I’m not a ghoulish person. I’m a guileless, sunny optimist, in fact. When I first started training in death investigation, T. J. worried my new job would change the way I looked at the world. He feared that after a few months of hearing about the myriad ways New Yorkers die, the two of us would start looking up nervously for window air conditioners to fall on our heads….
Instead, my experience has had the opposite effects. It freed me – and, eventually, my husband as well – from our six o’clock news phobias. Once I became an eyewitness to death, I found that nearly every unexpected fatality I investigated was either the result of something dangerously mundane, or of something predictably hazardous.
…. Staying alive, as it turns out, is mostly common sense.
Yes, I’ve been doing the blood-and-guts thing again. What can I say: autopsies are cool, they combine anatomy, physiology, and puzzles. I have two other non-fiction medical examiner books, one by Milton Helpern, one by Michael Baden, and a shelf of Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta, ME fiction series. But it’s been a while, so I got another one.
After medical school, Melinek took a surgical residency. Most surgeons are proud of the absurdly difficult working conditions inherent (or believed to be inherent) their training, but Melinek found it absurd and quit fairly quickly. Forensic pathology suited her far better.
Some of the book is predictably grisly: decomposition, bloating, violence, horrible accidents.
From Michael Donoghue’s green body and purple face on my autopsy table, I learned what a man of average build looks like after lying dead for forty-eight hours wrapped in a blanket, dumped face-down into an open-air canvas bin in cool, dry autumn weather, without animal depredation, covered in banana peels and soda cans. I filed the image away.
That’s a scary mental file cabinet she’s got there. But it’s part of the job, to recognize how the passage of time affects a body.
There is some humor as well, as when an apartment resident called the police about a bucket of… something in a hallway. The police who responded freaked out and brought it to the medical examiner’s office; they thought it contained a fetus. But it was a lot stranger, and less tragic, than that:
The mystery bucket became Dr. Hayes’s case. He dipped into its cloudy red contents and fished out something cold and hard. It was a porcelain figure of kissing angels. That was weird enough, but next came a couple dozen maraschino cherries. Finally he extracted a pair of two foot long ropy gobs of organic matter. To him they looked either like skinned snakes or donkey penises – he wasn’t sure which. Dr. Hayes washed the objects off and carried them over to radiography. X-rays revealed they certainly weren’t fetuses: there were no bones. Probably penises, then. Just to make sure, Hayes cut the gobs in half. They had a spongiform cross-section. Yes, they were penises, from a nonhuman animal.
Hayes is a fabulously witty and irreverent man to begin with, so hearing him present the Mysterious Case of the Maraschino Donkey Dongs in his genteel English accent was the highlight of everyone’s week.
It’s the matter-of-fact voice that makes this anecdote fun. And imagining the presentation.
Two medical phenomena stood out to me. One is sequestration: when most of the body’s blood volume is sucked back into the bone marrow on collapse of the vascular system. In the case Melinek describes, a man jumped in front of a train. He had no external injuries, but suffered internal decapitation: that is, his skull was disconnected from his spinal column without disrupting the skin of the neck or head. Melenik had trouble drawing blood; the heart was empty. Her supervisor suggested, since there was no outlet for blood to leave the body, that it might have pooled in the bone marrow. I wanted to know more about this, but I can’t find any mention of this online; I may not be using the best search terms.
Another phenomenon is called TRALI, transfusion-related acute lung injury. It’s a very rare reaction to blood transfusion that causes pulmonary edema. In the case Melinek came across, there were numerous complicating factors (including a false positive screen for methadone) and the patient died; her job was to figure out why, and TRALI turned out to be the cause of death. I was able to find a lot of additional information on this process.
Various chapters cover poisonings, accidents, wound comparisons, and unexpected hospital deaths requiring autopsy. There’s the usual discussion of cause vs manner of death, and a long explanation of therapeutic complications (such as the TRALI case) and why that doesn’t necessarily mean a doctor made a mistake. In the chapter about suicides, Melinek is quite open about her father’s suicide when she was thirteen years old. Several chapters cover her involvement in 9/11, which occurred two months after she was appointed as an assistant medical examiner at New York’s OCME. This was followed by the anthrax attacks, and a couple of months later, the second deadliest plane crash on US soil, ultimately determined to be due to pilot error, in Queens.
Melinek’s husband was the co-author on this book. They have since co-written two novels featuring a medical examiner protagonist. Maybe I’ll give one of them a try at some point.
She kept trying to argue that the other novels lacked the qualities that characterized a work of literature: “depth, beauty, structural integrity, and an ability to revive our tired imaginations with the precision of its language”.
The poor woman didn’t seem to realize that what counted in the adult world was working out compromises between actual members of a committee that reflected the forces at work in the wider society, like Parliament in relation to the nation as a whole. Vanessa had taken on the role of a doomed backbencher, making speeches to an empty chamber about values that simply had no place in the modern world.
The Booker Prize seems to have thrived on controversy for quite a while. As I read the list of the dozen biggest oopsies provided by The Daily Beast, I recognized quite a few missteps that St. Aubyn has included in this comic novel about the fictional Elysian Prize: the origins of the prize in an industry of less-than-ethical origins, last minute decisions changed in the last quarter-minute, a long-list book criticized for vulgarity, judges who don’t bother to read the submitted books at all, a book that was viewed as not really a novel at all, a leaked result, a short list criticized as “too readable.” Not to mention the infighting and politicking that’s taken for granted in any high-end competition. Whether or not the bedhopping St. Aubyn sprinkles into the Elysian story happens IRL is … no, not gonna go there.
If you read the Goodreads reviews, you’ll find a lot of disappointed readers. Some dismiss it as a formulaic romp with standard characters, or as toothless satire. Most point out that St. Aubyn’s prior works were far more substantial; more literary, if you will. Life imitates art indeed; it reads very much like comments characters make about the books up for the Elysian Prize. Those Goodreads criticisms may be deserved: Is it Literature? On a par with St. Aubyn’s earlier works? How would I know – I doubt it, but it was fun to read, and I’m not in the business of awarding prizes for literary merit so let me have a good time.
I’ll agree that it’s formulaic. The ensemble book – let’s follow a group of graduates, work colleagues, kids who grew up together, club members, whatever – always features a variety of characters different enough to be instantly recognizable and associated with expected viewpoints. Each one gets a quirk or two in some other aspect of their lives – family, libido, career – to round them out a bit.
Here, we have two such ensembles: the Elysian Prize judges, and writers who have some connection to the prize, either as nominees or wannabes. These ensembles intermix in various ways and push the story of one year’s Elysian prize forward, from submission, to Long List, to Short List, to the Awards Dinner, via the narrative question, Who will win? It’s not just a question of which writer will win, but which judge, as well.
St. Aubyn has admitted in interviews that Sam Black is his doppelganger: a writer torn by the twin forks of doubt and urgency:
He marveled at the speed with which elation had turned into anxiety. Ever since he had found that The Frozen Torrent was on the Long List, he had been torn between a superstitious need to avoid anticipating any further success, and a neurotic need to plan, in case further success came his way….
One thing was clear: he was going to have to drop the topic of art. In England, art was much less likely to be mentioned in polite society then sexual perversions or methods of torture; the word ‘elitist’ could be spat out with the same confident contempt as ‘coward’ at a court martial.
He’s written the most literary book under consideration, and is championed by Vanessa, an Oxbridge academic who defends Literature and dismisses everything else. And she has a lot to dismiss: a cookbook that, unknown to the judges, was submitted by mistake; a thriller about Enigma (that seems to resemble The Imitation Game); a historical novel about Shakespeare (that reminds me of Shakespeare in Love); and a book in vulgar Scottish vernacular (modeled after, I’m guessing, Trainspotting, from what I read in the Daily Beast article), favored by the committee chairman, a politician who lost a post in Scotland some years before when he made an ill-timed remark.
Yes, all of that is great fun, but there is substance here in the form of discussions on literature, and the role of literary prizes. I’ll grant that the opinions of these characters aren’t new or particularly incisive, but they sum up, in a captivating way, different ways of considering what it is we read, and why we read it. And it’s quite possible that not everyone who might read this book has spent a lot of time studying literary criticism.
Malcolm, the chairman who favors the Scottish books, seems to consider the purpose of the prize as financial and sociopolitical:
“We have eighty thousand pounds at our disposal, as well as the promise of several hundred thousand pounds which the winner can expect to earn over the next few years, and to me it’s of paramount importance that the money goes to someone who really needs it.”
….“We want to take the marginalized, and the politically repressed voices from the periphery,” said Malcolm, ignoring the spat between the ladies, “from what we might call the Outer Hebrides of the literary scene, and bring them center stage. Now, as we know, there are a lot of vested interests that have got used to the idea that the literary scene belongs to them, and when we reclaim it for the ordinary readers of this country, let’s not pretend they’re going to thank us for it.”
How much discussion of literature today revolves around marginalized and suppressed voices? And how often does this lead to accusations of reverse racism by, shall we say, one of the most widely published (white) writers in the world? But look again: That Malcolm stands to benefit from his pick winning by perhaps getting another chance at his post in Edinburgh is the not-terribly-subtle subtext of his advocacy. Be forewarned: no matter how much you agree with a character’s opinion, there’s something about them you’ll find less agreeable.
Vanessa Shaw, the Oxbridge academic, seems to have a rather sterile view of what makes a novel literature, until we see her fretting because her anorexic daughter has asked her to edit an essay for a pro-anorexia website:
She felt a violent desire to tear the bird feeder off its branch, and then she realized she was thinking of King Lear after Cordelia’s death. Why should a bird have life when Poppy…
And then she found herself wondering why any book should win this fucking prize she had become involved with unless it had a chance of doing what had just happened: coming back to a person when she wanted to cry but couldn’t, or wanted to think but couldn’t think clearly, or wanted to laugh but saw no reason to.
Isn’t this why classics become classics? From Odysseus’ long journey home, to Othello’s self-destructive jealousy, to Celie’s recapturing of hope, aren’t these moments what we remember, and keep for use when we need them ourselves? Would a police procedural with a feisty heroine comfort us in our despair or remind us to keep our eyes on the prize?
As for those genre novels: Penny, in the process of writing the second of a trilogy of spy thrillers, is more interested in realism and authentic details: “[A]part from anything else, one actually learned something from such a well-researched book, which was more than could be said of the neurotic musings of a lot of writers stuck at home, reading, writing, and thinking about literature. Why didn’t they get out and do something for a change?” How many times have I said how much I love a book that teaches me something? It was a bit alarming to see that sentiment here, in this character who uses an app called Ghost Writer to generate sentences for her genre novels. But it holds.
Tobias, a popular actor now touring in “a hip-hop version of Waiting for Godot” (wouldn’t you love to see about twenty minutes of that?), who rarely shows up for meetings and hasn’t read anything, makes a point as well when he praises the transgressive novel as “a welcome change from a novel about a failing marriage in Hampstead…” And again, how many times have I sneered at domestic realism and proposed the BASS Bingo Card including “a sensitive tale of a decaying marriage”? As with Penny, I’m a bit embarrassed to see myself reflected in Tobias, who clearly has little interest in literature beyond the roles it provides him.
And then there’s Auntie, whose privately published Indian cookbook was accidentally submitted instead of the literary novel that was supposed to win it all. Auntie, as elitist as she is around the heritage of her Indian family (descended from Krishna himself), keeps insisting it’s a cookbook – and she didn’t even write it, as she explains to the agent (John Elton – really? REALLY? I just learned the other day, via Jeopardy!, that when Elton John was knighted by the Queen, the Lord who announced him reversed his name) who’s considering buying the publishing rights for the UK if he can present it in the right way:
“I simply sent my secretary to ask our old cook in Badanpur, who naturally can’t write, to recite the recipes that have been passed down through the generations.”
John Elton let out a gust of confident laughter, as if he were starring in an advertisement for a new mouthwash. There was no doubt that Auntie’s supercilious manner would have to be carefully managed. Just as Magritte hid his surrealism under the uniform of the Belgian Bourgeoisie, India’s Laurence Sterne takes a mischievous pleasure in playing the grand dame. She appears to get her secretary to “write” a “cookbook” in order to challenge our expectations about the nature of authorship – something like that might work.
“I hope you can keep this up in the interviews,” he said. “It’s superb: the illiteracy that engenders literature; the rhetoric that denies rhetoric; ‘I will a round unvarnished tale deliver, as Othello says, before speaking some of the most beautiful English ever written. And the narrative frames: the secretary who interviews the cook – the man on the quayside who knows a story about the Congo; the man on the coach who could tell you a tale about the Caucasus. Superb!”
“I’m not following you,” said Auntie, irritably.
And for the third time I’m embarrassed: Elton’s bullshit interpretation is right up my alley. I’m always intrigued by the ongoing issue of authorial intent (and yes, “Death of the Author” is mentioned in the book): just because Auntie says it’s a cookbook, does that mean it is one? Do I, veteran of so many cooking competitions that refer to a meal as a story, to cuisine as culture, agree with Jo, the columnist who defends the choice against Oxbridge’s dismissal:
In any case, Jo turned out to have an impressive command of all the right jargon.
“I’m surprised that you don’t recognize its qualities,” she said to Vanessa. “You claim to be an expert on contemporary fiction and yet, faced with a ludic, postmodern, multi-media masterpiece, you naively deny that it’s a novel at all.”
“It’s not a novel,” said Vanessa, “it’s a cookbook. It’s called The Palace Cookbook because it’s a cookbook.” She let out a growl of childish fury.
“It tells the story of a family,” said Jo, admirably calm under fire, “through cooking. What could be more universal, after all, then the language of food?”
“Inuit, Catalan, Gaelic, any fucking language,” said Vanessa, “because food isn’t a language, it’s something you you eat.”
Or am I going to side with Vanessa, who, remember, knows something about anorexia, which is a pretty dramatic way of using food to communicate? Don’t tell me this novel is fluff. It may rely on commonplaces, but it has some hidden corners where treasures are tucked.
Towards the end, we meet Mr. Wo. He’s just purchased the Elysian company, inheriting the Prize sponsorship in the deal. When asked about his view of the purpose of the Prize, he speaks what just might be the truest truth about the absurdity of big literary prizes.
“It’s a prize for literature,” said Mr. Wo. “I hope it will go in the direction of literature. My wife takes a great interest in these things. Personally, I think that competition should be encouraged in war and sport and business, but that it makes no sense in the arts. If an artist is good, nobody else can do what he or she does and therefore all comparisons are incoherent. Only the mediocre, pushing forward a commonplace view of life in a commonplace language, can really be compared, but my wife thinks that ‘least mediocre of the mediocre’ is a discouraging title for a prize,” Mr. Wo couldn’t help laughing.
Jo didn’t know where to begin. She disagreed with everything that Mr. Wo had said, as well as with the assumptions behind everything he had said, but she was temporarily paralyzed by the abundance of potential targets.
Is a literary competition about art, and thus nonsensical? Or is it about something else: craft, maybe, or catching the public imagination, or making a point in a way that stands a chance of being heard? Is it about supporting writers on the way up, about rewarding those who’ve consistently done great work? If the judges aren’t trained in literary arts, just what is it they’re judging?
The cover of the book – at least the edition I got – includes a little jest as well. A gold disc encompassing the words “A Novel” is similar to those emblems declaring a book to have won a Pulitzer or some other prize.
So my apologies to those who were disappointed with this book because it wasn’t more like St. Aubry’s more literary books. I use a Whitman quote on my Twitter profile: “And do not call the tortoise unworthy because she is not something else.” It’s not a Booker-winning book (St. Aubry was on the short list for one of his more literary novels, but didn’t win). It’s familiar rather than innovative. It’s fun rather than profound. And every once in a while it works in something thought-provoking. I loved it for what it was.
Another question I’ve been regularly asked over the past year is what models I had in mind when writing Curious Incident. Was it To Kill a Mockingbird? Was it Catcher in the Rye?
In fact, the book most often in my mind was Pride and Prejudice.
Jane Austen was writing about boring people with desperately limited lives…. Her heroines were bound by iron rules about what they could do, where they could go and what they could say. Their futures depended on the single question of who they would marry. Was it going to be the baronet? Or were they going to fall for a cad in tight red trousers and be discarded in a boarding house in Bath?
Yet Jane Austen writes about these humdrum lives with such empathy that they seem endlessly fascinating. And her first act of empathy is to write about them in the kind of book these woman would themselves read – the romantic novel.
This was what I was trying to do in Curious Incident. To take a life that seemed horribly constrained, to write about it in the kind of book that the hero would read – a murder mystery – and hopefully show that if you viewed this life with sufficient imagination it would seem infinite.
I read this book back when it was first released, nearly twenty years ago, to a flurry of praise. I don’t really remember my impressions, other than I loved the opening, lost interest during the train ride, but loved it again at the end. This reading was very different, which is why I’ve included several re-reads in these In-Between periods. Not only have I become a better reader, but what interests me has also changed. Expanded, I believe. It’s a wonderful book, and I was delighted, and still am, that it became so popular.
One of the better-reader things that stood out to me this time around was the self-reflexive nature of the book; that is, the book is written by the character Christopher. Obviously there was an author who exists in our reality, but it’s a great way to emphasize, even beyond the first-person narration, that this is all through Christopher’s point of view. I always wonder when I read first-person: why is the narrator telling this story now? That’s not often answered; here, it’s part of the story. And not just a minor part: Christopher’s losing the book, and looking for it, kicks the primary conflict into high gear and generates the rest of the book.
Not just that, but he discusses how he’s writing while he’s writing. For instance, he wants to write about a proof he has to do for his math exam. His teacher (or social worker, her precise role isn’t clear) Siobhan mentions that some readers won’t be interested in that kind of thing so he should put it in an appendix, and sure enough, there’s an appendix with the proof. Again, it’s part of the story, and emphasizes that this is Christopher’s book.
I do not tell lies. Mother used to say that this was because I was a good person. But it is not because I am a good person. It is because I can’t tell lies.
…. A lie is when you say something happened which didn’t happen. But there is only ever one thing which happened at a particular time and a particular place. And there are an infinite number of things which didn’t happen catch that time and that place. And if I think about something which didn’t happen I started thinking about all the other things which didn’t happen.
For example, this morning for breakfast I had Ready Brek and some hot raspberry milkshake. But if I say that I actually had Shreddies and a mug of tea I start thinking about Coco Pops and lemonade and porridge and Doctor Pepper and how I wasn’t eating my breakfast in Egypt and there wasn’t a rhinoceros in the room and father wasn’t wearing a diving suit and so on and even writing this makes me feel shaky and scared, like I do when I’m standing on top of a very tall building and there are thousands of houses and cars and people below me and my head is so full of all these things that I’m afraid that I’m going to forget to stand up straight and hang on to the rail and I’m going to fall over and be killed.
This is another reason why I don’t like proper novels, because they are lies about things which didn’t happen and they make me feel shaky and scared.
And this is why everything I have written here is true.
Christopher has a unique point of view and distinctive voice. Although no diagnosis is given in the book, it’s fair to say he’s somewhere on the high-functioning side of the autism spectrum. Haddon has remarked in interviews that he’d just as soon not get into specifics, but let the character have, as he mentions above, certain constraints. Through the course of the book, he finds ways around some of them. Like lying: he discovers the white lie, which he defines as not telling the whole truth, and doesn’t count it as a lie.
Another technique I might not have recognized the first time around was that many of Christopher’s digressions – or what seem like digressions – are thematically related to some part of the story. For example, he’s writing about his memory, which is extraordinarily detailed for most events from his life:
My memory is like a film. That is why I am really good at remembering things, like the conversations I have written down in this book, and what people were wearing, and what they smelled like, because my memory has a smell track which is like a soundtrack.
And when people ask me to remember something I can simply press Rewind and Fast Forward and Pause like on a video recorder, but more like a DVD player because I don’t have to rewind through everything in between to get to a memory of something along time ago. And there are no buttons, either, because it is happening in my head.
If someone says to me, “Christopher, tell me what your mother was like,” I can rewind to lots of different scenes and say what she was like in those scenes.
At this point he demonstrates his detailed recall and remembers a particular date and time. He was with his mother at the beach, and she dove under the water; he was afraid she’d been eaten by a shark but she came back up and comforted him. Christopher was told some time ago that his mother was dead; he might not be able to say, “I miss my mom” or cry, do, or say the things many fifteen-year-olds might do when their mother dies, but this conveys the same sense of loss and love.
And father said, ‘Christopher, do you know that I love you?”
And I said “Yes,” because loving someone is helping them when they get into trouble, and looking after them, and telling them the truth, and Father looks after me when I get into trouble, like coming to the police station, and he looks after me by cooking meals for me, and he always tells me the truth, which means that he loves me.
And then he held up his right hand and spread his fingers out in a fan and I held up my left hand and spread my fingers out in a fan and we made our fingers and thumbs touch each other.
This hand-touching is a substitute for hugging, which bothers Christopher. Again, it’s how he and his family have worked around a constraint. But what stood out to me here is his definition of his father’s love; this becomes crucial later when he discovers his father has indeed lied to him, and about something monumental.
I happened to be on a bus while reading the beginning of Christopher’s train ride. It was an unusually rough ride: the 9am bus never showed, so the 9:30 had more riders than usual. One explained the prior bus had an accident, so there was a lot of nervous excitement; one woman in particular was quite anxious, and it was contagious. All this as I read about Christopher’s anxiety in the train station. I could identify strongly with his confusion regarding the signs all blending together, people and noises; it was uncomfortable, but fascinating in retrospect.
I was aware that the novel had been adapted into a highly successful play. Since so much of it takes place in Christopher’s head, I wondered how that would work. I found some clips on YouTube; it’s almost film-like, and maintains his point of view while blending thought and action. No wonder it won so many awards.
I had no recollection of the ending of the book from my prior read. That’s surprising, because it’s beautiful:
And I went to a bookshop with Mother and I bought a book called Further Maths for A Level and Father told Mrs. Gascoyne that I was going to take A-level Further Maths next year and she said “OK.”
And I am going to pass it and get an A grade. And in two years’ time I am going to take A-level Physics and get an A grade.
And then, when I’ve done that, I am going to go to university in another town. And it doesn’t have to be in London because I don’t like London and there are universities in lots of places and not all of them are in big cities. And I can live in a flat with a garden and a proper toilet. And I can take Sandy and my books and my computer.
And then I will get a First Class Honors degree and I will become a scientist.
And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own, and because I solved the mystery of Who Killed Wellington? and I found my mother and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.
This way of packing Christopher’s just-the-facts voice with emotional content is brilliant. At no point does he get sentimental; he just writes down what he’s going to do, and wraps it up with what he did. He shows us he can do anything. Maybe not in the way readers would do it, maybe not in conventional or easy ways, but he will get around his constraints to get where he wants to be, one way or another.
I knew I loved this book twenty years ago; now I better understand why.
I write here about the life of the Lord God as – and only as – the protagonist of a classic of world literature; namely, the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. I do not write about (though I certainly do not write against) the Lord God as the object of religious belief. I do not attempt, as theology does, to make an original statement about God as an extraliterary reality. I do not write as a historian and therefore do not focus, as historians do, on the successive Israelite and Jewish communities that believed in God.
….If biography is seen narrowly as a branch of history, then there can be no biography of a non-historical character. But God does have a first and a last appearance in the Hebrew Bible. We see him first as the creator, outside history, prior to it, masterfully setting in motion the heavenly bodies by which historical time will be measured. We see him last as the “Ancient of Days,” white-haired and silent, looking forward to the end of history from a remote and cloudy throne. This book becomes a biography of a special sort by dint of its determination to describe the middle that lies between so vigorous a beginning and so quiescent an end.
This was a late addition to this year’s list. My blogging buddy Jake Weber, with whom I share an interest in religion, mentioned he’d read it, and it sounded like an interesting approach: God as a literary character. It turned out to be a surprisingly difficult frame of mind to get into. I’m familiar with various Protestant interpretations of scripture, and I’m used to what Miles calls a scholastic approach to the Bible: the different authors, historical settings, what was added or removed. Through the beginning of Miles’ chapters on Genesis, I kept complaining, “But that’s by a different author!” His point is, as a literary text, it doesn’t matter: the book was combined as one text, which sometimes repeats (and contradicts) itself. Once I finally got over that hurdle, however, I had a great time.
My concern before I even opened the cover was: Which Bible? Miles deals with that right off the bat. He’s looking at the Hebrew Tanakh, which is not quite the same as the Christian Old Testament. Most importantly for his purposes, the order of the books is different; in Miles’ terms, the Tanakh goes from action to speech to silence, while the Old Testament goes from action to silence to speech. The ending of silence turns out to have a meaning all its own: it makes God’s conversation with Job the last time he speaks (and, though it’s much to complicated to review here, the sections on Job are fascinating). Then come the prophets who speak for him, but he does not speak again.
But Miles sees something very interesting happen in that silence:
The biography of God, as we saw earlier, has several beginnings. God, ‘elohim, creates the world in one way; the Lord, Yahweh, in another. But if there had been no creation story, the Tanakh could have begun with Noah; if there had been no flood story, it could have begun with Abraham; if no patriarchal covenant, then with Moses. In the books to which we now turn, the Tanakh, with its several beginnings, comes to several endings. In each of these endings, God’s life comes to a close, but in none of them does he die.
We may say, keeping our focus tightly on him, that he subsides; but widening the focus somewhat, we may say that he is incorporated in the Jewish nation….. [I]t does seem that in the books of Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles, a pragmatic transfer of functions and expectations occurs. Actions that once God would have taken on behalf of the Jews, statements that he would have made to them, they now take and make for themselves. God is still God and the only God. They are still no more than human beings. And yet in a strange way, he and they exchange roles.
Remember, this is a progression of a character. From speaking to people, to taking action on their behalf, he goes quiet but the people start taking action. Esther defends the Jewish community from Haman. Ezra purifies. Nehemiah rebuilds and continues the purification. But they act as people. They can be presumed to be inspired by God if you wish, but God doesn’t tell the what to do nor does he act on their behalf. He doesn’t need to; they’ve incorporated him into their culture, which is not really an ending, but a definite shift.
One of the first main points Miles makes is that God has different personalities. This is one of those stumbling blocks I had, since, to me, the different personalities are the result of different authors’ work being pieced together. But that’s the point of viewing it as a single text: the character, sometimes called God and sometimes The Lord God, is sometimes personable, sometimes harsh. This can be seen as a conflation of various deities of the time and place (and Miles outlines them all) and results in a character who’s, well, unstable.
Another literary interpretation that sticks with me is that God, from the start, seems to not know what he wants, beyond creating man in his image. What that image is, he isn’t sure:
As for the concrete particulars of what God wants mankind to be, this he only discovers as he goes along. His manner is always supremely confident, but he does not announce or even seem to know all his plans in detail or in advance…. Getting it right is, in the Bible, not just a matter of mankind’s observing the law of God (at this point in the story, the law has not even been given). It is rather, and much more broadly, a matter of mankind’s becoming the image of God. That quest, arising from the protagonists sole stated motive, drives the only real plot that’s the Bible can be said to have. But that plot, God’s attempt to shape mankind in his image, would be far more comprehensible if God had a richer subjective life, one more clearly separate from, more clearly prior to, the human object of his shaping.
…. He is portrayed, with apparent sincerity and unwavering consistency, as truly without a past and, though not without intentions, as truly without desires except the desire that mankind should be his self-image…. God relies on man even for the working out of his own intentions and is, to this extent, almost parasitic on human desire. If man wanted nothing, it is difficult to imagine how God would discover what God wanted.
The interesting point here is that man becomes a mirror in which God can see himself. And he often doesn’t like what he sees.
Miles has a wonderful interpretation of the final books that hinges on repetition. He acknowledges that the repetition may be a scribe’s error; this sort of thing is seen all the time in hand-written manuscripts (including the medieval manuscripts I’ve read about). But it’s there, so it’s fair game for literary interpretation:
The repetition of the first words of the book of Ezra at the end of II Chronicles may well be an accident, but its effect is nonetheless to turn these last four books of the Tanakh into the literary equivalent of a musical round. A round is a composition that because it’s last notes are identical with its first can go on in principle forever.
A round is typically composed to be sung by three or four voices simultaneously; and once the voices are all singing, it is impossible to say what his beginning, what had middle, and what end. Just as a circle, unlike a line, has no beginning, middle, or end, so this circular form of song, as at it’s exhilarating best, seems to defeat death. The Tanakh may be said to defeat its own death and God’s by ending in a literary round…. .
Time is jumbled in that combination anyway, since Chronicles, tacked on the end of the Tanakh, repeats (more or less) the history already told in Kings, so covers a period earlier than Ezra and Nehemiah. Turning it into a round is a nice kind of wordplay, and the Bible is full of wordplay.
The book is full of interesting observations. For example:
Abraham: God promises him excellent potency, and as the years wear on, Abram (before his name change) becomes more and more skeptical. Then at last, he has a child – and God demands circumcision: “God is demanding that Abram concede, symbolically, that his fertility is not his own to exercise without divine let or hindrance. A physical reduction in the literal super abundance of Abram’s penis is a sign with an intrinsic relationship to what it signifies…. The text does not conceal the strangeness of the moment.”
The tone of prophecy: “The three major prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel – may be considered, respectively, the manic, the depressive, and to the psychotic articulation of the prophetic message.” As evidenced here, the book is not without humor.
On the analogy between David’s loss of his son and God’s loss of Israel’s faithfulness: “In the Absalom story we see what it means to be a father when your son attacks you, and you destroy him, but he is still your son, and you are still his father. Can the Lord be such a father?”
On the problem of bad things happening to good people: “’The Lord made everything for a purpose, / even the wicked for an evil day’ – Proverbs 16: 4 is an answer of a new and most untraditional kind to the entreaty in literally scores of Psalms that the Lord put the petitioners wicked enemies in their place… ‘No,’ the Lord is here imagined to respond, ‘I have my purpose for them and [by clear implication] you must endure them.’”
Miles has the bona fides to write this book: after ten years as a Jesuit he received his doctorate in ancient languages from Harvard (including Hebrew and Aramaic), and worked in publishing and academia. He now describes himself as an Episcopalian, having become uncomfortable with some of the more restrictive Catholic teachings. He’s also written books about Christ and Islam, presumably in the same vein.
Those who have a strong belief system and are not open to other beliefs may see the book in conflict with religious interpretation, much as I saw the premise of literary interpretation initially in conflict with my more historical studies. It’s information-dense (it took me three weeks to read) and assumes a certain comfort level with the Bible. Quotes are provided in places where wording is crucial, but if you aren’t sure who Joseph was, or what Saul’s problem was, or if you’re a bit vague on anything after “Let there be light,” it might be tough reading. I enjoyed it greatly and learned a lot. For those of us interested in Western religion, it’s an interesting and thought-provoking adventure.
In these absorbing essays, Jerald Walker adds race to the commonplace (a little girl helping her younger brother with his homework, a job interview, a family dining out, a teenager crashing the family car) and shows us something knotty, fraught, and unforgettable, not just about race and the commonplace, “living while black,” but about living while human. Walker is furious and funny. He is talking to himself about his life and allows us to listen in.
National Book Awards 2020 Judge’s Citation
I first became acquainted with Walker via the 2022 Pushcart volume which featured his essay, “The Kaleshion.” I enthused about it wildly in my post – it’s not only a great narrative that brings together humor and tension, but it also ends with a fun surprise that changes the context – and ordered this collection before I finished writing the post. As I’d hoped, these short essays that all have some combination of that compelling narrative drive, hit-you-in-the-face truth, and irresistibly sly humor.
I’ve spent a little time in these pages on award-winning author and Iowa Writers Workshop professor James Alan McPherson, a mentor to many current writers, including Walker. In “Dragon Slayers,” (available online) Walker describes his formative experience with the professor, which began with a painful critique of a workshop story detailing the gritty details of his youth in Chicago.
“Stereotypes are valuable,” he said. “But only if you use them to your advantage. They present your readers with something they’ll recognize, and it pulls them into what appears to be familiar territory, a comfort zone. But once they’re in, you have to move them beyond the stereotype. You have to show them what’s real.”
“What’s real?” I asked.
Without hesitation, he said, “You.”
It was one of those things that you instantly recognize as profound, and then, because you don’t quite understand it, try to forget as quickly as you can.
It took Walker a while to figure out what this meant, but when he got it, he really got it: yes, he got in with a bad set, did drugs and watched a friend die and could’ve gone down that same road, but now here he was in the most prestigious writing program in the country. As McPherson told him later, “Less time needs to be spent on the dragons, and more on our ability to forge swords for battle.”
That describes the essays in this book. Yes, there’s racism, and there’s rage and injustice, but there’s also the grace to handle it (sometimes in better ways than others), the wisdom to learn from one’s experience, the courage to admit he doesn’t know how to handle some things, and the humor to laugh at oneself – and others – when appropriate.
The title essay, “How To Make A Slave,” (available online) follows McPherson’s advice as it bounces off the Frederick Douglass quote, “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man” by way of Walker’s recollection of making a popsicle-stick Douglass for a school project, wishing “black history had some funny parts.” And now that he has children of his own, children who are growing up in a lovely middle class white suburb instead of the South Side of Chicago, he wonders how he can parent them effectively.
“Inauguration” follows a similar path, but tucks in some extra humor. Walker’s sons are six and eight years old. He’s answered questions about differing skin colors within and without the family “in purely biological terms” so that, when he tells them Obama won the election and asks if they remember who he is, the eight-year-old replies, “The one with the high levels of melanin?”
He recalls how his own father gave him the sex talk and imagines translating this to discussing race with his sons:
“Boys,” he said, rising, “you’re old enough to start being with girls, but if you’re going to be out there tomcat’n, you’ll need these.” He held up a hand, in which were several sex education brochures. “When you’re ready for them,” he continued, “they’ll be on top of the refrigerator.” And then he left. This was not the model I intended to follow when it came time to broach the subject of sex with Dorian and Adrian. But at that moment, as I entered the room to broach the subject of race, I wished there was something that, right before leaving, I could hold up and say, Boys, you’re old enough to start being black, but if you’re going to be out there Negro’n, you’ll need these.
It’s hilarious, but it paves the way for the deeply serious issue of how to convey the importance of the moment without scaring them. He follows the Dragon Slayer technique: start with slavery, but let it lead to the capabilities that can lead to greatness, or whatever one’s heart’s desire might be. And when the boys talk of side-by-side art studios in different colors, well, maybe just let the moment be. They’ll remember the important stuff, like the brochures on top of the fridge, when they’re ready for it.
Walker teaches Creative Writing at a prominent Boston college; this also serves as a focus for several essays. “The Heritage Room” (available online) outlines the tight control a Black man must keep on his anger, even in a structured setting debating a policy issue.
The Heritage Room was named in honor of its two-dozen mounted portraits of famous African Americans. The usual troika of black iconography is here—former slaves, civil rights leaders and athletes—and each person seems, if not angry, then intensely displeased. Even Rosa Parks looks like she could kill. For once I’d like to see portraits of famous African Americans smiling, or frozen in laughter, their heads tossed back and hands clutching guts as they consider the absurdities and ironies of their lives.
.… And that is the fallacy of those images, for in those same communities where black boys snarl and clutch their crotches, anger is often a prelude to a joke, as there is broad understanding that the triumph over this destructive emotion lay in finding its punch line. Rosa Parks, I am willing to wager, laughed more than she frowned.
That twist from anger to humor features in most of these essays. And then there’s “Balling” (available online) which forgets the prelude and moves straight to the joke in describing how Walker came to work at this particular college. Apparently there were racial discrimination lawsuits and official complaints that made headlines, just as they started advertising for “a professor of creative writing, with a specific appeal for applicants of color.” It’s the most flat-out satirical essay in the collection: funny, with an undercurrent of truth:
I feared that competitors for the job with darker skin, even if only by a shade or two, would have a psychological edge with the search committee. I had first seen this sort of thing as a child; on basketball courts, as players were being divvied up teams, the darker your skin, the greater assumption that you were a baller….
Morally speaking, I am not a perfect person—who is?—so I considered getting a tan. There was a salon next door to the Starbucks I frequented and sometimes, before getting out of my car to grab a cappuccino, I would see ghostly Caucasians enter its doors and their dazzlingly bronzed counterparts exit. I imagined going inside and how the clerk, after initially being confused by my presence in the lobby, would open the cash register and dump its contents on the counter, right after pressing the silent alarm. But that could work in my favor; there are few things more balling than a black man’s false arrest.
In “Race Stories,” the quintessential story of a black man stopped by security in the school where he teaches simply because he’s black is raised to fine art. For one thing, he’s stopped while on his way to a dinner honoring faculty members of color. But it’s how he tells the story that makes it – and he starts out by telling us exactly how he’s going to tell it:
It is not my style to rush a good race story….. The stories I favor are not only upsetting but also uplifting; they are rich with irony and tinged with humor; they are unique, in some way, and lend themselves to interesting digressions, and their protagonists always confront villains, even if not always with success – when I come into a race story with these components, I prefer to delay its telling, allowing it to breathe, so to speak, like a newly uncorked Merlot.
And of course, just as he’s delaying telling the story in the dinner, he’s delaying telling the story in the essay as well by describing how he’s delaying telling the story… oh, wow, I love this guy.
But for all the humor, it’s not lost on the reader that this is so common, even the security supervisor who’s called – a black woman, as it happens – recognizes what’s happened to the point where she slaps her forehead – “Literally slapped it!” – as she’s introduced to Prof. Walker, the suspicious black man, by the Vice President of Inclusion and Diversity. And it’s not lost on the reader as the story ends with the professors of color exchanging similar stories. A spoonful of sugar, sang Julie Andrews; anger is a prelude to a joke, wrote Jerald Walker.
Not all of the stories are explicitly about race. “Feeding Pigeons” (available online) looks at attitudes towards gayness; “Wars” features a reading/writing group Walker led in a VA hospital; “The Heart” (available online) introduces us to Walker’s twin brother and the rocky path of marriage to a heroin addict. All employs the same subtle-but-kapow! ending Walker is so good at. “Simple” is another family story; both of Walker’s parents were blind, and that’s key to this story of a comedy that could have been a tragedy, but instead turns into “a blind man and his simple son bonding in a court of law.” “Before Grief” tells of Walker’s fascination as a child with Michael Jackson, and how Thriller burst into his stoned consciousness later during “a terrible period of chaos and wrong choices for me.” He does something interesting in this essay: before telling us about watching the video with his brothers, he tells us, “While I do not know if this is true, I have a vague memory that the three of us, in 1983, watched the Motown 25 television special together, and maybe we rose at some point to attempt Michael’s moonwalk…” I’ve said before, when nonfiction writers claim there’s no way to be sure memories are accurate so it’s ok if nonfiction is a little fictional, that there are ways to handle that uncertainty, and this upfront admission which contributes to the drug-drenched setting and eventual resolution is one of them.
While so many of these are extraordinary, “Strippers” sticks in my mind. It’s more suspenseful than a Stephen King novel, with the focus of suspense switching three or four times over its seven brief pages. A dinner with friends runs late, and they reveal great news: a bone-marrow donor for their sick child has been found. They want to toast to this, but the restaurant is closing and the only other option is a strip club down the block. Will one of Walker’s students see him in a strip club? Will the white patrons think he’s just another black guy who gets off on ogling white women? Will the friends he’s with get into it with the bouncer? At heart it’s about who people seem to be, who we assume they are based on a glance at some random microslice of behavior, and who they really are, about our instinct to judge. And it’s about how our snap judgments can be stripped away by another random microslice of behavior that completely contradicts the first, thanks to a last line that changes everything and sings with the promise that we can do better.
Walker’s been showing up in various “Best Essays” anthologies for years; I’m so glad I finally ran across him via Pushcart. It’s his third book: the first two deal with the rough years of his Chicago boyhood, and the religious cult his family embraced. I don’t particularly want to read either of those, but I’m going to keep my eyes peeled for future works, because I love the voice, I love the juxtapositions and the viewpoints (and the strong use of second person), and I love how he makes me want to be better – in my judgments, in my actions, and in my reading.
Who should read this book? Are you a resident or registrar in the senior years of surgical training? A general surgeon interested in trauma? A fellow in trauma and critical care? If you are, we wrote this book primarily with you in mind….
Many operative encounters with bad injuries take place in austere circumstances. The rural surgeon doing an occasional major trauma case alone, the military surgeon in the field, and the disaster relief team on a humanitarian mission are examples of trauma surgery with extremely limited resources…. If you are one of these surgeons, you are probably more interested in simple technical solutions that work, rather than complex maneuvers that you won’t use anyway. Most operative problems in trauma have more than one effective answer, and that the trick is to tailor a simple, feasible solution to your specific circumstances. In this book, we show you how to do just that.
No, I’m not planning on doing surgery any time soon. Nor am I a surgeon, or in any way trained in health care. I just like medical stuff. Last year, one of the doctors I follow on Twitter retweeted a comment about this book
I checked out the hash tag #TopKnife, and found a brief video from one of the authors referring to it as a surgical philosophy book in the spirit of the tenets contained in Samuel Shem’s hilarious 1978 novel House of God. Well, that sold me.
And if it hadn’t – uh oh, I need to confess another guilty pleasure, that’s two this month – a friend and I began watching Grey’s Anatomy, start to finish, last September. It was his first viewing, and he’s been mostly interested in the emotional conflicts; I’ve watched it probably seven or eight times, less for later seasons, and look up new medical stuff every time. I found a lot of that in this book: Like the Mattox maneuver, which was mentioned in S9E4. Mattox, as in Kenneth L., co-author of this very book. Click Add to Cart.
As is appropriate for a philosophy book, it starts out explaining a great deal of strategy and approach; a lot of that transfers to non-medical areas. For example, flailing:
Have you ever heard of flailing? Flailing is repetitive, ineffective action. It is one of the most common tactical errors of the inexperienced. For example, imagine yourself trying to control a bleeder with a hemostatic stitch. You insert the suture and tie it, but bleeding continues. You try again. It still doesn’t work period you try again; Maybe it will work this time. We can tell you without being there that it probably won’t – you are flailing. Very often, flailing will be more obvious to the OR team than to you. How can you avoid it?
Get used to the idea that in the real world surgical maneuvers don’t always work.
From there they advise a set of options: retreat (get help), look for alternatives, retry (but change something), reconsider the need for the step. Even if you have no idea what a hemostatic stitch is, the same approach could be applied to various processes you are familiar with from baking cookies, changing tires, or setting up a website. By the way, Twelve-Step groups have aphorized flailing: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and thinking you’ll get a different result.”
Some other words of wisdom in the early pages that could be useful outside an operating room:
Know what the key maneuver is for what you’re trying to accomplish.
Know the pitfalls and be prepared to handle them if they should happen.
How well does your solution fail? If it would fail badly, choose a repair that fails well.
Learn to distinguish between a small problem and Big Trouble.
There is, of course, a lot of straight-out medical stuff:
If you must explore a perinephric hematoma in a stable patient, you can gain vascular control of the renal vessels at their origin by using a maneuver called midline looping…. Eviscerate the small bowel and pull it up and to the right. Take it down the ligament of Treitz and open the posterior peritoneum overlying the aorta. First, identify the LRV crossing in front of the aorta beneath the interior border of the pancreas and add circle it with a vessel loop. This is the first of four loopings. Very gently retract the LRV downward….
Yeah, that’s a lot of stuff. But hey, that’s why I keep taking anatomy and physiology and biochemistry and cell biology moocs, so I can read something like that and understand it – not do it, lord knows (I don’t have enough anatomy to even visualize it) but know what they’re talking about and maybe use it to better understand how all the anatomy, which I’ve only studied in individual pieces, relates. And if nothing else I can pat myself on the back for recognizing that LRV means left renal vein.
The illustrations (by Scott Weldon) are great, too: mostly line drawings of various blood-spouting parts, a guy holding a shattered liver together with his hands, and poking holes in the mesentery.
In most places, though there’s a great blend of imagery, whimsy, and anatomy. Some of the chapter titles show this sense of humor in what is, after all, a grim business:
Fixing Tubes: The Hollow Organs
The “Take-Outable” Solid Organs
The Injured Liver: Ninja Master
The Neck: Safari in Tiger Country
Sometimes a topic will just play into the hands of us GA watchers: the aforementioned Mattox maneuver, for example. The Pringle maneuver, also described in the book, comes up in several episodes. Packing: it’s not just stuffing gauze into a wound. That damage control they keep talking about, and the triad of death. And the ultimate prize for the alert resident: the Whipple: it’s not just for cancer any more:
A trauma Whipple is the ultimate big whack of abdominal trauma. Use it as a last resort when the pancreaticoduodenal complex is destroyed or way the ampulla cannot be reconstructed and no simpler solution will work…. Herein lies the big paradox of this operation: the exsanguinating patient with a shattered pancreatic alco duodenal complex is too sick to survive it. A stable patient who will survive it often does not need it. So choose a lesser alternative, however imperfect, when you can.
Well, given that paradox, maybe it is just for cancer.
Given this weekend was the release of the Top Gun sequel (which I have no interest in watching but it’s infested my feed), the authors’ thoughts on the title of the book might interest the non-medical mindset, should anyone of that nature have ventured this far:
Why Top Knife? Top Gun is the popular name of the Naval Fighters Weapons School. Their mission is to train the very best fighter pilots for the US Navy. We called our book Top Knife in recognition of the many similarities between trauma surgeons and fighter pilots: clear thinking under pressure, responding effectively to rapidly changing situations, and a long and arduous training process. Just like aerial combat, trauma surgery is, first and foremost, a discipline. You cannot become a fighter pilot or a trauma surgeon without a lot of hard work and willingness to face adversity.
Sure, it’s a niche book; few who aren’t surgeons would have any interest in it. But I’m glad it’s there for those of us odd enough to find it just as spellbinding as any post-apocalypse trilogy.
Recorded civilization started a few thousand years ago, but people have been walking, talking, fire-using, tool-making hominids for a vast span of time – before we began writing our histories. And in that time before time began, over those hundreds of thousands of years, we told each other stories. There are satisfying places where stories go, where stories take us: in our minds, on journeys we will never make, with people we will never otherwise meet, voyages that take us East of the Sun and West of the Moon, and leave us satisfied when the story is over and yet we have not moved, and are still sitting beside the fire.
There are stories that are still told that we can date from geological events they refer to that are older than any city, older than any country, older than the oldest living thing we know of on this planet (it’s a five-thousand-year-old bristlecone pine tree in California).
Stories are currency. Stories are the way we interact, the place that groups come together. Stories unite us. We look out through other eyes, imagine ourselves in other skins, experience lives we wished we could lead or are relieved we never will.
Neil Gaiman, Foreword
Selected Shorts is celebrating its thirty-fifth year with this collection of thirty-five new stories by a wide variety of writers. Much like the writers collected in any BASS or Pushcart edition, some of them are quite familiar to me; others I’ve heard of but have never read; and still others are brand-new to me. As you can guess – thirty-five stories in a 300-page book – most of them are very short; about half are under seven pages, and only a few are more than ten pages. There’s a wide variety of subgenre and form, from traditional realism to unconventional fantasy. Several deal directly or indirectly with the COVID pandemic. Many of the stories are funny, but even they tug at the heart, and some tear it open the way only funny can do.
Editor Hannah Tinti has arranged the book in three sections:
Part one, Departures, focuses on the first step of any adventure: leaving home and saying goodbye….
Part two of this collection is titled Journeys and follows characters in a state of transition and movement….
The final section of Small Odysseys is titled New Worlds and investigates arrivals, those strange and exciting first steps into unfamiliar territory.
Hannah Tinti, Introduction
Tinti includes a brief summary of each story in these sections in her Introduction. And: for those of us who love the BASS Contributor Notes, a special touch: following each story, the author gives us a glimpse of where it came from.
It takes me two months to blog twenty BASS stories, and four months to work through Pushcart, so obviously I can’t describe each story. In fact, I had to leave out some great work just to whittle the list down to a manageable number for a blog post. My favorites, possibly because of my mental state, tended to be shorter, were less about realism, and leaned towards humor and novelty rather than traditional literary structures and tones; however, there were exceptions.
A couple of stories look at our relationship with technology, which has perhaps become more intense in the past two years as we’ve isolated and quarantined. Weiki Wang’s “iPhone SE” features an anxiety-ridden woman struggling with an out-of-control Siri who can’t be disabled:
Because I couldn’t shut her off, I put Siri in a drawer. That did only so much when I was addicted to checking my phone. News was addicting. A country was usually on fire. Others ravaged by disease and war. Our climate was turning on us and human beings in power could really suck. Then I liked to text my friends, to see if they would laugh at any of my stupid jokes. So, I couldn’t be away from my phone and when Siri asked why I had hidden her, I said I needed to be alone, but just for that one minute.
I’m here! The most common phrase she liked to shout. Especially at night when I got up to pee. I’m here! How can I help? Do you need to see a urologist? Do you need to set a later alarm? On your schedule for tomorrow are these two things.
After that I was awake.
Weiki Wang, “iPhone SE”
In eight pages, Wang covers a lot of ground, from climate change and how algorithms end up with biases to The Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art, a 2000-year-old Chinese math textbook. And, more poignantly, the human desire to connect.
Mira Jacob’s “Death by Printer” features a woman grieving for her dead wife who finds solace in a channel of how-to videos when her printer stops working. “It’s been so long since she’d fixed anything.”
“A Survey of Recent American Happenings Told Through Six Commercials for the Tennyson ClearJet Premium Touchless Bidet” by Omar El Akkad is best described by the author’s note:
In April of 2020 I was stuck at home and watching a lot of television. I became fascinated with how quickly the ads on TV had been retooled to take advantage of our collective fear and anxiety. There was something surreal about being in the middle of a global pandemic and historically bad recession and yet watching this parade of commercials for billion-dollar companies full of phrases like “from our family to yours” and “in these uncertain times,” as though this was all just a minor inconvenience. I got to wondering how apocalyptic things would have to get before the wheels of commerce finally ground to a halt.
Omar El Akkad, From the Author
The commercials start with “a new president” and go through “we’re more divided than ever,” “staying home, staying safe, staying clean,” murder hornets (wow, remember murder hornets, they were before the giant spiders and this week’s terror, jumping worms – does someone sit up at night looking for scary insects to scare us with?), rampaging horn-donkeys, to “as we start the slow excruciating work of rebuilding some semblance of civilization,” ending with “Tennyson Bidets: Everything is fine. Everything is fine now. Buy stuff.” It’s hilarious and at the same time enraging because we’re living it.
Susan Perabo wrote one of my all-time favorite stories (“Indulgence”) and follows it up with what I think will become another one: “The Project” (You can hear the Selected Shorts reading of this story here). In the surface it’s about a family helping their fifth-grader complete her science fair project: Can you recognize your dog by its nose print? Thus it makes sense that it’s divided into something like a scientific paper, with sections titled “Question,” “Hypothesis,” “Research” etc. But woven into the tale of trifold boards and measuring and gluing are strewn little hints about something much deeper, which lends punch to the final section, “Conclusion”:
Can you identify a dog by its nose print? If dog who resembles your long-lost dog comes to your door, starving, skin and bones, its fur matted, ears crusty, dirt caked between the pads of its paws, would you know him? If you take his chin in your hand, tilt up his head, get a good look at his nose, the grooves, the teardrop nostrils, is there enough to go on? Can you say, with certainty: yes, yes, I recognize you.
Susan Perabo, “The Project”
As I read that paragraph into dictation software for transcribing, I start to cry, have to stop because the app can no longer recognize what I’m saying. And it has nothing to do with the dog.
Jess Walter’s “Love Interest” is more of a traditional narrative (I told you there were exceptions). It’s a charming story of a digital detective who typically digs up a spouse’s hidden assets but finds himself helping a former actress, long past the brief career she voluntarily left, find her heart’s desire:
I think, in the end, this was her true gift: the rare ability to see through fantasy. And now that she’d had one more little glimpse, she was ready to go back to the real.
Jess Walter, “Love Interest”
That’s just a sprinkling of the stories in Small Odysseys. There’s so much more: Edwidge Danticat brings a migration manifesto to life; Dave Eggars “figured the world needs more stories set in Idaho, so I wrote one” about crossed generations and how we find our dreams in strange places; Juan Martinez ride-shares to an unexpected destination; Rivers Solomon acquaints us with the language of the dead; Ben Loory turns dandelions from a despised weed to a work of art; Etgar Keret turns the Gift of the Magi on its ear; Lesley Nneka Arimah writes about options from the point of view of one who has few; Luis Alberto Urrea takes us for a ride on his father’s bread truck; and so on.
This was an impulse buy, added to my already overly ambitious reading list for this in-between period. But I spend a lot of time reading short stories, so I felt it was worth squeezing in. I also liked the idea of supporting Selected Shorts, as I’ve enjoyed listening to the recordings of readings they’ve released. The book is also a lovely physical object, a paperback (my preferred format) with French flaps and deckled edges and color-balanced geometric designs. More than that, it’s a way to discover an author you’ve always wanted to read but haven’t gotten to yet, find a familiar voice, or try something completely new.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Find your wild dreams
Peace and courage
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.’
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.
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.