There are probably scads and scads of books like 13. I’ve seen them in libraries and used book stores. They are books that take on one topic and mine it for endless anecdotes and historical curios, but they don’t claim that by looking through the prism of the topic at hand, a reader can discern the entire arc of human history. The books are about what they are about, and all you need to do as a reader is sit back and be entertained and informed. John McPhee, who is very good at this sort of thing, once wrote a book entirely about Oranges, for example. Nathaniel Lachenmeyer does this sort of thing well, too. His book is an impeccably researched look at an old superstition. With every turn of the page the reader is presented with another odd relic that Lachenmeyer has dug up for our perusal: the existence of popular superstition-defying “13 clubs” at the beginning of the 20th century, for example. And onward the book moves through Friday the 13th, the missing 13th floor, and all the rest. Taken as a whole, the book is a nifty piece of well-researched reportage bringing to light the many murky progenitors of this now commonplace superstition.
“Dostoevsky was a sick man. He was spiteful, intolerant, and irritable. Turgenev once described him as the nastiest Christian he had ever met.” – Andrew R. MacAndrew, Translator of Notes from Underground.I’d like to think that, 200 years from now, I’ll be immortalized with a Penguin Classics edition of my life’s work – a 700-page tome spanning my early blogging career to my brilliance in advertising copy to my eventual Great American Whatever. I see it bound in something collectible – my skin, perhaps, or threads of wallpaper from the basement where all of the magic happened.It will have an introduction, of course. The introduction will be written by someone incredibly talented and well-thought-of. I imagine a design by Chris Ware (okay, he’ll be dead, so a design by Chris Ware’s great grandchildren or something. Humor me here.)Some things that might be included in my introduction:Corey Vilhauer started his career in the trenches of the Sioux Falls School District, working as an embattled troll in the substitute teaching pool.Vilhauer worked his way up, gaining employment as a writer through sheer will and ruthless determination (not to mention rugged good looks and undeniable charm.)Until mid-January, 2007, Vilhauer usually skipped the introductions to classic and modern novels, preferring to get right to the story.It’s true. I did. Until this month, I never took time to read introductions and appendixes. I just flipped to the point where the page numbers stopped looking so Roman and started looking more Arabic. I wanted to read the novel, not the author’s life story. Who has time for introductions?And then – Dostoevsky. Fyodor Dostoevsky. More specifically, Notes from Underground (and other stories) – this months Corey Vilhauer Book of the Month.I’m going to assume that most of you have dabbled in Dostoevsky’s mire. You’ve drudged your way through some of the most depressing and thought-provoking personal reflection ever written. Most of you probably even read the introduction. However, some of you probably didn’t. I’m here for you. I know what that’s like. I’ve been there.Notes from Underground, for those who have yet to read it, was written a few years after Dostoevsky was sentenced to death. To death! Why? Because he spoke out. Because he was a dissident in Mother Russia and needed to be stopped.He wasn’t killed. No – of course he wasn’t. He had three more monstrous, billion-page novels to write before he was ready to expire. But he was tortured, mentally, by the powers-that-be. From Andrew R. MacAndrew’s Afterword:On December 21, 1849, the prisoners were taken to a city square for public execution. The death sentence was read to them, they were given the cross to kiss, a sword was symbolically broken over their heads, and they were ordered to don special white shirts. They were to be shot three by three. The first three were bound to the execution posts. Dostoevsky was the sixth in line – that is, he was to be executed in the second batch.Suddenly the tsar’s messenger appeared on a foaming horse and announced that the tsar was graciously making them a present of their lives. There was a beating of drums. The retreat was sounded. The men already tied to the posts were untied and sent back to rejoin the others. Some prisoners fainted. Two went permanently insane. The effect on Dostoevsky, too, was shattering. The epileptic fits to which he had been subject since his childhood became incomparably worse.He was nearly killed. Then, the tsar came riding up, saying, “never mind, dude – imprisonment for eight years (four, with the tsar’s blessing, of course) will be fine.” The people around him went crazy. He was a changed man from then on.And, by reading the Introduction, and in finishing with the Afterword, I discovered the aforementioned history. I learned something about Dostoevsky that is far more interesting than anything I could have imagined.Notes from Underground follows the insecure wanderings of a man so depressed – so annoyed with life and dragged down by its horrible tentacles – that he can’t do anything but complain. He tags along with some “friends” to feel included, but ends up berating them for hours. He searches for them later (to duel, of course) and instead ends up berating a whore in much the same way.He hates himself and seeks relief, but whenever that relief shows up, he shuns it. He’s miserable – both in feeling and in action. He’s nothing. He talks symbolically of the mouse hole that he’s lived in for 20 years, and in reading, you figure it’s not just symbolic. It is necessary.Notes from Underground is written by someone who had been driven mad – maybe not certifiably, but at least minimally enough to devise a hateful character as the narrator. Dostoevsky ended up a grizzled, horrible person – hard to be around, yet amazingly talented. Some say he ended up too sentimental. Others say he was too hard. I found him to be brilliant, if not a little misunderstood. I also found him to be just as miserable as his protagonist.In writing a story like Notes from Underground, talent can only take you so far. Dostoevsky didn’t just create a character from scratch, taking pen and placing it on paper and writing from the creative depths of his mind. He was writing from his heart – shaping a character that was actively driving himself mad, just as those who he had been sentenced to death with were driven mad – little by little, through deception and mind control.Notes from Underground is quite a task – it’s short, but it drives one to annoyed rage. “Just be nice, for once!” you might yell. But in yelling that, you’re directing it as Dostoevsky himself. This is all internalized. No wonder he’s so hateful. After all, look at what he went through.And to think I used to skip those “life story” sections.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC 2006, 2007: Jan.
Lest you fail to detect the skeleton of historical fact that gives shape to Daniel Kraus‘ unsettling, baroque, and surpassingly lurid new young adult novel, Rotters, I begin this review with a short history of the resurrection men, vulgarly referred to as grave robbers or body snatchers–the ignoble offspring of the European Enlightenment. While the Enlightenment era is bedecked with many marvelous achievements in human thought and practice—the Rights of Man, the idea that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” an explosion in literacy rates and books and newspapers, coffee houses and salons, a vast increase in the circulation of ideas, the advance of natural history, navigation and exploration, chemistry, scientific classification, mathematics, microscopy, medicine (the circulation of the blood, inoculation) and anatomy—like any revolution, the Enlightenment had its less savory side.
The resurrection men offer us a glimpse of the maggoty underbelly of the Scientific Revolution: As the idea of the body as a rational system, a machine of sorts, took hold in Europe, so the numbers of students eager to learn the science of anatomy increased–along with the demand for fresh corpses for dissection. And with this rise in demand, a new class of professional grave robbers was born: the resurrection men. These men disinterred buried corpses not for jewelry or clothes, but for the bodies themselves, which they sold to medical schools and anatomists. Poor medical students were known to moonlight as resurrection men in order to pay their medical school tuition—in dead bodies. And when corpses were in particularly short supply, a few very enterprising resurrectionists were known to turn to murder to meet the medical schools’ demand (most famous among these: Brendan Burke and William Hare, who were tried in Edinburgh in 1829 for the murders of more than a dozen prostitutes, beggars, and boarding house lodgers—all of whose bodies they had sold to an anatomy professor. Burke was hanged and his corpse, as was usual in capital cases in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain, was given to a medical school for dissection).
Out of this gruesome prehistory, comes Kraus’ Rotters. Kraus’ novel imagines (and I say imagines reservedly—perhaps such men do live among us) a modern breed of grave robbers: the Diggers, proud self-proclaimed descendants of the eighteenth and nineteeth-century resurrection men. Kraus uses this unwholesome sub-culture as a setting for one of the darkest, wildest, most unsettling adolescent novels I’ve ever come across. The novel’s scenes contain a superabundance of maggots, necrotic flesh, “coffin liquor,” and rat kings (masses of coffin rats whose tails have become entangled such that they move as a single entity)—there’s plenty of all, but these are actually the least of the book’s horrors. More sinister is the loveless, punishing fate that Kraus inflicts on his hero, 17-year-old Joey Crouch, whose story begins when his mother dies and he’s sent to live with his father, a man’s he’s never met, in Iowa.
Ken Hartnett, Joey’s father, is a Digger who lives in a hovel surrounded by onion beds on the banks of the Big Chief River. Initially repulsed and enraged by his father, who is brusque, negligent, often drunk, and smells like rotten meat, Joey is gradually drawn into his underworld. Joey becomes entranced by the varieties of decay available to human corpses, relishes his own prowess with a shovel, his ability to leave a grave plot looking pristine, even after he’s excavated the coffin and taken the corpse’s jewelry—because while Joey’s dad proudly claims the resurrection men of Scotland and England as his professional forebears, he and his kind, the Diggers, are actually just old fashioned grave robbers: sawing off fingers for rings, prying out gold teeth, pocketing watches. But they take great pride in what they do, how quickly and tidily they’re able to do it, who they’re able to do it to (Charlie Chaplin, Elvis, John Scott Harrison, the son of President William Henry Harrison): Once you’re in the ground, you’re just an anonymous rotter, no matter who you were in life.
What draws Joey to the rotter world is more mundane: Once in his father’s care, Joey’s destined to become his small-town high school’s untouchable. Forced into his father’s quasi-savage way of life, Joey begins to look and smell feral—sometimes worse than feral. He’s brutalized and humiliated by the jocks, taunted and blackmailed by a sadistic teacher, and ignored by everyone else. This is adolescent misery of a most exquisite variety. I’m actually not sure why or how Joey is standing at the end, between the high school horrors and the more exotic, Digger-related horrors that he endures. Kraus shows Joey’s isolation, humiliation, loneliness, and hopelessness drawing him into the world of the Diggers. The less life offers him, the more he wants to dig—the more he wants to be among the dead, where pain and sorrow are finished forever. Digging is an art and Joey’s got his father’s gift. And among the strange, death-scented old men who compose the Diggers’ union, Joey is cherished and admired, a wonder and a last hope for a dying profession.
Somewhere around the middle of Rotters, though, things start to feel a little unhinged. The plot begins to unfurl at an unnerving speed: grotesque demented vignettes are heaped on grotesque demented vignettes in an alarming, precarious array (example: Joey lures the king of the high school jocks into the weight room at school where he knocks him out and then entwines his victim among several naked female corpses in an orgy-like configuration). At this point, I began to imagine the structure of the book as something like the interior of the Kostnice, the bone church outside of Prague whose interior is decorated with tens of thousands of interlocking, piled human bones. Though, Rotters is less beautiful, more genuinely grotesque, more alarming—and not necessarily in an aesthetically useful way.
I am not squeamish–not at the sight of blood, nor in contemplating the hideous things that people can and do do to each other. I’m also very fond of the grotesque: Goya‘s Disasters of War and Los Caprichos, most of Swift, Archimboldo, Tristram Shandy, Lewis Carroll, Edward Gorey —but I found Rotters hard to take. It felt sometimes—beautiful though some of the writing is and beautifully conceived as some of the scenes are—as if the novel was a manic exercise (…here’s yet another scene in which the crazed, drug-addled clown-dwarf-digger loses a body part–an eye, now a foot, now his face is cleft with a shovel, now coated in slick black mud—now he falls face first into a pile of jewels and comes up with a diamond where his eye used to be—as he floats out to sea on a coffin…in the middle of a hurricane). This stuff was too baroque for my taste—it was sensory overload. Mind you, in a world rife with oatmealy workshop-cookie-cutter fiction, Kraus is absolutely original—which is what kept me reading—even when I started to feel like the novel itself felt a little poisonous, unwholesomely keen on human misery, failure, and despair (and I’m quite fond of human misery, failure, and despair as literary themes–what else is there, really?).
It also seemed that (perhaps?), taken as he was with the minutia of the Digger and high school life, Kraus lost sight of the ultimate shape he wanted his book to take—what it’s supposed to mean. Though the novel seems intent on destroying Joey for about 400 pages, it gives him a kind of bland happy-ish-but-not-really-happy ending that I couldn’t make sense of. And looking back from the last page, I’m not sure I know what the book’s larger vision was.
What did it all mean? I’m not sure I can say. But there’s something to be said for taking a dose of such wildness–such tumbling, aggressive, unkempt fiction–every now and again.
With no mention of the titular character in it at all, critics have been squirming in their seats, unsure of what to think about the title of J.M. Coetzee’s new novel, The Childhood of Jesus. Since its publication in the UK and other English-speaking countries in March, it has become the occasion of many outpourings of critical anxiety. Rare is the occasion when someone like Christopher Tayler in the London Review of Books can feel excited about their confusion; or address it honestly as Leo Robson does in the New Statesman. More common is a scramble to make sense of the thing, like Theo Tait’s ingenious attempt in The Guardian, or the dismissal of its importance in giving the book some other framework for evaluation, as in Justin Cartwright’s otherwise interesting guide to the book for the BBC. And with the publication of the work in the U.S. we can only expect more of the same.
The problem isn’t that the title doesn’t describe what’s in the book. It’s the way it doesn’t. It’s too big a title, too grand. It describes a character who, even if he is not literally related to the character in the book — a boy named David — works on such a larger scale that it wouldn’t even work figuratively. And so even when we can’t find anything meaningful in it, it is hard to believe that Coetzee didn’t mean it to be there. It seems, in other words, indeed serious, in being a little too serious — there’s no letup, no obliqueness in it, no irony that is clear and distinguishable.
The funny thing about it is that Coetzee may well indeed mean what he says, and to be taken to task for this is rather strange: as if once he seems too serious, critics think he can’t be serious at all. And this shows that however petty their reaction has been, the critics are on to something. We know Coetzee as a postmodern writer, a coy writer, playful, always up to something, or trying to be up to something. What we witness in this book is a change of emphasis towards seriousness, a stylistic change, or experiment in changing, which is remarkable to watch.
It’s visible in the straightforwardness of the story itself. The book is about a little boy David and a man old enough to be his grandfather, Simón, arriving in a strange Spanish-speaking land. We don’t know where they are from; we even don’t know their real names, since it was Belstar, the refugee camp where they were, that gave them these. Simón himself, through whose experience we witness most of what happens, doesn’t know anything about the child: details are hazy. “There was a mishap on board the boat during the voyage that might have explained everything,” as Simón puts it. “As a result,” he continues, “his parents are lost, or, more accurately, he is lost.”
The rest of the story is simply David developing under Simón’s care, as they both attempt to start what they call a “new life” together. After a few failed attempts to find the boy’s father and mother, Simón struggles to get a more permanent home for the boy. An old washed-up romantic, but without the confusing animalistic drives of a David Lurie (the hero/villain of Disgrace), he gets it into his head that what the boy needs is a mother. This can be achieved, he thinks, by simply finding one; Simón seems to assume, rather strangely, that a bond like this can be created just by arrangement. Improbably enough, on a hike one day he finds someone willing to be David’s mother, and delivers the boy up to a woman named Inés. But he still watches the boy from afar, and misses him. He folds himself back into the family, doing chores for them and small tasks, and monitors the care of the child, entwining his destiny more and more with his.
There is a strange feeling you can get while reading Coetzee’s work that you merely are hearing a yarn: in other words, that the direct, incredibly precise style is the only thing remarkable about what is simply a straightforward tale. The exact narration of plot borders on bottoming out and becoming the — exquisite, no doubt — chronicling of mere events. This feeling was, in Coetzee’s previous work, always countered by the work’s form breaking up, or turning against itself, which would remind you the precision and exactness was slowly working towards a point: that is, that the work was spare for a reason, that the economy plays generously with the things you are hearing about.
But here we have no postmodern tricks as in Slow Man or Diary of a Bad Year. No strange intertextual references as in Foe. No metafictional scenes like the close of Elizabeth Costello, wherein a strange set of judges in the afterlife ask the titular character, a world-famous author, if fiction itself is really worth anything at all — a fiction in which we hear about the meaning of fiction, and in which the status of the fiction we are reading seems to hang in the balance because of what happens within it. Here we simply have Simón befriending a child and believing in him, as it were, so it is no wonder that this feeling of flatness sticks around, and we think Coetzee has decided to stop with all this beating around the bush, with these sidelong ways of probing the depth of his characters.
There are a few tricks still up his sleeve, however. First and foremost there is the pace at which the tale is told, in another instance of that narrative economy which Coetzee has so perfected and which would make anything he writes engrossing. Then, more importantly there is the boy himself. He is, simply, fascinating. Especially in his conceptions and ideas of the world, which Coetzee relates sympathetically and which Simón can’t stop listening to. This despite their childishness, all their petulance and profundity, all their (in a word) contrariness. “Why do I have to speak Spanish all the time?” David asks Simón once. Simón patiently explains:
“We have to speak some language, my boy, unless we want to bark and howl like animals. And if we are going to speak some language, it is best we all speak the same one. Isn’t that reasonable?”
“But why Spanish? I hate Spanish.”
“You don’t hate Spanish. You speak very good Spanish. Your Spanish is better than mine. You are just being contrary. What language do you want to speak?”
“I want to speak my own language.”
“There is no such thing as one’s own language”
“There is! La la fa fa yam ying tu tu.”
Coetzee has David shout things like this often, in the way children do sometimes, where they have been thinking of something by themselves for an hour or so, playing out some internal fantasy of some sort, and suddenly inform you about it as if it was real, and as if it made sense to everyone and was obvious. It happens as David learns to read and talks about Don Quixote as if he were real, as he learns math and talks about numbers as if they had strange properties, as he talks about other people, and their strange characteristics or powers, and in so many other occasions in the novel. And while these fantasies are contrary and counterfactual, they compel. After hearing the boy’s own language, Simón objects:
“That’s just gibberish. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“It does mean something. It means something to me.”
“That may be so but it doesn’t mean anything to me. Language has to mean something to me as well as to you, otherwise it doesn’t count as language.”
In a gesture that he must have picked up from Inés, the boy tosses his head dismissively. “La la fa fa yam ying! Look at me!”
He looks into the boy’s eyes. For the briefest of moments he sees something there. He has no name for it. It is like — that is what occurs to him in the moment. Like a fish that wriggles loose as you try to grasp it. But not like a fish — no, like like a fish. Or like like like a fish. On and on. Then the moment is over, and he is simply standing in silence, staring.
“Did you see?” says the boy.
The key thing about this moment, and about other similar moments, is that Simón did not see, or saw only for a second. But that this reserved and fiercely independent man can so thoroughly commit himself to trying to see, or, at the very least, can so thoroughly commit himself to seeing what it would be like to see, or, at the very very least, can so thoroughly commit himself to seeing what it would be like to see what it would be like to see…this shows Coetzee’s child here is much more than someone relating the wisdom that comes out of the mouths of babes — even perhaps the mouth of a baby Jesus. David is the vehicle for Coetzee’s effort to explore belief’s ability to conquer doubt — more particularly, the doubt of Simón — and of the way fantasies can coax even doubt itself into becoming a form of trust, of faith, of belief.
And as David’s fantasies increasingly disrupt the class in school, and the school threatens, eventually, to kick the boy out and put him in a disciplinary facility for children, Simón has to take this commitment even further, and consider whether he will follow the boy and run off again, away from the authorities, to somewhere else, another new life, or try and stick it out in the town and educate him out of his fictions.
For critics, the biggest problem with Coetzee in his early career was the way his style failed to engage with serious, real-world problems. As critics complained, he lived and wrote in South Africa in the midst of one of the worst crises of the century. Where, in the interesting fables he then fabricated, was anything of the brutal situation around him? Postmodern authors were addressing politics even as they wove interesting tales: Yet Coetzee worked in a sort of neo-Modern arid and ironic style implying that art needed to concentrate on things more ambiguous, sometimes concentrating on colonialism through allegory, representing the colonizers as much as the colonized. He was being contrary, in many ways.
Yet by now Coetzee has published much dealing with animal rights, among other things, and Disgrace dealt directly and provocatively with South African issues. What seemed lacking in the purity of his representations of life has been filled up with a closer and more interesting relationship with the world around us. In the recent edition of his correspondence with Paul Auster, Here and Now, we even find him grumbling about the financial crisis. In this respect, the dust jacket’s claim that The Childhood of Jesus is “allegorical” is misleading, a throwback to an earlier contrarian mood. For now we seem to find Coetzee dealing with a problem different in character: a question about the internal, rather than the external, limits of his work, the limitations of his own style.
It is a question of how far irony, self-consciousness, coyness, evasiveness, whimsy, reserve, and simple but efficient avoidance of the commonplace and real, can indeed address the opposite: sincerity, seriousness, truth-telling. While the world can be represented, can it only be played with? Can’t things be believed in? The Childhood of Jesus reminds us again how baffling Coetzee can be, but also that he can be tender, can have, as Frank Kermode once put it, “reserves of feeling that are tragic or even religious.” These are moments where he pretty clearly reminds us that no, we can believe in things, and we do even as we doubt. Play and seriousness have a way of communing together sometimes, with childlike simplicity.