John McPhee books are like crack for the curious. He mines his topics, usually some slice of America or Americana, for all the minutia that the curious crave, diversions and details and especially lists. In Looking for a Ship he turns his pen to the United States Merchant Marine, already a dying institution when McPhee wrote the book in 1990. He manages to secure a spot as a PAC – Person in Addition to Crew on the Stella Lykes for a voyage from port to port down the Pacific coast of South America. The topics he dissects are many: the histories of his fellow seamen, the tribulations of the Merchant Marine, the astonishingly various contents of the hold, and the port towns they visit seen through the eyes of a sailor, to name a few. Interspersed in the story are tales of pirate attacks and boat wrecks, not to mention a discription of the ship’s engine room that will make you sweat just reading it. In this book, as in all his others, McPhee is pitch-perfect, taking the reader down any interesting digression encountered in the narrative, extracting wry humor from his observations, and digging deep into the personal history of any fascinating person he encounters. His books are biographies of a place and time.
Progress through Enigma Variations, André Aciman’s fourth novel, is best calculated not by the number of pages read, but by the strength of readerly connection with the narrator. The project is one of recognition and revelation within the reader: the book wants nothing less than the dissolution of your consciousness into its pixellated moments of psychological precision.
The novel opens with Paul, at 22, returning to the small Italian island town San Giustiniano, where he and his family had spent his childhood summers until he was 12 and where, crucially, he first fell in love. The object of his affection was an older man, a carpenter named Giovanni, or “Nanni,” a name that “meant far, far more” to Paul “than it did to anyone else.” During his visit Paul investigates the mysterious burning of his family’s summer home by the locals and in the process uncovers an open family secret, a revelation that resituates his feelings toward his father, Nanni, and himself. “We love only once in our lives,” Paul’s father told him as a boy, “sometimes too early, sometimes too late, the other times are always a touch deliberate.” Through Aciman’s smooth layering of time, we witness both Paul’s pure first love and how it has aged. This initial section also sets the stage for what’s to come: four sections, each centered on a different lover in Paul’s post-San Giustiniano life.
The novel’s title refers, at least in part, to Edward Elgar’s opus 36, Variations on an Original Theme — popularly known as the Enigma Variations — in which the composer sketched a series of variations on a theme, each representing some aspect of a real-life friend from within Elgar’s inner circle. It’s a subtle way of toying with genre, of puncturing the fictional membrane — or suggesting that’s what’s happening — to let in some nonfiction. Maybe the characters are pulled from Aciman’s life, maybe not, but the title invites such speculation, which, if anything, amplifies the novel’s photorealism. Other writers have played with this conceit (one of the most thrilling recent examples I’ve read is Laurent Binet in HHhH), but the literary progenitor here — and not just in this respect — is, of course, Marcel Proust.
Loneliness, fear of shame, unrequited love light these pages. At a dinner party in the third section, beset with desire for Manfred, a man Paul sees at the tennis courts and in the locker room but with whom he’s hardly shared a full sentence, Paul thinks, “what if each of us at this very table is a monsoon-ravaged island trying to look its best, with all of our coconut trees bending to the winds till hopelessness breaks their back and you can hear each one crash,” because, after all, “we’re each waiting for someone’s voice to tear us out of our bleak and battered husk and say, Follow me, Brother, follow me.” Here and throughout, the minute mapping of Paul’s shifting emotions convinces and compels. What Wyatt Mason in The Proust Project, a collection of essays inspired by In Search of Lost Time and edited by Aciman, has said of Proust holds true for Enigma Variations: “[E]ven as we move forward, we grow no closer to the end than we were at the beginning.” Depth, not breadth, is the treasure, and grasping after the ungraspable present along with Paul becomes the point of the quest itself.
That said, the third section, “Manfred,” grows a little tedious. Unlike Aciman’s steamy first novel Call Me by Your Name, most of the skin-to-skin contact in Enigma Variations occurs in the narrator’s head, and in “Manfred,” Paul wallows longwindedly in the agony of delayed avowal. But this section also reveals something at the heart of Paul’s character: he’s happiest in the throes of yearning after new love because he knows that acquisition never leads to contentment. Obsessing over his feelings for Manfred, Paul thinks, “The circuit is always the same: from attraction to tenderness to obsessive longing, and then to surrender, desuetude, apathy, fatigue, and finally scorn.” Familiarity is the come-down; Paul’s drug is feeling itself, the more intense the better.
When Paul finally screws up the courage to come out to Manfred, he pulls out his phone and shows the man a picture of his 12-year-old self and says, “This is who is speaking to you now. Earnest, horny, so scared.” Love, infatuation, desire — these most powerful of feelings, this novel says — reduce and enlarge us in ways that are wonderfully juvenescent, at once simplifying and magnifying the world.
And complicating Paul’s romantic desire is his need, seemingly always, for two others — that is, if character A, the new inamorato, is seen as the destination, and he himself is B, then there seems always to be a need for C, an old lover, as the necessary starting point. What Paul becomes is the span between them. The cuckolded catalysts all seem okay with their status (Manfred in particular moves surprisingly smoothly from A to C), and in this manner the novel defers any overused tension around infidelity. Paul’s focus isn’t on the repercussions from leaving an old lover as much as it is on savoring the possibilities of new love.
Intriguingly, as we witness Paul repeatedly rearrange his life around a new magnetic north, it becomes clear that his bisexuality abets his serial monogamy. “I’d grown to love serving two masters,” he thinks, “perhaps so as never truly to answer to either one.” Yet Paul’s state isn’t a dilemma in search of an answer. We go with him the way we go with Anton Chekhov’s characters, enmeshed in the humanness of the drama. When Chloe, an on-again, off-again lover since college, confronts Paul, asking about his new lover, “Did you tell her you’ll always want something else and something more?”, we see it for the tender inquiry it is.
In the A-B-C equation, Paul is the bisexual bridge between A and C, and this metaphor is mined to profit—subtly in the first section when a San Giustiniano local says that all that happened to Paul’s family is “acqua passata,” water under the bridge, and elegantly in the scene of the New York City dinner party. As the partygoers admire the view of an East River bridge, Paul thinks, “what I really long for this evening is neither to be on this side of the river nor on the other but on the space and transit in between.” Aciman has captured Paul’s bridge life delightfully well.
Last week we remembered the death of journalist Michael Kelly four years ago near Baghdad, and examined his 1992 book, Martyr’s Day, chronicle of the first Gulf War.On to Bob Woodruff, ABC newsman, who was critically wounded on January 29, 2006, while reporting in Iraq. Exposed atop a patrolling tank, the 44 year-old Woodruff was preparing to shoot the day’s segment on the security handover supposedly taking place between U.S. and Iraqi forces. Twenty-seven days prior, Woodruff had taken over as co-anchor of ABC Nightly News, successor to the late Peter Jennings. It was not to last: a roadside bomb exploded, and Woodruff suffered multiple shrapnel wounds and a massive traumatic brain injury.Two declarations, the second more of an admission: first, I had by January of ’06 come to recognize Bob Woodruff, watching ABC Nightly News on a semi-regular basis, and I liked his reporting. Like many, I was saddened by the news of his injury and cheered by the news of his recovery. Second, when I took my first cursory looks at the book about the ordeal that he wrote with his wife, Lee Woodruff, In an Instant: A Family’s Journey of Love and Healing, I was nonplussed. For whatever reason, I didn’t trust it.A third declaration: the fact that Bob Woodruff is alive, let alone writing books, is miraculous. His personal courage and strength, along with that of Lee Woodruff and their family, and the dedication of the medical professionals who saved his life and then rebuilt him, shall not herein be diminished. But we are here to talk books, and so return to the difficulties of how to approach In an Instant.The book’s release early this year attended Woodruff’s tentative return to the ABC newsroom. Woodruff appeared on TV talk shows and other media outlets as well. Here was a man who had been forced to regain, through therapy, the ability to speak – no small thing for anyone, let alone a network news anchor. In an Instant is his story.But there was twinge of something darker hiding in the inspirational folds of the Woodruff family saga. The book seemed to validate the notion that, in this day and age, if you live to tell the tale (and sell the tale – In an Instant has been near the top of national non-fiction bestseller lists since its release), no matter how personal it is, you will do so – and right quick. It also made me think of the American men and women who have not returned from Iraq alive. Of those that have lived through injuries, many do not have what the Woodruffs are lucky enough to have, a loving, wide-ranging community of family and friends. Others have not received what Bob Woodruff received, the finest medical care money can buy.Despite these implications, the book, and its two writers, did ultimately win my trust, if not my unbounded critical admiration. As inspiration, In an Instant has infinitely greater value than your standard issue Dr. Doctor self-help schlock. It is told in the alternating voices of Lee and Bob, mostly Lee, as Bob was in a sedated state for five weeks before fully regaining consciousness. The writing is straightforward, and there is quite a lot of information packed into the pages. The Woodruffs recount concurrently both the story of recovery that followed that fateful Instant, and the story of their lives together from the instant they first met, their marriage, the birth of their four children, and Bob’s rise through the ranks of TV journalism. Woodruff bounced around a lot as a young newsman, from China in June of 1989, where he got his first taste of reporting, to San Francisco, Richmond, Phoenix, Chicago, D.C., and then London, where he was a lead foreign correspondent for ABC on 9/11/01 (Bob and Lee’s 13th wedding anniversary.)These movements mirror the rapid movements and decisive actions that immediately followed his injury. From the road outside the town of Taji, Woodruff was taken to a military hospital in the Baghdad green zone, then airlifted to a U.S. army combat field hospital in Balad that took the most severe casualties. These unnamed military doctors saved Bob Woodruff. Without hesitating, they sawed through his cranium to relieve the pressure on his brain. Woodruff was then flown by Critical Combat Air Transport to Landstuhl Germany, where an army surgeon, Dr. Guillermo Tellez, removed the shattered left half of his skull. From Landstuhl, Woodruff was flown again by CCATT plane to Andrews Air Force Base and rushed to Bethesda Naval Hospital outside D.C., where he would lie in an induced coma for over a month. The military’s impressive advances in combat triage are on full display here.Forced to perform her own family triage, Lee Woodruff describes in detail the shock of the news, and her own rapid, unflagging response. Lee’s ability to handle the immense weight of her family’s crisis, to inform but reassure her four children, and keep herself going as she attended her quiescent and disfigured husband, these efforts are just as heroic as Bob’s inner fight to survive. And there’s a fine payoff. Walking into his room at Bethesda Naval on the morning of March 6, expecting to find her husband unchanged, she instead found him awake: “‘Hey Sweetie,’ Bob said lovingly, with a little note of surprise. ‘Where’ve you been?'”For me, the most interesting aspects of the book are the details of Woodruff’s recovery, highlighted by some telling photographs. The image of this man, recognizable to so many people as a vigorous and handsome face on their TV, here smiling bravely into the camera with his two eldest kids, Cathryn and Mack, on either side, his face scarred, his head dented, says it all. Late in May, now in the care of neurosurgeons from Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, Woodruff underwent another risky procedure, a cranioplasty surgery, in which the doctors bonded an artificial skull-piece to his existing bone. His head outwardly rebuilt, Bob Woodruff then focused on the task of rebuilding what was inside. Like so many others with traumatic brain injury, he had to relearn his life, especially his speech. This process is fascinating, and the rapid progress that Woodruff made, astounding.Political opinions and philosophical conclusions are not for the TV reporter, whose job it is to present the story, an impartial witness to events. It is understandable, then, that In an Instant is a book about a family and not a war. The Woodruffs do address some of the thornier issues that lie buried in their story, if only very briefly. Bob discusses what it means to be a war correspondent putting himself in harm’s way, though his conclusions are that covering war is, for him, “a strange addiction,” and that war itself is “an affliction of the human race.” These are sterilized, apolitical, and not-so-penetrating insights.And what about the wife of the addicted war journalist? While Lee Woodruff does discuss the strain that her husband’s profession placed on their marriage before Bob was injured, she rarely reveals any crack in her facade of nurturing support and union during Bob’s recovery, other than understandable and unsurprising anxiety, depression, and fear. She frets about what might befall the family if Bob were to die or be unable to work again, and about the long-term effects that the traumatic event might have on her children, but acrimony has no place in this tale. Even in remembering the death of David Bloom, Bob’s friend and colleague who died outside Baghdad of a pulmonary embolism in April ’03 while covering the war for NBC, there is surprisingly little soul searching by the authors about the potential effect this strange addiction, embedded war reporting, can have on a family. Does Bob Woodruff have regrets? The answer will not be found in In an Instant.In an Instant carries a relentlessly positive message of triumph over adversity, and hope in the face of tragedy. Appropriately, the Woodruffs do acknowledge how lucky they are to have had the resources, both human and monetary, of a large corporation to see them through. There are many people to thank, and they thank each and every one. They have done something else, too, which is to establish a charitable trust to benefit the 1.4 million Americans a year affected by TBI, Traumatic Brain Injury. And they note that many such men and women, in the care of the U.S. military medical system, “are not receiving appropriate cognitive rehabilitation, for whatever reason.”So there you have it, and time marches on. I myself hope to see Bob Woodruff back on the air with regularity, and would consider it yet another amazing addendum to the story if he were to return to the anchor chair at ABC News. I would also understand it if he walked away from the news altogether, though it would surprise me. No matter what the future holds for Bob Woodruff, his life was nearly taken in an instant, in a war he was risking his life to cover. His is, as Tom Brokaw writes, “a book for our time.”
Understanding how people live with disabilities has engaged me since my father had a stroke. I grew curious about the gap between me and my father, and my father and his old self. I began exploring this gap through writing essays for a disability rights newspaper about my father’s, and my family’s experiences. I had the chance to snuggle close to another physical change when my husband had a bad work accident and almost lost his hand. I wrote about that until I felt my words were too invasive, and asked my editor for other assignments. He suggested I interview people, and I’ve had the chance to profile a number of people with brain injuries, an English teacher with MS, and a blind man who climbed Kilimanjaro and kayaked the English Channel. This month my assignment is to write about a deaf drummer, Dame Evelyn Glennie.
Reading is another way I try to bridge the human canyon between my temporarily able-bodied self and this broadly defined other. I’m not well-versed in the growing field of disability literature, but I am growing familiar with pockets of writers who tackle the subject of their disabilities. Poet Peggy Shumaker wrote a captivating and lyrical memoir, Just Breathe Normally that touches on moments from a nearly fatal bicycle accident and the slow process of recovering her physical and mental functions, including the very act of writing.
I fell for Anne Finger’s flat, frank self-examination when I read Elegy for a Disease: A Personal and Cultural History of Polio. Her assessment of her life with a disease, and the life of that disease, written in a very immediate present tense, brought me right into her experiences.
This same quick personal style grabbed me at the beginning of Anne Finger’s collection of short stories, Call Me Ahab. Her fifth title and the winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in fiction, the book imagines disability in the lives of many real and literary figures. As readers we know of Helen Keller from her teacher’s perspective, of Captain Ahab’s monomania from Ishmael. Finger serves these stories, and those of other disability icons, from the eye of the beholder, confronting ideas we are spoon-fed as a culture, that Frida Kahlo is sexy, but Helen Keller is a tamed animal.
Finger is a talented storyteller, delivering voices and situations with smooth conviction. The scenes she creates jump time and place without jarring the reader. An imagined Vincent Van Gogh, the lead character in “Vincent” traipses between Van Gogh’s lifetime and a modern New York City, where the painter’s brother Theo leaves him to the whims of the social services system. “Goliath” recasts the biblical tale of David and Goliath in a post-apocalyptic manner, dotted with habits and phrases from our present; a renewed medievalism carries its own odd language and realm, peppered with remnants of our destroyed civilization, like announcements of the weather mixed with ancient habits of studying dead animals to understand a person’s disease.
Vincent’s mental illness and Goliath’s gigantism are central to these stories but also incidental; the disabilities sit in the stories as elements that render and support each fiction’s emotional truth. The author is intent on carefully inhabiting her characters. Thus we get to speculate what Goliath might physically feel, and wonder how an artistic genius might have weathered a society with a hostile approach to the package of his person, deficits and gifts.
Graceful sentences, often with awkward or shocking subjects, flow throughout the book, such as this thought the narrator places in Helen Keller’s mind in the first story, “Helen and Frida.”
Her ardent young circle of socialists wants to do away with the sordid marketplace of prostitution – bourgeois marriage – where women barter their hymens and throw in their souls to sweeten the deal.
Later in the same story the narrator states, “When I was a kid I thought being a grown up would be like living in the movies…” The placement of such a universal line in the mouth of someone who deconstructs representations of people who use wheelchairs or are blind takes this story about identity politics and puts the question of identity, which is very much on the tip of the narrator’s tongue, into the reader’s lap.
While elements of some of the stories feel slightly obvious and forced, like the member of a Boston Brahmin family dying of AIDS, and Ahab waxing homosexual in his thoughts, these flaws do not reduce the weight and charm of the collection. Writers manufacture stories, and some parts of even the most deftly written stories will feel manufactured. On the balance, Finger has strength in her storytelling, and hopefully that strength will reach a wide audience.