I love finding old pocket paperbacks in thrift stores. That’s how I ended up with a 1960s-era British pocket Penguin edition of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day. On the cover, the price is listed as “3’6” which, though I’ve been to England, I can’t decipher. On the first page, in pencil is the price – 50p – wanted by some British used book dealer years ago, and in pen, the name of one of the book’s former owners. I myself got the book for around fifty cents or a dollar from one of the neighborhood secondhand shops, and though I’d love to keep it on my shelf, I’m tempted to release it back into the wild so it may continue on its journey. The book does indeed fit in my pocket and so was a good one to take on my recent trip to Los Angeles. I read the book in its entirety on the plane ride home. I love reading books like that, in one sitting while in transit, because it feeds into a romantic notion I have of what I might spend my days doing if I had no other responsibilities. But, of course, I have responsibilities and so does Tommy Wilhelm, the protagonist of Bellow’s book. Wilhelm, a failed Hollywood actor living in a New York hotel a few floors removed from his father, appears to be nearing the low ebb of a long downward slide. He has lost his job, owes money to his wife (who won’t give him a divorce), rarely sees his children, fell out with his mistress, and is so nearly penniless that he must ask his father to cover the rent. Tommy’s father, Dr. Adler (Tommy changed his name in Hollywood), sees his son as a big baby. Seize the Day reminded me of both Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. All the books of ruminating, somewhat pathetic male protagonists who appear to live their lives mostly in their heads. Wilhelm ruminates mostly on sorrows of lost opportunities, yet the book is shot through with humor as well, especially as Wilhelm gets more and more wrapped up in a stock market scheme. Bellow’s book is sad and funny and deserves to be read far more than it is. (Special thanks to Millions contributor Patrick who first pointed me to this book years ago – it just took a little while for me to get to it.)
1. Rise of a Tough Nerd
Rick Snyder is, for the time being, Governor of Michigan. He is also one of the handful of heroes in a tale teeming with villains, Detroit Resurrected: To Bankruptcy and Back, a richly reported and important new book by Nathan Bomey, who covered America’s largest municipal bankruptcy for the Detroit Free Press.
Snyder proudly calls himself “one tough nerd.” He’s an accountant by training, a businessman and venture capitalist, a rich Republican technocrat who had zero political experience and open disdain for the workings of government when he decided to run for governor in 2010. Snyder portrayed himself, according to Bomey, as a “job creator” and “the consummate outsider with the business sensibility to rehabilitate Michigan’s economy.” Rich Republican outsider with zero political experience and open disdain for government claims he has the business acumen to make [fill in the blank] great again — sound familiar?
2. The Grand Bargain
Snyder won the election in a blowout, and one of the first things he did when he got into office was to push a piece of legislation that had huge implications for the battered, teetering city of Detroit. Snyder convinced the Republican-controlled state legislature to give state-appointed emergency managers the power to usurp the authority of locally elected officials, including the power to revoke union contracts, suspend collective bargaining, control budgets, and sell assets. It was, in essence, the power to suspend democracy. Snyder also deepened already severe cuts in state aid to cities, and he signed a right-to-work bill that made it illegal in union-friendly Michigan to require anyone to join a union as a condition of employment.
The other shoe dropped in March 2013, when Snyder introduced Kevyn Orr as his choice to become Detroit’s emergency manager, a likely prelude to a Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing. Orr is a self-proclaimed “yellow-dog Democrat,” in many ways Snyder’s opposite. But he is also a battle-hardened bankruptcy negotiator who had helped save Big Three automaker Chrysler by mercilessly shuttering dealerships and cutting jobs, then leveraging a government bailout. In a city that’s more than 80 percent black — and historically distrustful of white takeover attempts — the fact that Orr is black was no small consideration.
By the time Orr hit town, Detroit was in free fall. Half a century of population decline, lost manufacturing jobs, a shrinking tax base — coupled with corruption, mismanagement, and a harrowing crime rate — meant the city was broke and broken, with no way to pay its mountainous debts or provide the most basic services. The city was taking in $1 billion a year in revenue — and it owed three times that amount to pensioners.
Bomey does a superb job of laying out the origins and depths of Detroit’s fiscal and political woes. He has done prodigious research into archives and court documents, interviewed all the players, and woven a tangled mass of facts into a narrative that reads like a thriller. Other heroes emerge from his narrative. One is Judge Steven Rhodes, who handled the bankruptcy case in a manner that was both tough and fair; another is federal Judge Gerald Rosen, who served as mediator in the bare-knuckled negotiations over pension cuts, debt reductions, and union contracts. Rosen’s most ingenious contribution to the case was conceiving what came to be known as the Grand Bargain — nearly $1 billion in pledges from philanthropic organizations, private citizens, and state government that permanently shields the Detroit Institute of Art’s cherished collection from creditors.
“With the debt reductions, cost cuts and projected new revenue,” Bomey writes, “the city would have $1.72 billion over 10 years to spend on services it would not have had without the bankruptcy.” He concludes: “Bankruptcy resurrected Detroit.”
3. A Swift Fall
While it can be argued that Kevyn Orr’s deft handling of the emergency manager’s duties was crucial to turning Detroit around, emergency managers in another blighted, post-industrial, predominantly black Michigan city have not fared as well. The relatively sunny Detroit Resurrected is crying out for a dark sequel. It should be called Flint Contaminated, and I nominate dogged Nathan Bomey to write it.
It’s now been revealed that in an effort to slash costs, emergency managers in Flint made a disastrous mistake in 2014: they stopped buying water from the Detroit system and began pumping water from the Flint River, despite publicized safety concerns. Then, inadequate treatment of the river water caused lead from water lines to leach into the city’s drinking water, poisoning an unknowable number of residents. General Motors stopped using Flint city water in its factories because the water was ruining engine parts. Though Snyder, the hands-off technocrat, was alerted to the potential hazard in October 2014, nearly a year passed before he acknowledged the seriousness of the threat to public health.
On March 17, Snyder and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy were called before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, where they were both blistered by congressmen for failing to identify and rectify the problem. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, had words that must have stung the tough-nerd governor: “If a corporate CEO did what Governor Snyder’s administration has done, he would be hauled up on criminal charges.”
A week after the hearing, an independent commission appointed by Snyder last year delivered a 116-page report, suggesting that environmental racism may have played a role in officials’ slow response to the Flint crisis. The New York Times described the collective resentment of emergency managers: “The issue has long been a sore point in Michigan’s minority communities, who point to Flint and the Detroit Public Schools as evidence that the state’s imposition of emergency managers leads to bottom-line decisions, rather than overall governance.”
This was an astonishingly swift fall for a man who was perceived as one of the heroes of Detroit’s bankruptcy. Though term limits will prevent Snyder from running for re-election in 2018, two petitions are now circulating in Michigan to put his recall to a statewide vote on this November’s ballot. The governor has become the poster boy for everything that can go wrong when voters elect an outsider with no political experience and open disdain for the gritty negotiation and hands-on oversight that are the essence of running a government. Detroit’s resurrection notwithstanding, Snyder’s botched handling of the Flint water poisoning crisis should serve as a cautionary tale to Donald Trump and his growing army of supporters: be careful what you wish for. As events in Michigan have shown, the triumph of a political outsider does not always play out happily.
Translation, while often misconstrued as neutral, is an inherently political act. It can amplify a voice, especially when it’s rendered into English, which is almost always the dominant language with the wider reach. While I like to point this out as a literary translator myself, the reality settles in when I speak with a novelist who, for the past year and a half, has been working as a legal interpreter.
Valeria Luiselli had never translated before working at an immigration court with Central American children seeking sanctuary in the U.S. There, she would discover that presenting the stories of these children accurately and convincingly to the court in English is their only chance of escape from violence or insecurity at home. But, unlike the literary translator, she found she had limited control over the narratives she was given. Between the children’s words always lurked a heavy silence, a much longer story that wasn’t being told.
Luiselli’s book, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, out now from Coffee House Press, is an attempt to record, in English, what didn’t get translated. For while she also writes books in Spanish, she had no trouble deciding which language to write the one distilling her experiences in court. The versions of these children’s stories that do already exist in English, in the media primarily, are incomplete and oversimplified, and the ones packaged for the courts are not much better.
It was in 2014 when she first learned that tens of thousands of children were turning themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol after arduous, perilous journeys from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and other places. This would widely become known as an immigration crisis that to this day continues, where unaccompanied children have been fleeing escalating violence across Central America.
The numbers are staggering and the circumstances harrowing. To make these journeys, children travel on the backs of trains and cross deserts with limited water supply, where they also run the risk of being kidnapped and murdered. If you are a girl crossing the border from Mexico, there is an 80 percent chance that you will be raped; many take birth control as a precaution. Too many of these children, some as young as two years old, are sent back. Mexican children don’t stand a chance, as they can be deported immediately under U.S. policy if Border Patrol determines they meet certain conditions.
At the time she realized this, Luiselli, who is Mexican, was in the process of applying for her green card after having lived in the U.S. for six years. Her own burdens in navigating the exceedingly confusing and expensive immigration system (which I, too, am familiar with) seemed trivial in comparison to these children’s. She reached out to her lawyer at the time and asked how she could volunteer in court. It was then that she ended up interpreting at an immigration court in New York City, and found she was badly needed: the federal government faced an overwhelming number of children—80,000 between October 2013 and June 2014—and shortened the time they had to find legal representation: 12 months to 21 days. Luiselli’s job was to interview and translate the children’s answers at an initial screening, which were then reviewed by volunteer organizations to determine whether there were viable claims against deportation. If not, no lawyer was assigned and the child was eventually deported.
Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions is at once a deft exposition on the injustices of immigration law, the long, bullying history of U.S.-Central American relations, and the obstacles and politics of translation. The book is structured around the questions she had to ask each child she interviewed. The first, “Why did you come to the U.S.?”, is already too complex—one not even Luiselli can fully answer for herself. The answers—persecution and abuse at home or the hope to reunite with a family member in the U.S.—come in pieces, not neat, linear narratives. Reticent children are often too embarrassed by their circumstances or worried about betraying their family to give complete answers. And no matter how many times Luiselli asks questions, “[t]he children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, no end.” Their stories, she suggests, are partly broken because their lives are.
But the children don’t always know how to report their hardships. Luiselli notes that she must engage in a double translation: in addition to Spanish, she translates the language of children. In an interview with two young sisters, they evade questions, contradict themselves, and pretend to understand when they don’t. “When did you come to the United States?” she asks. “I don’t know,” they say.
And where did you cross the border?
I don’t know.
Yes! Texas Arizona.
Following this exchange, Luiselli concludes in near defeat, “For children of that age, telling a story…a round and convincing story that successfully inserts them into legal proceedings working up to their defense, is practically impossible.”
The cruel irony is that while these children’s predicaments are clear, they become less so when trying to fit them within the borders of the questions asked. In one of many imaginative attempts to translate the peculiar language of the courts, Luiselli likens the interview process, officially called a “screening,” to a movie projection: the child becomes “a reel of footage,” and the legal system “a screen, itself too worn out, too filthy and tattered to allow any clarity, any attention to detail.” The translator, then, is nothing more than “an obsolete apparatus used to channel that footage.” The stories become “generalized, distorted, appear out of focus.”
“In court my dilemma is how to not cheat. That is,” she said impishly when we met, “in favor of the kid.” She had to exercise restraint when those two young sisters, for instance, gave insufficient answers, saying, as a child is told to, that they never got into trouble at home, were never punished, and only played. “What I needed to hear, though I didn’t want to hear it, was that they had been doing hard labor…that they were being exploited, abused,” Luiselli writes, visibly irked and ashamed that these are the realities that would grant the children asylum or special immigrant juvenile (SIJ) status.
As a legal interpreter, she feels “powerless,” “hands and feet tied.” She cannot control the words that flow from the children’s mouths, and she has to listen even when it’s too painful. Her job is exhausting and emotionally demanding. Particularly, she struggles to provide an answer to her curious daughter whose demand, “Tell me how it ends, mamma,” becomes a common refrain throughout the book, because most of the children slip from her reach after the screening.
There is one notable exception, however: the first child Luiselli ever interviewed, 16-year-old Manu, from Honduras, who Luiselli grows fond of and who we follow sporadically. His story enlightens the geopolitical context for these mass migrations; through him we learn more about MS-13 and Barrio 18, two gangs that originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s, and that despite the U.S. administration’s effort to deport the members involved, have only grown in numbers across the country. Manu, exceptionally, brought with him across the border a physical piece of evidence that would earn him the attention of some of the finest pro-bono lawyers in the city: the copy of the police report he filed in Honduras complaining of MS-13 members who lurked outside his high school gates. But when Manu arrives in Long Island, he finds “Hempstead is a shithole full of pandilleros, just like Tegucigalpa.” In other words, his problems followed him. Even though “the media,” as Luiselli remarks with typical sense of humor, “wouldn’t put Hempstead, a city in New York, on the same plane as one in Honduras. What a scandal!”
Through the media we’ve learned of these stories but also failed to understand them. Luiselli, in seeking “to rethink the very language surrounding the problem,” tries to translate the masked language of news sources, including The New York Times, pointing out their propensity to refer to children as “illegal immigrants” rather than “refugees;” of problems to be rid of rather than confronted.
She concludes that “the only thing to do is tell [these stories] over and over again…in many different words,” but she wrote this before Donald Trump was elected president. Circulating these stories, particularly in English-language media, could have adverse consequences. With the so-called “Dreamers,” or undocumented immigrant youth in the U.S., flagged by the current administration, Luiselli wonders what more attention would mean for these Central American kids who have gone relatively unnoticed. “Will this government target them more if they become more visible?” she asked me.
The last impression Luiselli leaves us with is unexpected: three photographs where Manu poses for the camera, hanging by his arms from telephone wires, “practicing the art of flight.” In the image, his body is completely dark and silhouetted, preserving his anonymity, as lawyers had advised—Manu is not his real name, even though he wanted Luiselli to use it. He personally wouldn’t mind being seen; he might prefer it. But the pictures we’re offered of these children, just like their translated words, struggle to gain focus.
Jonathan Franzen has always been outspoken about his disdain of e-readers. In an interview with The AV Club, he said the Kindle “makes everything seem unsubstantial,” that “the words seem more arbitrary, less intrinsically valuable.” Yet Franzen writes the kinds of novels that are best read on the Kindle. They demand attention solely to the text, the kind of undistracted reading environment that makes e-readers so appealing — not to mention the perk of carrying a small electronic device instead of a 700-page hardcover copy of Freedom.
It seems fitting that Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book Tree of Codes was published around the same Christmas season when the Kindle became Amazon’s best-selling product ever. The Kindle does away with all manners of a novel’s physical form and design; Tree of Codes exists solely to embrace those things, and to be embraced, but gently.
The die-cut interior of Tree of Codes is made up of select words, carefully re-assembled from Foer’s favorite novel, Bruno Schultz’s The Street of Crocodiles, to create an entirely new narrative. (Cut ten letters from the original title and you get Tree of Codes.) If Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is the book equivalent of a mash up, perhaps Tree of Codes is akin to 8-bit music: it’s both a reduction and reinterpretation of another work. Visually, the sparse prose and overwhelming negative space leaves a stunning impression, (accurately captured in what might be the least-annoying book trailer of all time). It’s a wonderful experiment in what a book can be, and also home to a mediocre novel.
What Foer has done is a little gimmicky and not entirely new — William Burroughs and Brion Gyson did a similar cut-up book in the ‘60s — but the reading experience is an absorbing challenge. The first thing you have to do with Tree of Codes is figure out how to read it. I don’t mean interpreting the text — the prose, though occasionally aloof, reads as a fairly straightforward narrative — but how to physically hold the book. Because of Tree’s die-cut pages, it’s hard to tell what words belong on the page you’re looking at and what’s on the next page or two. After a few minutes, I figured out that the best method was to keep a finger under the page I was reading, bending it slightly, to give the words more depth (again, I mean physical depth).
Some readers have taken to inserting a blank sheet of paper behind each page, but doing that feels like a denial of the book’s design. There’s something haunting about seeing what lays ahead, just out of focus. Tree of Codes is intent on distracting its audience and making them conscious of the reading experience. The pages are also fragile, and I found myself holding Tree of Codes with extra care. According to Foer, the binding had to be paperback — if it was hardcover, the book would “collapse in on itself.” It shows consideration to the book not as an art object, but a book as a thing you read.
The format of a book doesn’t need to be challenging or difficult. But if authors really want to defend the idea of the physical book, they need to consider how the medium actually affects the reading experience. The example that comes to mind is Dave Eggers, who writes in QuarkXPress instead of a regular word processor, which might explain why McSweeney’s does just fine without selling books in ePub format.
Despite it’s unconventional form, Tree of Codes is actually a natural step for Foer, as a novelist who has toyed with visual elements like type, white space, and color in his earlier works. In an interview with The Morning News in 2005 (just after the release of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), Foer said he “really like[d] books as objects, as little intimate sculptures that you have a real interaction with.”
Sculpture is a medium that is appreciated for its form, texture, its third dimension; sculpture is also a medium that isn’t necessarily interacted with, even touched, unless you want to be escorted to the curb by museum security guards. Really, the sculpture comparison does a disservice to what a book really is: a mass-produced object that you spend hours holding.
It’s just too bad that in the case of Tree of Codes, the reading experience is far more interesting than the actual novel. Holding the book, you can feel an absence of weight in the middle. Even within 3,000 words, Tree of Codes inconsistently waivers from abstract poignance (“The tree stood with the arms upraised and screamed and screamed.”) to the sort of pretentious mediocrity you might find in DeviantArt poetry (“I could feel waves of laid bare, of dreams.”). It boils down to whether or not you find Foer’s lyricism to be poetic or merely sentimental.
But credit is due to Foer for taking Schultz’s work and making it his own. Trees features the familiar fallible perspective from Everything is Illuminated and the Freudian relationships from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. There are also allusions to a vague disaster — is it a plague or the Holocaust? — that amounts to an equally ambiguous tragedy that is better felt than understood.
When I finished Tree of Codes, I placed it in on my bookshelf. But it felt as if it didn’t belong stuffed next to my copy of Freedom — which has endured being borrowed by three different people since August. Tree of Codes might be a much worse novel than Freedom, but it’s a delicate book. There are thousands of copies of Tree of Codes, and yet mine feels special. It’s a reminder that the book is a precious thing.