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.
Amy Sackville’s magnificent Orkney, as slippery as the shape-shifting figure at its core, is the worst beach read I can imagine. It is set on the “loneliest, the rockiest, the most desolate island that has yet been mapped,” where the waves “rush in iron-grey and unforgiving, like the cavalry of old wars.” (Sackville’s previous novel, The Still Point, explored even more inhospitable, Arctic climes.) Everything on the island — its rocky beach, promontories, caves, cottages, inhabitants — is suffused with menace; even the seals frolicking just offshore come to pose a hazy threat, at least to the narrator’s besieged psyche.
The main source of entertainment is “naming the grey,” a challenge of how best to describe the island’s monochromatic palate. (“Cinereal” wins out.) Sleep provides no respite from the novel’s relentless intensity; each “submarine” dream is “washed through with seawater,” lurid tales of drowning and sea beasts from which one awakes “drunk in the sodden aftermath of…nightmare.” The action is filtered “through the dark brown fug of a whisky hangover,” not the enlivening glow of an afternoon daiquiri.
Orkney’s plot is as elemental as the surroundings. Richard, a longtime bachelor and professor of 19th-century literature marries his former student, a pale, strange thing with silver hair and webbed hands and feet. “Take me north,” the unnamed woman resolutely tells her new husband, and so they honeymoon to an unnamed island in the Orkneys where she was born. Once there, Richard works on his magnum opus, a book on enchantment narratives: “Transformations, obsessions, seductions; succubi and incubi, entrapments and escapes…and all the attendant uncertainties, anxieties and aporia.” Or tries to work. Rather, he spends all of his time sitting at his desk and obsessively observing his young wife — through a large glass window, through a makeshift telescope, through the lens of his mythic imagination: “All those subtle serpents and slippery fishtailed maidens I have been trying to get hold of; for now it seems foolish to labour over fairy-tales when out there on the shore I have one of my own.”
His wife, in turn, spends most of her days observing the sea, to which she is irresistibly drawn despite her fear of drowning. She is forever at risk of being dragged under, by the sea, mermen, perhaps by her husband, even by her oversized cardigan, in which “it seemed she was being ingested by a seaweed-green monster with toggled buttons, against which she had long since given up struggling…” Fashion nightmare indeed.
Haunted though she may be, she is also a native creature of the island, unafraid to venture outside in all weather, effortlessly establishing conspiratorial relationships with its inhabitants (or so it appears to her suspicious husband), and occasionally pouring forth its “ancient language that she half-knows or understands.” As their roughly two-week stay unfolds, she hovers at the “edge of visibility,” more often than not a “smear” on the grey horizon for her sentry husband trying desperately to keep the insubstantial vision in view. “I’m sorry I moved beyond your frame, Richard,” she sarcastically remarks after he reprimands her for having wandered beyond her usual perch.
Richard is always trying to “prise” his elusive young wife open — her smile, her legs, her history. He compiles instead an “endless index” of his wife, which I’ve collected and will reproduce here lest anyone be looking for a new pet name for his or her significant other: little half-breed; Melusine; Thetis; daughter of the sea; shape-shifting goddess; barefoot urchin; frog princess; Queen Rose of the rosebud garden of girls; red-mouthed Virgin Lamia; faery queen; nymph; northern girl; Niviane; tricky capricious Ariel; clamped little clamshell; modern-day Venus borne in on the foam; Calypso; Circe; frond of pallid wrack; spined and spiky urchin; storm-witch; and little limpet. And yet despite Richard’s exhaustive inventory, she remains stubbornly indefinable, “a broken pile of tesserae that refuse to tessellate.” (In their erudition and grace, John Banville and Sackville strike me as comparable prose stylists.)
There is one charged scene in which, at his wife’s request, Richard forcefully holds her underwater to conquer her fear of drowning before “pulling her back into the world.” Exhilarated, she then pulls him down under into her “mysterious submerged” universe. The couple’s mutual abandon, violence, and desire get to the central ambiguity of the novel: who is enchanting or imprisoning whom? “So will you…bewitch me…? Will you leave your old teacher imprisoned, lost to life and use and name and fame?” Richard asks. To which his wife coyly responds: “Well…will you yield?”
If his wife is a kind of enchantress, Richard is something of an enchanter as well. She is initially drawn to him through the stories he tells in a literature class, and he goes on to essentially ensorcel himself, unconsciously embroidering their courtship tale with details that make her more elfin than she already is. This storytelling power explains the depth of his jealousy. Richard is democratically suspicious of any male, whether a vacationing teenager or a reeking hermit who drops in straight from a Wordsworth poem, but his real rival is his wife’s long since vanished father, who first awoke her sense of wonder with spell-binding tales of finfolk and selkies: “Nothing can replace those first tales, which have coloured the cast of her thought, which have filled her nights with the sea, and which are at least as real as she’s learned of the world since…Nothing I can tell her will ever sound in her so deep.” It is no accident that Richard is a scholar of the Victorians, those poets preoccupied with their own belatedness. Their dilemma was how to create enchantment in an industrial age, Richard’s how to counter the spells of his young wife’s more enchanting forbears.
Will Richard ultimately be left alone and palely loitering? The enchanted logic of the tale seems to demand as much, though the real mystery surrounding Richard’s wife begins at novel’s end: determining who or what she is — mermaid, enchantress, victim, figment — when “there is nothing left of her but an old man’s sigh.”
My friend Sam and I were recently talking about the point where an action turns into a performance. The conversation was prompted by his story, about a night last winter when he walked home through Chicago’s icy streets and Sam started kicking a piece of ice to preoccupy himself along the way. At a certain point, when he decided to kick the ice home, the game took on a more serious quality and became a performance. He took pictures on his phone. He recorded video footage. He wrote a blog post about it the next day. When a pedestrian walking in the opposite direction passed him and kicked the ice back toward Sam, this interaction became part of the performance, too. What was it that made my friend’s playful action into art? It seems, quite simply, his quality of attention and focus, and this documentation.
In one sense, writing isn’t very different. Writers sit habitually before their keyboards (or with a pen and paper at the ready), and in doing this attempt to isolate moments from life and reframe them on the page. Another way of understanding the performative in the literary is through John Cage, who said that literature, “if it is understood as printed material, has the characteristic of objects in space, but, understood as a performance, it takes on the aspects of processes in time.” The blurring of time and space, and of art and life, are central to Cage’s conception of art, that “art should not be different [from] life but an action within life.” An action as habitual as brushing your teeth can become art if a certain conscious attention is paid to it. Alan Kaprow, Fluxus member behind the Happenings, made a point to say that an artist’s renewed awareness of performing a repetitive action can reinvigorate this action, that “Ordinary life performed as art/not art can change the everyday with metaphoric power.”
This blurring of art and life by turning the everyday into art is an idea central to Barbara Browning’s latest novel, I’m Trying to Reach You. The novel borrows its title from the working title of a book that the narrator, dancer-turned-academic Gray Adams, is writing from his dissertation, during a post-doc year in NYU’s department of Performance Studies. Gray is never not researching. He’s always observing, texting, photographing, and scouring the Internet for material, especially YouTube, his “first resort in dealing with questions from the answerable to the unfathomable.” In these preoccupations, he ends up far more focused on novel writing than fulfilling his academic obligations, and as a result he leans heavily on this fiction to generate his academic work.
For an academic who comes to performance through what he calls “the more literal and slightly less fashionable side of the spectrum” of performance dance, Gray is a virtuoso at dissolving boundaries and conflating art and life. His novel largely borrows from his life. He begins writing in the summer of 2009, when he is in Zagreb attending an international performance conference on the day that Michael Jackson dies. Jackson’s death fuels Gray’s first line, “I was in Zagreb the day Michael Jackson died,” and from this the rest of the novel unfurls. Jackson’s demise is significant not only because of its untimeliness, but also because his death marks the first of three innovative dancers. Pina Bausch and Merce Cunningham follow in a matter of weeks, and this has Gray turning to YouTube for answers regarding the cryptic cosmic meaning contained within the coincidence.
It’s through his YouTube investigation that Gray discovers the mysterious and captivating videos of a dancer, posted by falserebelmoth. Gray is accustomed to reading messages into contemporary dance – his dissertation focused on semaphore mime in contemporary ballet choreography – and he reads into falserebelmoth’s dance, too, which includes a brief moonwalk homage to MJ. Gray observes that the dancer’s “gestures become more idiosyncratic and mysterious, as though she were trying to communicate some information.” Subsequent videos are posted with each death, and Gray lurks in an attempt to decipher their hidden meaning, viewing each video multiple times and scouring the comment thread. Gray’s desire to uncover a message, coupled with his multiple, seemingly related run-ins with a Jimmy Stewart lookalike, keeps him curious and on his toes. It also provides him with an abundance of material for his novel.
Browning integrates social media and contemporary modes of communication within the text as if it were second nature. Culturally we’re so constantly immersed in multiple layers of media – text messaging, emailing, chatting, posting photos and videos, and yet so few books actually convey this fluency with digital media (as was noted in a recent Millions essay, on the role of technology in fiction). But Browning pulls this off seamlessly. Images and video stills are integrated within the text. A picture of prized heirloom tomatoes snagged from a farmers market is snapped for later posting on Facebook; there are fruitless, patience-trying digressions within comments sections; text messages are volleyed back and forth across the Atlantic between Gray and his Swedish boyfriend; and Gray is always taking photos – to document the everyday, to research, to examine, to immortalize. Such is the case with the picture Gray takes of a man riding a stationary bike on his patio across the courtyard (also a nod to Hitchcock’s Rear Window). He reflects:
Documenting the guy across the courtyard was a way of gathering information for the book I might write. A kind of research. But after I’d taken the picture, I felt a little creepy. I made myself nervous wondering if anybody on the other side had noticed me taking the picture, and if they might have taken a picture of me taking a picture of the guy on a stationary bike.
This kind of lurking, in life and online, is something Gray touches on during his final academic talk of the year. He borrows heavily from Lauren Berlant (whose essay he found last-minute via Google search) when he says that we are increasingly “overheard and understated.” Gray is constantly listening in and observing others, whether they’re across the courtyard or leaving coded commentary, to fuel research for his novel, his academic papers, his performances. They are one in the same.
Life material becomes novel material, both for Gray Adams, and for Barbara Browning. Browning, too, was in Zagreb attending the very same conference on the day that Michael Jackson died. Browning, like her narrator, is an academic who teaches at the same university, in the department of Performance Studies. It’s significant to note that Browning refers to I’m Trying to Reach You, “not [as] a novel but a multimedia project linked to a series of chamber choreographies.” New digital media figures centrally within I’m Trying to Reach You; it provides the framework for Gray’s existence, as a tool for communication, for finding and archiving information, for documenting, for seeking solace while searching for an answer he has yet to find. But it dually becomes a medium for obfuscation, for misreading, for unleashing a labyrinth of potential meanings and inferences that may or may not exist.
Images of the twelve “chamber choreographies” that Gray watches are printed within the text. The videos are also posted for the reader to view on YouTube. In these videos, Browning is falserebelmoth, the dancer that Gray is watching. And so, if Gray Adams is Browning’s doppelganger, then falserebelmoth is another incarnation of the author, too, and through Gray’s gaze, she’s watching herself. By viewing Browning’s intimate dance performances, which take place in domestic quarters, we readers are made even more keenly aware of Browning’s multiple performances, the way that she parlays life into her art, and that every aspect of this novel constitutes an element of Browning’s performance. This fittingly is in line with Merce Cunningham’s emphasis of “each element in the spectacle.” And all the while, we readers are lurking and overhearing, watching Gray who is watching others, following Gray to YouTube, watching Browning as falserebelmoth dance in a bathtub. And by doing so, we are made newly aware of our own constant lurking, within the book and within our own lives too.
In Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon coined the term slow violence to describe “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a…delayed destruction…, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.” Nixon explored the slow erosion of cultures, of places, of the ability to survive for so many people in poor communities across the world. He argued that this violence is so pervasive because it’s not spectacular. Sudden violence captures our attention. We react to it. We rally around events like typhoons or nuclear meltdowns or hurricanes or wars. But it is harder for the world to focus on the gradual decay of poor communities.
While Nixon’s book is deep and complex, he’s far from the first to talk about slow violence. Writers, artists, documentary filmmakers, and others have been struggling to shine a light on slow violence for decades, at least since Michael Moore released Downsize This! and placed, in the first couple of pages, a picture of the bombed out federal building in Oklahoma City next to a picture of a General Motors factory after GM had moved those jobs to Mexico. The two buildings look almost identical. Both communities were devastated after the sudden violence of the bombing and the slow violence of the downsizing. Together, these photos ask us how we define terrorism, and whether it’s any less terrorizing when it happens gradually and results in a more thorough destruction.
The most recent addition to this discussion is Joe Meno’s novel A Marvel and a Wonder. In it, Meno explores the slow violence of the flyover states through the characters of Jim Falls and his grandson Quentin. Jim is a chicken farmer in rural Indiana. He’s a widow. His daughter struggles with her addiction to crystal meth and has more or less abandoned her son, Quentin. Jim and Quentin work the farm together. Despite the fact that they spend almost all of their time in close proximity, they’re worlds apart in their own heads. Jim worries about the farm. Money is tight and will likely run out in the next couple of years. If he were younger, it would be time for him to leave his dying town and do something else. But he’s in his 70s and has farmed his whole life. It’s all he knows. It’s who he is. Quentin, in the meantime, is a biracial kid in a rural white world. Though he doesn’t articulate it, he knows like we all know that race is a performance. We’re taught to act white or black or whatever. He has no role models and turns to his Walkman and his N.W.A. cassettes for guidance.
Just as Jim and Quentin’s situation seems hopeless, mysterious circumstances bring a horse to Jim. She’s a thoroughbred worth tens of thousands of dollars. Jim sees her as a gift from his dead wife, Deedee. Quentin sees her as a test from God. Both grandfather and grandson fall in love with the horse. She’s a companion, a way of bringing them together, and, if they make the right moves, a way of gaining a little financial security while Quentin finishes high school and Jim lives through his golden years. Unfortunately, having tens of thousands of dollars in your backyard in an economically recessed town is an invitation to trouble, even if that money is in the form of a quarter horse. A pair of local meth dealers steal the horse. Jim and Quentin descend into a violent world of drugs and gambling to get the horse back. Their journey brings them closer and threatens to kill them.
There is a fair amount of sudden violence in the book. Characters carry guns and shoot them at each other. Bones are broken. People are beaten. People die. Meno handles it all with the skill of a writer who has studied Jim Thompson and Nelson Algren. The depravity of the situation feels real. The worlds Jim and Quentin live in and travel through are bleak and gritty. What sets this novel apart, though, is the slow violence.
All of Jim and Quentin’s problems — and their slim hopes for a solution — are the direct result of an unjust economic system. From the view of American mainstream culture, a guy like Jim is white trash. By that very language, his life is disposable. Whatever happens to him is justified. Quentin can be dismissed on a racial level. If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that black lives don’t matter much to people in power. And Quentin lives in a world 20 years removed from us, when even the thought of a black president seemed remote. So both grandfather and grandson are invisible and untouchable from the point of view of power. It’s nothing for those who craft federal and state policy to craft a policy that tilts the economic playing field toward agribusiness conglomerates and away from family farmers. And systems that enable someone like Quentin to have a future — public education, food stamps, libraries — become the first programs on the budget chopping block. So the two are left to struggle through the detritus of this slow violence. There is no suggestion of Quentin taking over the farm that has been in the Falls family for generations. The farm won’t be profitable through his high school years, much less through his adulthood. It’s really nothing more than a few acres of Indiana that Monsanto will take over for cheap once Jim dies. The sooner, the better for Monsanto.
Even the horse that appears like a godsend is really more toying of the excessively wealthy. Jim receives the horse through the execution of a will. His ownership of the horse is a mistake, but there are so many more valuable things the heirs are fighting over in the will that no one wants to fuss about a $50,000 quarter horse. This juxtaposition of greedy heirs grabbing for so much money that $50,000 is beneath their concerns with Jim and Quentin, who are barely able to scrape together money for the electric bill, is striking. And, while it’s not wealthy people who steal the horse, only about one percent of the American population can get away with buying, boarding, training, and racing an illegal quarter horse. Without someone to buy the stolen horse, it’s worthless to the thieves. The fact that the buyer is a one percenter on his death bed, someone who already has exponentially more money than he has life left, someone who will never be able to ride or even see the stolen horse he has bought, someone who set this whole series of events into motion simply to add to his sociopathic accumulation of wealth, is perhaps the most violent and poignant part of the book.
In telling the story of Jim and Quentin, Meno broadens the conversation about the winners and losers of the global economy.
Jim Falls is a complex character. He’s a racist whose last great love is his biracial grandson. He’s a good person who wants to be better. He wants to give to his community and to do right by way of his daughter and grandson. It’s just that the value system he was raised with is losing its relevance. The world is changing. His identity is crumbling. All of his ideological oases have dried up. In these ways, both Jim Falls and Marvel and a Wonder seem like a reimagining of those great old depression era novels by John Steinbeck and William Faulkner and Meridel Le Sueur. The book makes visible the typically invisible victims of unjust economic policies. It makes these characters people — flawed and beautiful. It resists too much judgment or proselytizing and explores complex situations with appropriate complexity. In the end, it not only demonstrates the injustice of our contemporary society, it forces us to confront our own role in these cultural conditions.
This summer, a commercial was lauded for skewering a common bad habit. The ad, which promoted IKEA, opens on the drawing room of a lord apparently living around the time of King George III. As servants lay out a dinner of fruits, vegetables, and game birds, the bewigged gentleman calls in a painter and demands a still life on the spot. When the painting is done, footmen hustle it out of the manor and around town, showing it off to upper-class fops who flash thumbs-ups in response. They return home, triumphant, and, finally happy at his success, the man lets his poor family eat. Flash-forward to the present and footage of a dad delaying a family meal to snap pictures of the food on his cell phone. The closing tagline: “It’s a meal. Not a competition. Let’s relax.”
Indeed, let’s. In fact, we might go one better and forget the image entirely — nobody really needs their image on any screen, silver or TV or phone. No one really needs a relationship with corporate capitalism, conspicuous consumption, or cyberspace, either. All that is fungible, forgettable; it’s been replaced many times before.
What to do with the spare time left over by ceasing to engage? Consider reading Mary Oliver’s latest book, Upstream, and its meditations on inescapable, physical life and the world beyond any screen.
Mary Oliver is the country’s “far and away, the country’s best-selling poet,” according to a ten-year-old article in The New York Times. Famous for winning the 1984 Pulitzer Prize, she’s published over 30 books since 1965. Many feature famous poems or lines — and by dint of that notoriety, Oliver is easy to find in a certain kind of middle-class, left-wing American life. I’ve seen her words everywhere from Buddhist meditation sessions to Mac McClelland’s memoir Irritable Hearts (which quotes a poem about “letting the soft animal of your body love what it loves”) to the co-op where I lived in college, which bore a version of her line, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” hand-painted in a girlish curlicue over a dining room doorway.
To her vaunted curriculum vitae and relative ubiquity, Oliver, aged 81, now adds Upstream. But despite Oliver’s well-demonstrated power, one of the book’s first sentiments is a disclaimer about its smallness in comparison to the world it describes: “And whoever thinks these are worthy, breathy words I am writing down is kind… Come with me into the field of sunflowers is a better line than anything you will find here, and the sunflowers themselves far more wonderful than any words about them.”
That might be unnecessarily self-deprecating, but it’s true enough. Oliver’s power lies in words, but even more so in her power of observation. Until recently, she spent her life spent trekking through woodlands (“I walk, all day, across the heaven-verging field,” she writes) and half on the cusp of the sea, in formerly sleepy Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Despite being a thin volume, Upstream is a cognitively weighty book. It’s her rare volume of essays rather than pure poetry, although 16 of the 19 essays are reprints from earlier books. It offers no obvious order, and it sticks to no one particular subject. It is neither chronological nor purely topical, and it jumps from the natural world to famous literary lives (Walt Whitman, William Wordsworth, Edgar Allen Poe) to a beloved pet dog. It discusses the life and thoughts of Oliver’s deceased lover, Molly Malone Cook, without explaining who she is (indeed, without ever including more than an initial, M). More than a book meant to make a single point, this is a book meant to allow Mary Oliver’s vivid thoughts out into the world.
The book’s finest moments are when Oliver dwells on the nature she has spent a lifetime loving. Thankfully, these are frequent. She writes of seeing caught Bluefin tuna unloaded from fishing boats, “their bodies are as big as horses;” of the live fishes she once returned to the cold sea after unexpectedly cutting them from the body of a fish who’d just ate them (“for an instant they throbbed in place, too dazed to understand that they could swim back to life — and then they uncurled, like silver leaves, and flashed away”); of the injured bird she let slowly die in a luxurious nest of towels she’d constructed near a sliding door in her home.
Among the observations of natural beauty come slow, gentle, ponderous thoughts about the nature of love, death, and life in a changing place. Oliver avoids anything self-pitying, apocalyptic, or morbid — and in fact she doesn’t even overtly mourn her partner, whose 2005 death she grieved in the 2007 photo book Our World. Nonetheless, these philosophical musings are the point of writing. “You need empathy with it rather than just reporting,” Oliver explained to Krista Tippett of On Being in 2015. “Reporting is for field guides. And they’re great. They’re helpful. That’s what they are. But they’re not thought provokers. And they don’t go anywhere.”
This book is thought-provoking, and it does go somewhere. Where it goes is ultimately up to the reader — whose mind, after all, is the soil in which Oliver’s contemplative turns of phrase will bloom. Oliver expresses clearly that nature is our equal, if not our better, and that the nonhuman world offers a wellspring of insight to those who pay careful attention to it.
As for any IKEA commercials one might miss while out in the woods or at the shore: well, that last one went viral, I guess. But if you’ve seen it — or if you haven’t — forget it. Whatever insight it offers, remember that Mary Oliver got there first, and better, with words like these: “Writing is neither vibrant life nor docile artifact but a text that would put all its money on the hope of suggestion…Butterflies don’t write books, neither do lilies or violets. Which doesn’t mean they don’t know, in their own way, what they are. That they don’t know they are alive — that they don’t feel, that action upon which all consciousness sits, lightly or heavily. Humility is the prize of the leaf-world. Vainglory is the bane of us, the humans.”
Putting all my money on the hope of a suggestion now, I’ll say that this, and all the rest of Upstream, comes highly recommended.