Some of you may know that I’m currently up to my ears in grad school applications. Luckily, posting on The Millions has a salutary effect on me, and also, I just finished a book, so I need to write about it. Jamesland opens with Alice, great-granddaughter of philosopher William James, having an odd waking dream of a deer in her house. Alice fixates on the deer as a portent of a coming change in her life, and the very next day her life begins to change slowly and inexorably. The book does not dwell on the supernatural, though it does have a bemused dialogue with the otherworldly throughout. Mostly it is about three forty-somethings whose social and professional lives are deteriorating and reconfiguring. I’d call it a mid-life crisis, but these characters have that quality, peculiar to Californians, of being youthful, unserious adults. The book is mostly set on the East Side of Los Angeles in neighborhoods that I know well. It was great to read a book that addresses a somewhat larger Los Angeles than usual. Movie stars are around, and Hollywood is nearby, but they are just parts of the great stew of the city, things that are noticed but after a while not accorded any greater importance than things like Griffith Park or the LA River. The only other book that I have read that successfully turns LA’s flashy side into just another bit of peripheral scenery is T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Huneven is well-known in Los Angeles as the food critic for the LA Weekly, and the way she writes about food in this book is magnificent. Pete (who along with Helen, a modern sort of minister, are the other two wayward adults) is a former near-celebrity chef who is recovering from a nervous breakdown, suicide attempt combo. His character is both abrasive and charming, the type of person who makes you nervous the moment he steps into the room. As he coaxes himself back into the functioning world, he takes up cooking again, and this is the venue for Huneven’s descriptions of foods. It was nice to see that Huneven did not place this book firmly in the world of food and restaurants in the way that many writers tend to crib from their day jobs. Instead, Huneven manages to weave her knowledge skillfully into the larger narrative. The book itself is a rather satisfying meal, best taken over a few languorous days on a sunny balcony or sitting on a park bench.
“What do you do?”
Of course, the question isn’t “What do you like to do?” It isn’t even “Who are you?” that grandest and most open-ended of personal inquiries. It’s the suggestion that we are, as productive human beings, always in a place where we should be doing something, and that what we do with our time is an essential expression of who we are and who we hope to be. Of course, anyone that’s worked a temp job, a data entry job, a telemarketing job, a retail job, a janitorial job, might not say that the way they make money is really who they are. Or they might feel a deep affinity with the clerking, the shoveling, the building, the frying, and declare themselves proudly for it. Because the answer to the doing question is almost always answered with an “I am” statement. I am working. I am busy. I am needed, somewhere.
The multitudes of working life are beautifully chronicled in Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work, an anthology of short stories edited by Richard Ford. Ford, the next best thing to the late great John Updike when it comes to stories of the middle-class American wage earner, dedicates the anthology to Raymond Carver, no small irony since one of his stories, “Elephant,” was not permitted to be included in the collection, due to the Carver estate withholding permission. Nevertheless, Ford, in his blue-collar brilliance, has collected 32 stories that swirl around examining exactly what it is we do—for a living, for a life, lived long-term or day-to-day. In his introduction, Ford notes that, as he watched his father working as a traveling salesman in the 1940s and 50s, the symbolic value of work was as significant as its monetary ends. “Work—having a job, being employed, making a living—became virtually synonymous with its gifts, and as such became a virtue in itself.” If who you are is how you assert your right to participate in the world, suggests Ford, then the work and careers we pursue represent our individual quests to find purpose, to find our place. “Work is near the heart of human things,” Ford says, and in the stories included in this collection, we see work for pay and work for promise constantly confused.
Certain jobs must be dispassionately communicated—Jeffrey Eugenides’s “Great Experiment” is less about the work of accounting and more about what a man does to squeeze every last (illegally) obtained drop of profit from it. Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies,” the classic story that launched her into the literary world, could make anyone with an interest in character studies run out and start a tour guide-for-hire business. And James Alan McPherson’s “A Solo Song: For Doc” delves deep into the details of waiting tables—the authority of those masters of the form, who can “take the shit without getting hot.”
But then there are the jobs that make for revelations. Edward P. Jones’s inclusion, “The Store” turns a teenage boy’s first job in a grocery store into a lesson in the consequences of adulthood. Z.Z. Packer’s “Geese”, a tale of twenty-somethings in Japan, dwells so long on what food means to the near-starving that you savor each bite with them, lingering on “the warm disk of banana from side to side in his mouth until . . . it had grown so soft that he swallowed it like liquid.” Stories of employment—and unemployment—often become experiments in how long you are willing to go without doing something—without stealing, without lying, without prostituting yourself or your deepest held beliefs. Annie Proulx’s “Job History” follows a lifetime of career choices, watching a progression from scraping together funds as insurance for a good life to unavoidable, unanticipated tragedies. And no degree of care can prevent late-breaking disasters, and no career is idiot proof, despite what Lewis Robinson’s “Officer Friendly” might suggest.
The best stories, and the ones that stay with you the longest, are the ones in which the details of the work drive the tiny moments of character development. Donald Barthelme’s hilarious “Me and Miss Mandible” explores the student-teacher relationship as a problem of interoffice romance (in which one can be studying fractions and functioning as a claims adjuster at the same time.) Barthelme’s hero notes, “I return again and again to the problem of my future.” The same is true for Richard Bausch’s sheriff facing accusations of sexual harassment, the professional disgrace seeping into his home life as poisonous as a nest of yellow jackets hidden in an unreachable perch. Though the melodrama that encircles the story isn’t completely earned, the festering rage of the accusations drive every other reaction towards an inevitable implosion. But a career is also character-building in an imaginative sense, letting you play at an identity before committing to it. Ann Beattie’s “The Working Girl” makes the case that the work you do is only as valuable as the impression you make. And yet Beattie teases out the possibilities within the “working girl” designation by imagining all the different narratives futures that career choice might portend.
We know how this story will end.
How will it end?
It will end badly—which means predictably—because either the beautiful wife will triumph, and then it will be just another such story, or the wife will turn out to be not so interesting after all, and by default the working girl will win.
When is the last time you heard of a working girl triumphing?
The most haunting inclusion in this anthology is Elizabeth Strout’s “Pharmacy,” which chronicles the sad longing-filled friendship of a pharmacist and his young assistant. Through Henry’s eyes, we come to fall in love with the day-to-day of the workplace. “The ritual was pleasing, as though the old store—with its shelves of toothpaste, vitamins, cosmetics, hair adornments, even sewing needles and greeting cards, as well as red rubber hot water bottles, enema pumps—was a person altogether steady and steadfast.” His desire to keep the world in balance by way of running his store, and his inability to rescue his assistant Denise from her troubled life, turns his workplace into more than just a place of business—instead, “a healthy autonomic nervous system in a workable, quiet state.” The business becomes the place of redemption, and the graveyard of missed opportunities.
When the job becomes important enough, it becomes its own story. And no story may be so appealing or maddening as that of the story of writing, the daily grind of creative production, as much a desk job as a vocation or a calling. John Cheever’s classic story “The World of Apples” represents the mandatory inclusion in this volume, as a poet finds it impossible to escape from his writing impulses even when in retirement and on vacation in Rome. “Two admirers—a young married couple—came at five to praise him. They had met on a train, each of them carrying a copy of his Apples. They had fallen in love along the lines of the pure and ardent love he described. Thinking of his day’s work, Bascomb hung his head.” The same story emerges at the opposite end of the spectrum, the experience of the young writer just hitting his stride, in Nicholas Delbanco’s “The Writers Trade.” This story reads like the Wall Street of foreboding tales of the creative process, as a young writer, with all the glittering arrival of a career in its nascence. “All this was bounty, a gift.” And later, the melancholy realization: “Between self-pity and aggrandizement, there is little room to maneuver.”
Such is the case in any profession, and in every piece in this sparkling collection, we negotiate the hazy space between what we do and what we think we can do. As Andre Dubus’ newspaper boy makes his way down a quiet street, as Eudora Welty’s traveling salesmen panics when he has to shack up with strangers, as the editorial assistant and the line cook and the bus driver wonder what, if anything, comes next, we examine stories of work as maps, for new highways to travel on, or upcoming dead ends. And we fear asking ourselves the question of Cheever’s too-accomplished poet, “Had the world, as well as he, lost its way?”
Picked up by a deputy police officer, a man claiming to get lost ghost-hunting in the woods was actually cooking meth. A man who won a competition to party with the Breaking Bad cast and crew was busted for manufacturing narcotics. A Hialeh, Florida, official pulled over by the cops secreted a meth pipe in his rectum.
Even forgoing the bleakest cases, meth fact is stranger than meth fiction. It’s fair to ask why a young writer would take on a subject when the finished novel will be less astonishing than the day’s headlines. (Granted, if that was a requisite, all fiction would go unwritten.) Some plucky writers, I assume, hope their writing acquires by association some of the drug’s features: highly addictive, vivid extra-sensory illusions, the intimations of ruin and transcendence.
The story of a thirteen-year-old heir to a family drug operation, Katherine Faw Morris’s Young God takes its title from a song by Swans. When they recorded “Young God,” Swans was still in its most harrowing, dissonant period before Michael Gira made slightly less harrowing, less dissonant music later in that decade. The song takes the perspective of Ed Gein, the serial-killer inspiration for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho movies. The macabre lyrics, as bellowed by frontman Gira, are all jagged edge:
I don’t know where I am
I’m dancing in my corpse
I don’t remember anything
I’m wearing your flesh
Your flesh is my face
I love your face
Though Morris’s writing shares some of that song’s dark, cryptic tone, the novel has a conventional five-act structure. In spare, piquant prose, we watch as the protagonist Nikki flees a Department of Social Services home and seeks out her father, Coy Hawkins. Nikki might not have courage, but, as Lorrie Moore once described a very different character, she has “bitterness and impulsiveness, which could look like the same thing.”
The first scene begins at a perch overhanging a swimming hole (formatting is consistent with the book):
This is the jumping off place. everywhere else is the wrong side. Nikki bends at the knees and moves her feet one by one. With a lunge she grabs the head of the shrub. Now the river flings its white froth at her. The falls roar in her ears.
“i’ll go first.”
“No,” Nikki says.
“Just walk down on the path,” Wesley says.
“Nikki,” Mama says.
“God,” Nikki says.
Since she is going to die she would like to be remembered, spoken of in the backs of cars in words that shudder. Nikki pictures this. she turns the shrub loose and stands up.
she slips a step and then jumps.
Years after her mother commits suicide (in a mordant parallel, by leaping to her death) and a stay in DSS, she decides to return to her father’s house. The father, Coy Hawkins, is an appealingly grotesque villain, formerly “the biggest coke dealer in the county,” now a fading specter. The narrator says, “iN her MoUth his name is shiny and bitter like a licked coin.”
Tragically, she find her father’s expressions of sympathy as inexplicable and unfamiliar as his paroxysms of violence. In her conversations with her father, she is both naïve and clinical:
“is it BeCaUse oF the eCoNoMY?”
“That you’re a pimp?”
Coy hawkins laughs with his head thrown back.
“What?” Nikki says.
she laughs, too. Though she doesn’t think it’s funny.
“You used to be the biggest coke dealer in the county.”
Coy hawkins rests his elbow on the bench seat. He looks at her.
“You were,” she says.
“everybody’s on pills now,” Coy hawkins says.
“This is my new thing. This is the future.”
Nikki looks out at the motel parking lot. her teeth are grinding.
As in Winter’s Bone, the devastation caused by the meth trade in this rural North Carolina region has unsettled all the usual social structures that might constrain the impulses of a smart, ruthless teenage girl. Either novel could be mistaken for professing a kind of feminism, but I would prefer to call it selective misanthropy.
Each chapter is a fresh descent. Nikki endures the rape and murder of her friend, the mutilation of a rival drug dealer, and a dangerous stick-up. She becomes aware of how he has made her vulnerability a weapon:
“i don’t need you,” he says. […]
all NiGht she sits oN the CoUCh in the dark with her mind racing.
he does need her. He couldn’t have gotten into that apartment without her, for one thing.
she pictures the black girls, with their mouths wide open, but she doesn’t hear them scream.
Watching her father’s casual brutality, of course, Nikki becomes more jaundiced about life generally, and more cynical about family ties specifically. Violence is something she masters, but Morris isn’t particularly interested in a sociology of the drug trade or criminal pathology. Instead, Young God unfolds unselfconciously, as character study.
One of the strengths of the novel is how Nikki’s emotional disfigurement is subtle and teased out patiently over the course of the novel so that, until the final pages, neither the reader nor Nikki herself fully grasp what heinous acts she is capable of doing in order to restore her family’s status.
The unconventional capitalization and grammars, as in Sapphire’s Push, is meant to convey the main character’s lack of formal education, though I found it mostly distracting. In her first novel, Morris also allows a few quirks to clutter the prose. For instance, “muscle,” “chin,” and “shoulder” are all used as verbs. Those choices might be naturalistic, but I thought they were fussy diversions from a taut, concise plot.
What “young god”? Nikki does possess the sort of inarticulate, elemental impulses (rage, pity, hatred) that used to drive the gods of ancient Greek mythology and the Old Testament. It’s clear that her godliness is some mix of her ability to take life and her Nietschzean amorality. Paradoxically, her omnipotence is representative of the narrowness of her worldview, like the narrator of Ted Hughes’s poem, “Hawk Roosting:”
Now I hold Creation in my foot
Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly —
I kill where I please because it is all mine.
There is no sophistry in my body.
Why a “young god”? Throughout his career, Kenneth Burke pointed out the perversity of metaphor. In the essay, “Why Satire,” he quoted the phrase, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Burke suggests that this aphorism has discomfiting implications for our perspective on “need” and “motherhood.”
If a meth-dealing teenager is a “young god,” how radically changed is Morris’s secular world from O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted” South. The central metaphor of Morris’s novel — Nikki as god — is a provocation, sure, and one that indicates a rift in Southern literature. Though their works diverged widely in subject matter and method, Faulkner, O’Connor, and McCullers wrote novels and short stories in riot against the modern assumption of the rational, knowable self, and that self’s ability to master history and nature. Their skepticism about modernity has been so widely embraced – by thinkers who have no interest in Sutpen genealogy, and those who might think of the Southern Agrarians as little more than a historical curiosity — that it seems de rigueur. Perhaps the concerns of O’Connor, et al, were prescient, and prescience is obsolescence in a flattering alias.
The novels of Daniel Woodrell, William Gay, and Morris have a much narrower philosophical scope. Young God is a strong entry in the tradition of the Southern Gothic Novel (redneck noir subcategory), but, while reading it and after watching the HBO series True Detective, I began to wonder if the genre still has any explanatory power for contemporary America. Stripped of its context and without invigorating it with new significance, that familiar mood has become an affectation. The style is still there, nestled between the derelict churches and the epic violence, but without the expansive critique that ran like a quicksilver thread through Wise Blood and Absalom! Absalom!
Late in Young God, the narrator repeats her father’s words: “This is the future.” Then, Nikki disposes of a body by hacking it into pieces. I suspect the Southern Gothic Novel (like many of the characters that have populated it) will have an even less tranquil afterlife.
Kenyan writer and political dissident Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s seventh novel, Wizard of the Crow, is unquestionably a work of epic ambition – a quality American readers once found commendable, and perhaps still do. Its achievements are doubly impressive, in that Ngugi first penned this 300,000-word tale of tyranny and freedom in his native Gikuyu, and then translated it himself into English. The translation is supple and swift enough that the novel, at 760 pages, never feels like a slog, and colorful set-pieces abound. Any work that swings this hard for the fences, however, will be judged on runs produced. Readers who admire Wizard of the Crow‘s world-historical reach – and Ngugi’s storytelling gifts – may emerge disappointed that it isn’t quite a homer.Ngugi sets his story in the fictional African country of Aburiria, a republic-in-name-only run by a nameless dictator. Decked out in military garb appliqued with the skins of great cats, “The Ruler” instantly evokes Kenya’s Daniel Arap Moi and Uganda’s Idi Amin… and one imagines the resemblance to actual persons is not “entirely coincidental.” Ngugi very much wants us thinking about the recent political geography of Sub-Saharan Africa. But Wizard of the Crow is no naturalist roman-a-clef. As the novel opens, the Ruler has contracted a Rabelaisian affliction – his body is inflating as rapidly and as wildly as Aburiria’s economy. In a typical feat of dialogic energy, Ngugi treats us to five rumored explanations why – thus grounding his third-person narrative directly in the voices of the Aburirian people.The country’s cabinet, scrambling to heal and appease the Ruler, is a political cartoon come to life. Machokali, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, has had his eyes surgically enlarged “to the size of electric bulbs… so that they would be able to spot the enemies of the Ruler no matter how far their hiding places.” Not to be outdone, the head of the secret police, one Silver Sikiokuu, has had his ears lengthened – the better to eavesdrop on potential conspirators. From the ministers’ jockeying for position emerges the book’s Maguffin, a giant construction project called Marching to Heaven (to be funded by a thinly disguised World Bank). If completed, it will allow the Ruler to talk directly to God, “to say good morning or good evening or simply, how was your day, God?”Ngugi gets great comic mileage from his politicians, and there is something oddly sympathetic about the paranoid machinations of Sikiokuu, in particular – as in the old Dan Ackroyd sketches where Nixon talks to the paintings on the West Wing walls. But here the novel’s refusal to settle for mere satire, its flirtation with psychological depth, opens up an instability; one starts to wonder why the Ruler, in a three-dimensional environment, remains flat, an object for fun.This instability deepens when Kamiti, a penniless college graduate, and Nyawira, a receptionist, begin to lay the groundwork for revolution. Kamiti’s depressive asceticism, Nyawira’s spirited sass, and the chemistry between the two (including some of the hottest foreplay I’ve read recently), move Wizard of the Crow firmly into a textured human reality. Ngugi enlivens their romance with some wonderful magical touches. The plot strand in which Kamiti poses as a powerful “Wizard of the Crow,” and then (to the consternation of the authorities) finds himself mysteriously growing into the role, would be enough to fill a lesser novel. And yet, as this book rolls on, the exploits of the Wizard of the Crow start to feel like a subplot. Dramatic cause and effect give way once more to satirical grandstanding.Satire, in my reading, is Ngugi’s least revelatory mode. Absent the historical specificity an actual location might have provided, we are treated to revolutionary platitudes, to the revelation that power corrupts and the World Bank and the mass media are accessories to the crime. Well, obviously, but…Here I find myself running up against the problem of translation. Gikuyu, as I understand it, is largely an oral language. Since deciding for ethical reasons to stop composing in his adopted English, Ngugi has heroically pioneered the use of Gikuyu for literary purposes. And thinking back to the schematics of Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy (a useful companion text for Wizard of the Crow), I remember that the aims and techniques of the griot may differ greatly from those of the workshop-trained novelist. In particular, the oral poet’s mnemonic didacticism clashes with the “literary” desire for understatement.It seems no more fair to tax Ngugi with preachy dialogue, then, than it does to tax The Illiad with flashy similes. (I feel like John Updike missed the boat on this one in his New Yorker review.) Nonetheless, I can’t deny that the antic quality of the second half of Wizard of the Crow frustrated my desire to dwell with Kamiti and Nyawira – to see diasporic political generalities given flesh, as they are in Patrick Chamoiseau’s magisterial Texaco.Still, as hard as it is to discover such shortcomings in a book its author clearly intends as a masterwork, it’s equally hard to dismiss Wizard of the Crow out of hand. Ngugi is a masterful manipulator of narrative time and narrative voice, and the fleetness and charm of the telling tend to blur over some of the novel’s deficiencies. In a particularly moving bit of analysis near the end, Nyawira laments the way the West, with all of its problems, attempts to stamp the developing world’s heterotopic spaces with its own monolithic image, and it is possible to read this review as symptomatic of the problem, and the book as gesturing toward a solution. Wizard of the Crow clears a space within literary postmodernism for African traditions and African characters, and one can only hope Ngugi will use it as a platform for future works that bring his expansive vision to fruition. Haki ya Mungu!