Andrea Levy’s Small Island is a post-colonial novel told from four points of view. Queenie and Bernard, separated by war, are a British couple with a tepid relationship and Hortense and Gilbert are Jamaican, married out of convenience and lured to England by opportunity. The book explores British racism in the 1950s. It’s less overtly ugly than its American cousin, but it nonetheless dictates the borders of the lives of Gilbert, Hortense and their fellow immigrants. Britain, long the colonizer, renowned for her Empire, in Small Island has reached a point where it would like to forget about the past and start from scratch. This time all these people of different colors can stay in their own lands. But, of course, this is not an option. Instructed by centuries of colonialism to believe they are British subjects and stirred up by the global tumult of World War II, immigrants from all over the world resettle in their “Mother Country.” Nearly all of the white folks in the book are like Bernard, dismissive and even affronted by the arrival of darker people on their shores. They stare, heckle, slam doors and on occasion take a swing at these people. It matters not that thousands of Jamaicans fought along side the British during the war. It is telling that most of the British folks Gilbert interacts with think that Jamaica is in Africa. Queenie, however, is the anomaly and perhaps even a cliche since so often these novels of race relations have at their center an enlightened white person. But luckily Levy gives her sufficient depth to carry a large chunk of the novel. What sets this book apart, and what probably helped Levy win awards for it – the Orange prize in 2004 and then this year’s Orange “Best of the Best” – was her ability to imbue each of the four narrators with his or her own voice. Gilbert and Hortense speak with the native rhythm of their home island, Bernard’s voice is pinched and fidgety, and Queenie is the voice of hope and happiness. Though the chapter headings indicate who will narrate each chapter, the voices are so distinctive that this touch is unnecessary.
In July, a crowd gathered in the atrium outside of Garden St. Bookshop in New Orleans for an appearance by Dave Eggers. Four years after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans and books and movies about Katrina started flooding the media, a new Katrina narrative may seem uncalled for, but this one is not. You may not expect a guy who had the audacity to write a memoir of his twenties and call it A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius to be humble, but when he when he entered the room followed by a short, round-faced woman wearing a brown-swirled hijab and her husband, a handsome Syrian man, the humility Eggers exuded rang genuine. Eggers, addressing a room of around two hundred people, introduced Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun. In his new book, Zeitoun, Eggers chronicles the experience of Abdulrahman, a Syrian immigrant, and his family as they face not only the worst natural disaster in American history but a justice system in which Abdulrahman becomes stranded, rendered helpless and stripped of his identity “as a neighbor, as a countryman, as a human”. Eggers, rather than reading, held a panel discussion with the couple. With the three of them sitting, Eggers realized, most people in the room would be unable to see them. So, for a good part of the time, the three of them stood. Eggers spoke for a moment before turning the talk over to Kathy, who addressed the room with warmth and confidence. One of the first things out of her mouth was a defense of Islam against “what you might see on TV. It’s a very peaceful religion.” Zeitoun (Zey-toon), as people call him because they can’t pronounce his first name, speaks English well, but Kathy did most of the talking as he stood with his hands clasped behind his back, casting his eyes between the floor, the listeners and his wife. As she spoke, Kathy and Zeitoun exchanged looks, and the love between them, the parents of five children, was visible. Kathy is from Baton Rouge. She converted to Islam when she was nineteen and searching for a religion. “I wanted to be Catholic,” she joked, “but it takes too long.” Kathy said that by converting to Islam, “you’re not changing your beliefs, just your religion. Through Islam, I found God.” While Kathy’s journey led her to Islam, Zeitoun’s led him to New Orleans, and where the two met they built their life as a couple committed to their family and working hard to raise their children and run a business: Zeitoun A. Painting Contractor, LLC. In their community, they were loved for their generosity and respected for their honesty and reliability. Like Eggers’ previous novel, What is the What, this third person narrative is an epic of survival and the challenges of the immigrant, illuminating the flaws of the American dream even as they are met with optimism and persistence. But Abdulrahman Zeitoun is not a stranger. He is a New Orleanian. His wife begs him to leave the city before, during and after Hurricane Katrina, but he insists on staying behind to help his neighbors, rescuing people trapped in their houses and feeding abandoned dogs. “This is my family, too,” he says. Zeitoun paddles his canoe around post-Katrina New Orleans, a world made new by flood, accompanied by memories of his childhood in Syria and invigorated by a sense of freedom and purpose. Zeitoun’s odyssey through his own city is paralleled by Kathy’s vigil over the family, not as Penelope in the family home but as a vagabond in a Honda Odyssey, roaming west in search of shelter while she waits for her husband to leave New Orleans. “The dissonance woke him.” This is the last line of Part I, as Zeitoun wakes to the sound of floodwaters rushing past his house from Lake Pontchartrain. In this story, the word dissonance looms large. Zeitoun, although not an outsider, retains the innocence of an immigrant expecting something different from this country. His home becomes strange and the behavior of others sometimes confounds him. “Why had he said he would come if he did not plan to come?... He had promised help and he had not kept that promise.” Bewilderment gives way to shock when he is arrested a house he owns and, incredibly, locked in a cell that is more like a cage, surrounded by men with guns and treated as not only a stranger but as an enemy. In a place that he recognizes but that is no longer his home, he is stripped, literally, and then figuratively, of his pride and his rights. Across the world in Istanbul, where I was living and teaching English when the storm hit New Orleans, my students expressed shock at the images they were seeing on television.” The dissonance woke them, too. They said to me “We can’t believe this is America.” In the atrium, I asked Zeitoun if his experience changed his perception of America. He replied that when he saw so many people left helpless by their government and when he sat in prison being treated worse than a criminal, not knowing why he was being held and denied contact with his family, “I said to myself, this is not America.” Speaking to the crowd in the atrium, Kathy recounted the ordeal in the weeks after the storm when she could not find her husband or any information about him, not knowing whether he was dead or alive. She laughed and gestured with animated hands and face as she conveyed the frustration of explaining to his panicked family in Syria and Spain that she did not know where he was. “It was like I had lost someone else’s pet.” Billy Sothern, a Louisiana attorney and anti-death penalty advocate, briefly explained the series of legal breakdowns, before and after the storm, that held Zeitoun in prison for weeks without a hearing, without charges and with no way to contact his wife and children. “Even after we knew where he was,” Kathy said, “he didn’t know we were looking for him. He thought we had just forgotten about him.” At this comment, Zeitoun cast a sheepish glance at his wife then hung his head for a moment. When outsiders write about New Orleans, we denizens often find ourselves cringing at things like “gumbo parties.” But New Orleans rendered by Eggers through Zeitoun’s eyes is the New Orleans we know. Zeitoun’s is not the view of an outsider. Through Zeitoun’s eyes, in scenes that alternate beauty and despair, Eggers portrays encounters and events that I recognize as the idiosyncrasies of my city--the kind of place where neighbors know each other, where a prostitute hitches a ride to work in a canoe in the middle of a flood, where people make a party on the roof in a city of apocalyptic destruction. There was one disappointment, however. Towards the end, Eggers gives a one-paragraph history of the state prison in Angola in which, among thousands of facts and stories, he picks a few that offer a narrow and demonized picture of a complex subject. Why was it necessary to point out that one of the crops grown at Angola was cotton? It wasn’t. Such facts, presented in isolation, play on social stereotypes and racial sensitivities to unnecessarily inflame and prejudice a reader. As a person who has actually been inside the gates of Angola (as a guest), I wish that Eggers had looked more deeply into the subject before coloring it with such a wide stroke of ignominy. Despite this misstep, this love story and adventure tale is a great read, rendered beautifully in simple prose with a pace that will keep you reading. Heartbreaking at times, the tale of Zeitoun leaves the reader with a hopeful view of a world in which people like the Zeitouns respond to its imperfections not with bitterness but with a desire and an effort to build a better one.
Unless you're inhuman or illiterate, you've felt the frisson of joy delivered by an instance of perfect mimesis in fiction -- that moment when a writer gets something so recognizably right that the act of recognition itself seems to confer a new reality upon the experience. Yes! you might say, that's exactly how it is, and underscoring your pleasure there might be recognition of another sort: the writer's recognition of your own experience of the world. Then there's the convincing depiction of experience that's recognizable, yet once-removed. For simplicity's sake, for the moment let's stick with experience or behavior rather than natural occurrence. Someone you might not have known or seen or heard firsthand becomes, through the deftness of the writer's rendering, distinctly and convincingly familiar. Yes, you might say in this case, that's what it must be to be someone like that. That's how he would talk. That's just what would happen. Reading Zadie Smith's NW, for instance, when a distressed Natalie (Keisha) wanders the streets of her old neighborhood with Nathan, who's never managed to escape its dire demographics, you might -- if you were someone like me -- never have known someone quite like Nathan, but now you do. You can hear him say, as surely as if he'd been standing next to you, “Everyone loves a bredrin when he’s ten…After that he’s a problem…That’s how it is…There’s no way to live in this country when you’re grown.” Or another type, one you've observed in one form or another, might become not just credible but comprehensible, as in the work of Curtis Sittenfeld in American Wife. You might have asked yourself (again, if you're like me, sadly), How is it possible to be Laura Bush? A smart, educated, seemingly enlightened woman as the self-affirmed conjugal flak of a spoiled, failed child of privilege turned evangelical war-mongering anti-intellectual politician on the world stage? And in Sittenfeld's fiction you might find an answer that resonates. Move one step further away from what you know, and you may be confronted with a character who's conceivable even though he or she might not exist. Yes, you say in this case, it's entirely credible that a character might be made up of such components -- now I see her! -- yes! -- that's what she'd say or do! She might be Oedipa Maas of The Crying of Lot 49. Or Jack Gladney, pioneering the field of Hitler Studies in White Noise. Or David Foster Wallace's Orin Incandenza. Or Charles Dickens's Mr. Dick. But what about experience that's inconceivable to most of us -- an act of genius, a moment of utmost extremity, a visit to the moon, a chat with Kim Jong-un, falling to the guillotine, challenging Julius Caesar? Anyone who has read The Iliad and understood that the pouting Achilles was a hero to Homer's audience must know that what we understand to be verisimilitude, let alone storytelling and heroism, is in some philosophical, even existential way uncommunicable across time and culture. And when we realize that nothing resembling what we understand to be a novel was written in the West before the 1600s or in the East before 11th century, we have to concede that fiction as a conveyance of experience, a depiction of reality, a connection between writer and reader is susceptible to time and interpretation. What do we want from it anyway, aside from the oh-get-me-from-here-to-there-already of plot, a perfectly acceptable demand for the satisfactions of seeing things make sense? This was a question that -- oddly, perhaps -- came up for me as I was reading Ethan Canin's new novel, A Doubter's Almanac. Canin is, in the old-fashioned sense, as Henry James said of Nathaniel Hawthorne, "a beautiful writer." His clear predecessor is the F. Scott Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby, as he can so perfectly capture a thought, a gesture, a look, a detail, or an event as it means something to a character whose reflections he's so precisely and evocatively conveyed that it means something to us. In this new book, the narrator is something of a mathematical savant, son of the not-at-all-somewhat mathematical genius whose story the first half tells and the second half retells from another perspective. This is fiction that captures reality in a way that's quite different from what I've described so far, because the reality that Canin is depicting is, for the most part, philosophical. The novel is steeped in a mathematical sensibility. In his father's mind, Hans, the narrator, tells us, "all the other academic disciplines -- including the physical sciences ...were irrevocably tainted by their debt to substance." And again and again we are asked to view the world as someone like Hans's father, Milo, might -- purely, you might say, without reference to its physical coordinates, though the physical coordinates are what orient Milo and make him aware of his gift, as we see when we first witness his extraordinary "positional aptitude" -- his uncanny ability to know precisely where he is on the "plane of the earth" -- a "sort of intrinsic, spatial mapping." “Mathematics is an invented science,” Milo tells Hans. “But strangely,” he continues, “the inventions of mathematics, which are wholly constructions of the mind, are in turn able to yield other inventions. That is why they seem more like discoveries than creations. In fact the distinction remains a debate...I also believe that this is why so many mathematicians feel that they have been privy to the language of God.” He thought for a moment. ‘Although I should also say that I’ve thought of it in other ways, too. As the language of the mind, for example. Or even’—here he turned to me more thoughtfully -- ‘as the language of language. The underlier of grammar. The skeleton of cognition. The rails on which the train of human advance steams up and down, one hill after the next.’ At this point, a mulberry twig falls onto the lawn in front of father and son. “Squirrels,” Hans says, looking up. The squirrels, of course, are the point. “Mathematics,” Milo says, “is like carving a wooden doll...and then, one day, you watch as your wooden doll gives birth to another wooden doll.” In its form and its fashion, the novel raises the question: do we look to fiction for the wooden doll or the squirrel? In A Doubter’s Almanac, Ethan Canin gives us a truly convincing picture of what it’s like to experience the world as most of us, probably, don’t. This is life in the abstract, which, predictably, doesn’t work out very well for those who are privy to this intellectually elevated existence. When Milo has failed in worldly terms: “His mind, he realized, was his only friend.” Though Canin wants us to care about Milo and his mathematically gifted children and grandchildren, what’s far more convincing is what’s familiar: “We watched a pair of red ants pitilessly drag a thrashing inchworm across the sand. It was like the ending of a great novel.” An inchworm or mayflies or lily pads: Canin takes us back to that moment of mimesis that reminds us of our connection to someone else’s vision or experience of the world: My mother looked up at the cloud of wings and feelers. ‘Mayflies,’ she said. 'They seem to be committing suicide in pairs.’ ’You’re right.’ She leaned back and let out a sigh. 'They’re mating.' There is in this novel a strange tension that makes me, at any rate, wonder what we ask of fiction anymore. Does it, as in the work of Lydia Davis or Diane Williams or perhaps even Jenny Offill, ask us to question how we experience reality -- or whether we experience it differently than others might? Or does it allow us to confirm what we think we know? In A Doubter’s Almanac we have two worlds, and two forms of fiction, in uneasy coexistence, one that psychologist Jerome Bruner says establishes “not truth but verisimilitude” and one that -- in Bruner’s view not fiction but argument -- “verifies by eventual appeal to procedures for establishing formal and empirical proof.” Just as, in a world that contains photography, a painter must reconsider the value of representationalism, a fiction writer in an age of the extraordinary documentation of television and the Internet, where every last little feature of reality might be found and viewed from virtually every angle, must reevaluate the merit of capturing every detail, every moment, of a story. Is that exquisite word picture of a person, a gesture, an instant -- that yes! of recognition -- what we want? Or do we want something different, something new, some sense that, with the same words, in the same world, we might, through the workings of fiction, find a way to rethink reality -- and to find the familiar strange, the world an ever bigger, more interesting place? Observing his daughter, the next generation of mathematical genius, admiring the carpet of lily pads on a slow spot in the river, Canin’s narrator remarks, I think Emmy likes the mystery of the spot, too, the way she knows from the undulation of the green that the water is there but never actually sees it. The feeling is much like the joy of mathematics itself, the original secret of the guild: that the miracle of the universe can be worshipped without actually witnessing the divine. I also think she might be counting the lily pads. Worship the miracle of the universe, witness the divine, count the lily pads: what do we, as readers of fiction, want to do?
Whether or not you like Haruki Murakami's newest novel, After Dark, will probably depend on how many of his previous books you have read. If you've read two or less, you may enjoy it. If you've read three or four, you will almost certainly find it tedious. If you've read five or more you're incorrigible and nothing I say here will deter you.For my part, I've read so much Murakami, it has ceased to be fun. I've read all of his books in translation, less Kafka on the Shore and South of the Border, West of the Sun, and several of his yet to be translated books in the original Japanese. My first journey into the curious land of his prose was Norwegian Wood, and liking it, I found myself drawn to his other novels, the best of which, Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, The Windup Bird Chronicle, and Dance Dance Dance, more than made up for the tepid performances of books like Sputnik Sweetheart.As in all Murakami novels, After Dark's plot is irrelevant. Nothing happens for a long time, then something creepy and inexplicable happens, then the book ends for no apparent reason, leaving any semblance of story unresolved. In the past, the pleasure in the majority of these books (with the notable exception of Dance Dance Dance, which adopted the form of a supernatural thriller) came from Murakami's almost uncanny ability to create atmosphere and capture physical longing - whether for a piece of cucumber wrapped in seaweed or for a lover's touch - with palpable virtuosity.The problem confronting Murakami's readers has always been that, despite his otherworldly talents, he has nothing to say. Nothing of any real interest or significance, at least. Although his stories often hint at a metaphysics of unreality, the books are mostly surface and, unlike one of his professed influences, Raymond Carver, seem to lack any insight into the human condition (or any other condition, really). Instead, they content themselves with cataloging the discontents of the modern age, particularly the alarmingly numerous forms of ennui, all of which, after three or four volumes, begin to bear a striking resemblance to one another.While this was all well and good when Murakami started his career, with After Dark it seems he has become so enamored of his own abilities that he has ceased to care whether what he has chosen to show us actually matters. Or is even interesting. The more I read Murakami, the less his work resembles genius, and the more it comes to resemble a symptom of autism or obsessive compulsion. As Murakami translator Jay Rubin notes in his biography Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, around the time Murakami finished A Wild Sheep Chase, he began to obsess over his writing, fearing that he might die before finishing the book, a thought he apparently found untenable. His anxiety led to a major overhaul of his life. He quit smoking, began to exercise regularly, changed his diet. Over time, his books have come to reflect this obsession with writing and not necessarily in a positive way. As Rubin explains it, Murakami works not because he has an idea for a book, but because he feels compelled to write. It's suggested that he often sits at his desk, writing whatever comes to mind, until the glimmerings of a story appear. Those who are familiar with Murakami's novels can see this process at work. Often, the first fifty to one hundred pages of his books feature characters loafing around, looking for something to do, a reflection, perhaps, of Murakami's own mental state. The result is a presumably faithful depiction of his inner life with an ironic lack of self-awareness.After Dark is no exception: characters loaf, they engage in small talk, and something weird happens on TV (but not nearly as weird as "Flavor of Love.") The one major departure from previous novels is the style, which is somewhat reminiscent of a screenplay. The story is told in first person plural, complete with metafictional references to points of view and what seem to be camera directions. The end result could be pitched as Eraserhead (IMDb) meets Before Sunrise (IMDb), minus the good parts. If it weren't for Murakami's oath to never allow his works to be filmed (which I see has been broken, with the release of Tony Takatani (IMDb)), I would wonder if the book wasn't an attempt to salvage a failed screenplay.Until recently, a few short stories and Kafka on the Shore represented the totality of Murakami's efforts to separate himself from the first person novel, the protagonists of which were all thinly veiled versions of Murakami himself, a cosmopolitan pasta aficionado with a love of jazz, Stendhal, and Dostoyevsky, and a cool, rootless detachment from all things Japanese. While Murakami should be applauded for his attempts to expand his range, they have, so far, only brought attention to the areas in which his work is most deficient: dialogue and his brittle attempts at symbolism, a personal mythology consisting of, among other things, cats and mirrors that does not fare well when set loose from the idiosyncratic workings of his first person narrators' minds. The dialogue in After Dark is particularly bad, with one character addressing a girl with the line "What's a girl like you doing hanging out all night in a place like this?" (The line is delivered in a bar and with a complete lack of irony.) Granted, the translation might be at fault, but Jay Rubin has done an admirable job with Murakami in the past, leaving us to assume the source material didn't leave much to work with. The story's alternations between the dully inscrutable and the ploddingly mundane seem to confirm this.All of which begs the question, where does Murakami go from here? With the combination of his enormous popularity in Japan and critical acclaim in the United States and abroad, he could never write another word and still be guaranteed a roof over his head and a place in the literary pantheon of the 20th-ish century (at least for the foreseeable future). And writing one, or even a handful, of good books puts a novelist under no obligation to produce another. Yet, if the Murakami Rubin has shown us is the real one, we can expect he will continue to release novels until the day he dies (and if one takes into account his considerable back catalog of yet to be translated works, much longer). Will he insist on sticking with what he knows or will he find some way to transfer his preoccupations and considerable skills into a broader fictional universe? When you find out, let me know.
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When Samuel Beckett was a young man, his parents wanted him to work in the family’s accountancy business and assume his place in Dublin’s Protestant merchant class. As Tim Parks writes in his new book, Life and Work: Writers, Readers, and the Conversations between Them, “a battle of wills ensued between mother and son…As the impasse intensified, [Beckett] developed a number of physical symptoms -- boils, anal cysts, pelvic pains, tachycardia, panic attacks…” The panic attacks would plague Beckett for years, and his biographer Anthony Cronin tells us, in Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist, that he didn’t reflect on his maladies in a conventional manner. In 1935 he attended a lecture by Swiss psychiatrist and former Freud protégé C.J. Jung. Beckett was 29 years old, in analysis, and believed he suffered from a neurotic disorder that “had its origins in infancy, in a time he could not remember,” Cronin writes. In the lecture, Jung described the case of a young girl whose difficulties baffled him until he fell upon a simple, though rather esoteric diagnosis: “The girl had never really been born.” The idea immediately fired Beckett’s imagination. Cronin claims it triggered something crucial in Beckett and would become central to his self-understanding, and a recurring motif in his works. Beckett, he writes, “thought the diagnosis was a profoundly suggestive illumination of his own case, his sense of alienation from the world and of not being ready or fitted to cope with it, to join in its activities as others did, or even to understand the reasons for them." In Life and Work, Parks writes about Beckett and 19 other writers, including Fyodor Dostoevsky, Georges Simenon, Muriel Spark, Peter Stamm, Haruki Murakami, Stieg Larsson, and E.L. James (Parks examining Fifty Shades of Grey is great fun). Here and there in the collection, one occasionally glimpses the true existential cost of the so-called “writer’s life,” where writing is both an act of self-abnegation — with all of its consequent anxieties — as well as a struggle against such a personalized nihilism. Parks tells us that after Beckett published the novel Molloy at the age of 45 — finally setting the stage for literary renown after years of “retyping…for rejection,” as Beckett put it — he had his then girlfriend (and later wife) Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil write to his publisher. She requested they do not enter Molloy for the prestigious Prix des Critiques, because the prizewinner would have to schmooze and make speeches, and “it is impossible for the prizewinner, without serious discourtesy, to refuse to go in for the posturings required by these occasions: warm words for his supporters, interviews, photos, etc. etc. And as (Beckett) feels wholly incapable of this sort of behavior, he prefers not to expose himself.” In light of Beckett’s self-diagnosis, it occurs to me that a man who doesn’t exist, a man who isn’t there, can’t be expected to sign books and sip burgundy with a bunch of boring editors and press types. But this malady isn’t unique to Beckett and his Parisian, mid-century modernist milieu. Julian Barnes had a similar feeling. In his 2008 memoir/treatise on death, Nothing to be Frightened Of, Barnes writes he has a “grown-up fear of just not existing.” Parks believes Barnes is unable to “find consolation for the eventual extinction of his personality… bereft of a reassuring metaphysics and given the findings of science, life this side of the grave is anyway irretrievably devalued, and individual personality doesn’t in fact exist.” For Barnes, it seems to be a rather simple conclusion: If there is no God, then there must be no “me” as well. Parks suggests we can think of personality as something that emerges vis-à-vis “one’s negotiations with others,” and he notes this has always proved problematic for the South African writer J.M. Coetzee. In examining Coetzee’s autobiographic trilogy, Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime, Parks wonders what happens when you come-of-age in 1940s South Africa — at a time when tribal identification is everything — yet you don’t identify with any one community. In Boyhood the protagonist attends a new school where he must self-declare as Christian, Catholic, or Jewish. The boy is from an Afrikaner family, but they speak English instead of Afrikaans. He is born in a Christian milieu, but his parents are agnostic. Because his family is “nothing,” he randomly chooses Catholic, but this doesn’t work either, leading only to ostracization and disgrace. I wonder, if one is outside of all recognized models of community — as some writers are, or at least feel themselves to be — is it possible to know you really exist? It’s unlikely that a gnawing sense of being unborn tops the neuroses of most writers these days, but I’d argue that Beckett’s Jungian insight is more commonly known today as anxiety. In the last century, writers largely handled it by drinking. Beckett’s mentor and friend in Paris, a certain genius named James Joyce, was so fond of the drink he had to forbid himself from starting before six o’ clock—but when dark came, he was as game as Hunter S. Thompson. I think the daily act of sitting alone for hours and purposely conjuring up emotions and disturbing memories — precisely the kinds of things people use Percocet, vodka, food, and Netflix to forget — serves as the ideal petri dish for anxiety. Parks mentions that Barnes and Simenon also suffered from panic attacks. Without doing any real research, I can add the names David Foster Wallace, Philip Roth, Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck. These are all prose writers, of course. If we begin to add the names of the poets, the list gets real long, real fast. In his essay on Peter Matthiessen, Parks describes a scene in the novel In Paradise, where “pilgrims” are meditating at Auschwitz in a kind of retreat/holocaust remembrance ritual. Parks writes, “The practice of meditation has the effect of breaking down the ego; in hours of silence, the mind intensely focused on breath and body in the present moment, there is no place for the narrative chatter that feeds the constant construction of the self.” In some ways this is not a bad description of the idealized writing state. I think it would certainly fit a kind of Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones, Zen-inspired, Esalen Institute vision of creative writing. But whereas Zen meditation is about an empty mind, writing fiction requires a full page, and that means cultivating lots of narrative chatter, ultimately pulling you back into yourself. But just as writing may induce multifarious forms of anxiety, the right words are also a middle finger to the dying of the light. The God of the Old Testament announced himself to Moses with the startling declaration, “I am who I am.” And writing, at its best, is like that: a declaration of existence, an expression of self-hood and -- when we’re not shaking with fear as Moses did -- a reminder that heaven is not as far from us as it often seems.
We may live in a time when it’s finally okay to acknowledge what most have long known -- namely, that book reviewers sometimes know the authors of the books they review. To be sure, book review editors still put up a front of seeking out reviewers who have no acquaintance with an author under consideration, but, as social media has made the world smaller, and as the literary world itself has undergone an unhappy shrinkage, it’s gotten harder and harder to verify that an assigned review won’t wind up being a better reflection of a reviewer’s affection (or animosity) for an author, rather than a true measure of a book’s particular quality. It’s gotten to be a bit like blurbs, hasn’t it? I mean, really -- is there anyone out there who still visits bookstores and believes that the downright epileptic spasms of praise on the backs of books indicate true, unsolicited, un-commissioned opinions? This is nothing knew. Henry James wrote extensively and glowingly about Robert Louis Stevenson even as there was a chair in Stevenson’s house known as the “Henry James chair” for the Master’s use of it during salons and soirees; and H.L. Mencken went after Theodore Dreiser -- really lit him up -- after having met him a number of times. Neither James’s nor Mencken’s opinions are likely the direct product of these relationships, but how can we know that for sure? The relationships are not acknowledged in the critical essays that we must trust to be assessments that are uncorrupted by non-critical views. And now, 100 years later, in a literary world notably smaller and vastly more interconnected, it still works the same way: friends (and enemies) write about each other’s books, but pretend they are writing about strangers. All of which is prelude to me saying fie on that. I am reviewing Marc Nieson’s new book, Schoolhouse: Lessons on Love & Landscape, and I have a more than passing familiarity with both the author and the subject. In fact, I’ve known the latter even longer than the former. Schoolhouse is a memoir, which basically means it’s about Nieson’s life and the wisdom he’s drawn from it, but first and foremost it uses Nieson’s time living in an old stone schoolhouse during his stint at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a temporal fulcrum and emblem of transition. My part in this is that I visited the schoolhouse even before Nieson did. He’s older than me, but I attended the Workshop before he did, and the guy who lived in the schoolhouse before Nieson happened to be another Workshop student who was also an auto mechanic who knew how to work on Alfa Romeos. As it happened, I had bought a Spider just after I graduated from college, a joke that almost no one got. Anyway, the joke turned out to be on me: the car cost a fortune in repairs, and I spent a number of days visiting the schoolhouse of Schoolhouse. I met Nieson, most likely, at a Workshop poker game, and even in the first few pages of his book one taps into the gentle, anger-averse mien that made Nieson something of an odd presence at both those games, and in that creative writing program, each of which often featured conflict. We became friends in a more than casual, yet less than wholly intimate way, such that there is a lot that is new to me in Schoolhouse, but also much that I recognize from those old Iowa days -- in particular, Nieson’s description of the diagram that Frank Conroy used to illustrate the co-creation of art, that melding of minds that is the necessary component of any truly literary event. (I myself have since scarified that image onto the brains of probably 1,000 students by now.) Indeed, you might then leap to the conclusion to that in order to review Nieson’s book I wouldn’t really have to do all that much. We were close; I lived those days too. Probably, I could skim it and do just fine. But that would be completely wrong. There are a few things you can say with certainty about Schoolhouse. It’s a love story that is also a book about a kind of emotional sustainability -- how to do right by both your soul and your surrounding -- and it’s the tale of a rootless man coming to grow a few. The book globetrots from Iowa to New York to Italy, but thematically it never strays far from the old stone building, since demolished, that stands to this day as a symbol of Nieson’s education, the retelling of which might just teach us a few things too. It’s a kind and quiet book about a world that often isn’t either, and it’s told in a spare language that serves an inverted measure of the volume’s difficult-to-plumb sophistication. But hold on right there. Because that kind of description, i.e., the usual descriptions of book reviews, doesn’t really describe my experience of Schoolhouse at all. If I’m to be honest, then I must allow that my experience of my friend’s book was based almost entirely on the difference between the man I found in these pages and the one that I thought I knew. When you read books by strangers -- as Gertrude Stein would have us do (“I write for myself and strangers,” she wrote, though she had plenty of writer buddies) -- you don’t get to experience that at all. Of course you recognize that you have a particular kind of intimacy with people in books, and with people through books, which everyday relationships lack, but if you never read a book that was written by someone you know, then you never come truly face to face with the sad inadequacy of real life, which is the reason books exist in the first place. When I read Schoolhouse, I realized there was more pain and past in Nieson’s life than I had ever known or suspected might have lurked there. My impulse was to dig into my own past and project this new Nieson onto my fragmented memories of him, as though I could I heal the gaps in my past that suddenly felt like wounds. Which was kind of stupid, but which, as it happens, is sort of what Schoolhouse is about. There’s a wonderful story here, but I’m not going to tell you anything about it. Rather, I will tell you that Schoolhouse is about those times when “you can hardly tell whether you’re hiding out from the past, or in it.” The book, then, is not about the past, it’s about memory, and the inadequacy of memory is what ensures that “there are all kinds of amputations and oversights in this world.” Amputations and oversights...That pretty well describes the emotion I was left with at the end of this simple, powerful book, written by a guy I once knew fairly well. Or so I thought. A good book, by its goodness, proves the inadequacy of the world to which it is addressed. And I now know Marc Nieson all over again, as you might -- as a vague, perfect, intimate stranger.
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