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.
1. In Juliann Garey's debut novel, Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See, Greyson Todd is a man on a wire. He has excelled as a studio executive in Hollywood, and has everything that one’s supposed to want: a kind and supportive spouse, a lovely child. Money, beautiful house, glamorous career. But he’s been hiding an increasingly crippling bipolar disorder for two decades, and it’s getting harder and harder to breathe. He is aware at all times that he’s coming undone, and equally aware that any display of weakness would be fatal to his career. The best thing he can do for his wife and child, he decides, since obviously he can't hold it together much longer, is to ensure that they’re taken care of financially and then exit the scene. He transfers funds for his own use to secret off-shore accounts, makes arrangements for his wife and daughter, puts a suitcase in the trunk of his car, drives away after dinner one evening, and doesn’t stop traveling for a decade. If he can’t control his illness, why not give it free rein? He’s made enough money to devote himself to a life of wandering, and there’s a certain freedom in letting everything — everyone — go. All that matters is velocity. The destination is unimportant. Greyson Todd is the most fully-realized fictional character I’ve come across in a while. The terrible exuberance of his mania and the devastation of his depressive episodes are perfectly rendered. Garey doesn’t shy away from the depths of her character’s pain, but scenes that could easily become gratuitous in lesser hands are rendered with restraint and grace. She excels at leading us down the rabbit hole when Todd slips from logic into paranoia. The writing is beautiful — “The panic spread out like a late-afternoon shadow” — and Garey creates an atmosphere of exquisite tension. We know from the outset that all of this will come to an end. The travel narrative is undercut with sections set in a New York City psychiatric ward where Todd is undergoing shock therapy after the years of traveling are over, his memories unraveling in a blaze of electricity: The truth is technical, clinical, not well understood. Essentially, somewhere behind my overactive, often dysfunctional frontal lobe, my hippocampus is getting hot, and in the back of my brain, deep inside the little, almond-shaped amygdala, flashes of light are igniting a fire that burns through my memory like a box of random photos left for too long in a dusty firetrap of an attic. 2. Garey expertly juggles four separate narrative threads: there are scenes from Todd’s childhood, as he watched his father’s slow fall into mental illness; there is the decade of travel across Africa, the Middle East, South America, Asia; there is the wrenching unraveling of Todd’s marriage in Hollywood in the years before he left; there is the New York City hospital years later. The book reads as a complicated tangle of memories, which seems perfectly fitting for the narrative of a man whose own memories are being shocked into oblivion. The pyrotechnics of Garey’s structure and the beauty of her writing are such that it takes some time to realize, amid the moments of brilliance and all the leaping about between locales and storylines, that the book as a whole is somewhat lacking in narrative drive. The decade of aimless travel is exactly that. The sections set in Todd’s childhood are interesting from the perspective of character development, but do little to move the narrative forward. For most of the book this isn’t a problem, because the slight sense of aimlessness at the novel’s heart mirrors not just the chaos of Todd’s electro-shocked mind, but the mania from which he suffers through most of the book. The book throws itself between threads, childhood to marriage to travel to hospital to childhood to marriage to travel; in his decade of travel Todd throws himself from one place to the next, and what is mania if not one thing and then the next thing and then the next thing and then the next? It’s only in the very final stretch, when it inevitably becomes necessary to wrap things up and an attention to plotting becomes essential, that the book falters slightly and a mild awkwardness sets in. But these seem like minor qualms. Juliann Garey is a bold and talented writer, and this is a genuinely impressive debut.
If life is a novel, death is an editor. It strikes through every extraneous detail. It erases periods of divagation, inactivity, and muddle. What's left is the stuff of obituaries and of eulogies: stories that fit together with a retrospective snap. Applied to public figures who spend their lives "on message," this tendency to condense may even represent a kind of fulfillment. Writers are an odd subspecies of public figure, however - an expansively private one - and when a writer dies, our journalistic last rites run the risk of cutting his million-word testimony down to a stingy clutch of nouns. Thus David Foster Wallace and John Updike, the two greatest literary losses of the last year, get reduced to "difficulty" and "depression" (in the former case) and to "virtuosity" and "complacency" (in the latter).Another quirk of writers, though: they bequeath us the tools we need to reach our own conclusions, without the mediation of professionals. For those disinclined to snap judgments, the death of a novelist may invite a long - even leisurely - period of reconsideration. Meandering through the back catalogue (it's all back catalogue now) even longtime readers may stumble on a different writer than the one they thought they knew.This spring, I found myself returning to Updike's fiction of the late '60s and early '70s, and I was startled by how it diverged from my memory of it. In particular, I was bowled over by the strangeness, the reckless compassion, and the emotional power of Rabbit Redux (1971). Late in life, Updike published a slimmer novel called Terrorist, which met with distinctly mixed reviews. Reviewers found fault with Rabbit Redux, as well, Updike confesses in his introduction to the Rabbit Angstrom omnibus. But, in its ardent engagement with the revolutionary zeitgeist of Nixon-era America, Rabbit Redux now looks to be Updike's great novel of the age of political terror.The novel, the first sequel to the celebrated Rabbit, Run, opens with Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, American Everyman, more or less reconciled with the wife he abandoned in the earlier book. Updike lovingly describes the creature comforts that surround the Angstroms in Penn Villas, a middle-class suburb of decaying Brewer, Pennsylvania: their "flagstone porchlet," their "door with its three baby windows arranged like three steps, echoing the door-chime of three stepped tones." Their son Nelson is on the cusp of puberty, astronauts are about to make a moon landing, and all is right with the world, or at least hunky-dory.Rabbit soon discovers, however, that his wife, Janice, is contemplating an abandonment of her own. Now a working woman, she has succumbed to the charms of her coworker, Charlie Stavros. Stavros shows her an emotional and sexual solicitude Harry has never been capable of. The hell of it is, Harry can't bring himself to hate Janice, or even her lover, an upwardly mobile, politically progressive ethnic food aficionado who seems to hail from some distant, shag-carpeted planet. Updike - the poet laureate of infidelity - can't bring himself to hate the adulterers either. Indeed, both author and protagonist take Janice's sexual awakening as an opportunity to interrogate the Eisenhower-era values of which Harry Angstrom is a repository... and to find them, in their inflexibility, wanting.Updike, who openly admired many of those values, has sometimes been characterized by writers to his left as a reactionary. However, a bravura early scene in which Angstrom and Stavros debate the war in Vietnam exposes this as a caricature. We sympathize with Stavros, who "'can't get too turned-on about cops bopping hippies on the head and the Pentagon playing cowboys and Indians all over the globe.'" He tells Janice, of Harry, "'See how little and tight his mouth gets when he talks about politics?'" And we sympathize with Harry, who claims not to think about politics. "'That's one of my Goddam precious American rights," he says, "not to think about politics... And it really burns me up to listen to hotshot crap-car salesmen dripping with Vitalis sitting on their plumped-up asses bitching about a country that's been stuffing goodies into their mouth ever since they were born." To which Charlie retorts, "'I want to follow your reasoning. Tell me about the goodies we've been stuffing into Vietnam.'"More than Bellow in Mr. Sammler's Planet (that other great response to '60s-era unrest, and surely an influence here) Updike is willing to interrogate his own biases, to exercise negative capability. He seems to conclude that politics are personal on both sides of the ideological divide. Rabbit can't disentangle the message from the messenger; Stavros can't see what a lousy messenger he is. Which doesn't mean they can't try. Stavros will eventually try to persuade Janice to return to her husband. And Harry will touchingly parrot Stavros' point-of-view later in the book, in an attempt to enlighten Janice's father. Indeed, by this point, Rabbit Redux has assumed a form borrowed from the counterculture Updike is supposed to have hated: the consciousness-raising session.The middle section of the book, wherein Janice moves out of the house - is a long, strange, irresponsible trip. Harry begins smoking dope and exploring the down-and-out side of Brewer. He entangles himself with a teenage runaway named Jill and a petty criminal-cum-black-nationalist named Skeeter. Updike's willingness to hurl himself into the thicket of American race relations is remarkable. "The bus has too many Negroes," Harry thinks, at one point.Two of the men in the shop are Negroes, Farnsworth and Buchanan, you didn't even notice; at least they remember how to laugh. Sad business, being a Negro man, always underpaid... But against these educated tolerant thoughts leans a certain fear; [Harry] doesn't see why they have to be so noisyThis is what the world of many white male characters in novels might look like, stripped of political correctness and bad faith. I can imagine readers who are black, or are women, or both, taking exception to Jill and Skeeter, who hover somewhere between character and symbol. But Harry's re-education at the hands of these outcasts, his awakening to the sources of his own basic good fortune, precipitates a real change in him. Perhaps it even precipitated a change in suburban readers, circa 1971, as a novel more deferential to pieties or circumspect about stereotypes could not.A prominent critic condemned a later Updike novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, for its "theological complacency." For all I know, he may have been right. But this verdict is far too narrow to contain the vast corpus Updike left behind. Rabbit Redux shows a writer willing as few other American novelists are (Norman Rush comes to mind) to suspend judgment on his characters' political, philosophical, moral, and theological failings - to love them anyway. Indeed, it is characteristic of Updike that the "rhetoric of social protest and revolt... antithetical to [his] Fifties education" (as he puts it in the omnibus introduction) aroused not his defenses, but his curiosity.Agitated by the times, his limpid prose in this book approaches the visionary. Near the end, Harry thinks of Jill, now gone, and remembers "her daughterly blind grass-green looking to him for more than shelter." We are reminded, adverbially, of the daughter Harry lost in Rabbit, Run. Yet even in his redoubled grief - that extraordinary, comma-less catharsis - there is some hopeful green stuff woven. Rilke wrote that beauty was merely the beginning of the arc of terror. Rabbit Redux suggests a corollary: that terror may sometimes be the beginning of the arc of beauty.
It's the little things in train travel that stay with you. It's not the sweeping vistas or the pastoral villages. After a while, the specific memories of panorama seem to bleed into each other. It's not the quaint architecture or the run-down graffiti-filled approaches to the stations. It's not the things that every travel book raves about that linger. It's the little things which seem to come out of nowhere.It's being Vienna-bound at the Budapest train station five years ago and, somewhat confused by the vague pointing that passes for traveler's assistance, winding up unchallenged onboard a train at a platform which quite plainly said Vienna. It's suddenly cluing into the passengers' conversations and realizing that the train has in fact just arrived FROM Vienna. It's scrambling out of the train mere seconds before it pulls away, before it heads off to its actual destination, which, it now becomes quite clear, is in fact Moscow, and, well, not part of my plan.It's things like that.For every train story that I have, Paul Theroux must have a hundred. But what makes his tales so compelling is context. With a novelist's eye for setting and ear for dialogue, Theroux presents The Great Railway Bazaar and The Old Patagonian Express as travel literature in the purest sense. They are not about the destination. They are about the journey. The 'getting there.'The Great Railway Bazaar chronicles Theroux's mid '70s journey from London, through Europe, and across the vast expanse of Asia, onboard trains with such imagination-firing names as the Orient Express, the Mandalay Express, and the Trans-Siberian. Theroux travels through the former Yugoslavia, through pre-Taliban Afghanistan, and through Soviet-era Russia, throwing the last 30 years of history on its head.The Old Patagonian Express tracks Theroux, a few years later, leaving his Boston home and taking train after train through the U.S., Mexico, Central America, and down through South America to Patagonia, in southern Argentina.If his novelist's eye gives the book its richness, his sarcasm gives it its edge. Paul Theroux doesn't suffer fools gladly. When he encounters them, as when he encountered an astonishingly incurious 20-year-old pontificating vegan. He lets loose -- pointedly playful to her, a bit more viciously sarcastic to us. It's not always fair, and the frustrations that come with an extended voyage permeate his observations, but it's honest in a brutal sort of way, and often terribly amusing.I've not yet read any of Theroux's fiction, despite the presence on my bookshelf of The Mosquito Coast which has been sitting there, unread, for probably ten years. But I rate these two non-fiction accounts as the best travel literature I've read so far.I've also sampled some of Bill Bryson's work. Bryson is a different sort of travel writer. Where Theroux has his novelist's eye and ears, Bryson has the sensibilities of a humorist. His books seem somewhat lighter; they skim the surface more and come off as humorous memoir. His recent works seem more massive, somewhat less flippant. But in Bryson's case, I would recommend his earlier books which drip with irreverence -- sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes glib. But always quite funny.Neither Here Nor There recounts Bryson's travels through Europe in the early 90s, a journey which in fact re-traces one he made some twenty years earlier. Wound-up by an encounter with a neighborhood of Belgian dogs, Bryson lets fly with a paragraph about why cows would in fact make the best pets, with a punch line worthy of classic Woody Allen. This book may not reach for the same lofty goals as his later works, but it hits its mark. It's tight, funny and breezy.I guess where Theroux and, to a lesser extent, Bryson, brought travel literature into the modern age is in the acceptance that travel is a succession of small adventures, each one potentially rich in little details, in comically surreal moments. And in embracing these moments as the details which propel the story.My own Central European train journey five years ago hit its surreal zenith on an overnight train from Prague to Budapest. Essentially alone, save for a comatose heap near the window, I happened to be eavesdropping on an altercation in the next compartment. We were in Bratislava, and Slovakian officials were now on the train rousing passengers from their slumber. I could hear an American voice politely assuring the officer that his ticket was for the full journey, and was paid in full. But the booming official, drunk with power, somehow managed to coerce more American dollars out of the passenger.I was next. The intimidating official had a broken arm, slung in a cast. Now, as it happens, I have one arm. (Or more accurately, I don't have a second arm). Normally in public I wear a creepily lifelike prosthetic arm, rendering me effectively two-armed to any limb-savvy onlookers who happen to be counting. Alone, at night, I had removed it, and it was to this empty space, this void, that the Slovakian official, ready to bleed me of more money, suddenly pointed, then pointed to his own injured arm, then beamed, then pointed back and forth again, gave me the OK sign, and then left me alone to continue my journey.
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We use time-lapse photography to witness the things we can’t see in real time -- the blooming of a flower or a tree coming into leaf. Kincaid uses the form of the novel to illustrate the things that Mrs. Sweet could not see in her own life, flipping through the ordinary moments that make up Mrs. Sweet’s mostly sweet existence -- moments spent gardening, moments spent nursing her son, moments spent driving her children to school, moments spent in a little room off of her kitchen, writing -- to reveal the larger story: that of a disintegrating marriage.