August 9, 2011

Reading J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace

There are, I think, at least three critical questions to ask about J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, the answers of which will greatly impact different individuals’ readings.

1. Is the violent act of violation in the middle of the novel linked to what has happened before it?

We are always subject to the evils of the world getting us.  Often there is no apparent meaning in it happening: it is random.  We all live at the mercy of forces beyond our control.  And so it is possible that the violent robbery, beating, and rape that occurs may be one of those random acts of evil.  The character of the victims matters no more than the context in which the act occurs.  The action may have a context, a web of causes both clear and confusing, but that hardly matters to the act itself.

Yet in a work of literature, it is also possible that the violent act is thematically or aesthetically linked to the rest of the novel.  Is there a thematic connection between the act and David Lurie’s scandal (in Lurie’s actions, in the procedure that brings him down, in his response to that procedure)?  Is there something we are supposed to see between Lurie’s life and the violence inflicted on him, or on his daughter?  Is the event foreshadowed?  Does it fit into what has already occurred in the  novel, or is it a strong, distinct break?  Is the context of the violent act really what we are supposed to be seeing?

2. What does the author make of David Lurie?

Do we take Lurie’s own assessment, that he’s neither good nor bad?  He certainly comes off rather badly in many parts.  And of his escape into Romantic poetry and his opera about Byron–is this intellectualizing foolishness, or is it in this that there is meaning, and perhaps grace?  Here too is ambiguity

3. In a book about disgrace, that seems concerned about the possibility of grace, is there grace?

The central place to look, I think, is in David’s work at the animal shelter, particularly in euthanizing dogs.  For Bev Shaw there seems, in a hard necessary way, grace in the action of loving the animal that is about to be killed.  And for David Lurie, who chooses to dispose of the bodies of the animals because (in ways he can’t seem to articulate to himself, if not understand) he wants the animals to have some sort of dignity, to not be alone even in that.  So that is where we can look.  But is there grace there?  Or is it a pathetic attempt at it?  I don’t know.

I can’t claim an answer to any of these questions, and when reading literature one must be comfortable with ambiguity, for the answers we seek while reading are answered aesthetically rather than logically.  But if a reader begins to feel strongly in his or her particular reading a particular answer to one or more of these questions, that will strongly impact the fullness of the reading itself.

How did I come to be reading this book?

I read Elisabeth Costello years ago: I greatly enjoyed the discussions of animal rights (as one might expect I would), and found the essentializing of “writerness” at the end extremely irritating.  Another friend once recommended Coetzee too me.  I bought this on clearance at Half Price Books, and in an effort not to keep spending money on books that I don’t ever get to, I immediately read this book.

Without really feeling anything strongly against Coetzee, I don’t find myself terribly compelled to read any more of him.

I might add that 200 pages is about the perfect length of a novel.  There was nearly a full year when I read no novels but Dostoevsky’s: it was all really, really long books, and I found myself deeply immersed in Dostoevsky’s world.  All that is to the good of course: Dostoevsky’s is a fine fictional world to find oneself immersed in.  Yet I realized that over the course of that time, I had encountered no novelists I hadn’t read yet, experienced no novels by anybody new.  Reading for depth rather than breadth has its place, but one also wants to try read widely, to grasp the canon, to be able to keep up with the contemporary conversations.  For that, reading a bunch of 200 page novels by different authors has a certain edge in variety over reading Demons followed by The Idiot followed by The Adolescent.

Don’t think of a white bear.

July 27, 2011

Reading The New Yorker, August 1 2011 issue.  Fiction: “Reverting to a Wild State” by Justin Torres.  Poetry: “Black Rhinoceros” by Edward Hirsch, “The Green Duck” by Sharon Olds, and “Dothead” by Amit Majmudar”

How does a writer of poetry or fiction evoke something out of nothing (nothing, that is, but words of text)?  Many writers use animals.  Readers have strong visual impressions of animals, and also strong cultural conceptions about animals.  So we see a lot of great literature filled with whales, with bears, with panthers and crows, with alligators and snakes, cats, wolves.

Color, too, seems to be a way to stamp something into the reader’s mind: many of American literature’s most famous objects of meaning–the white whale, the green light, the scarlet letter–just wouldn’t be so strong if they didn’t include a color (a big whale?  A bright light?  A knitted letter?).

How else can a writer imprint something (an image, sure, but perhaps also an idea, an emotion, a sense, even a turn of phrase) for a reader, to evoke something so strong that it lingers with the reader?

We watch things on screens.

July 22, 2011

(as a regular feature, I break from whatever else I’m reading to read the fiction and poetry in The New Yorker, and write something–sometimes a brief tangent, sometimes something more full and formal–here).

Reading The New Yorker, July 25 2011 issue.  Fiction: “Matinee” by Robert Coover.  Poetry: “On the Nature of Understanding” by Kay Ryan and “A Black History of the English-Speaking Peoples” by Daljit Nagra

Coover’s “Matinee” is really a quite elegant story.  It is a regressive stories within stories story, as various couples come together romantically and/or sexually, the hookup often connected to watching a movie, the couples often characters in the movies being watched.  At this point, a story like this is not easy to write well: even The Simpsons takes similar storytelling structures explicitly for comic purposes.  It is easy for a writer to try inject too much wit, and leave the story too aware of its own perceived cleverness.  Yet such a story has to be somewhat self-aware.  Coover achieves this quite well with smooth transitions, and he achieves aesthetic and thematic unity through the various forms.

Many of us have been immersed in fictional narratives and constructed images for our entire lives.  There may be something of a mess of our imaginations and our expectations.  A story like “Matinee” seems to get at that.

Volcanoes! Dinosaurs!

July 13, 2011

(as a regular feature, I break from whatever else I’m reading to read the fiction and poetry in The New Yorker, and write something–sometimes a brief tangent, sometimes something more full and formal–here).

Reading The New Yorker, July 11th & 18th 2011 issue.  Fiction: “Aphrodisiac” by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.  Poetry: “Before Air-Conditioning” by Frederick Seidel and “Reconstruction” by Stephen Dunn

Stephen Dunn’s “Reconstruction” hints, through a simple anecdote of a friend sharing with the narrator theories about volcanoes and dinosaurs and extinction, at the smallness of humankind.  The topic of dinosaurs puts in the foreground the minimal significance of humankind in geologic time: volcanoes were erupting and dinosaurs thriving long before our existence.  If merely mentioning dinosaurs isn’t enough to ensmallen* humans, then the suggestion at the end that


wasn’t even a concept yet, or a word,

still eons away from 

a certain slithering and the likes of us.

Should make it clear.  What’s being talked about is a fascinating, complex, mysterious existence that precedes human consciousness by millions of years.

But it is not just humankind’s brevity in the face of the cosmos the poem suggests.  If all this was happening before humans had developed ideas, concepts, values, morals, anything suggesting the sometimes abstract concept of “forgiveness,” well, then just how meaningful is our concept of “forgiveness”?  Or any other idea we come up with?  Isn’t any abstraction empty when considering prehistoric volcanoes and dinosaurs?  If such exists without our attempts to create meaning, then what do our attempts to create meaning really matter?  And so this brief anecdote takes down practically all human effort of intellect.

Can it end there?  The world existed for eons without us, and our minds, such a source of pride, so cherished, that which makes us feel superior to every other creature that exists or ever has existed on this earth, can create nothing of meaning.  That should teach us some humility enough, but it doesn’t end there:

and scarcity and greed.  An old story,

he calls it, as if simply affirming a fact–

the dinosaurs, when it came to food,

never knew how much was too much,

and given the size of their brains

kept doing almost forgivable 

stupid things.

Am I reaching to see the suggestions of humankind’s eventual demise?  In discussing the extinction of the dinosaurs, is there a hint here at the extinction of humankind?  I don’t think it’s hard for an environmentally conscious person to see a parallel here: how we consume and waste, how we pollute and destroy, how we, through stupidity and greed, irrevocably change our planet so much that we may wreck its ability to sustain us.  So there’s the third minimization of humankind: just as our existence does not go eternally back to the beginning, it will not continue eternally into the future.  We will go away, perhaps sooner through our own actions.

Yes, a simple anecdote of a friend sharing ideas about volcanoes, dinosaurs, and extinction.  A simple anecdote that points to a common theme of literature: human beings ought not be so full of ourselves.

*the opposite of embiggen

As a personally optimistic person prone to anxiety and despair about the future, I probably ought not read much dystopian literature.

July 12, 2011

Reading Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games

As somebody who has grown up with competition (as participant and spectator), I found it easy to engage with the Hunger Games as a game, as a contest of skill, strategy, and luck, to be played out for entertainment.  It is blood sport, but as a fictional blood sport with no real participants, no human beings are actually killed.  Reading about a game where fictional people kill each other to the fictional death is not terribly different than watching a game in which real people compete to a real but nonlethal outcome.  It’s a contrived contest for our amusement that is ultimately harmless: again, nobody was actually hurt during the playing of the made up Hunger Games, so there’s nothing disturbing in engaging with the book in this way.  The first person, present tense narration doesn’t put the reader in the view of the Panem audience, so Collins is not calling on the reader to judge himself/herself for voyeuristic enjoyment of the violent, exploitative contest (as a different narration form might: though the parallels are there, Collins doesn’t require us to think about how we watch reality television, or whether we enjoy watching football players risk serious brain injury for our sometimes quite serious but often casual pleasure).

But of course the book isn’t just about a game, but about the powerful maintaining control over the powerless, about inequality and exploitation, about injustice and the means of domination.  I’ll leave those topics aside for now, as hints point to these topics as a greater focus of future books in the series.  And there is the major theme of performance: how Katniss is constantly aware of how the audience perceives her actions (and must, for that has a direct impact on her chances of survival), how this constant need to perform confuses for the performer herself what is real feeling and what is for appearances.  I suspect this is something that at a conscious or unconscious level taps into adolescence: finding one’s “true identity” is so tied up in how others perceive one and how one wishes to be perceived by others that authenticity cannot help but to be blurred and confused, one’s own feelings difficult to grasp.

The book is full of action and suspense, the kind of reading I don’t encounter so much anymore.  Most of my reading now is slow and reflective, an engaging experience in a different form than the intense, feverish engagement that The Hunger Games gives.  I may need to take a break to read another type of book before diving into Book Two.  But maybe I won’t be able to.

How did I come to be reading this book?

My wife and I don’t always read for the same reasons, or in the same ways, or with the same tastes, but I suppose I should take her recommendations more often.

Reading over a Lifetime

June 30, 2011

(as a regular feature, I break from whatever else I’m reading to read the fiction and poetry in The New Yorker, and write something–sometimes a brief tangent, sometimes something more full and formal–here).

Reading The New Yorker, July 4th, 2011 issue.  Fiction: “Homage to Hemingway” by Julian Barnes.  Poetry: “No Ideas but in Things” by Jessica Greenbaum and “The Circus Watcher” by Mary Jo Bang

In the delightful “Homage to Hemingway,” Julian Barnes writes an elegant story, exploring the art/life dialectic and what it means for readers and writers.  The homage to Hemingway is deep: explicit in content, structure, and theme (it is a better homage in that it doesn’t try to follow Hemingway’s prose style, which would come off as cheap parody).

Ernest Hemingway was The Big Writer for me at a formative time.  I was deeply immersed in his works, imbibing his style and themes.  As a younger man, I read his ouevre deeply and widely: as a young man, there may have been no writer I was more familiar with.  I connected to Hemingway in a meaningful way (through his works first and primarily rather than the personal mythology).

The last time I remember reading Hemingway was almost seven years ago.  This wasn’t a conscious abandonment: I had read most of what I wanted to read (For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea, In Our Time, To Have and Have Not, The Garden of Eden, A Moveable Feast, many short stories), much of it more than once, and much of it with very distinct memory.  There were a lot of other things for me to read (personally and professionally), and I didn’t find myself compelled to return to this particular writer that I knew so well.  But years gone by without encountering the writer that I once thought the master?  That seems strange.

I don’t think, though, that Hemingway will be somebody that I only look back on as an important writer for Joe, 1997-2004, another particular cultural t0uchstone that marks a time but doesn’t imprint deeply.  I suspect I’ll return to Hemingway, maybe not now, maybe not soon, but someday.  I think Barnes’ protagonist is right when he says “People thought [Hemingway] was obsessed with male courage, with machismo and conjones.  They didn’t see that often his real subject was failure and weakness.”  That’s the sort of writer that I’m going to need to come back to, again and again.


Fear and Reading

June 28, 2011

(I’m starting a regular feature–I break from whatever else I’m reading to read the fiction and poetry in The New Yorker, and write something–sometimes a brief tangent, sometimes something more full and formal–here).

Reading The New Yorker, June 27, 2011 issue.  Fiction: Gravel” by Alice Munro.  Poetry: “Weather Report” by David Huddle and “From ‘The Split'” by Susan Wheeler.

I almost stopped reading Alice Munro’s “Gravel” partway through, but not for the reasons I suppose most people stop reading something partway through.  I can’t bear reading about children dying.  I avoid reading anything where that is the subject, and when I start reading something where that seems to be the subject I frequently just stop.  It’s not death itself that I cannot read about (my lit students might complain that we dwell a bit too much on the subject), and I don’t avoid thinking about my own death: it’s only the death of children that I can’t take reading about or thinking too much on.  I did finish this story, however, as I was deep into it before the subject became obvious, and because the style of the telling made it tolerable to read.

Is there some reason I should force myself to confront these realities through literature?  I can’t see how.  I know what I fear, I know what almost undoes me to think on too much, and I know what sorts of things exist in this world–I don’t see why reading about this subject is any sort of necessity for me.  It can do nothing but hurt to read about this subject, and while I’m not unwilling to hurt myself through reading, and can see reasons for the effort of hurting oneself through reading, on this one subject, I just don’t believe it’s worth it for me.

Innovation and its Limits

June 25, 2011

One of my favorite novels is John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman.  There was a time that what turned me on in this book was the metafictional flourishes: the 20th century narrator’s intrusions into a 19th century novel, the author writing himself into the book, the fireworks at the end.  But metafiction today is a bit played out: everything is meta.  Metafiction is mainstreamed in sitcoms, practically its own sitcom convention.  The metafiction of The French Lieutenant’s Woman is still spectacular, original and sharp.  But metafiction itself isn’t quite enough reason to get up in the morning.  I’m a bit tired of having to notice it.

So have I shifted away from my love of Fowles’ novel, treating that love as an artifact of my earlier self?  Heavens no!  The last two times I read the novel, it was other things that captivated me: the perfect pitch of the narrative voice, the humor, the perspicacity of Victorian England, the full command of the novel’s conventions, the beauty of the prose, the challenge of the philosophical explorations.  The metafiction, while quite bold when it appears, is actually a smallish part of the novel: whole long parts go on where a reader can become enraptured with the characters, plot, and setting, forgetting that Fowles is giving the game away.

Furthermore, the metafiction isn’t really for its own sake.  In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Fowles uses metafiction to actually explore the literary form itself.  He is explicitly playing with the role of omnipotent narrator.  He confronts the reader and demands the reader confront his/her own assumptions, habits, and beliefs about reading and writing. The metafiction also works thematically into the existentialism of the novel.  It functions.

I’m not high on smashing conventions for the smashing’s sake.  I rather prefer to see a writer take command of conventions, then twist and shift and alter and innovate them in creative and interesting ways.  I find more pleasure in seeing literary forms pushed and pulled and stretched and squeezed and creatively altered than in seeing them smashed.  But whatever a work does against the conventions, there has to be something greater for a reader or critic to say about it than “It breaks conventions.”  If that’s it–if the primary praise for a work is the breaking–the work probably doesn’t have lasting power.  Come back to it, and it may feel as empty as a work that does little but follow conventions.  If the innovation is influential, it may even seem rather familiar: Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is really, really good, but read it after reading some Pinter or Stoppard, and it’s two more boobs on stage confusedly doing silly things while silliness happens around them.  The quality of Beckett’s work stands out, but for more than just smashing dramatic convention.

I’m not opposed to experimentation, of course, but the very nature of an experiment is that sometimes (quite often, actually), it fails.  Sometimes experimentalism reads as gimmick.  I noted previously that (though I liked his collection as a whole) I didn’t care for Matt Bell’s “An Index of How Our Family Was Killed,” a story told through the alphabetical form of an index.  The story is a gimmick story, and however artfully done, struggles to escape feeling gimmicky.  An experimental work needs to move me in some deeper way than to say “Hey, look at this experiment!”  But of course the failure rate of experimental literature is no argument against experimenting: things need to be tried.  Evolution works as a bunch of random mutations, many of which are worthless or worse, yet some of those mutations end up serving a species very, very well.  It is on the whole good that writers are willing to take risks–I just don’t want to be expected to admire the risk for its own sake.

When they were found at all, it was in tatters.

June 19, 2011

Reading Matt Bell’s How They Were Found

What do you want from a short story collection?  Moreso than a novel, a collection requires you to start and stop, to approach endings, reset yourself, and then again orient yourself into something new.  So do you want variety, shifts in style and subject?  Or do you think a collection should be something like a novel, with a unified aesthetic and consistency of vision?

Matt Bell’s How They Were Found is the latter type of collection.  The narrative voice doesn’t really change from story to story, and even as the subject matter changes, it really doesn’t.  It’s something like the bread and wine of communion: there are a lot of types of bread and different kinds of wine, but through communion these varieties bring the same body and blood of Christ.  That’s what How They Were Found is like: the stories differ, but don’t really vary. But don’t take that as a criticism: it is actually an impressive aesthetic achievement.  Immersing yourself into How They Were Found is something like immersing yourself into a novel: you are entirely taken into a unified vision, and aren’t really allowed to leave that vision until you are through (maybe not even then).

These are stories about something missing or lost, of characters not only searching for something, but trying to create the means by which to search for something (often but not always what is lost is family, or family member(s)).  And they are stories told by somebody who appears steeped in the plots, imagery, and themes of the horror genre, but also unwilling to follow easy conventions.  Many of these stories are quite horrifying, in a way that words like “scary” or “disturbing” aren’t quite enough (“Hold On To Your Vaccuum,” “Dredge,” and “Mantodea” certainly linger in their horror).  I found the early stories to be intentionally abstract: they seem grounded in a concretely imagined world, yet conveyed to the reader distantly, in foggy, hazy description.  As the book moves along, the stories really start to ground themselves in physical detail, particularly of filth and decay, of bodies destroyed and coming undone.  It is a collection consistent in its aesthetic and thematic worldview (“bleak,” I guess, if I’m going to diminish it with a word), stories that compliment each other and build together well.   Many of the stories on their own are quite good, but taken together How They Were Found is a well-planned work of art in itself (it ends sourly, though: “An Index of How Our Family Was Killed” is a tedious way to end an otherwise fine collection.  If I were editor, I’d be tempted to cut it entirely and finish with the very good “The Collectors,” which would be in many ways just the right way to end this book).

This is a book for adults who have outgrown the horror genre (as I feel I have.  I have kids: I have real shit to be terrified about, without needing reminders), but can still appreciate a writer that can work in shock and blood, that are still willing occasionally to follow somebody into the darkness, but also insist on bothering only with writers who bring seriousness and skill to their work.  But it’s not only for that type of reader, and I don’t think Bell is a writer for only that type of reader.

How did I come to be reading this book?

It was given to me by a friend, the writer Rob Kloss.  Rob’s book recommendations have never disappointed me (unlike his film recommendations *wink*).

The Ramsey Hill Experience

June 17, 2011

Much of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom takes place in the Ramsey Hill neighborhood of St. Paul, MN.  The Ramsey Hill neighborhood also holds many of the landmarks of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s time in St. Paul.  This makes for a nice efficient literary field trip: with great help from this website, we took an afternoon stroll to see where one great American novelist lived and roamed, and where another great American novelist’s made up characters lived and roamed.  Lets’ call it the Great American Novel By Which All Other Great American Novels Are Judged Plus The Newest The Great American Novel Tour.  We wanted to see where F. Scott Fitzgerald set his feet, where he might have looked out his window and said “It’s snowing: I’d better bring my hat.”  And we wanted to get a feel for the atmosphere of the world Walter and Patty Berglund inhabited.  If I had a well-read literature blog, I would have taken pictures of the places without people in them for the general interest.  But I have a little-read literature blog, so knowing people can see pictures of these places elsewhere, we do a tourist thing and put ourselves in the pictures, to solidify our memories of the places we’ve been and the good times we’ve had.

Here is our whole crew at the birthplace of F. Scott Fitzgerald at 481 Laurel.  A nice gentleman who lives there came out to chat with us about Fitzgerald, the house, and the neighborhood.

Here is The F. Scott Fitzgerald house at 599 Summit, where Fitzgerald lived as an adult and wrote his first novel.

Here is the Commodore Hotel, where Fitzgerald and Zelda lived.

This is W.A. Frost (on the corner of Selby and Western), the restaurant where Connie Monaghan worked in Freedom.  I ate there once: I had the broccoli raab and a very expensive martini.  Across the street is Garrison Keiller’s bookstore.

Here is the house at 516 Summit where novelist Sinclair Lewis lived for a bit.  Members of our walking tour have a pretty strong association with the author of Main Street through Sauk Centre, MN, the town most associated with Lewis.

And here’s a statue of young F. Scott Fitzgerald at 25 North Dale, a building that was once a school that F. Scott Fitzgerald attended.  The statue is on the right.

Among other things, we drove past Taste of Thailand on Selby (in Freedom, Walter and Lalitha have dinner with the Paulsens there: there are three locations for Taste of Thailand, though this seems the most likely one these made up characters dined at).  We ate food from this location once, when my wife accidentally called here for an order, went to the Taste of Thailand in our neighborhood, was told no, the order was at the Selby location, and you’ll have to go there to get your food.  We started making our own delicious stir fry at home, so we haven’t gotten Thai food in quite a while, but this is neither here nor there.   And after exploring Ramsey Hill, we drove through downtown St. Paul just to get a glance at the F. Scott Fitzgerald statue in Rice Park.

A pretty wonderful day of gaining a sense of concrete place in our lives of loving literature.