When I was in college, I became excited about some poets, Frank O’Hara, Tennyson, C.K. Williams, and some others. This interest stemmed from a poetry class and from hanging around too much in the local used book store. But I’ve never been grasped by poetry, there’s something too arbitrary about it for me. Still, Some poems by Williams in the New Yorker piqued my interest and I picked up his collection, The Singing, which went on to win the National Book Award. There are handful of very moving poems in this collection. Williams’ best poems are grounded by concrete imagery, and they are engagingly anecdotal. But there are too many poems in this book that aren’t tethered to earthly things at all, and it is difficult for the reader to reach them. He writes engagingly about growing old and about war. The best in the collection is called “The Hearth.” It can be found here.
As anyone who keeps up with world financial markets surely knows, the People’s Republic of China is booming. After the quashing of the Chinese democracy movement in Tienanmen Square in 1989, Deng Xiaoping did an about-face and introduced capitalism as a panacea for the woes of his country. Echoing the call “to get rich is glorious,” many old-guard communist institutions were abandoned in favor of quasi-free market ventures, and the result was a China on the make, full of hustlers and schemers, anxious to make a buck. Crooked politicians became crooked entrepreneurs, and the pursuit of wealth became not just the means to an end that Deng Xiaoping had envisioned, but an end in itself. The Chinese literary scene caught on quickly, selling out its ideological foundations for the cheap fix of fast money, and a national literature of the explicit was born, with even writers whose writing had once been pillars of the democracy movement turning their efforts to the salacious and titillating, whatever would sell. It was in this milieu that Zhu Wen, whose stories are collected in the recently released anthology I Love Dollars, made his literary debut.Modern China, as captured by Wen, is a Kafkaesque horror. The parallels to Kafka’s work are uncanny: the endless bureaucracy, arbitrary nature of decision making, the crushing closeness of others, ambivalence to – almost reflexive fear of – sex, all coming together to make even the smallest task a trial of epic difficulty. Kafka’s preoccupations seem a perfect fit for China, and Wen manages to capture all of the loathing, and paradoxically – and much to my great relief – all of the bleak humor of Kafka’s best work.The title story, which follows the antics of a father and son as they scour a nameless factory town looking for the narrator’s younger brother, is a send up/satire of the go-go China of the 1990s. Much like Kafka’s The Castle, the story documents the endless circular pursuit of a goal, which, when finally attained, proves meaningless. The unnamed narrator possesses an almost Portnoy-like obsession with sex. (Philip Roth once when asked if he had been influenced by the stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce, replied, no, he had been influenced by a sit-down comedian, Franz Kafka.) He views every interaction from the perspective of getting laid, and his search for his brother is repeatedly waylaid by his sexual proclivities. The humor that arises from this obsession tempers Wen’s insinuation that China has traded the good of the Democracy movement for something vulgar. When the narrator insists that his father abandon their search for the brother to find some girls, his father refuses, leading him to note, “In [my father’s] day libido wasn’t called libido, it was called idealism.” Later, in a discussion of his second favorite topic, money, he declaims, “We’ve all got things we can learn from [Western money]… From its straight-up, honest-to-goodness, absolute value[s].”As the stories unfold, Kafka’s influence becomes increasingly pronounced. The second story, “A Hospital Night,” and the third story “A Boat Crossing” both transform Kafka’s familiar themes into exquisite commentaries on life in modern China. They’re built on an atmosphere of gloom, paranoia and general malaise, so complete and effective it is at times literally chilling. And yet, the bleakness is so absolute, it inevitably becomes ridiculous, as in “A Hospital Night” when the narrator is dragooned into taking care of an elderly man he barely knows and whom despises him. The ensuing power struggle, waged over the elderly man’s indignation at being tended to by a stranger and the narrator’s need to empty his bed pan, could be taken directly from the pages of Amerika, and will surely elicit snorts and belly laughs from anyone with an appreciation for dark humor. “A Boat Crossing,” while also amusing in its way draws a darker picture of life, where a man, escaping from a nameless fear, learns that sometimes the things that seem the least threatening can be the most dangerous.”Wheels” and “Pounds, Ounces, Meat” follow in the same vein. The first details an endless series of confrontations between a man and the pseudo-gangsters who are determined to make him pay their grandfather’s hospital bills, and the latter follows a couple as their attempts to prove they’ve been cheated by a butcher cascade into a series of antic misadventures. “Ah, Xiao Xie” provides an interesting twist on the Kafka story, observing a Kafkaesque protagonist, a man struggling to quit his job at a power plant, from the viewpoint of a rational observer. As with so many of Kafka’s characters, Xiao Xie’s motives are completely inscrutable and defy all conventional logic, boggling the mind of the narrator, much as Kafka’s endless variations on himself confound his readers. Eventually, Xiao Xie’s struggle with the nearly indomitable will of his employers, who refuse to let him resign, undergoes a hilarious reversal. After Xiao Xie ruins his health with one of his schemes, his employers try to fire him, while he desperately clings to his job, terrified of losing his health insurance.It’s difficult to say whether Wen writes from a love of Kafka or a more organic identification with the themes of his work. Although Kafka’s portrait hangs in Wen’s office, many historical accounts of communist rule in China seem readymade for Kafka themselves. Many of Chairman Mao’s initiatives summon forth images worthy of The Trial or The Castle, and the bizarre amalgamation of capitalist freedoms and communist tyranny seems a recipe for the confrontations between the self and the faceless bureaucracies that form the basis of so much of his work. The Chinese legalist tradition, harking back to the sixth century BC, also provides another point of similarity. The legalist’s obsession with honoring the letter of the law over its spirit, reflected in the practice, if not necessarily the philosophy, of Chinese communism (not often noted, but to my mind indisputable), mirrors the unbending rules of the Talmud, with which Kafka expressed a deep fascination. Wen’s work suggests that this combination of Jewish legalism and Germanic bureaucratic organization that Kafka experienced as an antagonistic force during his life in Bohemia has found itself reborn in a bizarro Chinese form. It might be hell to live through, but it makes for a fantastic read.
It has been said, though by whom I can’t remember, that the Great New York Novel is as elusive a creature as the Great American One. Because this city (the argument goes) concatenates the fictional challenges of other urban settings – the scale of Tokyo, the insularity and cinematic overfamiliarity of Paris, the mutability and lunatic vitality of Bombay – no novelist can own it the way Dreiser and Wright and Farrell own Chicago or Dickens owns London. And so Ishmael pushes out to sea, Isabel Archer steams for England, and Gatsby is left standing at West Egg, chasing the green light. The world’s most expensive real estate beggars the literary imagination.Of course this is more truism than truth. Melville, James, Fitzgerald, Wharton, Ellison, and, more recently, Doctorow and DeLillo and Auster have done the city justice. Three great novels by Saul Bellow – Seize the Day, Herzog, and Mr. Sammler’s Planet – constitute their own kind of New York Trilogy, rendering midcentury Manhattan indelible for all time. (Bellow, of course, cut his teeth on Chicago). But it speaks to the size of Joseph O’Neill’s ambitions – and the sublimity his accomplishments – that his third work of fiction, Netherland, merits comparison with these authors. Indeed, in its extraordinary literariness, it invites such comparison. It is, for long stretches, a Great New York Novel.The book is deceptively slim, and concerns a Dutch-born investment banker named Hans van der Broek who becomes estranged from his family and from himself in the wake of (though not because of) the September 11 attacks. Exiled in a haunted Chelsea Hotel and a benumbed city, Hans finds a measure of belonging in a cricket league populated largely by working-class immigrants.Hans’ narration has a Proustian sensitivity – and, more strikingly, a Proustian elasticity. Making scant use of page- and chapter-breaks, Netherland travels backward and forward in time, arranging events by emotional, rather than chronological, logic – and, in the process, creating suspense. We learn in the first few pages that by the end of his story, Hans will have settled back into bourgeois stolidity, in London. But how will he have gotten there? we wonder. And will he have learned anything in the process?The answer to the latter question is, of course yes; Netherland, which starts as a murder mystery, is really a novel of awakening. The vehicle for that awakening is O’Neill’s finest creation, a dynamo named Chuck Ramkissoon who will, by 2006, end up face down in the Gowanus Canal. Chuck is an operator, a calculator, and a charmer, but he takes the American dream quite earnestly. “‘Think fantastic,'” he tells Hans. “‘My motto is, Think fantastic.'” He has interests in a kosher sushi business, a numbers game, and real estate. His most ambitious project, however, is to convert a little-used airfield in outermost Brooklyn into Bald Eagle Field:”I’m talking about an arena. A sports arena for the greatest teams in the world. Twelve exhibition matches every summer, watched by eight thousand spectators at fifty dollars a pop. I’m talking about advertising, I’m talking about year-round consumption of food and drink in the bar-restaurant.”Or rather, I should say, Chuck’s most ambitious project is Hans. Initially a cricket buddy, he becomes a kind of mentor for Hans, Quixote to Hans’ Sancho Panza, West Indian Gatsby to his Continental Carraway, shuttling him through insalubrious outer-borough locales and slowly pulling him out of his deep freeze. “He was going to fascinate me,” Hans says, describing both the trajectory of the book and Chuck’s strategy for drawing Hans into the tangled business of “Chuck Cricket, Inc.”As James Wood noted in his New Yorker review, O’Neill finds in cricket a beautiful controlling metaphor; it comes to stand variously for upward aspiration; for camaraderie; for innocence; for fragile, ridiculous, sublime democracy – for all the things Hans feels he lost in the fall of 2001. Beautiful, too, is the way O’Neill puts the metaphor to work, letting his diction suggest, rather than insist (just as he does with the novel’s other preoccupation, the aftermath of September 11). In a scene that recalls Levin among the mowers in Anna Karenina, Hans trims the grass of the wicket-to-be:We took turns driving a lightweight fairway mower with an eighty-inch cut and fast eleven-blade reels. Chuck liked to stripe the grass with dark green and pale green rings. You started with a perimeter run and then, looping back, made circle after circle, each one smaller than the last, each one with a common center. They would soon be gone, but no matter. What was important was the rhythm of the cutting, and the smell of the cutting, and the satisfaction of time passed fruitfully on the field with a gargling diesel engine, and the glory and suspensefulness of the enterprise. […] For all of its apparent artificiality, cricket is a sport in nature. Which may be why it calls almost for a naturalist’s attentiveness: the ability to locate, in a mostly static herd of white-clothed men, the significant action. It’s a question of lookingO’Neill’s writing is this luminous, this precise, this cadenced, and this understated throughout the novel. It creates, in Henry James’ formulation, the present palpable-intimate: Even as the above passage evokes a world, its aphoristic intelligence evokes a worldview, and in the modulation from hesitation (“it calls almost for…attentiveness”) to penetrating insight (It’s a question of looking), it embodies Hans’ weaknesses and capacities. Perhaps even more deft, because less exquisite, is the way O’Neill gives us Chuck Ramkissoon, almost entirely through gesture and dialogue. Along with The Emperor’s Children and The Line of Beauty, Netherland contains some of the most immaculately written English prose of the new century.When O’Neill is using his miraculous instrument to capture the underrepresented precincts of Eastern Parkway and the Herald Square DMV and the Chelsea Hotel and Floyd Bennett Field, it takes on a moral majesty. With the great hole of the World Trade Center smoldering in the background, to record is to memorialize; and apprehending the world as clearly as Hans does becomes a kind of metaphysics, as in the novels of Bellow. It is not a question of looking, but one of seeing.That said, although Netherland moves like a great book, it is, like The Emperor’s Children, sometimes merely a good one. Which is to say that sometimes, Hans merely looks. The stakes of the novel, the things we’re led to believe matter most to him – his wife, Rachel, and his child, Jake – never fully matter to us, because they never assert their independence from Hans’ literary imperatives. A lovely description of Jake’s “train-infested underpants” makes a statement about Hans (what an eye!), rather than one about Jake; whereas Keith Neudecker playing catch with his son in DeLillo’s Falling Man actually, if laconically, sees the boy. Of Keith, James Wood wrote, “He had never been, perhaps, an easy husband – uncommunicative, driven, adulterous, tediously male,” but when it comes to relationships with other people, is there really so much difference between DeLillo’s protagonist and O’Neill’s?Even at the end of the narrative, Hans doesn’t quite seem to see Rachel or Jake as real people, nor is his failure in this regard presented ironically. And because of the novel’s chronological structure and its insistence on the importance of seeing, this threatens to become a serious flaw beneath the novel’s manicured surface. If Hans has been vouchsafed some kind of revelation, there in the green fields of Brooklyn, why are his feelings for his wife so much less convincing than his feelings for Chuck Ramkissoon? And how are we to feel about his return to the IKEA’d embrace of bourgeois “lifestyle” from the dicier terrain of actual life? Is this growth or surrender?This being a novel, style provides the answer, or at least begs the question. O’Neill’s, ultimately, is elegiac, and so, like the tide Fitzgerald’s boats beat against, it keeps tugging Hans toward the past, which is the book’s, and Hans’, center of gravity. The point is not that Hans’ suffering clears the way to redemption, but that for a few moments, it seemed it could have. As the book nears its conclusion, Hans circles back and back to the moments when he came closest to grace, seeing them with ever fiercer clarity. The paragraphs take on the surging rhythms of Hans van der Broek’s wounded heart. Which is a rather too literary way of saying that, in Netherland Joseph O’Neill has accomplished something even more impressive than the Great New York novel. He has brought – has restored – Hans van der Broek to life. We see him.See also: Kevin’s take on Netherland
About a year ago, The Millions readers recommended that I read Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita after I wrote about Crime and Punishment – which was not so much a commentary on Dostoevsky’s fantastic writing, but a plea for more excellent Russian literature. As happens with a lot of books I end up reading, I stumbled upon the novel per chance: a friend visiting me in DC had a copy he intended to read, but gave it to me as a travel companion.Enter the devil – or Messire, as his servants respectfully call him. Set in Moscow, ostensibly sometime in the 1920s or 1930s, and in Yershalayim right before and after the Crucifixion, Bulgakov’s eccentric satire brings the ruler of the shadows into the lives of unassuming citizens.As a heavily censored author in communist Russia, Bulgakov mocks the bureaucracy, hints at literary and political persecution, and employs the tightly regulated social life under Stalin to create a colorful scene of chaos.It all begins when Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz urges the poet Ivan Homeless to revise his latest piece in a way to demonstrate that religion is bogus – namely by explaining that Jesus never existed. A curious stranger joins the debate and, taken aback by the suggestion that the devil does not exist, begins prophesizing about Berlioz’s fast-approaching death. When the chubby publisher succumbs to his fate as foretold, Ivan loses it. And soon, many people in Moscow do too.Surrounded by an incredible retinue comprising an odd-looking fellow in a pince-nez suit; a talking, drinking and mischievous black tom; a beautiful and often naked red-haired woman; and a vicious, stocky, short man with a fang protruding from his mouth, Messire – or Woland as others call the devil – rules Moscow for a brief few days, amusing himself and his entourage and terrifying many others.But the devil’s show is not inherently evil, rather it is a collection of minor acts that play on the actors’ vices: bribery, free-goods and personal favors go a long way for the citizens of a cash-strapped USSR. And while Bulgakov amuses his reader with Woland’s deeds and his victims, he introduces the Master and his lover, Margarita. And, he solemnly tells the story of Jesus and Pontius Pilate.The Master, who is banished to an insane asylum after his novel about the Crucifixion is deemed unfit for publishing and subjected to scathing reviews by literary authorities, might just symbolize the author. For The Master and Margarita shared the same fate as the Master’s piece on Pilate – it was published in 1967, 27 years after Bulgakov died.But the similarities do not stop there. Like the Master who burns his manuscripts, Bulgakov, in an effort to convince Soviet authorities to let him emigrate, destroyed his “book about the devil,” and later rewrote the novel from memory. At the time of his death, the work was still not in its final form.Bulgakov dictated revisions and additions to his third wife, Yelena Shilovskaya, even from his death bed, and it was she who brought the work to light. Much like Margarita in the novel, who relentlessly pursues her Master and his writings, aiming to both satisfy her desire to know how the story in Yershalayim unfolds and share the masterpiece with the world.The Master is not the sole teller of this story, however. As time winds back and forth between certain parts of the book, the reader hears the story from Woland, the Master and a narrator from ancient times. One is, all of a sudden, observing the painful contemplations of Pilate, his disgust for the post in the Middle East and the brewing tensions in Yershalayim. I’m not much for Christian history, but from what I can tell Bulgakov sheds a different light on to the whole situation. This becomes manifest later on as the reader sees the symbiotic tie between the devil and Jesus as they decide certain characters’ fate.The Master and Margarita shows the folly of Soviet repression, but it does not stop at mere cynicism and irony. Bulgakov also illustrates that the devil might watch out for Jesus, and vice versa, i.e., there are more gray areas even in the scripture than one might ordinarily perceive.The gripping plot surely helps with the read, but Bulgakov’s genius is in the subtle theories and observations he advances throughout this page-turner, forcing a reader to think about what it all means as a grin maliciously spreads across his face.PS: I was reading the book on the bus in DC one evening. A kid, probably about five, saw the cover and remarked, “The cat has a snake’s tongue. That’s stupid.” Clearly the subtlety was lost on the child, but I still find the comment very amusing. This brings me to a stylistic note: The version I have has the black tom in a suit looking over his left shoulder and slithering his split tongue; similarly, The Heart of a Dog – also by the same author – features a dog in a suit, with his tongue out, and looking over his right shoulder. Just a random note…