My appetite for non-fiction is pretty much equal to my appetite for fiction. I read memoirs, essays, and observations as I would read a novel, keyed into the author’s voice. When I read history, though, I read for the information, as though I’m auditing a course at my local community college. I underline the important parts, I try to process the information and place it in context. Sometimes I take notes. I read history when I want to know the facts, and that’s why I love John Keegan. His writing is clear, and he brings unassailable expertise to his books. I first discovered him a while back when I read part two of Ian McEwan’s Atonement in which the evacuation of British forces from France in the face of German invasion is described. McEwan’s vivid description of the grim realities of a small and somewhat forgotten event inspired me to read about World War II in search of more small, somewhat forgotten events. My knowledge of history comes from high school, a few courses in college, the History Channel, and a scattershot array of books I’ve read over the years. I know the big picture, the facts that we are all supposed to know, but, in the case of World War II, I didn’t know the nuances, the details, and campaigns and events that textbooks push to the background in the interest of smoothing out the narrative to assist in the learning process. I found that The First World War neither skimped on the specifics nor did it overwhelm with minutiae. I learned about the Greek campaigns and just how close the Allies were to losing the war. I learned about the British evacuation from France, and, in the end, understood the chronology of events and how all the pieces fit together. As an added bonus, Keegan every once in a while would pause the narrative to describe the realities on the ground, to explain what it was to be a soldier (or a general) fighting in this war. These invaluable nuggets are what make the book great. Naturally, I began adding Keegan books to the queue. The First World War is another great book, and a must read for anyone who wishes to have deeper knowledge of that cataclysmic event. Some fascinating insights: WWI represents a dividing line in history, and much more than the events that preceded it, WWI is responsible for shaping the world order of the last 90 years; this truly was a global war with campaigns in Africa and Asia; though the terrible nature of trench warfare is well-known, Keegan’s descriptions of the realities of the life of a WWI soldier are indispensable. If you are interested in military history, you won’t be disappointed by John Keegan.
Netherland is a good book, and much has already been written, here and elsewhere, to that effect. Its central conceit, that of the New York City immigrant subculture of cricket, provides a fresh perspective on a city about which so much has already been written, and the parallel story, of the dissolution of lonely Hans van der Broek’s marriage, often cuts with the immediacy of real, unmitigated loss. But, and of course there is a but — and perhaps it’s only due to my predilection for stories that come at me “like a big hot meteor screaming down from the Kansas sky,” as Stephen King put it in his introduction to The Best American Short Stories of 2007 — there is a deep problem with Netherland, and it’s that the book more often exemplifies rather than illuminates the central dilemma that draws its attention, the modern challenge of an individual trying to author a coherent story for his own life.This is the problem facing Hans van der Broek as he surveys post-9/11 New York from his rented two-bedroom apartment in the eclectic Chelsea Hotel. His wife Rachel has decamped to London, taking their young son Jake with her. Her reason for leaving is ostensibly fear of another terrorist attack but really the problem is with Hans who seems barely present, wrapped in a malaise of his own divining. In Rachel’s absence Hans falls into the subculture of city cricket. He’s taking his suitcase out of the trunk of a taxi cab when he spies the driver’s cricket bat lying in the wheel well. He inquires as he pays, and the next Saturday he’s standing on a field on Staten Island, the only white man on a team of immigrants from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and other former colonial tracts. Reading Hans’ conversation with the cab driver, I was struck by the improbability of the social engagement that results. The divide between driver and passenger in a New York City cab is typically absolute and O’Neill presents their conversation as something like Alice’s rabbit hole, a whole new world revealed in plain sight. By contrast with Alice’s journey, though, Hans’ is fairly low stakes. He is a tourist, not an adventurer in this new world.Hans becomes a regular on the cricket pitch, through which he meets Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian immigrant with an entrepreneur’s interest in cricket, though no real talent for the game. Chuck dreams of building a cricket stadium on deserted waterfront property in Brooklyn, thereby restoring New York – and America – to its cricket roots and making himself rich at the same time. Hans takes quickly and casually to Chuck, explaining, “Because his deviousness was so transparent and because it alternated with an immigrant’s credulousness… I found all the feinting and dodging and thrusting oddly soothing.” Hans finds Chuck’s presence soothing, but not important. He has time on his hands with his family across the pond, and in that context, Chuck is a convenient diversion, a placeholder. There is never anything Hans has to learn from Chuck, or accomplish with him in order to get his life back on track. Such tenuous relationships are not the stuff of great literature, and absent real stakes in the story, the character of Chuck Ramkissoon is more inventive than artful.Much the same is true of the rest of the architecture of Netherland, which comes across as contrived and clever more often than real and human. Certain problems are established at the outset of the book – a murder and a de facto divorce – but there is little effort throughout the narrative to explore them, unravel them, or even, often enough, to address them. Instead, Hans flits episodically through life in New York and remembrances of his childhood. Netherland is a character study more than a story and the central challenge facing the character is that he’s been unable to craft a coherent story for his own life, one fortified with governing values, purposeful action, and consequential relationships. What’s true in life turns out to be true in novels, too. It is hard to have a good one without those things.In one particularly well-wrought episode from the book, Hans is approached in a Manhattan diner by Danielle, a fleeting acquaintance from his former life in London. The two go on a date and then pass a romping night together in Hans’ apartment. Danielle has no precursor in the story, nor any legs. She appears and disappears and at the end of her section, I wrote in exasperation, “Is it possible to deepen an understanding of the character without deepening the plot?” In Netherland the events are connected only through Hans, as he experiences and remembers them. This leads, in Hans, to a sense of vertigo and groundlessness, tethered as he is only to himself. In me as a reader, it led, quite frankly, only to boredom. My intellect was engaged and my aesthetic sensibilities stimulated, but at almost no point in the book did I really care about what was happening.Halfway through the book, Hans takes shoeboxes of old photographs to a woman named Eliza who arranges photo albums for a living. She says to Hans, describing her work, “People want a story. They like a story,” to which Hans replies, “A story. Yes. That’s what I need.” Tantalized by O’Neill’s writing and very often drawn in by the creativity of his sets, I was filled with optimism as I read this. A story was all that remained to redeem Netherland, just as it was all that remained to rehabilitate Hans. But unfortunately, the story never comes, and the lasting impression of Netherland is a thought, an idea, not a feeling, and it is not for such things that I read novels.See also: Garth’s take on Netherland
Two assumptions are often made about the magnificent writer and illustrator Edward Gorey. First, that he is British. Second, that he is long dead. Although graced with a British sensibility – his work contains a distinctive London fog, a dark, in equal parts menacing and comforting Englishness about it – Gorey was in fact born in Chicago and left America only once, for a brief sojourn in the Scottish isles. And while his work seems perhaps more Victorian than modern or post-modern, Gorey actually died in 2000, and he was active as an artist and writer for the bulk of the second half of the twentieth century.
I had the good fortune to be reminded of Gorey recently, when on my birthday I received one of his singularly remarkable books. Titled The Curious Sofa (the author’s name is given as Ogden Weary, a wonderful anagram), Gorey’s book is both hilarious and darkly suggestive. The book, subtitled “a pornographic work”, contains no actual pornography, if by pornography one thinks of naked people. Instead, with a mix of childish innocence and impish delight, Gorey creates eminently suggestive scenarios, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks. “Lady Celia,” for example, “led Alice to her boudoir, where she requested the girl to perform a rather surprising service.” The accompanying picture, just this side of lewd, shows Alice, her head peeking over a Chinese wall, leering suggestively at Lady Celia. One can imagine Gorey, with a crooked half-smile on his devious face, impeaching the reader that the obvious erotic reading is not the one he meant at all.
This glorious impishness pops up, indeed overwhelms the bulk of Gorey’s work. His sly humor is only part of the pleasure of his books, though. Mostly, I turn to Gorey for his delightful illustrations. His evocative ink-marks, the way he draws darkness on the page, are simply fantastic. Gorey succeeds like not other in pulling you in to his own imaginative world, creating a child-like wonder that is somehow not child-like, that is mature and full and yet profoundly uncynical.
I was pleased to discover recently that a documentary on Gorey’s life, shot from 1996 to his death in 2000, is currently in its finishing stages. I am excited to hear the author and artist speak in his waning years about his life’s work and what exactly he was trying to attain with his delightful drawings. I will admit, though, that while I am thrilled to see Gorey interviewed, I am loath to lose my fantasy of his British accent.
It’s a funny thing about expectations. They form so quickly, and often just as quickly, get shattered. Or else you’re forced to re-evaluate, and scale down those expectations to something more realistic. And you have to do it all in lightning speed so that, before the actual experience is over, you’ve salvaged some sort of enjoyment.But then every once in a while, on that rarest of occasions, the opposite happens. You pick up a newspaper, say, and read a glowing review of a young author’s first collection of short stories. Then you notice that he’s giving a reading in your very town four days later. The day comes and, well, you slink out of work early to get to the reading on time. Those expectations are beginning.You’re there at the reading and it goes off smoothly. The story he reads is engaging. Already you’re thinking “could they all be this good?”. Then during the break you chat with him and guess what – he’s gracious and affable – a truly likeable guy. Completely unspoiled.You take your signed book home. Part of your brain is already working double-time to counteract the hype. At the first hint of trouble, it’s ready to lower those expectations. Part of your brain is buoyed by the reading and the chat. The rest of your brain is simply confused and, well, a little bit annoyed that you haven’t cracked the spine yet.So you do. And as you enter the world of Thai-American author Rattawut Lapcharoensap, as he leads you deftly through the pages of Sightseeing, you begin to realize something. You begin to realize that he’s done it. He’s given you seven small perfect stories. Each one as transfixing as the last. And yet each one remarkably different from the last. And still yet somehow each one the product of the same, distinctive voice. You realize that he’s done it.”Farangs” is a story of a half-Thai, half-American teen, working with his mother at a hotel in Thailand, and his courtship of an American tourist. You meet tourists who (as tourists tend to do) behave at their worst, their basest. There’s a simmering hostility suggested between the locals and the farangs, and the first-person narration of this story (of all the stories) throws you right in the thick of it. There is an immediacy to the narrative. Very quickly you become part of the characters’ day-to-day lives.”At The Cafe Lovely”, where you meet a Bangkok family and again you’re plunged into their domestic life, in the author’s powerful and poignant prose you can see, even smell, the place. Kitchens become alive. (Your craving for Thai food will be insatiable while you’re reading these stories). You also see youthful rituals played out. And you’ll find that the unfamiliar is suddenly not all that unfamiliar.”Draft Day” places you in those tense hours leading up to the lottery to decide which young Thai youths will be sent into the army and which ones will be spared. The narrator’s family’s wealth and status suggests a possible reprieve but his best friend is not as certain of his fate, a brother having already been damaged by his time in the service. And Draft Day turns into a family affair. Domesticity leaves the kitchen and transplants itself in the waiting room.”Sightseeing”, perhaps at once the most heartbreaking and the most exhilarating of all the stories, finds the narrator and his mother becoming farangs themselves as they travel to a remote part of Thailand.”Priscilla the Cambodian” reveals some long-held preconceptions among Thai and Cambodian families, and how these feelings are more entrenched in the older generations than the young. This was the story you heard at the reading even though, five minutes before the end, you became a reader’s worst nightmare when you began coughing and wheezing uncontrollably. You tried to contain it. You failed.”Don’t Let Me Die In This Place.” A wheelchair-bound American grandfather’s tale of life with his son and Thai daughter-in-law in Thailand, seeing his “mongrel” grandchildren for the first time. Trying to see himself in them. This isn’t an exotic story. None of these are. The author places you in the center of their lives. Right into their normalness.And, finally, “Cockfighter,” the novella which caps the collection. Again placing you within a drama full of dreams and economic desperation, honor and dignity. A tale of that blurry line between vengeance and justice. You witness, first hand, the arc of a family crisis, all told from the point of view of the daughter in the family.Seven distinct first-person voices. Seven tales of the familiar among the unfamiliar. Seven stories told without a hint of gimmick. Just acutely-observed, slyly powerful storytelling from a literary voice you’ll want to hear more of. So then, expect whatever you want from Sightseeing. Rattawut Lapcharoensap will blow your expectations out of the water. Highly recommended.Read “Farangs” here.
When I graduated from high school, my English teacher and advisor gave me The Berlin Stories, a New Directions paperback, with a note inside. The note said the book seemed right for me. It was written on the back of a Wallace Stevens poem.
I was very lucky, and I had a great many fine teachers in high school. But this teacher glowered and stalked and had an ancient cat. He assigned The Whitsun Weddings. He was empathetic and caustic and kind. I was a difficult student (a terrible student), but he was always on my side. I think of him often.
Largely because of this teacher, Philip Larkin is the only poet for me. Philip Larkin puts his finger in an aching, adolescent spot and presses just hard enough to leave one with a lingering delicious pain. Even so, I love that Wallace Stevens poem, the one tucked inside my graduation gift. It’s called “The Poems of Our Climate.” Here’s how it goes:
Clear water in a brilliantbowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
A the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations–one desires
So much more than that. The day itself
Is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnations there.
Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged.
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white and snowy scents.
There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.
I’m so impatient, I’m a bad reader of poetry. I read poems like I read novels, rushing to find out what happens. A poem is what happens, though, and I usually arrive at the end of one breathless and flummoxed. It’s like sprinting to the flight gate, heart bursting, only to find you’ve got the wrong day. The wrong month, even. So I read this poem a number of times before I understood that it had been written especially for me.
I keep the note inside the book. They go together. They go together because I got them together and because “The imperfect is our paradise” could be the book’s epigraph. It would make a hell of an epitaph, too.
The Berlin Stories is two short novels, published separately in the 1930s. New Directions put them together in 1945. It was an inspired pairing. The novels support one another. Together they flesh out the world Isherwood describes: Berlin of the very early 1930s, imperfect in the extreme, but a paradise for Isherwood’s hitherto uneven talent.
The first novel, The Last of Mr. Norris, is an affectionate panegyric to an old reprobate. Mr. Norris is into petty crime, BDSM, and poorly written porn. He wears an almost-convincing wig, and has two doors to his apartment: “Arthur Norris. Private” and “Arthus Norris. Import Export.” A most unlikely communist, he’s also an inveterate double-crosser, fooling no one but himself (and, sometimes, Isherwood). The details the novel provides about the Communist Party of the period are interesting, but mostly they lend to the farcical aspect of Isherwood’s story. It’s almost as silly as Travels With my Aunt, but it feels real. Perhaps it is.
Goodbye to Berlin provides fine counterbalance. Its subject is the city, as it was gearing up to participate in one of civilization’s greatest horrors. On the first page Isherwood tells us, in an rare meta moment, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”
This novel is something like the first cantos of Inferno. Pre-war Berlin is the outskirts of hell, and its people, through Isherwood’s lens, are its lesser sinners–the lustful, the slothful, the avaricious. In the Nowaks’ cramped attic flat, Isherwood seems literally to inhabit a part of hell, what with the suffocating stove and the freezing draughts, Frau Nowak coughing out her lungs, fat Grete and piggish Otto and Nazi Lothar and Isherwood’s suspicious rash and the sounds of the tenement all around him. They eat lung hash, cooked by the consumptive Frau. I don’t know what lung hash is, but it sounds like hell. Even Bernard Landauer, the doomed department store scion, is something out of the first circle–a gentle, urbane philosopher, damned only for falling outside Jesus’ jurisdiction.
Like Dante writing Inferno, Isherwood knew the worst as he wrote. If Otto and Peter and Sally Bowles (later of Cabaret fame) are Isherwood’s lesser criminals, there are intimations of the coming inner circles: the violent, the treacherous, the Devil himself. Isherwood left Berlin in ’33. The writing was on the wall.
But for all that these stories anticipate an onslaught of death, they celebrate life. Isherwood celebrates the lowlifes of Berlin, the bizarre modes of sex and romance, the vicissitudes of fortune, the indignities of poverty, the shabby glamor of his writer’s life. I love when he gets a five mark piece from a wealthy pupil, tosses it in the air to celebrate, drops it, and scrambles to find it in a pile of sand. I like how he goes to bed drunk and worries about his rash. I like how he speaks German and listens to his landlady lament her large bosom.
I read this book every year. It is a good book for the end of December. It is piquant and sad, like New Year’s Eve. Bittersweet is not the right word, it’s too pat and saccharine for Isherwood and for this Berlin. When I began to think about the book for this essay, I wondered if there is something awful in enjoying a story that heralds the death of millions. But I don’t think of it as a holocaust novel. (It’s my privilege not to, I understand; it was Isherwood’s privilege to leave Berlin, too.)
No, I think of it as marking time. It’s about storytelling and memory, for all it is about hell. It is a story about time and how it passes, and it reminds me of time that has passed. Isherwood used his story to call out to friends long-disappeared, to remember a part of his life that was gone. It was a way to remember a time when everything was uncertain, and better for that uncertainty. The worse had yet to happen.
This book is one of my most treasured gifts. For me it is the dear memory of that teacher, and leaving school, and leaving adolescence. When I first read it, this book was a harbinger of freedom, even if freedom turned out to be different than I expected.
I can’t say it right, what it means to me. The imperfect is so hot in me, lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.
“Decadence demands a certain degree of innocence,” muses Dr. Maxted, a psychiatrist in J. G. Ballard’s new novel, Kingdom Come, after one of his patients opens fire with a handgun in a crowded English shopping mall. The shooting kills the father of Richard Pearson, the novel’s newly unemployed ad-man narrator. After arriving in the Brooklands suburb near Heathrow where his father lived, Pearson finds that decadence has taken a neo-fascist turn as rampant consumerism blurs into primitive innocence. The community where his father had retired celebrates the infantile and the violent as consumers attempt to escape from the boredom of their suburban lives. Pearson’s hunt for his father’s killer — and his unraveling of the inept plot that set his father’s death in motion — leads him deeper into the madness that Dr. Maxted suggests is at the heart of an increasingly decentralized and reckless culture, for which meaning is located more in loyalty cards and football jerseys than it is in political parties or religious organizations. Pearson’s fascination with the unexplored advertising possibilities of such a world sets him on a dangerous collision course with the society elements who resent the influence of the Metro-Centre shopping mall on their community. His skills as a rebellious advertising executive are in high demand as the mall’s managers seek to expand its growth. Their domed temple to consumption is in need of a high priest, and Pearson is all too willing to experiment with the marketing of madness.
Though Kingdom Come is only now appearing in the U.S., it was originally published in Britain in 2006. Reading it after the financial crisis is an unsettling experience, not because of the unflattering picture of consumerism that it paints — standard Ballardian fare — but because the particular brand of decadence at its center seems almost too innocent. That may be a startling claim to make about a novel that presents the violent expulsion of immigrant communities as an outgrowth of the suburban ethos of “consumer choice,” but the problem isn’t with what Ballard envisions as being possible. Rather, it’s with what he identifies as the root cause. The greatest danger in a world of decadence, the novel suggests, is the mixture of an insatiable appetite for entertainment with widespread boredom. When these are combined in Brooklands, the crowd is all too willing to sell its loyalty to the first person who entertains it and validates it.
It’s difficult, while reading Kingdom Come, not to think of the financial crisis and the subsequent protests around the world, and to worry that Ballard’s focus on boredom is too narrow, however illuminating it may be. At the very least, boredom was not the sole cause of the London riots in 2011, nor was it the reason why Occupy London demonstrators set up camp on the steps of St. Paul’s a few months later (though some in David Cameron’s government may argue otherwise). Structural unemployment and diminishing opportunities played at least some role, as did the distrust of police and government officials in the wake of Britain’s parliamentary expenses scandal. While it’s appropriate and necessary to condemn the violence of the riots and to question the efficacy of some of the Occupy London tactics, it would be difficult to characterize either group as suburbanites bored with their own success.
Perhaps it’s unfair to hold satire accountable for failing to anticipate the future. Ballard does not claim to be an oracle, and consumerism run amok deserves the pillorying it gets in Kingdom Come. The connections Ballard finds between boredom and neo-fascism are fascinating and disturbing, and they are presented with an experienced satirist’s deft art. But while the novel is able to imagine decadence turned violent, disaffection seems somehow outside its range, leaving its satire of consumerism poorer as a result. Ultimately Ballard’s vision is still of a world before the fall, but the kind of ruin that he anticipates is very different from the vacant shopping malls and office complexes surrounded by empty parking lots and crumbling infrastructure that have become a common sight in Britain and the U.S. The question is whether shopping malls become ruins because they first become temples, as the novel seems to suggest — because consumerism is bound to fail as a religion — or whether shopping malls become ruins when too few can afford to go there anymore.
Kingdom Come ends up echoing John Betjeman’s 1937 poem “Slough,” in which the former poet laureate calls down bombs on the ugliness of urban sprawl. There’s a danger in letting the bombs fall where they may, however, and while Ballard’s consumers are not victims — they want to be seduced by the flashy advertising images that Richard Pearson puts in front of them — they’re also not the people who designed the world in which they live. There is complicity too in a system that turns against communities after exploiting them for profit, and while Ballard gives needed attention to the ways in which nationalistic emotions, consumer loyalties, sporting competitions, and a love of recklessness rush into the vacuum of absent institutions in communities like Brooklands, omitting the history of their abandonment leaves the novel’s arguments a bit top heavy. It remains to be seen whether recent attempts to reclaim blighted shopping malls as green office parks, community centers, and high schools will be outliers or part of a larger trend in the new history of the suburban landscape. While Ballard’s warnings are still pertinent after the financial crisis, the novel’s idea that “the suburbs are the last great mystery,” as a space of illusions in which nothing is as it seems, may be replaced by a more instructive fascination with the origins and mysteries of ruins — a fascination capable of addressing both decadence and disaffection.