Though Elizabeth Crane’s All This Heavenly Glory is billed as a collection of stories, after just a few, I shifted into novel mode, which was easy to do, seeing as the whole collection is about one character viewed in many snapshots from the age of 6 to 40, Charlotte Anne Byers. Those who who have read Crane before will be familiar with her rambunctious, elbows-flailing prose, in which the dependent clauses become so laden that they at times break free into outlines and lists. The effect of this stylistic departure from standard convention is, miraculously, not at all gimmicky, because a) Crane manages to keep those piled up words from toppling over, and b) it is in keeping with the persona of the character that she has created to inhabit this book. Because All This Heavenly Glory, necessarily, touches upon many trials and tribulations of girlhood and womanhood, it seems likely that it will have the “chick lit” moniker attached to it at some point. So be it. But what this book really is is an unflinching character study of a complicated person. Charlotte Anne is raised on the Upper West Side, comes of age in the 1970s in a family branched by divorce and remarriage, and endures a decade of being lost in her 20’s – both geographically and spiritually. She is both foolish and clever, endearing and infuriating, hopelessly falling apart and really good at “having it together.” Not all at the same time, of course. Crane tells Byers’ story episodically, filled with details and discursions, and though the book threatens to come apart under the pressure of Crane’s furiously frantic stylings, she manages to pull together an overarching narrative that is telling and poignant, less – and therefore more meaningful – than the sum of its frenetic parts.
Kenyan writer and political dissident Ngugi wa Thiong'o's seventh novel, Wizard of the Crow, is unquestionably a work of epic ambition - a quality American readers once found commendable, and perhaps still do. Its achievements are doubly impressive, in that Ngugi first penned this 300,000-word tale of tyranny and freedom in his native Gikuyu, and then translated it himself into English. The translation is supple and swift enough that the novel, at 760 pages, never feels like a slog, and colorful set-pieces abound. Any work that swings this hard for the fences, however, will be judged on runs produced. Readers who admire Wizard of the Crow's world-historical reach - and Ngugi's storytelling gifts - may emerge disappointed that it isn't quite a homer.Ngugi sets his story in the fictional African country of Aburiria, a republic-in-name-only run by a nameless dictator. Decked out in military garb appliqued with the skins of great cats, "The Ruler" instantly evokes Kenya's Daniel Arap Moi and Uganda's Idi Amin... and one imagines the resemblance to actual persons is not "entirely coincidental." Ngugi very much wants us thinking about the recent political geography of Sub-Saharan Africa. But Wizard of the Crow is no naturalist roman-a-clef. As the novel opens, the Ruler has contracted a Rabelaisian affliction - his body is inflating as rapidly and as wildly as Aburiria's economy. In a typical feat of dialogic energy, Ngugi treats us to five rumored explanations why - thus grounding his third-person narrative directly in the voices of the Aburirian people.The country's cabinet, scrambling to heal and appease the Ruler, is a political cartoon come to life. Machokali, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, has had his eyes surgically enlarged "to the size of electric bulbs... so that they would be able to spot the enemies of the Ruler no matter how far their hiding places." Not to be outdone, the head of the secret police, one Silver Sikiokuu, has had his ears lengthened - the better to eavesdrop on potential conspirators. From the ministers' jockeying for position emerges the book's Maguffin, a giant construction project called Marching to Heaven (to be funded by a thinly disguised World Bank). If completed, it will allow the Ruler to talk directly to God, "to say good morning or good evening or simply, how was your day, God?"Ngugi gets great comic mileage from his politicians, and there is something oddly sympathetic about the paranoid machinations of Sikiokuu, in particular - as in the old Dan Ackroyd sketches where Nixon talks to the paintings on the West Wing walls. But here the novel's refusal to settle for mere satire, its flirtation with psychological depth, opens up an instability; one starts to wonder why the Ruler, in a three-dimensional environment, remains flat, an object for fun.This instability deepens when Kamiti, a penniless college graduate, and Nyawira, a receptionist, begin to lay the groundwork for revolution. Kamiti's depressive asceticism, Nyawira's spirited sass, and the chemistry between the two (including some of the hottest foreplay I've read recently), move Wizard of the Crow firmly into a textured human reality. Ngugi enlivens their romance with some wonderful magical touches. The plot strand in which Kamiti poses as a powerful "Wizard of the Crow," and then (to the consternation of the authorities) finds himself mysteriously growing into the role, would be enough to fill a lesser novel. And yet, as this book rolls on, the exploits of the Wizard of the Crow start to feel like a subplot. Dramatic cause and effect give way once more to satirical grandstanding.Satire, in my reading, is Ngugi's least revelatory mode. Absent the historical specificity an actual location might have provided, we are treated to revolutionary platitudes, to the revelation that power corrupts and the World Bank and the mass media are accessories to the crime. Well, obviously, but...Here I find myself running up against the problem of translation. Gikuyu, as I understand it, is largely an oral language. Since deciding for ethical reasons to stop composing in his adopted English, Ngugi has heroically pioneered the use of Gikuyu for literary purposes. And thinking back to the schematics of Walter J. Ong's Orality and Literacy (a useful companion text for Wizard of the Crow), I remember that the aims and techniques of the griot may differ greatly from those of the workshop-trained novelist. In particular, the oral poet's mnemonic didacticism clashes with the "literary" desire for understatement.It seems no more fair to tax Ngugi with preachy dialogue, then, than it does to tax The Illiad with flashy similes. (I feel like John Updike missed the boat on this one in his New Yorker review.) Nonetheless, I can't deny that the antic quality of the second half of Wizard of the Crow frustrated my desire to dwell with Kamiti and Nyawira - to see diasporic political generalities given flesh, as they are in Patrick Chamoiseau's magisterial Texaco.Still, as hard as it is to discover such shortcomings in a book its author clearly intends as a masterwork, it's equally hard to dismiss Wizard of the Crow out of hand. Ngugi is a masterful manipulator of narrative time and narrative voice, and the fleetness and charm of the telling tend to blur over some of the novel's deficiencies. In a particularly moving bit of analysis near the end, Nyawira laments the way the West, with all of its problems, attempts to stamp the developing world's heterotopic spaces with its own monolithic image, and it is possible to read this review as symptomatic of the problem, and the book as gesturing toward a solution. Wizard of the Crow clears a space within literary postmodernism for African traditions and African characters, and one can only hope Ngugi will use it as a platform for future works that bring his expansive vision to fruition. Haki ya Mungu!
1. John Horne Burns’ The Gallery was his first book, a chronicle of the chaos and beauty and horror of occupied Naples in 1943 and 1944. It’s an interesting hybrid: a novel, or perhaps it’s better described as a short story collection in which the stories, all touching in some way upon a bombed-out arcade called the Galleria Umberto, alternate with an elegant travelogue in the first person. The travelogue appears to be the author’s memoir: I remember that at Casablanca it dawned on me that maybe I’d come overseas to die. Burns did die in Italy, although not during the war. He served in Italy and North Africa, mostly in military intelligence. He returned to the United States after the war ended, but his experiences overseas had changed him forever. The behavior he’d witnessed in the army, the mistreatment of the Neapolitans at American hands, the buffoonery of officers, soldiers robbing one another blind—all of these things engendered in him a distaste for the United States, and he returned to Italy for good shortly after the war. The Gallery was published in 1947, to considerable acclaim. Burns followed it with two more novels—Lucifer with a Book and A Cry of Children—but reviews of the first were mixed, reviews of the second disastrous. His British and American publishers declined to publish the book that followed, The Stranger’s Guise. Not only was The Stranger’s Guise rejected, but Paul Fussell’s introduction to The Gallery suggests that it was rejected in the kind of terms that authors routinely have nightmares about: Burns’ publishers apparently called the new book “trash.” Burns—deeply shaken, alcoholic, depressed following the break-up of an affair—suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in Livorno at the age of 36. There were suggestions that he’d drank himself to death. The New York Times obituary devoted considerable space to dicussion of The Gallery, and mentioned his final two novels only in passing. He was buried in Rome. 2. When the Allies arrived in Naples they found a bombed-out city, the harbor in ruins and rubble on the streets. Crime was epidemic. There was very little food. The Galleria Umberto was a collection of bars and black-market restaurants and shops that functioned as a sort of unofficial heart of the desperate city. The stories that make up the book are called Portraits; the interludes of travelogue are called Promenades. Burns wrote a hard fine prose, although there were moments when he sank into sentimentality. Each Portrait is of an individual—usually American, occasionally Italian—in or around the Galleria Umberto, and Burns's skills in character development were remarkable. The true nature of each one arises slowly, an image sharpening on a Polaroid; the staggering first Portrait is of a young soldier recovering from trenchfoot, a crass and alcoholic young man who’s nonetheless deeply sensitive, aware of his impending death, a man who’s never had a moment of transcendence in his life except in the presence of opera. There’s Luella, a magnificently deluded Red Cross volunteer who dresses impeccably in her uniform in order to spend the day neglecting her duties and drinking; a suave and oddly blank second lieutenant who loses his mind after a conversation with a ghost; a virtuous Italian teenager driven to the brink of starvation when the inflation that followed the Allied invasion made food unaffordable. The prose is beautiful, the plotting expert, the moments of satire razor-sharp. It’s a command performance, but not without flaws. The book’s largest problem concerns the author’s obvious prejudices. In the final Promenade, the thoughtful officer whose first-person travelogue we’ve been following arrives finally in Naples, whereupon the spell of the book begins to waver. "For in Naples," he writes in the final Promenade, "I and other Americans learned by a simple application of synecdoche that no one, in himself and by himself, is much better or much worse than anybody else." And yet one can’t help but notice that this sentiment seems not to extend to the novel's Arabs, who are referred to as “Ayrabs” and given distasteful qualities throughout. There are moments when his disgust for the United States is palpable. He spends little time with the Allied forces of other nationalities, returning again and again to the American army. With only a few notable exceptions, his Americans tend to be morally and culturally bankrupt. They don’t know how to love. They don’t know how to live. They are limited people. His Italians, by contrast, are mostly saints; if they're corrupt, it's because the Americans ruined them. He goes so far as to write, in reference to the disgraceful manner in which American soldiers treated the citizens of Naples, "I don't think the Germans could have done any better in their concentration camps." It's hard to know what to say to this. Perhaps he was ignorant of the workings of the concentration camps. Perhaps he was so blinded by his anti-Americanism that he couldn't perceive a difference between bullying a population and committing a systematic genocide. He digresses into sweeping generalizations about American artists—unsurprisingly, he finds them spiritually inferior to their Italian counterparts—and about American culture. Here he manages to completely miss the same point that certain of my non-American friends and acquaintances seem to miss sometimes, at unguarded moments when I’m outside the United States, when they’re perhaps thinking of me as a Canadian—I hold dual citizenship between the U.S. and Canada—and the United States comes up in conversation, which is that the cultural life of the United States contains such multitudes, such variations of experience, that attempts at summarizing its national culture are largely meaningless. And yet, for all this, I found The Gallery compelling. It's beautifully written, and it's a portrait of a time and a city that fascinates me. I have no particular connection to the city, except in the same way that I have a connection to every city bombed in that particular war: I've visited Naples twice and wondered, both times, if my grandfather trained the pilots who bombed this place. 3. My grandfather was a flight instructor for the Royal Canadian Air Force, and his students flew above the theatres of the Second World War. Black-and-white photographs of a young man in a pilot's uniform on the tarmac, smiling. My impression was always that he loved his work, but I did come across a notebook of his once wherein he’d recorded a list: names of his students, with killed or missing noted beside them, and I’ve thought ever since of the terrible burden of training combat pilots. He taught them how to fly the machines they disappeared in. Impossible not to think of him when visiting an Axis country, when reading World War II narratives set in cities that were bombed. I first visited Naples ten years ago and fell in love with the city. I returned a few years later, at a vastly different point in my life, and was much less inclined to drop everything and move there, but there was a moment when I was in love with the city's chaos. It’s a city charged with a dangerous electricity, a vivid kind of place. The drivers make New York cabbies seem sedate. The whole place functions on a razor’s edge, at moments seemingly just shy of anarchy, sordid and beautiful and terribly fast. There are buildings near the harbor that still show damage from the Second World War. The first time, ten years ago, I descended with a guide into the underground city. It’s an immense system of ancient cisterns and waterways, began in Grecian times and expanded over the centuries, carved from the porous rock forty metres below the surface. Sections were converted into a bomb shelter during the Second World War. The steps down to the bottom are uneven, carved from stone. The air grows damper and colder as you leave the city above. It’s hard to get a sense of the precise size of this place. There have been a couple of small internal avalanches over the centuries, and large sections are blocked off. The guide leads us through the narrowest imaginable passageways, rock pressing against my body on every side. It’s difficult to catch my breath. Passageways open into wide corridors, small rooms, and then into caverns that could house a hundred families, and once did. There is a rudimentary electrical system. Benches are carved into the walls of some rooms. A scrawled notation identifies a tiny dripping alcove as a wedding chamber. Four thousand Neapolitans took refuge here during the bombing. Graffiti adorns the walls, a dark moment in history scratched into rock: caricatures of Hitler, Mussolini and Churchill, pin-up girls smoking cigarettes in miniskirts, fighter planes and submarines, scraps of hopeful poetic sentiment: "A life without love is a desert." There is longing pornography. I look at sketches of airplanes and think of my grandfather. I imagine 4,000 people down here in the shadows, scared and alive, hiding and scratching hopeful graffiti, holding hands and fighting and raising children and dying in half-darkness, bombs falling above. The tour guide stops us in a particular cavern. Poetry and caricatures are scratched into the walls. It's hard to say where we are; there is no sense of direction in this place, no feeling of a beginning or end. If the guide were to leave, we would be utterly lost. He motions for us to sit on a stone bench, and then, unexpectedly, he turns off his flashlight. The silence is immense. The darkness is absolute. There is a distant sound of dripping water, but there is no light. I am aware of my traveling companion sitting beside me on the bench, of the tour guide standing nearby. There are only the smallest possible sounds. Our breathing, the distant dripping of water, the sound of a shoe scuffed lightly in the dust. The silence fascinates me. I don't want it to end. I can see absolutely nothing. There has never been any moment but this. Some time passes before the tour guide speaks, and I hear his love for this place in his voice. He is reverent. My traveling companion, whose Italian is better than mine, whispers a translation through the darkness between us: "Absolute silence. Absolute darkness. Like death..." And forty metres above us, the seething city, still beautifully and dangerously and chaotically alive.
● ● ●
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.
● ● ●