Andrew McGahan’s The White Earth was a big deal when it came out in Australia in 2004. His previous novels had given him a following, but The White Earth was the winner of the Miles Franklin Prize, Australia’s richest literary award, catapulting him to a new level of recognition. The book is a multigenerational tale in which the generations collide. Young William and his mother are cast from their homestead in Queensland when William’s father burns to death in a farming accident. They are taken in by William’s cranky great uncle, John McIvor, who lives holed up in a decrepit mansion on what’s left of what was once a great homestead called Kuran Station. There is still enough land left at the Station to lust after though, and William’s sickly but greedy mother sets out to make sure that William will be the heir to his hermit uncle. The main action of the book takes place in 1992 and is filled with what I understand to be the political questions of that time, mostly having to do with compensating aborigines for the ancestral land that was taken from him. All of this makes old John McIvor something of a crank, obsessed with protecting his land and leader of a fringe organization whose membership has racist tendencies fueled by fears that cityfolk will allow their farms to be taken away. Luckily McGahan provides flashbacks to the life of young John McIvor so we can see how Kuran Station, taken from him when he was young and regained after middle age, became his life’s obsession. Though not as masterful as other books in this same mold and a bit heavyhanded in the use of certain images (men on fire), The White Earth is an enjoyable epic of the struggle for land Down Under.
I finished the book yesterday during a long afternoon spent in bed recovering from my illness. It was an especially fitting setting. The Great Fire is full of languid afternoons and young men beset by obscure diseases and weary from the war. I enjoyed the setting; the sense of war nearby, war recently ended and perhaps soon to be reignited. It was like a less bleary version of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises it also reminded me a lot of the film Casablanca, but maybe just because I happened to watch it around when I started reading the book. The book revolves around a couple of former soldiers, Aldred Leith and Peter Exley, who have been cast far and wide, to Japan and Hong Kong respectively, in the aftermath of World War II. They are surrounded on all sides by others, women and older folks, whose lives have been similarly touched by the war, and all of whom seem to be searching in vain for normalcy in the aftermath of shattering conflict. The central drama of the book concerns a budding love affair between Leith and a student of his, Helen Driscoll. Helen’s dull and menacing parents as well as the vast age difference between Aldred and Helen set up what turns out to be a fairly filmic love story. The chief drama for the reader lies both in wending one’s way through Hazzard’s elliptical, lyrical prose and in wondering whether or not the May – December romance will ever be consummated.
AWP-goers take heed! As 10,000 writers descend on Seattle to take up the cause of literature, raising drinks and touting books and giving readings, certain questions may surface about the state of literature. We’ve been told that the author is dead; the book as form is dying; no one is reading and if they are, they’re distracted. And so how is it that so many people are still at it with the pen? AWP conference attendance has ballooned in recent years as more and more writers empty their already shallow pockets for the exuberant and wearying spree packed with publishing tips, idol worship, and camaraderie. If something about this makes you wonder about the state of the métier, and, well, especially if it doesn’t — Dubravka Ugrešić is the author to consult. And you’re lucky because her latest book of essays, Europe in Sepia, will be waiting at the Open Letter table, one island in that vast archipelago of tables manned by booksellers pedaling their wares.
The literary festival circuit is one that Ugrešić knows far more intimately than she’d like — in Europe in Sepia the reader follows her on a dizzying tour as she hurtles across the continent, from Bratislava to Budapest to Graz, and to destinations further off, Jerusalem; Oberlin, Ohio; and Zuccotti Park. This hectic pace of appearances sustains an esteemed writer who in an ideal world would be able to subsist off her writing. But these are not prosperous times and history hasn’t been kind to Ugrešić on these matters. The constant motion with which she moves resonates with a line she quotes from The Coming Insurrection: “This world wouldn’t be hurtling along with such speed were its own destruction not constantly at its heels.”
The prognosis? It’s not good. Ugrešić laments what has become of the author who has to perform to earn a pittance and a hot meal. She laments a culture where action and image trump the self-doubt and time for contemplation. She’s covered some of this ground before, most recently in Karaoke Culture, but in Europe in Sepia her tone is more resigned. The digitalization of everything has drastically altered how the literary world operates: “no longer a space of contemplation, subversion, spiritually enriching escapism, or discovery, but one of spectacle…like it or not, they are all participants in the society of the spectacle. Measured by its yardsticks, they divide into winners and losers.” And she’s already identified her affinities on the matter, within the context of Yuri Olesha’s novel Envy. The characters can be divided into two distinct types, exemplified by two brothers — Andrei, the rational and successful businessmen, and Ivan, the loser, the poetic soul, and dreamer. Ugrešić proclaims, “I’m with the losers.”
For the uninitiated, Dubravka Ugrešić is a Croatian essayist, novelist, and intellectual who was expelled from her homeland during the Croatian War for her vocal opposition to the war and powers that be, opposition which drew accusations of sedition and witchcraft and of being a feminist who was raping her homeland. She’s lived in exile ever since but still writes in her mother tongue. This language barrier distances her from Dutch literary culture in Amsterdam, where she now resides, as do the heightened tensions regarding worker immigration in the European Union.
Ugrešić calls this constant state of unsettledness she’s been exiled to the “out-of-nation zone,” or ON-Zone for short. With ON-Zone status comes a series of dilemmas for an author of any stature, especially now: she must rely on translation to reach her readers but translations are in short supply; she does not have a national identity or readership to anchor her work. The end result? Relegation to the diminutive halls of a minor literature. That this untangling of political affiliations accompanies discussion of her writing only reinforces her claim.
And yet there’s nothing minor about Ugrešić’s mind, writing, or body of work.
Ugrešić’s writing is unified by her sharp wit, cunning mind, absurdist sensibility, and its fragmentation. Her “patchwork” fiction is littered with references to Kafka and Isaac Babel and interspersed with patterns and recipes and articles from women’s magazines. Ugrešić’s essays are just as fragmented, with her mind racing the hyperkinectic speed of her travels, it seems.
In Europe in Sepia, Ugrešić examines the current cultural climate, in Croatia, on the European continent, and here in the States. Her findings are bleak. In these precarious times, the patina of the past’s optimism becomes even more alluring. Nostalgia and specifically the ways that nostalgia is repackaged as kitsch is an idea Ugrešić returns to again and again. Dutch author Arnon Grunberg wrote of Ugrešić’s ongoing obsession with both seduction/manipulation and poshlost (defined by Nabokov as “a special term for smug philistinism”) in a tribute to Ugrešić’s oeuvre that ran on this site last year. In Europe in Sepia, Ugrešić examines how the popularity of memorabilia, like mugs bearing the mug of the Yugoslav revolutionary Tito, obscures the fact that important and challenging conversations about the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the ensuing wars have failed to take place. If poshlost and seduction perfuse her previous work, Europe in Sepia adds a throughline of defeat.
And so Ugrešić sides with the losers. Epigraphs taken from Olesha’s Envy precede each section of the book. They speak of mankind having reached an “upper limit,” of “wrack and ruin,” and the “dark and gloomy cesspool” of human emotion. Past promise has given way to the current culture of crises — economic, ecological, literary, you name it. And the future, whatever the prognostication, does not seem bright. Only the ecologists, who Ugrešić calls modern prophets, have answers: “When they say the end is nigh, it’s believing time.” And so Ugrešić adopts the stance of the cultural ecologist who speaks in biological parables. For example, regarding life in Central, South, and Southeastern Europe, she writes: “They don’t try planting flowers — gardening is a belief in the future, and they have no future.” It doesn’t stop there. She uses lessons on biodiversity at Dublin’s National Botanical gardens to examine growing hostility against immigrant workers. Population overgrowth and the disposability of the poor is raised in the context of resumption — or “green cremation,” a cheaper and eco-friendly alternative to cremation that takes up less space and that’s accompanied by a liquid portion stripped of DNA that can be used as fertilizer or thrown away.
Ultimately,Ugrešić’s most dire forecast is for the writer: “As a specific human species, the majority of writers are facing extinction. Whether writers fall into the critically endangered group like Sumatran orangutans, the endangered group like Malaysian tigers, the vulnerable group like African elephants, the near threatened group together with the jaguar, or in the least concern group with the giraffe — let’s leave that to the experts.” At least the writers might take solace that they’re not alone? But then, as of late, the fate of the giraffe at Dutch zoos isn’t an enviable one either. In the categories of writers, however, the fate of the female author is even more dire. Ugrešić writes of the lose-lose situation the female author faces, and her inherent insecurity in the male dominant literary culture. A cult of personality is required for a woman to be canonized, and this is something more common among the fine arts, she laments, while she provides a fascinating analysis of Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Present as an act of self-deification.
But what’s a woman to do? What’s a writer to do? Of the two obvious choices, reticence or self-aggrandizement, neither works. There should be more choices, just as the airport bookstores she visits should offer more than books by E.L. James and Julian Barnes. True possibility lies in breaking out of this forced dichotomy. Ugrešić recognizes that despite her predictions of doom and gloom that not all is lost, not yet, not when revolution is in the air. Resistance in the form of Occupy Wall Street opened the door to one possible new beginning, or at least to not going out without a fight. Which helps to explain why despite Ugrešić’s dire outlook, she remains invested: “We need to participate in the orgy of communication, even when it seems to those of us sending messages that communication is buried in the din, and thus senseless. Because somewhere on a distant shore a recipient awaits our message. To paraphrase Borges, he or she exists to misunderstand it and transform in into something else.”
Jonathan Lethem’s new book The Fortress of Solitude comes out today. Here is my review:Now it is Jonathan Lethem’s turn to write a “big book.” The breakout success of his last novel, Motherless Brooklyn, set the stage for an eagerly anticipated follow-up. As if borrowing from the title of his previous book, Lethem’s two protagonists grow up motherless in Brooklyn. One is Dylan Ebdus, whose father is a morose and cloistered artist and whose mother is a frenetic but flaky hippy, who, before she is distracted away from their rugged corner of Brooklyn, is determined to blend her white family seamlessly into the black neighborhood. For Rachel Ebdus, gentrification is a dirty word. Next door lives young Mingus Rude, son of soul superstar Barrett Rude, Jr, a brooding musical genius who permits himself to slide into a sort of secluded decay. The two boys are ostensibly best friends, but as is perhaps more true to life, their adolescent lives intertwine, split apart, and become intimately joined as they make their way warily through a minefield of street-borne dangers. The dangers are different for each boy, more often than not according to skin color, but to say that this is a novel about race would be to simplify in a way that Lethem does not.In the second part of the novel, Dylan is all grown up, and still sorting things out. He doesn’t know what it means to have had such a peculiar upbringing, but he knows that if he weren’t white, he would probably be in prison like Mingus. His black girlfriend accuses him of collecting poor black people as she looks at his obsessive music collection and mementos from his youth.There is to this book, as there has been to Lethem’s others, a supernatural element, a fantastical token that lifts the story from the realm of reality. With the chaos that surrounds them, it comes as no surprise that young Dylan might see a homeless man named Aaron X. Doily fall from the sky, or that, having found Doily’s secret, Dylan and Mingus might become a couple of low rent super heroes. This fantasy realm never becomes the point of the story; if anything, it underscores the insurmountable mania of the world around them. Lethem’s insistent devotion to music is perhaps a more dominant trope, and the timeframe of the novel allows him to delve into soul and rap and punk in an enjoyably voyeuristic sort of way.It is exciting to watch an author like Lethem put together a largely successful, career-changing type novel. This is a deserving book that a lot of people will read. Look for Lethem to join Jonathan Franzen and Michael Chabon at the top of the youngish American writers heap.
Kazuo Ishiguro writes novels set in a diversity of realms — the Japanese underworld, the Central Europe of Franz Kafka, the English countryside of Oswald Mosley. But no matter their territory, his stories share a few key features: they all deal with the complexities arising from a seemingly simple proposition, and they are all sad as shit. A butler takes a trip to solve his staffing issues; he faces the be-waistcoated shambles of his life. A woman reflects banally on her schooldays, while organs are harvested all around. A man arrives in a city to give a concert — he can’t do it, but why?
In The Buried Giant, an elderly man and woman set out on a visit to their son. But this journey is a production. They live in a way-back-England where Christians and pagans and ogres mingle. Their village, and all neighboring villages, have been enveloped in a mist that makes everyone forget what they have done and what they are about to do (Ishiguro is the king of maddening obstacles). This mist is, according to various theories, the result of God himself forgetting his people, or the enchanted breath of an elderly dragon named Querig. Mist notwithstanding, the couple, Axl and Beatrice, are spurred by some deep and nameless instinct to visit a son they only vaguely remember, convincing themselves en route that he is eagerly anticipating their arrival. Along the way they also get mixed up with mythical characters, Arthurian and older, and contemplate the nature of their love for one another.
At some moments, I felt I had found an apocryphal eighth Chronicle of Narnia, written by a particularly cheerless, possibly aphasic disciple of C.S. Lewis. While Ishiguro’s “turn to fantasy” has been compared to J.R.R. Tolkien and, heaven forfend, George R.R. Martin, the Christian allegory and honor-bound Britishness of Lewis is where I think the novel is more at home. If you remember Eustace Scrubb and Jill Poole and Puddleglum making their way across the terrible moor and through the ruined giant city, you’re there with Beatrice and Axl as they struggle across the Great Plain where the giant lies buried, always on the lookout for enchantments. Even the narrative perspective nods, intentionally or no, to Lewis, in its occasional breaks to address the reader, breaks that are just enough to remind you that you aren’t alone in the room. The third-person omniscient narrator Ishiguro employs for much of the novel places the reader in time in much the same way that Lewis’s did: “Once inside it, you would not have thought this longhouse so different from the sort of rustic canteen many of you will have experienced in one institution or another.” Compare to Lewis’s friendly signposts: “You have never seen such clothes, but I can remember them,” or “They came out on one of those rough roads (we should hardly call them roads at all in England)”.
If, in a Narnian finale, everyone gets to be together again, in an Ishiguran one, everyone is destined to be apart. But in any case, Ishiguro’s “turn to fantasy,” if that’s what we want to call it, is not what is odd about this novel, which is of a piece with his established weirdness, his postmodern genre flirtations.
Ishiguro has a reputation for spare, even aggressively unadorned prose. In the very perfect novel The Remains of the Day, Stevens the butler explains the beauty of England, in what might be a uniquely oblique authorial humble brag:
And yet what precisely is this ‘greatness’? Just where, or in what, does it lie?…I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it.
The Buried Giant is so restrained that it sometimes has a soporific effect not unlike the mist that is its central proposition. Moreover, there are some strange and disorienting perspectival shifts. We are with Beatrice and Axl very closely at the beginning, seeing things from Axl’s point of view as they are relayed by a seemingly featureless and disinterested narrator (“As she said this, softly into his chest, many fragments of memory tugged Axl’s mind, so much so that he felt almost faint.”). It is jarring then, half-way through the novel, when this perspective shifts to another character, or gives over to the first-person musings of Gawain (“Was she not that way, the one I sometimes remember when there stretches before me as much land, empty and companionless, as I could ride on a dreary autumn’s day?”). The story becomes difficult to follow when the action picks up, at a monastery full of monks who engage in a perverse and memorable bird-related form of penitence; we occasionally jump forward slightly in time and then recover lost ground using the past perfect tense (“They had met in the chilly corridor outside Father Jonus’s cell.”) Since they are written by Kazuo Ishiguro, these shifts must at heart be measured and purposeful — but they seem haphazard; they are sometimes confusing.
Unless you have utterly professionalized as a reader, the books you read are always going to be about what is going on in your life, to the extent that deluded readers like myself will see the hand of divine providence or some otherwise cosmic coincidence in their reading. I think that had I been in another frame of mind I may have dismissed this novel, placed it on a lower shelf in the Ishiguro cabinet of curiosities. But I happened to finish The Buried Giant the day after I returned to work from maternity leave, with a 10-week-old baby still at home. So, for one, I am in a state of high emotion such that I was inclined to read the novel as a love story about old people and dead children, and weep accordingly. (Without spoilers, I will say that the ending of the novel is very much like a very sad poem by Billy Collins called “Bermuda”). The final line is the book’s loveliest: “Wait for me on the shore, friend, I say quietly, but he does not hear and he wades on.”
In The Buried Giant, the mist functions as a prophylactic against bloodshed — the Britons and Saxons had hitherto been embroiled in perpetual and gruesome war — but it does not feel like benevolence. In an interview published in The Times, Ishiguro said that he wanted to write about collective memory without the limitations of a contemporary setting: “I wanted to put it in some setting where people wouldn’t get too literal about it, where they wouldn’t think, oh, he’s written a book about the disintegration of Yugoslavia or the Middle East.” Grotesque human behavior is always lurking around the edges of the novel and in the memories of its characters, as one of the knights graphically explains:
But they know in the end they will face their own slaughter. They know the infants they circle in their arms will before long be bloodied toys kicked about these cobbles. They know because they’ve seen it already, from whence they fled. They’ve seen the enemy burn and cut, take turns to rape young girls even as they lie dying of their wounds. They know this is to come, and so must cherish the earlier days of the siege, when the enemy first pay the price for what they will later do. In other words, Master Axl, it’s vengeance to be relished in advance by those not able to take it in its proper place. That’s why I say, sir, my Saxon cousins would have stood here to cheer and clap, and the more cruel the death, the more merry they would have been.
If an imagined world at the back of a wardrobe gave C.S. Lewis the basis for drawing all of Christianity, Ishiguro found a way to amplify his Arthurian moment to a universal scale. The Buried Giant is about war and memory, but it is also about love and memory, and you don’t need to have lived through an atrocity to get it. While the various knights are concerned with the mist’s implications for tribal enmities, the real constant in the story is Beatrice and Axl’s marriage. Whatever wrongs they may have committed against one another are in the past; what we see now is Axl’s constant use of the endearment “princess,” the way he doesn’t want to leave her side. The problem is that all of their past happiness is obscured by the mist, along with all of the wrongs.
Memory has been on my mind lately. Our weeks home with the baby were an enchanted time, the joys and the terrors achieving religious proportions. Life was a welter of soft skin and wooly socks and blankets and delight, interrupted here and there by the jagged edge of existential dread, the raw surprise of a sore nipple against a flannel shirt, or a torn muscle, or a panic about measles. Every day of my precious 10 weeks I told myself “you have to remember this.” But as I approached the moment when I would have to resume my business casual and normal life, the feelings began to ebb; the memory of the newness and wonder of those first days lost a bit of its technicolor brilliance. I look at pictures on my phone and am surprised by the little face as it was on day two and day five and day 21. I can call back the moment of her birth and picture how the room was arranged, but I can no longer examine it from different angles; I can no longer feel just exactly how I felt. This is terrible, but I suppose it is also a mercy; you can’t go about your ordinary life in that kind of heightened state.
Another thing that is terrible: I had heard all about how hard it is for many new mothers to leave their infants at home in exchange for workplace squabbles and awkward half-hours spent half-clad, crying and seething alone with breast pump in a dingy supply closet. But that part was fine; it wasn’t until I returned home that first day, my steps quickening to a run up our dark street toward my baby, that I felt for the first time the mute and terrible pull that must be at the root, I suppose, of parenthood — the feeling that made Beatrice and Axl up and set off across the bewitched Great Plain to their son. And it wasn’t until I got home to find the baby already asleep that I faced up to the new arrangement of my life and felt the profound devastation of being apart, a feeling that I could only pray would fade, even as part of me felt it shouldn’t fade — because shouldn’t I feel that it’s terrible, if it is in fact terrible? Shouldn’t I live with the badness, and try to correct it? This is exactly the choice with which the characters in The Buried Giant must contend.
Ishiguro often writes about memory, about the deeply revisionist histories of people who are only poking around the edges of the truth of their lives. Already, as I type this, a seasoned working mom with a week under my belt, each homecoming is increasingly less fraught, the deep sense of futility and sadness I felt on that first day away from the baby has faded, just as that raw, panicked love I felt those first few days after birth has faded, just as the pain in my nether-regions has faded. Ishiguro wrote about the erasure of misery and joy from our memory. But in an ordinary life you don’t need a dragon’s breath to wipe all that away. It’s time that does it, and it only takes a moment.