Anyone who has made a living sitting in a cubicle has at one time or another wondered if there is more to life than pushing the proverbial pencils. These second thoughts are central to our existence as working folk. Often, when that meeting has dragged on an hour to long or when the boss is peppering you with inane suggestions, you wonder what it would be like to do something that really matters. Absolutely American by David Lipsky is about a group of people, West Point cadets, who have decided to or been thrust into a profession that, in the eyes of the government and much of the population, really matters. Their concerns are not the cubicle but of hewing to countless regulations, eight-mile road marches in full gear, and ultimately sending people into battle one day. According to Lipsky’s introduction, he went to West Point, the military academy that trains army officers, to write an article for Rolling Stone, and he eventually found himself fascinated by the enthusiasm he found there. Lipsky ended up spending four years following the cadets. The book reads like a magazine article, and Lipsky’s writing rarely falters. He presents a West Point that is infinitely more complicated than the typical stereotype of the army. It is an Army that is at war with itself internally, as it tries to become more diverse and progressive. The book covers the years 1998 to 2002, so we get to see the transformation that September 11 causes in both the cadets and the army itself. Lipsky’s greatest feat is to make the reader realize that behind the “high and tight” haircuts, the uniform, and the stern demeanor, those who are called to the military are as complicated and conflicted as the rest of us.
The Story of Kullervo, the first known prose work by J.R.R. Tolkien, is to be published this week in the United States, offering fans of Middle Earth a chance to read what may be one of the earliest sources for Tolkien’s quintessential literary fantasy realm.
The story is a retelling of the tragedy of Kullervo from The Kalevala, a Finnish saga compiling oral folklore, which was first published in 1835. The world of The Kalevala proved to be an immense influence on Tolkien’s writings, as did the circumstances of its publication, which reclaimed a national mythology for Finland; Tolkien later expressed an aspiration to do the same for England. As well as Tolkien’s story (which is unfinished, with the conclusion rendered only in a brisk outline), this volume includes an introduction, notes, and concluding essay by editor Verlyn Flieger, as well as two manuscript versions of a lecture Tolkien delivered on the subject of The Kalevala.
The publisher’s claim that this represents a “world first publication of a previously unknown work” is disingenuous, given that almost all of these materials have appeared previously: the story and lectures in the annual academic journal Tolkien Studies in 2010, and the concluding essay in Flieger’s own Green Suns and Faërie: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien in 2012. Misleading marketing is nothing new in publishing, but while this is not a deception approaching the scale of, for example, Go Set a Watchman — mostly because there was never really any doubt that this would be only of interest to academics and committed Tolkien fans — it still leaves a bitter taste.
Fortunately, the target audience will find plenty to interest it in The Story of Kullervo, perhaps most significantly the title character, who clearly serves as the inspiration for Túrin Turambar, one of the most important characters in the First Age of Middle Earth. Túrin appears in the posthumously published The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and most fully in The Children of Húrin in 2007. The “hapless Kullervo” directly parallels Túrin in a number of respects — both lose their fathers at an early age, unwittingly commit incest with their estranged sisters, and kill themselves by falling upon their own swords. The story offers early glimpses of numerous other Middle Earth tropes. For example, this story marks Tolkien’s earliest use of verse and song within a prose narrative, a stylistic element that pointed to his love of Germanic and Nordic sagas and would become a defining feature of his best-known works, The Hobbit and The Lord of Rings.
Likewise, some names are reminiscent of those that would become significant in Tolkien’s legendarium, with Wanwe and Ilu evolving into Manwë, King of the Valar, and Ilúvatar, the omnipotent Creator, respectively. Fans of The Hobbit might also notice a potential precursor in Kullervo’s journey down a river in a barrel, and more devoted Tolkienites might see an amalgam of Galadriel and the Blue Wizards in the mysterious figure of the “Blue-robed Lady of the Forest.”
Although this will likely be the chief source of interest for readers, it would be unfortunate to summarize The Story of Kullervo solely in relation to Tolkien’s later work. The story itself is an enjoyable and creative reworking of the Kullervo myth, and serves as great introduction for those unfamiliar with Finnish folklore. As one of Tolkien’s earliest writings (he was still an undergraduate when he wrote it) there is clearly still plenty of room for stylistic development, and his confusing habit of changing the names of characters without explanation will undoubtedly alienate some readers.
However, for those willing to stay with it, The Story of Kullervo presents a captivating story. It also reveals a much darker side to Tolkien; he evidently takes relish in the many moments of violence, manipulating the rash Kullervo (whose name Tolkien tells us means “wrath”) towards his tragic fate.
The most significant problem, however, is that the story breaks off after less than 40 pages, meaning that it takes up only around one-fifth of the volume to which it gives its title. One hesitates to use the word “filler,” but the book leaves the distinct impression that there is not quite enough material here to justify publication in its own volume. For instance, Tolkien’s two draft lecture manuscripts are almost identical in places, yet both are published in full with their own separate sets of notes. Likewise, although Flieger’s essay is insightful, presented alongside her introduction and extensive notes, it is virtually rendered redundant, repeating facts and background information that (in some cases) have already been cited twice before.
Aside from the lectures, it is disappointing not to see any other writings by Tolkien on The Kalevala included in this volume. At least one unpublished poem, “The New Lemminkäinen,” a parody of W.F. Kirby’s translation of The Kalevala written by Tolkien in 1911, is known to exist, and might have bulked up the page count while also providing a rare insight into Tolkien’s sense of humor. Whether this text was made available to Flieger or not remains unknown, but it would certainly not have been out of place here, and would have provided a little more justification for this volume’s existence.
Flieger herself seems to express a sense of uneasiness regarding the necessity of this publication in her introduction, ultimately concluding that the story deserves a wider audience. However, it is hard to see this book, which is decidedly academic in approach, being of much interest to anyone who is not already at least somewhat versed in Tolkien scholarship.
But perhaps this is the volume’s ulterior purpose, or at least its unintended consequence: to address that division between academics and casual readers. Like that of Harper Lee’s, the value of Tolkien’s name ensures that thousands of fans will buy this book; if that results in them being introduced to the writings that influenced him so heavily and are so little read these days outside of academic circles, that is surely a good thing. It will undoubtedly bring greater attention to The Kalevala, and Tolkien — always more comfortable in the role of academic than bestselling writer — would probably have approved.
A kind of antipodean counterpart to E.L. Doctorow (and now, like Doctorow, a resident of New York), the Australian novelist Peter Carey seems able to do virtually anything on the page. A master of plot, character, setting, phrasing, point-of-view, description, and dialogue (among other things), Carey has published sprawling bildungsromans and swift-moving capers, real travelogues and fake confessions, books for children and books for adults. Perhaps his greatest achievement, The True History of the Kelly Gang, is a Down Under Western filtered through the richly impoverished word-hoard of an uneducated outlaw. Like all of Carey’s works, it boasts a narrative brio few writers can sustain.In his new novel, His Illegal Self, Carey turns (as Doctorow did in Billy Bathgate) to a neglected genre: the boy’s adventure story. In trenchant, gorgeous chapters, we follow seven-year-old Che Selkirk, the abandoned son of Sixties radicals, as he goes on the lam with a woman who seems vaguely familiar. Their flight takes them west across America, and eventually to the Australian outback (even as the narrative backtracks to the events that drove them to flee).Carey is one of contemporary literature’s great describers, and the picaresque mode allows him to indulge his lyrical gifts. At Kenoza Lake in upstate New York, we are told, “The geese would be heading up to Canada and the Boeings spinning their white contrails across the cold blue sky – loneliness and hope, expanding like paper flowers in water.” Australia, by contrast, is a vision of fecundity:A big tree had fallen, its clay- and pebble-crusted roots naked in the air like dried-out innards. The trunk, which made a bridge between the flood bank and the low bank, was about as big across as a man is tall and he soon found a place, just below the disturbed earth, where you could jump down onto its broad back, like the back of an elephant or a slippery seal, and he walked along it, with the kitten now meowing softly, down to the place where the timber splintered and smashed and speared into the earth.Almost Biblically aggregative, such sentences alone might carry us through fifty pages or more. But Carey is after larger game. The novel’s driving ambition is the evocation of innocence and experience, of the attachments and eventual heartbreaks that characterize both childhood and the 1960s. Which is to say, His Illegal Self rises and falls on the relationship between Che and Dial (and their relationship with one of the eccentrics they, like Huck and Jim, fall in with).Carey can deliver a supporting character with Dickensian brilliance; a few lines are sufficient to capture both the comedy and the pathos of Che’s Grandma Selkirk, for example, or of his erstwhile neighbor Cameron. (“He sat in ski socks before the electric radiator, spreading the skin condition that he hoped would save him from Vietnam.”) Yet the novel’s depiction of its two most central people sometimes stumbles. And so our emotional investment in them – and even our understanding of the plot – wavers, as though we are reading by candlelight.This flickering quality arises from the formal challenge the novelist has set for himself here. Although a few asides lead us to believe that Che, our third-person protagonist, is remembering his childhood from some point in the future, Carey elects to narrate in virtually unbroken “free indirect style,” foregoing interpretation by the author. The choice makes aesthetic and dramatic sense – aesthetically, it brings us close to the exotic intellect of the seven-year-old, and dramatically it allows Carey to withhold certain pieces of information without seeming coy.It also gives Carey license to practice and perfect a technique for which the Russian formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky coined the term ostranenie (often translated as “defamiliarization.”) Ostranenie involves trying to present a fictional object as it appears to consciousness, rather than trying to explain it for the benefit of the reader. The aim is the (illusory) overthrow of the mediating tyranny of the author. Here, for example, is a hotel, seen through Che’s eyes:Then they walked along green corridors with long tubes of light above, and the sounds of TVs applauding from the rooms. Dial’s face was green in the hallway, then dark and shrunken inside the room.It is defamiliarization that gives these sentences their beauty and their strangeness. In their almost erotic attention to sensory detail, they also capture a quality of consciousness peculiar to children. (A former elementary school teacher, I can testify that it’s not uncommon for kids to have 20/10 vision; as noticers, children make Saul Bellow’s heroes look positively obtuse.)Yet an overreliance on defamiliarization is also the novel’s chief weakness. We may sense in the passage quoted above that Dial has become momentarily frightening, but can only guess how, or why. Carey’s emphasis on the external places us emotionally further away from Che than we ever are from Huck Finn, muddying the stakes of the novel. In a way, the extremes to which Carey pushes ostranenie could be said to proceed from false assumptions about consciousness – to underestimate the degree to which seven-year-olds do interpret and make sense of their worlds. And defamiliarization is like any other figure of speech. To be profligate with it is to deprive it of its power to discriminate among objects in the fictional world.Then again, Che’s failures of apprehension help drive the adventure forward, and when the emotional center of the novel precipitates out of the stream of images, about two-thirds of the way through – when, that is, Che has something to lose – the candle by which we’ve been reading flares up, and begins to give off a brighter light.Still, one does wish for some moderation of style of the middle third of the book. However breathtaking the writing, His Illegal Self, falls short of a goal attainable to Peter Carey and to few other novelists: the creation of consciousness. Fans of Carey, of the English declarative sentence, and of books that end with a bang rather than a whimper, are encouraged to pick up His Illegal Self. But they should expect a transcendent amuse-bouche rather than a well-balanced meal – a book more likely to arouse appetites than to slake them.
Using the New York City borough of Queens as a linchpin, Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, Dissident Gardens, questions the American twentieth century’s “great comedy: that Communism had never existed, not once. So what was there to oppose?” Yet, every character in this book, which seamlessly bobs in and out of the last century’s decades and into the recent past of Occupy Wall Street, leads a life of great opposition, resisting everything their eras throw at them: electrified rock ‘n’ roll drowning out the pacifist strumming of folk music; the painfully belated attention, and lack thereof, from distant parents; the “ritual compliance” to TSA indignities. At the core of this resistance are two women, Rose Zimmer and her daughter Miriam. Steeped in Marxism but having no choice but to cope with how “true Communism had floated free of history, like smoke,” after Nikita Khrushchev delivered a speech in 1956 denouncing Stalin, this cell of two takes shape, a solidarity of dignified disappointment.
The ghosts of European Diaspora drive Rose’s husband back to his native Germany, leaving the two Zimmer women in Sunnyside Gardens, a still-standing 1,200-unit planned community built around communal gardens. It is here, only six stops away from Manhattan on the 7 train, where community organizing blurs with neighborly nosiness and Rose and Miriam anneal their individual strengths through clashes that demonstrate the women’s similarities. Their time living together comes to an end after a precocious teenage Miriam, Rose’s “renegade self” who has skipped her last year of high school, brings home a young man. Rose discovers the two of them in Miriam’s bedroom and after the suitor is permitted to leave, Rose, having turned on the gas, crawls into the oven before removing herself to shove in Miriam, an episode of utter histrionics that will haunt both women for the rest of their lives. But before the suitor is sent on his way so mother and daughter can tussle, Rose declares: “I tried to raise a young woman but apparently produced an American teenager in her place.”
Spend enough time in Queens and you will invariably hear such lamentations from foreign-born parents raising their children in this melting pot borough, explaining why it plays a central role in this novel. True, all of New York is a melting pot, but Queens has always been a remarkable amalgam of multiple nationalities living in close proximity, maintaining aspects of home while embracing New World attitudes. These hybrid identities, however, test and taunt Rose, Miriam, and their chess-playing, numismatist cousin Lenny Angrush, all committed Communists with increasingly less to share in common with their comrades. As Lenny says, “Fuck the amnesia of Communists who’d conveniently forgotten they were Communists, of the immigrants who’d forgotten they were immigrants.”
Miriam moves to Manhattan; her son Sergius is sent to a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania; one of Rose’s causes, Cicero Lookins, the overweight, gay son of Rose’s lover, a black, married cop, eventually ends up as a university professor in Maine. But no matter how far any of the characters travel, they cannot escape Queens. Lethem does not let them; the borough exerts a heady presence. He evokes the crazy convergences of streets, avenues, roads, drives, and lanes; he frames the genesis of the Mets as the “death of the Sunnyside Proletarians”; there are flickering-reality interactions with Archie Bunker; the 7 train rising above ground in Long Island City and careening toward Queensboro Plaza against the backdrop of Manhattan is “progress up out of the darkness, scraping moonward into the constellation of streetlights and signage along Jackson Avenue.”
Queens is the perfect metaphor for the world, as it contains the world, making the lives of the Zimmer women universal in that like them, every single one of us must struggle with our own identities in order to understand the identities of others. Frustrated folk singer Tommy Gogan, Miriam’s Irish husband, is jealously in awe of Bob Dylan, thinking his shape-shifting theatrics compromise the integrity of music, of the music’s message. But then he realizes that “Dylan, having shrunken an entire world to his sole person, was terrified by the isolation.” Both Rose and Miriam also fear isolation so they spend their lives trying to expand their worlds through the collective and individual gestures of causes, from workers’ rights to helping Cicero and the Sandinistas. Rose believes that all true Communists die alone, but that is just an easy way to accept that we all die alone: “Always opt for civilization’s brutalities, for the stupidities of the urbane. Not for Rose or Miriam the primal indignity of nature.”
Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude features one of the best endings in all of fiction as father and son drive through a blizzard, listening to Brian Eno’s Another Green World, “two gnarls of human scribble, human cipher, human dream.” This is the moment of implicit reconciliation and a nod to how the unexpected can bring together individuals. The characters in Dissident Gardens grow from the expectations of planned, organized communities intended to unify individuals but they spend their lives trying to extract themselves from these contexts only to realize that it is not their individuality that defines them but their solitude.
Dissident Gardens is an intricately detailed meditation on varieties of emotional isolation. When the 7 train charges above ground today the majority of people just keep watching their screens or check their phones for service, oblivious to the surroundings of the borough that most of them call home. The graffiti-adorned 5 Pointz standing resolutely under the growing skyline of Long Island City is no match for Angry Birds or a text message about baby names. Technological connectivity isolates us from our surroundings, and from others. A political ideology meant to unite communities around the skills and abilities of individuals splintered those communities. The irony in both examples is the same – what in theory should bring us together keeps us apart. In Dissident Gardens, Jonathan Lethem leverages this irony, bringing to life characters who want no parts of what they feel connected to but cannot quite latch on to what it is they really need.