Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (Vintage reprint, 2007)

It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights—if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different…. If she looked different, beautiful, maybe Cholly would be different, and Mrs. Breedlove too. Maybe they’d say, “Why, look at pretty-eyed Pecola. We mustn’t do bad things in front of those pretty eyes.”

Each night, without fail, she prayed for blue eyes… Thrown, in this way, into the binding conviction that only a miracle could relieve her, she would never know her beauty.

Over the past couple of decades, I’ve read so many analyses, adaptations, and references to this book, I felt as if I’d read it. But reading about a book is not the same as reading it. I have a history of reading about instead of reading, of studying instead of experiencing, and I’ve been trying to reverse that somewhat, so I chose to sit down and read the book I’ve been reading about for so long. I can’t say it was a completely new experience, and I have to admit, a lecture and an interview still came into play, but I’m glad to have finally had the experience.

The book was on my mind because I’d encountered what I felt were oblique references to it in two recent readings. To my surprise, I discovered a third reference, though it was several years ago.

The popularity of the key idea – that beauty is something imposed from outside by the powerful, more akin to conformity with an ideal than an aesthetic evaluation – is not surprising. That this supposed ideal is used to exclude and devalue is pretty much a given. It goes way beyond eye color, but that particular symbol was the genesis of the book: Morrison has told the story several times about a childhood friend, a black girl, who longed for blue eyes, though that wish was from nowhere near as devastated a place as Pecola’s. Still, it started Morrison on a train of thought:

When I began writing The Bluest Eye, I was interested in something else. Not resistance to the contempt of others, ways to deflect it, but the far more tragic and disabling consequences of accepting rejection as legitimate, as self-evident. I knew that some victims of powerful self-loathing turn out to be dangerous, violent, reproducing the enemy who has humiliated them over and over. Others surrender their identity, melt into a structure that delivers the strong persona they lack. Most others, however, grow beyond it. But there are some who collapse, silently, anonymously, with no voice to express or acknowledge it. They are invisible. The death of self-esteem can occur quickly, easily in children, before their ego has “legs,” so to speak. Couple the vulnerability of youth with indifferent parents, dismissive adults, and a world, which, in its language, laws, and images, re-enforces despair, and the journey to self-destruction is sealed.

Foreword, Toni Morrison

Since thousands of commentaries on this book are easily available, written by authors from highest academics to ninth-graders (and I will make use of at least one of these), I’ll focus on its relevance to the recent references that snagged my interest.

The first was the novel The Come In All Colors by Malcolm Hansen, a story about a mixed-race boy kept in the dark about his heritage until it becomes cruelly relevant to the white folks of the Georgia town in which he lives. His mother, a light-skinned black woman, is named Peola, the same name as the black child in the Fanny Hurst novel, Imitation of Life, who tries to pass as white as a teen and adult. The high-yellow character in Morrison’s novel, Maureen Peal, notices the similarity in names, though she incorrectly identifies Hurst’s character as Pecola. All of this activity swirling around these names, all of this attention by light-skinned black women! Maureen has the relative privilege of lighter skin, her family line having worked hard to preserve it over generations. Hansen’s Peola serves as a bewildering figure to her son, who isn’t sure who’s what. Hurst’s Peola makes the most of her coloring, turning her back on even her mother. And then we have Pecola, who just yearns for blue eyes, eyes that she somehow believes would counteract the black skin that makes her unlovable. She is, of course, unable to realize that she is not unlovable; it is her parents, and the world at large, who are unloving; the friendship offered by Claudia, Frieda, and Maureen is not enough to undo parental disregard and societal shaming.

Those echoes of whiteness’ attributed beauty indicate why Morrison would name the character Pecola, but why Polly Breedlove would choose the name Pecola for her daughter is never addressed. Hurst’s novel wasn’t yet written when Pecola was born. With my meager research skills, I can’t find anything beyond unauthenticated internet nonsense about the name, and I see nothing that would have been readily available to Polly in the Ohio of the late 20s.

The second reference was the short story “The Whitest Girl” by Brenda Peynado from Pushcart XLIII, 2019. It’s something of a reversal of color roles in a predominantly Latinx high school. Terry is The Whitest Girl who shows up and is seen as both “too good and too white”, a kind of love-hate thing, envy turned into rage implicit in some Morrison characters, most notably Cholly. In Peynado’s story, Terry is much like Pecola: she fades into the woodwork and barely speaks. The Latinx girls seem mostly resentful of her lack of effort to modify her whiteness, as other Anglo girls at the school with their tans and their choices in hair and clothing.

The reciprocal need to modify one’s blackness to more imitate whiteness is also part of Morrison’s book, exemplified by the character Geraldine whose son torments Pecola over a cat.

Here they learn the rest of the lesson begun in those soft houses with porch swings and pots of bleeding heart: how to behave. The careful development of thrift, patience, high morals, and good manners. In short, how to get rid of the funkiness. The dreadful funkiness of passion, the funkiness of nature, the funkiness of the wide range of human emotions.
Wherever it erupts, this Funk, they wipe it away; where it crusts, they dissolve it; wherever it drips, flowers, or clings, they find it and fight it until it dies. They fight this battle all the way to the grave. The laugh that is a little too loud; the enunciation a little to round; the gesture a little too generous. They hold their behind in for fear of a sway too free; when they wear lipstick, they never cover the entire mouth for fear of lips too thick, and they worry, worry, worry about the edges of their hair.

This is another insidious expression of racism: the demand that black people become as white as possible, if not in skin color, in behavior. It’s behind a great deal of “respectability politics” and the disregard for unarmed black youth shot dead by police. Music, clothing, food, dance, language, art; to the white power structure, it isn’t just a preference, it all ends up tainted by association with blackness. The demand to assimilate requires complete subjugation to white standards, and even then, will only go so far.

I was surprised to find a third reference from almost eight years ago in an unexpected source: in her paper on second person narratives, Monika Fludernik referenced The Bluest Eye as a form of skaz narrative, a traditionally Russian form, adapted, she claims, by black women like Morrison:

Skaz narration, as a fictional technique that pretends to reinstitute a specious orality, recuperates the original communal character of oral storytelling, with the effect of subverting the by now established separation of narration and narrated in terms of fictional worlds. Second person fiction utilizes this subversive potential for creating an unsettling effect – that of involving the actual reader of fiction, not only in the tale, but additionally in the world of fiction itself, an eerie effect that can be put to very strategic political use. The technique has been widely applied, for instance, in recent black women’s writing where it allows the fictional narrator both to evoke the familiar setting for the community-internal reader and to draw readers from different cultural backgrounds into the fictional world of the black community, thereby increasing potential empathy values and forcing an in-group consciousness on the (factually) out-group reader. Examples for the extremely successful
application of this rhetorical skaz strategy can be located, e.g., in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Sula…

Monika Fludernik, “Second Person Fiction”

I’m a little hazy on the boundaries of skaz narration, and the book has several narrators, including an omniscient third person and Pecola’s voice in her own head. But I believe this refers to the child Claudia revealing Pecola’s life and circumstances with a kind of closeness a third-person narrator couldn’t match. We also hear from an adult Claudia near the end, in one of the most powerful moments of the book: the acknowledgement that the black community failed Pecola, failed itself.

While I was wandering around just seeing what was out there on this book, I came across a lecture by Prof. Amy Hungerford from the Open Yale Course “The American Novel since 1945” which made several points I would have missed. One in particular (around the 43-minute mark) addresses the potentially malignant effect of reading and writing, which Hungerford sees associated with rape.

Her analysis begins with the scene in which Soaphead Church prepares the poisoned meat for Pecola to feed the neighbor’s dog, as a sign that God will grant her blue eyes. It is this event that finally pushes her into a kind of psychosis, so it’s a pivotal scene. We can be forgiven for almost overlooking the casual line, “A bottle of ink was on the same shelf that held the poison.”

But that line, in combination with the Dick and Jane primer that has been showcased repeatedly throughout the book, a primer telling a story that must seem bizarre to children like Pecola, a primer inculcating the White Ideal in young kids who might not be able to understand why their worlds do not look like Dick and Jane’s: this is the poison. “If you are a young black girl learning to read, you are bringing into yourself a deadly kind of poison” says Hungerford. This is echoed in the “talking to herself” scene at the end of the novel, where Pecola reveals, to herself and the reader, she was raped a second time while she was reading. Reading is, or at least can be, a kind of penetration, of the most intimate kind.

I seem to have turned this into a reading-about-the-book, but at least I started with reading the book. By the way, it’s one of the most challenged books in America, in terms of library and school bans. I was in school when it was released, and I don’t remember hearing anything about it, but that was in Florida. I looked up the original NYT review, and it was very positive, predicting a glowing career for Morrison; little did they know how she would exceed their expectations. But at least they got it right, in a time when they could very easily have gotten it wrong.

Jordan Ellenberg: The Grasshopper King (Coffee House Press, 2003)

I think it’s best that I begin with a legend – a mostly true one.
It goes like this: in 1871, a luckless prospector and aesthete named Tip Chandler, lost in the desert, his mules weakening and his canteen two days empty, came to the edge of a tremendous mesa. Seeing that he Could travel no farther, and knowing that no salvation lay behind him, he fell to his knees and resigned himself to death. But at that moment, a spring of fresh water gushed out from the desiccated ground. Chandler threw himself down, pressed his lips to the earth, and drank; and when, at last, bloated and drenched, he allowed himself to lift his head and breathe, he was overtaken by a vision. He saw, he wrote later, “a splendid City , replete with and dedicated to the sundry pursuits of Knowledge, Art, and Faith; a truly second Athens through whose avenues progressed Architects, Mathematicians, Clergyman, Poets, and Scientists of all sorts; and having in it a great College, which stood up on the Cliffside, a Testament to the Power of Reason whose Beacon shined forth unto the savage and uncomprehending Plain!”

We all have those magnificent visions; maybe not of splendid Cities, but of achievement, love, success, having it all. Ellenberg’s book is here to remind us, in a hilarious way, that we often follow the wrong track in our pursuit of happiness. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to realize it in time to start over. And sometimes not.

The first 50 pages or so are – well, I keep wanting to use the word “rollicking”, though that isn’t really my kind of word. It fits, though. Fast-paced, funny, a little weird without being absurd, Part 1 of the three-part novel takes us from the genesis of Chandler University, a place that never rose to anywhere near the heights envisioned by founder Tip Chandler, through the career of Stanley Higgs, founder of the study of Gravinics. If you’ve never heard of Gravinics, don’t worry; it’s a fictional Eastern European culture (presumably based on the very real Gravettian culture that produced so many ancient Venus figures, carvings of women with enormously enlarged breasts and buttocks) that survived from paleolithic times remarkably unsullied by outside influences.

Higg’s career began when, as a Columbia grad student in comparative literature, he discovered a book in a trash bin. Wiping off the mayonnaise, Higgs uncovers the heretofore unknown poetry collection Poems Against the Enemies Both Surrounding and Pervading Us by Henderson (who must have a first name, but I don’t remember and can’t find it) proclaiming sentiments like “the hectoring of the vendors of spoiled fish/is equal in offensiveness to/the/hideous coughing of my mother. /Berlin is dying/of syphilis and I/ am its rotting nose.” More blog entry than Pound’s “old bitch gone in the teeth.” But it’s the very lack of poetic value that seems to attract Higgs.

Henderson, in his hatred for the reader, for the female sex, for his adopted Germany – really, for everyone – had arrived at a sort of perfection of which ordinary and good poets could not be capable. His work was cleansed entirely of affect, wit, and sense. And so, as he read, was Higgs. He had to lean on a wall; he was shell-shocked; he could smell the evenings fog coming in, and the fish. It was like a glimpse of a world where all laws were suspended: not just human laws but natural selection, the relation of energy to mass, gravity.

His academic career soars when he comes to Chandler to found the Gravinics department, marries the Dean’s daughter, and proves to be an eloquent lecturer. The basketball team becomes infatuated with Gravinics for some reason, and, for a possibly unrelated reason, they start winning games. The school sees this scholar of terrible poetry as a cash cow, attracting better quality students, grant money, the Henderson Society now funded by a Japanese electronics giant, basketball championships, and all those things school truly value when knowledge doesn’t pay the bills. But after a brief Golden Age, things start to sour, until Higgs retreats into his home, refusing to speak.

Enter Sam Grapearbor, our first-person narrator who has until now merely recounted history. And, by the way, we’re only on page 47; this rollicking thing keeps us moving along. In fact, on first read, my impression was that the middle of the book sagged, but after a second read I realize that’s more a matter of comparison; it’s more like it settles down into more of a usual reading pace.

It’s kind of an interesting structure for a novel: start with 50 pages of backstory (take that, in media res) and finishes off with 40 pages of denouement, sandwiching ~150 pages of plot progression, ending in a Marx-Brothers-meet-Mel-Brooks climax, in between. The closing scene, a flashback, ends as we began, with gushing water. Having just done some minor research for a BASS story into Moses striking the rock – on two occasions, with very different outcomes – to bring forth water, I have to steer myself away from overinterpretation. By the way, this whole novel would make a really fun movie, between cinematic scenes, awkward romance, and generous helpings of goofiness; someone slip a copy to a movie producer, ok?

My source text was the sentence, “I kicked the dog.” McTaggert’s idea was that I would acquaint myself with the mechanics of Gravinic by producing a complete list of possible translations.. The tally would run into the tens of thousands. One had to know, first of all, what sort of kick was involved – was it a field-goal swing, a sidewise foot-shove, a horizontal sweep involving the entire leg? All these, and more, called for different verbs. Was the kicking of the dog habitual, or a one-time action? Does the speaker mean to imply that the kick is apt to be repeated? And whose dog is it?
My initial interest in the language had by now transmuted itself into something like awe. Gravinic was a perfected vehicle for meaning – exact meaning.

It’s a tightly woven story, all the parts fitting together. In his “Twenty Questions” interview with Rain Taxi, Ellenberg – a child math prodigy who, at the time of publication in 2003, was teaching math at Princeton, and is now a math professor at UW-Madison – said he didn’t originally think the novel was mathematical, then he saw a causal unity driving the characters. I, a mathphobe who’s been taking and retaking high school math for, oh, 40 years now, trying to get the jokes, see it as highly mathematical in the same way Bach is described as mathematical: each element, each detail is part of a network and ties to other elements and details to create a strong but flexible cloth, with no excess or loose threads. Oh, and there are a couple of geometric terms – parallelepiped and frustum, for instance – that I have a feeling Sam never encountered, unless they happen to be hot topics in Gravinic poetry. But it’s the language as a vehicle for “exact meaning” that really tips it off.

Some of the more interesting threads connect Sam and other characters. Henderson’s parents were British ex-pats who settled in Gravine before moving on to Berlin; Sam’s parents ran a restaurant in NYC before moving to Chandler City, partly because they felt the counterculture movement they loved was selling out, and partly because his mother read an article about Tip Chandler: “I think she had some idea that, born in the West, I would grow up steely, level-voiced, inclined to swift action. My mother is a woman of passionate opinion, and has been wrong about many things; but never, I believe, more wrong than in this.” Both Higgs and Sam find the documents that begin their academic careers in trash bins, covered with mayonnaise (a particularly amusing leitmotif loaded with significance). And both meet women who moved from more prestigious institutions of higher learning to Chandler, though for different reasons.

In my travels I ran across a 2015 blog post by one Holden Lee, a PhD student in mathematics at Princeton on his way to an academic career; his post is a great synopsis and analysis. He felt the novel captured the journey through academia perfectly. I never got beyond a BA at a third-rate state school, so I’ll have to take his word for it. But he highlighted a particular passage of the novel that struck me in light of another article I’d read recently.

Behind each rectangle of light there was a chemist, a dramatist, a creative writer, an anthropologist, or something else. Our Babel, this welter of disciplines, our own bituminous tower. Something had gone wrong; the confounding of the tongues had proceeded on schedule but the victims had failed to scatter, as intended, across the span of the earth.

A few weeks before, I’d read an article by Kamil Ahsan mourning the kind of super-specialization his PhD in biology had required. He’d been initially inspired by what today would be called science communicators: scientists who write for the general audience in a way that catches on, in Ahsan’s case, Stephen J. Gould (I myself bought Eight Little Piggies by mistake and was similarly, though not so practically, captivated, so I get this). But his academic career didn’t do the science communicators justice:

…until one day you will realize that every single ambitious colleague with whom you entered graduate school who wanted to be a tenured professor in biology actually swore off academia quite some time ago, and is now unsure about what to do next, and embarrassed about it, because what do you do next when there is nothing you have been trained to do well enough except inspect a single protein or a single gene every day for six years, and then you will finally realize the dark humor in your conundrum, that it wasn’t just this awful, exploitative system of apprenticeship, but also a false reading on your part, a sense of certainty you developed somewhere along the line, and that you do—as a matter of fact—bear some responsibility for this crisis.

We didn’t quite know then that the average length of an apprenticeship in academia—ostensibly to develop the mere ability to study something—has gotten bigger and bigger, just as the prospects become dimmer and dimmer. But we only seem to find out once it’s too late.

I get that, too, though it cost me a lot less in time and money. I spent twelve weeks taking a fantastic MIT mooc on molecular biology which focused on DNA replication and repair, yet declined to take parts II and III on transcription and RNA processing because, not being headed towards true academic study of biology, I had other things I wanted to study over the remainder of the year, and the intensity of the biomoocs would have limited my ability to do that.

But, even at my level, I get what he’s saying about how academia narrows your focus, and does create a kind of Babel with biologists over here, mathematicians over there, and Gravinics in another wing. It’s necessary, to some degree, at this point; the low-hanging fruit has been picked, it’s not a matter of growing peas in your back yard any more. So as Higgs – and Sam, and pretty much everyone else in universities – focus more and more on less and less, there’s great value added to knowledge, yes, but there’s also a loss of cross-pollination. That’s why I appreciate mathematicians who can write really good novels (and, by the way, this wasn’t a casual undertaking; Ellenberg studied fiction with people like Robert Stone and Stephen Dixon at Johns Hopkins). And doctor/poets and engineer/artists and all the other marvellous combinations that are possible.

The other theme that shines through the book is that of relationships. This was mentioned in Ellenberg’s aforementioned Rain Taxi interview, as he alludes to the Great American Nerd Novel in response to a question about the trouble the men in the book have with women. Remembering that this book was published in 2003, I was brought up short by a small scene in which Julia, attending a department function with Sam, sees all these socially awkward men trying to have normal conversations and asks, “Where are the wives?” The question today would be, “Where are the female professors?” but that’s beyond the pale for this time and place; that there are no wives speaks to the woman-blindness pretty dramatically.

Sam’s relationship with Julia is another network thread, mirroring Higg’s relationship with his wife, Ellen. I would imagine Julia sees this as her possible future, and she’s not going to let it go there. Sam is less astute.

She must never have imagined we would stay together so long. I think her idea, conscious or not, was to do something about my awfulness; and that, by now, she had accomplished. But something made her stay. I do not want to exaggerate my charms. It may be that I was still more awful than I thought.
Thinking back now, it seems to me that those dog-kicking weeks were the happiest time I have known.

I do have one criticism (hey, it keeps me honest, the more I like a read, the harder I look for a reason to complain about it): Charlie Hascomb. He’s a minor character who plays a crucial role in the climax based on two qualities. Those qualities seem rather shoehorned in, revealed by bald narration with little context explaining their revelation, rather than by character development. I think this is a product of the book’s streamlined economy; it’s the only place it bothers me.

So how did I come to read a fifteen-year-old, relatively obscure title – by which I mean it’s not likely to be showing up on the Millions’ Year in Reading list (to their detriment)? It started with Ben Orlin’s recent fun-math book, Math with Bad Drawings, which I posted about a few weeks ago. When I ordered it last fall, it occurred to me I could to a little cluster of fun-math books, so I added in Ellenberg’s How Not To be Wrong; I follow him on Twitter as part of my mathphobia-recovery program. Sadly, it was not to be; I lost the thread fairly early on, which is what usually happens with me and fun-math books (I still have hope for Eugenia Cheng’s How to Bake Pi, but it’s going to have to wait ‘til after Pushcart season). I felt so bad at my failure, I checked to see if he’d written anything else, and discovered this novel. A novel about academia, no less, one of my favorite subjects. I was, as I’ve said, hooked by the middle of page 1, and I felt a lot better.

See? Sometimes a wrong start can steer you into the place you were meant to be, all along.

Curtis Sittenfeld: Prep (Random House, 2005)

Ault had been my idea. I’d researched boarding schools at the public library and written away for catalogs myself. Their glossy pages showed photographs of teenagers in wool sweaters singing hymns in the chapel, gripping lacrosse sticks, intently regarding a math equation written across the chalkboard. I had traded away my family for this glossiness. I’d pretended it was about academics, but it never had been….I imiagined that if I left South Bend, I would meet a melancholy, athletic boy who liked to read as much as I did and on overcast Sundays we would take walks together wearing wool sweaters.

Lee Fiora, originally from South Bend, Indiana, transplanted to a high-end boarding school in Massachusetts, might just be the most unknowable first-person narrator I’ve ever read. Many of her comments ring so true to me, but somehow I still don’t get her; I feel a much stronger emotional connection with Gene from A Separate Peace, and was far more involved in Huey’s development as I read They Come in All Colors, even though my worldspace is much closer to Lee’s. After 400 pages of listening to her thoughts and seeing her actions, I still have no idea who she is.

A great example of this comes from the beginning of her sophomore year, about a third of the way through the book. Her English teacher has assigned an essay: write about something you care about, and take a stand. Lee writes an adequate essay about school prayer, but asterisks the title: “This is not an issue I truly care about but I believe it fulfills the assignment.” Girl could give master classes in passive aggressiveness. “You’re a cipher,” the teacher tells her, noting that other students want to be friends with her but she seems completely unengaged in anything. And, though it makes for somewhat frustrating reading, I can understand. I know what it is to feel like – and notice, that’s an interpretation, not reality – anything you say will just draw boredom, scorn, or rebuke. Thing is, she seems to be able to make friends – it’s just that they aren’t the friends she’s interested in.

Some light is shed on this at the very end of the book, when she, as an adult, recalls Martha, her roommate and best – maybe only – friend for three years

I never understood when I was at Ault why she liked me as much as I liked her. Even now, I’m still not sure. I couldn’t give back half of what she gave me, and that fact should have knocked off the balance between us, but it didn’t, and I don’t know why not. Later, after Ault, I reinvented myself – not overnight but little by little. Also had taught me everything I needed to know about attracting and alienating people, what the exact measurements ought to be of confidence and self-deprecation, humor, disclosure, inquisitiveness; even, finally, of enthusiasm. Also, Ault Had been the toughest audience I’d ever encounter, to the extent that sometimes afterward, I found winning people over disappointingly easy. If Martha and I had met when we were, say, twenty-two, it wouldn’t have been hard for me to believe she’d like me. But she had liked me before I became likable; that was the confusing part.

All the “what made me a success” stories I’ve ever read give great credence to these kinds of skills – not grades, or knowledge of any subject matter, or even popularity – and it seems Lee got a terrific education though she wasn’t able to apply it until much later.

The novel has a beads-on-a-string structure, one incident after another, with some resonance between them but not much. Within the beads there may be some tension and narrative drive, but there’s really no track on which the novel as a whole runs, other than the elapsing of four years of high school. I tried reading it as an observer novel – the story is about the other students – but that doesn’t work either, since we find out little about how they grow and change. No, the story is about Lee.

She feels awkward as a student, but in fact has fairly good social skills. She has friendly relations, if not friendships, with several students. She stumbles into a role cutting other students’ hair. She is the one called upon when a fellow student, her first-year roommate, attempts suicide. But it all seems far removed from her. Her closest relationship is with Martha, but only two extended conversations, bracketing the friendship, are revealed, making it seem like an arrangement of convenience rather than a close friendship. Even her eventual sexual relationship is something she enters into passively. Willingly, I should say, happily even, though it’s her partner who initiates and continues the relationship, who determines where and when – and, more importantly, where and when not.

Only one thing seems to really interest her: a classmate named Cross. She has an unexpected encounter with him as a freshman, then spends a couple of years thinking about him, avoiding looking like she’s paying any attention to him while focusing intently on everything he does.

One of the beads-on-a-string that interested me most was the game of Assassin, a kind of anonymous tag in which each student has to put a sticker on a target student, thus assassinating her and eliminating her from the game. Lee is really into this game (and maybe that’s why it stands out in my mind), and because she’s almost invisible to everyone, she does quite well at sneaking up on people. Eventually she finds a student, one of the boys, a challenge, and hides under a table to get close enough to tag him. Her entire motivation for his game, however, is the fantasy that she will eventually end up assassinating Cross. Her own assassination, what for anyone else would feel like a betrayal, is only a disappointment because she is out of the game before this happens.

The book is filled with great pithy observations that I might have said at some point along the way:

I always worried someone would notice me, and then when no one did, I felt lonely.
The interest I felt in certain guys then confused me, because it wasn’t romantic, but I wasn’t sure what else it might be. But now I know: I wanted to take up people’s time making jokes, to tease the dean in front of the entire school, to call him by a nickname. What I wanted was to be a cocky high-school boy, so fucking sure of my place in the world.
…nothing broke my heart like the slow death of a shared joke that had once seemed genuinely funny.
I believed then that if you had a good encounter with a person, it was best not to see them again for as long as possible lest you taint the previous interaction.
It struck me suddenly that my parents might be bewildered by me, the Ault version of me for whom it was a daring act to eat spaghetti.
…I had figured out early on how Aubrey liked me best: trying but not getting anything right. Or maybe not getting anything right but trying. Either way, the other person’s reaction was the only thing that ever counted to me…
The alcohol on his breath could have conjured up bus stations and old men with dirty clothes and bloodshot eyes, but because I was seventeen and a virgin and because I lived nine months a year on a campus of brick buildings and wooded hills and lovingly mown athletic fields, it’s conjured for me summer dances at country clubs, lives with wonderful secrets.
And then I realized that here, in sports, it was okay to show that something mattered to you.
My regret surged and billowed, as regret does in the middle of the night; everything had happened so quickly, the chance to have caused a different outcome was still so recent. … You had a window of opportunity. if you had used it, you probably would have embarrassed yourself, but it not using it, you wasted something irretrievable.

The last event of her senior year is the most emotionally packed and gripping: the school arranges for her, and a few other students not from the usual upper-crust prep school crowd, to give an individual interview to a NYT reporter. She thinks she’s just talking to an interested adult, and is shocked to see her words appear in the article as an indictment of boarding-school culture. Her first honest conversation in four years poisons her final week at a school; it’s telling that no one had any idea she felt isolated.

Although I had great sympathy for her – I once had a newspaper interview go bad, though nowhere near as bad and on a much smaller scale – I still kept thinking she was the one primarily responsible for her isolation. This, I think, is the reason for the disconnected-narrator approach: like her fellow students, I wanted to get to know her, but she, as narrator, kept me at arm’s distance.

I discovered this book through, of all things, the Odyssey. On Twitter, I follow classicist Prof. Emily Wilson, whose recent translation of Homer reveals much about other versions. She mentioned a blog post that looked at Odysseus as an unlikeable character. I went poking around that blog, written by Jaime Lustig and primarily focused on anime and manga, and found a delightful Favorite Books page. I recognized Sittenfeld’s name, since I’d recently read, and later came to more fully appreciate, her story “Gender Studies” in Pushcart. This is where I first got the idea to do a three-book “prep school” series, since I already had a recommendation for They Come in All Colors and was going to finish my planned summer reading with time to spare.

Of the novel, Jaime said, “It’s also the most perfect book about realizing that everything we thought was the fault of a world that doesn’t get us, is actually our fault and we missed so many opportunities to connect.” That’s a perfect description. And something for me to think about, as well.

Malcolm Hansen: They Come in All Colors (Atria, 2018)

I explained that the very notion of an immutable identity was a foreign concept to me. Everything was negotiable, and infinitely so. To be sure, I might have felt differently if the identity presently being forced on me conferred even a hint of admiration from my peers. But in point of fact, it was the subject of considerable derision. So I’d cast it off, and after having done so, I joined in on the fun. It came so easily to me precisely because I’d pulled that page right out of Mom’s old playbook. It was a time that she hardly cared to recall but that I remembered vividly. Ironically, she once recast herself as the person she needed to be to help me at a vulnerable moment in our lives, and now here I was doing pretty much the exact same thing. Now, come to find out, she’d had a crisis of conscience, albeit it too late to do me any good.

How does a child understand race? How does an eight-year-old understand racism when it’s part of his everyday life? How does he put together that 1) he tans easily but has wavy hair, 2) Mom is very tan and has curly hair, 3) Dad is white, and, and compute, What am I? in a world where “a person” just isn’t a good enough answer.

All Huey wanted was to go for a swim on a hot summer evening in Georgia, as he’d done in prior years. He didn’t know he’d turn the world upside down. He didn’t even know he was why the world was turned upside down, even as it flipped him on his head.

You are a bright boy, Huey. Tell me something. If the world went to hell in a handbasket tomorrow, does it make sense to you that it would all come down to this stupid little pool ?

This was not at all the book I expected it to be. Writer/reader/blogger Navidad Thelamour recommended it as follow-up to Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. I was expecting satire and prep school. As someone who seems to be somewhat tone-deaf to contemporary irony (I may be the only person who never understood what was so hilarious about Seinfeld), I have to take Navi’s word for it that this reads as satirical and ironic; to me, it’s straight-out grisly fact, unlike the wacky turns in Beatty’s novel. No, this was not the book I was expecting; the good news is, it’s a terrific book, and one I might have otherwise missed (thank you, Navi!).

Most of the story takes place in rural Georgia rather than the New York prep school that form the second timeline. In an informative interview with Thelamour, Hansen tells her he “initially underestimated the importance of the New York sections”; these were strengthened after encouragement from his editor.

It was very hard reading, both emotionally and cognitively. Emotionally, because of the confusion of 8-year-old Huey, and his later devastation as a teenager, over racism, pain which is so effectively protrayed it pervaded the air itself as I read. Cognitively, because crucial information is revealed with great subtlety. I must have doubled back to re-read in a half dozen places, thinking I’d missed something. This helps to understand the kind of confusion Huey lived in, overhearing things, being told one thing and seeing evidence for another. Although child narrators are always pretty unreliable, this one is doubly so, since truth has been obscured in an effort to protect him – until the town unobscures it for them.

I had no idea why Toby was with the people across the street. I was trying to figure it out. Aside from the obvious fact that he was colored and so were they. It felt like a betrayal – he’d known us just as long as he known any of them. He’s been with us for so, so long. And his father before him. Grandfather, too. After that, it’s got murky. Dad said people didn’t keep written accounts that far back. He made it sound like employment records were a modern invention.

And this is how we find out Dad’s people used to own Toby’s people; at least, that’s my interpretation, since very little is ever made explicit in this book. But it gets more complicated, because not only does Huey feel genuine affection for Toby, it turns out there’s a deeper connection, one that isn’t acknowledged until quite late in the book, and then is still a source of shame for the teenage Huey, still growing into his identity.

One of the many interesting subtexts of the book is that, while the racism of the South is more explicit, the racism of the North, even the sophisticated New York City, is just as deep. We begin at the fancy Claremont, a prep school eager to have Huey because he is “different, but not too different”. In other words, he counts as black for statistical purposes, but he isn’t scary-black. Huey’s mom, Peola, makes this more explicit: the only work she can find is cooking, cleaning, and child care for the rich family of a mattress mogul. We know she’s left Georgia behind, and has become more sociopolitically savvy – and more angry – as she’s found the same impediments to growth, but we don’t find out for quite a while exactly what precipitated the move.

Huey, on the other hand, is initially optimistic about his future during his first years at Claremont:

Zuk and I, on the other hand, had a different outlook. …Our job wasn’t to try to change the nature of things but to make sure we ended up on the winning side. ….I couldn’t fault Mom for being bitter about the opportunities she’d never had, but I wished that she could just be happy that all of that could be mine. We just had to let go of the past and embrace the golden future that being at a place like Claremont would ensure.
Oh. And race – well that just never seemed to come up. ….

Race never seems to come up, until it does, and then it turns out it was the elephant in the room all along.

The question of identity plays throughout. Is race a binary state? Must one be black or white? Is the “one drop rule” still in effect? The book is set in the 60s, which was before companies like 23AndMe or AncestryDNA could pin down exactly who has what blood. Turns out, white supremacists are using these tests to prove their purity, and have interesting ways ways of discounting results they don’t like. Huey has only what his parents tell him, what the people of Akersburg, GA tell him, and later, what his “friend” Ariel Zukowski tells him.

One side note: in Fannie Hurst’s 1933 novel Imitation of Life, and the 1934 film of the same title, “Peola” was the name of the light-skinned daughter who tried to pass (that was the word for it then) as white, leaving her black mother behind, with tragic results. There’s a reference to this in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye by the character Pecola, a dark black girl who longs for whiteness, particularly blue eyes. In the film, the part of Peola was played by Fredi Washington, a biracial actress who refused to pass though her career suffered as a result. To travel a little further down the rabbit hole, when the film was remade in 1959, the character was renamed Sarah Jane and was played by Susan Kohner, generally considered “white” (whatever that means) though her mother was a Mexican-American actress. Whether Hansen deliberately incorporated this, I can’t be sure, but it fits so well I think he must have.

In one intense and pivotal scene late in the book, Peola tries to explain to Huey why he belongs at Claremont. She uses a metaphor new to me, one that I found immensely powerful as a response to the “hey, I never owned any slaves so don’t take it out on me” reaction to affirmative action:

It’s like one man steals a house from another man, and we say, fine. The authorities find the man guilty and send him to jail, and we say justice is served. But his son gets to keep the house. Okay? In short order, the son has a child and decides that he wants a second house. Except now, the man who’s had his house stolen finds himself competing for a home loan with guess who – the thief’s son. Only the thief’s son has a house to offer up as collateral against a second mortgage, and the man with whom he’s competing for the loan does not. Now, the banker doesn’t care one way or another about that first home. He only cares about getting his money back. And after all, the son didn’t steal the house that he lives in. His father did. So why should he be penalized unfairly? We all know that you can’t punish the son for the sins of the father. Which is why he gets to live in that first house. But I’ll be damned if he gets to use it to bootstrap his second home when there is still a man out there who has been robbed of his fair chance at his first!

Writing a book through the eyes of a child is tricky business. Sometimes Huey seems to be sophisticated beyond his years, while he remains clueless – perhaps willfully so – about race. Why doesn’t Mom ever come to the pool to see him swim? Why does Dad take him for ice cream so early in the morning, before anyone else is in the store? Who are these people on the bus, why are they here, what is SNCC, why do they want ice cream at that parlor so bad, why can’t they just go somewhere else? What really happened to Mr. Goolsbey’s shop, and what happened to Toby? I get the sense these are questions he isn’t sure he wants answered, adding to his cluelessness. Then he writes a poem, quite sophisticated for an eight year old, that evokes “Raisin in the Sun” – and reminded me that Plath’s poem, “Daddy”, was used as an epigraph – and shows why he might be selected for Claremont a few years later.

Yes, it’s hard to read. I kept thinking it reminded me a bit of my experience of reading Light in August several years ago during another hot, racist summer. But it’s very worth reading. I hope it finds the audience it deserves, the audience that deserves, that needs, it.

John Knowles: A Separate Peace (Harville Secker, 1959)

I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before. It seemed more sedate than I remembered it, more perpendicular and strait-laced, with narrower windows and shinier woodwork, as though a coat of varnish had been put over everything for better preservation. But, of course, fifteen years before there had been a war going on. Perhaps the school wasn’t as well kept up in those days; perhaps varnish, along with everything else, had gone to war.

I’ve always had an unexpected fondness for prep-school novels and movies. No, I didn’t go to prep school or boarding school or anything but plain old public school, yet I find the concentrated atmosphere of these stories works for me.

I have a couple of contemporary examples in the works for the next weeks, so I thought I’d take another look at the granddaddy of them all. Do kids still read this? It was on my summer reading lists throughout school; I think I finally read it in my teens, probably in the late 60s – yes, I read some of the books on the summer reading list, mostly the ones having to do with death. But now that I’ve re-read it, I don’t think I finished it; I think I stopped after the tree incident, because I don’t remember the Winter Carnival, or Leper’s “escape”, or really much of the book at all.

I certainly don’t remember it as gay. And yeah, now, in 2018, it reads very repressed-and-unspoken gay, in a way it couldn’t have read to me in 1968. Putting aside Gene’s repressed sexuality, it’s a novel about jealousy, about wanting what someone else has, about the grass being greener and all those typical teenage themes that last into adulthood. Competition, the foundational drive. Ethical failure, the engine of so much modern literature. Guilt, the universal emotion.

It’s pretty much a classic structure: the tree scene, far from being the end of the book, is merely the inciting incident upon which complications pile up. A dramatic climax – second cousin to a courtroom scene – uses recollection of hazy memories to create a violence that explodes by accident. The denouement that follows includes a major shift in tone, even in the face of one final dramatic reveal. And I get the sense that we’re never really returned to the present, from where the novel started as a recollection. The past is always present, for many of us, even 15 years on.

One of the things I noticed is that all of Finny’s vaunted athletic trophies, the prizes on which his status in Gene’s eyes as a sports superhero, seem to be of the “most improved” variety. It’s expressly stated that he doesn’t have any records in his sports, but he has awards for sportsmanship and cooperation and effort. I get the impression Finny isn’t really as great an athlete as everyone thinks he is. Gene’s jealousy, sad under any circumstances, becomes sadder when based on a mirage. Is it possible to see Finny at all – or is he all image, all energy, all beholder-created impression?

It’s also very much a novel rooted in WWII. The “separate peace” metaphor has its reference in a move seen as a betrayal. During WWI, Russia signed a separate peace accord with Germany, removing itself from the Tripartite Pact. That there was a change in regime – from Czar Nicholas II to Bolshevik rule – tempered the outrage somewhat, but during WWII fears of another reversal, of Russia pursuing a separate peace with Germany in spite of the German betrayal, emerged in a more complex situation.

But the separate peace of the novel has to do with less global matters. After Finny breaks his leg, he decides the war is fake news, sort of a Wag the Dog situation. The boys are facing the draft by the following summer, and have the question of enlistment before them at all times, a question that creates excitement and adventure, yes, but also anxiety concealed out of shame. By creating a separate peace on his school campus, they feel some reprieve from the dramatic induction into adulthood. But for Finny, it means something else: because of his injury, he’s ineligible for the military, so it’s easier for him to not feel left out by ignoring it all.

Do kids reading it now have the understanding of what the war meant, what the draft meant? I first read the novel during Vietnam, a very different war with very different home fires burning. And now, kids would be reading it in yet another war time: a war time almost as ephemeral as Finny’s peace mirage. Very few people, outside of military families and news hounds, are even aware that we’ve been at war for 15 years, that we’re currently involved in a half dozen nasty conflicts with no clear sides and plenty of ambiguous, and not-so-ambiguous, collateral damage. Is it possible to read the book the same way now as then? Is it any wonder it’s easier to read it as a gay novel, than to find a way to put oneself in a mindset of a prior historical setting?

And again, context, my obsession over the past year, becomes central to reading. Does context alter the book, or is that a reader flaw? Can we be aware of the original authorial intent, and still see new ways old messages reveal themselves? Haven’t relationships like Gene and Finny’s always existed – and haven’t they always been the same, yet always current?

So I’ll leave the marble stairs and oak panelling and musty rooms of Devon for a prep school of the 60s, and one of the 21st century; will I find the same thing, in different light?

Muriel Barbery: The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa Editions, 2008)

As for Madame Michel… how can we tell? She radiates intelligence. And yet she really makes an effort, like, you can tell she is doing everything she possibly can to act like a concierge and come across as stupid. But I’ve been watching her…. Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant.

Nearly everyone in this book is trying to appear to be something other than what they are. That’s true of all of us, I suppose. As always, it’s the journey that forms the plot: from fear to joy, from despair to wonder, on the rails of art. With a lot of philosophy along the way.

The plot starts out at glacial speed, but ends up moving at breakneck pace. I wonder if that’s really the case, though, or if I’d just become accustomed to the pages and pages of exposition and textual thought bubbles between each tiptoe step forward. It isn’t until page 77 – almost a quarter of a way through the novel – that we come to “And that is when it all started”, and it takes nearly another hundred pages before the plot starts to develop. But what is in between is not mere padding; it’s all important, it all is drawn into the plot, though we have to be patient to find out how. And it’s fascinating to someone like me, who loves to learn about something new, whether it’s Francis Bacon or the camellia-on-moss imagery in the Yasujirō Ozu film The Munekata Sisters or her admiration for the writing style of the restaurant critic whose death, the subject of an earlier novel, begins the chain of events that make up the plot for this story.

We follow two narrators who take turns delivering short chapters. Reneé Michel is the concierge of a Parisian apartment building (a hôtel particulier, which, I take it, is something like an American luxury condominium – forgive me, my lack of familiarity with everyday life in France is showing). She’s in her 50s, dumpy and lumpy, and has had a lifelong passion for reading, art, films, philosophy, and the beauty of language. Yet she has a desperate need to hide her intelligence and extensive knowledge; we don’t find out exactly why until much later in the book.

The other narrator, Paloma Joss, is a 12-year-old girl, living with her family on the 5th floor. She, too, is hiding her intelligence, though her motivation is less complex: she just doesn’t want the burden of increased family expectations. She has decided that life is disappointing, and there is nothing in this world that is worth the effort, so she plans to kill herself on her 13th birthday if nothing convinces her otherwise. Her narration is in the form of a journal containing both Profound Thoughts, and Movement of the World.

…if I had more time to live, Art would be my whole life…. I’m referring to the beauty that is there in the world, things that, being part of the movement of life, elevate us. The Journal of the Movement of the World will be devoted therefore to the movement of people, bodies, or even – if there’s really nothing to say – things, and to finding whatever is beautiful enough to give life meaning. Grace, beauty, harmony, intensity. If I find something, then I may rethink my options. If I find a body with beautiful movement or, failing that, a beautiful idea for the mind, well then maybe I’ll think that life is worth living after all.

For most of the book, these two characters don’t interact, barely seem aware of each other. Yet, their narrations bounce off each other. When Reneé considers, and eventually rejects, Husserl’s phenomenology (having struggled with phenomenology in several moocs on Consciousness, I can identify), Paloma separates her journal into thought and matter; they consider art in congruent chapters, coming to the conclusion that “Beauty is consonance”, a thought that persists throughout the book. And eventually, we realize they are quite aware of each other. It’s just that they’d rather rip into the other tenants in the building.

Scenes of great humor lighten up what could otherwise be a heavy text. Paloma observes two of her neighbors whose dogs, on their respective leashes, insist on smelling each others’ butts, as dogs do. The women are clearly uncomfortable, but “… they are incapable of doing the only truly practical thing in cases like this: acknowledge what is going on in order to prevent it.”

The complications begin when a new neighbor arrives to take over the apartment vacated by the family of the deceased restaurant critic. He’s a distinguished middle-aged Japanese gentleman, generating great curiosity from all the tenants. He’s very polite to all, yet seems uninterested in them at the same time. Until he meets Reneé, over another tenant’s (relatively minor) usage error of using “bring” instead of “take”, a violation of the structure and beauty of language that Reneé so appreciates in secret:

And yet, there is an element of tragedy: I flinched when she said bring and at that very moment Monsieur Something also flinched, and our eyes met. And since that infinitesimal nanosecond when – of this I’m sure – we were joined in linguistic solidarity by the shared pain that made our bodies shudder, Monsieur Something has been observing me with a very different gaze.
A watchful gaze.

She and the newcomer – whose name turns out to be Monsieur Ozu, connecting the plot to the exposition – trade the opening lines of Anna Karenina as casual conversation, and he asks the name of her cat: Leo. Unlike the other tenants in the building, this gentleman sees her for what she is, yet maintains her secret.

Their relationship ranges from hilarious to sublime. He invites her for dinner, causing a flurry of concern about dresses, hair, and so forth. When she arrives for the dinner, she agonizes over how to ask the location of the bathroom until matters are urgent. Her tendency to overthink is so familiar to me: how should I act? What do normal people expect me to do in a case like this? But when she is taken by surprise by the Confutatis that accompanies the flushing of the toilet – an event that would certainly take me by surprise – she discovers she can relax, that M. Ozu does not have any particular expectations about how one ought to behave. “Can’t everything always be this simple?” she wonders.

At that point, Paloma enters her life more directly, visiting during the day to have a cup of tea and chat. So our isolated, secretive concierge now has two people with whom she can be who she is, two friends.

The book ends in a way I found a bit disappointing, even manipulative, and possibly… lazy? As the pages dwindled to a precious few, I had three possible endings in my head, and this was one of them. Not the worst possibility, but still, considering Pushcart story endings regularly take me by surprise, I was hoping for something more imaginative. I have to admit, in view of the revelation of the reason for Reneé’s desperation to hide her inquisitive mind and self-learning from the world, it makes sense, and forms… ok, a consonance. I still feel there must have been a better resolution, but I’m not bright enough to offer one (I have never had to work hard to keep up a front of ignorance for the world).

It seems this novel was wildly popular in France when it was first published; it seems to have been less successful here. I greatly enjoyed it. Even though the first half is slow-moving, there isn’t a page that doesn’t contain something of interest to me.

I put this on my library “to be read” list several years ago, and I don’t really remember why. At this point, I was interested the descriptions of the protagonists, and the inclusion of so much philosophy and art (Barbery was a philosophy teacher, by the way, and lived in Japan for several years). In spite of my misgivings about the endings, I’m very glad I read it.

Paul Beatty: The Sellout (Picador, 2015)

This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies….
But here I am, in the cavernous chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, my car illegally and somewhat ironically parked on Constitution Avenue, my hands cuffed and crossed behind my back, my right to remain silent long since waived and said goodbye to as I sit in a thickly padded chair that, looks like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.
…Allegations in that summation accused me of everything from desecration of the Homeland to conspiracy to upset the apple cart just when things were going so well. Dumbfounded, I stood before the court, trying to figure out if there was a state of being between guilty and innocent. Why were those my only alternatives ?

There’s an anecdote told at the very end of the novel, a story about a black comic who throws a white couple out of the black club where he’s performing his routine, telling them, “This is our thing.” Although this leads to the deeper question of just what is “our thing”, it reminded me of the SNL skit that followed the release of Beyonce’s “Formation” video: a bunch of confused white people, shocked to discover that Beyonce is black, whispering, “Maybe the song isn’t for us?” with the reply, “But usually everything is!”

That’s how I felt when I began reading this book: slightly uncomfortable, like I wasn’t going to be able to get it, like it was meant for someone else. That may be true, but it was, indeed, hilarious and tragic at the same time, and while I may have not recognized some of the references, I was kept pretty busy with the ones that landed just fine.

Like the entire town of Dickens, I was my father’s child, a product of my environment, and nothing more. Dickens was me. And I was my father. Problem is, they both disappeared from my life, first my dad, and then my hometown, and suddenly I had no idea who I was , and no clue how to become myself.

This struggle of identity forms one major core of the novel. Our protagonist’s last name is Me; his given name is never revealed. We know him only through nicknames, some more positively intended than others, like BonBon and The Sellout. His dad was a sociologist who had some strange ideas about child rearing and education, and who was considered the town’s “nigger whisperer” since he’d talk people off the ledge, literally and figuratively, as needed. “Who am I? And how may I become myself?” were the two questions he relied on, and those questions are what BonBon – expected to fill his dad’s role when the man is shot dead by police for the usual non-reasons – asks himself over and over throughout the novel, culminating in the final, “what is our thing”?

If this sounds like a tough setup for a comic novel, well, yeah, it is, but remember, satire is a different form of comedy, and the laughter is deeply tinged with bitterness and sorrow.

The town of Dickens is based on an actual section of Compton called Richland Farms, where, odd as it may seem, there are indeed horses and pigs and growing produce right smack in the middle of one of the toughest places in the US. It can get lost in the flood of significance from the novel, but BonBon is one hell of a farmer: his plums are treasured for their blend of flavors, and he painstakingly cares for a satsuma tree to keep it from being overwatered during a freak onslaught of rain, producing gems with the perfect blend of sweet and sour. Beatty doesn’t let the chance for a great metaphor to pass by:

Those motherfuckers segregate because they want to hold on to power. I’m a farmer: we segregate in an effort to give every tree, every plant, every poor Mexican, every poor nigger, a chance for equal access to sunlight and water we make sure every living organism has room to breathe.

This week was the anniversary of Eric Garland’s death by choke hold at the hands of police, ostensibly for the crime of selling loose cigarettes on the street. Ross Gay’s poem “A Small Needful Fact”, written shortly after, came across my twitter feed, and connected immediately with Beatty’s metaphor, but I think there’s another context, that of HBCUs and some secondary schools for girls, which allow those often overlooked to shine in their own right. “How do you racially segregate an already segregated school?” Dickens suffers from the segregation of racism and power; BonBon tries to change it into a segregation of nurturance.

The overall story follows BonBon’s efforts to put Dickens back on the map, after it’s somehow removed. He starts with a simple thing: painting a white line around the town borders. Along the way he picks up a “slave” in the person of Hominy, a former child actor and the last surviving member of the Little Rascals cast who just shows up on the farm and declares himself a slave. This arc, interestingly, forms a secondary envelope for the story, as Hominy un-declares himself at the end, when his only desire is fulfilled: the reclamation of the “lost” episodes of the serial, the ones too racist even for the 30s, including outtakes which are where most of Hominy’s scenes ended up.

While most of the efforts to put Dickens back on the map are outrageously wild, a few are fairly tame, yet these too are played for all they’re worth and turned into satire. Take for example the choosing of sister cities, from among the abandoned and destroyed cities of the world – except for the last one:

But in the end we found it impossible to ignore the impassioned pleas of the Lost City Of White Male Privilege, a controversial municipality whose very existence is often denied by many (mostly privileged white males).
It became impossible to walk the streets of the Lost City Of White Male Privilege, feeding your ego by reciting mythological truisms like “We built this country!” when all around you brown men were constantly hammering and nailing, cooking world-class French meals, and repairing your cars.

I’ve been hyperaware of context over the past few months in everything I read, and this is no exception. It was published in March, 2015, before the current administration was even a nightmarish possibility. It was a time of Black Lives Matter and the incongruous assurance that, thanks to the election of President Obama, we were now living in a post-racial America, even as the murderer of a 17-year-old kid named Trayvon Martin was exonerated since an adult in a truck armed with a gun is no match for a teenager standing on a sidewalk, a 12-year-old named Tamir Rice was murdered having been judged, after less than 2 seconds, to be a threat to the officer’s life, and a 22-year-old named John Crawford was buying a BB-gun in Walmart when he was murdered by a SWAT team. And this brings us to BonBon’s true crime: as he puts it, “Well, I’ve whispered ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.”

The book is loaded with comebacks to some of the stuff that falls out of the mouths of people who aren’t racist at all.

You’d rather be here than in Africa. The trump card all narrow minded nativists play ….I seriously doubt that some slave ship ancestor, in those idle moments between being raped and beaten, was standing knee-deep in their own feces rationalising that, in the end, the generations of murder, unbearable pain and suffering, mental anguish, and rampant disease will all be worth it because someday my great-great-great-great-grandson will have Wi-Fi, no matter how slow and intermittent the signal is.

One of the judges BonBon comes before on his trip to the Supreme Court has a great metaphor for this “I don’t see race” thing: when people say they don’t care if someone’s black or white or purple, start painting them purple and see what they think. There’s a scene in Herman Wouk’s WWII epic, Winds of War that I’ve always remembered: a group of Warsaw embassy officials, in German hands on safe passage out of the city at the beginning of the war, resist disclosing who in the group in Jewish. The charge finally offers an exasperated solution: if it’s just for recordkeeping, count them all as Jews, at which point the group objects. Racial equality, even among the well-meaning, only goes so far.

By the way, we don’t seem to be having a lot of discussions about whether we live in a post-racial society now, do we?

I keep wanting to admire how unusual it is for a humorous book to make some of us uncomfortable yet leave us laughing, but… though many scenes are indeed hilarious, I’m not sure it’s going to leave anyone laughing. Satire isn’t laugh-out-loud humor; it’s like watching a food fight, but in your own kitchen. Satire makes the slapstick slap back. The better the satire – and the more real the thing that is being satirized – the harder the slap.

I chose to read this book because I read so many good things about it at the time. I was going to put his earlier book, White Boy Shuffle, on my list, but it seems to emphasize youth, surfing, and basketball, so maybe I’ll wait for the next one instead.

Guillermo Martínez: The Oxford Murders (MacAdam/Cage, 2005)

Now that the years have passed and everything’s being forgotten, and now that I’ve received a terse email from Scotland with the sad news of Seldom’s death, I feel I can break my silence (which he never asked for anyway) and tell the truth about events that reached the British papers in the summer of ‘93 with macabre snf sensationalist headlines, but to which Seldom and I always referred – perhaps due to the mathematical connotation – simply as the series, or the Oxford Series. Indeed, the deaths all occurred in Oxfordshire, at the beginning of my stay in England, and I had the dubious privilege of seeing the first at close range.
I was twenty-two, an age at which almost anything can still be excused. I just graduated from the University of Buenos Aires with a thesis in algebraic topology and was traveling to Oxford on a years scholarship, intending to move over to logic….

I’ve never particularly enjoyed the mystery genre – never read any Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie – but I used to have a very limited list of mystery writers I devoured. My tastes ran to “series” writers whose investigator had some kind of interesting twist: Patricia Cornwell’s medical examiner, Jonathan Kellerman’s kiddie shrink, Stephen White’s adult shrink, Faye Kellerman’s tales set in a background of SoCal Orthodox Judaism.

This book came to my attention because it was presented as involving logic and mathematical philosophy, specifically, Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems. He proved there are aspects of mathematics that, while true, cannot be proved, and a complete collection of mathematical principles can not exist. If I sound like I know what I’m talking about, that’s purely coincidental, as this is all well over my head in spite of several diligent attempts over the years to follow explanations at varying levels of complexity. So if you are beginning to break out in a mathphobic cold sweat, don’t worry, the book doesn’t require much. Everything you need is included.

The unnamed narrator is a young mathematician from Argentina who comes to Oxford to study logic. Shortly after his arrival, his landlady is murdered, and he makes the acquaintance of an éminence grise named Seldom who has reason to believe the murder is the first of a series. They join forces to understand the series, and thus predict and prevent future murders. The police, of course, are doing the same thing, but by interviewing witnesses and tracking down leads, not by considering the ramifications of Wittgenstein and Gödel.

To wit:

“Think of any crime with only two possible suspects…. All too often there isn’t enough evidence to prove either one suspect’s guilt or the other suspect’s innocence. Basically, what Gödel showed in 1930 with his Incompleteness Theorem is that exactly the same occurs in mathematics. The mechanism for corroborating the truth that goes all the way back to Aristotle and Euclid, the proud machinery that starts from true statements, from irrefutable first principles, and advances in strictly logical steps towards a thesis – what we call the axiomatic method – is sometimes just as inadequate as the unreliable, approximative criteria applied by the law.”

There’s more, but that’s the basic connection. As for Wittgenstein’s Infinite Rule Paradox: “This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule, because any course of action can be made out to accord with the rule”. The upshot is, no matter how many terms of a series are discovered, we can never be absolutely certain that we know the rule that generates the series, so we can never know for sure what the next term is. So, although they are mathematicians and so enjoy playing with this stuff, they don’t really think it’s going to help predict or prevent future murders. But they’re gonna give it a try anyway.

One small thing fascinated me. The first murder victim, the landlady, was clearly patterned after Joan Clarke, one of the few female cryptographers who worked on Enigma at Bletchley during the war. However, her recruitment is fictionalized:

During the war she’d been one of a small number of women who entered a national crossword competition, in all innocence, only to find that the prize was to be recruited and confined to an isolated little village, with the mission of helping Alan Turing and his team of mathematicians decipher the codes of the Nazis’ Enigma machine.

This is exactly the same little fictionalization that’s part of The Imitation Game. It makes a great story, and it’s a terrific scene in the film, but it seems it seems it never happened: Clarke was recommended by a professor, and there’s no evidence Turing had anything to do with the crossword contest (which was, indeed, used as a recruitment tool). That such a scene shows up in two different works makes me wonder if it’s an urban myth, or if it applied to someone and the exact facts have been changed by time and secrecy.

Most of us think of mathematics and philosophy as very different fields of endeavor: philosophers are over here, studying things like ethics and truth and beauty, and mathematicians are over there playing with numbers. I’ve discovered (through moocs that often went way over my head) that it’s more complicated than that, that there is a continuum, and the point where they intersect most clearly is logic, where our narrator and Seldom dwell.

(Warning: I’m about to go above my pay grade again, so please take this with a pound and a half of salt). And here, Seldom proposes that mathematics mimics physics, where the rules change once we get down to the quantum level. His hypothesis is that what keeps us out of the mathematical “uncertainty principle” zone – where unprovable statements lie – is the mathematician’s aesthetic appreciation of simplicity and elegance in proofs, an aesthetic in existence from the time of Pythagoras. In this way he unites beauty and truth, philosophy and mathematics, aesthetics and execution, quite neatly. The point at which he departs from actual mathematical theory, I have no idea.

The book reminded me somewhat of The Davinci Code; both were published the same year (and both were made into movies, neither of which I’ve seen, but the consensus seems to be that this movie was terrible). I found Brown’s book annoying; the cliffhangers-every-five-pages and “thriller” element putting various characters in jeopardy over and over. I prefer my thrills to come from less violent sources. In typical mystery style, subtly-suspicious characters wander in all over the place, and in classic Isaac Asimov “Black Widower” style, the eventual answer comes out of left field but makes perfect sense. I have to admit my interest was not terribly high until the end, at which point I had to read it over again.

That was possible because it’s a short book and a quick read. There really isn’t much to it at all, outside of the math and the resolution, but I found that enough to make me glad I read it. Martínez – a mathematician from Argentina, by the way, like his protagonist – has written several other books; I’m interested enough to consider reading another one some day.

Celeste Ng: Little Fires Everywhere (Penguin, 2017)

Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down. All spring the gossip had been about little Mirabelle McCullough—or, depending which side you were on, May Ling Chow—and now, at last, there was something new and sensational to discuss. A little after noon on that Saturday morning in May, the shoppers pushing their grocery carts in Heinen’s heard the fire engines wail to life and careen away, toward the duck pond. By a quarter after twelve there were four of them parked in a haphazard red line along Parkland Drive, where all six bedrooms of the Richardson house were ablaze, and everyone within a half mile could see the smoke rising over the trees like a dense black thundercloud. Later people would say that the signs had been there all along: that Izzy was a little lunatic, that there had always been something off about the Richardson family, that as soon as they heard the sirens that morning they knew something terrible had happened. By then, of course, Izzy would be long gone, leaving no one to defend her, and people could—and did—say whatever they liked.

No, it’s not a spoiler; it’s the first paragraph of the novel, leaving the reader to keep wondering, “Who is Mirabelle McCullough, why is she also known as May Ling Chow, and who is this Izzy who set the fire? It’s particularly interesting that these characters are barely mentioned for a good portion of the book, giving us time to absorb the setting and the players. But I only realized that after the fact, because there was so much to pay attention to in this story that asks questions like: Can we really not see race? Rules and reason, passion and art, which is the higher value, and can they coexist?

The setting is Shaker Heights in the 90s, where Ng grew up, and it really was, as explained in the book, inspired by the Shakers as a highly planned community. I’ve followed Ng on Twitter since I read her Pushcart-winning short story “Girls, at Play” (a story that’s still one of my favorites, a true powerhouse of teenage horror with nary a vampire in sight) and I remember her telling us about the “mini garbage trucks” that picked up trash from behind houses, so the street view would remain pristine even on trash day. Yet the Shaker Heights of the story – and of fact – was also a community that made positive efforts to encourage racial diversity. That’s the thing about this book: as Ng points out in her Salon interview, there really are no villains. As in real life, people are complicated, with good and bad elements, making good and bad choices. And often, it’s just a matter of preference as to which is which.

This forms one of the main axes of the book: order and rules vs freedom and spontaneity, or, more bluntly, economics or art.

All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never – could never – set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration.

Elena Richardson believes in rules. I keep thinking of David Hume – “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” – but she’d reject that in favor of an orderly life. Unfortunately, an order-driven life can, and here does, cause intense frustration, as she learns when her house burns down. There must be room for little fires within the rules, flexibility rather than suppression, to prevent violent flare-ups.

Mia, on the other hand, has always followed her heart, which means she works odd jobs waitressing or housecleaning to pay the rent while working on her photographs. If she comes up with a good series, she can live off the sale of a series for a while and devote herself full-time to planning the next set. It’s an odd life, pulling up stakes frequently to find the next inspiration, getting to know every thrift shop in the region. “Why doesn’t your mom get a real job” a character asks Mia’s daughter, who is puzzled. “She has a real job… she’s an artist.” To Pearl, this way of life is as normal as the Richardsons consider theirs. To the Richardsons, it seems precarious.

Except for Izzy Richardson, the youngest Richardson, the one who has always struggled against the rules:

Until now her life had been one of mute, futile fury. In the first week of school, after reading T. S. Eliot, she had tacked up signs on all the bulletin boards: I HAVE MEASURED OUT MY LIFE WITH COFFEE SPOONS… She had fantasies of students whispering in the halls – Those signs? Who put them up? What did they mean? – noticing them, thinking about them, waking up for God’s sake. But in the rush before first period everyone funneled past them up and down the stairwells, too busy passing notes and cramming for quizzes to even glance up at the bulletin boards, and after second period she found that some dour security guard had torn the signs down….

It isn’t until Mia comes into her life that she finds a focus for her chaotic energy beyond blind rebellion. This could be such a beautiful thing, a relationship welcoming growth. But the primary conflict of the story makes that impossible. And that brings us to a secondary axis: what does “the best interests of the child” mean?

It’s a custody battle between a well-established couple who have tried everything to conceive before turning to adoption, and a mother who, in a moment of despair and desperation, abandoned her baby at a fire station. Again, there are no villains here. Just as Izzy’s mother is not just a regimental tyrant (she has, or at least had, good reasons for her focus on Izzy), neither Bebe Chow nor the McCulloughs are evil, and in fact both followed the rules. Elena truly believes she could never be caught in a situation like Bebe’s, that she would have “made better choices” all along. What she can’t see is that some people don’t have all the choices other people get, and, while the rules can be harsh no matter how blessed you are financially, they can be even harsher to those who have few resources and no safety net.

Elena’s husband, the attorney for the McCulloughs, can see a bit farther than Elena:

For her it was simple: Bebe Chow had been a poor mother; Linda McCullough had been a good one. One followed the rules, and one had not. But the problem with rules, he reflected, was that they implied a right way and a wrong way to do things. When, in fact, most of the time there were simply ways, none of them quite wrong or quite right, and nothing to tell you for sure which side of the line you stood on.

I would only add that he might consider: who makes the rules? What assumptions – and what surreptitious goals and fears – underlie them?

I had some trouble with Mrs. McCullough, but that is a feature, not a bug. When asked if she would raise her adopted daughter with an understanding of her cultural heritage, she lists things like having purchased some Asian art and eating at a local Chinese-American restaurant. Ng herself calls it “cringeworthy” in her Guardian interview, but that’s by design: “I wanted the reader to have double vision at that point. To squirm, but also to see that she had good intentions and that the resources available to her were limited.”

And that’s pretty much how I reacted to it: first wondering if anyone was truly that stupid, then realizing I had no idea what an appropriate answer would be. “We want Mirabelle to grow up like a typical American girl” says Mrs. McCullough. But what is a typical American girl? How do you avoid “othering” is perhaps the root question – what do you say to her a few years down the road, when she notices that, while her friends look like their parents, she doesn’t look at all like Mom and Dad? Is the “I don’t see race” refrain – so popular with the Shaker Heights residents in the book – the way to go? Is it possible for us to not see race?

I’m quite fond of Rohan Maitzen’s take on her Novel Readings blog:

And though our family history is in one sense our heritage, there seemed something uncomfortably essentialist about the argument that May Ling / Mirabelle’s identity must be decided by her biology. I found myself wishing that the arguments within the book about these polarized views (“race should mean nothing”; “race means everything”) were more complicated–though perhaps what Ng wanted was for us to be dissatisfied with both answers, just as I think she leaves us feeling that there isn’t an obviously right answer about who should raise the baby.

Rohan Maitzen at Novel Readings

That’s the value in a novel like this: there’s plenty to think about, a stimulus for a great discussion with no easy answers. And it looks like that conversation is going to broaden: the book, already wildly popular (six months on Best Seller lists), will be made into a miniseries starring Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon. I hope it generates in all of us the kind of thoughtful reflection, a willingness to see without judging, that I felt it was asking of me. We could use some of that right now.

Julie Schumacher: Dear Committee Members (Doubleday, 2014)

Dear Ted,
Your memo of August 30 requests that we on the English faculty recommend some luckless colleague For the position of graduate studies. (You may have been surprised to find this position vacant upon your assumption of the chairmanship last month – if so, trust me, you will encounter many such surprises here.)
A quick aside, Ted: god knows what enticements were employed during the heat of summer to persuade you – a sociologist! – to accept the position of chair in a department not your own, an academic unit whose reputation for eccentricity and discord has inspired the upper echelon to punish us by withholding favors as if from a six-year-old at a birthday party: No raises or research funds for you, you ungovernable rascals! And no fudge before dinner! Perhaps, as the subject of a sociological study, you will find the problem of our dwindling status intriguing.

Meet Jason Fitger, tenured English professor at a not-very-prominent college. He started out as a red-hot literary talent (and, apparently, romantic talent) on the strength of his first novel, but that was a long time ago and his career (and his love life) has faltered since. We get to know him through an academic year’s worth of memos, emails, and, especially, letters of recommendation.

We’ve all written (or been the subject of) those recommendation letters. We know how to write them as boilerplate, where “he’s a good candidate” means “Are you crazy? He’s a blithering idiot, why would you even think of hiring him!” and nothing below “outstanding candidate” is a real recommendation.

Jason Fitger is done with the academic boilerplate. So when he writes a recommendation letter – whether it’s for grad school, a professional job, or, more and more, jobs English majors end up settling for, like caterer or retail sales – he turns it into a work of art.

This letter is intended to bolster the application to Wexler Foods of my former student John Leszczynski, who completed the Junior/Senior Creative Writing Workshop three months ago. Mr. Leszczynski received a final grade of B, primarily on the basis of an eleven-page short story about an inebriated man who tumbles into a cave and surfaces from an alcoholic stupor to find that a tentacled monster–a sort of fanged and copiously salivating octopus, if memory serves–is gnawing through the flesh of his lower legs, the monster’s spittle burbling ever closer to the victim’s groin. Though chaotic and improbable even within the fantasy/horror genre, the story was solidly constructed: dialogue consisted primarily of agonized groans and screaming; the chronology was relentlessly clear.
Mr. Leszczynski attended class faithfully, arriving on time, and rarely succumbed to the undergraduate impulse to check his cell phone for messages or relentlessly zip and unzip his backpack in the final minutes of class.
Whether punctuality and an enthusiasm for flesh-eating cephalopods are the main attributes of the ideal Wexler employee I have no idea, but Mr. Leszczynski is an affable young man, reliable in his habits, and reasonably bright.
You might start him off in produce, rather than seafood or meats.

I chose to read this book because, first, I enjoy stories about writers and academia, and second, I wanted something that would make me laugh after so many weeks of soul-ripping poetry bouncing off soul-crushing current events. While it is humorous, it’s a kind of sad humor, because the collapse of education in favor of vocational training at the higher levels is something I’ve been railing against since the 80s. And while it was published in 2014, I think it becomes a slightly darker book when viewed through the post-November-2016, post-#MeToo lens. Or, more likely, I have become a darker reader, examining everything through a retrospectoscope fitted with a deconstructionist lens (oh, man, did I just type that? I really, really need to get out more).

Though it’s an epistolary novel, and humorous, it’s more than a collection of funny letters. Fitger’s first letter, full-on sincere, recommends his student, Darren Browles, for a prestigious resident fellowship: “his novel-in-progress, a retelling of Melville’s ‘Bartleby’ (but in which the eponymous character is hired to keep the books at a brothel, circa 1960, just outside Las Vegas), is both tender satire and blistering adaptation/homage.” Unfortunately, it turns out the decision-maker is just one of a string of women Fitger has cheated on, dumped, lied to, or put into one of his books, leaving Mr. Browles to look for other opportunities lower and lower on the academic food chain, until at last he falls off completely. This forms the backbone of the novel, outlining the slow decline, over the course of one academic year, of the teacher’s patience and the student’s hope.

Paralleling this is the literal dismantling, accompanied by dust and noise from wrecking balls and crosscut saws, the toxic air from uncovered asbestos and paint and polyurethane, of Fitger’s building as the floor inhabited by the Economics department, safely ensconced in another location, is refurbished while the English department, left behind, deals with rubbish and particulates and fumes.

Fitger is stuck in one concept of “good literature”, and it just happens to be, who could’ve guessed, the concept that best suits his talents: reality-based classic narrative. He sneers at the fantasy-laden stories his students write for class. Consider: at the same time he’s championing the Melville recast, he’s outraged by the success of another student who landed a lucrative book deal based on her work, also developed under his tutelage:

She began the novel as a memoir, writing about growing up in an immigrant family in California. I found the project to be a bit quiet (that is, dull), which may have led to the manuscript’s current confabulation—a pseudo autobiography in which the speaker portrays herself as a fifteen-year-old girl/cheetah amalgam. Ms. Zelles informs me that the human/animal blend mirrors the false distinction between fiction and fact and points to the necessity of the hybrid form. Whatever the hell she wants to call it – a mem-vel, a nov-oir – the new incarnation of the book is effectively startling, especially the scene in which the protagonist devours and then remorsefully regurgitates her little brother.

Whether he’s more outraged because of the classics vs fantasy element, or because he picked the wrong horse, I don’t know. Both treatments, ridiculous on their faces, have interesting concepts, but could go so, so badly, so we’re taking his word for their value. And that word on one of them shifts later in the book, as the stress of the year mounts.

I think Fitger is at heart more disgruntled with his unappreciated talent than with the way things are changing. I think maybe he sees himself as kin to Bartleby; yet, lost in a more narcissistic resentment, without the – courage? will? integrity? – to state baldly, “I would prefer not to”, he takes out his frustrations in written form, and even tries, however clumsily and self-servingly, to rebuild bridges others have long considered burned. It’s hard to dislike him. Eventually he comes the closest he’s able to come to facing himself, and it’s more engendering of sympathy than scorn that he just can’t make it any further.

It’s an amusing, quick read; those of us who, like me, fear we’ll soon be in a world full of iPhones and increasingly clever gadgets but without art, thought, or history, will find it often a bitter humor.

This struggle over the humanities has been going on for a long time. I previously had occasion to look at some excerpts from Concetta Carestia Greenfield’s Humanist and Scholastic Poetics: 1250-1500 (Bucknell University Press, 1981) tracing, among other things, the history of academic suppression in the late middle ages. The Enlightenment bucked that trend, but now we have schools where science is taught from a Creationist point of view, where history recasts slaves as immigrant workers, a “mistake” not caught until an outraged 8th grader and her mom challenged the textbook. In the 80s, a fellow student at the state university where I finally got enough credits for a degree told me that, as a business major, she resented the required Writing Proficiency Test: if she ever needed to write a letter, she’d have her secretary write it. I still wonder about her from time to time, if she found that entry-level job, armed with an undergrad degree from a third-rate system at a time when MBAs were gushing forth from the Ivies, that supplied her with a secretary who could write her letters for her. And I wonder about a vision of a world that requires secretaries to be better educated than their bosses.

I see there is a sequel, titled The Shakespeare Requirement, scheduled for release in August. The epistolary format is traded in for traditional narrative, probably a wise move since the format works better as a novelty than as a standard.

I’m undecided about reading the sequel. By coincidence, I took an online survey (I follow a lot of language academics, they’re always retweeting casual grad student surveys) about the emotional attachment to the last novel read, which in my case was this one. This wasn’t really an emotionally involving novel (a reason I chose to read it first after an emotionally draining Pushcart), and I realize that translates into, “Do I care enough about this character to find out how he deals with his new role as Chairman of a dying department?” No, not really. But I am impressed with Schumacher’s sense of humor and irony, so I just might go with it anyway. As I said in my “What’s Next” post, I’m gonna need more books to read.

Celeste Ng: Everything I Never Told You (Penguin, 2014)

“How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers. Because long ago, her mother had gone missing, and her father had brought her home. Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. Because those things had been impossible.”

On June 26, I showed up at Longfellow Books (my Fiercely Independent Local Bookseller) within 10 minutes of opening to pick up this book as soon as it was released. “I’m so excited, it’s my friend’s first novel!” I told another customer and the store manager. Except… I’ve never met Celeste Ng. We’ve never been in the same room – or the same city, or the same state, for that matter – but we “met” when she somehow found my comments on her Pushcart- winning short story, “Girls, at Play” (which remains one of my all-time favorite short stories). I’ve been following the progress of this novel since then via Twitter, and she’s always been so gracious, natural and generous to me, a total stranger with no literary standing whatsoever, I’ve come to think of her as a friend. So of course, I was excited about her book being published, but also, nervous – what if I didn’t like it?

I should’ve had more faith. It’s a beautiful book, a sad, sweet read, and I enjoyed it greatly.

I put off reading it for a couple of months, because I was dealing with a fresh batch of MOOCs, and I really didn’t want to read it while my head was cluttered with Calculus and Mythology and the French Revolution and Music Theory. I avoided reading the reviews and interviews that scrolled through my Twitter feed (lots of talk about this book), wanting to form my own impressions, even after it showed up on list after list – Boston Globe‘s Summer Reading List, Amazon’s Best Book of July 2014, O Magazine’s “16 Books You Must Pick Up this August”, Vogue‘s “Summer’s Buzziest Beach Reads”, etc. etc. It was worth the wait.

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.

That’s quite a striking opening to a novel. It raises so many questions – Who is Lydia? How, when, why did she die? Do I, the reader, care? Am I sad, relieved, vindicated? – we can’t help but read on. It was also, perhaps, the shortest opening sentence strung from the ceiling at this year’s One Story Literary Debutante ball (Celeste earned her spot at the annual event with “What Passes Over” in Issue #86).

As Celeste explains in her interview with One Story, this wasn’t always the opening line; it took a while to emerge:

That first sentence didn’t click into place until the last draft. Up until then, every draft had begun, “At first they don’t know where Lydia has gone”—a very different tone, one that withholds information rather than revealing it. But I felt that readers needed that information right up front. Otherwise, the focus is on whether Lydia is alive or dead, when what exactly happened—and why—is really the point of the novel. And I liked the bluntness of the opening, that sense of putting the narrative cards right on the table.

~~Celeste Ng, Interview with One Story

I love the thoughtfulness of this, the writerly consideration of the impact on readers and the overall purpose of the book. And I love the line.

Celeste told Kate Tuttle of The Boston Globe the inspiration for much of the plot came from a story her husband told her, about a boy pushing his sister into a lake. From there, the Lee family was fleshed out. In a charming video interview with Chris Schluep on Omnivoracious, Celeste talks about the other inspiration, her own childhood in the highly planned suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio, including an amusing observation about the town’s fondness for hiding garbage and collecting it with golf-cart sized trucks; it seems this will serve as the central image for a future story. I can’t wait, already.

For me, the book was about the assumptions we make, the secrets we keep, and how we can all drown in the deep lakes they become. Chapter 4 knocked me out by weaving together a network of these assumptions (as Celeste puts it in her interview with Kirkus Review: “… the different ways that people interpret the same conversation or the same event or the same scene”), a web imprisoning the whole family as the narrative dances with the characters: Marilyn, a mother who put her dreams on hold, until, in the wake of her own mother’s death, she discovers a cookbook that becomes for her a symbol of her own wasted life; Lydia, the daughter who, eager to please, takes on the burden of her mother’s ambitions though they don’t mesh with her natural interests and abilities; James, a Chinese-American man so
desperate to fit in, he becomes a history professor specializing in cowboys; Nath, the son who regularly deals with racism at school and can’t tell who’s friend and who’s foe; and Jack, the neighborhood scapegoat bearing the stigma of his working, and divorced, mother. The stage is set for the development of these characters, as they continue to circulate around each other for the next ten years, acting in ways the assumptions and secrets of this scene dictate. Add in Hannah, the “lost child,” born a few years later, who sees all but doesn’t yet have the life experience to understand.

Hannah, as if she understood her place in the cosmos, grew from quiet infant to watchful child: a child fond of nooks and corners, who curled up in closets, behind sofas, under dangling tablecloths, staying out of sight as well as out of mind, to ensure the terrain of the family did not change.

I found much that felt – something beyond identification with a character, more intense, as if Celeste read my mind, knew my life, and wrote in some things for me personally. Take Hannah’s attempts to make sense of what she sees, or her acceptance of the family code: “Don’t ask questions.” She learned this in the family cauldron; her parents’ adherence to the principle is starkly seen in Marilyn’s reaction to her own mother’s death: “So when James came home that night, she said simply, ‘My mother died.’ Then she turned back to the stove and added, ‘And the lawn needs mowing,’ and he understood: they would not talk about it.” I don’t know why so many of us think not talking about something will make it go away, but we do. My mother died when I was 9; she was never mentioned again, and I thought that meant it was something to be ashamed of. I understand Hannah.

Then there’s Lydia, willing receptacle for her mother’s deferred dreams but unsuited to the role, watching her brother preparing to leave for college, desperately afraid but unable to talk about it directly. So she plays Paul Simon’s “Only Living Boy in New York” over and over. I played the same song for the same reason, along with “Why Don’t You Write Me,” from the same album. I cried when I saw a line from that lyric in chapter 9. Like Lydia, it was the only way I could say, “Don’t go! I will miss you terribly!” since we didn’t talk about things like that. By the way, I uncovered something interesting in the course of googling around for this post (this is why I blog, it’s an excuse to research things I’d never waste time on otherwise): Simon wrote that song when Art Garfunkel (they were early on known as Tom & Jerry, hence the name Tom) flew to Mexico to appear in a movie. Turns out these guys couldn’t talk to each other, either. That may be why the song has such power. And now the book has the same power. This not-talking thing hits a deep chord for a lot of us.

Marilyn had given Lydia her first diary the Christmas she was five, a flowered one with gilt edges and a key lighter than a paper clip. Her daughter had unwrapped it and turned it over in over in her hands, touching the tiny keyhole, as if she didn’t know what it was for. “For writing down your secrets,” Marilyn had said with a smile, and Lydia had smiled back up at her and said, “But Mom, I don’t have any secrets.” … It will tell her, she thinks. Everything Lydia no longer can… The first page she sees, April 10, is blank. She checks May 2, the night Lydia disappeared. Nothing. Nothing for May 1, or anything in April, or anything in March. Every page is blank.

I found so much in this book to identify with, I’ve thus far neglected to mention a crucial sub-character: the constant presence of racism. But of course it would be a different book without the interracial marriage between Marilyn and James. A nasty comment made by Marilyn’s mother at their wedding resounds over the decades; James hears echoes of it regularly, along with echoes of a childhood spent being different, and of course it affects him. He doesn’t realize Marilyn’s dissatisfaction with her life has little to do with him, and nothing whatsoever to do with his race. But because no one in this family talks, he’s stuck with his assumptions, she with her secrets. For the entire family, every incident of racism they encounter becomes another confirmation of their fears. Celeste discusses this angle at length in her Code Switch interview with Arun Rath on NPR; it’s a topic that’s never far from the center of American life, but is particularly acute right now.

I felt a beautiful shift in tone in the last chapter, a lifting, a stirring. Maybe it wasn’t even in the text; maybe it’s just what I wanted to feel, following a particularly intense scene. It brought to mind a metaphor: Lydia surfacing instead of drowning, breaking into the air and taking an exuberant breath, a shift from the crushing pressure of the water, imprisonment, darkness, silence, to upward motion, freedom, release, the possibility of healing, even of joy. In looking for an image to express this (another good reason for blogging: looking for strange art) I realized, this is the inverse of the glistening surface of the water seen on the book’s jacket, on the title page. Instead of the surface being still and hiding what is beneath, as the family has for decades, the spirit of Lydia erupts from the water in an effervescent flurry, giving them all a new direction in the final chapter as they come to terms with what their family has become. Hannah’s revelation of a particular symbol begins this shift I felt – she doesn’t explain what it means, he doesn’t understand the significance, but it’s communication of a secret: someone’s talking, someone’s listening, and for this family, that’s a very good start.

Mohsin Hamid: How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia (Riverhead, 2013)

Image from PBS Interview with Mohsin Hamid

Image from PBS Interview with Mohsin Hamid

Like all books, this self-help book is a co-creative project. When you watch a TV show or a movie, what you see looks like what it physically represents. A man looks like a man, a man with a large bicep looks like a man with a large bicep, and a man with a large bicep bearing the tattoo “Mama” looks like a man with a large bicep bearing the tattoo “Mama.”
But when you read a book, what you see are black squiggles on pulped wood or, increasingly, dark pixels on a pale screen. To transform these icons into characters and events, you must imagine. And when you imagine, you create. It’s in being read that a book becomes a book, and in each of a million different readings a book becomes one of a million different books, just as an egg becomes one of potentially a million different people when it’s approached by a hard-swimming and frisky school of sperm.

When this book showed up as the June selection for my library’s monthly reading group, I remembered I’d already read “The Third-Born”, an excerpt of the first chapters in The New Yorker (available online). While I appreciated several things about it, I wrote at the time: “Do I want to read more about this little boy, how he grows up to obsess about wealth? Not really; at least, not right now. But I’m very glad I read this story-chapter-essay. It was very interesting – and that’s sincere praise.” So given the opportunity to read it – and knowing it was a fairly short book – I figured I might as well go ahead and read the rest of it.

I had much the same reaction to the novel as I’d had to the excerpt: I appreciated many things about it, but it didn’t reach me.

I like unusual approaches, and framing a pretty standard rags-to-riches-to-fall life story as a self-help book is a clever idea; I liked that. I liked that there are no names in the book, yet we always know exactly who is who; people are identified by their relationship to the narrator. I liked that it dips into metafiction from time to time, talking about the purpose of writing a book and the process of reading. I liked that the narrator, and The Pretty Girl, are on similar trajectories, and end up in similar circumstances. In short, I liked the way the story was told. I just didn’t like the story all that much.

In some ways, I think that’s the nature of the beast. We have a narrator who seems to have intense emotions from all he says and does, but they remain deep inside him. For example, The Pretty Girl. She first appears in the self-help chapter about not falling in love if your objective is to become filthy rich. It’s pretty clear that he would’ve rather had her than wealth at that point; her departure, instead of being the regret of his life, becomes a lucky break. That’s the sound of a broken heart, trying to make the best of things.

Lots of interesting ideas came out during the group’s discussion. No names are used in the book, not a place name or a person’s name. The setting is left open: when I’d read the excerpt, which was titled differently, I’d thought of Northern Africa or the Middle East; most readers thought Pakistan or Afghanistan; one woman was surprised, as she’d vividly envisioned it in China. Another reader mentioned it’s not at all about getting filthy rich in Asia, bringing up the point: it’s about everything else, and maybe that’s a key to the narrator. In the closing chapters, he is finally united with his lifelong love, a woman on a similar trajectory – first up, then down – and only then perhaps is he filthy rich.

Another reader raised the question: could the son be the author, writing about his father? That idea appeals to me, though it’d be hard to see how the son would have access to the information about the early years. This leads to another observation: periodically, the narration shifts to reveal the inner thoughts of one character or another; are these actual thoughts, or are they the imaginings of the writer? In that case, is it possible this is penned by the son, who has imagined and pieced together his father’s early life from family stories he’s heard? This becomes a stronger possibility as I re-read the opening:

Look, unless you’re writing one, a self-help book is an oxymoron. You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author…
None of the foregoing means self-help books are useless. On the contrary, they can be useful indeed. But it does mean that the idea of self in the land of self-help is a slippery one. And slippery can be good. Slippery can be pleasurable. Slippery can provide access to what would chafe if entered dry.

The more I think about it, the more I see this book as written by someone not the narrator. It could be a son’s – not memorial, exactly, maybe imagining would be a better word – of his father. A way for him to come to know the man he never knew, the man who kept his feelings deep inside where they wouldn’t betray him. But I have a different idea.

The one place where the narrator’s feelings are explicit and extreme are in Chapter Seven, Prepare to Use Violence, when he fears gang reprisals; the terror was palpable to me as I read, as opposed to his love and even lust for the Pretty Girl; or, for that matter, his drive to become Filthy Rich. The son was not yet born at this time. But the narrator was married; his wife, at 20, was studying law, and per their agreement, she would postpone childbearing until her education was complete. I wonder if the wife, later ex-wife, wrote this. One of the most prominent features is the narrator’s distance from his wife; she just appears out of the blue, in this chapter on violence, in fact, and she’s a muted character throughout. I wonder if she’s writing his biography, and the fear is so exposed because it was her fear.

Interesting book. I’m glad my library book group selected it.

Italo Calvino: The Cloven Viscount (1952)

Still from the video “The Cloven Viscount” by Maria Felix Korporal

There is never a moonlit night but wicked ideas in evil souls writhe like serpents in nests, and charitable ones sprout lilies of renunciation and dedication. So Medardo’s two halves wandered, tormented by opposing furies, amid the crags of Terralba.

What is the relationship between good and evil? Do they both exist, or is one the absence of the other? Religious theologies use a variety of concepts: evil as the absence of good; one as the default until usurped by the other; or a constant battle between two opposing forces.

Calvino looks at the question by dividing his titular Viscount in half. The fable is set in feudal medieval Italy and begins in a time of war “between Christendom and the Turks”. It was published in 1952 (and a decade later included in his heraldic trilogy Our Ancestors) when Calvino was just 30 years old, and is considered born of his experiences in fascist Italy during WWII, and of the artistic tumult afterwards.

Our unnamed narrator is a child, the Viscount’s nephew, though we later learn he’s from a less than honorable branch of the family, more of an adopted stepchild. In most interpretations (and I’ll get into one in depth) he’s considered to be a symbol of Calvino, and of his view of the Modernist role art in the world.

The story begins when the Viscount goes to war.

Art by Naomi Bardoff

Art by Naomi Bardoff

“Why all the storks?” Medardo asked Kurt. “Where are they flying?”
…”They’re flying to the battlefields,” said the squire glumly. “They’ll be with us all the way.”
The Viscount Medardo had heard that in those parts of flight of storks was thought a good omen, and he wanted to seem pleased at the sight. But in spite of himself he felt worried.
“What can draw such birds to a battlefield, Kurt?” he asked.
“They eat human flesh too, nowadays,” replied the squire, “since the fields have been stripped by famine and the rivers dried by drought. Vultures and crows have now given way to storks and flamingos and cranes.”

The initial chapter is loaded with grisly details of the horrors of war, painted as matter-of-factly as possible by the Viscount’s Squire. The Viscount is made a Lieutenant, in spite of his lack of military knowledge, on the basis of his social status. That very inexperience leads to him walking in front of a cannon, something even I, who have never been near a battlefield, would know enough not to do, and he’s literally blown in two; but, in an artful play of plot, Calvino temporarily convinces us only half survived.

He returns to his fiefdom a half a man – the right half, in an interesting twist on the usual symbolism of right and left – but it becomes evident it’s the “evil” half. He imposes death sentences for petty crimes, he destroys property, and he banishes Sebastiana, the village Nurse, a woman who took care of him (and the rest of the village) all his life, to a leper colony.

She knew that her fate was sealed; she must take the road to Pratofungo. Leaving the room where she had been kept till then, she found the passages and stairs deserted. Down she went, across the courtyard, out into the country; all was deserted, everyone at her passage withdrew and hid. She heard a hunting horn sound a low call on two notes only. On the path ahead of her was Galateo with the mouthpiece of his instrument raised to the sky. With slow steps the nurse advanced. The path went towards the setting sun. Galateo moved far ahead of her. Every now and then he stopped as if gazing at the bumble bees amid the leaves, raised his horn and played a sad note. The nurse looked at the flowers and banks that she was leaving, sensed behind hedges the presence of the people avoiding her, and walked on. Alone, Galateo a long way behind, she reached Pratofungo, and as the village gates closed behind her harps and violins began to play.

Some of the Viscount’s evil deeds are downright ingenious, reminding me a bit of the way Seth Fried created a “list of massacres” for his magnificent story “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre”; I wonder if Calvino made such a list. Late in the story we discover his other half, the “good” half, did in fact survive, though the two halves were unaware of each other until the “good” half arrives in the village; they coexist for a time until a duel over a woman leads to reunification; then everyone lives happily ever after, except for our narrator, whose fate it is to tell this story.

That’s just the surface mechanism, though; the story is far more interesting than that on both thematic and storytelling levels.

It turns out that being too “good” isn’t always appreciated either. Although this aspect is mentioned in every source I’ve checked, I think the story makes a very weak case against the “good” half. Sure, he scolds the lepers for their licentious partying, and it’s true that the Hugenot farming community, the very picture of corrupted religion (they’ve turned it into oppression and exploitation), gets annoyed at the suggestion that they lower the prices they charge for their grain so the starving may eat (tell me this doesn’t bring to mind the recent reaction to the Pope’s comments about capitalism). Still, those brief incidents don’t seem terribly compelling to me as an indictment against the “good” viscount, given the lengthy, varied, and highly detailed account of the “bad” one’s behavior.

Perhaps the true problem with the “good” half is the painful awakening of conscience in the town. Pietrochiodo, saddle-maker turned execution expert, is a fascinating character; I kept thinking of Robert Oppenheimer; in the same way he was torn between scientific curiosity and horror over his development of a new kind of weapon, Pietrochiodo marvels at the increasingly elaborate gibbets he designs and builds, yet is distraught that they are used against the innocent. The “good” viscount only exacerbates this conflict.

The carpenter was beginning to doubt whether building good machines was not beyond human possibility when the only ones which could function really practically and exactly seemed to be gibbets and racks. In fact as soon as the Bad ‘Un explained to Pietrochiodo an idea for a new mechanism, the carpenter found a way of doing it occurring to him immediately; and he would sit to work and would find every detail coming out perfect and irreplaceable, and the instrument when finished a masterpiece of ingenious technique.
The torturing thought came to the carpenter, “Can it be in my soul, this evil which makes only my cruel machines work?” But he went on inventing other tortures with great zeal and ability.

And there is a core issue: the “good” Medardo runs around repairing damage done by the “bad” Medardo as best he can, but he is restricted by his own code of kindness from harming anyone, including the embodiment of pure evil; thus he lets it go on, infuriating the villagers who bear the brunt of it with his empathy for the most evil man on earth. It’s an honorable thing to be a pacifist, to view all life as sacred, but are there perhaps circumstances when a little violence is called for? Who gets to decide, and how?

The evil the Bad ‘Un does goes beyond the surface effects. Of course it’s horrible that he tries to poison his nephew with mushrooms, and that he capriciously executes prisoners. But it’s more than that: he makes his victims, and the bystanders, complicit in his crimes. Dr. Trelawney, for example. Originally a doctor on Captain Cook’s ship, he was left behind after a shipwreck. Some doubt is cast on his actual expertise in medicine, as he shows no interest in the illnesses of patients or in healing – he avoids such things, in fact, unless forced – but prefers to study will-‘o-the-wisps, the mysterious lights that appear above wet, swampy ground. As it happens, the graveyard of the fiefdom provides the best opportunity for his study, and when the lights run short, the “bad” viscount does him the favor of executing more innocents to aid his studies. Like Pietrochiodo, Dr. Trelawney feels bad about this, but continues his studies nonetheless. Again, I can’t help but make connections with WWII, and the doctors enlisted by concentration camps… and doctors enlisted recently to help with the Guantanamo hunger strike, something all American citizens are complicit in, since it is done by our government and thus in our name. Chew on that next time you think politics doesn’t have anything to do with you. For Dr. Trelawney, the “good” Viscount provides something of a path back to medicine, and he becomes a healer again; redemption is possible.

Pamela, the love interest of both halves of the Viscount, makes another interesting character; while she’s not given to deep thought, she’s perhaps the most brilliant character overall: she refuses to be implicated into evil. Her scenes are hilarious as first one half, then the other, woos her, but neither provide any evidence of, um, what they have to offer a wife. Calvino hints at, but does not mention, the issue of just how physically “split” the Viscount is (a terrific writer’s choice; my speculation on the practical ramifications of their respective half-penises was far more amusing than any concrete rendering could have been). Pamela does not suffer fools in any way, shape, or form. It is Pamela, in fact, who sets up the solution to the entire situation in a deceitful plot worthy of the finest Italian opera: she offers to marry both separately, then waits to see who shows up.

It’s almost cinematic comedy, in a Princess Bride sort of way, with Pamela adding her perfect last word:

Just then from the end of the nave, supporting himself on his crutch, entered the Viscount, his new velvet suit slashed, dripping and torn. And he said,” I am Medardo of Terralba and Pamela is my wife.”
The Good ‘Un staggered up face-to-face with him. “I am the Medardo whom Pamela has married.”
The Bad ‘Un flung away his crutch and put his hand to his sword. The Good ‘Un had no option but to do the same.
The Bad ‘Un threw himself into a lunge, The Good ‘Un went into defense, but both of them were soon rolling on the floor.
They agreed that it was impossible to fight balanced on one leg. The duel must be put off to be better prepared.
“Do you know what I’ll do?” said Pamela. “I’m going back to the woods.” And the way she ran from the church, with no pages any longer holding her train. On the bridge she found the goat and the duck waiting, and they trotted along beside her.

But eventually they do meet in a duel, after the saddle-maker-turned-gibbet-maker-turned-adaptive-engineer Pietrochiodo fashions “a kind of leg in the shape of a compass” for both the men. They are both wounded along their missing sides, and Dr. Trelawney uses his recently rediscovered medical expertise to sew them back together. The header art above, created by video artist Maria Felix Korporal for a Calvino exhibit in Rome in the summer of 2012, was inspired by that very concept: “I made a first version of the video but I was not satisfied with it, and I was about to leave the project, when at the last moment I got the solution of the red thread, with which I am really happy.” Me, too; I’m delighted to share her work, and a video she sent of this part of the exhibit, which begins with the performance of a poem by Efisio Cadoni. It’s in Italian, but it’s easy to get the idea from the repeated droning of “Bene Male Bene Male” throughout.

It’s interesting that both Medardos see their halving as a good thing. As the Bad ‘Un explains to his nephew, and the Good ‘Un to Pamela:

“If only I could have every whole thing like this,” said my uncle, lying facedown on the rocks, stroking the convulsive half of an octopus, “so that everyone could escape from his obtuse and ignorant wholeness. I was whole and all things were natural and confused to me, stupid as the air; I thought I was seeing all and it was only the outside rind. If you ever become a half of yourself, and I hope you do for your own sake, my boy, you will understand things beyond the common intelligence of brains that are whole. You will have lost half of yourself and of the world, but the remaining half will be a thousand times deeper and more precious. And you too would find yourself wanting everything to be have to like yourself, because beauty and knowledge and justice only exists in what has been cut to shreds.” Then the good Medardo said, “Oh, Pamela, that’s the good thing about being halved. One understands the sorrow of every person and thing in the world at its own incompleteness. I was whole and did not understand, and moved about deaf and unfeeling amidst the pain and sorrow all around us, in places where as a whole person one would least think to find it. It’s not only me, Pamela, who am a split being, but you and everyone else too. Now I have a fellowship which I did not understand, did not know before, when whole, a fellowship with all the mutilated and incomplete things in the world. If you come with me, Pamela, you will learn to suffer with everyone’s ills, and tend to your own by tending theirs.”

The writing occasionally gets a bit funky – at one point the narrator refers to himself as having been “a small child” when Medardo was a boy, yet he’s 7 or 8 when Medardo returns from the war; I’m not sure if that’s a translation issue or a differing view of age and what constitutes small-childhood. There’s a section ending in Chapter 7 that puzzles me greatly; it seems to just end in the middle of a conversation with Sebastiana regarding the lepers among whom she lives. I can’t imagine material was omitted, but it reads oddly. Those minor quirks, however, don’t detract from how much fun this is to read, and how much meaning there is to it, once you suspend disbelief and let the story take you where it goes.

Both viscounts employ a kind of bizarre symbolic language system in the village, and somehow, both manage to communicate perfectly well with it. The Bad ‘Un” (as he’s eventually called in the text) woos Pamela with these messages:

A cock was tied on a branch by its wings and was being devoured by a great hairy blue caterpillar; a nest of evil insects that live on pines have settled right at the top.
This was another of the Viscount’s ghastly messages, of course. Pamela’s interpretation was: “Tomorrow at dawn in the wood.”

That wouldn’t be my reaction, but Pamela is a special kind of girl. And later, the town communicates with The Good ‘Un in similar symbolic fashion:

We would go around the country lanes and find the signs of my uncle having preceded us. My good uncle, I mean, the one who every morning not only went the rounds of the sick, but also of the poor, the old, or who ever needed help.
In Bacciccia’s orchard the ripe pomegranates were each tied round with a piece of rag. From this we understood that Bacciccia had a toothache. My uncle had wrapped up the pomegranates lest they fall off and be squashed, now that their owners ills were preventing him from coming out and picking them himself but it was also a signal for Dr. Trelawney to pay the sick man of visit and bring his pincers.

In one instance, there’s a mere phrase that had me dancing around in delight: “Medardo leapt to his foot” – how wonderful is that! Calvino resisted for the most part the urge to turn this into an outright farce, but he couldn’t resist that little twist of phrase (assuming it’s not an artefact of translation).

I’m sure all of the characters are symbolic of various aspects of WWII: not only the scientists who built the atom bomb, but the industries that profited from conventional warplanes and tanks, the workers that made the munitions, the partisans who hid out in the woods, the Church that stood by and watched. I don’t have the detailed historical knowledge (particularly of wartime Italy) to pull off a specific one-to-one correlation, but these characters stand out as representatives of various facets. The overall issue of the coexistence of good and evil, however, strikes me as more universal; perhaps it’s made more manifest in certain times, but it’s always there, every time we read a news story, cast a vote, leave a tip in a coffee shop, do our taxes: what are the limits of our conscience? When does loyalty to the whole of humanity supersede self-interest? Is it a matter of “good” and “evil” at all, or more of where we allow that limit to fall? And I come back to where I was a couple of weeks ago: the Dow has hit new record highs, and the minimum wage doesn’t support survival so we’ve cut food stamps to families with children to keep tax breaks for job creators; why is it again we are we not rioting in the streets?

One of the joys of reading Calvino is the wealth of material it’s generated in response. In addition to the art already listed, I found a marvelous commentary on the novella in the form of a comparison between it and the 1998 Brazilian play Partido by Cacá Brandão. In his 2001 paper “Calvino’s Cloven Viscount from Page to Stage”, Professor of Comparative Literature Julio Jeha describes the play (using Dante’s “fourfold” methodology, a lesson in itself: “For the purposes of this essay, I will say that the literal level gives us what happened; the allegorical refers to a character or concept taken symbolically; the tropological provides a moral truth, and the anagogical indicates a level ‘above’.”) as not merely translating the fable to stage, but reconceptualizing it for a new era: Brandão converted Calvino’s fable from “the epistemological perspective that characterizes modernism” to “the ontological bias that marks postmodernism.” I’ve been wrestling with the distinction between Modern and Post-Modern for much of the past year, and I’m still not completely clear about it, but with Jeha’s help I can see how the difference is rendered in the narrative point of view, and the symbolic referents:

Calvino’s novel turns out to be a Bildungsroman for the narrator who, ultimately, would stand for the Italian artists and intellectuals during the national rebuilding. Brandão’s play, conversely, brings the Viscount, who would take the place of a contemporary audience in its need to learn about its condition, to a central position. Both texts lead us to examine the means by which we experience the world and the role that we, shattered and incomplete, can have in it and in its constitution.

Ah, so Calvino focused on the story the nephew would tell, as a parable for post-WWII artists – the tellers; the play looks at the unification of the divided self from a subjective position, allowing the audience – the be-ers – to participate more directly in the Viscount’s experience. Maybe? I’m going to be chewing on this a while.

I’d always planned to check out Calvino’s fiction after our read of Six Memos for the New Millenium last year, but way leads on to way and I never got back. I’d expected it to be If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler (I’ve always been too intimidated by Invisible Cities) given my fondness for structural play. But that was before I took my latest Philosophy MOOC.

One of the side benefits of taking MOOCs has been the ability to hang out under some pretty fancy banquet tables and catch the crumbs as they fall from some very smart people (I’m speaking metaphorically, of course; I should watch that, there are those who would start spreading rumors that MOOCs involve weird dining rituals). It’s amazing what you can pick up just by paying attention to very educated people talking / posting / tweeting about things they love to talk / post / twitter about. So when Alasdair Richmond, the stand-out star professor of my recent Introduction to Philosophy course out of the University of Edinburgh, mentioned a wish to teach this particular novella with RLS’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I had to check it out. I’ll have to put the Stevenson on my list as well; it’s been so horribly popularlized I preferred to start with the less well-known Calvino. But I’ll get there. And when I do, I’ll find more wonders, I’m sure of it.

The book ends with a little tidying up of loose ends, mostly in happily-ever-after mode: Medardo has many children (presumably with Pamela), Pietrochiodo builds mills instead of gibbets, Dr. Trelawney ignores will-‘o-the-wisps for easing the pains of humanity. The only down side is the narrator, still unnamed. He finds his calling telling himself stories in the woods, but is at the same time ashamed of this. One day while he’s storytelling, Captain Cook’s ship returns to the shores and takes away Dr. Trelawney:

I had seen nothing. I was deep in the wood telling myself stories. When I heard later, I began running towards the seashore crying, “Doctor! Doctor Trelawney! Take me with you! Doctor, you can’t leave me here!”
But already the ships were vanishing over the horizon and I was left behind, in this world of ours full of responsibilities and will-‘o-the-wisps.

I know exactly how he feels, every time I close the cover of a good book.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: The Little Prince (1943)

… I should have liked to begin this story in the fashion of the fairy-tales. I should have like to say: “Once upon a time there was a little prince who lived on a planet that was scarcely any bigger than himself, and who had need of a sheep . . .”
To those who understand life, that would have given a much greater air of truth to my story.
For I do not want anyone to read my book carelessly. I have suffered too much grief in setting down these memories.

I have let far too much time go by without The Little Prince in my life; I’ve always said everyone should read this book once every decade (more often would turn it into patter). It needs to be read with a certain wisdom that comes from accumulated experiences, and ten years seems to me to be about the right amount of time to take a look back so as to see where you’ve drifted off course.

This seemed like the moment to read again, and I found, instead of a course correction, a kind of affirmation. My life, by most standards, is a mess, but if I can see the sheep in the box, I must be doing something right. I need to keep in mind: what would the Little Prince notice about me, should he visit? Would he think I am obsessed with trivial matters, that I’m overlooking what’s important?

By coincidence, as I was getting ready to tweet quotes from the book, one a half hour, throughout the day (I hope I didn’t annoy anyone), a link came through my Twitter feed from three different sources: Matt Damon delivering the Howard Zinn speech which includes: “Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience…. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves… (and) the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.” The consequences of seeing what’s important go far beyond a children’s book.

I love the reminder that everyone sees the world in a particular way – including the Little Prince himself, who keeps forgetting he is on a planet much larger than his home. It’s the hammer problem: if all I’ve got is a hammer, I can be forgiven for considering everything a nail, but maybe I’ve just forgotten about the screwdriver and the wrench and a hacksaw – or maybe I’m just too lazy to dig them out, so I go on with my ineffectual thwacking.

I’m more familiar with the structure of the Hero’s Journey than I was last time I read. The story is a blending of two Hero’s Journeys, and switches back and forth between “Young man sets out” and “A stranger came to town” points of view. But I’m not that interested in detailed analysis; I just breathed the book.

“My life is very monotonous,” the fox said…. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat . . .”

Saint Exupéry was a pilot, and had a deep love of flying. It is said his wife was the model for the rose of this story – difficult, yet beloved. They had, by all accounts, a tumultuous marriage; both of them committed various indiscretions. Consuelo de Saint Exupéry wrote her own story of the marriage in The Tale of the Rose; I haven’t read it, because I prefer to leave the Prince and his Rose in the fictional setting. I think his love for her comes through in this book. I’m not sure it’s enough, but it wasn’t my life, so I couldn’t say.

He died a year after the The Little Prince was published, which tinges things with a special poignancy. He’s the author of one of my favorite quotes: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” The more MOOCs I take, and the more students – and exceptional teachers – I come in contact with, the more convinced I am that this is something that should be recited every morning by every teacher in America. If you can get someone to want to build a ship, believe me, they’ll learn the necessary skills.

The uncertainty we’re left with at the end of The Little Prince is among the many things that raises this from just another kid’s book to a real treat:

Here, then, is a great mystery. For you who also love the little prince, and for me, nothing in the universe can be the same if somewhere, we do not know where, a sheep that we never saw has–yes or no?–eaten a rose . . .
Look up at the sky. Ask yourselves: is it yes or no? Has the sheep eaten the flower? And you will see how everything changes . . .
And no grown-up will ever understand that this is a matter of so much importance!

I know at least one grown-up who will.

Jostein Gaarder: Sophie’s World (FSG, 1994)

Is there nothing that interests us all?… What is the most important thing in life? If we ask someone living on the edge of starvation, the answer is food. If we ask someone dying of cold, the answer is warmth. If we put the same question to someone who feels lonely and isolated, the answer will probably be the company of other people.
But when those basic needs have been satisfied – will there still be something that everybody needs? Philosophers think so. They believe that man cannot live by bread alone. Of course everyone needs food. And everyone needs love and care. But there is something else – apart from that – which everyone needs, and that is to figure out who we are and why we are here.

Do you remember the film The Gods Must Be Crazy? It’s a movie so poorly made, with such an absurd plot, that the only thing it had going for it was its own bumbling charm – and that was plenty to make it a beloved favorite for anyone who’s ever seen it.

Sophie’s World is a bit like that. It’s a surface gloss over the history of philosophy wrapped in a peculiar mystery with a writing style that varies from fourth-grader to ridiculously pompous – not to mention a plot that should come with a warning label, “Kids, Don’t Do This At Home” – yet it’s one of those books that simply propels you to read the next page because you must find out. First, you must find out what’s happening, and then, once you know what’s happening, you must find out how it resolves, and when you’ve read the last word and closed the cover, you’re left projecting into the future and maybe recalling Sophie and Alberto the next time you open any book.

Oh, did I mention it’s a YA novel? A Norwegian YA novel? A Norwegian YA “novel about the history of philosophy” as the subtitle assures us?

I chose to read it now for intertwined reasons (much like Sophie’s world is intertwined in… well, you’ll have to read the book). First, I’ve been bumping into Norway a lot lately. In July I read The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas for a class. In August, One Story‘s offering was a story (by an American with strong cultural ties to Norway) set in Norway. I also ran into Norway via some Wittgenstein readings; he there hid from philosophy for a while. Earlier this month, I read Bill Roorbach’s Life Among Giants which featured a Norwegian ballerina and taught me the first Norwegian word I’ve ever retained, firfisle (lizard – you’ve got to read the book to know why that word). When I ran into Scandinavian logic characters in a math class, I knew something Norwegian was going on (this is just getting weird: the day after I posted this, the Short Story Thursday offering arrived: a story by Norwegian author and 1903 Nobel laureate Bjornstjerne Bjornson), so I went with it, and dug out the only Norwegian reading I had heretofore done, this crazy, delightful, engrossing story of Sophie’s world.

A month before her fifteenth birthday, Sophie finds a couple of postcards in her mailbox: “Who are you?” and “Where does the world come from?” That’s enough to get her wondering, not just how the postcards got there and who sent them and why, but about how she would define herself and where the world came from. She soon finds out the card was from a man named Alberto Knox when he sends the opening chapter of a History of Philosophy course that starts with Thales of Miletus wondering the same things about existence. Over the course of the month, Alberto’s History of Philosophy chapters move her forward through Classical, Christian, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Modern philosophical movements from Socrates to Augustine to Copernicus to Descartes etc., etc., etc., with dozens of stops along the way.

But while this is going on, something else is happening, too. Sophie also finds a postcard meant for one Hilde Knag, with whom she apparently shares a birthday. With no idea who Hilde is, Sophie wonders how she’s supposed to find her to give her the card. This begins the mystery that propels the plot – at least, initially. It’s fascinating to me that this mystery – who is Hilde, who is her father, what do they have to do with Sophie, where does Alberto fit in? – is resolved about halfway through the book, but another narrative drive takes over, which for Sophie took a specific form (I won’t reveal in the interests of avoiding spoilers) but for me, was: How on earth is the writer going to get out of this?

A lot of people experience the world with the same incredulity as when a magician suddenly pulls a rabbit out of a hat which has just been shown to them empty.

In the case of the rabbit, we know the magician has tricked us. What we would like to know is just how he did it. But when it comes to the world it’s somewhat different. We know that the world is not all sleight of hand and deception because here we are in it, we are part of it. Actually, we are the white rabbit being pulled out of the hat. The only difference between us and the white rabbit is that the rabbit does not realize it is taking part in a magic trick. Unlike us. We feel we are part of something mysterious and we would like to know how it all works.

That’s the magic of the book. Just as Sophie’s curiosity was aroused by that initial postcard, the reader’s curiosity is piqued, and, in an unusual move, a “second wind” of sorts comprises the second half of the book. I wonder: would a book like this find a publisher in the US today? Even though I’ve been reading and re-reading it for the past 20 years, a novel for teenagers about the history of philosophy, sans zombies, vampires, or a love interest, is not something that screams “best-seller” or “movie rights.” Yet, it was an international best-seller and there was a (Norwegian) movie, a computer game, even a (German) musical, not to mention multipart TV adaptations in various countries. Sometimes, things just catch on.

I read, obviously, a translation; I’m not sure how good that translation is, but I have to admit that some of the narration is painfully childish in style – more for an eight-year-old than a teenager (“Sophie looked at her watch. It was a quarter to three. Her mother would not be home from work for over three hours. / Sophie crawled out into the garden again and ran to the mailbox. Perhaps there was another letter”), though Alberto’s philosophical teachings are more age-appropriate. Another issue for me: when I was a kid, I would feel stupid after watching a mystery or spy show, or even Star Trek, because everyone in those shows seemed to know, if not the answers, exactly the right questions to ask. Sophie is like that; when she’s not doing smart-ass teenager snark during Alberto’s lectures, she asks the perfect question to lead into the next point. I suppose that’s a silly complaint, lack of character depth and inauthentic dialogue, considering the book. It’s like the terrible overdubbing or the horrible camera work or amateur acting in TGMBC (or for that matter, the original “A Charlie Brown Christmas” which was likewise technically abysmal yet immediately became a permanent part of the soul of everyone who saw it, and has been beloved for three generations now): it’s part of the experience, and the experience is terrific, in spite of (maybe because of) the flaws.

Here’s the strange thing about re-reading this book: The ending is always brand-new to me. The first few times, I didn’t remember at all what “happened” beyond the philosophy course. Then I remembered some of it, but not the resolution. This time, I knew the midpoint resolution, and knew the direction of the struggle from middle to end, but I still did not remember exactly how things finished up. This fits perfectly with the plot, by the way, a plot that raises some issues about what happens when you close the cover of a book and put it back on the shelf. Is it possible the book itself changed as it sat there between All Our Secrets Are The Same and Winds of War (an odd place for it, to be sure)? Or is there something about the story itself that’s self-erasing from my memory, like the e-books I download from the library for two weeks? It’s a speculation worthy of Sophie and Alberto.

Sophie found philosophy doubly exciting because she was able to follow all the ideas by using her own common sense.… She decided that philosophy was not something you can learn; but perhaps you can learn to think philosophically.

Gaarder wrote this book fairly early in his career. He’s written books for both adults and children, as well as nonfiction, and a 2006 op-ed about the Middle East that got him into a great deal of trouble (he’s since apologized and reframed his comments). By the way, another touchstone of my re-reads: one of the characters in Sophie’s World is a UN observer in Lebanon, and every time I re-read the book, there’s some kind of mess going on in the Middle East. I suppose there’s been a more or less continuous mess going on in the Middle East for a long time.

In a 1995 interview, Gaarder said he wrote Sophie’s World because, while travelling in Athens, he was told there was no book about philosophy for kids, since “they’re too young to understand it.” He wanted to make it understandable. The book was a NYT best-seller and has been translated into 53 languages. I’d say he succeeded.

Bill Roorbach: Life Among Giants (Algonquin, 2012)

Our secrets gave us power.
And then they took our power away.
From whom had we learned that?

I was destined to read this book.

I first became aware of it earlier this year, when Maine writer Bill Roorbach talked about it at the “FLOODED” benefit for our little Portland bookstore damaged by superstorm Sandy. At around the same time, Cliff Garstang (an acquaintance of mine from Zoetrope Virtual Studios of years past) chaired a panel at the Virginia Festival of the Book that included this book; he was quite enthusiastic about it. But one thing led to another and I never got to it… you know how it goes. Then last month, David Abrams (of FOBBIT fame) announced this his weekly Friday Freebie; I entered the drawing, and won (thank you, David).

When a book comes at you from three very different directions – one of them plopping it, free of charge, in your hands – you begin to think there might be a reason. It wasn’t until I read the book, though, that I realized how foretold-in-the-stars this was for me.

All the conversation I’d imagined had simply disappeared. In its place, memory pressing on memory. My dad waiting at the bus stop with me. My mother’s face reacting to him, that cross face she’d make. She’d put a lot of pressure on the guy. That was something I hadn’t thought of before, all the pressure she put on him to be anything but what he was. Then again, what was he?

About two-thirds of the novel is set in Westport, CT. I spend a couple of years as a grade schooler in the early 60s on Briar Oak Drive in Weston, Connecticut, the town next to Westport – and it was in Weston itself that the idea for the novel took root in a very young Bill Roorbach’s mind after a near-brush with the greatness that was Led Zeppelin. In 1963, my family moved to Miami where the middle of the book is set (we later moved to Miramar, about 15 miles north), and though for the ten years I was forced to live there I swore I’d move back to Connecticut as soon as I turned 18, I was for some time a Miami Dolphins fan. Everyone down there was in 1970, 1971, and especially 1972, the Undefeated Season, followed by the 1973 Super Bowl. Seeing familiar names in this book – Bob Griese, Don Shula, and, my favorite of them all, Garo Yepremian, whose designer neckties I bought in absurd quantities for every male member of my family – made me smile. One fictional scene in particular brought me back forty years to that very real, very ridiculous blocked-punt-that-turned-into-an-intercepted-pass that still lives in my memory. In fact, I wonder if it served as inspiration for the fictional event.

I then got the hell out of Florida (it took a whole 5 months after I turned 18) not to Connecticut, but to Boston, where, in the mid-80s, I was, like the character Kate, a guest at McLean Hospital for some time, several times.

Midnight, two o’clock, four o’clock, four-thirty, five, each ghost returning for her hour: Emily, Kate, Mom. And of course Perdhomme and Kaiser, and my completely vincible dad.

And now I’ve ended up living in the same state as author Bill Roorbach (who got here by a circuitous route himself, including Boston and Connecticut) and his book set in those other two places I’ve lived. This is, by the way, the third – the third, for pete’s sake – Norwegian-related work I’ve done in the past 3 months. Come on, when was the last time you read a book or story with even a single Norwegian word in it? My father was from Sweden, but it’s Norway calling me; maybe I’d better go check out some Ibsen or something.

At a soirée for her foundation I waited almost an hour, got to study her as she posed a couple of risers up on the grand stairway, finally had my moment, kiss-kiss. Anyone watching would have thought she didn’t know me, that she only greeted a fading sports figure, the up-and-coming restauranteur, but they couldn’t see how I slipped the speckled stone into the bodice of her tight, strapless dress, couldn’t feel how she let my fingers linger a moment against her breast, couldn’t hear when she whispered my name in my ear, and then a familiar Norwegian phrase, something from our time together, something we’d said over and over again, something a little shy of love, which was how she wanted it: jeg ar ohso glad I deg – “I am so very fond of you.”

I haven’t said much about the actual book yet, have I? Well, it’s very, very good, and very, very readable. When I’m seriously enjoying a book, I read slower and slower as the pages dwindle down. The last chapter of this one took a full day.

No matter what you’ve heard, or will read in reviews, it’s not about football (though there is football and there are football players); it’s not about ballet (though there is ballet and there are ballet dancers); and it’s not about murder (though there are murders and the who-done-it serves as the plot engine). It’s about crossing between dream and reality, between the world of the ordinary and the world of the giants; and about what happens to a giant who doesn’t really want to be a giant. It’s about who we love, and why, and what we do – or don’t do – about it. Like many really good books, it’s about the people within it, and how they get tangled up in themselves. Revenge is not always a dish best served cold; sometimes it’s a dish best not served at all, but so often we serve it anyway, don’t we.

And, oh yeah, it’s about food.

I have a thing about last meals…. Whatever’s coming, there’s going to be that last thing we eat. My folks, for example. They did pretty well in the last-meal department, beautiful restaurant, family all around them, perfect sandwiches made by someone who truly cared about food. Lunch, as it happened. Their last meal, I mean. For my sister it was breakfast, but that was years later, and I’ll get to that. The point is, I like to eat every meal as if it were the last, as if I knew it were the last: savor every bite, be there with the food, make sure it’s good, really worthy. And though it’s an impossible proposition, I try to take life that way, too: every bite my last.

In the first chapters, you’ll want a BLT; no, you’ll crave a BLT, one with “thick, flavorful bacon…slices of tomato thick as steaks, crisp, fresh-picked lettuce from the garden” served with “china-lavender ramekins of house-made mayonnaise….” Later, you’ll want wild mushroom sausages. I hope someone marketed this book to chef-types and serious foodies, especially vegetarians, because I don’t even like mushrooms, but I want to make those mushroom sausages (and there’s enough detail in the writing to make that possible; at least one reader made the lentil stew otherwise described, and I may do that as well). Be aware, however: in the later chapters of the book, your appetite for mushroom sausages may wane.

One of the engines of my crush, of course, was that Emily wanted nothing to do with me. Sophomore year, she’d written a series of anti-establishment opinion pieces for the school paper, in one of which she attacked me as the leader of the football team, called me “reptilian.” I’d been kind of hurt, found myself almost agreeing with her. The other guys immediately started calling me Lizard.

I was surprised at how down-to-earth and grounded main character David “Lizard” Hochmeyer came across, when he is, in fact, a football star, an A student in school, and a nice guy as well. How do you write that without going stereotype? Beyond that, how do you write a star so that the reader doesn’t even realize he’s a star until pretty well into the book, and then is surprised? One way is to have him doubt his specialness, see it as no big deal. He may be 6-foot-8, but he’s surrounded by giants, after all – and giant ghosts.

I don’t know why I’m so dismissive of my National Football League years. Regret, perhaps, a kind of mourning, what might have been. Though when you think about it, the whole thing is pretty impressive, history few can claim. I guess I just of actually think about it much…. there were some five million kids playing high school football, some fifty-five thousand playing NCAA college ball, but only some twelve hundred in the NFL, only about two hundred draftees each year, of which at most ten were quarterbacks. I’d barely made it, was my only observation.

But the character who finally in the last pages drew my tears from me was his sister Kate – with just two words. No, I won’t tell you what they are. They wouldn’t mean anything out of context. I try so hard not to cry over every book I read, and I thought I might make it this time, but that scene was an arrow straight to the tenderest regions of the heart.

I wish I’d paid more attention to the speckled stone as it was passed back and forth between David and the dancer; I suspect it’s something of a harbinger, but I realized its importance too late to notice if it’s associated with the possessing character’s troubles or triumphs, offense switching to defense. That’s ok, I’ll pick it up on the reread – yes, there will be a reread. I think I’d like to re-read Gatsby, and maybe learn more about Les Sylphides as well, before then, as well.

Roorbach names The Great Gatsby – specifically, Nick – and the ballet Les Sylphides, among his inspirations for the book; they’re both easy to spot. It’s got almost a spiral structure, presenting events then curling around in time to present more detail about them, or to fill in blanks. It’s told in what my buddy Marko Fong calls “Memoir Voice,” that first-person-past looking back, occasionally interjecting hints at what is to come, and what has been learned between the events being narrated and the time of narration. It’s marvelously effective.

Roorbach’s Self-Interview at The Nervous Breakdown is a hoot; the official book site site has more interviews, as well as traditional reviews.

Across the pond the High Side was dark. Dad’s rowboat was still on the shore. I sometimes got in it under moonlight, rode back and forth.

This is the book I expected Beautiful Ruins to be; oddly, it reminds me bit of Ghana Must Go, as both trace the past and the present through the future, and culminate in a denoument that’s even more powerful than the climax. I admire a book that uses the word “vincible” in a natural fashion. I admire a mystery that’s really about the inner workings of people, the ultimate mystery. I admire the cover: I liked the original hardcover design, but this paperback was extraordinary; I swear that velvet finish adds a luminescent glow, and I’ve said before how much I love the feel of it in my hands (yes, I sit around caressing books, you got a problem with that?). It was a delicious read on many levels, and I admire that. After all, I was destined to read it.

Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary (1857)

Before her marriage she had thought that she had love within her grasp. But
since the happiness which she had expected this love to bring her hadn’t come,
she supposed she must have been mistaken. And Emma tried to imagine just what
was meant, in life, by the words “bliss,” “passion,” and “rapture.” Words that
had seemed so beautiful to her in books.

Once again, I find a tragic French novel to be hilarious. This time, however, I think the author might’ve intended it that way, at least a little.

When I read Manon Lescaut a few months ago, I found des Grieux quite unbelievable in his naïveté and somewhat pathetic in his willingness to find excuses for Manon’s faithless ways. I read Madame Bovary for a different Coursera class – this one, philosophy, specifically “The Modern and Post-Modern” taught by Michael Roth of Wesleyan – but had the same urge to giggle throughout. Not, however, over Charles Bovary’s unawareness of his wife’s carryings-on, but of the juxtaposition of high romance and boring banality. What’s more, Flaubert planned it this way: “This will be the first time, I think, that a book makes fun of its leading lady and its leading man,” he wrote in an 1852 letter to his mistress. Academia calls it irony; I call it hilarious.

It is, of course, one of the most analyzed books around, and Lydia Davis’ recent translation caused a new stir of interest. I’m not going to attempt any scholarship; I’ll just make note of what those with far more smarts than I have to say, and mention my own reaction. I have two sources of analysis, besides the book itself: A.S. Byatt’s July 2002 article published in The Guardian (which includes some of Flaubert’s comments on the writing of the book), and an hour of lectures (on amateur video) by the now-familiar Prof. Arnold Weinstein.

Wasn’t it a man’s role, though, to know everything? Shouldn’t he be expert at
all kinds of things, able to initiate you into the intensities of passion,
the refinements of life, all the mysteries? This man could teach you nothing.
He knew nothing, he wished for nothing. He took it for granted that she was
content, and she resented his settled calm, his serene dullness, the very
happiness she herself brought him.

Emma Bovary is, as Prof. Weinstein underlines, a woman misled by books. A farmer’s daughter educated in a convent, she’s grown up with this romantic vision of the world in which marriage leads to bliss and love is ecstasy. It’s complicated by her taste for the finer things, a taste intensified by a brush with “the good life” early in her marriage. She spends the rest of her short life desperately searching for this bliss, this elegance, heedless of the cost; when the bills come due, literally and figuratively, she takes the romanticized cure: suicide. This is the cost of romanticism unbridled by reality.

The scenes where romance and reality are intertwined are frequent and memorable. Emma and her various romantic targets are constantly being separated, interfered with, interrupted by, the mundane business of ordinary life. This may be unavoidable; Flaubert admits in another letter: “There are in me, literally speaking, two distinct persons: one who is infatuated with bombast, lyricism, eagle flights, sonorities of phrase and lofty ideas; and another who digs and burrows into the truth as deeply as he can, who likes to treat a humble fact as respectfully as a big one, who would like to make you feel almost physically the things he reproduces.” He gets this onto the page time and time again. In Part II, Chapter 3, Emma has run into Leon on her way to visit her child at the wet nurse’s house, and is rather eager to get back to him, not out of any grand passion or any concrete idea but merely to hold onto his arm; the wet nurse keeps interrupting, preventing their leaving with requests for soap, coffee, and – most likely her goal all the while – brandy, driving Emma into greater and greater impatience. In Chapter 6, she tries to talk to the priest about her growing unhappiness, but he’s paying attention to a group of students and begins to instruct her on the troubles of poverty, certainly a greater concern than a housewife’s boredom, but not of much help to her at that moment.

But the two ultimate examples of this juxtaposition technique take place at the Agricultural Fair, and later, in Rouen. At the Fair, Rodolphe woos Emma, declares his intentions to seduce her and begin an adulterous affair, against a backdrop of an agricultural auction and the awarding of prizes. The scene, a brief clip I’ll show here (italics and indents added for clarity), is a complete scream:

He took her hand, and this time she did not withdraw it.
                       “First prize for all-round farming!” cried the chairman.
“Just this morning, for example, when I came to your house . . .”
                       “To Monsieur Bizet, of Quincampoix.”
“Did I have any idea that I’d be coming with you to the show?”
                       “Seventy francs!”
“A hundred times I was on the point of leaving, and yet I followed you and
stayed with you . . .”
                       “For the best manures.”
“. . . as I’d stay with you tonight, tomorrow, every day, all my life!”
                       “To Monsieur Caron, of Argueil, a gold medal!”
“Never have I been so utterly charmed by anyone . . .”
                       “To Monsieur Bain, of Givry-Saint-Martin!”
“. . . so that I’ll carry the memory of you with me . . .”
                       “For a merino ram . . .”
“Whereas you’ll forget me, I’ll vanish like a shadow.”
                       “To Monsieur Belot, of Notre-Dame . . .”
“No, though! Tell me it isn’t so! Tell me I’ll have a place in your thoughts,
in your life!”
                       “Hogs, a tie! To Messieurs Leherisse and Cullembourg, sixty francs!”
Rodolphe squeezed her hand, and he felt it all warm and trembling in his, like
a captive dove that longs to fly away. But then, whether in an effort to free
it, or in response to his pressure, she moved her fingers.

The fact is: love and hogs coexist; passion and manure are sometimes useful and sometimes distasteful, but they nonetheless are and they are in the same world. The bathos in this scene may show the cheapness of romantic claptrap, but it also shows reality. And don’t forget: Emma’s later undoing is not her infidelities, but in her disregard of reality, particularly financial reality (a disregard encouraged by the greedy and scheming Lheureux), in favor of romance.

In Part III, the same type of scene is played out, with Leon now pursuing Emma and the verger of the Cathedral at Rouen the constant intrusion. This blends into the cab scene, in which the coach driver becomes the point-of-view character, instructed by occasional cries from the back of the coach: “Straight on!” “Drive on!” It’s a great stylistic choice, to show passion’s consummation without showing it at all:

At a certain moment in the early afternoon, when the sun was blazing down most fiercely on the old silver-plated lamps, a bare hand appeared from under the little yellow cloth curtains and threw out some torn scraps of paper. The wind caught them and scattered them, and they alighted at a distance, like white butterflies, on a field of flowering red clover.
Then, about six o’clock, the carriage stopped in a side street near the Place Beauvoisine. A woman alighted from it and walked off, her veil down, without a backward glance.

That’s exquisite writing. I wish I read French well enough to appreciate the original; here is where the rhythm of the language would be most important.

This split-screen technique continues through Emma’s demise. Her little girl is brought to her on her death bed, and the scene is reminiscent of New Year’s; as the blind beggar sings, Emma dies; Homais and the priest debate religion and science while making funeral arrangements. Then we have the potatoes, which are only mentioned twice in the novel, yet still echo the theme. I must say, Flaubert isn’t afraid to go there, and when he goes there, he really goes there.

I’m a bit disturbed by yet another depiction of a shallow, flighty woman undone by her own love of pleasure, but here, the blame gets laid at the foot of romantic literature; it is in those stories she learned her map of the world, and she merely tried to negotiate what she thought was a reasonable path, and discovered too late she’d sold a bill of goods. Nothing could have measured up to her expectations.

No matter, she wasn’t happy, and never had been. Why was life so
unsatisfactory? Why did everything she leaned on crumble instantly to dust?
But why, if somewhere there existed a strong and handsome being . . . a man of
valor, sublime in passion and refinement, with a poet’s heart and an angel’s
shape, a man like a lyre with strings of bronze, intoning elegiac epithalamiums
to the heavens, why mightn’t she have the luck to meet him? Ah, fine chance!
Besides, nothing was worth looking for. Everything was a lie! Every smile
concealed a yawn of boredom. Every joy, a curse, every pleasure, its own
surfeit. And the sweetest kisses left on one’s lips but a vain longing for
fuller delight.

She’s looking for something that doesn’t exist: objective happiness, literally an object or a man who will make her happy. Prof. Weinstein points out in his lecture: It’s not just romance books, it’s the marketplace that has created her appetite, as it even more deliberately creates ours today; corporations spend a great deal on marketing to be sure we develop a “need” for their product.

Emma suicides by “eating” poison, a phrasing I found odd (shouldn’t it be “taking?”) but that serves a thematic purpose: finally, an appetite she can satisfy. Then, the most tragic and poignant moment in the book, the moment that for me is the point of it all: Charles realizes she’s deathly ill, and asks, “What did you eat?” “And in his eyes she read a love such as she had never known.” If she could have lived her life in the throes of suicide, she might have been happy.

Emma Bovary is said to be inspired by Flaubert’s fascination with two “fallen women”: Delphine Delamare, the unattractive but sexually provocative wife of an unsuccessful small-town doctor, a woman who had “expensive tastes, a gullible adoring husband, a procession of lovers, and a secret festering pile of debts”; and Louise Pradier, whose marriage to the star sculptor of the day was destroyed by her promiscuity and financial irresponsibility. A lot of that going around mid-19th century France.

One more real-life tie-in: Flaubert received from his own mistress, Louise Colet, a cigarette case bearing the words “Amor nel cor”; Rodolphe uses a seal bearing exactly that phrase to prepare his kiss-off note to Emma. It just so happens Louise was married to artist Hippolyte Colet – and the name of the stableboy Charles maims with inept surgery is also named Hippolyte. Writers settle scores in many ways, sometimes unfairly.

One of the (many) hallmarks of the work is the use of free indirect discourse, a sort of blending of character and narrator to the point where it’s uncertain where one stops and the other begins. Jane Austen first used this type of narration, but only sparingly; Flaubert developed it into an art form, one we somewhat take for granted now. Pericles Lewis of Yale gives a particularly interesting footnote to this: Flaubert was brought to trial for “outrage to public morals and religion” after publication, and the prosecutor claimed Flaubert, not Emma, was speaking in favor of adultery in the “I have a lover!” scene. It may be the first time in history a literary technique has been considered legal evidence.

[Rodolphe] Why preach against the passions? Aren’t they the only beautiful thing in
this world, the source of heroism, enthusiasm, poetry, music, the arts,
“But still,” said Emma, “we have to be guided a little by society’s opinions.
We have to follow its standards of morality.”
“Ah! But there are two moralities,” he replied. “The petty one, the
conventional one, the one invented by man, the one that keeps changing and
screaming its head off, that one’s noisy and vulgar, like that crowd of fools
you see out there. But the other one, the eternal one . . . Ah! This one’s
all around us and above us, like the landscape that surrounds us and the blue
sky that gives us light.”

So what does all this have to do with philosophy? I have no idea; that’s why I’m taking the class. Flaubert follows Hegel/Marx on the syllabus (I’m reading in advance again), and the lecture, which will go up next week, is titled “Modernism: Art for Art’s Sake.” I guess I’ll find out. I keep taking philosophy and history classes: I’ve always found that, no matter how well I think grasp the material, when I run up against it from a different angle, I don’t recognize it. Most of the academic analysis I’ve found talks about Romanticism vs Modernism, and the book contains a few discussions on these points and a number of others – arts, sciences, passion, morality, religion – but no one in this book, and thus no viewpoint, comes out looking good; the characters are various combinations of foolish, cruel, greedy, and bumbling. I wonder if that could be Flaubert’s point.

J. M . Coetzee: Disgrace (1999)

Portrait of J. M. Coetzee by Adam Chang

Portrait of J. M. Coetzee by Adam Chang

He is in good health; his mind is clear. By profession he is, or has been, a scholar, and scholarship still engages, intermittently, the core of him. He lives within his income, within his temperament, within his emotional means. Is he happy? By most measurements, yes, he believes he is. However, he has not forgotten the last chorus of Oedipus: Call no man happy until he is dead.

This is the last of the readings for the Coursera Fiction of Relationship class with Arnold Weinstein of Brown University (sadly, it seems to no longer be available as a mooc). In all cases, I’ve done the reading and blog posts well before the lectures were available, so that I could form my own impressions and see how my view shifted after viewing the course material; to “pre-test” so to speak, see how much I missed. I nearly missed this one entirely. The first seven chapters of David Lurie, intensely narcissistic misogynist, snob, and all-around bastard, made me want to take a shower. But I suppose that was the point: to introduce a disgusting protagonist, put him through the wringer, and get him to eventually, finally, learn something.

I think I was misled by the book blurbs. “This is a novel about the new South Africa, about the political as well as personal, and it describes a society in a state of violent metamorphosis,” says the first. “Inextricably linked with Lurie’s personal story is Coetzee’s exposure of a South Africa where all codes of behavior for people, both black and white, have become perverted and twisted,” the second. I was expecting something more overtly political. I was a little slow to grasp the obvious: David Lurie is the narcissistic, racist, misogynistic Old Guard of South Africa, and this is how it crumbles – painfully, unwillingly – and starts over post-Apartheid.

As a typically ethnocentric American, my view of world events is limited in great part to what’s dramatic enough to make the news: wars, revolutions, natural disasters. But I should have been able to extrapolate from American history; after all, post-Revolutionary America was a chaotic mess, and post-Civil-War Reconstruction was a nightmare, the effects of which continue to this day. To consider that South Africa would be fine the day after Apartheid was ended would be naïve. No, more like downright stupid. Yet, if I thought about it at all, that would’ve been what I thought. I’m glad literature gets through to me where world news does not.

I was fortunate to find some guidance in Professor Weinstein’s book, Morning, Noon, and Night Finding the Meaning of Life’s Stages Through Books. One of his books, I should say, but one that deals explicitly with Disgrace. He notes:

One’s response to Disgrace has much to do with one’s age. My undergraduates are greatly exercised by the teacher coming onto his student, but they showed little interest in the meditation on aging. (Time will teach them to read otherwise, I suspect, should they happen to pick up this book again in their later years.) For David Lurie is beginning to note the temporal treadmill he is on.

~~ Arnold Weinstein, Morning, Noon, and Night (Random House, 2011)

I was amused by this; I seem to be in a middle-ground in that I found Lurie to be a poor excuse for a human being on both counts. With the student, it was his attitude, and the abuse of academic power, the bestowing then withdrawing of academic favors, that disturbed me far more than the idea of a professor having an affair with a student in itself. I was able to see how a different viewer might wonder what the big deal is; she’s over 18, and students and teachers have been getting it on for centuries (or so I’ve heard; I have no personal experience in this matter). It’s only recently, as in within a generation or so, that it’s been seen as outrageous. I can understand how some might view his expulsion from academia as harsh; I can also understand how some might feel criminal or civil charges should have been filed. I’m on the cusp of that generational divide. On the behavior presented in the novel, I’m not convinced any leniency is warranted, but that’s probably influenced by his attitude. His firing is, however, essential for the plot of the book in order to deliver the theme. Without that action, the rest of the book would not exist.

Yet the old men whose company he seems to be on the point of joining, the tramps and drifters with their stained raincoats and cracked false teeth and hairy ear holes – all of them were once upon a time children of God, with straight limbs and clear eyes. Can they be blamed for clinging to the last to their place at the sweet banquet of the senses?

I take an even more jaundiced view of his dis-graceful aging (and I just realized, that may be an intentional spin-off pun, though the title – a fall from the grace of privilege – is rich enough in itself), having had actual experience at aging myself. I vehemently object to the notion that youth, vigor, and attractiveness are the only coins of the realm, and Lurie’s stubborn refusal to consider other possibilities until they are (quite brutally) forced upon him is repugnant, as is his pride in his own stubborn, self-aware incorrigibility. Yet that is the story; that is the book. And I get, now, how that is the story of the South African white power structure as well. More than any other work in this course, I think, I learned something here, something important, and that has value to me.

He has not taken to Bev Shaw, but dumpy, bustling little woman with black freckles, close cropped, wiry hair, and no neck. He does not like women who make no effort to be attractive. It is a resistance he has had to Lucy’s friends before. Nothing to be proud of: a prejudice that has settled in his mind, settle down. His mind has become a refuge for old thoughts, idle, indigent, with nowhere else to go. He ought to chase them out, sweep the premises clean. But he does not care to do so, or does not care enough.

Lurie’s misogynism goes beyond his dismissal of unattractive women. He feels it is their duty to be visual ornaments. What’s interesting is that even as he makes these crazy claims, he realizes how they sound, what impression they create. Yet, he believes it anyway. He will decide for women what they must and must not share.

“Because a woman’s beauty does not belong to her alone. It is part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it.”….Smooth words, as old as seduction itself. Yet at this moment he believes in them. She does not own herself. Beauty does not own itself.

Until his daughter is raped. Then, in keeping with the theme of our course, David Lurie becomes “the other.”

Experiencing abusive power from the other side tends to make one realize its brutality and unfairness. I’m reminded of the fuss when Republican Senator Rob Portman bucked the party line and endorsed marriage equality because his gay son had shown him the light; some commentator mentioned , but what about the lawmakers who don’t have gay sons? How do they come to realize inequality is wrong? Here is the same thing: What about the rest of the white power structure in South Africa? What about the white people in the US who don’t know the proverbial “really nice black person”? Do we have to be forced to become “the other” to put aside our privilege and fix the inequities? Is that going to work at all, or is that just going to create a vicious cycle of oppressed becoming the oppressor? Can’t we all just get along?

The goat with the infected balls in Chapter 10 makes another powerful symbol. Bev knows the goat will not survive; her offer to “help him through” is rejected; they will not give him up. This wonderfully parallels Lurie’s refusal to give up his lifelong privilege (and it’s no accident it’s Bev who delivers this message, as he also refuses to see her as a person of value since he “does not like women who make no effort to be attractive”). He is the goat, of course, in a wonderful twist of goat symbolism; he just doesn’t know it yet. Bev does, over the course of the book, help him through, and when he returns to her in the final chapter, he is ready to be helped through. His final words, the final words of the book: “Yes, I am giving him up.” The symmetry of Chapter 10 and Chapter 24 is quite exquisite.

“Normally I would say,” he says, “that after a certain age one is too old to learn lessons. One can only be punished and punished. But perhaps that is not true, not always. I wait to see.… In my own terms, I am being punished for what happened between myself and your daughter. I am sunk into a state of disgrace from which it will not be easy to lift myself. It is not a punishment I have refused. I do not murmur against it. On the contrary, I am living it out from day-to-day, trying to accept disgrace as my state of being. Is it enough for God, do you think, then I leave in disgrace without term?”
… [Mr. Isaacs] “But since you don’t pray you have no way to ask God. So God must find his owns means of telling you. Why do you think you are here, Mr. Lurie?”

In twelve-step terminology, there’s the notion of “hitting bottom” and the truism that the bottom is much farther down than anyone ever dreams it could be. For Lurie, he feels the unpleasant publicity over his affair, losing his academic credential, is bottom. He sees recovery as an easy matter: he’ll just take some time, and work on his opera about Byron (does he have the musical training to write an opera? Not analyze a libretto, but compose a score). The problem is, he hasn’t hit bottom yet. You have to be able to plant your feet on the bottom in order to push off and rise up again. This book ends with his statement, “Yes, I am giving him up.” That is the planting of the feet. The pushoff, the rise, is left to the future, and to the reader’s imagination.

Lurie’s relationship with his daughter also changes. He starts out the parent; not authoritative, really, since he’s pretty much been a hands-off parent, but smug and self-righteous in his superiority. He ends up learning from her. That’s real progress.

I was a pretty disgruntled reader for much of this book. In his NYT book review at the time of publication, Michael Gorra said: “I could note the way Coetzee makes us understand but not sympathize with Lurie’s intellectual arrogance and incorrigible desire, and could then compare him to his child: each is beyond stubborn, but the daughter is marked by an integrity that her father knows he cannot claim for himself.” Lurie was for me, even in his deepest woes, an unsympathetic character until perhaps the final paragraphs. “My dogs don’t jump” began to show me that maybe something was different; he was taking ownership of the dogs, and while ownership may seem a negative thing, in this case it was a distinct positive. It took me a few days to get some distance, and reading the section in Weinstein’s book helped (if you google carefully, you will be able to find most of it online, though your local library is a far better source). I’m eager to hear the lectures, as the course has a different focus and is likely to cover other aspects of the book. I can’t say I enjoyed the book, but I learned a great deal from it, and I found much to appreciate. Like Lurie, I came around.

What the dog will not be able to work out (not in a month of Sundays! he thinks), what his nose will not tell him, is how one can enter what seems to be an ordinary room and never come out again. Something happens in this room, something unmentionable: here the soul is yanked out of the body; briefly it hangs about in the air, twisting and contorting; then it is sucked away and is gone. It will be beyond him, in this room that is not a room but a hole where one leaks out of existence.

This is the last book of the Fiction of Relationship course. It’s been a delightful twelve weeks; I highly recommend it, and I hope it will not only be re-run, but that Prof. Weinstein will conduct additional classes on other works. I like his focus on common themes in novels; many literature classes group works by author or time period (“The Nineteenth Century Novel”) or possibly by general category (“Adolescent Literature”) but this multi-faceted thematic approach linked books that might not have otherwise been considered similar. Borges and Jane Eyre? Kafka and Abbe Prevost? Yes, in fact – it made sense, and I find the relationship approach highly valuable in all my reading.

Thank you, Professor Weinstein!

Toni Morrison: Beloved (1987)

“Beloved Guardian” by contemporary American artist Dread Scott

Sethe was trying to make up for the handsaw; Beloved was making her pay for it. But there would never be an end to that, and seeing her mother diminished shamed and infuriated her. Yet she knew Sethe’s greatest fear was the same one Denver had in the beginning – that Beloved might leave. That before Sethe could make her understand what it meant – what it took to drag the teeth of that saw under the little chin; to feel the baby blood pump like oil in her hands; to hold her face so her head would stay on; to squeeze her so she could absorb, still, the death spasms that shot through that adored body, plump and sweet with life – Beloved might leave. Leave before Sethe could make her realize that worse than that – far worse – was what Baby Suggs died of, what Ella knew, what Stamp saw and what made Paul D tremble. That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but you dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up. And though she and others lived through and got over it, she could never let happen to her own. The best thing she was, was her children.

As we’ve progressed through the Fiction of Relationship mooc I’m taking (which, sadly, seems to no longer be available), I’ve noticed the books have become more complex in the scope of the relationships they examine. Where we started, we were looking at love relationships, then family relationships, then the social relationship of a community and even the relationship to reality. In this second half of the course, each book has encompassed all of these in interrelated ways. Or maybe, could it be, I’m just reading better, seeing this web of relationships more clearly. That’s the point of classes, isn’t it?

I read Beloved a couple of decades ago, I see now, as a better reader, that I missed it. It isn’t “about” a mother who kills her baby, though that alone makes it the most compelling reading since Jephthah slew his daughter. It isn’t even about slavery, not exactly: it’s about the effects of slavery, what it means to not own your own body, your own child. In this summer that’s been rife with defenses of “common sense” racism, it’s startlingly contemporary. And it’s about a town – not a black town or a white town, just a town – that turns on a jealous pivot against its own, about a woman out of place, and a girl who, just maybe, survives it all.

It’s a novel inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who did in fact kill her child when faced with recapture under the Fugitive Slave Act. But Sethe is not Margaret Garner; there are significant differences in the stories. Garner’s story is told, however, in a contemporary opera by Richard Danielpour, for which Morrison wrote the libretto.

It’s a book too big for a blog post – it may be the biggest book I’ve ever read – so I’m going to focus on three topics: how it fits the core “Fiction of Relationship” concepts Prof. Weinstein has built into his course; the biblical symbolism in the climactic chapter, and how terrifying it was to read it today and recognize attitudes and beliefs from 150 years ago still passing as common discourse.

The Fiction of Relationship

In all of Baby’s life, as well as Sethe’s own, men and women were moved around like checkers.… What she called the nastiness of life was the shock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children.

This is the fundamental evil of slavery. It goes beyond beatings and deprivations, beyond even enforced labor; it’s more than injustice. To not own your own body, to watch your children sold at a whim. Baby Suggs considers Sethe blessed because she had six years with Halle on Sweet Home. Not that they were married, of course; Mrs. Garner’s reaction to the notion of a slave wedding made it clear she saw Sethe and Halle as not really human. I think it’s a requirement: to enslave someone, you must see them as sub-human; to allow human ritual is to acknowledge that you have denied them humanity, to look at what you’ve done. Once the “peculiar institution” (what a benign name for it) was entrenched and relied upon, slaveholders needed to maintain this view, to remove the last vestiges of humanity from the people they enslaved.

[Baby Suggs] Sad as it was that she did not know where her children were buried or what they looked like if alive, fact was she knew more about them than she knew about herself, having never had the map to discover what she was like.
Could she sing? (Was it nice to hear when she did?) Was she pretty? Was she a good friend? Could she have been a loving mother? A faithful wife? Have I got a sister and does she favor me? If my mother knew me would she like me?

It’s a bizarre concept, to not have a map of yourself, to see yourself as someone else’s instrument, with no more personal agency than a pencil or a car. When Baby Suggs’ freedom is bought by Halle, she’s hit by a sudden revelation: “These hands belong to me. These my hands.” Then a moment later, she says “My heart’s beating” and is struck by the profound truth of that statement: my heart. How powerful this recognition is – it reminds me of the agnosia Oliver Sacks describes in his 1982 article, “The Leg.” Except agnosia is a medical condition, caused by a brain abnormality; Baby Suggs was, prior to her self-recognition, suffering from a kind of socially imposed agnosia; the institution of slavery mimicked a brain tumor. Now there’s a metaphor.

But just as Baby Suggs has this realization and laughs, as she’s making arrangements for the freedom Halle has bought, her slavemistress asks, “What’s funny, Jenny?” This is magnificent writing, to include this negation of Baby Sugg’s freedom in this scene. “Jenny” is only the name some former “owner” gave her and put on her bill of sale. It’s hard for me in 2013 to get my mind around that: a person having a bill of sale, being named by it. Morrison shows how it works, makes me feel it at a visceral level.

And on that note: I’m always fascinated by naming, both the names an author uses (or chooses to not use), and the acts of naming in a story. After all, the first thing God told Adam to do in the Judeo-Christian creation story was to name the animals. Naming is power. An author must necessarily name characters (or not, but an omitted name becomes its own signal); parents necessarily name children. Those in power name those who are “owned.” As a writer “owns” characters in a story, as parents “own” their children (think how hard it would be to never refer to your kids as “my kids” again), slaveowners named their slaves. One more power symbol, if the chains and bills of sale weren’t enough.

Look at the names in this novel: three Pauls (maybe after the apostle?), interchangeable parts to the slaveowners, yet Sixo, Baby Suggs, Sethe and Halle have real names, their own names; black people invented screen names before white people invented screens. And don’t forget – it’s Morrison who ultimately decided on the names, including the use of “Garner” (remember Margaret Garner, the real-life inspiration for this story?) for the slaveowners – the “good” slaveowners, which is as oxymoronic a phrase as ever existed. It’s great that some slaveowners weren’t overtly cruel. That makes them a little less evil, not good.

But back to naming: Stamp Paid is another character with a fascinating name and a story to go with it:

Born Joshua, he renamed himself when he handed over his wife to his master’s son. Handed her over in the sense that he did not kill anybody, thereby himself, because his wife demanded he stay alive. Otherwise, she reasoned, where and to whom could she return when the boy was through? With that gift, he decided that he didn’t owe anybody anything.… So he extended this debtlessness to other people by helping them pay out and off whatever they owed in misery. The runaways? He ferried them and rendered them paid for; gave them their own bill of sale, so to speak. “You paid it; now life owes you.” And the receipt, as it were, was a welcome door that he never had to knock on…

At another point in the novel, Paul D thinks, “When he looks at himself through Garner’s eyes, he sees one thing. Through Sixo’s, another. One makes him feel righteous. One makes him feel ashamed.” I don’t think it’s by accident that Sixo is one of the characters who has chosen his own name; in fact, even as he is burned alive, Sixo names himself anew – “Seven-o! Seven-o!” (having left behind a pregnant Thirty Mile Woman) – and thus retains ownership of himself, even as the slaveowners murder him. That’s a hard level of hero to reach; I think most of us would come up wanting using that yardstick.

One more note about naming: we never know what Beloved was named at birth. She only became Beloved after she died (and yes, I’ll get to the religious symbolism of that); she must’ve had a name beforehand. When the “new” Beloved arrives, Sethe isn’t shocked by the name; she doesn’t seem to connect the name Beloved with the baby she killed. I’m a bit perplexed by this; I’m hoping the class lectures or discussions will help me sort it out.

Then we have the community relationship, another crucial aspect of the book. The black community in the outskirts of Cincinnati of 1873 is a tricky one, but most communities are in one way or another. This particular community is so essential for survival, that when it turns its back on Baby Suggs out of envy, catastrophe ensues:

She was accustomed to the knowledge that nobody prayed for her – but this free-floating repulsion was new. It wasn’t whitefolks – that much she could tell – so it must be colored ones. And then she knew. Her friends and neighbors were angry at her because she had overstepped, given too much, offended them by excess….
And about the party too, because that explained why nobody ran on ahead… to say some new whitefolks with the Look just rode in. The righteous Look every Negro learned to recognize along with his ma’am’s tit. Like a flag hoisted, this righteousness telegraphed and announced the faggot, the whip, the fist, the lie, long before it went public. Nobody warned them, and he’d always believed it wasn’t the exhaustion from a long day’s gorging that dulled them, but some other thing – like, well, like meanness – that let them stand aside, or not pay attention… Maybe they just wanted to know if Baby really was special, blessed in some way they were not.

In some ways, this is exactly the same pattern as slavery: a group creates a situation, then points to the situation they’ve created as justification for their behavior. The slaveowners: Look how ignorant these people are, this is why we don’t teach them to read. Look at what an animal this woman who murdered her child is, this is why we treated her like an animal. And now, the community: Look what this woman did. We were right to be suspicious of Baby Suggs that day. It’s not a self-fulfilling prophecy, not exactly; it’s more like the sociological version of backwards causation.

Morrison knew how to work these dehumanization markers into her story seamlessly, so they float by as undercurrents or overtones while we’re looking at something else, paying attention to the story. That’s why it’s such a big book: every sentence has layers of meaning. When Sethe ties her son in the yard by his foot to keep him away from the smoking fire she was required to tend: what does it take for a slave to tie up her child to keep him safe? And how does this relate to her notion of keeping Beloved safe in the terrible, incomprehensible fashion she later uses?

Biblical Symbolism

Whenever I read a story or novel set in a time and place with customs unfamiliar to me, I’m constantly aware of how much I’m missing, how many symbols are floating by that I just can’t recognize because I’m unaware of the significance of, oh, owls as a death motif or the raven as a trickster. But thanks to my misspent youth as a Southern Baptist, I have an advantage when it comes to Christian symbolism.

In the climactic scene in the first chapter of Part III, with its dramatic convergence of multiple unrelated events – Edward Bodwin just happens to be arriving, wearing a hat, to pick up Denver for her first night of work; it just happens to be a dreadfully hot and humid day; Sethe just happens to be hacking at a block of ice to cool down Beloved’s fever; the community just happens to be standing outside Sethe’s house in some kind of exorcism attempt – the Christian allegory flows hot and heavy. It’s a breathtaking chapter just on the face of it, but add in:

~ Thirty women make their way towards 124, echoing the thirty pieces of silver Judas was paid to betray Jesus. This is, after all, the community that eighteen years prior didn’t warn 124 of the approach of schoolteacher.

~ The scene takes place at three o’clock on a Friday, by tradition often considered the hour and day of Jesus’ crucifixion.

~ Beloved has “vines of hair” all over her head: the crown of thorns.

~ The thirty women from the community fall to their knees in prayer: “They make a hill. A hill of black people falling.” This is the Calvary on which Beloved will again be sacrificed.

~ Beloved was two years old when she was killed; the gospel of Matthew tells of the Slaughter of the Innocents, also equating death (“going down to Egypt” as well as the literal [in the gospel at least; this event is only mentioned in Matthew, and is widely considered ahistorical] death of thousands of babies two years old and younger) and safety in a horrific way.

~ The name Beloved, present throughout: from the “Dearly Beloved” of a funeral service. But first, there was the gospel of Matthew 3:16-17: “When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He[a] saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him.17 And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (NKJV)

~ The baby who is killed doesn’t become Beloved by name until she is buried; she doesn’t become Beloved in the flesh until she is resurrected.

This all starts to circle itself like a snake eating its tail; I’m hoping the week we spend on it in class will help me sort it out a little better, through lectures or discussions. But it’s clear that Christian symbolism, particularly of the crucifixion, plays a pivotal role in the novel, deepening its already overwhelming impact.

Contemporary Reach

What struck me the hardest as I read this novel – published in 1987, set in the mid-19th century – was how contemporary it all was. Not just the themes: the actual scenes and conversations.

Let’s start with something easy: Sethe, Paul D and Denver go to the Carnival. When Paul D first brings it up, Sethe hesitates and says no – she has work, after all – “but even when she said it she was thinking how much her eyes enjoyed looking in his face.” That’s a line out of any current story with a love relationship. Hey, most of us have probably said something like that; some things never change, and some experiences are universal. At the Carnival, Denver starts out playing the ultimate and eternal disaffected teenager: “But Denver was not doing anything to make this trip a pleasure. She agreed to go – sullenly – but her attitude was ‘Go ‘head. Try and make me happy.'” You can’t tell me your teenager hasn’t ever done just that – that we haven’t done just that. This carnival chapter, ending with the shadows holding hands, is one of those moments of total joy in this book. It’s Morrison’s artistry that the story then introduces the resurrected Beloved.

Then we have the much darker contemporary touches.

Because there was no way in hell a black face could appear in a newspaper if the story was about something anybody wanted to hear. A whip of fear broke through the heart chambers as soon as you saw a Negro’s face in a paper, since the face was not there because the person had a healthy baby, or outran a street mob. … it must have been hard to find news about Negroes worth the breath catch of a white citizen of Cincinnati.

Just last night, Chris Hayes and Cord Jefferson did an extraordinary satire of the different ways black and white crime is covered. If the piece strikes you as silly, just try substituting the word “black” for “white” and see how it sounds then; I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been lifted nearly sentence-for-sentence from a collection of recent news rants. I wouldn’t have heard about the Huntington Beach riot following a surfing championship if it hadn’t been for this kind of comparative reporting; it wouldn’t have been a big deal out of the local area. Yet had a single black person thrown as much as a wadded up paper ball after the Trayvon Martin verdict, it would’ve been on continuous loop for weeks. And, by the way, the fact that there was absolutely no violence was not widely reported, other than by omission.

Even the educated colored: the long-school people, the doctors, the teachers, the paper-writers and businessmen had a hard row to hoe. In addition to having to use their heads to get ahead, they had the weight of the whole race sitting there.

I wonder if Morrison wrote this out of her own experience. Any scandal involving a prominent black person automatically becomes about race. In the spirit of the previous satire, I wonder why, in this year of Bob Filner, Anthony Weiner, Mark Sanford, and Eliot Spitzer making political comebacks (some more successfully than others) after sexually-related scandals, we aren’t talking about the problem of the white man’s lack of sexual self-control. By the way, no woman in elected office has ever been involved in a sex scandal. I already feel sorry for whoever will be the first one. That’s one glass ceiling nobody wants to be credited with breaking.

[T]he schoolteacher beat him anyway to show him that definitions belonged to the definers – not the defined.

And here I reveal my own ignorance: I was surprised to discover “History is written by the victors” is attributed to Winston Churchill (albeit without a specific citation). I’d assumed it went back to ancient Greece. The above quote is Sethe remembering how Sixo explained to schoolteacher why he “stole” a shoat (I learned this from Sixo: a shoat is a baby pig). Maybe this is what all power struggles are about: who gets to write the history, the definitions. Who gets to say what’s a science experiment and what’s a felony. What’s “reasonable” and what isn’t. When lynching became more prosecutable (and the history of lynching extends into the 1950s), you can define a “Stand your Ground” self-defense strategy.

Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood. The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, the more they used themselves up to persuade whites of something Negroes believed could not be questioned, the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread. In, through and after life, it spread, until it invaded the whites who had made it. Touched them every one. Changed and altered them. Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made. The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own.

If you don’t believe this is still true – you haven’t been paying attention to how the President of the United States has been treated with unprecedented disrespect and vitriol. And this isn’t just by the anonymous Twitterverse or the unfairly stereotyped “Southern racists.” It was an elected official of the Orange County, CA Republican Party who emailed the President’s face superimposed on a chimpanzee and then denied it was racist. It was the elected mayor of Los Alamitos, CA (again, Orange County; is Orange County they new Mississippi?) who emailed an image of watermelons growing on the White House lawn. A New York gubernatorial candidate emailed, among other things, a photo of the President and First Lady photoshopped as pimp and prostitute. Public racism towards the President has become far more acceptable, as shown by the huge collection of examples put together by blogger Def Shepherd. We see every day where the baboon lies: in all of us, every one. It’s just that it makes a funnier picture when it’s a black face, and those who don’t mind letting the baboon out are willing to exploit that for a laugh.

Part of the power of this book is its ability to reach from slavery and reconstruction all the way to 2013. Morrison has said in several venues that she admired and was influenced by Faulkner; though Beloved covers some of the same ugly territory as Light in August, where I found that book oppressive I find this one urgent and plaintive; where I found his time distortions and jumbled points of view unreadable, I find them poetic here. Scenes of joy are mixed in with those of tragedy; I found villains who could at the same time be heroes; I found an ugliness that could, in its own way, be beautiful, and a beauty that transformed the surrounding ugliness. I found what might be the biggest book I ever read.

There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up; holding, holding on, this motion, unlike the ship’s, smooth and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind – wrapped tight like skin. Then there is a loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive, on its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from afar-off place.

Down by the stream in back of 124 her footprints come and go, come and go. They are so familiar. Should a child, an adult place his feet in them, they will fit. Take them out and they will disappear again as though nobody ever walked there.
By and by all trace is gone, and what is forgotten is not only the footprints but the water too and what it is down there. The rest is weather. Not the breath of the disremembered and unaccounted for, but wind in the eaves, or spring ice thawing too quickly. Just weather. Certainly no clamor for a kiss.

Tarjei Vesaas: The Ice Palace (1963)

Norwegian National Ballet

A young, white forehead boring through the darkness. An eleven-year-old girl. Siss.

How does a child experience the world? The Ice Palace shows us one way an eleven-year-old girl, right on the brink of puberty without much in the way of experience or emotional vocabulary, might navigate her way through love, grief, and the unknown.

Yes, of course this is another of the works covered in the “Fiction of Relationship” mooc taught by Arnold Weinstein of Brown University through Coursera (alas, the course no longer appears on the Coursera schedule). He’s something of an evangelist about this book, “finding a way to include it in virtually every course that I teach” as he explains in Morning, Noon and Night: Finding the Meaning of Life’s Stages Through Books (he also covers it in his book on Scandinavian literature; nothing like free access to a class taught by the guy who literally wrote the book). I can see several reasons it would fit into this particular course: the nuclear interaction between the two girls, of course; the relationship between each of them, separately and together, and Nature; and also, says none less than Doris Lessing in her Guardian book review, the relationship of the community:

The sense of mutual responsibility is so strong it is like another character in the story, as if, at any time you liked, you could appeal to some invisible council of collective decency. There are few things in literature more touching, more admirable, than the way this community of adults and children care for Siss…

~~ Doris Lessing, The Guardian book review, 4/17/93

Siss and Unn – they sound like beatbox syllables, don’t they; what struck me right off the bat was how opposite the names are. The girls are opposites, too: Siss is a known quantity, a leader in her class, outgoing, whereas Unn is the new girl, an orphan who just moved to town to live with her Auntie. She’s a bit shy and standoffish, not really interested in meshing into the social fabric of her class at school: “She had no parents, and it put her in a different light, an aura they could not quite explain….They looked at her critically and accepted her at once. There didn’t seem to be anything the matter with her. An attractive girl. Likeable. But she stayed where she was.” She refuses Siss’ overtures to join the group, with no explanation other than “I can’t.”

Norwegian National BalletHow interesting that the group accepts this. In my school, you were in trouble if you wore the wrong skirt. Maybe kids in Norway in the 60s were more accepting of different strokes. Siss: “Unn was strong in her lonely position in the schoolyard, not lost and pathetic.” Alone by choice; aloneness as independence.

Siss isn’t quite as sanguine about it, not at first; she realizes Unn has a kind of power in her solitude, and that’s what the kids respect and honor, and to her it feels like “two combatants, but it was a silent struggle….It was not even hinted at.” But this quickly gives way to a different feeling:

After a while Siss began to feel Unn’s eyes on her in class. Unn sat a couple of desks behind her, so she had plenty of opportunity. Siss felt it as a peculiar tingling in her body. She liked it so much she scarcely bothered to hide it. She pretended not to notice but felt herself to be enmeshed in something strange and pleasant. These were not searching or envious eyes; there was desire in them – when she was quick enough to meet them. There was expectancy. Unn pretended indifference as soon as they were out of doors and made no approach. But from time to time Siss would notice the sweet tingling in her body: Unn is sitting looking at me.
She saw to it that she almost never met those eyes. She did not yet dare to do so – only in a few swift snatches when she forgot.
But what does Unn want?
Some day she’ll tell me.

Now, don’t get your hopes up: this isn’t pornography, and it isn’t about a couple of eleven-year-old lesbians. Today we’d call it a girl-crush, a mixture of curiosity, admiration, and random eroticism focused on Unn. Siss wouldn’t have had that vocabulary, though. She just knew that she and Unn must meet. I’ve been trying to figure out some particle physics on this (I’d love some expert, or even just educated, input here) – it seems a collision between a proton and an electron can have different results, depending on the “energy.” One explanation of one possibility reads “The electron wave function (cloud) and the proton wave function overlap. That is, they both become fairly intense in the same spatial regions.” And this is exactly what happens when they do meet, and together look into a mirror:

Four eyes full of gleams and radiance beneath their lashes, filling the looking glass. Questions shooting out and then hiding again. I don’t know: gleams and radiance, gleaming from you to me, from me to you, and from me to you alone – into the mirror and out again, and never an answer about what this is, never an explanation. Those pouting red lips of yours, no, they’re mine, how alike! Hair done in the same way, and gleams and radiance. It’s ourselves! We can do nothing about it, it’s as if it comes from another world. The picture begins to waver, flows out to the edges, collects itself, no it doesn’t. It’s a mouth smiling. A mouth from another world. No it isn’t a mouth, it isn’t a smile, nobody knows what it is – it’s only eyelashes open wide above gleams and radiance.

During this same meeting, Unn tells Siss she has a secret, but she never reveals what that secret is. I haven’t a clue what it might be, even whether it’s a routine kind of secret (she was angry at her mother the day she died, for instance, and feels responsible for her death) or something more supernatural (maybe she hears voices; there’s something about Unn that reads off, whether it be an emerging psychosis or a belief in a spirit world). Writer Shani Bianjiu (I loved her TNY short story, “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations” from a year ago) describes, in an NPR article, how she was particularly impressed by this aspect of the book when she read it as a child: “This book expanded my childish understanding of what a book can be and do. It showed me that not every secret needs to be revealed. Not every seed of a connection blossoms. Not every child grows up, or is freed of her demons. Not every loss or pain has a purpose, or can be put in exact words….Reading it did not make reality less fragmented and random, but it made it seem worthy, inexplicable as it may be.”

The story takes a turn here.

Norwegian National BalletThe next day, in the next chapter, Unn becomes the third-person point-of-view character and for the first (and last) time we see what’s in her head. We discover she’s as affected by Siss as Siss is by her. She skips school the next day – some combination of embarrassment and a desire to savor what’s happened – and heads to the Ice Palace, a frozen waterfall. I won’t even try to capture the scene; it’s exquisite reading as she travels from one “room” to the next, each with a different experience: the sound of roaring water, a hostile petrified forest, a sad room of tears, a green room, a small dripping room. And the cold… until it isn’t cold any more.

End Part One. Because it’s not a novel of addition, about two girls; it’s a novel about subtraction: one girl minus one girl.

What’s it like to lose someone at the very start, the incandescent start, of a relationship? What’s it like to have promised to keep a secret – not even a secret, really, just a secret that there is a secret? What’s it like to not know, to know you may never know? Now – what’s it like for an eleven-year-old to deal with all of this?

Readers of this book experience this state of uncertainty. We don’t really know what’s going on much of the time. I wasn’t sure until the very end – and I’m still not sure, in fact – if there was a supernatural or magical reality element, or if it was all the metaphor and emotion of the eleven-year-old psychic landscape.

Siss seems to “become” Unn in some ways – she becomes more standoffish at school, and another girl takes over as leader. Unn’s desk is left vacant in the classroom; when a new student joins the class, Siss defends the desk when the teacher tries to reassign it: “‘And if her place isn’t there, she’ll never come back!’ exclaimed Siss – and at that moment her wild assertion did not seem absurd. A quiver passed through them all.” I understand that. I was in a therapy group once, and after a suicide (that happens sometimes in therapy groups), the chair was left vacant until the group moved to another room. I can see how an eleven-year-old, whose friend went missing months ago, might well feel that way. In fact, I’m a little baffled that the teacher even considered giving the desk away, but that may be my own eleven-year-old speaking.

The novel moves on with the story of Siss’ healing. She visits Unn’s Auntie, who’s moving away: “I’m certain now that there’s nothing more to wait for.” Seeing Unn’s room cleaned out, talking with Auntie, who assures her she is released from her promise – these become a turning point of sorts for Siss, who, for the first time since Unn’s disappearance, plans an outing for her class – to the Ice Palace, the very symbol of faith, of love, of Unn, before the thaw brings it down.

Structurally, though certainly not stylistically, I’m reminded how Lena’s pregnancy in Light in August – the inevitable birth present from the very first page – gave that novel its overall structure and forward motion. More directly, I’m reminded of Speak, a truly wonderful contemporary YA novel by Laurie Halse Anderson which also uses the rhythm of the seasons – the school year – to trace a girl’s injury, withdrawal, and recovery. It’s quite effective, to link winter with grieving and spring with healing; it also provides a framework that gives the novel an intrinsic momentum.

I’d never heard of this novel or this author; I haven’t read any Norwegian literature besides Sophie’s World, a YA “novel of philosophy” (and don’t pick on me because I read YA novels; I learned a lot from that book, and I’m pretty impressed with what is considered YA fiction in Norway). I’m very glad I encountered it here, and I’m looking forward to the class lectures to discover all the (many many) things I missed.