Over the next hour, as the natural light declined further, she began to see the painting in all sorts of ways forbidden to her before. It struck her for the first time that paintings ought to be appreciated in their natural habitats for some period of time, then let go of, consigned to the mists of time and memory …
As I’ve been completing and blogging the reading list I compiled a couple of months ago, I’ve been listing the reasons I chose to read each book. I picked this one for an odd reason: my blogging buddy Jake, a big fan of some of Shivani’s essays, didn’t like it. Jake and I often agree on stories, but we just as often disagree, and that’s the case here: with a couple of exceptions, I greatly enjoyed the stories in this collection. I’m pretty sure I didn’t get everything I could have out of it, but, like the painting that changes as the natural light shifts, I suspect I’ll be recalling some of them quite frequently.
I can easily see why Jake takes issue with some of the stories. Often, the plot seems like a scaffold, existing only to give a place for characters to voice their opinions – voice, not discuss, since there’s rarely any interaction. It’s just that this doesn’t bother me at all. I’m also not concerned that Shivani’s personal views are front and center in most of the stories. First, I’m not that familiar with him, beyond his anti-workshop essay (which was in one of the first Pushcarts I blogged, but before I blogged anything but fiction) and a rather startling fairly recent article in Salon, voicing his longstanding argument against identity politics.
I’m not qualified to assess either opinion, but I find it interesting in the light of the Salon article that so many of the characters in the stories find it impossible to assimilate into the dominant culture, not because they aren’t willing, but because they simply aren’t accepted. The most stark occurrence of this is in “Manzanar”, where an interned American of Japanese descent during WWII speaks quite bluntly of the problem: “The wind groans a dirge for time lost to fatal error. How was it we thought we could become fully American, one hundred percent American, unassailably patriotic American, and get away with the illusion for so long?” This echoed for me the line spoken by Mr. Dussel in The Diary of Anne Frank: “I always thought of myself as Dutch.”
I encountered a review of the book that complained about the characters being “stuck”, of the lack of change in the stories. I can’t find that review now, however; I don’t think I made it up or dreamed it, since I doubt it would have occurred to me, but once I thought about it, I realized this was indeed the case in all but a couple of the pieces. This goes along with the “plot is a structure to hang philosophizing on” approach, I think, and again, while it’s probably a valid complaint, it’s just not something that bothers me.
Nowhere is this lack of change more prominent than in “Conservation”, one of my favorite stories. A conservator at a small Boston museum goes to great lengths to smuggle a painting out and take it home with her, in order to rescue it from the restoration plans of her superior to remove the imperfections that were not from accumulated damage, but were part of the original work: “Why should a lowly latter-day conservator go against the master’s intentions and try to cure the painting of its alleged defects by removing all hint of anomaly and conflict from the surface of the painting?” The brought to mind the enormously complex Japanese concept of wabi, an affinity for a natural state rather than artificial perfection, which I have corrupted to “the flaw that perfects”.
I know so little about art, but the recent History of Architecture mooc I took acquainted me with different views on building preservation: whether, in view of the frequent changes to buildings in ancient times, it makes sense to lock down a building’s structure by declaring it a historic landmark, whether recreating a city after the destruction of war erases something important, and the unusual point of view of Jorge Otero-Pailos, an artist who removed and preserved years of soot from various structures.
But in the end, the smuggler changes her mind and returns the painting, and it is as if nothing has happened. The stuffy European decides to go back to Europe where his stuffiness will be appreciated, and the director continues her plans to make the museum more appealing to a modern audience to increase funding. The lack of change was perhaps the point; there was that moment of seeing the painting change in the fading light, a moment of rash courage that existed, then was retracted. And, more important to me than any narrative drive, I got something of an education in attitudes towards art conservation. I’m never happier than when a story teaches me something, plot or no plot.
The most Shivanian (can that be a word, please?) story is “Go Sell It On The Mountain”, a takedown of Bread Loaf-style writing conferences powered and paid for by hope and vanity. I happen to know someone who went to a session, under the same conditions as the narrator (you pay your couple of grand, you get to workshop with other hopefuls and breathe the air of Success); he was quite enthusiastic about the experience, and I adored the story he wrote as a result (however, I was in the throes of a major crush at the time, so my judgment may be skewed). The Director of the fictional contest, seen as sort of the Archbishop of American Writing Programs, has a mission: he is, very much like the popularity-oriented art curator in “Conservation”,
… bent on cleaning up the filth and decadence in American writing, of which tidying up the Conference was a necessary though minor component. Professionalisation, standardisation, systematization , these were his obsessions, from the administering of contests to the editing of manuscripts, and his aim was no lower than rigorous enforcement of the rule of law to the three hundred and fifty writing programs in the country, to the extent his influence had any meaning. “The quirky personal element has been to romanticized. I want to establish the business of writing” …
I know very little about MFA programs or literary publishing, but I can tell you what happened when moocs got standardized by best-practices teams and slick instructional design departments. The best ones, to me, were put together with spit and glue back in the early days, by professors who felt a mission to share their excitement about their field. Their innovations – live sessions with call-in and tweet-in participation, 25-minute videos thoroughly exploring a single thought, message boards that encouraged students to connect and teach each other – have all been discarded as ineffective and inefficient in favor of the profitable development of mcMoocs and marketing them as products.
Oddly, I didn’t connect much with the Bread Loaf story, perhaps because it’s been redone several times. That’s a little unfair, like complaining that Shakespeare wrote in clichés. But here’s where I get why pontificating fiction is less popular now: whereas the story’s heart was to show the arrogance of the Director against the desperate hope of the newbie, with a couple of supporting characters for ballast (those in the know must’ve had a lot of fun solving the Roman à clef aspects), it felt like everyone was operating by a script not their own. I compare this to something like Elizabeth Tallent’s “Narrator” which has characters operating by their own beacons, not as participants in a morality play, and I felt the difference.
Another story that showed a similar locked-in quality was “Profession”. It was more than anything else an outline of different approaches to literary education, by way of a husband and wife at the University of Wisconsin. He, of “common sense” and the traditional approach to literature, is fading into the woodwork, while she, offering talks on the hermeneutics of a Mexican restaurant menu (forgive me, but I’d love to hear this), has become a superstar. She lives across campus, and he visits on weekends; they’ve just adopted a Vietnamese orphan, and he’s trying to figure out how to be a father while she’s just breezing along doing the literary equivalent of circus tricks. “Without compromise, there was no family,” he notes. But there’s compromise and there’s absurdity.
One of the things that pricked up my ears on this story was his frequent descriptions of her as “petite.” I wonder if he’s trying to make her smaller, or is trying to convince himself she is not the Sun and he does not have to revolve around her. Or if he’s just hung up on weight.
Another moment that stopped me in my tracks was a look at his despair: “Arthur couldn’t even pretend that teaching mattered. In four decades, had he been able to sway a single student to his point of view?” Is that the point of teaching, or is teaching about showing students how to find their own point of view, how to distinguish between wheat and chaff, how to discover what they value most versus least? Are we seeing two extremes here, with the golden mean – the compromise – lost in the egos and struggle for power in an academic system where, as many have said, the stakes are so small?
“Texas” also is, in my view, a plotless story that nevertheless has some interesting undercurrents. It consists of the musings of Amy, babysitter to a high-flying Malaysian oil engineer’s family. The interesting detail is that the engineer works at Enron, obviously before the fall (the story was published in 2006, well after the shit hit the fan). “Amy felt second-class in her own country.” That’s the double-bind of the immigrant, isn’t it: if you’re a highly trained engineer or doctor or software designer, you’re taking jobs away from Americans, but if you’re untrained, you’re not good enough to be here.
“Gypsy” gives another example of the difficulty of living among yet apart. A young girl from a Rom family is about to be promised into marriage, and she’s not happy about it. She has non-Rom friends, and wants to go to school, have a career, but her father, horribly old in his 30s, is counting on her bride price to settle a debt. As it happens, she goes through with it, but her husband comes to an unexpected early end, so she gets to pick up her life after all. “I’ve shed many generations of weight off my frail shoulders, without having betrayed anyone.” A little deus-ex-machina, but it’s an engrossing story, one of the few that has a relatively genuine progression of events. I ended up caring about her, whereas most of the other characters in the book were exemplars rather than people to me.
I found “Repatriation” to be interesting for only one reason: context. I’ve been obsessed with context lately, since most of the books in my summer reading project are from Before and now we are in the After (if you don’t know Before or After what, well, you haven’t been paying attention). I’m sure when Shivani wrote this story in 2006, it was a bizarre little apocalyptic tale about kicking brown and black people out of America, not something that was actually happening.
I found the title story to be pleasantly frustrating. Because of my unfamiliarity with the norms and vocabulary of the 17th century Ottoman empire, it was a little difficult to follow, but basically concerned a Jewish merchant in some kind of legal trouble; he expected it would go away, but the powers that be had other ideas, and while it didn’t go as badly for him as it could have, neither did it go away. What interested me were two moments towards the end of the story: first, a casual conversation turns into an invitation to a Muslim gathering of some sort. “I’m a Jew,” he replies with a sort of amused scorn. His interlocutor indicates surprise; he’s not wearing a kipah, but our merchant doesn’t think that’s so unusual at all. He’d even bought a ring, thinking he might convert to Islam and marry a colleague’s daughter. But given the legal outcome (which I’m quite hazy on), he reconsiders: “Perhaps there was beauty after all in keeping things separate, not letting odd combinations mix and match at will.” I just ran into a similar sentiment in The Sellout, with a farming metaphor to emphasize the different kinds of conditions various species might need, and compared it to HBCUs and single-sex schools, both of which have shown some good results.
The story becomes chilling in the last paragraph, when he declares, “What had happened to him was an individual incident with no universal meaning.” I find it odd a Jew would think such a thing, but I suppose it had been a few centuries since the expulsions from Spain and England, and it seems the restrictions of 15th century Italy might not be that much of a factor in his consciousness. But just wait, dear man, until the 20th century. And the 21st.
The final story, “Tehran”, seemed very different to me. It’s a reconstruction, in fragmented leaps, of a suicide bombing at a café. The bomber turns out to be, oh dear, a frustrated writer whose work, while brilliant, has been censored. The innocent people he takes with him are people he would probably like: a caring schoolteacher trying to help women continue their education in spite of restrictions, and a young religious court official trying to reconcile his beliefs, and the poetry he loves, with post-Revolutionary Iran. It’s a beautiful, sad story, and a tragic reminder that no one has suffered more from terrorism and Islamic extremism than Muslims.
I’m very glad I read this collection. I wish this post did it justice; I find I have so much to say – and I’ve left out some things – I just haven’t been able to organize it properly. But obscurity has its benefits; when I make a fool of myself, the witnesses are few. It’s full of things to think about, and, like the painting, I suspect I will see it differently as time passes. I hope it will be with more wisdom and understanding.