Thanks to our friend Edan, who is well-connected in the world of audio books, Mrs. Millions and I had a 6 cd, seven and half hour, unabridged work of literature to keep us company on our recent trip from Chicago to New York, where we’re picking up the dog, and various of our far flung possessions. The Outlaw Sea was a riveting work of non-fiction by an accomplished reporter. Langewiesche is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and has written several books that combine hard reportage with the more ephemeral qualities of a travel writer. In this case, Langewiesche’s goal is to illustrate with bold examples the ungovernability of the sea. For him, this is a law of nature, but it is also a consequence of the inability of the laws of men to deal with sea’s expanses. His case studies, if you will, are many, but he spends the most time on a few memorable stories: the modern day pirate attack on the Alondra Rainbow in 1999; the post-apocalyptic landscape of the world’s most heavily trafficked ship graveyard, the beaches of Alang, India; and the wreck of the ferry Estonia on which at least 852 people died when it went down in a storm in the Baltic Sea in 1994. The subtext in all of these stories is that the tragedies contained within are, at least partly, a result of the inability of modern societies to govern the seas. The greater implication, as Langewiesche makes clear, is that such lawlessness and statelessness make the sea fertile for the operations of lawless, stateless terrorists. The sea is everywhere, but it is nowhere in the eyes of the law. These timely concerns, and Langewiesche’s sturdy prose elevate a book of riveting tales of disasters at sea to a book of more weighty importance.
The title of Nathan Englander’s new collection of short stories unmistakably references Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (on which: more later), but it is the question articulated by that title, the matter of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank that I want to take up first. The subject of Anne Frank — if we may take her somewhat unnerving appearances as a fictional character as a form of evidence — is, for certain writers, a singularly tempting one. Part-muse, part-rival, she storms the late-twentieth, early-twenty-first century novel, an improbable survivor testifying to human cruelty and human resilience, the full range of human experience borne on her shoulders. There she is, posing as Amy Bellette, the intriguingly-accented, large-eyed seductress of Nathan Zuckerman’s wildest erotic dreams and fantasies of filial duty in Philip Roth’s Ghost Writer. And here she is, again, holed up in an upstate-New York attic, foul-mouthed, decrepit, toiling on a novel and making a neurotic man’s life hell in Shalom Auslander’s recent debut novel Hope: A Tragedy. What do these manifestations of the paradigmatic child-martyr tell us about her and about us? If these fictional examples are anything to go by, it is mostly that when we talk about Anne Frank we are not talking about Anne Frank at all.
When we — and by “we” here I naturally mean Next-Big-Thing Jewish authors, men reaching for the height of their creative powers — talk about Anne Frank, we seem to be invoking a wide swath of anxieties, a whole megillah of insecurities, real and imagined angst that has everything and nothing to do with Anne Frank herself. Still, she has the tendency to lend gravitas to the proceedings at hand, to signal that whatever else is being discussed, it is serious indeed. In the title story of Englander’s collection, for example, when the narrator and his wife and their guests, a Hasidic couple visiting from Jerusalem, decide, after smoking some pot, to play “the Anne Frank game,” the reader knows that something portentous, something Terribly Significant, is coming. That game, a.k.a. “the Righteous Gentile Game,” a.k.a. “Who Will Hide Me?,” involves ascertaining, “in the event of an American Holocaust, …which of our Christian friends would hide us.” (Curiously, Solomon Kugel, the hapless hero of Hope, enjoys a one-player version of the game, his thoughts on the topic of who might hide him and his family — and what he ought to bring along to the business of sitting out a genocide — forming a sort of refrain through the novel.) In “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” the two couples — our narrator and his wife Deb, her former schoolmate Shoshana and her husband Mark — decide to up the ante, to imagine each other as the (possibly Righteous) Gentiles, and the “Anne Frank Game” becomes a dubious session of marital therapy, a process for working through neuroses by forming new neuroses still.
Like Raymond Carver, to whom he is admittedly, unabashedly indebted, Englander mines the intersection of the stunningly obvious and the subtly but potently implied. The tension of his best stories, as in Carver’s best stories, resides in the fissures that slowly open up in the fabric of what had been assumed with little thought, with no reservation. Invoking Anne Frank — her innocence, her belief in the fundamental goodness of people — heightens the tension to a nearly unbearable degree; that Englander walks the fine, fine line between manipulation and genuineness, that he manages the strain of his material, positions him as Carver’s rightful heir.
Such genealogy matters. Anne Frank, I would wager, resonates with writers because she is a writer, the author of one of the twentieth-century’s most indelible works. It is her voice — uncalculated, authentic, a voice on the cusp of learning something significant about itself — her ability to command our attention, her power over us, that we are talking about when we talk about Anne Frank. (It is no coincidence, surely, that both Roth and Auslander imagine their respective Anne Franks as writers.) Anne Frank — at least the idealized Anne Frank — speaks to our better selves, and she speaks to our writers’ desire to say something meaningful, something immortal. (This last concern is explored in “The Reader,” one of the more opaque stories in the collection, a perhaps-too-literal allegory about the relationship that exists between the portentously identified Author and the sole determined reader who appears, angel-like, at stops on the Author’s promotional tour for his latest.)
Englander announced himself as the Great Practitioner of the Short Story with his first collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. At once profoundly sad and terribly funny — amusingly despondent? dejectedly comical? — the stories in Urges considered the absurdities and indignities of contemporary life at an empathetic remove. In Anne Frank, Englander builds on his earlier accomplishment, masterfully honing in on the tiny details and producing a finely drawn vision of lives colored by shame and despair and longing and the barely concealed, terrifying capacity for impotent rage. Neither wallowing nor fleeing, Englander suggests that none of us is truly “righteous.” Which is perhaps why we talk — and talk and talk — about Anne Frank, endlessly hoping to satisfy some unbearable urge.
T.C. Boyle is in a groove. He’s that rare combination of a bold writer who is consistently fun and seemingly, he’s becoming more prolific. His last novel, the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired bestseller The Women, was released in 2009 and now, quick on its heels comes his 13th novel, When the Killing’s Done, a colorful, quick-witted and entirely plausible account of environmental activism and bureaucratic bumbling in and around California’s Channel Islands. Topically it might remind you of the cerulean warbler section of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, but whereas Franzen’s foray into wildlife issues felt so tangential and agonized into being that there was a temptation to skim through that meandering West Virginia bird sanctuary section, When the Killing’s Done is thoroughly engaging and cohesive. There isn’t a dull moment in it.
It’s always been Boyle’s great gift to take the reader somewhere (Alaska, the Hudson River Valley 300 years ago, Kinsey’s inner circle, a pot farm in Northern California) and completely convince you of the accuracy of the surroundings he gives you. Not just geographically, but politically, socially and culturally. Bits of Boyle stick with me; In the early 90s, new to California, I read his hilariously picaresque Budding Prospects, the pot farm novel, in which a character describes a San Francisco burrito as the shape and size of a skein of yarn (with considerably more heft). I have thought with pleasure of this description virtually every time I have lifted a burrito since. Which is to say, roughly a thousand times.
I became even fonder of Boyle after reading his 1995 novel The Tortilla Curtain, which I interpreted, rather desperately, as a small validation of my newspaper career. In the early 90s, I worked for the Ventura County edition of the Los Angeles Times. Resume-wise, you’d have called this a stepping stone, but I recall it more as rowing in the newspaper equivalent of a slave ship. The paper was making a “push” into the county, a dreary no-man’s land between the busy San Fernando Valley, where porn was made, and the relative paradise of Santa Barbara, where there were art-house movies, good bookstores and a taqueria Julia Child was known to frequent. Our local readership was perilously small, but we published two zoned editions of this local section. No story was too small to cover. Any idle musing that struck an editor during his or her commute could and would be turned into a story by we eager minions. That was how I once came to write a profile of Highway 101. I am referring to an inert stretch of tar.
This was all educational, but miserable, and the concern that barely anyone was reading what we were writing loomed large. Then along came The Tortilla Curtain, a witty, fast moving study in contrasts between the entitled residents of gated communities on the edges of the Santa Monica Mountains and the poor Latino immigrants who have the temerity to make them nervous. Boyle, who lives in Montecito – for most of the last two decades, in a Frank Lloyd Wright home, lucky man – knew so much about the politics of pettiness and fear that ran rampant through what we often called “suburban enclaves” that I was certain he was reading our zoned edition of the Los Angeles Times. Someone was paying attention. And unlike us, he had a true sense of the big picture.
Many years later and many miles away from Ventura County, my realization that Boyle had written a novel about the Channel Islands nearly made my heart skip a beat. This is precisely the book I always wanted to read. From Ventura, the Channel Islands loom like magical temptations out there on the Western horizon, mostly just the long low ridge of Anacapa (technically, three small islands) and the green hills of Santa Cruz Island. Santa Rosa is hidden behind the hulk of Santa Cruz, and San Miguel is farther north, off Santa Barbara, but reportedly, nothing happened there. I visited Anacapa and Santa Cruz, a good boat ride’s distance away, whenever there was the thinnest journalistic excuse to do so. There were bureaucratic control issues — the Nature Conservancy owned most of Santa Cruz but the National Park Service had a say in what happened on part of that vast island (four times the size of Manhattan, Boyle tells us), as well as all of Anacapa and even in the 1990s there were the same ecological issues that Boyle focuses on. The islands are beautiful, mysterious and though largely deserted, rich with history (once they had belonged to people, actual people, mostly ranchers, who got to live there). They exist as time capsules of what California might have looked like 200 years ago. On these blissful days reporting out on the islands, you could count on a day of freedom from yet another editorial whipping. Even more alluring, you could imagine all the histories that might have been.
Boyle has done just that, but put it on the page, interweaving true facts and scenarios with a group of fictional modern day characters with warring interests in the ecological future of the islands. National Park Service biologist Alma Boyd Takesue is leading the fight against the invasive species overrunning the native populations of the islands, in the case of Anacapa, black rats who landed there via shipwreck in 1853 (true story) and on Santa Cruz, feral pigs descended from the pigs left there by ranchers. Alma’s grandmother survived a 1946 shipwreck (fiction) that killed her grandfather and spent three weeks shooing away black rats in a fisherman’s shack before being rescued. Now Alma wants to eradicate those rats. And when they’re gone, she plans to move onto Santa Cruz’s pigs, which are destroying the habit of the native island fox (a smaller breed than is found on the mainland).
Her main opponent is the Santa Barbara-based leader of a group called For the Protection of Animals (FPA), Dave LaJoy, a wealthy, vitriolic middle-aged vegetarian whose favorite recreational activity is to pilot his big motor boat out to the Channel Islands and enjoy nature while swilling beer and eating hummus sandwiches. LaJoy is an animal lover – he believes even a black rat has as much right on Anacapa as some native bird – and a people hater, with the possible exception of his girlfriend Anise, a beautiful folksinger. Anise had the unusual pleasure of having spent most of her childhood in the 1970s on Santa Cruz; her mother Rita worked as a cook for a sheep rancher who leased a sizeable chunk of the land (the section of the book involving Rita’s days on Santa Cruz is wonderfully evocative). In a neat twist, the pigs brought there by earlier ranchers lead to the ruin of that exhausting but rewarding ranch life, and yet still, Anise wants to save them.
The book flies by – LaJoy, with his “rusty dreadlocks” and fits of rage, is horrible yet hilariously entertaining, a man driven by arrogance and conviction in equal parts – but it’s not just a good yarn; Boyle has a real point to make, about population control of all beasts (and mankind). Alma is the protagonist certainly, but that doesn’t make her right in all circumstances. What for instance, would ground zero truly be for the Channel Islands, in terms of ecology? To truly erase all signs of man’s past interference with the natural habitat requires fresh interference by man. If the pigs are removed, what will become prey for the eagles that were drawn to the island by the ready food source the pigs presented? The island fox, as it turns out. So the raptors now have to be caught and removed. The minute Alma gets rid of one invasive species, it seems she has another to deal with. Who, or what, is meant to have ownership of and residency on these islands? The question isn’t really answerable, and Boyle plays with that ambiguity to great effect. The basic facts of what he’s telling, through told through fictional characters, really happened. And I finally have actual proof that Boyle reads the paper, having found this on his website: “…I still preserve a yellowing newspaper headline from six or seven years ago (it’s pinned beneath a magnet on the refrigerator door), which reads: EAGLES ARRIVE AS PIGS ARE KILLED, a reference to the reintroduction of the bald eagle and the eradication of the feral pig.”
Boyle has a joyful willingness to go over the top, trips he almost always negotiates with uncanny expertise. There’s a wildly harrowing scene involving LaJoy dragging a group of idealistic college kids up into the canyons of Santa Cruz Island during a powerful rain storm. He makes you see them slogging through the mud, soaked and shivering but propelled forward by this bombastic, charismatic jerk and we see how LaJoy clings to his sense of rightness even when it has become terribly apparent he’s made a huge mistake. In terms of the narrative, this would have satisfied as LaJoy’s comeuppance, but Boyle has another, less successful and surprisingly harsh final set piece in mind for the founding members of FPA.
But because of all he gets right, because of his fine sense of the big picture and his ability to convey it using characters that always come alive, I can forgive him it. I can even forgive him the character Toni Walsh, an utterly unappealing, rather dim seeming reporter from the local paper. She’s disdained and distrusted by both Alma and LaJoy. Although she’s covering environmental issues, Toni Walsh appears to have no interest in nature. She spends most of her expeditions to the islands fishing in her purse for cigarettes and never wears suitable clothing. Here Toni is in a torrential downpour on Santa Cruz. LaJoy has brought her there looking for pig corpses to photograph, images he hopes will outrage the community. Her lone concession to the weather is an Easter egg pink slicker, a concession cancelled out by her unwise decision to wear matching sandals. LaJoy wants to know whether she can keep hiking. “Hunched, pale, a streak of yellowish mud painted across her cheek like a tribal cicatrice, she just shrugs. ‘I don’t know,’ she says after a moment, and here’s that stab of a smile again – a good sign, a very good sign – ‘I’m afraid I’m more of a city girl. But anything for a story, right?'” I swear I never would have worn pink sandals to Santa Cruz. But this joyful skewering suggests that Boyle has met a few of my brethren.
Sometimes, I’m forced to read a book. That’s right. Utterly forced. Even as I try to open my mind to more and more books, I get pigeonholed into reading something specific, a “required read” that – because of it’s non-organic nature – feels more like a high school book report project. As long time readers know, I like the fluid motion that comes from going between books on a whim.This September, downtown Sioux Falls will be hosting the Fourth Annual South Dakota Festival of Books, which means South Dakota will be heading full swing into a grand display of oneness as we join together to read this year’s One Book South Dakota: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.Which means that by the end of September, there’s a good chance that many of us South Dakotans will be sitting stunned, not by any grand force of action, but by the wordplay Robinson engages in her story of an elderly priest coming to terms with his age, his son, and his vocation. Yeah, that’s right – I enjoyed this required read. Very much. And I had no problem writing the book report to go along with it.This month’s Book of the Month was easy to choose – I mean, no offense to John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, or Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (two books that I finally got around to reading and enjoyed, though their legend and mystique far outweigh the true nature of their stories), but the Pulitzer spoke, and it forced my hand. Gilead it is.Gilead is a basic story with an inventive style, employing an old pastor’s journal to dictate its pace and breadth. In doing this, Robinson is able to dive into the feelings of a man, John Ames, who was raised to be as pious as life will allow. Inner struggles with his own interpretations of faith and the differences between his father and grandfather’s views on sin serve as a primer to theological thinking, while the prospect of explaining himself – his legacy and theology included – seems daunting, yet necessary.Robinson presents Ames as a man who has won and lost so many times in his life that he’s filled with a melancholy happiness, one that grasps the failure of life and holds it up as triumph. He celebrates everything as a grand experiment in “experience,” and his narrative serves a double track; he’s both telling the reader about his life and preparing his son – a seven-year-old boy from a second marriage – for the death of a father.There is a certain sadness in reading someone’s final words. Ames uses this narrative to connect with his son from beyond the grave, to try to make up for years of unwanted separation. Through his comments, he reveals the frustration in becoming a father with so few years left to give. In fact, Ames has already conceded that he will have little chance to watch his boy grow up. And from this stems an incredible outpouring of experience; pages after pages of his life story, his thoughts, and his feelings.Robinson’s writing brilliantly captures every desire of Ames’ life, though there is an incredible, solemn nature floating just below the surface. It punctuates the idea that we all die, but that we cannot forget to live. There’s no reason to fear the end. We should still try to live what’s left of our storied and vast existence.Ultimately, Gilead presents itself as an incredibly heartbreaking masterpiece, pitting the laws of time against the power of hope and the sheer wall of nostalgic history, forcing each of us to take a long time in thinking about what it takes to be remembered. It underlines the thought process in throwing life away a sliver at a time and remembering the cold, calculated truth: we’re all mortal, and regardless of how important we are, we’re all destined to be swept away in the throes of time.September isn’t just a month. It’s a bridge between the life-bearing summer and the slow decline of fall, when animals and plants disappear, leaving the trees bare and the ground piled with dead leaves. We all feel a little bit more mortal in the fall, and though we celebrate the past summer with gusto on Labor Day, we all know what we’re in for as the coming months begin to freeze over and become stagnant.With that in mind, a certain bit of parallelism can be found in autumn’s return and in Gilead. We all need to celebrate our lives while they’re still in bloom. But the ultimate freedom might be found when we realize we’re merely here for a short amount of time, in knowing someday we’ll be gone, and that our thoughts and actions dictate a great deal about what we’ll be remembered for. In John Ames’ case, we’re left with a picture of a grand man; a caring father who took great pains to strengthen his son’s life before it was too late.Life’s too short to live in the past. Preparing for the future might be the only way to really live forever. In Gilead, that might be the most important piece of advice to remember.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, June, July