I’m a big fan of narrative-style history books, and it’s always fun to see a heavily researched piece of history that floats along like a novel. The problem with Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City is that it fails, at times, to feel like a strong account of historical events. The book follows two and a half storylines that intertwine, if only geographically, but never intersect. The backdrop is the World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893, a now forgotten event that transfixed the world at the time. Daniel Burnham is the renowned architect of the Fair, beset by meddlers and bureaucrats; H. H. Holmes, whose torturous schemes are at times hard to fathom in their cruelty, is a serial killer who haunts Chicago during the Fair; and Patrick Prendergast, to whom the book only gives over two dozen or so pages, is an increasingly delusional man whose obsession with Chicago’s showy political scene leads to tragedy. The plotlines in the book are fascinating, both because Larson lends them a cinematic flair and because there is a continual sense of wonder that history has managed to forget such vibrant characters. Despite, or perhaps because of, Larsen’s ability to craft such a readable story, the book does inspire some raised eyebrows at times. A scan through the notes at the end of the book reveals the times when Larsen speculates about his characters in the absence of hard facts. While I don’t necessarily disagree with this practice, these moments in the book tend to feel transparent. Likewise, the structure of the book is a bit flimsy as the three characters within share little but being in the same city during the same period of time, and the strenuous effort put forth by Larsen to connect these three characters tends to detract from the stories themselves, as each character is certainly worthy of his own book (even the poor, bewildered Prendergast). Despite these flaws, the book was still a delight to read, especially on my daily rides on Chicago’s elevated trains which still snake through the city as they did when the World’s Fair was held here in 1893.
A bomb named Trinity exploded at 5:29 am on July 16, 1945, in a region of central New Mexico known as La Jornada del Muerto: the Journey of Death. Violence was destined for this stretch of the desert, and such inevitability was not lost on J. Robert Oppenheimer. A rather literary warrior, Oppenheimer wrote poetry at Harvard years before he directed the Manhattan Project. One poem, “Crossing,” likely depicts “ranges barring the sky” near the Norman Bridge Laboratory in California, where Oppenheimer did physics research. The poem’s setting is indistinguishable from Santa Fe, where he led the development of Trinity, as well as the bombs that would later destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oppenheimer claimed the name Trinity came from John Donne’s representation of the “three person’d God,” though biographer Ray Monk thinks the physicist is being “characteristically evasive.” If the bomb delivered a snippet of God’s wrath, it was a merciless God. Fat Man and Little Boy, the unique debut novel by Mike Meginnis, is a noteworthy contribution to the literary aftermath of these bombs. Meginnis’s style is perfectly suited to his subject, though that style has a curious antecedent in the prose of poet Dylan Thomas. “The Tree,” a story tucked into Adventures in the Skin Trade, is a surreal fable about a boy who nails a traveling beggar to a tree. Thomas’s prose whispers the violence. The boy is whipped into frenzy by his family’s zealot gardener, who “would sit in his shed and read of the crucifixion, looking over the jars on his window-shelf into the winter nights.” Thomas takes soft steps as he reaches the story’s conclusion, when “blood from the cuts fell shining on to the tree.” His one-sentence paragraphs are not breathless but heavy, and the boy’s perversion of the Passion narrative results in an uneven ending, as if the story was too raw to be edged. Meginnis’s prose commands a similar power, even during its moments of declarative simplicity. Fat Man and Little Boy is what it would sound like if Dylan Thomas wrote about the atomic bomb. After the novel’s short, imagistic prelude, the bombs dropped on Japan -- Fat Man and Little Boy -- become human. Fat Man opens his eyes inside a bunker, surrounded by destruction. He sobs “without apparent cause, or with causes too trivial for words: the way his walrus shadow climbs the wall so that his head looms on the ceiling like an astral body.” He is whole in body, but only a child in narrative age. He “remembers how it was to explode.” Little Boy, “gawky and thin,” whose “bones all protrude from his limbs like knobs on a young tree,” calls his larger friend “brother.” Their life together begins in kindness. Little Boy asks if he can walk by Fat Man’s side, and hold his hand, and speak to him. But Fat Man looks around to see the destruction they wrought. Meginnis’s talent is his ability to make the reader feel empathy for souls who killed so many. Do bombs have souls? Is this metempsychosis or magic? If the bombs were not alive, then what caused these new births? These are literal questions for a surreal narrative, but they reveal Meginnis’s ability to make the absurd as tangible as the real. The brothers walk through destroyed cities, where “Bodies that from a distance seemed done with life, but, more closely observed, revealed themselves as dreaming, bleeding, faintly breathing, on a bed of any given thing, or dirt. Some also clutched knives, or bowls with jagged broken edges, or horseshoes, or broomsticks, or other improvised weapons.” They know death is near again. The bombs' destruction was not merely one bright, loud moment. Now “a man at the edge of the fire standing in what was left of his home, calling out. He was inaudible, his mouth was open. The walls were collapsed to knee-level heaps; there was a metal bowl fused to his chin. Other kitchen items littered the ground around him, and there was a table overturned. He wrung his hands in front of him, pleading. His skin fell off his body in sheets. It hung from his fingertips and swung like streamers as he moved his hands.” The novel’s first act is funereal. Meginnis is in his absolute element when he embraces the varying registers of folklore, when the specific lives next to the abstract. Like many folkloric characters in this tradition, the brothers are obsessed with birth: their own origin narratives, but also the round bellies of pregnant women and the distended sections of expectant animals. One scene on a farm is so eerie that it becomes eternal. A farmer tells the brothers that the “pigs must think you are their fathers” as laughter “dies in his throat. A darkness passes over his face. He understands something that he did not before. The hog shadows grow longer; the animals themselves do not move.” Many pages in this novel feel like engravings, and those meticulous emblems carry the novel through uneven moments, as when the story strays from its folkloric center. The novel’s second act brings the brothers to France, and the trip first sounds like a joke, but the punchline is real. Their misadventures increase their dramatic humanity, but the book’s profluence slows until Meginnis carries the brothers to Hollywood. Fat Man has married Rosie, the owner of a hotel in France, and they have a daughter, Maggie. Fat Man is being chased by more than one character who wants revenge for the atomic blasts, but the family attempts as much normalcy as anthropomorphic weapons of mass destruction can manage. They come across a restaurant called “Atomic Burger,” and Fat Man hesitates, thinking “it’s in pretty bad taste” to eat there. The scene is hilarious enough to make one cringe, and signals Meginnis’s return to narrative control. The novel’s final quarter shifts between suspense and transcendence. During the novel’s dramatic end, the family escapes to see a movie: “Seeing a movie in Hollywood is like going to church. Everyone dresses up. The ushers guide you to a place where you’ll feel welcome or at least out of the way. The room swells with talk until the show starts, and then everybody shuts up. The audience’s eyes swell with hope and need while the music blares and then, when the talking starts, they settle in. This one will be like the others. But you’ve got to respect it. The ritual of the movie is more important than the movie.” Meginnis has said that the novel had its origins in filmic representations of the explosions, how the cloud crawled wider and wider, changing the land forever. Meginnis has written one of the best, most natural novels about the atomic bombs. Dennis Bock's 2001 novel, The Ash Garden, also examined the intersection between American and Japanese lives in the decades after the blasts. Bock's novel, though beautifully written, feels more orchestrated and less organic in comparison. Literature often seeks to intellectualize methods of war, and to craft fictional revisions of conflict that offer transcendent theses. In making the bombs human, Meginnis switches the expected fictional order; he leads with idea, and then steps aside. Fat Man and Little Boy earns its clever conceit, and carries its greatest power when localized to settings that felt the heat of these bombs. The novel begins in a broken Japan and ends in a fabulist Hollywood, where destruction often gets a second take. Fat Man and Little Boy is a second take on the legacy of American bombs. Despite the novel’s experimentation, it is ultimately more fact than fiction.
Contemporary writers such as Chabon, Lethem, and Whitehead import genre conventions into their literary fiction, but my guess is that their most avid readers tend to be those who never lost their taste for the detective story. Dan Chaon is a writer for those of us who thought we’d left genre behind.
● ● ●
“When I was twelve,” Larry Levis wrote in “Family Romance,” “I used to stare at weeds / Along the road, at the way they kept trembling / Long after a car had passed.” The narrator watches “gnats in families hovering over / Some rotting peaches, & wonder why it was / I had been born a human. / Why not a weed, or a gnat? / Why not a horse, or a spider?” Levis was a master of such turns, although my favorite practitioner of poetic metamorphosis is Gerard Manley Hopkins. In 1887, Hopkins described Loch Lomond, where the “day was dark and partly hid the lake, yet it did not altogether disfigure it but gave a pensive or solemn beauty which left a deep impression on me.” “Inversnaid,” his poem of that place, follows the churning flow of a burn that is “horseback brown.” The poem's final stanza arrives as a chant: “What would the world be, once bereft / Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left, / O let them be left, wildness and wet; / Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.” Bright Dead Things, the fourth book of poems by Ada Limón, begins with an epigraph from Levis -- “Who among the numberless you have become desires this moment / Which comprehends nothing more than loss & fragility &; the fleeing of flesh” -- yet the collection breeds her own particular mixture of wildness. The mixture is by turns melodious and tight. Endemic to a wildness of flee and freedom is a sense of transformation. I think again to Hopkins, who believed that the poetic sense was not merely meant to document the observed world, but that poetry should transform lived reality into a new plane. Limón’s poems are like fires in this way: charring the page, but leaving a smoke that remains past the close of the book. The narrators -- or perhaps singular narrator -- of these poems has undergone a transformation from living in Brooklyn to Kentucky. In the prose poem “Mowing,” the narrator watches a man mow “40 acres on a small lawn mower” in slow, hypnotic fashion. “I imagine,” she says, “what it must be like to stay hidden, disappear in the dusky nothing and stay still in the night. It’s not sadness, though it may sound like it.” The narrator demurs, but there is a curious link between wildness and sadness in the collection. “This land and I are rewilding,” says another narrator. The speakers of these poems lean on the pastoral world for support and rebirth; they are skeptical of God. Yet in “What It Looks Like To Us and the Words We Use,” the narrator plays with the reader’s spiritual sense. “All these great barns out here in the outskirts,” she begins, “black creosote boards knee-deep in the bluegrass. / They look so artfully abandoned, even in use.” Artfully, artifice: “You don’t believe in God?” The narrator doesn’t, but her interlocutor says she is merely mislabeling nature. Still: “we stood there, / low beasts among the white oaks, Spanish moss, / and spider webs, obsidian shards stuck in our pockets, / woodpecker flurry, and I refused to call it so.” Those feelings -- doubt, wonder, rejection, flirtation, penance -- swirl throughout the book, and are borne of the wildness of self: “I’m cold in my heart, coal-hard / knot in the mountain buried / deep in the boarded-up mine.” There are also spaces for open hearts in the book, as in the aptly-titled “The Wild Divine.” It’s rare to read a poetics of affirmation -- I don’t mean sappy songs, but rather a poet capturing joy, however temporary: “I could barely feel my hands, my limbs numbed / from the new touching that seemed strikingly / natural but also painfully kindled in the body’s stove.” Cue the wildness of Hopkins, for the euphoria that follows love is broken by a “wandering / madrone-skinned horse...bowed-back, higher than a man’s hat, high up / and hitched to nothing.” She thinks: “He seemed almost worthy of complete devotion.” The poem’s ending encapsulates the collection: “I thought, this was what it was to be blessed— / to know a love that was beyond an owning, beyond / the body and its needs, but went straight from wild / thing to wild thing, approving of its wildness.” Bright Dead Things is an outdoor book, but this is not to say that Limón can’t write a poem about domestic and mundane spaces. “The Good Wave” is an ethereal baseball poem. Other poems sketch homes and apartments (Robert Bly was correct to title one of his collections of poetry essays American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity). “Nashville After Hours” is a knockout: “Late night in a honky-tonk, fried pickles / in a red plastic basket, and it was all Loretta / on the heel-bruised stage, sung by a big girl / we kind of both had a crush on.” Limón effortlessly narrows the lens of a moment without narrowing its significance. “Good grief we were loaded,” the narrator quips, and in lines that made me long for Elizabeth Tallent’s “Why I Love Country Music,” Limón exits with the perfect breath: “I won’t deny it: I was there, / standing in the bar’s bathroom mirror, / saying my name like I was somebody.” I look for a healthy tension in a book of poems; call it a scar of being reared on Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate. The big-sky poems of this book are well-contrasted with heart-skipping narratives like “The Riveter.” The narrator, a manager whose office is in a “high rise,” learns that her mother has a month to live. She “called in my team” for advice about what to do next. Hospice? Total parenteral nutrition? She writes down advice “like this was a meeting / about a client who wasn’t happy,” and soon realizes that the hardest job belonged to her mother, whose work “was to let the machine / of survival break down.” I think of a later poem, “Outside Oklahoma, We See Boston,” that ends “How / masterful and mad is hope.” Madness, wildness, transcendence. Bright Dead Things offers many answers, but is equally appealing for its questions: “Yesterday I was nice, but in truth I resented / the contentment of the field. Why must we practice / this surrender?” May our poems always be wild.
“Isolation, solitude, secret planning,” Don DeLillo once prescribed. “A novel is a secret that a writer may keep for years before he lets it out of his room.” DeLillo’s description of his plot for Great Jones Street strikes a similar note: “a man in a small room, a man who has shut himself away, and this is something that happens in my work -- the man hiding from acts of violence or planning acts of violence, or the individual reduced to silence by the forces around him.” Mao II, Libra, even DeLillo’s misunderstood football novel, End Zone, include characters who have receded from the world to be reborn. Some might call that paranoia. When the public world fails to reveal its meanings to us, we retreat into our private rooms, our private minds, where there are infinite schemas and explanations. We are the only skeptics of our own souls. A secret is only as good as its ability to be exclusive, and yet a conspiracy theory is only as good as its ability to be inclusive. Whereas his contemporary Thomas Pynchon might share these sentiments, Pynchon has chosen to be a jester, while DeLillo has a deadly serious endgame. Years ago, a Jesuit told me that he had the same journalism professor as DeLillo when he studied at Fordham. The professor showed the Jesuit one of DeLillo’s term papers. I never asked about the paper’s content or style; it felt like I had been given a slice of a secret, and that was enough. It turned out to have been an open secret: the professor, Edward A. Walsh, had kept the paper to show budding writers. Yet the tension of a secret that somehow can also be easily found captures the DeLillo mystique. He writes but he does not teach. He gives interviews, but they are clipped and often vague. He lives in the city but seems to somehow live outside of it. He is not hiding, but he is certainly not trying to be found. Zero K, DeLillo’s newest novel, is like one of those open secrets. To say that it is not groundbreaking would be to misread the purpose and progression of his canon. The major constellations of DeLillo’s work are White Noise and Underworld; the former for its ability to capture his culture’s paranoid moment, and the latter for a son of the Bronx to finally, and fully, examine the place of his birth and youth. Zero K is an extension of DeLillo’s developing themes, but it places a darker color upon them. Billionaire Ross Lockhart, his second wife, Artis, and his son Jeff are the three central characters of the novel. Ross says “everybody wants to own the end of the world.” It soon becomes clear that he means the end of our own world, but for a man like Ross, the end of the self is the end of the universe. Artis, much younger than Ross, is terminally ill. Ross has been financing a mysterious project that includes “cryonic suspension,” something he admits is not a new idea, but one “that is now approaching full realization.” The project is called The Convergence. Reading DeLillo without understanding the themes and concerns of a Jesuit education is like walking onto a basketball court thinking you can run the ball without dribbling. DeLillo joked that he slept through Cardinal Hayes High School, and that the Fordham Jesuits taught him how to be a “failed ascetic.” This is exactly the type of thing an Italian-American from the Bronx would say (I would know). One of DeLillo’s running influences has been Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, whose concept of the Omega Point posits that the universe is evolving toward an ultimate convergence of systems, a perfect consciousness. DeLillo examined the concept in End Zone through the obsessions of narrator Gary Harkness. As Stephen J. Burn notes, DeLillo returned to Teilhard's writings for Ratner's Star, and even considered titling four other novels Point Omega (the inversion means the same) -- Mao II, Underworld, The Body Artist and Cosmopolis -- before using the title for his short 2010 novel. This is not to say that Zero K is a Jesuit or Catholic book. Zero K might be DeLillo’s most agnostic novel, a work that takes Teilhard’s superstructure and strips it of God and Christ and other signifiers. If anyone portends to be God in Zero K, it is Ross, or the mysterious Stenmark Twins, whose philosophies about war, death, and the afterlife put flesh on the skeleton of the Convergence. If Ross needs men like the Stenmark Twins to offer a narrative to his cryonic project, he needs his son to bear witness. Jeff soon realizes that Ross wants him to be there with him when Artis dies. It is a strange tinge of vulnerability for a man who left Jeff and his mother when Jeff was 13: “I was doing my trigonometry homework when he told me.” Jeff has never quite forgiven him, but is able to keep both his mother, Madeline, and Artis in high esteem. The facility is full of screens that lower from the ceiling and play silent images of destruction and suffering. This is another of DeLillo’s trends: the screen as projection for the man in his small room. Players opens with a screen: the showing of an on-flight film, which includes golfers attacked by terrorists. A 24-hour gallery repeat of Psycho opens Point Omega. Then there is the metaphorical screen of End Zone, the canvas blinds that are wrapped around the Logos College practice field so that Coach Creed can hide his players. The desert facility is otherwise described in spare terms, which does make for a rather slow first half to the novel. Patient readers are rewarded when DeLillo develops the dynamic between father and son, which is surprisingly refined by Jeff’s relationship with Artis. She seems unafraid of her unknown future, and that unsettles Jeff. An archeologist, she thinks of finding her own self at her reawakening. Artis, in a true way, needs the Convergence to give her a second chance. Others opt for Zero K, a “special unit” of the facility” that is “predicated on the subject’s willingness to make a certain kind of transition to the next level.” The same method that slowed the first half of the book gives a surreal quality to its second half. As Jeff describes it, the Convergence facility exists outside of time, “time compressed, time drawn tight, overlapping time, dayless, nightless, many doors, no windows.” I have always thought DeLillo is at his most masterful when he starts changing our atmosphere, when he puts us in the “dense environmental texture” of the supermarket in White Noise. It usually happens halfway through is novels, and Zero K is no exception. At the midway point we realize that Ross has a deeper plan for the Convergence and his son, and its drama pushes the book toward its conclusion. Sadness might seem too sincere an emotion to ascribe to a novel written by a postmodernist, but Zero K pushes its readers to feel. It is almost impossible to not. With its confluence of screens, strange artwork, empty rooms, long hallways, and shaved hands of those soon to be frozen, Zero K creates an experiment, and we, its subjects, feel pulled to interact. A man in a small room, obsessed with the present and yet somehow existing outside the scope of time: this is DeLillo’s concern. “Isolation is not a drawback to those who understand that isolation is the point,” one character says in Zero K. DeLillo’s new novel, particularly its end, is a slight pivot for the novelist. Yet when a writer is able to capture so many of our anxieties on his pages, a pivot can be profound.
This summer, a commercial was lauded for skewering a common bad habit. The ad, which promoted IKEA, opens on the drawing room of a lord apparently living around the time of King George III. As servants lay out a dinner of fruits, vegetables, and game birds, the bewigged gentleman calls in a painter and demands a still life on the spot. When the painting is done, footmen hustle it out of the manor and around town, showing it off to upper-class fops who flash thumbs-ups in response. They return home, triumphant, and, finally happy at his success, the man lets his poor family eat. Flash-forward to the present and footage of a dad delaying a family meal to snap pictures of the food on his cell phone. The closing tagline: “It’s a meal. Not a competition. Let’s relax.” Indeed, let’s. In fact, we might go one better and forget the image entirely -- nobody really needs their image on any screen, silver or TV or phone. No one really needs a relationship with corporate capitalism, conspicuous consumption, or cyberspace, either. All that is fungible, forgettable; it’s been replaced many times before. What to do with the spare time left over by ceasing to engage? Consider reading Mary Oliver’s latest book, Upstream, and its meditations on inescapable, physical life and the world beyond any screen. Mary Oliver is the country’s “far and away, the country’s best-selling poet,” according to a ten-year-old article in The New York Times. Famous for winning the 1984 Pulitzer Prize, she’s published over 30 books since 1965. Many feature famous poems or lines -- and by dint of that notoriety, Oliver is easy to find in a certain kind of middle-class, left-wing American life. I’ve seen her words everywhere from Buddhist meditation sessions to Mac McClelland’s memoir Irritable Hearts (which quotes a poem about “letting the soft animal of your body love what it loves”) to the co-op where I lived in college, which bore a version of her line, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” hand-painted in a girlish curlicue over a dining room doorway. To her vaunted curriculum vitae and relative ubiquity, Oliver, aged 81, now adds Upstream. But despite Oliver’s well-demonstrated power, one of the book’s first sentiments is a disclaimer about its smallness in comparison to the world it describes: “And whoever thinks these are worthy, breathy words I am writing down is kind… Come with me into the field of sunflowers is a better line than anything you will find here, and the sunflowers themselves far more wonderful than any words about them.” That might be unnecessarily self-deprecating, but it’s true enough. Oliver’s power lies in words, but even more so in her power of observation. Until recently, she spent her life spent trekking through woodlands (“I walk, all day, across the heaven-verging field,” she writes) and half on the cusp of the sea, in formerly sleepy Provincetown, Massachusetts. Despite being a thin volume, Upstream is a cognitively weighty book. It’s her rare volume of essays rather than pure poetry, although 16 of the 19 essays are reprints from earlier books. It offers no obvious order, and it sticks to no one particular subject. It is neither chronological nor purely topical, and it jumps from the natural world to famous literary lives (Walt Whitman, William Wordsworth, Edgar Allen Poe) to a beloved pet dog. It discusses the life and thoughts of Oliver’s deceased lover, Molly Malone Cook, without explaining who she is (indeed, without ever including more than an initial, M). More than a book meant to make a single point, this is a book meant to allow Mary Oliver’s vivid thoughts out into the world. The book’s finest moments are when Oliver dwells on the nature she has spent a lifetime loving. Thankfully, these are frequent. She writes of seeing caught Bluefin tuna unloaded from fishing boats, “their bodies are as big as horses;” of the live fishes she once returned to the cold sea after unexpectedly cutting them from the body of a fish who’d just ate them (“for an instant they throbbed in place, too dazed to understand that they could swim back to life -- and then they uncurled, like silver leaves, and flashed away”); of the injured bird she let slowly die in a luxurious nest of towels she’d constructed near a sliding door in her home. Among the observations of natural beauty come slow, gentle, ponderous thoughts about the nature of love, death, and life in a changing place. Oliver avoids anything self-pitying, apocalyptic, or morbid -- and in fact she doesn’t even overtly mourn her partner, whose 2005 death she grieved in the 2007 photo book Our World. Nonetheless, these philosophical musings are the point of writing. “You need empathy with it rather than just reporting,” Oliver explained to Krista Tippett of On Being in 2015. “Reporting is for field guides. And they’re great. They’re helpful. That's what they are. But they’re not thought provokers. And they don't go anywhere.” This book is thought-provoking, and it does go somewhere. Where it goes is ultimately up to the reader -- whose mind, after all, is the soil in which Oliver’s contemplative turns of phrase will bloom. Oliver expresses clearly that nature is our equal, if not our better, and that the nonhuman world offers a wellspring of insight to those who pay careful attention to it. As for any IKEA commercials one might miss while out in the woods or at the shore: well, that last one went viral, I guess. But if you’ve seen it -- or if you haven’t -- forget it. Whatever insight it offers, remember that Mary Oliver got there first, and better, with words like these: “Writing is neither vibrant life nor docile artifact but a text that would put all its money on the hope of suggestion…Butterflies don’t write books, neither do lilies or violets. Which doesn’t mean they don’t know, in their own way, what they are. That they don’t know they are alive -- that they don’t feel, that action upon which all consciousness sits, lightly or heavily. Humility is the prize of the leaf-world. Vainglory is the bane of us, the humans.” Putting all my money on the hope of a suggestion now, I’ll say that this, and all the rest of Upstream, comes highly recommended.
● ● ●