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.
Reading can be rewarding.I’m late to this party. Everyone has been expounding on their love for this month’s book – Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. But before Oprah, and before the Tournament of Books, and especially before the hype and praise and high expectations, I decided I’d better give this book a shot. So, essentially, I read The Road just a few weeks before it went from hidden gem to full-out media blitz.I read it nearly straight through, in three sleepless nights. I couldn’t put it down. I didn’t want to put it down.While following The Road’s main characters – a father and his son – down into the horrible world of post-apocalyptic wasteland, I felt I owed these characters something – that I needed to continue reading to make their sacrifices pertinent. To make their suffering worthwhile.I was left wordless. I couldn’t think of anything but the book. The tortured landscape. The bands of wild rebels, roaming along the roads, searching and hiding and turning everything they could into a viable source of nutrition. Fighting for their lives in the most terrible ways.Reading The Road leaves nothing but thought. It spells out the special bond between father and son, especially when put to the test. It shows survival like no other. How hard it is to break a spirit. How long it takes a man to die inside, and what that does to the body outside.It leaves you wondering why the world has, for the most part, ended? We barely know. For our own protection, I assume. Could we take the truth? Isn’t it enough to walk alongside these vacant, hollowed out corpses, slumming from camp to camp, fearful of not just death, but of how death can come; armed with enough to make it quick – dying being the only escape from capture.Think of everything we take for granted.Think about brushing your teeth. About drinking a Coke. Shaving. Wearing clean socks. Living in the same place every day, sleeping in the same bed. Sleeping in a bed at all.About hearing birds. About seeing the green buds of the forthcoming spring, the dying leaves of the passing autumn.Think about having friends. Think about remembering the face of those you love. Think about knowing where they are. About where you’re going.And think about your dreams. Because in The Road, there aren’t any. There’s no time for dreaming – no time for considering what lies ahead, what the people you used to know could be doing or where they ended up. Instead, all you see ahead is dark. The only faces you remember are blurred. The only tie to your former life is a child that was born after the destruction, after the killing, after the world slowly spun away, leaving nothing but a charred remain, a zone of impossibility.Who needs to wait for death when Hell has already made itself known?After reading The Road, I thought long and hard about what I would do. I thought about the events that led up to this destruction. I considered the role of global warming, of nuclear war, of driving wedges into every peace-deprived location on this ever warring earth. How far are we from total annihilation? How far are we from turning this dystopian wasteland – one under rigid social control not from a group or government, but from nature, specifically human nature’s will to survive – into a true life prophesy?The Road is a masterpiece. I say that without hyperbole. It’s the best book I’ve read in the past five years. I love the mystery and the subtle reminders of a former life. I love every time McCarthy sends us back a few years, to when people had just begun dying; trying to give us clues as to what really happened.Really, I’m not sure we could handle what happened. Just like the two lonely souls walking along that road couldn’t bear to look back.Why would you want to? Maybe that’s something else we take for granted – the idea that memories don’t disappear, and that sometimes looking back can be more harmful than anything we could do to ourselves. When your only way is forward, and your only reprise is death – why would you ever want to look back down the road. Why would it matter where you came from?The Road. It reaffirms the art of writing fiction. What else can we say about it?Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC 2006, 2007: Jan, Feb, Mar.
At the risk of being exposed as a graphic novel novice, my problem with the genre has always been that graphic novels never quite seem to take full, exuberant advantage of the potential afforded by the form.Too often, no matter how visually accomplished and how intricately plotted, the characters (paradoxically perhaps) are too one-dimensional. To put it simply, they are mopes. Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth is a towering achievement of intricate artistry and bifurcated plotting, but Jimmy himself doesn’t buzz and hum along with the rest of the presentation that Ware provides.In my experience with graphic novels, Art Spiegelman’s Maus is the towering exception to this rule. The two-volume set eschews the angst to give a gripping history lesson. The books were, for me, a stirring departure from angst-filled graphic novels like Chester Brown’s I Never Liked You, and Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World, which tread the same emotional ground as Corrigan.And so I picked up David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp knowing next to nothing about it and wondering if it too would shroud an awkward, angst-filled character in glorious, hand-drawn finery.The answer is no, but before I get to that, I should note that Polyp is a gorgeous book, an object with beautiful textures and colors within and without. This isn’t a new insight, but Polyp reinforced for me that these lavishly produced graphic novels will be among the niches in which the future of the physical book is secure. I would not have wanted to experience the book via the wan light of the screen.Polyp the book is pleasingly tangible, and so is Polyp, the book’s eponymous protagonist. Asterios Polyp is an architect, drawn in sleek geometric form by Mazzucchelli. Polyp’s twin brother Ignazio died at birth and narrates the story from the ether, while also appearing regularly in Polyp’s dreams. Unlike Corrigan, Polyp’s as assured and complicated a character as you’ll see stride through a graphic novel (this side of the super heroes of course). Mazzucchelli threads two plots in alternating chapters, one plot following Polyp from birth to a successful career and to marriage and the other following an older Polyp beginning with his 50th birthday, when his apartment catches fire and he gets on a train to go as far as his money will take him. Polyp is drawn in the classic mold of the hard-headed architect that so many writers have found to be fruitful archetype. But unlike the stony Howard Roark, Polyp is brimming with contradictions and a capacity to evolve under his architect’s mask.Joining Polyp is a colorful cast of characters, who, like Polyp with his architectural angularity, have their own traits subtly mirrored in the style Mazzucchelli uses to draw them. At its heart, Polyp is a love story about Polyp and Hana, a sculptor. In some ways the plot follows a more recognizable romance (or even romantic comedy) trajectory, but Mazzucchelli has many other threads going and delves into – with glorious abstract detail and inventive art and hand lettering – questions of free will, theories of representation, and the nature of the self. But the path of Polyp and Hana is the most moving element of the book. Here Mazzucchelli’s artistic cleverness is used to great emotional impact. When Hana and Polyp are getting along, they are drawn in with same line weight and color, but when they aren’t, Polyp becomes a jagged, assembly of orthogonal solids, while Hana becomes sketchy and impressionistic.A note: It took me about two hours to read this book. The book lists for $30 (Amazon has it for $20). It was a very immersive two hours, and the pages are detailed and would support repeated readings. It occurred to me that most books occupy your time for many more hours but often cost less. But its also true that few books are as engrossing and offer a visual experience on this level. A better analogy is a DVD of a favorite film, also offering two hours of immersion and bearing repeated watching, but costing more than a paperback might.Another note: I know next to nothing about Mazzucchelli, but I’ve heard that he is very highly regarded for his Batman: Year One book and also that Polyp, unlike his comic-related projects (no matter how worthwhile), is an opportunity to see his vision unmitigated by the necessary adherence to the the established tropes and tics of characters like Batman. PW said of him, “For decades, Mazzucchelli has been a master without a masterpiece.” Is Polyp a masterpiece (as PW goes on to assert)? It might be. Polyp doesn’t have the mind-bending density of Corrigan, but it has both a novelistic and artistic exuberance that will make me much more likely to reach for it again.
In 1887, Hamlin Garland, then a 27-year-old aspiring writer, traveled by train from Boston back to his family’s farm in Ordway, South Dakota. Having spent most of his life in the Midwest, and shuttling around the Dakotas, Iowa, and Wisconsin, Garland was familiar with agrarian life, but with his return, he had evolved: “The ugliness, the endless drudgery,” he later wrote, “and the loneliness of the farmer’s lot smote me with stern insistence.” Once he arrived at home, he was even more shocked. “I found my mother imprisoned in a small cabin on the enormous sunburnt, treeless plain, with no expectation of ever living anywhere else.” He continued: “Deserted by her sons and failing in health, she endured the discomforts of her life uncomplainingly…” This encounter would have a profound impact on his life. Garland worried that he was “without power to aid my mother in any substantial way” and didn’t know what to do about it. The answer, then, must have seemed obvious: he would write short stories.
Garland’s first effort was the story “Mrs. Ripley’s Trip,” which later became part of his first collection Main-Travelled Roads, published to acclaim in 1891, but now mostly forgotten. Garland wrote the stories under “the mood of bitterness.” Mrs. Ripley, probably based on Garland’s own mother, is described in the story as “pathetically little, wizened, and hopeless in her ill-fitting garments” and with “withered and shapeless lips.” (His mother was one of the first to read the story.) Stuck in her house for many years, Mrs. Ripley suggests to her husband Ethan that she travel across the country to visit her relatives, whom she hasn’t seen since before the couple moved west. Ethan is genuinely surprised when he finds out she has spent years ferreting away coins for the trip — but the reader isn’t; we’ve have grown accustomed to her sharp and smart tongue.
Downtrodden and oppressed women, in fact, resonate in Main-Travelled Roads. Mrs. Haskins, the homeless wife in “Under the Lion’s Paw,” “like the heroic woman that she was, bore also uncomplainingly the most terrible burdens.” Julia Peterson had been working the fields on her father’s farm — toiling “Among the Corn Rows” — and dreaming of a husband to take her away, when she instead receives a sudden proposal from a modest local farmer, Rob. He makes a telling comment after he finds her tiredly plowing: “‘You’re pretty well used up, eh?'” Mrs. Sanford, in another story, starts her own general store when her husband’s bank fails and convinces him not to skip town to avoid his debts. And then there is Agnes, perhaps the toughest of them all, who in “A Branch Road” is forced into a marriage with a violent man after she thinks her beau stood her up. In fact, most every story of Main-Travelled Roads has a heroic, burdened woman. “Cut off from human community,” wrote Joseph McCullough in his introduction to the volume, “[the farm wife] is destined to live in a depressing, lonely life, with little or no intellectual, sexual, or emotional fulfillment.”
Garland’s obvious concern for the plight of women in the late 19th century American Midwest was not just a product of concern for his mother, though — he was actively involved in the day’s politics. Generally, the criticism of his fiction has been for its obviously political overtones. Take, for example, “Under the Lion’s Paw,” which was written under the influence of politician and political economist Henry George, and with the express purpose of persuading voters to enact a land value tax, which Garland contended more fairly excised wealthy property owners. Garland supported Populist candidates (including, along with his contemporary Willa Cather, William Jennings Bryan during Bryan’s 1896 presidential run). Sometimes the stories of Main-Travelled Roads are distractingly political, but other times an emotional core reveals itself, as when the poor farmer Grant, angry at the return of his prodigal (and successful) brother in “Up the Coolly,” says: “A man like me is helpless… Just like a fly in a pan of molasses. There ain’t any escape for him. The more he tears around the more liable he is to rip his legs off.”
Eventually, though, Garland grew weary of writing fiction. Perhaps this was for the best, as the quality of his writing had been diminishing since Main-Travelled Roads; even the later stories (added to the volume after initial publication) find Garland drifting toward the sentimental. Instead of telling fictional stories of farmers like his family and friends, Garland focused on telling his own — and by extension his family’s — story.
Born in a farm near West Salem, Wisconsin in 1860, Garland had been christened Hannibal Hamlin Garland, after Abraham Lincoln’s then-presidential running mate. Garland’s father was strict, his mother stoic. Continually moving the family, Richard Garland never had much luck farming. But his travails, and his difficult relationship with Garland’s mother, Charlotte, would provide his son with a rich source of material. There are echoes in many of the early stories.
Garland moved to Boston in the fall of 1884, and became enthralled with its in-bloom literary scene, culminating in a meeting with William Dean Howells in 1887 (not long before he returned for his career-forming trip back west). Howells was perhaps the biggest influence on Garland’s career, both in its development and in its success: he reviewed Main-Travelled Roads in Harper’s, calling it “robust and serious.” Starting in Boston, Garland would have a lasting influence on Stephen Crane, mentoring Crane and reading his manuscripts.
Son of the Middle Border was the first significant result of Garland’s turn away from fiction — although in 1894 he had produced a work of realist literary theory, Crumbling Idols, which Crane read fervently. Son of the Middle Border appeared serially before arriving as a book in 1917. It received such acclaim that he wrote Daughter of the Middle Border, the story of his wife’s family — he had married Zulime Taft, the sister of the sculptor, Lorado Taft, in 1899 — which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. He continued on to Trail-Makers of the Middle Border and Back-Trailers of the Middle Border a few years later. The latter completed the series by depicting the return of several members of his family back east.
Although his production later in life probably stained his reputation — Garland had turned, in the late 1920s, to credulously investigating psychic phenomena — the stories of Main-Travelled Roads remain nuanced and enlightening, pioneering pieces of realist fiction. And despite much of the criticism it has received — essentially for being didactic and dreary — Garland always ensured that there were some lessons that could not be taught, and some bright spots in the most dreadful existence. Mrs. Ripley, after her vacation, finds her life on the farm to be bearable again. In “A Day’s Pleasure,” a distraught wife enjoys an afternoon respite with some genuinely kind, wealthy benefactors. Mrs. Sanford continues her store even after her husband’s investments rebound, deciding she’s a better mother for working, too. Even poor Agnes escapes her misogynist husband by running off with her childhood sweetheart, baby in her arms, searching out a life east. Howard and Grant make peace after Howard scrounges up his money to buy the family’s old farm back. There are no easy solutions for these characters, and certainly no political ones. With his fiction, Garland said he sought to “touch the deeper feelings of the nation.” It is a shame that more are not reading these stories, which reach out from a hardscrabble time, and which still mirror our own.