life, I was determined to share his sui generis genius with as many people as possible, and having at last secured the blessing of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, I present this modest volume to you.
I am neither a philosopher nor a mathematician and I am known primarily for my humorous gift books, so I do not pretend that I am worthy of this task. Nevertheless I feel honored to have the opportunity to present Russell’s work to a new audience. My only hope is that Russell’s essay might have heard you a similar epiphany to that which I experienced.

Bradley Trevor Greive, Introduction

I found the title of this intriguing. I’m not sure idleness is the best word for what’s being presented (yes, I am editing Bertrand Russell, you got a problem with that?). Idleness denotes lack of activity, what Russell would call passive entertainment; that is, Netflix and 48 hours of weekend televised sports. What he’s promoting is something else: non-work time – leisure – as a means of ramping up the creative powers, diffusing thought from targeted activity and letting things rip.

There are clear precedents that speak to the value of this process. When Newton spent a year at home because of the plague, he didn’t sit idly, he invented calculus. When Linus Pauling was sick in bed with a cold, he dabbled with a strip of paper and figured out protein structure. St. John spent time on Patmos and wrote the book of Revelation (hmm, might not be the best example).

Russell’s essay is couched in irony and wit.

Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given. Usually two opposite kinds of advice are given simultaneously by two organized bodies of men; this is called politics. The skill required for this kind of work is not knowledge of the subjects as to which advice is given, but knowledge of the art of persuasive speaking and writing, i.e. of advertising.

It’s important to remember that Russell was writing from the UK in the 1930s. I’ve watched Downton Abbey enough to be familiar with the shift from landowners (“What is a week end?”) lauded as providers of employment, to the question of just why so many people spent their days paying calls, hunting foxes, and being dressed several times a day for different functions, while others were slopping pigs and sewing and mining all day.  Russell’s solution – everyone works four hours, leaving a less exhausted working class able to function more creatively in their off hours – doesn’t map easily onto the 21st century US.

At the root of it all is the view that leisure lets us develop those things that aren’t necessarily profitable in the short run, but last millennia.

In the past, there was a small leisure class and a larger working class. The leisure class enjoyed advantages for which there was no basis in social justice; This necessarily made it oppressive, limited in sympathies, and caused it to invent theories by which to justify its privileges. These facts greatly diminished its excellence, but in spite of this drawback it contributed nearly the whole of what we call civilization. It cultivated the arts and discovered the sciences; it wrote the books, invented the philosophies, and refined social relations. Even the liberation of the oppressed has usually been inaugurated from above. Without the leisure class, mankind would never have emerged from barbarism.

I wonder if this is at the heart of the educated/practical divide. I recently learned that Robert Boyle, who, as one of the first chemists, discovered that the pressure of a gas is inversely relative to its volume and started thinking about heat as motion, was the son of one of the richest men in England. That’s why he could build a laboratory for his experiments. But look at Antoine Lavoisier: he was on a brilliant course with oxygen and the law of conservation of mass, but he got guillotined during the Reign of Terror because of his and his family’s ownership of tax agencies and general upper class status.

Today, everybody wants smartphones and technology to do more and more, but there’s a strong anti-education contingent that seems to want to limit education to certain people and certain subjects. More gadgets, more financial tinkering, less history and philosophy and art. Keep it practical. And, as Russell points out in several ways, preach about the virtue of hard work without ever doing any yourself.

As I was reading this, I thought of the attitudes towards moocs. Way back in the early days (about a decade ago; time moves on an accelerated scale these days) I was deeply insulted when a professor I admired referred to those of us who were not taking the course to prepare for further academic study in the subject as “hobbyists.” A few months ago, the Digital Learning Scientist working on MIT’s biology department held a zoom meeting on mooc engagement during the pandemic; when describing the data, they indicated taking the course as a verified student – that is, paying for it – is a “rough indicator” of dedication to the course. Rough is right.

Acknowledging different students had different goals, she said, “People who are retired do this for entertainment even.” The idea that someone could commit to a concentrated study of biology simply because they find it fascinating is not a first-thought idea, even after a pandemic makes understanding what mRNA is and how the immune system works a practical skill. Forgive me for ranting, I’m still wounded. But where Russell doubts that universities are fulfilling their goal as cultural generators, I see moocs as being so much more inclusive, reaching well beyond those who want a degree. Yet those are the very students modd educators dismiss as entertainment-seeking hobbyists.

Back to the book. The essay itself – a short little thing – is packaged with a foreword, afterword, and recommended reading list by Bradley Trevor Greive. I had no idea who that is, and his self-description as a writer of “humorous gift books” didn’t help (even after googling around, I have no idea what a humorous gift book is). Turns out he’s also instrumental in Australian television and film.

His introduction sets up Russell’s essay by explaining how he came across it. His Afterword a brief biography of Russell, and, most interestingly, his summary of what he calls the Russell Method of Creative Discipline, based on the prof’s activities, conversations, and diary entries:

– Exhaustive research and thought to the point of complete immersion in the subject.
– Attaining physical and objective distance from the project, during which further contemplation is undertaken in a state of active idleness.
– Seeing the work or solution as a whole, and reproducing same.
– Sober self criticism and editing after the fact to ensure the creative and intellectual integrity of the project.

This combination of study, escape, contemplation, inspiration, and critical evaluation makes perfect sense end served the prolific Russell well; To wit, without escape from the cerebral churn Russell could not find the freedom to think creatively, and without the intensely disciplined study he had nothing of substance to think about in the first place.

Bradley Trevor Greive, Afterword: In Praise of Doubt

See why I say idleness is maybe not the best word? This is a lot of work. I’m nowhere near Russell’s level, but it’s why I read a story or a book and let it percolate before I write about it; often I have no idea what approach to take at first, but it gradually comes into view. Sometimes it doesn’t. I suspect readers can tell which posts fit into that latter category.

Russell won a Nobel Prize for his writings; they’re collected in various ways. He was a Socialist dove who valued people above profit, which makes him everything the State – pretty much any State – distrusts. I’m vaguely familiar with some of his mathematical and philosophical work from various moocs, but I’m more interested in his social views. As usual, I’m intimidated by Great Names, so this was a good way to dip my toe in. Thanks to Greive’s reading list, I have an idea how to proceed.

Iris Murdoch: A Word Child (Penguin 1975) [IBR2022]

At the heart of Murdoch’s moral vision is what she calls “unselfing,” something surely worth revisiting in the age of the selfie. As one might guess, this amounts to finding a way out of the claustrophobia of our self-regard by answering a call from outside…. For Murdoch, the life worth leading is a life that leads to others, to a beyond, to an other. The moral self is pierced, porous, opened.
This vision of unselfing is related to a second central theme in her work, something she appropriated from Simone Weil: the moral significance of attention. “If loving attention is bestowed on others,” Browning summarizes, “then the self is changed.” By attending to the world, to something outside of the self, the self is pulled outward, stretched, grows. Attention, as Murdoch describes it, is “a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality.” And it is this, she says, that is the distinguishing mark of a “moral agent”—not will or intellect but the capacity to attend, to notice, which is its own kind of love.

James K. A. Smith: “The moral vision of Iris Murdoch” available online at America Magazine

I had a bad experience with Iris Murdoch in college. Or, rather, with her novel, The Severed Head. I don’t think I read more than 20 pages of it, but that was enough to hate it. 

But Murdoch has been coming at me for the past couple of years, both as a philosopher and a novelist. I began to feel a little guilty about not reading the book, and thought, hey, she wrote 27 books, maybe I’ll like one of the others. Out of the group FiveBooks recommended, this one sounded the most interesting.

I finished it, but wasn’t terribly happy along the way: a self-obsessed man basically muses about how miserable his life is for the first 100 of 400 pages. Then something happens, and we get some crucial story, but it’s back to 50 pages of navel-gazing and description before anything else happens. I guess I’m just not a Murdoch fan. So I did what I do when I’m stuck: I consulted other sources, which, fortunately when it comes to Murdoch, are plentiful.

Interestingly, I found reading about the novel, and reading about Murdoch’s philosophy, to be fascinating. This is a problem I have: I prefer learning about to doing; in this case, I preferred reading about to reading. I suspect that’s why I was so fascinated: the particular philosophical particle at work here is unselfing, a technique Hilary sorely needed, and indeed perhaps makes some headway with, in the closing pages.

Let’s start with a basic outline of the story: Hilary Burde starts off life pretty badly, a veritable Oliver Twist of the 20th century. Miraculously, a teacher recognizes he had a talent for languages; he becomes a polyglot, setting him on course to an Oxford education and position. Hence the title: “I was not, except in some very broken-down sense of that ambiguous term, a love child. I was a word child….”  Alas, he gets involved with the wife of his boss, and she ends up dead while trying to break it off. That’s the end of Oxford, the end of pretty much anything enjoyable, for Hilary; he spends the next twenty years making himself miserable.

He becomes a low-level civil servant in London. His sister – half-sister, as it turns out, Mom got around and didn’t keep track of fathers – accompanies him; they have some strange entangled relationship, which he insists, somewhat convincingly, is not at all incestuous. And now, twenty years later, the man he cuckolded, having left Oxford and dabbled in politics and government, is coming to London to be, again, his boss. And bringing his second wife. Guess what happens next… It’s a mark of Hilary’s moral growth that he doesn’t bang #2, even turns down her pleas for same. She dies in his presence anyway. The result is some surprising moral growth for Hilary.

A few days ago my blogging buddy Jake mentioned how delighted he was with a story “full of symbolic grist,” so I recommended this to him, where it turns out everything is symbolic: Big Ben, water, weather, the Circle Line, staircases, animals, food… let me repeat, I would not have gotten very far with this book had there not been a great deal of analysis floating about, pointing out all these symbols; I was too irritated to notice most of them.

Three articles in particular – two academic papers and one intellectual magazine piece – provided real insight into what I was reading and made it worthwhile, even for me.

The First Paper

In “The Misfortunes of a Word-Watcher: A Reading of Iris Murdoch’s A Word Child” Layla Raïd traces Murdoch’s philosophical interactions with Wittgenstein, the similarities and differences in their outlooks. She  compares Wittgenstein’s transition from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, where words are viewed as Hilary saw words in his early life, to the Philosophical Investigations, where words are seen in the context of their use. She compares this to Murdoch’s Hilary finding survival (escape from the orphanage and poverty, an academic career), but not salvation, in his early life as a Word Child; salvation came later (if it came at all) when he faced the messy realities and dealt with them, instead of just throwing up his hands and retreating into misery.

To make this comparison, I will describe Hilary Burde’s relations to words: how words were special for him, how he admired the order of language, and what could have been missing here. Then I will recall the path that Wittgenstein followed from the Tractatus to the Investigations…. The Investigations tell the story of how Wittgenstein came back from the temptation to see language as something pure and orderly to a sober examination of the innumerable, unclassifiable, different language-games in which we talk.
….Hilary’s first love was based on this confusion, as was the Tractarian vision of language. Hilary’s first love was an illusion, necessary for his survival, but to survive is not to live, and to live he had to give up his old vision.
The kind of salvation by words Murdoch refers to in her article is one which accepts the words in their relative disorder, and in their endless differences.

Lalya Raïd, 2019: “The Misfortunes of a Word-Watcher: A Reading of Iris Murdoch’s A Word Child” available online

Hilary’s affection for syntax over semantics provides one of the humorous moments (to me, at least) of the novel:

There were those who held that I was merely, in the narrowest and dullest sense, a linguist. “Burde reads poetry for the grammar,” was a mot of my college enemy, Stitchworthy, who had, I was of course rapidly informed, bitterly opposed my fellowship….
Stitchworthy, who was also a historian, had written an article for a learned journal concerning Cromwell, in which he had included a discussion of Marvell and a reference to Horace’s Epistles. He quoted a piece of Horace and made clear from his remarks that he had misconstrued it. When I spotted this I could hardly believe my luck. I wrote a short dry note designed for the journal in question, pointing out Stitchworthy’s howler, and concluding, “Grammarians may or may not read a poem adequately, but those ignorant of grammar are not reading it at all.”

This is one of those illustrations of the old saw, “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low” (which even the intrepid Quote Investigator can’t attribute to an original source).

One of the key points in Raïd’s argument is the name of Hilary’s sister: Crystal. He sees her as perfection, though physically he knows she’s rather dumpy and plain. I’m never sure what it is that makes her so special to him. They didn’t grow up together as he was placed in an orphanage while their mother kept Crystal at home. Yet they are enmeshed in some way, and his idolization of her, his imperfect vision of her as perfect, is what is keeping her trapped, unable to marry and have the child she desperately wants to have. After the death of the second wife, Hilary decides he will reform and make Crystal happy:

This would now be my only task. Crystal was the only being whom I loved and I was fortunate to be able to express this love in innocence and fullness of heart and to devote to it what remained of my life. I would take her far away from London and find in some country place the very best paid job which my talents could command. And I would live with her in a cottage and she would have her garden and her animals and all her little hearts desires, and I would simulate with her a kind of peace, perhaps even a kind of joy, into which some of the reality of these things might merge at last. We two alone shall sing like birds in the cage.

Of course, this only keeps Crystal in the cage with him; he still has some growing to do.

Raïd points out that in Tractatus, Wittgenstein uses the word ‘crystal’ to describe thought, the order of language; then in the Investigations, he notes the discrepancy between “the crystalline purity of logic” and reality: “We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk.” It isn’t until Hilary gives up his imperfect vision of Crystal, and allows her to be a real person with a history that is separate from, though related to, his, that he is able to relinquish his hold on her.

The second paper

I also found “Inner Circles, Goodness, and Lies in ‘A Word Child’ by Iris Murdoch: A Cognitive Facet of Literary Analysis” by Liliia Tereshchenko and Tetiana Tkachuk to be very helpful in appreciating the book.  [Off-topic: these authors were, in 2019, lecturers at a Ukranian university; I hope they are safe today]  It takes a different approach, using a wide variety of tools and techniques from cognitive linguistics, a subject I’ve dabbled in via various moocs. In fact, one of their reference sources is Peter Stockwell’s Cognitive Poetics; I took his brief mooc based on that text back in 2014, and still follow him on Twitter.

And that’s a good place to start:  Tereshchenko and Tkachuk use  Stockwell’s description of ‘superforegrounding’ – emphasizing an organizing element of text by theme, repetition, vocabulary, or other textual element – as a way of describing the cycles found in A Word Child: “every cycle denotes situations that occur several times in the novel until a crucial moment breaks the cycle.” The cycles they discuss range from sentence-level to book-level.

On the sentence level, the authors do an amazing reconstruction of a short paragraph in which Hilary describes the office hierarchy:

I worked to a man called Duncan, now briefly seconded to the Home Office, who worked to a Mrs Frederickson, now on maternity leave, who worked to Freddie Impiatt, who worked to Clifford Larr, who worked to someone too exalted to be in question here, who worked to someone more exalted still, who worked to the head of the department Sir Brian Templar-Spence, who was now about to retire. Arthur Fisch worked to me. Nobody worked to Arthur.

This is the kind of paragraph I would have overlooked, only noting that Crystal’s boyfriend, Arthur, is at the bottom of the ladder, and Hilary is just one step above him. But Tereshchenko and Tkachuk assign codes to some of the words (most importantly, worked = a and Arthur = d) and show how the chain becomes a circle, with thematic consequence:

After restoring the logical sequence of relationships among the referents, we see that the chain is circular: in the interim between “Arthur Fisch worked to …”, and “Nobody worked to Arthur” the narrator mentions his own persona (me); so the previous information about the organizational hierarchy (I worked to …) can be easily incorporated here…. The symbolic meaning of this ‘locked chain’ can be related to the image of a convict kept in chains. This image, in its turn, activates the IMPRISONMENT concept. The concept is sustained further by the image of captives, which refers to the employees of the office: “In our daily bondage what can be more preoccupying and ultimately influential than the voices of our fellow captives? How they go on and on: nothing perhaps, in sheer quantity, so fills up the head” (ibid., p. 33). Thus, at the very beginning of the story we prospectively become aware of Hilary’s attitude to his drudging job as a form of captivity, or punishment, which – as we will learn later – is self-imposed and futile.

Liliia Tereshchenko and Tetiana Tkachuk, “Inner Circles, Goodness, and Lies in ‘A Word Child’ by Iris Murdoch: A Cognitive Facet of Literary Analysis” available online at LEGE ARTIS

One of the most obvious cycles for the reader meshes with the notion of his fondness for grammar, for structure: the “particular rigidity with which my life was arranged.” He has a weekly schedule, and visits certain people on certain days. Each chapter of the novel, until the very end, is titled with a day of the week. 

The most dramatic cycle, of course, is the overall story itself. Hilary has a stable situation, he has an affair with the Don’s wife, disaster occurs. Twenty years later, the setup for the same situation occurs; however, things proceed differently, yet end at the same point. Is this an exoneration, or the start of yet another cycle? The authors recommend looking at the other cycles. Hilary’s rides on the Circle Line (the London subway loop that showed up in DeWitt’s The Last Samurai as well) are clearly a cyclical feature. Big Ben, its symbolic appearance changing with each iteration, makes another; I’m sure there’s a thesis out there (or someday will be) examining each appearance of Big Ben and relating it to Hilary’s state of mind.

Then we come to the crucial cycle: Hilary’s moral growth.  Keep in mind, as Tereshchenko and Tkachuk point out, “There are three child figures in the book: Peter Pan is a child, Jesus Christ is persistently called the Christ Child, and Hilary considers himself a word child.”

We believe that the last cycle – Hilary’s spiritual life – is the most important because of the author’s philosophical concept that lies at the heart of the text. The images used to describe Hilary’s spiritual life – the underground man, Peter Pan, the Christ Child, Word, the Good – are actualised in multiple ways in the text. We believe that this system of images sustains the global coherence of the text by outlining its conceptual nucleus– the SPIRITUAL GROWTH concept.

Liliia Tereshchenko and Tetiana Tkachuk, “Inner Circles, Goodness, and Lies in ‘A Word Child’ by Iris Murdoch: A Cognitive Facet of Literary Analysis” available online at LEGE ARTIS

Hilary’s self-description as an underground man refers both to the Dostoyevsky character, and to his habit of riding the Underground. This is his state at the beginning of the novel, a state the authors of the paper call low spirituality and complete immaturity.

Peter Pan is also part of the story: the office staff plans to do a pantomime of the play, and frequently discuss the logistics and casting. Peter’s immaturity is also a subject for some discussion, including input from Gunnar that spells out his state of development:

Gunnar, who had either become pompous through being grand, or was now so out of nervousness, made a speech to Freddie to the effect that of course Peter Pan was about parents and being unwilling to grow up, but what made sinister was that childishness had been invested with spirituality. “The fragmentation of spirit is the problem of our age,” Gunnar informed Freddie. “Peter personifies a spirituality which is irrevocably caught in childhood and which yet cannot surrender its pretensions. Peter is essentially a being from elsewhere, the apotheosis of an immature spirituality.”

Thus Peter Pan embodies Hilary’s second stage: he has some idea of spirituality, but still is at a very immature level.

The Christ Child, symbolizing high spirituality and spiritual maturity, is hammered home by, of all things, chapter titles, as well as the setting of one of  the final chapters. Throughout the book, each chapter is titled with a day of the week. This pattern is broken – always an important indicator – by the final two chapters, which are titled “Christmas Eve” (which takes place, in part, in a church) and “Christmas Day” and it is in them that Hilary achieves a more mature spirituality, evidenced by his willingness to let Crystal go, to witness her wedding and relinquish her to someone else who can give her the life she wants.

The third paper

“The moral vision of Iris Murdoch” by James K. A. Smith (who is the editor-in-chief of Image Journal, familiar to me from several Pushcart selections), does a very nice job of dealing with the secular philosophical themes and indicating where they might lead to religious considerations. A Word Child is not mentioned in the article at all, but I find the concept of un-selfing, as described in the opening quote above, to be central to Hilary’s spiritual growth. Smith quotes philosopher Charles Taylor who frames Murdoch’s basic moral question as “What is it good to be?” rather than “What is the good life?” and goes on to show how unselfing, triggered particularly by focusing on nature or art and beauty, or, though more problematically, religion, leads to this attending to others that is the crucial step for morality:

If one can learn to attend, unselfing can happen in the most unlikely of places, including places that do not look all that “moral.” In The Sovereignty of the Good, Murdoch starts with examples of nature slicing into one’s field of vision, like a hawk’s reflection carving across my iPhone’s screen, pulling my eyes up to the sky.
….Such experiences, she says, are preludes to morality, practice for attending to other people. She suggests the same can be true of art, since “beauty is the only spiritual thing which we love by instinct.” (Henri de Lubac, S.J., who emphasized our natural desire for the supernatural, might beg to differ.) Indeed, her definition of “good” art is what “affords us a pure delight in the independent existence of what is excellent.” It kindles love in the highest part of the soul. In fact, “considered as a sacrament or a source of good energy,” art is “more edifying” than nature in this respect because attending to a work of art not only pulls me outside of myself, it also pulls me into a relationship with other people, with creators. In art, I encounter not only something not me but the product of someone not me. That is the beginning of the end of egoism.

James K. A. Smith: “The moral vision of Iris Murdoch” available online at America Magazine

I find two points of great interest here relating to A Word Child. One is the unselfing, which Murdoch has related to observation of beauty and/or nature, and religious fervor. Although he spends a great deal of time walking around in the rain and noticing animals, he’s always in his own head when he does so; there’s very little of any unselfing in Hilary’s life, until the very end when he sits in the church on Christmas Eve, at which point he attains the spiritual growth to at least release Crystal.

The other point is attention. It was the attention of the schoolteacher that first rescued him from the orphanage, that led to his own love of language and the possibility of a greater life. Yet attention, as the attention he pays to Crystal, can be damaging if it is not based in reality and the other but in the self. Two suicides occur in the later chapters of the novel; both of them could have been prevented, perhaps, with a bit of attention from Hilary. And he knows this, though he faces it obliquely:

Clifford had been carried away by the cold river and I had not stretched out my hand to him, not even touched his fingers. …. Clifford had died differently, he had died of being unloved and uncared for, as if the door had been shut upon him on a cold night. I did not know, and would never know, how much he really cared for me…. And after a while I began thinking about Mr. Osmond, and how he had died alone, and how he had once taught me out of Kennedy’s Latin Primer to conjugate the verb of love, his shabby coat sleeve pressing gently against my arm.

What’s most interesting about Smith’s article is how captivating its description of an early Murdoch novel, The Bell, became to me. I have to remind myself how I have struggled with two Murdoch novels now, and how susceptible I am to reading about, rather than reading, or it might end up on next year’s In Between Reading list.  It seems contemplating this 396-page work of art has brought me into a relationship with, if not Murdoch, then Smith, who has kindled in me a desire to read more by an author whose works I started out insisting I did not care for. Wouldn’t that be a strange irony.

And back to my own (sadly inadequate, in this case) devices

I have been told by those who’ve read my posts on BASS and Pushcart stories that I (sometimes) have a tendency to write in a style similar to the story I’m writing about. I find here that I’m taking after Hilary, writing about this book in a rather technical way, and not conveying how lovely the writing is in so many places. In spite of the tediousness, there are sentences and paragraphs that are beautiful; in fact, one of my first thoughts was that there were so many drop-dead sentences, I wondered if it defused them to have so many on the same page, rather than letting one shine on its own. So let me remedy my oversight now with several selections:

The wind was moodily rattling the windows, producing that odd not-unpleasant sense of solitude which winter winds evoke. After a long day in the office and undergoing my fellow men in the tube rush hour I felt tired and crumpled and begrimed with weariness. A hard monotonous life favors salvation, so the sages say. There must have been some other element, absent in my case. Oh the piercing sadness of life in the midst of its ordinariness!

Like an emo singer, Hilary is often at his most eloquent when he’s at his lowest:

But I was simply crushed, unmanned. I had lost my moral self-respect and with it my ability to control my life. Sin and despair are mixed and only repentance can change sin into pure pain. I could not clean the resentment out of my misery. Did I repent? That trouble question troubled me as the years went by. Can something half crushed and bleeding repent? Can that fearfully complex theological concept stoop down into the real horrors of human nature? Can it, without God, do so? I doubt it. Can sheer suffering redeem? It did not redeem me, it just weakened me further. I, who had so long cried out for justice, would have been willing to pay, only I had nothing to pay with and there was no one to receive the payment.

The general theme of repentance, atonement, penitence, redemption, forgiveness is a large part of the book. It’s a theme I gravitate towards. Hilary has spent twenty years in self-imposed suffering for his sin, but it has not brought him peace, nor moved him any closer to redemption. It’s only in this unselfing, this attending to what others need and being willing to provide it, that he may be moving towards some kind of resolution.

And yet the ending is ambiguous. He walks off with Tommy, off-again-on-again Tommy, returning her banter about marriage. Is this a hint towards his future? Or is he moving into another cycle, and in twenty years there will be yet a third confrontation to promote him towards spiritual maturity?

We are all muddlers. The thing is to see when one’s got to stop muddling.

Yes. It’s time to stop my muddling here. But it’s been a fun muddling, and not (I hope) totally useless.

Roxane Gay: Bad Feminist (Harper 2014) [IBR2022]

We don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us. Feminism will better succeed with collective effort, but feminist success can also rise out of personal conduct. I hear many young women say they can’t find well known feminists with whom they identify. That can be disheartening, but I say, let us (try to) become the feminists we would like to see moving through the world. When you can’t find someone to follow, you have to find a way to lead by example. In this collection of essays, I’m trying to lead, in a small, imperfect way. I am raising my voice as a bad feminist. I am taking a stand as a bad feminist. I offer insights on our culture and how we consume it. The essays in this collection also examine race in contemporary film, the limits of diversity, and how innovation is rarely satisfying; It is rarely enough.

Roxane Gay, Introduction

I chose not to read this book when it came out because I didn’t want to read about feminism. Part of that hesitation is covered in Gay’s introduction: it’s a complicated topic that seems to mean different things to different people, yet somehow manages to leave out huge swathes of women. And part is a lack of enthusiasm for pedantic diatribe, however earnest and appropriate. *Footnote (if I could do footnotes in WordPress): I should have trusted Gay.

So why read it now?

Over the past several years, I’ve repeatedly quoted Gay’s article, “Not Here to Make Friends” on unlikeable characters (as well as her tweets and other writings). The surprise came late last year, when I discovered it was included in this collection. A quick glance showed me yes, there’s a lot of gender and sexuality, but there’s also academia, Scrabble, and Sweet Valley High, as well as politics and race and intersections of all of the above with gender and sexuality. Click “add to cart.”

The book is divided into five sections: Me, Gender & Sexuality, Race & Entertainment, Politics, Gender & Race, and Back to Me. The essays appeared in many print and online magazines over several years, so some were familiar, like “Not Here to Make Friends” (which always makes me want to read The Age of Innocence; fortunately, or not, I get over it pretty quickly). They’re all fairly short, and they all are immensely readable.

In these pages I learned about the exhaustion of real-life academia I so love reading about in fiction:

An alarming number of my students don’t seem to want to be in college. They are in school because they don’t feel they have a choice or have nothing better to do; because their parents are making them attend college; because, like most of us, they’ve surrendered to the rhetoric that just succeed in this country you need a college degree. They are not necessarily incorrect. And yet, all too often, I find myself wishing I could teach more students who actually want to be in school, who don’t resent the education being foisted upon them. I wish there were viable alternatives for students who would rather be anywhere but in a classroom. I wish, in all things, for a perfect world.

“Typical First Year Professor”

As someone who deferred higher education after high school, then found myself passionately drawn to it in any form (continuing most recently in moocs, OCWs, and Youtube classes), I’m actually a fan of postponing college until one really wants it. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in learning; I was, and that was generated by reading, by seeing interesting characters who knew things I didn’t. But let’s face it, most people go to college to get a good job, not because they really REALLY want to finally understand Chaucer or calculus or the Middle Ages. The result is what Gay sees in her classes.

Then I read about Scrabble. I confess: I love the NYT Sunday Crossword (and no other, though I’ll take anything in a pinch), I spend an enormous amount of time on Wordle and its derivatives, as well as WEBoggle, which is psychically equivalent to taking a cigarette break while avoiding the physical damage, but I’ve never liked Scrabble. But it turns out, I love reading about Scrabble. At least in “To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically,” in which Gay takes us through her introduction to the world of competitive Scrabble via a casual invitation she accepted simply because she was new in town and had nothing else to do. And I learned the reason WEBoggle never accepts “Broasted” as a word is because it’s a proper noun.

Other articles included references less familiar to me that nevertheless were emotionally wrenching. In “What We Hunger For,” Gay discusses her love for the Hunger Games stories in the context of her own experience of sexual violence. That’s followed by “The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion,” and the ineffectiveness, and ultimate nonsense, of trigger warnings. The Race & Entertainment section reference movies and TV shows I’ve either never seen (Tyler Perry movies, Django Unchained) or saw so long ago I don’t really remember them (The Help). The exception is Fruitvale Station, which stuck with me:

It is in this context that Fruitvale Station works compellingly to treat Oscar Grant as a man. Forced to decide whether to sell drugs to support his family, Oscar makes what we hope is the right choice, throwing a large quantity of marijuana into the Bay. He tries to get his job back at a local grocer after being fired. Not only are his options drastically limited, his learning curve is steep. There is little room for error. For some young black men, there is no room for error at all.

“The Last Day of a Young Black Man”

Most of these essays are very short. Many were published in online magazines, others in print venues. Many of them cover ground that has become familiar; others show we’ve moved on without resolving much. Social media, political agendas, entertainment trends, these change quickly. It’d be nice if we went back to the eighteenth century when writing about morality would last forever, but those essays tended to be so general as to weave into whatever current events were playing. Gay’s essays are very specific, so they have a shorter shelf life.

It’s still a book worth reading, if only to remember back when it seemed like change was possible. And if the issues in the more time-specific essays are more familiar now, the good news is that Gay is now writing NYT opinion columns.

Leonard Mlodinow: The Upright Thinkers (Vintage 2015) [IBR2022]

In the wrong hands, science can be famously boring. But the story of what we know and how we know it isn’t boring at all. It is supremely exciting. Full episodes of discovery that are no less compelling than a Star Trek episode or our first trip to the moon, it is peopled by characters as passionate and quirky as those we know from art and music and literature, seekers whose insatiable curiosity took our species from its origins on the African savanna to the society we live in today. How did they do that? How did we go from a species that had barely learned to walk upright and lived off whatever nuts and berries and roots we could harvest with our bare hands to one that flies airplanes, sends messages instantly around the globe, and re-creates enormous laboratories that conditions of the early universe? That is the story I want to tell, for to know it is to understand your heritage as a human being.

I’ve read several history-of-science books; they tend to provide encyclopedia-style citations for history – born, died, discovered – and focus on the science, with some acknowledgement to major influencing events: wars, plagues, the printing press. Many start with the ancient Greeks, but quickly skedaddle up to Copernicus or even Newton so they can get to the good stuff. They tend to ignore biology completely, sticking to physics and chemistry. That’s fine; they’re often good books, for what they are.

Mlodinow’s approach is a bit different. He focuses on the changes that occurred in how scientists approached discovery, and how that led to new science, rather than the details of the discoveries. And he starts much earlier: a few million years earlier, in fact.

Let me put in here is that it’s a very Western-centric book: Mlodinow’s story is a fairly straight line from Greece to Europe.  Egypt, the Islamic Empire, and India are mentioned as supporting players; China and the American peoples are pretty much ignored, as is sub-Saharan Africa. This is necessary for the story he is telling, similar to reducing the pre-human species to four, but let’s not interpret this as meaning there was no scientific inquiry elsewhere. 

The book is divided into three parts. In the first, he traces the evolutionary development of humans, both in biological and social and intellectual terms, up to Aristotle:

Part I, spanning millions of years, traces the evolution of the human brain and its propensity to ask “Why?” Our why’s propelled us to our earliest spiritual inquiries and led, eventually, to the development of writing and mathematics and the very concept of laws – the necessary tools of science. Ultimately those why’s led to the invention of philosophy, the insight that the material world operates according to rhyme and reason that can, in principle, be understood.

I liked this section – it’s short, about 60 pages – so much, I started a Cerego set to help me retain some of the information. The emphasis is on what change allowed each step to take place. Why was Göbekli Tepe built 14,000 years ago, when no one lived within miles of the place? Why was Thales able to think about what the world was fundamentally made of, when no one had before? The section ends with Aristotle’s view of science as the study of purpose, a direction that would persist for a thousand years.

The second section – “a story of revolutionaries who had the gift of seeing the world differently” – shows how Aristotle’s view of science yielded to Galileo and Newton as physics, chemistry, and biology developed from the late Middle Ages through the late nineteenth century. I was a bit disappointed that biology got less page space; it’s mostly Darwin. But Mlodinow is, after all, a physicist. And though it took place in the mid-20th century, I still think the story of Linus Pauling, discovering the structure of protein by cutting up paper strips while in bed with a cold, would’ve made a great addition; FMI see MIT’s introductory Biology mooc. Again, the focus is not on the details of the scientific discoveries but on the change in viewpoint, the new approach, that allowed scientists to look at old questions in new ways.

The third section watches Newton’s laws crumble to quantum physics as the atom is uncovered, quanta and relativity emerge, and uncertainty takes a bow. This can sound intimidating; it’s not. You won’t learn quantum physics, and it probably helps to have had some exposure, however basic, to the concepts, but it’s very readable, and again is as much about the personalities and interactions as the science.

The Second World War becomes an end point of sorts. And because early 20th century physics was focused in Germany, it includes a scorecards of sorts: who had to leave, who chose to leave, who chose to stay and work on a Nazi version of an atom bomb. I’ve read before that, had Germany not chased away so many of its most talented people, had they not expended so many resources on murdering people they hated, they could have won the war (and then, presumably, murdered everyone they didn’t like). Something to think about as the US turns more authoritarian every day.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the book is the storytelling nature of so much of it. He writes of the Merton Rule relating constant acceleration to average speed, and tells how Nicole Oresme created what can be viewed as the first graph to demonstrate the mathematics. At the time, other scientists were unimpressed. Mlodinow relates this to the 20th century chemical engineer at 3M who developed Post-its, and the unenthusiastic reception he got from the marketing department who could see no use for sticky scrap paper. Then he brings in his father’s childhood experience in rural Poland when someone threw a sheet over a goat and the Purim celebrants thought it was a ghost: “They were merely interpreting what they saw in terms of the context of their beliefs…. Had we not been raised in a Newtonian culture, [Newton’s laws] that are now so self-evident to us all would have been, for most of us, incomprehensible.”  Sometimes we see the future but don’t recognize it. And, sadly, sometimes we try to undo it and return to the blind past. 

He offers this anecdote about Galileo as a college dropout in search of a job:

After quitting school, Galileo at first supported himself by giving private mathematics lessons. He eventually got wind of an opening for a junior position at the University of Bologna. Though he was twenty-three, he applied, and in a novel twist on rounding he reported his age as “around twenty-six.” the university apparently wanted someone “around” a little older and hired a thirty-two-year-old who had also actually finished his degree. Still, even centuries later, it has to be comforting to anyone who has ever been turned down for an academic job but it’s an experience you share with the great Galileo.

He offers still more comfort, and some advice, to academics:

But one of the traits that distinguishes the successful physicist is the knack (or luck) of choosing problems that prove both enlightening and solvable. … In physics, there is little consolation in thinking you had a “beautiful idea” if it was not a correct idea. And so in physics, as in any attempt at innovation, you have to maintain a difficult balance, being careful about the research problems you choose to pursue while not being so careful that you never do anything new. That’s why the tenure system is so valuable to science – it makes it safe to fail, which is essential for fostering creativity.

While he presents this in the context of scientific research, it’s also true in other fields. I remember Al Filreis, Penn English professor, director of the Kelly Writer’s House, and developer of the extremely popular modern poetry mooc known as ModPo, said something similar: he didn’t know if he could create a participatory, partly synchronous mooc, but he figured he had tenure so he wouldn’t get fired for trying. Moocs have decided to go another way, but ModPo, and its year-round offshoot SloPo, continues. So the next time you hear of a state wanting to end tenure and get rid of those pesky professors and their non-traditional ideas, you might want to think about what that loss means in terms of new ideas that might, oh, I don’t know, save civilization from melting as the temperature rises.

Mlodinow also looks at the difference between physics and chemistry. It turns out he originally planned to study chemistry but physics wooed him away. “Different areas of science not only focus on different questions, but also have different cultures.” Basic physics required observation and mathematics; chemistry required technology to measure and control substances in small amounts. As a result, it took longer to develop, and more people played a part.

A friend and I have been watching a TV program that has twice now used the “scientists believe in what they can see and touch” and I’ve gone off on a rant about that statement.  Mlodinow discusses the progression of science from what can be seen and touched to what outcomes can be expected and confirmed to how mathematics and statistics now serve as core evidence. He goes a bit into how string theory complicates this, since it’s quite possibly not confirmable by any means we know. Then again, the atom was hotly contested for a very long time by some very smart 20th century physicists.

Mlodinow’s father is a constant presence in the book; in fact, he begins with his father’s story about trading a crust of bread for an explanation of a mathematical puzzle when he was in Buchenwald. 

I was in my late teens when my father recounted that episode, and it made a huge impact on me. My father’s family was gone, his possessions confiscated, his body starved, withered, and beaten. The Nazis had stripped him of everything palpable, yet his drive to think and reason and no survived. He was imprisoned, but his mind was free to roam, and it did. I realized then that the search for knowledge is the most human of all our desires, and that, different as our circumstances were, my own passion for understanding the world was driven by the same instinct as my father’s. As I went on to study science in college and after, my father would question me not so much about the technicalities of what I was learning, but about the underlying meaning – where are the theories came from, why I felt they were beautiful, and what they said about us as human beings. This book, written decades later, is my attempt, finally, to answer those questions.

Some may find it too “soft” and prefer more detailed science, in which case something more like Marcelo Gleiser’s The Island of Knowledge might be a better choice. Both books have their place. I very much enjoyed the relaxed, anecdotal style, and the expanded timeline. I have Mlodinow’s Elastic as well, and a number of his other titles appeal to me. I’m surprised – dismayed, really – that I’ve never read him before. I wonder what else I’m missing out on. I want to read all the books, before they’re gone.

Steve Stern: The Frozen Rabbi (Algonquin 2010) [IBR2022]

It’s a very literal title. I woke up pretty much and said I’d like to write a story about a frozen rabbi [laughs]. The perennial question of where your ideas come from I’ve never been able to adequately answer — the angels speak to me [laughs again]. As you probably realize from my stuff, I read a lot of folklore and in folklore, Jewish folklore in particular, there always seemed to be this kind of supernatural element that is perfectly natural in that world, especially the world of Yiddish fiction. I sort of draw upon/steal from that on occasion. I grew up in a Reform congregation in Memphis that was trying its best to be invisible. I thought I was a Methodist until I was 35-years-old. Then I stumbled down a rabbit hole to Jewish folklore and mysticism. It was about coming around to a heritage that I never really owned before. It’s really one of those typical traditional born-again experiences that’s too corny to own up to.

Steve Stern, interview with Paul Griffith at Chapter 16

You could think of this as an adventure story about a slacker teen in Memphis, alienated from his own Judaism until his discovery of a nineteenth-century Hasidic rabbi in his parent’s freezer changes his life.  You could also think of it as a saga of the late Jewish Diaspora, from the Polish shtetls to the cities to the US and Israel, from a mystical faith to a political one, or, sometimes, to no faith at all, and back again.  You could think of it as a way to incorporate a century of backstory without losing the momentum of the present story. Or you could see it as a disconnected family saga.

However you see it, what you have is two alternating time lines: one in the present at the cusp of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and the other from the late nineteenth century until it catches up with the present. Chapters are helpfully labeled with dates to keep things straight.

And, oh, one other thing – it’s a lot of fun to read. I don’t say that about many books that wander through pogroms, thuggery, and loneliness, but somehow this manages to be fun even when it’s disgusting. Even the darkest moments feel less tragic than amusing, the way Mo, Larry, and Curly slapping each other around is funny rather than violent. Stern addresses this in his interview:

The humor generated from the Diaspora experience was bred in a language with a built-in sense of irony. You can hear it in the rhythms and inflections of every spoken phrase. Irony was a natural function of a language that evolved in a world defined on the one hand by oppression, persecution, and poverty, and on the other by a natural intimacy with the sacrosanct. To maintain one’s religious faith in the face of such a hostile environment is to preside over the marriage of irreconcilable opposites, a rocky relationship at best and one that seldom achieves wedded bliss.
It’s an absurd situation, really, when it isn’t tragic, and so every joke is marked by a fatalism never far from galgenhumor, gallows humor. It’s a world in which the schlemiel is Everyman.

Steve Stern, interview with Paul Griffith at Chapter 16

The book starts in 1999, with one Bernie Karp, a fifteen-year-old who’s just discovered Alexander Portnoy. Eager to try out some of Portnoy’s techniques, he goes rummaging through the family freezer, looking for a piece of liver (those who know, know; if you don’t know, google Portnoy and Liver but don’t blame me for what you get). He throws aside the Butterballs and pork loins – wait, pork loins? That casual reference gives you a good idea of what kind of Jewish family the Karps are, much like Stern’s family was prior to his discovery of Yiddish folklore.

Turns out, under the frozen peas lies a man frozen in a block of ice. Bernie isn’t sure what to do with that, but his urge to procreate with organ meats forgotten, he asks his parents about it at dinner that night. They’re pretty blasé about it: “Some people got taxidermy pets in the attic, we got a frozen rabbi in the basement. It’s a family tradition.” And he came with a book, but it’s written in Yiddish, which no one in the family can read. Which, again, tells you something about the level of ancestral curiosity in this family.

Then we go back to 1889, and the circumstances under which the Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr, called the Boibiczer Prodigy for his early mastery of releasing his soul to visit heaven via concentration on holy language, became frozen in a pond on the outskirts of his shtetl in rural Poland. And we are introduced to his first caretaker, one Salo Frostbite, the name bestowed upon him for his attachment to the family ice house where the Rabbi is kept until a pogrom forces him to move to Lodz.

And it’s back to 1999, when Bernie’s parents take a weekend in Las Vegas, leaving Bernie alone with the Rabbi during a storm that knocks out power and … you can see where this is going, yes? Good, because we’re only on Page 17 of 370 and it gets more complicated from here, as we follow, in alternating sections, the transfer of the frozen Rabbi from Lodz to New York to Memphis via several intermediaries, and the adjustment of the unfrozen Rabbi to contemporary life:

In the omnipresent news broadcasts the old man showed little interest: The relentless advance of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse was already a stale subject on earth even before the rabbi had entered his suspended condition. But about the splenetic woman who conducted a daily din toyreh, splitting hairs over laws concerning two-timers and clip artists with the perspicacity of a Daniel; about the smug gentleman who encouraged public loshen horeh (gossip) and orchestrated encounters between parties of mutual betrayal; about the portly schwartze who invited intimate confessions from her guests and wept openly over their Job-like afflictions; about antic surgeons, garrulous chef, faithless couples, deceitful castaways, teenage exorcists, and the Jew repeatedly duped into fornication with shikses, old Eliezer was deeply inquisitive. He was especially interested to observe the willingness of citizens to air their indiscretions in public forums.
“If a man to other men will sell his wife,” he might ask in the crossbred Yinglish to which Bernie was starting to grow accustomed, “is not obliged Reb Springer to cleave open his breast and tear out his farkokte heart?” “When they shimmy, these daughters in their supple skins in the orgies of the MTV, do not their fathers say already Kaddish for them?”

It helps to have some familiarity, however vague, with Judaica, particularly Kabbalah, and/or the Yiddish folklore Stern mentions above. I didn’t recognize much beyond Yentl, and now I wish I’d read more Isaac Bashevis Singer; I may dive into Sholom Aleichem (who wrote the stories that formed the basis of Fiddler on the Roof) at some point. Those who have a broader background in this area probably pick up references that passed by me unnoticed. I’m not sure how this would read to someone completely unfamiliar with such topics. But it’s clear how some character traits are passed along – a head for business, a desire to understand the mystical parts of Judaism, a sense of shame and/or guilt – and whether you want to see those as pieces of the soul re-inhabiting another life to complete a mission (as in Gilgul), as Jungian collective unconscious, or some combination of necessity and coincidence, it works.

One of the more interesting (to me, at least) episodes of the frozen rabbi’s journey concerns his arrival in New York as the means to smuggle a shipment of black market caviar in the care of Max Feinshmeker, nee Jocheved, daughter of the original Salo, once a talented pushcart snowcone barista who has to leave Lodz after she is assaulted and thus shamed (because that’s how it was in those days). She figured it would be easier to survive as a man. Yes, shades of Yentl, as I said. And of course, this causes complications when the keeper of the New York ice house in which she stores the rabbi, one Schmerl Karpinski, a lad with a knack for mechanical invention, finds Max an enjoyable companion.

Another awkward moment for Max came when they stopped for a bowl of borscht at a dairy cafe, and Schmerl – digging into his knippl, the knot of cash he’d been hoarding since he’d become a hired hand – insisted on paying the tab. Having passed a dark season as the object of charity, the beggar now wished to be benefactor, despite having no material resources to speak of.
“It is for me my pleasure,” his host assured him, proud to be arm-in-arm with such a silken youth, so delicate-featured and slight of frame, attributes almost unseemly for a man. With a sigh Max had accepted the refreshment, just as later he learned to graciously accept the ticket to a Yiddish theater production of Hamlet, der yeshiva bocher, translated and improved for the edification of the general public, or the price of admission to a cabaret. For his part, Schmerl felt heartily beholden to his companion for allowing him to show them both a good time. How long he had waited for someone with whom to share his enthusiasm for the knockabout streets and the institutions he’d been too shy to enter alone. It was as if he finally belonged to the teeming neighborhood and had at last arrived in America.
As for Max, he still couldn’t quite believe that he’d fallen into such agreeable circumstances. For one thing, despite the forced physical intimacy of their digs, it was relatively effortless to hide Jocheved’s gender from his host….. In this environment Jocheved sometimes felt she might even relax a bit her tenacious secrecy; she might steal a peek on occasion from behind the mask of Max Feinshmeker, as if the world were not such a daunting place after all.

Having just read The Member of the Wedding, I also see a sprinkling of McCullers’ theme of belonging in there. All these loners who just happen to find themselves another loner to pair up with, courtesy of the man in ice.

In the present, the unfrozen rabbi has an idea, an idea as American as apple pie: he’s going to start a business, pandering to the basest needs of contemporary USAian society while wrapped in the sheep’s clothing of religion:

“I ain’t talking your zayde’s study house. I’m talking Rabbi ben Zephyr’s House of Enlightenment, where I’m dispensing on demand ecstasy.”
Mr. Karp went livid. “You mean like drugs?”
Now it was the rabbi’s turn to sigh. “Julius,” there was the patronizing note again, “today religion is good business. Give a look by the gentile revivalist with his double breast polyester in the stadium, and even the Jewish boys and girls, that they sacrifice to some barefoot swami all their possessions, who tells them, ‘Go dress in shmattes and dance in the street.’ And it ain’t even Simchat Torah! Wants to acquire everybody, along with the BVD and the satellite dish, a bissel the living God, but for the years discipline they ain’t got time. So now comes a tzaddik ha dor, which it’s yours truly, to give them a few easy steps a taste sublime.”
“Are you trying to tell me that you intend to pedal…” Mr. Karp searched without success for the word, which the rabbi supplied:
“Be-a-ti-tude,” tasting every syllable on his glaucous tongue. Then he allowed that he might also sell a few specialty items on the side – books and talismans, red strings to ward off the evil eye, everything marked up and elegantly packaged of course…
“Slow down!” says Mr. Karp. “What’s a two-hundred-year-old greenhorn know about markup?”
“You would be surprised how much business deals is in Talmud…..”

At the same time, Bernie is delving into Jewish lore, checking books out of the synagogue library that has the rabbi concerned. Then his soul starts taking spiritual flights from his body, which has his teachers concerned. But he meets a girl, who isn’t concerned at all; she wants him to take her with him.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the book, about the soul-swapping that seems to be going on, about the ending that may be a little too goofy or may be the only way to bring the novel to a close. But that I’m thinking about it, tells me it’s a book that works for me.

As I said in my introduction to this reading period, I hated the first Steve Stern story I read, because it seemed so mean, and loved the second because it was chock full of fascinating folklore and tradition. This book borrows from both. Parts of the book are so cinematic, and the book as a whole is so episodic, it’s make a great limited series. Not all of the characters are admirable, but it’s impossible not to cheer them on as they pass the rabbi along, all the while wondering how, given this history, it’s going to turn out. I’m a little uncertain about the ending;

I keep thinking about soul-swapping, and I’m not entirely sure I know exactly what happened. But the journey to get there is worth a little uncertainty.

I’ve read two of Stern’s stories via Pushcart; as I said in my intro to this In-Between Reading period, I hated the first, loved the second and reconsidered the first. I’m glad I added this to my read list, and now I’ve got my eye on some of his story collections.

Carson McCullers: The Member of the Wedding (HM 1946; Bantam 1973) [IBR2022]

I hadn’t thought about it in terms of social problems. I always think more in terms of human beings, and the basic theme is just the need to belong… to belong to something, to feel oneself a part of life. ….I think that the sources of creation are very mysterious, and I don’t think one can find them by just looking for them, I think they have to come from a window within you.

Carson McCullers, 1951 Ship’s Reporter interview with Jack Mangan at LitHub

I’m of two minds about this novel. On the one hand, I just want to let the snark fly: it’s more of a very long short story than a novel (it takes place in three days with a brief coda projecting a few months into the future); there’s barely a plot, which is evident when the climactic event is revealed in one hindsight paragraph; at least two important points are left frustratingly ambiguous; and even though I read it in early Spring with the temperature rarely getting out of the 40s, it always left me feeling hot and sweaty and drowning in humidity. I grew up in Florida, I know what August in the south feels like, I don’t need to read the gritty details.

But then I have to look at what McCullers has done: she’s taken a bare-bones plot and done a deep insightful character study touching on issues of belonging and coming of age in a slender 150 pages; she’s used some interesting techniques that emphasize, presumably, what she wanted to emphasize; she lets the reader be a partner in creating the story; and boy can she create a mood just by describing the environment in which her characters exist.

There was in the neighborhood a clubhouse, and Frankie was not a member. The members of the club were girls who were thirteen and fourteen and even fifteen years old period they had parties with boys on Saturday night. Frankie knew all of the club members, and until this summer she had been like a younger member of their crowd, but now they had this club and she was not a member. They had said she was too young and mean.

The basic story focuses on twelve-year-old Frankie, who feels like she doesn’t belong to anything or anyone. Some of her former friends have formed a club, but she can’t be in it because they’re a year of two older and she’s too young to talk about boys. The only belonging she has is with her housekeeper, Berenice, and John Henry, her six-year-old cousin, and that’s a group she’d rather not belong to. Her outlook changes when her brother, on leave from the Army, announces he’s going to marry his long-time girlfriend the next weekend. Frankie decides she’s going to go with them on their honeymoon, and get out of her stultifying town.

When I wrote about Marcus Spiegel’s Pushcart story “A Tale of Two Trolls,” I mentioned the phenomenon by which one assumes a plan will work simply because one has thought it up, and wants it badly enough. That’s Frankie’s concept of escaping with her brother and his bride. She’s very young, and she’s very naïve; the story is set in the 40s, before music videos, before R-rated movies (at least publicly available ones), before the internet, and twelve-year-olds were kept isolated from anything that might involve sex, so she doesn’t realize the absurdity of being a third wheel on a honeymoon.

Her sexual innocence is underlined in other ways in the story. The girls who won’t let her in their club presumably feel she has nothing to contribute to the subject of boys, and they seem to be right. She seems to have committed some kind of sin with a neighborhood boy, but she’s not sure how bad the “unknown sin that he had showed her” is. Interestingly, McCullers chooses not to reveal that to the reader, either; we’re so deep in Frankie’s head, we can’t get out, and she doesn’t seem to want to think about the specifics. I’ve seen guesses that it was a kiss, relating to her father’s kiss goodnight, which have recently been curtailed. Because of the phrasing, I wonder if it was a game of I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours type of thing.

That she keeps it secret, that she can’t even think about it, is, however, the point; she can’t face growing up. This coincides with her father deciding she can’t sleep in his bed any more, and that feels like not-belonging. It feels like punishment.  It’s practically expulsion from Eden, this rejection by the father. And she hasn’t figured out how to make the jump to the older girls’ clubhouse, where at least there are compensations, a different kind of belonging. She can’t grow up.

Her naivete isn’t just a quirk; it puts her in danger when she makes a date to meet a soldier at night, then goes with him to his room. It’s not clear what she’s expecting, but it is clear what he’s expecting.

These are the burdens of growing up:  losing her place at her father’s side, dealing with sins she doesn’t understand, and fending off advances she doesn’t know are coming. No wonder she’s scared to grow up. But she doesn’t want to remain a child in the kitchen with Berenice and John Henry, either.

The structure of the book plays into Frankie’s learning process. Part 1 deals with her in her depression; the weather is likewise oppressive. But at the very end, she learns of her brother’s wedding, and that catapults her into a better mood: she has a plan for escape.

The long hundred miles did not make her sadder and make her feel more far away than the knowing that they were them and both together and she was only her and parted from them, by herself. And as she sickened with this feeling a thought and explanation suddenly came to her, so that she knew and almost said aloud: They are the we of me. Yesterday, and all the twelve years of her life, she had only been Frankie. She was an I person who had to walk around and do things by herself. All other people had a we to claim, all other except her. When Berenice said we, she meant Honey and Big Mama, her lodge, or her church. The we of her father was the store. All members of clubs have a we to belong to and talk about. The soldiers in the army can say we, and even the criminals on chain-gangs. But the old Frankie had had no we to claim, unless it would be the terrible summer we of her and John Henry and Berenice—and that was the last we in the world she wanted. Now all this was suddenly over with and changed. There was her brother and the bride, and it was as though when first she saw them something she had known inside of her: They are the we of me. And that was why it made her feel so queer, for them to be away in Winter Hill while she was left all by herself; the hull of the old Frankie left there in the town alone.

In Part 2, she changes her name to F. Jasmine and visits the entire town telling anyone who’ll listen that her brother is taking her on his honeymoon. This is her attempt to be grown-up, but it’s clear she doesn’t understand what’s involved. Her flirtation with the soldier could have led to disaster, but turns out she’s pretty handy at defending herself. A piano tuner accents dinner with Berenice and John Henry. I wonder if there’s been a thesis on music, about sound in general, in the book, because it seemed quite pointed to me. But then there’s the incident with the soldier. Never mind, she’s going to the wedding.

The day before the wedding was not like any day that F. Jasmine had ever known. It was the Saturday she went into the town, and suddenly, after the closed blank summer, the town opened before her and in a new way she belonged. Because of the wedding, F. Jasmine felt connected with all she saw, and it was as a sudden member that on this Saturday she went around the town. She walked the streets and titled as a queen and mingled everywhere. It was the day when, from the beginning, the world seemed no longer separate from herself and when all at once she felt included.

Part 3 is brief. The events at the wedding are revealed in somewhat disjointed fashion, a brief narration, then a recollection in more depth. This almost cursory inclusion of what should be the climax of the story hints to me that it isn’t, in fact, the climax, that the story is not about the wedding at all. That would make the climax more about her realization, after the altercation with the soldier, that John Henry is a child and she no longer is: “It was impossible to understand his point of view. And he did not understand her either.”

The wedding, in Part 3, certainly has its moment:

She wanted to speak to her brother and the bride, to talk to them and tell them of her plans, the three of them alone together. But they were never once alone…. She stood in the corner of the bride’s room, wanting to say: I love the two of you so much and you are the we of me. Please take me with you from the wedding, for we belong to be together. Or even if she could have said: may I trouble you to step into the next room, as I have something to reveal to you and Jarvis? And to get the three of them in a room alone together and somehow manage to explain. If only she had written it down on the typewriter in advance, so that she could hand it to them and they would read! But this she had not thought to do, and her tongue was heavy in her mouth and dumb. She could only speak in a voice that shook a little-to ask where was the veil?

This inability to speak is a change from Part 2, where she was telling everyone what she believed would happen, and now, faced with the reality, she’s struck dumb. It’s only as the newlyweds are getting into their car to leave that she finds her voice – “Take me! Take me!” – but of course it was never going to happen. Having lost her opportunity to escape, Frankie makes an abortive attempt to run away from home, but ends up back where she does, in fact, belong.

And then we close with the following Fall, the weather cooler and more manageable. She’s met a friend, Mary, to belong with, a friend a couple of years older, but nonetheless more on her level as a child. The wedding plan is replaced by a new plan, to tour Europe when they’re sixteen and eighteen, and she now calls herself Frances. And we see several things have changed: Berenice’s son has been arrested, and John Henry has died. Frances doesn’t seem to dwell on these losses; she focuses on her brother’s post cards from exotic places (Luxemborg!) and on her future trip to Europe.

The book ends with an enigma.

Dark, when it came, which come on quickly, as it does in winter time. “I am simply mad about – “ but the sentence was left unfinished for the hush was shattered when, with an instant shock of happiness, she heard the ringing of the bell.

Again, it’s sound that brings her out of her introspection. But what she’s just mad about we never know.

I read something of McCullers’ life along with some commentary on the book. It was pretty tragic: a young marriage that failed then was resumed; relationships that seem to indicate heterosexuality was not her comfort zone; illness and an early death. She only wrote four books; Heart was her first, and established her as a literary talent. Wedding was her second. I have to wonder if the order had been reversed, if her career might have gone differently.

I was assigned this book in college, as part of an adolescent literature class; I’m not sure I ever read it, since it’s not familiar to me at all. Maybe it just bored me at the time. Last year’s read, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, had a lot more to offer. Or maybe it just seems that way; for such a short book, there’s a lot packed in. It’s one of those books that I can’t say I enjoyed, but I can say I appreciate. McCullers adapted the book for the stage, and it was later written as a movie. Structurally and in terms of scenes, that makes sense, but so much of the book is internal to Frankie, it must have been a challenge. Still, I can see why it would be popular: who hasn’t felt the need to belong, and who didn’t, at some point, fear growing up with its burdens.

Sharon K. Grosh: 𝘾𝙖𝙥𝙩𝙪𝙧𝙞𝙣𝙜 𝙩𝙝𝙚 𝘽𝙪𝙩𝙩𝙚𝙧𝙛𝙡𝙮 (Black Rose, 2021) [IBR2022]

Image card, left, by Sharon Grosh
I attended Romancing the Wild Soul, by Geneen Hogan and Bill Plotkin, in northern wilds of Scotland. It was there I experienced and tried emotive writing, words coming directly from the experience of being in nature. I filled journals over the years but always struggled with questions about what this means, did I communicate my meaning etc.
The throat chakra is between the mind and the heart and is the source of your voice. I tried to speak through Pink, Claudius and Mina using my sweetest, deepest heart and mind to tell the story. This is probably the source of my discomfort as it is sometimes hard to understand the meaning as it flows. I write without knowing, without an outline, but with a daily plan to write from 8-10 each morning. The characters flow from my heart/head to the keyboard. This leaves me with the challenge of making a story out of it.

Sharon K. Grosh, email interview

About a year ago, Sharon – a reader and occasional commenter on this blog – asked if I’d be interested in writing about the books she’d written: the first, Lazarus Rising, an apocalyptic novel inspired by John Hersey’s Hiroshima, or the second, Capturing the Butterfly, bringing together three characters from different times. The second worked out best at this time; I’ve been feeling caught in an extended apocalypse for a while now, so I didn’t particularly want to read about one. Sharon offered me a free copy of the book, but I declined and purchased it myself, as I have with other acquaintances whose books I’ve written about.

The book opens in a cave with a pink bear whose hibernation is disturbed by the arrival of a young woman named Mina. She comes with a translating device which enables her to communicate with Pink, and explains she was, one minute, at her home in Hiroshima, preparing for the birth of her baby, and then was suddenly somehow transferred to another body, five years later. The transfer coincided with a strange event that most of us will recognize from history:

“That morning, I set the water to boil for tea and sat down to watch the wisteria branches flow in the wind. I rose out of my chair to bend down and pick up a few leaves that fell in the garden path. The red feather-like leaves seemed strange. My maple had a beautiful, delicate leaf shape that suddenly turned yellow on the underside and then white in my hands. This strange light grew across the whole garden that surrounded me. Then everything turned white, the fence, the house, blasting away all color, everywhere.
“I looked up at the perfect tomato bushes, pruned into uniform oblong bubbles, which now appeared like an array of round ice globes. Strangely, at that moment, I remembered the owner of the garden and wondered if he would blame us for the whitening of the trees and shrubs. The whole garden began dissolving before my eyes, breaking apart into separate points of light and then vanishing.
My last thought was fear. I heard voices screaming; from my husband, my mother-in-law, my neighbor? Water from the teapot sprayed across the room. This is the last point of memory I had of my life and my former body.”

Pink is concerned about the human intrusion, having been told by his mother to avoid people as they are dangerous, but he doesn’t see Mina as a threat.  He’s unable to use the translating device at first, but he eventually figures out what words are and gets the hang of it. It’s the Winter Solstice, an important break in his hibernation, and he struggles to learn how words work, how to use the translating device, to communicate this to Mina before continuing his sleep:

Mother established a pattern to observe this day. This day turned everything over. My heart was just a little lighter, and it lifted my spirits. Everything around me, trees and small animals and raptors, all took note. This was the day the earth turned toward the light. The change was small, the feeling was barely noticed, but it was an important moment. The turn toward the sun was slow, but the hope for spring was there….
This was Mother’s Winter Solstice ritual. Most animals do not participate formally, but we were lucky as Mother presented us with this treat, in our first year. I added small things to the ritual after Mother disappeared. I’ve continued this ritual in hope I could connect with Lily, after she left me behind, following a large male bear. What is she doing right now? Does she continue this tradition?
I reached for the translator box. The following thought, passed on to me by mother, had to be translated to words for Mina to understand. Finally, I spoke these words.

Long nights of winter

Getting shorter

Find your wild dreams

No fear

Peace and courage

Stay wild.

When the hibernation is over, Mina tells Pink more about her strange transformation. They then discover another person near the cave. Claudius has an even stranger story: he’s very old, and claims to have caused, by his actions, the deaths of millions.

“I learned from a wise man, one whom you know, Mina. He said humans have two choices in life. One is to follow what the brain says. For example, does your brain tell you when to get married and who to marry? Do you marry someone for money with a high status in the village? The second choice is to follow your heart and instead of leaning on security to make your decision, you marry for love. Do you listen to your heart on the way to work? Do you walk the same way to work every day or do you change your route, a small meaningless decision that you make? Do you take the longer path, the scenic route, and do you get to your appointments on time even if your heart yearns to slow down a little? Do you make a meal for your family from the heart or do you make a meal on time? Following your heart is the simple key to the universal law for humanity.” He looked at me and added, “The animal kingdom as well, Pink. The animal kingdom does not always live making big decisions, but with many small ones. Instead of thinking with your brain, you can think with your heart, which is following its knowledge, which guides you through a different pathway through life. Heart-love is connecting to the greater good and will create wealth and success, more than any plan conceived by the brain. The brain is over-rated.”

From there, the book sorts out who these people are, and how they might change the present via the past. The title thus refers to the Chaos Effect, where a small change in the past – a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world – might have a big effect on the future. Mina and Claudius are part of the effort of a future time traveler to repair one rift in the history of the world; the story follows their efforts to do this.

I asked Sharon if I might include an email interview her about the book, since it was outside of my comfort zone and I wasn’t sure I was reading it properly. Her responses were comforting, in that I seem to have picked up on a few of the major issues, and they revealed her writing process and intent more fully:

1) KC: What inspired the story? You’ve told me your first book, Lazarus Rising, was inspired by John Hersey’s Hiroshima and followed the format. In Butterfly, you also have a character from Hiroshima, and follow several characters, though in a different way. Is this another inspiration, or is it more about the way you considered the book from the outset?

SKG: Pink, the character and the original name of the book, started at a retreat where we selected a clump of colored clay laying on a table, sat down and closed our eyes while moving the clay around in our hands. I moved my hands laterally, as multiple inner plates shifted between my palms. I looked down at the pink piece of clay I was moving and I saw a pink bear. I added a sea shell for his ears. Yes, an unusual way to start a story but it worked me. At some point I read David Abram and wrote a short story from the point of view of a young deer. There must not be many stories from that POV as everyone that read it said it was a Bambi moment for them. But that story helped me exercise my animal chops.

2) Who do you see as the audience for this book?

The audience is difficult. It’s also such a small book and I would be surprised anyone would pay $19 for it. Here are the genres that I provided the publisher.
BISAC code one – FIC009000 FICTION / Fantasy / General
BISAC code two – FIC061000 FICTION / Magical Realism
BISAC code three – FIC010000 FICTION / Fairy Tales, Folk Tales, Legends & Mythology

3) What kind of research did you do about the Butterfly effect and Chaos theory? At what point did you introduce the devices, the translator and orb? Were they something you knew you’d need from the start, or did it become evident as you wrote that you’d need them?

The research was very exciting. I delved into Hitler’s family tree, finding out that Klara was a servant in the household, became pregnant and then married. I did some calculations of when they were married and how old her first son was etc.
At least in my research, I did not see any mention of childhood bullying and an abusive father to explain Hitler’s personality. So I made that up. Me bad.
As with Lazarus, I don’t want to geek out into SciFi as much as I was to use it to enhance the character and solve problems. That’s a big admission but I’m sure I’m not the first story teller to do that. The blue Orb first appeared at Dr. N’s retreat center. I did try other approaches to time travel but the Blue Orb stuck.

4) I notice that the reader doesn’t find out if Claudius’ ultimate mission was successful or not, since we go back to Pink. This seems highly significant to me: nature doesn’t take notice of geography or war but just keeps living either way – though of course we know at this point that isn’t true, that politics alters nature dramatically as we’re about to find out. This indicated an ecological theme on top of changing the past: did you intend that?

In my heart, the story started with the protection of nature. I had to find a time when woods and forests were not touched by large numbers of humans. That was before snowmobiles! Regarding Claudius’ story, he went back in time and changed the nature of the parks in the US, and preserved Pink’s area, saving his mother. I wish I had added his final story, as you mentioned. I think my overall discomfort with the story is I had a deadline, which is always good but I might have wrapped it up too early.
If WWII did not happen, the population would have more smart people, population explosion would have been addressed earlier and hopefully a better awareness to save the planet. Isn’t writing fun?

5) Do you have a new writing project in mind?

Three of us designed the cover, my niece, an amazing graphic artist and myself. We had such a good time and they being seasoned advertising professionals, got it done on time with everyone giving input. I would like to get them back together and do this book or a newly created one for 5–8-year-olds. This project needs work from me e.g. storyboard 23 pages.
My next writing piece will be a collection of short stories with intention, brevity and a way to connect each story to the whole. I love short story titles and keep a running list. If you are person that says, “that sounds like a good name for a band,” that is me with short story titles.

6a) Is there anything you wish someone would ask you about the book, the process of writing it, or about you as an author?

Would you rather do read or write?
What is your favorite passage from the book?

6b) Lol, ok, so I’ll ask: Would you rather do read or write? And, What is your favorite passage from the book?

My favorite lines: Morning light held a magical atmosphere, created by drifts of snow enclosing the cave in stillness. The quiet was complemented by sunlight filtering through each crystal of ice, caked across the entrance. The curtain of light sparkled as it bounced against the cave wall. When I see light play against the cave walls, I want to stay motionless just to watch.
My smartass answer is, “Writing versus reading is like preferring to read War and Peace over watching Netflix.” I have thought about how I came to writing. I read a lot and wanted to be a writer and told my father. I guess I was asking him where do I start as he told me to start describing something in the room, like an apple. That sounded pretty dull so I did not do that. I wrote my first story and the teacher was so aghast she asked me to change it as it was too dark. I had a Steven King theme going. Therefore, I never started to write other than for school, college and work related things.
Now I think of myself as a reader’s writer, drawing on decades of reading.

I like to get outside of my comfort zone a couple of times a year, and this fit the bill. And it’s always good to support new writers. I’m so impressed (and more than a little envious) when someone I know writes a book. Or, in Sharon’s case, two books. Why can’t I do that? I don’t know, but I haven’t been able to.

Asking Alice: Down the Rabbit Hole, guided by Martin Gardner and Robin Wilson [IBR2022]

The last level of metaphor in the Alice books is this: that life, viewed rationally and without illusion, appears to be a nonsense tale told by an idiot mathematician. At the heart of things science finds only a mad, never-ending quadrille of Mock Turtle Waves and Gryphon Particles. For a moment the waves and particles dance in grotesque, in conceivably complex patterns capable of reflecting on their own absurdity. We all live slapstick lives, under an inexplicable sentence of death, and when we try to find out what the Castle authorities want us to do, we are shifted from one bumbling bureaucrat to another. We are not even sure that Count West-West, the owner of the Castle, really exists. More than one critic has commented on the similarities between Kafka’s Trial and the trial of the Jack of Hearts: between Kafka’s Castle and a chess game in which living pieces are ignorant of the game’s plan and cannot tell if they move of their own wills or are being pushed by invisible fingers.
The vision of monstrous mindlessness of the cosmos (“Off with its head!”) can be grim and disturbing, as it is in Kafka and the Book of Job, or light-hearted comedy, as in Alice or Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday…. it is a vision that can lead to despair and suicide, to the laughter that closes Jean Paul Sarte’s story “The Wall,” to the humanist’s resolve to carry on bravely in the face of ultimate darkness. Curiously, it can also suggest the wild hypothesis that there may be a light behind the darkness.

Martin Gardner, Introduction, The Annotated Alice

Last Fall, before I’d even finished my 2021 In Between Reading stretch, I became acutely aware I’d never read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland thanks to a @FiveBooks post about Illustrated Philosophy Books. Their entry  The Annotated Alice was annotated by none other than Martin Gardner, who I’ve heard adoring math professors refer to as the Father of Recreational Mathematics for years. It occurred to me it would make an interesting project for this year. I figured I would be able to better understand all the mathematical and logical subtleties I’d seen referred to in Alice mentions over the years, but had never really knuckled down to understand. And thought “recreational mathematics” seems like an oxymoron to me, I’m always looking for ways to make friends with math. I put it on my list.

Which, alas, is a very long list, and it might have just stayed there had I not seen another @FiveBooks category, the History of Mathematics, a couple of months later. Through that article I discovered the archivist, Robin Wilson, had written Lewis Carroll in Numberland, described as a mathematical biography of the author. That brought to mind Alice waiting on my list, and so I ordered them both as a project read for this year.

To my surprise, Gardner’s annotations focus more on historical and biographical details, the differences between the published work and the original hand-written and illustrated manuscript (titled Alice’s Adventures Underground) and the 1886 stage play, and commentary about the original illustrations (included) by John Tenniel. There are some comments about the science, math, and logic, but they’re not as numerous, nor as explanatory, as I’d expected.

I should add that I got the 1960 edition of the book. A “Definitive Edition” was published in 1999, updated to include more material. I wasn’t clear on this at the time I ordered it; I probably should get the newer version, and take note of additions and changes.

Wilson’s book, as the full title Lewis Carroll in Numberland: His Fantastical Mathematical Life might suggest, focuses far more on Dodgson’s mathematical publications and notes, tying them in to his children’s books and published articles when applicable. He includes a great many puzzles that appeared under Carroll’s and Dodgson’s name, as well as articles and portions of books on logic. I found his use of graphical solutions to syllogisms and logic problems particularly interesting; I would, I like pictures. Others might be interested in his method of finding the day of the week for any date, or his discourse on voting methods, a very popular contemporary topic. Additionally, he includes excerpts from “Hiawatha’s Photographing,” a parody of Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha,” and his dramatized defense of Euclid’s Elements as the standard text of geometry. He also includes a royal anecdote (and denial):

A well-known story relates how Queen Victoria was so utterly charmed by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that she demanded:

Send me the next book Mr. Carroll produces –

The next book duly arrived; It was entitled An Elementary Treatise On Determinants. Queen Victoria was not amused.
Dodgson firmly denied this story thirty years later in the second edition of his Symbolic Logic:

I take this opportunity of giving what publicity I can to my contradiction of a silly story, which has been going the rounds of the papers, about my having presented certain books to Her Majesty the queen. It is so constantly repeated, and is such absolute fiction, that I think it is worthwhile to state, once and for all, that it is utterly false in every particular; nothing even resembling it has ever occurred.

No British newspaper reports have been found that support Dodgson’s account, so perhaps it was true after all…

Robin Wilson, Lewis Carroll in Numberland

This sounds like a rather Wonderland passage itself: a fun occurrence, a denial, and the lack of evidence that something never happened as evidence that it did.

Some of my favorite takeaways from these two books:

FREEFALL: In the first chapter of AAIW, Alice falls down the famous rabbit hole, grabbing a jar of orange marmalade along the way then fears to drop it lest it hurt someone beneath her, and puts it back on a passing shelf. She wonders, as her fall continues, if she might fall all the way through the earth. Gardiner devotes significant space to this event, noting Dodgson’s familiarity with free fall and, in the later Sylvie and Bruno, sees an anticipation of Einstein’s elevator explanation of gravity and acceleration. The fall itself – “In Carroll’s day there was considerable popular speculation about what would happen if one fell through a hole that went straight through the center of the earth” –  recapitulated in Sylvie, also gets due attention as an investigation over history from Plutarch to the twentieth century. This also features in Wilson’s Scene 8 in the initial section of his book.

KNOTS: In Chapter 3 of AAIW, involving, among other things, a figurative poem resembling a long mouse’s tail, Alice responds to the mouse’s assertion “I had not!” with “A knot!’ said Alice, ready to make herself useful, and looking anxiously about her. ‘Oh, do let me help undo it!’” Knots became a series of mathematical puzzles Carroll included in his puzzle column for the magazine The Monthly Packet, and collected all ten in his puzzle book A Tangled Tale.

Gardner mentions this, but Wilson expands on it, including that it was dedicated to, not Alice Liddell (the real-life Alice) but to Edith Rix, another girl with whom he had a mathematical correspondence; she went on to study mathematics at Cambridge and, additional poking around uncovers, worked as a computer (in the pre-data-processing sense) at Greenwich Observatory. He prints one of the Knots in full and summarizes the rest. They are something like contemporary word puzzles, expanded to make them little stories. This was only one example of Dodgson’s fascination with puzzles and his effort to extend challenges to those who dared. I wonder if Dodgson/Carroll could have been considered a predecessor to Gardner in the field of Recreational Mathematics.

DUCHESS AND CHESHIRE CAT:  I found Gardner’s notes on Chapter 6 of AAIW to be a lot of fun, though they tend to go far afield:  “Ugly Duchess” by Quintin Matsys as the basis for Tenniel’s illustration of the Duchess; the historical authenticity but uncertain origin of the common expression “grin like a Cheshire cat” in Dodgson’s day; Dodgson’s invention of the Wonderland Postage Stamp Case; and the origin of the name of the flower “foxglove” (Carroll’s explanation in The Nursery ‘Alice’ appears to be folk etymology rather than the real thing).

More substantial are the considerations of The Cheshire Cat, who tells Alice, “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad” and offers her presence as proof. Gardner quotes an entry from Dodgson’s diary:

Query: when we are dreaming and, as often happens, have a dim consciousness of that fact and try to wake, do we not say and do things which in waking life would be insane? May we not then sometimes define insanity as an inability to distinguish which is the waking and which is the sleeping life?”

Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson, Diary, 2/9/1856 entry

Several years ago, I had a therapeutic misadventure (beware of overdoing the NSAIDS when you’re on blood pressure medications; depleted potassium has bizarre effects) which resulted in hospitalization and delirium. I would have brief dreams, then think they had actually happened. I kept worrying about the game I was in, the arts and theater troupe that visited that morning and invited me to a block party, my trip to South America where corn burst into butterflies. I was definitely quite mad, all from taking dreams as reality.

Gardner quotes Plato’s Theaetetus, which also considers how one can determine if one is in a dream, or reality: “How can you determine whether at this moment we are sleeping, and all our thoughts are a dream; Or whether we are awake, and talking to one another in the waking stage?” I thought also of Zhuangzi:

Once upon a time, I, Zhuangzi, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Zhuangzi. Soon I awakened, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things.

Zhuangzi

Gardner closes the chapter with his observation:

The phrase “a grin without the cat” is not a bad description of pure mathematics.” although mathematical theorems often can be usefully applied to the structure of the external world, the theorems themselves are abstractions that belong in another realm….

Martin Gardner, Chapter VI, The Annotated Alice

I’ve heard some highly qualified mathematicians discuss the nature of mathematics to understand the general thrust of this: what, after all, is two, if not embodied in two of something? I’m way out of my pay grade here, but it’s still fun to consider.

MAD HATTER: Gardner suggests that Carroll urged Tenniel to use one Theophilus Carter as a model for the Mad Hatter. Why? The man was known as the Mad Hatter (a common term following from the problems hat makers experienced, later discovered to be from the mercury used in hatmaking) because he not only wore a hat, but was a bit of a nut: by trade a furniture dealer, he supposedly invented the alarm-clock bed, which would throw one out of it at a set time (this is not well-documented in reality; there was such a bed in the Great Exhibition of 1851, but Carter’s name is not in the existing records). Gardner also tells us the Mad Hatter was not in the original handwritten manuscript, but was added later.

TORTOISE:  In Chapter 9, Alice asks the Mock Turtle why he called his teacher a tortoise when he wasn’t one. “We called him tortoise because he taught us,” he replies. Gardner mentions this pun is incorporated into Carroll’s  article, “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles,” a logico-geometric sequel to his previous logical resolution of Zeno’s Paradox. Wilson expands on this, reprinting the article, which ends with an even more devastating pun:

…Achilles was still seated on the back of the much-enduring Tortoise, and was writing in his note-book, which appeared to be nearly full. The Tortoise was saying, “Have you got that last step written down? Unless I’ve lost count, that makes a thousand and one. There are several millions more to come. And would you mind, as a personal favour, considering what a lot of instruction this colloquy of ours will provide for the Logicians of the Nineteenth Century—would you mind adopting a pun that my cousin the Mock-Turtle will then make, and allowing yourself to be re-named Taught-Us?”
“As you please!” replied the weary warrior, in the hollow tones of despair, as he buried his face in his hands. “Provided that you, for your/em> part, will adopt a pun the Mock-Turtle never made, and allow yourself to be re-named A Kill-Ease!”

Lewis Carroll, “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles” from Mind, April 1895.

When it comes to Through the Looking Glass, Gardner praises the chess moves for their authenticity:

Considering the staggering difficulties involved in dovetailing a chess game with an amusing nonsense fantasy, Carol does a remarkable job. At no time, for example, does Alice exchange words with a piece that is not then on a square alongside her own. Queens bustle about doing things while their husbands remain relatively fixed and impotent, just as in actual chess games. The White Knight’s eccentricities fit admirably the eccentric way in which Knights move; even the tendency of Knights to fall off their horses, on one side or the other, suggests the Knight’s move, which is two squares in one direction followed by one square to the right or left.

Martin Gardner, The Annotated Alice

And, of course, there’s a complete exegesis of Jabbewocky. But, having read many such explanations, I found other comments of more interest.

TIGER-LILY: The Tiger Lily was to be a Passion Flower, but Dodgson, who’d originally started studies for the priesthood and was devoutly religious, discovered the name of the flower echoed the Passion of Christ, not mundane earthly passions; he substituted the Tiger Lily to avoid sacrilege.

TWEEDLEDEE AND -DUM: From my participation in recent biochemistry moocs, I’ve become somewhat acquainted with the concept of enantiomers, molecules that differ only in that their structures are mirror images that cannot be superimposed; think gloves. This is a concept taken from the broader geometric concept of enantiomorphs, and Carroll embodied it in Tweedledee and Tweedledum:

Tweedledum and Tweedledee are what geometers call and enantiomorphs, mirror image forms of each other. That Carroll intended this is strongly suggested by Tweedledee’s favorite word, “contrariwise,” and by the fact that they extend right and left hands for a handshake. Tenniel’s picture of the two enantiomorphs arrayed for battle, standing in identical postures, indicates that he looked upon the twins in the same way.

Martin Gardner, The Annotated Alice

I have to admit I found the Alice books themselves a bit disappointing. Why? Because it seems all the best parts have been quoted so often they’re practically part of everyday life. As a result, what was left was mostly  transition material. I’m not particularly interested in chess, so that entire content of Through the Looking Glass  didn’t intrigue me the way it should, and I’ve frequently admitted my inability to math, which made the few truly mathematical parts difficult to read. Yet I consider it time well spent. If nothing else, I’ve finally discovered that TTLG is a separate book from AAIW, a sequel; I’d never been sure if it was a chapter, a subtitle, or some other thing.

Is it ok that I admit to having “Remember what the dormouse said: Feed your head!” buzzing in my mind the entire time I was working on these books?

I was also a bit horrified right off the bat by a section of Gardner’s Introduction:

Carroll’s principal hobby – the hobby that aroused his greatest joys – was entertaining little girls. “I am fond of children (except boys),” he once wrote….. He thought the naked bodies of little girls (unlike the bodies of boys) extremely beautiful. Upon occasion he sketched or photographed them in the nude, with the mother’s permission, of course. “If I had the loveliest child in the world, to draw or photograph,” he wrote, “and found she had a modest shrinking (however slight, and however easily overcome) from being taken nude, I should feel it was a solemn duty owed to God to drop the request altogether.” Lest these undraped pictures later embarrass the girls, he requested that after his death they be destroyed or returned to the children or their parents. None seems to have survived.
….He became adept at meeting little girls in railway carriages and on public beaches. A black bag that he always took with him on these seaside trips contained wire puzzles and other unusual gifts to stimulate their interest. He even carried a supply of safety pins for pinning up the skirts of little girls when they wished to wade in the surf.

Martin Gardner, Introduction, The Annotated Alice

This book was published in 1959; it’s quite possible this didn’t sound as horrifying back then, before the Oprahfication of child abuse turned attention from scary guys in trench coats to the friendly guy who’s fun to hang out with. And Gardner goes on to clarify he isn’t indicating anything amiss:

There is no indication that Carol was conscious of anything but the purest innocence in his relations with little girls, nor is there a hint of impropriety in any of the fond recollections that dozens of them later wrote about him.

Martin Gardner, Introduction, The Annotated Alice

Gardiner also includes that the children he spent time with have had uniformly positive things to say about him, and cherished his friendship. One of his favorite child friends was Alice Liddell, daughter of the dean of Christ Church, Oxford, where Carroll worked; she was, of course, the model for the literary character, as well as the child he originally made up the stories for. As for Wilson, he dismisses out of hand any dark speculation, calling it nonsense.

So what are we to make of Dodgson/Carroll’s life work as a mathematician and teacher? Gardner’s opinion – as a mathematician – is fairly clear: “[H]is lectures were humorless and boring…. His books on logic and mathematics are written quaintly, with many amusing problems, but their level is elementary and they are seldom read today.” Wilson claims, “if Dodgson had not written the Alice books, he would be remembered mainly as a pioneering photographer, one of the first to consider photography as an art rather than as simply a means of recording images.” But it is as the author of the two Alice books he has become a fixture in our collective consciousness.

As for me, I have no doubt that, if Dodgson/Carroll lived in this era rather than the 19th century, he would have been a YouTube sensation, perhaps rivalling Vi Hart in her heyday, or giving  Matt Parker and Grant Sanderson a run for their money.

At the end of his book, Wilson includes mention of the Lewis Carroll Window at the Daresbury Church in Cheshire, completed in 1935: a stained-glass representation of the Nativity, with Carroll and Alice in reverent attendance, and with scenes from the book included below. “In memory of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), author of ‘Alice in Wonderland.’” That might be the concise summation of his life right there.

ZZ Packer: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (Riverhead 2003) [IBR2022]

One must care deeply about what we write or else we won’t see deeply enough to make others care and see.
Still, caring and seeing are not enough. Words and sentences must somehow translate, somehow mediate, our thoughts and feelings into characters and events. Only for the characters to turn around and have to relay themselves to others through words. We writers may see, observe, care and feel, but language is the medium by which that all comes across. Language is the transom of thought and feeling.

ZZ Packer, Interview at Writer’s Digest

One of the things I use this in-between reading period for is to catch up on books I keep reading about, seeing referenced when writers talk about books, but haven’t read yet. This was my year to find ZZ Packer – who, for an embarrassingly long time, I thought was a white male bro-lit writer. When I get it wrong, I really get it wrong. Instead, she’s a black woman who writes stories about black women (mostly) who are uncomfortable where they are. Some manage to find ways to change that; others don’t. But it’s the looking that is the story.

The title story follows a young black woman, Dina, as she starts college at Yale. The opening scene shows us “orientation games;” if this is how they orient you to Yale, I’m so glad I went to a state commuter school where they mailed you a schedule and a map and you were on your own. Dina isn’t about to play Trust, leaning back to the white boys waiting to catch her. Other inanity follows, until we reach the high point:

When it was my turn I said, “My name is Dina, and if I had to be any object, I guess I’d be a revolver.” The sunlight dulled as if on cue. Clouds passed rapidly overhead, presaging rain. I don’t know why I said it. Until that moment I’d been good in all the ways that were meant to matter. I was an honor roll student – though I’d learned long ago not to mention it in the part of Baltimore where I lived. Suddenly I was hard-bitten and recalcitrant, the kind of kid who took pleasure in sticking pins into cats; the kind who chased down smart kids to spray them with Mace.

This is, we gather, an effort to create a persona she can retreat into, and it works: she’s rewarded with a “suicide single,” a room to herself, but it comes with mandatory counselling. She manages to keep the RAs away by sitting naked in her room, but she hadn’t planned on Heidi, aka Henrik, who sits outside her door and cries and recites Frank O’Hara’s “Autobiographica Literaria” as if it’s her own babbling. Dina is drawn to Heidi in spite of herself, beginning with that poem, one she loves presumably because it echoes her own misfit status, a status that she deliberately maintains rather than trying to connect. But Heidi somehow sneaks in under the radar.

The story details their year: they read outside the coursework, work shifts together in the cafeteria, have sleepovers. Some of these moments venture to the edge of sexual attraction, but never quite get there. Dina makes up stories for her counsellor about an encounter with a boy when she was younger; her overwhelming emotion at the time was anxiety and awkwardness, but she recites it differently.

The shrink seems to see beyond the words she’s saying. When the relationship with Heidi becomes too painful for Dina to continue for a couple of reasons, he tells her how she’s “constructing stories” about herself for others to consume, rather than being genuine:

“Oh, just that constantly saying what one doesn’t mean accustoms the mouth to meaningless phrases.” His eyes narrowed. “Maybe you’ll understand that when you finally need to express something truly significant your mouth will revert to the insignificant nonsense it knows so well.” He looked at me, his hands sputtering in the air in a gesture of defeat. “Who knows?” he asked with a glib, psychiatric smile I’d never seen before. “Maybe it’s your survival mechanism. Black living in a white world.”
I heard him, but only vaguely. I’d hooked onto that one word, pretending. Dr. Raeburn would never realize that “pretending” was what had got me this far. I remembered the morning of my mother’s funeral. I’d been given milk to settle my stomach; I’d pretended it was coffee. I imagined I was drinking coffee elsewhere. Some Arabic-speaking country where thick coffee served in little cups was so strong it could keep you awake for days

But how far is “this far?” From Baltimore to Yale, yes, that could be a triumph, but she’s not doing well academically, and she’s cut herself off from her only friend at this point. The shrink seems to function partly as an explainer to the reader, if a flawed one; this strikes me as a bit heavy-handed, as if we’re going to miss what’s happening if he isn’t there to tell us. But he also functions as a clarion call to Dina, one she, alas, ignores.

O’Hara’s poem ends with an ironic twist on hope for a better future – “And here I am, the / center of all beauty! / writing these poems! / Imagine!” – seeing himself still alone, but at least productive. The story ends with Dina, alone in Baltimore again, imagining a future for herself where Heidi again returns and forces her way into her life, taking O’Hara one step further, to a future without irony, without loneliness.

I’d be visiting her in some vague time in the future, deliberately vague, for people like me, who realign past events to suit themselves. In that future time, you always have a chance to catch the groceries before they fall; your words can always be rewound and erased, rewritten and revised.
Then I’d imagine Heidi visiting me. There are no psychiatrists or deans, no boys with nice shoes or flip cashiers. Just me and my single room. She knocks on the door and says, “open up.”

Imagine!

The first story, “Brownies,” was just as captivating (Packer reads this story online via a 2009 Berkeley reading). A Brownie troop of black girls watches another troop of white girls arrive at a campsite:

By our second day at Camp Crescendo, the girls in my Brownie troop had decided to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909. Troop 909 was doomed from the first day of camp; they were white girls, their complexions of blend of ice cream: strawberry, vanilla. They turtled out from their bus in pairs, their rolled up sleeping bags chromatized with Disney characters: Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Mickey Mouse; or the generic ones cheap parents bought: washed out rainbows, unicorns, curly-eyelashed frogs. Some clutched Igloo coolers and still others held on to stuffed toys like pacifiers, looking all around them like tourists determined to be dazzled.

Our point of view character is Laurel (nicknamed Snot from an unfortunate sneeze back in first grade; this is Mean Girls, The Early Years). She’s thoughtful and mostly quiet, giving herself time to consider how the ass-kicking could turn out.

The confrontation occurs between the black Mean Girls and the white Troop 909, but it doesn’t go as planned when it becomes evident the Troop 909 Brownies are delayed learners. “WE’RE NOT RETARDED” insists one, and their troop leader echoes that. To their credit, the girls back off – there are lines even Mean Girls won’t cross – but still insist one of the 909s used a racial slur. “That one,” she points. Impossible, says the troop leader. “She doesn’t speak. She can, but she doesn’t.” The confused definitions don’t help the situation.

A somewhat heavy-handed analysis closes the story, underlining how being dumped on all your life makes you look for someone else to dump on. But there are other details that deepen the story and bring it in, make the universal more personal and the personal universal.

For one thing, it’s very funny. The Mean Girls delightedly refer to the 909 girls as smelling like wet chihuahuas. You can guess where they got that from. Hey, I said it was funny, I didn’t say it wasn’t also painful. The troop leaders are clueless: one loves Brownie songs, so they sing her a few, plus a donut song about the hole in your soul without Jesus, to cheer her up. Then there are the sarcastic asides about the entire expedition: one girl says, “I mean, I really don’t know why it’s even called camping – all we ever do with nature is find some twigs and say something like, ‘Wow, this fell from a tree.’” That sounds a lot like my camping experiences.

Then there are the parallels between the two troops. In both, there’s a leader, and a quiet girl, and the quiet girl turns out to be key, in different ways. The 909 quiet girl couldn’t have said the slur because she doesn’t talk; the Mean Girls quiet girl, Daphne, isn’t mean at all – she won’t even join the group as they head to the bathroom to kick white ass – and is someone Laurel would like to be friends with maybe, because she wrote an evocative poem about her father and her family is a lot poorer than the rest of them.

It’s the interaction between Daphne and Laurel that gets a close-up lens. In Fiction Writer’s Review, Michael Byers has a marvelous interpretation of the two as writers: when Daphne passes Laurel her empty journal, it’s an invitation to write her story, as Daphne hasn’t been able to begin hers. The writing connection hadn’t occurred to me, but the passing of the journal seemed like a way of Daphne telling Laurel, don’t be silent like me. It also links this story to the title story, where Dina mentally writes herself as a character and rewrites her past to suit her present needs.

“The Ant of the Self” is the only story with a male protagonist, teenage honor student Spurgeon. He bails his father out of jail, and ends up in a cross-country trip aimed at selling macaws at the Million Man March in DC. “You’re gonna have Afrocentric folks there,” reasons his father, and they’ll want birds to remind them of Africa.

One of the speeches at the March draws from a pamphlet by a white Jamaican slaveholder, William Lynch, which advises ways to break men into slaves by dividing them against each other. This makes the divisions in the story – father and son, Afrocentric and my-dad-made-me-come, town and gown, rich and poor, divorced parents – more electric. By the way, the pamphlet referenced is now regarded as a modern fake, which just adds to the pathos.  

Things go downhill from there, and Spurgeon ends up in a bus station, no car, no money, no way of getting home until a stranger gives him $20. The stranger is carrying his little boy on his shoulders, and Spurgeon initially considers him a terrible father for dragging the kid out in the hot sun all day then not getting him into bed at a reasonable hour, reflecting his own parental disappointment. But then the man asks the ticket agent to say, “All Aboard!” to give his kid a thrill, and boy, does the sun break through in the darkest night:

The father sets the boy down, feet first, onto the ground. An intercom crackles and a voice says:
“All aboard!”
The voice is hearty and successful. The boy jumps up and down with delight. He is the happiest I’ve seen anyone, ever. And though the urge to weep comes over me, I wait – holding my head in my hands – and it passes.

Yeah. Me, too.

All of the characters in these eight stories are having trouble fitting in where they expect to fit in, be it school, church, or family. Sometimes it’s race, though it’s usually more about their embodiment or interpretation of race; sometimes it’s about gender or sexuality. And sometimes they’re just fish out of water. Some of them try to find ways to fit in, as Laurel does by connecting with Daphne; others revel in their oddness, as does Dina. In “Every Tongue Shall Confess,” it’s abuse by a church elder that complicates Clareese’s comfort in her own congregation. In “Our Lady of Peace,” Lynnea goes from Kentucky to a teacher training program in Baltimore to fit in, to no avail.

In her Ploughshares blog article, Franny Zhang points out how often travel is part of these stories. Not only does Spurgeon end up driving all over on behalf of his father before having to find his own way home, and does Lynnea go looking for something better than Kentucky, but other characters use physical travel as a way of escape or search. In “Geese,” Dina (who may or may not be the same Dina from “Coffee”) goes to Japan only to find herself just as isolated. In “Speaking in Tongues,” teenage Tia, feeling estranged from her church group and unhappy with her guardian, hops a bus for Atlanta to find her mother; instead, she finds a potential world of trouble, but heads home before it actualizes.

Packer was one of James Alan McPherson’s students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; I’ve run into several in my reading over the past few years. Her collection recollected his Elbow Room a bit, not in theme or style but in the presentation of black lives, in her case primarily women, and the invitation to consider how life looks from different points of view. She seems to have shifted to nonfiction in recent years, which may be why it took me so long to get to her. Better late than never – at least, to some degree.

Rian Malan: The Lion Sleeps Tonight and Other Stories of Africa (Grove, 2012) [IBR2022]

In South Africa, it’s like a law of nature: there’s no such thing as a true story here. The facts may be correct, but the truth they embody is always a lie to someone else. Every inch of our soil is contested, every word in our histories likewise; our languages are mutually incomprehensible, our philosophies irreconcilable. My truths strike some South African writers as counterrevolutionary ravings. Theirs strike me as distortions calculated to appeal to gormless liberals in the outside world. Many South Africans can’t read any of us, so their truth is something else entirely. Atop all this, we live in a country where mutually annihilating truths coexist entirely amicably. We are a light unto nations. We are an abject failure. We are progressing even as we hurtle backward. The blessing of living here is that every day presents you with material whose richness beggars the imagination of those who live in saner places. The curse is that you can never get it quite right, and if you come close, the results are often unpublishable.

Rian Malan, Foreword (2012)

I got this book for the title story. I didn’t do so well with the rest. I’m one of the gormless liberals in the outside world who annoy Malan because we watched Invictus with tears in our eyes and don’t want to hear a word against Mandela. He’s probably got a point: I have enough trouble figuring out USAian sociopolitics without figuring out South Africa’s conflicts, so we cling to a hero for dear life. But music, ah, music, yeah, that’s something I want to know about. Until the lawyers get into it, at which point I put my head down and cry.

“The Lion Sleeps Tonight” brings to mind Helen DeWitt’s conflict between art and commerce, sandwiched between layers of legally institutionalized racism.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, a Zulu man stepped up to a microphone and improvised a melody that earned in the region of $15 million. That Solomon Linda got almost none of it was probably inevitable. He was a black man in white-ruled South Africa, but his American peers fared little better…. All musicians were minnows in the pop-music food chain, but blacks were most vulnerable, and Solomon Linda, an illiterate migrant from a wild and backward place, was totally defenseless against sophisticated predators. Which is not to say that he was cheated. On the contrary, all the deals were perfectly legal. No one forced Linda to sell “Mbube” to Eric Gallo for 10 shillings, at if Gallo turned around and traded it at a profit, So what?

Have you heard the one about Solomon Linda? In 1939 Apartheid South Africa, he and his band, The Evening Birds, recorded a song he called “Mbube,” which means lion. And of course it’s on Youtube today, as is everything. It’s mostly an a capella chant with Linda’s falsetto wail above, but at 2:24, almost the end, he comes out with a series of notes that we recognize as the melody beneath familiar words: “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.…” He was paid about ten shillings and signed over his rights to the Gallo publishing company; chances are it was just like that back then, who knows what he was told. The song did quite well in southern African countries, selling 100,000 copies over the next ten years. Linda kept working as a packer in a factory.

In 1948, Pete Seeger was trying to get a folk-singing career going in the US when ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax showed up with a bunch of records of world music, among them, “Mbube.” Seeger liked that. He had no idea what the word was they were singing, but to him it sounded like “Wimoweh” so that’s the song he recorded and sang with the Weavers. Gallo told him it was African folk music, so Folkways bought the publishing rights. Seeger got cancelled by the Red Scare a few years later, but bounced back. To be fair he later learned about Solomon Linda and asked that his own royalties be transferred to the Zulu man. They weren’t.

In the early 60s, a New Jersey doo-wop group called the Tokens heard the Seeger recording and wanted to do the song, but wailing wasn’t going to cut it. Their record company hired Julliard-trained musician George Weiss to write lyrics for the American pop market. The only clue he had was something about lions so he wrote the lyrics that today we associate with Linda’s melody recorded in 1939. The Tokens’ version is the one I remember most clearly.  

Solomon Linda died in 1962. His family couldn’t afford a stone for his grave.

The song showed up on a lot of albums and in a lot of movies until the 90s when Disney put it in The Lion King, and now we’re really off to the races. Solomon Linda’s daughters, living in Soweto, had no idea.

Malan continued to push for some semblance of justice in spite of that signed 10-shilling contract, and found it when the guy who wrote the book on South African intellectual property law remembered a legal maneuver used by Dickens’ family to get some income from the dead author’s work. It worked. Three Zulu sisters went after Disney and won, mostly because Disney didn’t particularly want headlines about their signature Africa-movie taking advantage of an African musician. That’s where the article, expanded from Malan’s original Rolling Stone piece, ends.

To my surprise I found a 2019 documentary on Netflix. ReMastered: The Lion’s Share that features Malan describing the entire journey and a few years beyond the cited article. Whereas the article focused on the musicians – Linda at first, then the others – the documentary is something of The Rian Malan Story. Not that it’s an uninteresting story. Turns out his great-uncle, Daniël François Malan, was the Prime Minister who instituted Apartheid; Malan’s sense of guilt affected the course of his life (much of this is included in various other stories in the collection), and drove him to help this one South African family get its due. Alas, the sisters who eventually were awarded a trust were never sure things were on the up-and-up, though Malan wasn’t able to find any evidence of fraud. That the ending wasn’t entirely happy isn’t a surprise. If everyone had been happy, a screenwriter would’ve turned it into a White Savior film.

Another piece I tried to pay some attention to was “The Body Count,” part of Malan’s reporting on the AIDS crisis. It’s an older piece, from the 90s, so it’s hard to fit into context, but he basically felt the number of deaths, probably the number of cases of AIDS in the region, was exaggerated. He wasn’t saying AIDS wasn’t a horrible problem causing disease and death among South Africans; he certainly wasn’t saying it wasn’t caused by a virus, which was a competing theory at the time, believe it or not. But as best I can tell (and I may be misreading here) he felt the case numbers were arrived at by extrapolating from the number of pregnant women at local clinics. He couldn’t find funerals or caskets or any kind of activity to match the number of deaths being reported. And he seems to have looked very hard. His thoroughness – checking other countries, various economic levels of casket makers, cemeteries in outlying areas – is quite convincing.

His reputation apparently took a hit for that reporting. Again, I don’t have the background to judge one way or the other, but he makes a strong defense for himself. Given all the crap that went on in the US with AIDS, and the even more incredible crap that’s going on right now with COVID, I’m not surprised.

“The Beautiful and the Damned” is a bitterly satirical piece about the 1993 Miss World contest, held in Sun City, South Africa, against the violence attending the political birth of the new Constitution and the shift of power. Miss South Africa, Jacqui Mofokeng, wasn’t the first Black woman to hold her title, but she was the first Black title-holder who didn’t look pretty damn white. Apparently the South African version of talk radio had a field day with that.

Jaqui and I went to the same school, incidentally, a rather expensive private establishment called Woodmead. In my day, Woodmead was whites-only, but it was integrated in the late seventies, in bold defiance of apartheid. Now it’s predominantly black and widely regarded as a model of racial harmony and integration. The headmistress’s office was petrol-bombed by rioting students the other day, but we don’t want to go into that, do we? Nah, fuck it. Let’s party.

Mofokeng came in second to Miss Jamaica, the promoters made their money, and Malan’s story ends there, with a postscript:

By the time this piece hit the newsstands, South Africa’s political factions were tearing one another apart in the worst bloodletting we’d ever seen, and the pessimism evident in my cynical asides seemed entirely prescient. Ninety days later, Nelson Mandela came to power in a miraculously peaceful election, and I wound up looking, as was so often the case, like an idiot.

In spite of my discomfort, I have to hand it to this guy, he can write a story. I appreciate someone who can admit he was wrong and not sound disappointed there wasn’t more bloodshed.

But back to Jacqui Mofokeng. According to Wikipedia, within a few years she started a political career which continued until April 2021 when she, and her daughter, died of COVID.

I feel a bit guilty that I didn’t try harder with this book, but it really defeated me early on. Part of it is that the background changed over time, and part is what he says in his foreword:  it’s a crazy place. But I’m glad I got to know something about Solomon Linda, and when I next hear “Wimoweh” it’s his 1939 version I’ll remember.

Helen DeWitt: Some Trick: Thirteen Stories (New Directions, 2018) [IBR2022]

Cover Painting: “The Satisfied Hare” by Kevin Sloan
For sheer unpredictable brilliance, Gogol may come to mind, but no author alive today takes a reader as far as Helen DeWitt into the funniest, most far-reaching dimensions of possibility. Her jumping-off points might be statistics, romance, the art world’s piranha tank, games of chance and of skill, the travails of publishing, or success. “Look,” a character begins to explain, laying out some gambit reasonably enough, though in the face of situations spinning out to their utmost logical extremes, where things prove “more complicated than they had first appeared” and “at 3 a.m. the circumstances seem to attenuate.” In various ways, each of these thirteen razor-sharp tales carries DeWitt’s signature poker-face lament regarding the near-impossibility of the life of the mind when one is made to pay to have the time for it, in a world so sadly “taken up with all sorts of paraphernalia superfluous, not to say impedimental, to ratiocination.”

New Directions Books promo

I fell in love with DeWitt’s The Last Samurai last year; I was obsessed with it, reading and re-reading over the course of several weeks. And now I’m experiencing much the same with this book. That isn’t to say I understand all parts of every story; I’m nowhere near DeWitt’s level. But the aspiration alone keeps me reading, over and over, and makes me want to read everything that might help me gain more insight. And it’s just a really fun joyread as well.

Then I read this DeWitt interview and I go, uh oh:

But in some ways DeWitt has the bullshit of the publishing world nailed. “I don’t know,” she said, “how to deal with a world where there’s this language of infatuation that people use. ‘Well, I didn’t fall in love with the book.’ Or: ‘I fell in love with the book!’ ‘Infatuated!’ ‘Besotted!’ ‘Obsessed!’ I’m not sure that that has ever been my attitude toward any text. Throwing around this language is really a way of denying the mechanics of attachment. You hear this all the time: If they don’t fall in love with it the first time, that’s it. Well, that’s a psychological issue. Look, I sometimes think I have Asperger’s syndrome. I’m really bad at people’s emotional investment in things.” She compared editors who don’t respond to rational arguments about a book to Thrasymachus, Callicles, and Gorgias — sophists who sulk whenever Socrates frustrates their conventional arguments.

Christian Lorentzen: “Publishing Can Break Your Heart” available online at Vulture

In defense of my emotional attachment, I’ve said over and over in this blog that I love a book that teaches me something. And DeWitt teaches me more things than I ever dreamed there were to learn. But her comment does somewhat explain the tone of her books: rather than explicit emotion, we’re allowed to figure out what’s happening in the hearts while we see what’s happening in the world and sometimes in the minds of the characters. There’s no “sensitive portrayal” as I keep sneering of so much contemporary domestic realism. There’s wackiness, and strangeness, and injustice and cruelty and obsession, and we get to decorate the slopes of the volcano ourselves (those who read I Never Promised You a Rose Garden – the novel, not, god forbid, the song – might recognize that metaphor which I’ve found useful for forty-some-odd years).

The collection’s title comes from the opening poem, which sets up a Wizard of Oz theme.

If ever if ever a wiz there was
The Wizard of Oz was one because
Because because because because because

‘I have nothing to give you but that’s all right because
Knowledge of lack is possession
Recognised absence is presence
Perceived emptiness plenitude.
To have not
And know it
Is to have.’

Some trick….

As I said, I’m not wise enough to play Wizard here, but if you google around you’ll find far more sophisticated analyses of the book: TNY, NYT, Atlantic, The Nation, pretty much anywhere that books are reviewed. As usual, I’m here to relate my own experience, what I saw, what I cared about. That’s my only area of expertise. But I’m also here to be something of a cheerleader for those of us who aren’t sophisticated enough to pick out allusions or techniques. It’s still a great read. And there’s so much to learn.

“Brutto,” the first story, sets the tone for much of the rest.

It’s easy to say you can just walk away from it.
….People think it would be easy to walk away.
….If you have never been there you think it is easy to walk away.

Cooking shows are always talking about layering flavors. I’m never completely sure exactly what they mean; it seems to have something to do with adding ingredients at different times so they take on different characteristics. A sauteed mirepoix might be the first part of a stew, letting the onions melt and sweeten while retaining their savory character. Meat is then browned to provide the luscious fond. Tomatoes would be added later, tempering but not losing their sweetness while emphasizing their acidity; other vegetables follow, letting them soak up everything else in the pot. And fresh herbs make an appearance in the last moments so they retain freshness. 

This story – like all of DeWitt’s stories – is similarly layered. We start with the starving artist at a show of her work. The details of her artwork – she layers the paint so thick, some take a year to dry before they can be hung; the white is a very specific white – plus the backstory of her frustrated genius and miseducation in the practical craft of dressmaking as a youth in 1962 East Germany are like the mirepoix, and the economic realities of art underlie everything that comes.

But I’ve been inaccurate. We start with her father, an engineer, and his attitude towards Jews. Throughout the story, this flavor keeps coming back: the Holocaust, the interaction between Italy and Germany during WWII. Which is convenient because…

Enter the Italian gallerist Adalberto who is enamored with the suit, the Gesellenstück our artist produced to graduate from her dressmaker apprenticeship years ago, a suit that screams technical precision and aesthetic horror. The brutto of the title. But even this one word is layered, aesthetic upon economic, I discovered:

The layers of translational wordplay at work in the story’s title constitute a neat synopsis of what happens, as well as DeWitt’s analysis of art-making under the pressures of industry. In Italian, brutto means ugly or coarse; in German the same word means gross, as in a total profit before deductions. Pun on that in English and you get gross as in disgusting, as well as obvious.

Lauren Oyler, “The Screwer and the Screwed” at The Baffler

Our artist – whose name is never given – is no longer an ingenue, but a middle-aged woman, one year away from the cutoff age of 50 for the prestigious Turner Prize. And she needs money. So she initially refuses when Adalberto offers her $1000 per suit to recreate, times 19, what she is wearing. It isn’t until he offers $2500 that she utters the first “walk away” line, and we’re off to the races.

And because she is no longer an ingenue, she makes an extra suit, and keeps the original one. Because she knows how these things go. And just in case we don’t, she gives an example:

If you watch art auctions maybe you will think there are some very rich artists, because Hockney’s Portrait Of Nick Wilder sold for £3 million. But Hockney sold the painting a long time ago. It is the paintings from the 60s and the 70s that make that money and it is the people who own those paintings, and the people who handle the sale, who make the money. So it is too bad for Hockney that he did not keep aside a painting from that time.
…. But what if somebody discovers what he were doing in 1962, and they Commission you to do 19 more of what you were doing in 1962? If you can do even one you can do 19, and if you can do 19 you can do 20.
So she did 20, and add Alberto never saw her Gesellenstück again, because it stayed on its padded hanger.

And as we started with the father, we end with… spermicidal jelly? There’s a context there (hey, I have to leave something for readers to discover) but this could refer to so much. The artist’s sterility, actual or desired. The sterility of art, or of this particular art, contrasted with Adalberto’s vision of the denial of the body. And because of the father, perhaps his sterility, or a wish that he had been, which is quite a statement from his daughter. Perhaps a statement against the human race? All of the above? Choose your metaphor? It’s the sprinkle of crispy fried shallots on top of the finished stew, completing the layers.

It wasn’t until I read Brittany Allen’s article “Getting Tricked by Helen DeWitt” in Longreads that I realized the narration switches tense. But not just tense: they switch to second person, and sometimes to subjunctive mood. I have a feeling there’s a terrific stylistics paper in there: the narrator stays in past to relay events, then “head hops,” as Allen says, to provide closer thoughts. Or maybe, the narration switches to one of the characters. This is most plausible in the first switch, when we’re in third person past tense as Adalberto is looking at various paintings. The narration describes him, and gives his position: “He was standing by 1.1.4” and suddenly there’s a switch to second person present:

When people number paintings they do it the wrong way. You get an idea while you’re working on a painting and you have to do it in another painting because otherwise you would use the first painting. It’s like taking cuttings from a plant. So if you just use ordinal numbers you lose all that. You lose a distinction, because sometimes a painting is just out of the blue.
Sometimes you know there’s a gap between one painting and another, that was a painting you didn’t do, so you can show that with the number and that’s good, the missing painting still has its number like a name on a grave.

I’m not sure if this insert is Adalberto’s consideration, or the artist’s, or an intrusive narrator. I suspect it’s the artist, because after a single sentence describing Adalberto’s clothing, we’re back to a second-person present meditation on the work she puts into her paintings, on a purchaser who wasn’t willing to wait the year for the paint to dry and thus saw it fall from the painting onto his floor, and on the particularity of white paint and the fear of a particular brand ceasing production of their special white that you’ve based your work on.

It’s this kind of frenetic flood of information from different sources that makes these stories so much fun to read, and so difficult.

 Some trick, as she says.

This theme of an artist – or musician, or writer – unable to get her vision to the public because of all the middlemen in the way (agents, editors, publishers, gallerists, impresarios) is repeated often in the book in various ways. In “My Heart Belongs to Bertie” a mathematician published a book of robot stories for children years ago. His agent wants another book, but Peter is still upset that Euler’s Identity (I can’t figure out how to do superscripts in WordPress, and the irony just about slays me) was removed from the book. Peter brings sheafs of PDFs of graphs to show the probability of being born to a parent who is an addict, introducing a new idea: “The point is simply, said Peter, that the family is a barbarous institution. One is, for the most part, stuck with the look of a single draw.”

Now, this makes for an interesting story (and I haven’t even mentioned the conversations Peter has with the robots while this is going on) but what’s really interesting is that both the idea of a publisher refusing to publish a book as envisioned by an author, specifically including non-standard characters, AND the idea that one’s birth parents often aren’t the best environment for the development of artistry, rationality, and/or genius, are themes from The Last Samurai or its publication history. So I was pretty much bouncing up and down to see them here.

“On the Town” similarly has so many great ideas packed into one story, it’s hard to follow but still delightful to read. There’s Benny, living in New York and in need of a roommate. His father wrote several famous children’s books, but got himself financially stalled because of his inability to get the Crap Free Deal (which seems to preclude theater tickets and other perks most authors would swoon over and requires a fixer-upper in Pittsburgh). As a result, Benny grew up relatively poor, and wants a roommate who’s never heard of his father’s books. Enter Gil, from Iowa. Iowans seem to be of two opinions about New York: it’s The City and thus an abomination, or it’s where dreams come true. Gil is of the second, and his sense of wonder running around New York is kind of grating and adorable in equal measure: “And on his very first day, when he even hadn’t unpacked, he saw Harvey Keitel eating a pancake in a diner! A diner in the Village!” Gil also possesses some strong trade skills from having built a tree house in Iowa, as well as some outstanding computer graphics capabilities from having a Entenmann’s Cookie Empire as a kid, and within a week he’s got Benny’s dad all set and everybody’s happy. It’s another fun story though I’m pretty sure I’m missing something. Madeleine Schwartz in Dissent Magazine proclaims “DeWitt is a master (!) of the exclamation point as dis” except Gil, who speaks in italics and exclamation points, is so much the hero of this story, I wonder if he’s the unicorn that makes the point.

“Famous Last Words” takes Barthes’ “Death of the Author” quite literally as a group of pretentious literati search for deathbed declarations of various writers, while “Climbers” plays on the same pretentiousness as a group of literary wannabes swarm after an obscure European author. “In Which Nick Buys a Harley for 16K Having Once Been Very Young” is again an art-vs-commerce struggle as a record producer comes up with a horrid album cover (wow, remember album art?) and commits other acts of artricide because “you don’t want to disappoint your fans.”

And then there’s “The French Style of Mlle Matsumoto” which contrasts musical styles: “What was remarkable was Mlle Matsumoto’s ability to realize the impossible, to transform a percussive instrument into one which had the fluidity of the voice.” This, too, is something that’s familiar from The Last Samurai, one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel for me. The story also includes a reference to Charles-Valentin Alkan’s Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot; I can’t find any mention that the Monty Python crew knew anything about this, but it’s a fun thought.

The collection closes with “Entourage,” which starts out being about obsessive book collecting.

He went to Krakow for no particular reason.
He had found a flight for 5 euros; For an additional 9 euros one could take a suitcase weighing 20 kg, or 44 pounds. He packed a small suitcase with books.
He went into a bookstore and began opening books.
…Note the frequency of the letters z, w and y. The sample is, in fact, unrepresentative; in a larger sample of Polish words the letters j and k are also common.
…. It was now unexpectedly necessary to purchase a small suitcase and fill it with books replete with the letters z, w, y, j and k. It was necessary to hire someone to fly with him to Berlin to accompany the suitcase. Słowosław was the applicant whose name had the best letters.
…. He would travel, at any rate, to, as it might be, Istanbul with his first suitcase under his own supervision and the second suitcase in the care of an escort, and on arrival in Istanbul we discover all sorts of books that one simply never sees. Books, you know, with a dotless i. Umlauts up the gazoo. It would be necessary, obviously, to purchase a new suitcase and hire someone locally to fly back with it.
…. He went to Copenhagen at one point. The Danish word for island is Ø. The common run of visitors do not see the phenomenon as necessitating purchase of a suitcase and hiring of a Dane.

Eventually he has 20 escorts in his entourage. “He buys books to remind himself to read them.” And of course he needs someone to select and manage the entourage, to select people with the correct names for the various countries.

But it turns out it isn’t the books that are the ultimate draw here: it’s the system. While looking for an entourage manager, he hears about a restaurant with a sushi train, that is, a model train that travels around the counter loaded with sushi, and customers can select their desired dish. He wonders if that could be used to teach children, using a sort of delayed gratification model: if one learns the Cyrillic alphabet, or logarithms, and completes an exercise showing proficiency, one may select cake from a moving train.

He fine-tunes the idea:

He saw presently that it would be a mistake to try to establish a chain of schools. One is subject to so much unwelcome supervision. What was wanted, surely, was a chain of child-oriented restaurants. The sort of place where a parent could leave a child at any time day or night. Everyone cannot afford the fees for a private school. One might be able to afford a session or two a week at an educational restaurant. One might be able to send a child full-time to the restaurant while flush, then fall back on the public school system when funds run short.

I was reminded of the momentum of descent in a couple of stories by Julia Elliot (“Bride,” “The Erl-King”) and one by Elizabeth McCracken (“It’s Not You” and possibly “Thunderstruck”). Whereas Elliott and McCracken slide down the banister from odd-but-normal to bizarre and count on the momentum of Familiarity to override Reason and thus blur the exact moment we’ve left Morality behind, DeWitt clumps down the stairs, forcing us to help Familiarity continue in light of reduced momentum of Reason. Descent becomes more of, though never completely, a choice. Of course, the banister is greased with booze, or money, or power, so it’s a choice to hop on in the first place.

Ben Streeter has written a far more sophisticated sociopolitical analysis of this story at Politics/Letters. He uses words like bureaucracy, utility maximization, neoliberalism, and entrepreneurial interest and quotes people I’ve never heard of who have intricate theories of these words. It’s well worth reading if only for the killer ending:

Just as in the Wizard of Oz Dorothy goes from somewhere over the rainbow, in Technicolor, to Kansas, in black and white, in “Entourage” a bibliophile goes from traveling around Krakow and Bilbao and Berlin collecting untranslated books to running an empire of assembly lines that bear an eerie resemblance to child labor. And with that, the story collection that began with an enigmatic Oz-inspired poem comes full circle.
DeWitt’s stories have the texture of fairy tales. Kandice Chuh might classify them as “gleeful departures from the ordinary.”
But her fairy tales have a brothers Grimm-like underbelly to them. In “Entourage,” an idiosyncratic passion for foreign-language books — only three percent of books in the United States are in translation — turns into a demented fervor for the manipulation of human behavior.
The sense of possibility represented in that innocent love of books, all those umlauts and dotless-i-s, morphs into a banal propensity for workforce development. How do we get there? Some trick.

Ben Streeter, “Ben Streeter Sees the Neoliberalism in Helen DeWitt’s ‘Some Trick’” at The Baffler

I’m a little hazy on the Wizard of Oz connection, but I stated up front I wasn’t equal to this book. Given DeWitt’s constant theme of the struggle between artists and those who profit from them, as well as her own struggle with publishing, I wouldn’t dismiss Streeter’s point of view.  

Whenever someone asks that nothing-else-to-talk-about question, “So who’s your favorite author?” I always get uncomfortable. I don’t have one. I have favorite books, hundreds of them, and I’ve been very fond of several books by a few authors, but I’ve never felt like one author was mine. I’m beginning to think Helen Dewitt is my author. I’m not sure yet – I have her 2011 novel Lightning Rods to read, and she’s coming out with a novella this year – but I think so. I love the way she teaches me things.

In-Between Reading 2022: The Plan [IBR2022]

Some people feel guilty about buying more books than they’ll get round to reading. But if you buy books by living authors, you make it possible for us to keep writing. Think of it as an investment in the kind of writing that interests you.

Nigel Warburton, philosopher, host of @PhilosophyBites podcast and Philosophy editor of @FiveBooks

When I look at my overloaded TBR shelf, I think of Warburton’s words. Then I buy another book.

For those who aren’t sure what “In-between Reading” means in my world, it’s the five-to-seven months when I’m not reading and blogging the Best American Short Stories and Pushcart anthologies, piece by piece. It’s the time when I get to read novels, essay collections, short story collections by single authors, nonfiction books, and pretty much anything that isn’t one of those two anchor books in my reading calendar.

The exact content varies from year to year.

  • In 2018, the first year I started labeling posts from this period, I didn’t have any organized approach. When I finished, I noticed I’d read a lot of boarding-school fiction, and thought it might be interesting to read in categories next time.
  • In 2019, I found books in several categories: fiction dealing with religion, fiction dealing with jobs and work, reading list books I never got around to in high school or college, and that favorite category, miscellaneous. I also debated calling this period something other than “Summer Read” since it was stretching from mid-spring into mid-fall.
  • In 2020, I had no categories at the start but read far more (I wonder if that means something; or maybe it was the dawn of COVID). At the end I sorted what I’d read in different ways: by genre/topic, by source of inspiration to read, and by enjoyment. I gave more than half the books a full five stars. And I started using the term “In-Between Reading”.
  • In 2021, I focused on re-reads for almost half my list. I read far less; I see now I blamed moocs.

And now for 2022, what do I have?  More books than I can possibly read by November 1, which is the current target release date for BASS 2022.

Many of my reads came from Five Books, a goldmine if you’re looking for something different, both through their recommendations by experts on various topics, and their weekend “What are you reading?” Twitter thread. Some of the books were deliberately added, either because I liked the author’s other works or to fill gaps in my inconsistent read history. Others were impulse additions; I saw a description that appealed to me, and I clicked “order now.” Still others, well, I have no idea where I heard about them, but I’m not surprised they’re here.

First are my “project” reads, which I expect will take longer than a week to read and formulate thoughts for a blog post.

  • Lewis Carroll and Alice: The Annotated Alice, a collection of both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass with introduction and annotations by mathematician Martin Gardner, who is, like Charles Dodgson, a mathematician. I’m interested to see what nuggets Gardner finds in his children’s tale. I’m pairing this with Robin Wilson’s Lewis Carroll in Numberland, a general-readership “mathematical biography.”
  • Dante:  The description of Mary Jo Bang’s re-interpretations of Inferno and Purgatorio (Paradiso isn’t done yet) reads: “Elissa Schappell declares, ‘readers who once considered Dante’s terza rima rhyme scheme and allusions to 14th-century Florentine politics as their own circle of pain will find Bang’s free-verse approach, wit, and poetic pyrotechnics heavenly.’ ”  I’m in.

To allow myself some time to digest those projects, I’ve already first-read several collections of fiction and non-fiction. They’ll still require some review and research before I blog about them, but the reading fit in nicely with travel and wait time, which tends to interrupt longer reads.

  • Some Trick by Helen DeWitt: I was blown away by DeWitt’s novel The Last Samurai, so I immediately picked up her earlier short story collection.
  • Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer: Another of those short story collections I’m always embarrassed to admit I haven’t read.
  • How to Make a Slave and Other Essays by Jerald Walker: When I read “The Kaleshion” in this year’s Pushcart, I immediately ordered this.
  • Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay: Yes, I’m late to the party. But I thought it was all about feminism, and I didn’t particularly want to read it. Then I realized her great essay on unlikeable characters was in this book, as well as some other fun stuff.   
  • The Lion Sleeps Tonight by Rian Malan: I was only interested in the title essay, really, and I’m not sure I have the context for the rest of it. But that’s how you gain context, isn’t it.  

I have only three recently published books on my shelf:

  • Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour:  I’m always up for racial satire.
  • The Verifiers by Jane Pek: I’ve adored Pek’s short stories expanding on Chinese mythology. This novel is a very different thing, but I trust her ability to weave interesting elements.
  • Capturing the Butterfly by Sharon K. Grosh: Grosh is one of my long-time blog readers, so I’m going to try this fantasy look at three threads of history.

I have two re-reads in the lineup:

  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon: I loved this book (I think everyone did) and want to see how it reads now.
  • Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers: I read this in an Adolescent Fiction course in college, but don’t remember anything about it. I thought of it when I read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter a couple of years ago, so I’m finally getting to it.

Although I could count McCullers as a Reading-List book, I’ll only include one:

  • A Word Child by Iris Murdoch: I read A Severed Head in college, or at least, I was supposed to. I’ve always felt like I needed to atone.

Then I have a couple of random fictions:

  • Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn: I have absolutely no idea where I heard of this, but it’s about a literary competition, modeled closely on a recent Man Booker Prize that went awry. Sounds like fun to me!
  • The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern: I hated the first Stern story I read; I loved the second, and understood why I misread the first. I’ve wanted to read more by him for a while now, so here we are.

And then there’s nonfiction. First off, a couple of medical books:

  • Top Knife by Hirschberg & Mattox: This is actually intended as a handbook for practicing residents or surgeons who want to know more about trauma surgery; it’s not general readership. I’m going to use it as an anatomy study guide and co-text to Grey’s Anatomy.
  • Working Stiff by Judy Melinek and T. J. Mitchell: I have a fairly broad collection of doctor books, and several of them are by or about medical examiners. Add this one to the list. What can I say, I love blood and guts.

And what would a reading list be without books about books:

  • Alpha Beta by John Man: I have no idea where I saw this. I actually have another alphabet book on my book list – The Alphabet That Changed the World – but it’s about the Hebrew alphabet and takes a more metaphysical approach. Maybe I chose this as a more approachable introduction.
  • A Passion for Books, edited by Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan: An anthology of short fiction and nonfiction about books. About collecting, reading, borrowing, lending, and caring for books. Wow!

I have a number of nonfiction books I loosely think of as about the human mind.

  • The Upright Thinkers and Elastic by Leonard Mlodinow:  These are mystery additions; I have no idea where I heard about them, but I’m not surprised I bought them.
  • The Fuzzy and the Techie by Scott Hartley: This will probably be the only book I ever read by a venture capitalist (whatever that is) but he’s on the side of liberal arts so… oh… wait… oh no, we’re doomed!
  • In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell, notes and intro by Bradley Trevor Greive: I think this came by in response to those working from home during the pandemic, and finding they were working around the clock.

I also have a couple of coffee-table books:

  • Typographic Firsts by John Boardley: I’ve followed Boardley’s site ILoveTypography for years, so I figured the least I could do was support him by buying his absolutely gorgeous full-color-plates book.
  • Dream A World Anew by the National Museum of African American History and Culture: Another beautiful full-color-plates book reviewing the cultural history of Black America.

And finish off with a doorstop that’s more research volume than sit-down-and-read book:

  • The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lopate: I took a brief zoom class on essay writing from Robert Long Foreman, whose collection of essays (and short stories as well) I’ve blogged about. He used entries from this book to demonstrate certain characteristics of types of essays. Since he’s got a PhD in nonfiction writing, I figured it might be a useful book to have.

I doubt I’ll read all of these, but I’ll give it a try. I don’t have any order in mind once I get past the Alice books (I’ve already started) and the collections I’ve already first-read.

And if you’re wondering why I’m wasting time typing out a post no one will read instead of reading books: you’re right! I’ll be back when I’ve finished something.

*   *   *

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Wrapping Up Another Year   

…[A]s readers, wokeness is a good shorthand for the kind of engagement with difference that happens to us when we read, especially when those characters and sensibilities we fall in love with on the page come up against a hostile social context. The Pushcart anthology highlights exactly that form of conflict.

Julie Sheehan, “Social Ills, Literary Riches”: Book review in The East Hampton Star, 12/2/21

I came across this local book review early in my Pushcart read, right after I’d taken issue with the Publisher’s Review comment calling Karen Lin-Greenberg’s “Housekeeping” hilarious and quirky. Sheehan’s insights were much more aligned with mine; her style also worked for me, as she wove in a discussion of “woke” and included a brief look at the order in which the material is presented.

This question of ordering is something I look at every year. I’m still uncertain about the first piece, “Suffering in Motion,” and why it was chosen for the lead-off spot. Many of the stories dealt with identity, and with being who you are in spite of others telling you you’re someone else; why this one? Could the title have tipped the scales, as we are all, in this second year of pandemic, suffering in motion, trying to carry on in spite of grief and loss and conflict and anxiety – and now, in a development that could not have been part of the equation, war – that surrounds us? Is the message to draw hope and strength from a character who, by acknowledging limitations, finds a way to nonetheless experience joy? Or is it just the first in the roll call of current social issues that opened the anthology?

I found Sheehan’s comments on the final piece, “The God Phone” coincided with my own, with the sense of connection in spite of distractions and varying priorities, with the sense of comfort we all get from knowing we are not alone, and the role reading plays in finding that comfort.

In between the opening and closing, Pushcart arranged sections on relationships – with family, with society, with those who flit by our lives briefly but still manage to have impact upon us – on grief, on political moments, on the various struggles we face. It was a great year.

I only blogged two poems, one of which has been kicking around for so long it’s already iconic. I apologize to the year’s poets and regret missing out on poems that would have moved me greatly if I’d just put more effort into reading them. But this is the path I’ve followed for the past several years, since realizing most of my poetry posts ended up being variations on “I have no idea why this is a poem or what it means.”

The fiction was uniformly wonderful, though it ran the gamut in style and subgenre. As for my favorites, how can I choose. I thought early on nothing could come close to “Reality TV” by Michael Kardos in terms of surprise upon surprise, but then came Senaa Ahmah with “Let’s Play Dead” to show me wrong. I wouldn’t have thought small-town realism such as Karin Lee-Greenberg’s “Housekeeping” or “The Loss of Heaven” by Dantiel Montiz or Maria Black’s “Mark on the Cross” could work so well to find emotional strings that I didn’t know longed to be played. “Baikal” by Lindsay Starck took me to Siberia at an unexpected time, and still echoes. I’m not sure I fully understood Stephen Mortland’s “Elenin” or Lucas Southworth’s “The Crying Room” but both were great reads. Two overtly political pieces, “O Despot! My Despot!” by Patrick Dacey, and “A Tale of Two Trolls” by Marcus Spiegel, were very different reading experiences, yet both had me laughing in spite of the existential dread they tap into.

While I always find Pushcart’s nonfiction to be engrossing reading, teaching me things I never knew I cared about, a few were real standouts. “Gutted” by Cathryn Klusmeier managed to weave together salmon fishing – the author’s occupation five months of the year – and grief over her father’s decline from dementia. Rebecca Cadenhead’s “My First Blood” created a kind of social ecology from the bioecology discovered on the author’s trip to Patagonia. And Jerald Walker’s “The Kaleshion” did such magic with a haircut, blending humor with the very real concerns of race and tying them into a clever little surprise of form, I immediately got his essay collection, which will be part of my In-Between Read coming up.

The 2022 Pushcart anthology is, above all else, timely. Not only do its contributors represent the wide spectrum of voices getting published today, but their contributions survey the abuses specific to our moment — racism, sexism, homophobia, climate catastrophe, and political violence. In them, a dazzling range of characters suffer, fight, fail, and occasionally triumph against forces arrayed with particular ferocity against the powerless. Literature explores this theme better than anything, so the anthology brims with writing of exceptional quality. It’s a gift for readers eager to imagine other people, what it’s like to wear their skin, to walk in their shoes.

Julie Sheehan, “Social Ills, Literary Riches”: Book review in The East Hampton Star, 12/2/21

Whatever your anxiety, whatever your struggle, whatever your sorrow, there are others who share it. You are not alone; we can learn from each other. That is the power of story.

*  *  *     

  • Julie Sheehan’s book review, “Social Ills, Literary Riches” from The East Hampton Star is available online

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Leora Smith, “The God Phone” (non-fiction) from Longreads, January 2020

What happens when ordinary people play God to strangers? Leora Smith explores the history of one of the oldest art installations at Burning Man and the conversations that unfold there.

Intro by Longreads

I confess, I’ve never had any idea what Burning Man is. I put it in the category of things I didn’t really care enough about to research, and moved on, figuring it was some kind of music festival for those too young to credibly claim Woodstock, crossed with a Juggalo gathering (which I don’t really understand either). Lots of cool people being cool by going naked, getting drunk, and pretending to have a great time.

Turns out, it’s a temporary city encompassing ten Principles – Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, Immediacy – that provides a venue for artistic and creative expression. They emphatically deny it’s an art festival, and warn you that the desert will try to kill you.  The cost for a week – tickets cost $475, plus a $140 vehicle fee – is a little more than a week at Disneyland, another place I don’t particularly want to go.

While Smith’s article gives some general background to the event overall, she focuses in on the telephone booth labeled, “Talk to God.”

It’s easy to be cynical about Burning Man. At its worst, the event is capitalist escapism. A party where the wealthy run away from, and disdain, the most toxic elements of a system that, for 356 days of the year, many of them sustain, advance, and profit from.
But sitting at the God Phone reminded me that, at its best, Burning Man is an immersive art project. One based on values of communalism, kindness, and generosity.
Many of the people I met at the God Phone had attended Burning Man three, four, even 15 times. Some of them were wealthy, but many weren’t. I learned that a lot of people first went to Burning Man for the parties, but almost no one went back just because of them.
People went back because it was a place where they felt they could be their fullest selves, which meant wearing a tutu, taking on a new name, or just telling a stranger that sometimes they found themselves on a dance floor and all they wanted to do was cry. Then trusting that someone would say, “You’re wonderful, and I love you unconditionally.”

Smith gives a history of the phone, which has been shepherded by different artists over the years. She took a turn answering the phone, and found it disturbing; the caller said they were thinking about doing something, and she got a vibe about suicide. When an attendee later suicided, she wondered if that was her caller. As a result, she wondered if those answering the phone should have some kind of training, like crisis line volunteers have, and the article devotes a good deal of space to that kind of response.

But it’s not the whole experience. There are jokesters, of course, who have fun with it. And then there are those who see the phone as an opportunity to connect – not with God, but with someone.

When the phone rang and I answered it, the receiver weighed heavily in my hand.
God, what do you know about shame?
The man calling wore a gray steampunk jacket and large goggles to protect against the dust. He explained how hard he’d worked to get to Burning Man, but once he arrived, he just felt lonely. Then he felt ashamed for being lonely. A lot of people feel that way, I told him. They all call me.
….
When I got home, I reached out to Benji to ask why he returned so often. “It’s therapeutic,” he told me. “It reminds you that we are all struggling with things, we are all insecure, and we’re all lonely.” He added, “It’s not nice to know that other people are suffering, but it’s comforting to know that not everyone is having the best time all day long. … It feels not alone.”
* * *
Unexpectedly, 24 hours at the Talk to God phone booth reminded me of my first year of law school, when I felt so sad and overwhelmed that I sought out counseling for the first time.
In the counselor’s office at the school, she asked my field of study and I told her. She responded, Oh, I’m seeing all of your classmates. Before she said that, I’d thought I was the only one struggling. But afterward, a warm feeling washed over me. It was the same one that Benji described at the God Phone, and the same one that Karen tried to foster in her courses: normalcy.

This need to feel that our uncertainty and struggle is normal, rang very true for me. It rings true now, when I see PSAs on television, posters on busses, brochures in the library, advising us that the kind of anxiety and depression that have surrounded so many of us during these past two pandemic years – feelings that the current war only intensify – are normal and shared by many others, urging anyone who needs support to reach out to family, friends, or professionals.

But it goes back much farther for me. When I was a kid, I played a lot of what my father called “depressing music.” Folk music about war and poverty and sorrow; classical music in minor keys. Don McLean’s “Starry Starry Night.” When my first official major depressive episode finally made itself known at age 16, my father blamed the music. What he didn’t realize was that the music was the only thing that made me feel like there were other people in the world like me, people who felt things they didn’t understand deeply and painfully. Its was the dance music, the cheerful pop tunes, the never-ending chatter of boys and clothes and hair and makeup in high school that made me feel alone and defective.

I can understand the draw of a God Phone, even if I can’t understand the draw of Burning Man.

*  *  *     

  • This article is available online at Longreads  

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Ifeoma Sesiana Amobi, “A Small Blip on an Eternal Timeline” from Narrative, Winter 2020

Chinwe Uwatse: “Impossible Dreams” (detail)
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed — and gazed — but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.


William Wordsworth, “I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud”

As odd as it may seem to front a post about a story of two Nigerian immigrants with one of the most British of poems, I had to do it. You see, one of the characters in the story is an artist, and she refers to the painting she is currently working on as her sea of daffodils. Her attachment to it makes Wordsworth’s words pale in comparison. It’s more than the alleviation of loneliness for her: it’s about purpose, about doing what she’s meant to do in spite of everyone telling her to do something else.

And that’s the story, really, of both of these characters. Their inner drive is thwarted by expectations of others. Soma has already cast her lot with her art, but Emeka is burying his dreams of music to follow the path his father has set for him.

Emeka and I built our kingdom in a slanted row house on a patch of green grass in Highland Park, Pittsburgh, PA. Our floors creaked, our toilet growled, our heater hiccupped and often went out for the night, but it was our kingdom. Ours. Our little hideaway where time stopped for us, stretching into forever at our whim. It was where I could paint pomegranates and daffodils and portraits of an eager-eyed girl without feeling like I was wasting my life away. It was where Emeka could beat his igba to the Afrobeats of Fela Kuti and dream.
It infuriated me the way he hunched over his desk into the early morning hours, squeezing his head with sweaty palms. Huffing through the names of pathogenic organisms and their virulence factors for med school, chasing a fantasy that wasn’t even his: shadows of a dead throne in a dusty village in a land far, far away that his father, its long-lost king, wanted to bring back to life. Lurking in these shadows were tales my mother used to whisper in my ear…. I would pull Emeka away from his desk and into bed when the taste of bitter became too much for me to bear. Our arms and legs would entwine like thirsty vines, and heat from the blood rushing through our veins thrilled us. After making love, we cupped our hands to each other’s lips and whispered our deepest fears into them. With a flourish of our fingers, we released them into the universe.

This is one of those lushly written atmospheric pieces detailing the emotional struggle between two lovers, but more importantly, the struggle each of them fights between their own goals and desires, and the pressures of their families and cultures.

Soma paints flowers and fruits. She hasn’t had a big break (yet), she hasn’t been to art school. She just paints because she can’t not paint. She’s working on a sea of daffodils now. And here’s where she shows Wordsworth a thing or two:

I shook my head and pointed like a madwoman to different spots on the canvas. “Look. Look at how the light isn’t hitting the flowers quite right here. That petal. There. It’s awkward. You don’t see that? The lines are too crooked. The daffodils, they need more magic. They need more pop.”
“They are popping. They are popping.”
He placed it on the easel. My sea of daffodils. It wasn’t a Njideka Akunyili multimedia piece or Chinwe Uwatse’s Impossible Dreams. I did not paint pictures of Nigerian landscapes. I did not delve into cultural or social themes. The first time Emeka saw my work, he squinched his face and asked in a scholarly tone what it meant. What kind of commentary was I making as an African woman drawing fruits and flowers? I had a teacher once, in a continuing ed studio workshop, who asked me the same thing. He told me that I would have a hard time competing with African artists who were making bold statements as a result of living in a state of existential urgency. He did not realize that my flowers were also coming from existential urgency. I asked him why my paintings had to mean something. Why they couldn’t just make me feel something. Something indescribable. Why couldn’t they just open a door for anyone to walk through and experience an existence that’s greater than they will ever be but also in this strange and relieving way, a part of them. An alternate reality that is ours. Isn’t this what we all want? To find that magical place in the midst of our tiny, broken-up lives? The teacher gave me a B.

I love this section. I’ve seen this several times in, of all things, cooking competition shows. A chef has trained in French technique at the CIA (the cooking school, not the spy shop) or with a high-end chef in a nouveau-cuisine restaurant, but because she is Asian, or Latina, she’s expected to specialize in her cultural cuisine. This seems to me just as perverse as refusing to allow non-European cuisines into the culinary citadels. Soma relates so clearly how daffodils and fruits inspire her; why not let her take her path, perhaps it will lead her somewhere else when she’s perfected it, much as the most famous artists sometimes work in various schools. Yes, I’m thinking Van Gogh’s wonderful realism, which doesn’t erase his sunflowers or stars, but shows another side. And by the way, I went back and forth for a long time trying to decide on an image for this post: Uwatse’s “Impossible Dreams,” or a sea of daffodils. I feel like I betrayed Soma in choosing Dreams, but in the end I went with a recognized Nigerian artist rather than an anonymous stock photo.

Soma is our point of view character, so we see Emeka through her eyes. Though he lives with her and they act like they’re in love, his family has arranged a marriage to a more suitable woman, a woman getting a formal education, a woman who can help him when  as a doctor and then as leader he rescues his father’s village in Nigeria.

Although most of the text is internal, there are several scenes that illustrate the conflict they both face. Emeka tells her to apply for grants, get some kind of official acknowledgement of her talent, so he can present her as worthy to his family. She tries to make Nigerian food – fritters made from black-eyed peas – though she’s more of a spaghetti-and-meatballs kind of girl, and it ends up in the trash. Then there’s a brief but eloquent moment in the bagel shop where she works:

At Bruegger’s that day, I was training a new employee at the counter to strive for “Best in Class”: smile at your customer, ask politely how they can be helped, cut their bagels down the middle as clean as possible, pick only the freshest-looking ingredients for their sandwiches. Be proud of how you’ve brightened their day so that your great work continues. Somewhere in the middle of smearing mayo on a bagel, I had to turn away and shut my eyes tight to keep myself from losing it.

Yeah. Who hasn’t been there. For me it was writing articles about the need for long term care for the office newsletter.

I’ve often indicated my impatience with what I call the “sensitively crafted domestic realism story,” and this might seem like exactly what I’m talking about. But several things lift it from that category. First is the fascinating symmetry between the two characters: he is miserable while he’s trying to please his family and tradition and squelch his dreams, and she is miserable while she’s resisting pressure to abandon her dreams and toe the line. Second is that the conflict is far more specific than the vague marital unease that is the basis of routine domestic realism, conflict that’s beautifully illustrated by the scenes I outlined, among others. And third is the beautiful prose. No, that isn’t fair, I often complain about beautiful prose as distracting, and to be honest, here it is as well. But… it’s really beautiful. Fourth, I see a natural future in this story, where Soma grows as an artist, and we learn what the daffodils mean to her and why she must paint them – and how she grows them into her own fusion of style.  

Since each of them is currently resolving their personal struggle in opposite ways, the ending is inevitable.

And, frankly, cheering; I don’t think I could have handled it if she’d put away her paints and enrolled in a computer science program.

*  *  *     

  • Story is available online at Narrative (with registration, free and painless)

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Marcus Spiegel, “A Tale of Two Trolls” from  Santa Monica Review, Spring 2020

Art from Drawception: Notorious
Pepe the Frog is a cartoon character that has become a popular Internet meme (often referred to as the “sad frog meme” by people unfamiliar with the name of the character). The character first appeared in 2005 in the on-line cartoon Boy’s Club. In that appearance, the character also first used its catchphrase, “feels good, man.”
The Pepe the Frog character did not originally have racist or anti-Semitic connotations. ….[I]t was inevitable that, as the meme proliferated in on-line venues such as 4chan, 8chan, and Reddit, which have many users who delight in creating racist memes and imagery, a subset of Pepe memes would come into existence that centered on racist, anti-Semitic or other bigoted themes.
In recent years, with the growth of the “alt right” segment of the white supremacist movement, a segment that draws some of its support from some of the above-mentioned Internet sites, the number of “alt right” Pepe memes has grown, a tendency exacerbated by the controversial and contentious 2016 presidential election.

ADL website

When I was a kid, I ran away from home. I had a very clear idea of how things would go: someone kind and understanding would take me in, recognize how special I was, and would make me part of their family and raise me to achieve all that I could until at long last I realized I had to return to my own family and allow them to join me in my new wisdom. As you might expect, this plan fell apart pretty quickly, because the first thing someone does when they realize a kid is running away from home is call their family and send them back. I was completely surprised that my plan didn’t work. It seemed so simple. I mean, wasn’t it repeated in a dozen books, tv shows, and films of the period? (Portions of this scenario have been modified to protect… well, me).

Spiegel’s story features a couple of characters who, though they had at least part of a college education, made the same mistake of assuming the scenario they have in their heads would succeed simply because they imagined it.

I’ll admit, I was nervous about the story at first. It seemed to feature a couple of nascent alt-right activists, though I wasn’t sure if they were actually Antifa activists doing a fake-out as alt-right. Maybe you can tell I’m still not sure exactly what Antifa is, or what everyday activism is for that matter. It seemed as though I’d finally stumbled across a story featuring alt-right characters. But this can’t be the alt-right, can it? I mean, they’re so… stupid. Is this satire? Am I supposed to feel sorry for them? Angry at them? Afraid of them?

Then I realized something crucial to my reading of the story. Nowhere do Yuri and Winch express political opinions. They never mention immigration, abortion, race, religion, what the local eighth-graders are checking out of their school libraries, or any other alt-right hot-button issues. For them, public policy is the well-buried means to an end, and the end is: becoming famous on YouTube.

So I decided to let it be hilarious.

Since the world is increasingly the battleground of propaganda, practical wisdom seems to require that everyone become her own Leni Riefenstahl . It’s either that or become someone else’s dupe.
Yuri and Winch, for their part, have taken measures to adapt to the new counterpunching regime. Their most significant attempt at persuasion is the YouTube show and podcast Tadpole Island. They’ve recorded six episodes thus far, most of which feature their only other friend in the flesh, Olaf Norquist, the self-styled black magician and alt-right political commentator. But they have yet to offer up their golden ball to strangers perusing the net.
Tadpole Island is hosted by Yuri’s alter ego, Zepé – basically Yuri in a frog suit, speaking in an invented accent that Norquist has described as a cross between Jamaican, Aussie, and Martian. The frog character, of course, is modeled on Pepe, crude demiurge of the meme, though somehow Yuri’s Zepé suit calls to mind Kermit or Super Mario similarly clad. Either way, Zepé is destined to be a mammoth success.

You might wonder, after reading that, why it took me so long to realize it was hilarious. Hey, I’m a cautious reader, ok?  And historically, I have trouble with contemporary (that is, ironic) humor.

If their first goal is fame, their second is retribution. Or, possibly, fame is in the service of retribution, but they plan the fame first and only incorporate retribution later.

The retributee is Professor Badendorf, a German Studies teacher who wouldn’t help Yuri get out from under a missed deadline that resulted in an F. Somehow this involved a bad case of whooping cough, which had me thinking anti-vaxxer, except – is whooping cough something you can self-diagnose, or did he have a cold and expanded it for dramatic purposes? Then I went down a neuroscience rabbit hole (one of my favorite types of rabbit holes) when I read that Yuri had again forgotten to shave the right side of his face. Hemispatial neglect can be a symptom of a stroke or other brain damage, but it’s usually left-sided and not just on the face but the whole body, so what is this referring to, and boy am I overthinking this. See, it wasn’t quite as simple as the Kermit/Mario costume to get to hilarity. And it turns out Kermit/Mario is a whole thing; I’m really too old for this.

In any case, they plan to kidnap this professor for the dramatic seventh episode of Tadpole Island.

Once Badendorf was loaded into the Honda’s trunk, they would drive to the Bunker and transfer him into what they were calling his “cage” – which actually looked more like an igloo made out of cardboard boxes that they’d spent much of the night constructing.
The days would creep along for Badendorf. He would have little to hope for apart from his two meals of frozen corn niblets served to him in a doggie bowl.
At some point during the professor’s imprisonment they would call him from his cage and force him to do the show. Badendorf and Zepé would have a dialogue. Zepé would quash him with his superior intellect. Zepé and Winch would then subject him to some light torture on camera, afterwards returning him to his cage.
Those dark web episodes of Tadpole would be legendary in no time…. In a matter of days, or even hours, their subscriber list would bloom.
Nothing clickbaits like suffering.

My childhood runaway plot was better planned than this. But it’s the story they have in their heads, and they’re going with it.

Of course, first they have to find the Professor. And, while looking for him, Yuri runs across Hannah from European Mythology at the panel reception, and we delve into Incel 101. The line “In ten minutes, Yuri has managed to consume more vegetables than he has in the previous ten months” is where I started laughing out loud. As Aaron Sorkin assured us with The Social Network, a great deal of evil can be traced back to a spurned romantic advance.

For all the hilarity, every once in a while there’s a drop-dead line, like the thing about suffering as clickbait. Then there’s the key point the story brought up for me, something I’ve been debating for the past six years or so: will the ruthlessness of the alt-right doom us, or will their absurdity save us? In this case, absurdity is clearly in ascendancy. Let’s hope that’s how it works out in real life.

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  • “Pepe the Frog” entry on ADL’s website
  • Author’s website

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Pam Durban, “The Very Great Abyss” from Cincinnati Review #17.2

Very Great Abyss influences the Po which is the spirit of the Metal Element. Of the five spirits the Po, also known as the Corporeal Soul, is the one that supports the functioning of the body. It is what gives us our instincts, our animal nature. It is our animal soul. Paradoxically, the Po also allows for a tricky balancing act of living life as a human being, namely that of being a creature of spirit inhabiting the body of an animal. When the Po is troubled, this balance between spirit and body, between heaven and earth, can be disturbed. Lung 9 is able to go down into the abyss, to the depth of the soul. It can retrieve a person who has lost their way, calm one who is manic, stabilise someone who feels like they are cracking up or losing control. In short, it can reach down into the very depth of a person, calming, revitalising, rejuvenating and bringing a sense of security and stability.
…. Self acupressure is good but treating another allows the work to go much deeper.

John Kirkwood: Five Element Acupressure

We continue with the theme of grief, particularly how the avoidance of grief costs so much more than its acceptance. So many of us have to learn that the hard way, it seems. And, like the prior story, it turns out that connecting with another’s grief might be the way to deal with your own.

The plot is simple: a woman goes from massage therapist to sex worker after her beloved brother dies in combat.

Last January Miranda had graduated from massage school in Pittsburgh.… At school they’d called her a natural, said she had good hands, intuitive hands that felt the places where the body armors itself against the pain of walking through this world. She was the one the teachers called on in acupressure class. “Come show us the location of the Sea of Tranquility and the correct pressure to apply there,” they said. “Come locate the Very Great Abyss.” And every time, she’d go straight to the tiny point on wrist, hand, foot, eyebrow that set the life-force flowing again.
In March she’d rented this room, knowing what this place was, still believing she could do here just the work she’d been trained to do. Now it was September: the leaves on the oaks in Soldiers’ National Cemetery were turning, the reenactment armies had left for their winter camps, and the show she was supposed to get on the road was the show you imagine as soon as you hear the name Gettysburg Massage.

The reason for the transformation isn’t explicit, but she mentions a way of coping with her new profession that might apply to her exit from therapy: “You’d be surprised, she might have said if anyone had asked her, how you can adapt to almost anything once you find the right distance from it…” She needs some distance from being a healer to give herself time to heal. And she’s brought back to herself by a client who is also grieving, when he asks for an actual massage. Strange, the paths we take to face our grief. But whatever works.

It’s the lyrical language, the connections between Gettysburg, the life of a military family, and feeling adrift and alone, that creates mood and ambience as the two mourners hover and play at connecting, then finally connect via a small spot on the wrist known as The Very Great Abyss.

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  • John Kirkwood: Five Element Acupressure website quoted above
  • A brief excerpt from the opening of the story is available at The Cincinnati Review

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Lucas Southworth, “The Crying Room”  from Copper Nickel #30

Ambiguous loss is a situation that’s beyond human expectation. We know about death: It hurts, but we’re accustomed to loved ones dying and having a funeral and the rituals. With ambiguous loss, there are no rituals; there are no customs. Society doesn’t even acknowledge it. So the people who experience it are very isolated and alone, which makes it worse.
….It requires dealing with the stress of not knowing and therefore how to cope with that. Your only option is to build resilience.
….We must increase our tolerance for ambiguity and [decrease] our hold on needing certainty all the time. We get sedentary and we get comfortable in our own little circle of people who are like us, and there’s so much more out there in the world. We need to reach out and get a little uncomfortable trying something new.

NPR interview with Dr. Pauline Boss, professor and therapist

Although Dr. Boss coined the term “ambiguous loss” in 1973 as she researched and developed therapeutic methods for helping people deal with it, I’d never heard it before now. There are two general categories: those whose loved ones have literally gone missing, and those whose loved ones are physically present but psychologically absent due to mental or physical illness. This story deals primarily with the first type, but also includes another possible version: when one feels responsible for a loved one’s death. Maybe.

It’s a story that could have easily crossed the line into schmaltzy sentimentality, but overall resists the urge thanks to what I see as three factors. First is the weirdness quotient, and by weird, I don’t mean SF/F-weird, just weird enough to register as not quite everyday. Second is some interesting plot choreography. Third is placing the reader in their own ambiguous state. This allows the final paragraph to let loose, in a way that’s powerful rather than gooey, with everything the story has held back.

We meet our unnamed first person narrator (no one has a name in the story; I’m guessing the anonymity is part of the emotional distancing between everyone) on a bus ride to an unnamed city. We discover she’s imagining her fourteen-year-old son in the seat beside her; he appears angry. I don’t know if Southworth researched ambiguous grief, but this is one of the hallmarks of the first type: the psychological presence in spite of physical absence. We don’t yet know if he just isn’t with her on this trip, or if his physical absence is more permanent; we don’t know why he’s angry, but it seems a familiar state. We are ankle-deep in ambiguity already.

We follow the narrator to a diner in the city, where she orders eggs and looks at employment ads. We find out she’s a doctor. She asks the waitress if she knows what crying rooms are. She doesn’t, though she’s heard of them. I don’t know what they are, either; more ambiguity for me, plus a little weirdness. I looked up crying rooms, to see if I was just uninformed; turns out Spain has La Lloreria, crying rooms, in an effort to reduce stigma around getting help for mental illness in the interests of reducing its suicide rate. I don’t see anything in the US other than rooms to bring babies who cry during church or other gatherings.

 Our narrator says, “I read the ad again and picked up my fork. The eggs were perfect. Yolk filled the entire plate as soon as I cut in.” I detest eggs, but I understand from all the cooking shows I’ve watched that this runny-yolk thing is a mark of perfection. I have to wonder if that is a sign that the crying room job advertised is seen by her as perfect, as well.

That’s just the first page.

Our narrator goes for her interview.

From what I understood, I told them, I was perfect for the place. I’d worked nights before. I liked it. I wasn’t too young or too old, too talkative or quiet. I wasn’t easily rattled or taken in. I had no interest in family or being liked or making friends.
The owners didn’t bring up that I was overqualified. They just conferred with each other for a minute. Then they listed the rules.
Pretend you don’t recognize anyone, they said, even customers that come in often. Wear sunglasses to hide your eyes. Keep your hands out of sight as much as possible. Ask three simple questions. How long would you like your room? What is your preferred method of payment? Can you see the elevator, down the hall to the left?

Ok, like that isn’t weird at all, is it. I can sort of understand the sunglasses, but why hide hands? We never find out. Ambiguity.

At this point we start to find out about the narrator’s backstory, why she’s in this new city, where her son is. Or isn’t. Guess what: it’s weird. He and her husband disappeared, leaving nothing behind but their shoes. I spent some time trying to figure that out. All I could come up with was: The narrator is the one with the emotional resonance, but I get to share the ambiguity.

The story takes us through her familiarization with the crying rooms, and her tentative attachment to a client whose daughter died. “It was my fault, she said. It might have been.” That’s all we get, and now we’re up to our necks in ambiguity, right along with the two women.

And finally, as the women become closer, the story ends with a poetic paragraph that unleashes all the sentiment it’s reined in so tightly:

Some crying turns like a hurricane, some falls in a patter, some hovers as mist. Some crying stalks the house in silence, pretending not to notice. Some lays dormant, ticking, a bomb. Some dismantles the horizon. There is crying that can only come in new cities. There is crying of anger, of unhappiness, of remorse. Some crying is like being behind a curtain or being behind a world behind a curtain. Some ferries like a vessel or a ship, at the mercy of weather and wind. Some is fragile, on the edge, threatening to break until it does, a stone through glass, a sheet of ice on the sidewalk. There is crying of tragedy, of shame. There are sniffles and yowls and caterwauls. And some crying sutures. Some stitches, some staples and binds. Some replaces, transplants, transforms. And some crying is the best way to get to blood, the best way to get to what lingers. Some is like seeing, almost. Some like understanding, almost. And some is like accepting, almost, what can’t be, what won’t be, what isn’t and what is.

Acceptance is, as they say, the final stage of grief. But with ambiguous grief, how do you accept what isn’t known?

A few stories ago, I listened to a podcast that explained the difference between narrative and lyric. Narrative proceeds along a time line: one event, then the next, with connections that might be lyric or explicit, but time moves and the story changes with it. Lyric occurs in a moment of time. That’s what this final paragraph does: it encompasses the narrator’s experience, both leading up to her trip and as the manager of the crying rooms, it embraces her confusion, her sorrow, even her medical training. But it stays in that one moment, happening all at once. And it occurs to me, this is the yolk, heretofore constrained within the sac of tense albumen, running all over the plate.

Whether you prefer the precision of most of the story, or the lyric burst at the end, or the juxtaposition of the two, it’s a fascinating story. Weird, ambiguous, controlled, explosive. Just like grief.

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  • NPR interview with Pauline Boss quoted above
  • Reuters article about La Lloreria, Spain’s version of the crying room.
  • Author’s website

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Jeremiah Moss, “Open House” (non-fiction) from N+1 #36

N+1 Art by Amanda C. Mathis: Displacement
It reads like a personal essay if you don’t think about it too much, but it really is research based… there’s multiple section about Instagram and how it’s shaping this.… there’s a fair amount of sourcing, but he doesn’t do it in a really overt way where it’s a giant block quote…. It’s really outward looking, in some ways research reported but also personal. …. A lot of times fiction writers who are writing an essay, it’s got a very narrative frame, like “New person is moving in” and it’s not that at all, it’s much more complicated than that; he’s covering decades here, he’s not interested in one neighbor, he’s interested in thirty years of changing.

Justin St. Germain I’ll Find Myself When I’m Dead podcast (edited)

I’ve got to find time to listen to this podcast; it rambles a lot (as all podcasts do, that’s what people love about them, they aren’t speeches) but it contains so much info on different approaches to essay writing.

The essay in question is about gentrification, specifically in New York.

The Great Invasion began sometime in the late 1990s but didn’t really take shape until after September 11. That’s when the new people found the East Village. The new people, the emphatically normal, come from someplace else, the Midwest, the South, but that’s not what makes them invaders. Many of us come from someplace else. I come from someplace else. Move anywhere and you’re potentially interloping. So what is it? How can I talk about the new people and their superpower of invasion? I’m forever grappling with this question, reducing, stereotyping, and then struggling not to be reductive. What I keep coming back to is their apparent belief that their way of living belongs everywhere, that it should trickle down the ladder of power and fill every lower space, scouring and purifying as it goes. Spaces of queerness. Spaces of color. Spaces of marginalization. Spaces of This is our little scrap of somewhere, can’t you just let us have it, oh you who have everywhere? With good reason, colonization and Manifest Destiny are the enduring metaphors of gentrification.

It makes a great read, funny and poignant in turns, with recognizable characters and situations if you’ve lived in a neighborhood for any length of time. I’ve seen a lot of changes in my small city over the past twenty years, some good, some bad. And I do recognize the feeling of being swept out so the more desirable tenants can come in. I’m not sure it adds anything new to the topic; this has been going on forever in New York, traceable through a lot of literature set in the city with parents arriving here especially in the pre-war years and their kids breaking away from their traditions but returning to upgraded housing. But it’s a great way to remind people that the poor have lives and pasts and histories that matter, too, and maybe we should think twice before turning their buildings into condos and townhouses to build up the tax base.

The author is fascinating in himself. Jeremiah Moss is a pseudonym for his writing; Griffin Hansbury became a psychotherapist, writer, and activist whose blog is full of stories about people being pushed aside to make room for people who matter more.

I came in the early 1990s because it made sense for me to be here. I was a young, queer, transsexual poet, and where else would a young, queer, transsexual poet go but to the East Village? Back then the neighborhood still throbbed with its hundred years of counterculture, a dissident history going back to the early anarchists and feminists, up through the bohemians and Beats, the hippies and punks, the poets, queers, and transsexuals too. I had a pair of combat boots and an elite liberal arts education, thanks to a full ride of grants and work-study programs, but not much money. I hail from generations of peasants, washerwomen, and bricklayers, orphans raised by nuns, 12-year-old factory workers, icemen who sang opera while they slung frozen bricks, soldiers, hucksters, and bookmakers, thick-legged Italians and paper-skinned Irish Catholics, most of whom didn’t get to high school and not one of whom saw the inside of a college classroom. I had ambition but didn’t yet understand entitlement…. The East Village was full of people who were bruised like I was bruised, people who weren’t quite pulled together but were trying to make something interesting with their lives. I belonged here. In this neighborhood. In this crumbling tenement.

I find myself with little to say about the piece, mostly because the essay is clear and forceful. I’ll just leave it at that.

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  • The essay is available online at N+1 
  • Author’s website
  • The episode of the podcast I’ll Find Myself When I’m Dead referenced above can be found online; the discussion of this essay begins around 58:15