The “Machine” in the title of Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book from 1982 is a minicomputer, but for anyone reading it now, it might as well be a time machine. The Soul of a New Machine takes the reader back 27 years, but in terms of the technology that is central to the book, it feels like we’re going back eons. Kidder’s book, once a riveting look into a fast-growing and mysterious industry, now reads as history. Kidder’s subject is a team of engineers at a now gone company called Data General (it was bought out in 1999). Under the brash instruction of their leader, Tom West, the engineers set out to design a computer even though the head honchos at Data General have put their support and resources behind another group. West’s Eagle group – made up of young, brilliant engineers – comes out on top. Though this book is quite dated now, I enjoyed it for a couple of reasons. Computer technology is so commonplace now that it is a part of our landscape, both essential and taken for granted. It was interesting to look back to a time before we had computers on our desks and in our pockets, when computers were as mysterious and awe inspiring as putting a man on the moon. The book was also compelling as a collection of character studies and a treatise on business theory. Kidder does a good job of putting the reader in the basement of the office building where this computer was born. If you’re interested, an excerpt from the book is available.
In Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, Sarah Manguso writes of what compelled her to keep a diary, an exhaustive, exhausting project she undertook for 25 years:
I didn’t want to lose anything. That was my main problem. I couldn’t face the end of the day without a record of everything that had ever happened.
Although the project was impossible — capturing every moment is like making a map at one-to-one scale — the effort seems crucial. “I couldn’t think of any way to avoid getting lost in time.” Manguso writes of a fear of endings, of rushing her life to each new beginning. Yet this is not only the story of Manguso’s diary-keeping but, rather, of its end.
After a quarter century of meticulous recording, Manguso becomes pregnant and becomes a mother. At first, the fog of pregnancy-brain brings on a temporary amnesia that interferes with the practice. But it is the birth of her son that disentangles Manguso from her diary for good. It is not her cloudy mind or busy life, but the way motherhood transmutes her sense of time and memory and her place in that terrain:
In my experience nursing is waiting. The mother becomes the background against which the baby lives, becomes time.
I used to exist against the continuity of time. Then I became the baby’s continuity, a background of ongoing time for him to live against. I was the warmth and milk that was always there for him, the agent of comfort that was always there for him.
Manguso’s anxiety in the face of endless moments is superseded by a timelessness in which “My body, my life, became the landscape of my son’s life.” The extraordinary moments of Manguso’s life are now, she finds, the extraordinary moments of her son’s life. And her memories of him defy the rules of memories she had known before: “The memory should already be fading, but when I bring it up I almost choke—an incapacitating sweetness.” She records these memories dutifully in her diary for a while. And then she stops.
The diary itself, Manguso tells us, is 800,000 words long. (In an afterward she explains the pragmatic, and wise, decision not to excerpt any of its text.) Ongoingness is contrastingly spare, built of fragments or moments no longer than a page. Most are much shorter, a few brief paragraphs with white space between them to breathe. You can read the book all at once even if you pause to absorb between moments, as the white space invites you to do. I finished it in one sitting, and as soon as I did I felt sure I would read it again.
There is a remarkable sureness to this book, a calm hush like that of a person who speaks softly so that you lean in to listen. When Manguso writes things like, “My students still don’t know what they will never be. Their hope is so bright I can almost see it,” her earlier gentleness with her younger self saves her from condescension. Her son, in a way, solidified her life: “Now I am old enough to know what I’ll never accomplish.” She writes that she is relieved to never again have to wonder if she’ll have a child, to know the things — “a soldier, a physicist” — she’ll never be. Manguso’s diary entries not only recorded what had happened, they also, in effect, delineated what hadn’t — a constraint of possibility. But motherhood and the simple progress of life limit possibilities on their own. This seems to be a relief. Manguso’s electric questing settles down into a kind of sureness or calm.
If the engine of the essay is doubt, then where is the place for certainty in this form? Essai is to ask; Michel de Montaigne’s motto was “What do I know?” Doubt, not-knowing, and the driving force of questions are the currency and engine of the essay.
Essayists celebrate this not-knowing. In the introduction to his collection, Loitering, Charles D’Ambrosio writes of essay-writing:
Seeking faith with doubt, that’s definition enough for me. Or strike faith, if you must, and leave it at seeking with doubt. And longing. And not-knowing.
D’Ambrosio’s questing takes him, often, out into the world, the reported story a sounding board or tuning fork to resonate the writer’s life and questions. In order to understand the fear of vaccination, Eula Biss in On Immunity calls on Susan Sontag, Voltaire, Bram Stoker, Rachel Carson, and a host of other sources, not least of which is her own conflicted heart. The writer and the reported story intertwine and spiral, resonating and amplifying and juxtaposing. There are rarely solid answers. Perhaps we learn to ask new questions. The essay’s questions are often ravenous. Ongoingness, in contrast, feels sated.
Manguso’s certainty pulls some of her statements toward aphorism:
Then I came to understand that the forgotten moments are the price of continued participation in life, a force indifferent to time.
Left alone in time, memories harden into summaries.
Yet for the most part her declarations are certain, self-contained, but not pat: “even before my body was an instrument for language it had been an instrument for memory.” These feel like essential truths and revelations at the same time. Should we fault a woman her wisdom? How many writers, especially women under retirement age, are willing to baldly be wise? No equivocation, no apologies.
Manguso writes a quest through doubt, but she writes from the other side. Perhaps this is the essayist’s equivalent of the redemptive memoir: a tale of doubts and questions all resolved. Yet this book raises questions even where it doesn’t ask them. If it were so pat and settled it wouldn’t hum in your mind for days after you put it down. What can writing’s purpose be without an audience? How are we to be present in the world? Can we experience everything fully and also remember?
In the essay that I have read on either the first or last day of every writing class I’ve ever taught, “The Essay, an Exercise in Doubt,” Philip Lopate offers a variation on the essayist’s doubt: self-questioning rather than ambivalent. The landscape for interrogation is the writer’s own mind. He calls the essay “a meadow inviting contradiction, paradox, irresolution and self-doubt. The essay’s job is to track consciousness; if you are fully aware of your mind you will find your thoughts doubling back, registering little peeps of ambivalence or disbelief.”
Usually this tracking of consciousness is what Lopate calls “the mind at work on the page,” the essayist’s thoughts enacted and performed. But Manguso tracks her consciousness on a greater scale of time, through the iterations of self that add up to a lifetime. She does not inhabit doubt of herself, because she finds no single self to write from. She writes of the urgency of her diary-keeping practice as well as its obsolesence. She writes, “for twenty years, every day, I wrote down what happened. After I finish writing this sentence I’ll do it again,” and that this is no longer a thing that she does.
Both are true because each page of Ongoingness is its own moment, and although some come chronologically later, this doesn’t make them more right than the others. It’s not an act of doubt but of generosity toward one’s past selves and their passions, fears, and compulsions. As Manguso writes near the end of Ongoingness (if ends are a concept that still apply), “I’ve never understood so clearly that linear time is a summary of actual time, of All Time, of the forever that has always been happening.” In that ongoingness, all our selves are present, not in conflict or doubt but in chorus.
Manguso describes this book within itself. As she comes though the exhaustion of her first trimester, she writes, “I began to see the work I might do next — this, an assemblage of already exploded bits that cohere anyway, a reminder that what seems a violent interruption, seldom is.”
Indeed, in many ways, Ongoingness is a reassurance. Reassurance that life coheres despite gaps in remembrance or narration: continuity is not the same as cohesion. Reassurance that beginnings and endings are traversable. Each “exploded bit” is a beginning and an end on the page — each is punctuated by an end mark, a little coda of finality — yet each flows into the next, the very ongoingness Manguso fears and seeks in this book: moments that are discreet but flow and the aspect of time that is more than a succession of beats. Moments no less discernible from one another than lives.
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.
I imagine one of the reasons The Great Gatsby remains so popular today must be because it taps into something deep inside the human literary soul. A man rises from obscurity, wins all the battles (throws all the parties), and ultimately falls in a tragedy of his own making. How long has that essential plot been with us? The answer, as anyone who’s taken a world history course could tell you, is a very, very long time. Even today, several hundred years after the divinely appointed monarch became an anachronism in the West, we can’t stop telling stories about that great man, the king.
In The Secret Chord, Pulitzer Prize-winner Geraldine Brooks (March, 2006) goes way, way back into that tradition to bring us a novelistic retelling of the biblical King David, the man who killed giants, composed the Psalms and united the tribes of Israel into a kingdom.
Brooks’s David is a man of contradictions. “He could be a predator at noonday and a poet by dusk,” says Natan, Brooks’s narrator. He’s extraordinarily touched by the divine and a great hero to his people, but he commits many acts of brutality and benefits from even more to achieve his crown. Though his life (if he truly existed, it was maybe 3,000 years ago) was chronicled in a 2,500-year-old book, in Brooks’s hands David feels both timeless and fully alive, as charismatic and dangerous as any of our modern Chosen Ones. She presents a hero who “dwelt in the searing glance of the divine, but who sweated and stank…built a nation, made music that pleased heaven, and left poems in our mouths that will be spoken by people yet unknown.” Who doesn’t want to read about someone like that?
Brooks’s fifth novel takes its title from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and revolves around the famous tryst described in that song. David sees Batsheva (the names are spelled from their Hebrew originals) bathing on the roof and, overthrown by her beauty in the moonlight, commits adultery and a murder that bring about the near downfall of his dynasty. Woven around this thread is David’s whole life story, as recounted by his lifelong prophet, Natan.
The story doesn’t stray from its source material in the books of Samuel and Kings in any significant way. As a young man, David is pulled away from tending his sheep so he can be anointed the new king of the Israelites by the prophet Samuel. He slays Goliath, joins the court of King Saul, and loves Jonathan, Saul’s son. As king, he marries many women, fathers many sons, wins many battles. In punishment for the Batsheva affair, David’s horrid sons turn against him and each other, spurring several years of family and dynastic strife.
In Brooks’s previous novels, she has taken a very specific moment in history and turned it outward to examine a host of concerns. Here the scope seems both larger and more personal. The details of daily life in Iron Age Israel, outside of war and food, are sparse, as they have to be. There are few primary sources to consult when you go back this far. But the characters never feel foreign or unknowable. The story takes David’s faith and Natan’s prophecies at face value, but it never feels overly pious. Natan’s express mission is to make his king known to readers “as a man.”
There are times when Brooks’s decision to relate the entire story of a very eventful life in 300 pages feels like a series of missed opportunities. Natan recounts events from a distance — some scenes are related by other characters in dialogue, some are seen from afar in visions and others are recalled years after they happened. We get moments in summary that cry out to be part of a living, breathing scene. Take this line: “I was at the audience, and I sensed his manipulation, but I did not grasp where it was leading.” A different novel might spend pages leading up to this kind of realization; The Remains of the Day makes an entire book out of it. Later, distraught by David’s hand in Uriah’s death, Natan takes to the desert. While wandering there, he has visions of how the remaining years of David’s life will play out. For all this, arguably the most key passage in the book, we get two pages.
Natan is a prophet, a true seer. As such, he takes a vow of celibacy and lives apart from other people. “The truth is, the people abide my kind, but no one loves us,” he realizes at age 10, after his first vision. “We grow used to the turned shoulder, the retreating back, the bright conversation that sputters to a murmur when we enter a room, the sigh of relief when we leave it.” And so what other way, he might ask us, would a man such as him tell a story such as this? The form suits the storyteller. Still, at times I couldn’t help but wish for the “simple joys and intimacies” Natan holds himself apart from.
In their place, we gain a breadth of knowledge that lets us see how everything is connected. We understand how being unloved as a child makes David too permissive with his own children; how after being so blessed during his rise to power, he can callously abuse that power later in life. It’s rewarding, to feel like we know this man as well as Natan does. The book holds both coming-of-age tale and classic tragedy.
Fans of Brooks’s previous books may be surprised by how overwhelmingly male The Secret Chord is. All of her previous novels have central female characters. The Secret Chord stays firmly focused on David, Natan, and, later, Shlomo (Solomon). This is not to say an author must always write the same kind of book or isn’t free to choose her subjects. Several women do appear throughout the story, most notably David’s famous wives Mikhal, Avigail, and Batsheva, and all live and breathe as characters in their own right. But for the large majority of the book, we’re in a men’s world of war, chieftainship, and brutality.
Brooks’s past books are mostly about ordinary people who push against the circumstances of their time to make their lives extraordinary. The characters in The Secret Chord are extraordinary from day one and spend the rest of their lives struggling to maintain the great responsibility that comes with it. But Brooks treats these characters with the same good will and strong narrative she did with the others. David can be quite harsh and misguided, yet enthralling and charming for all that. Natan’s outsider status may place him in kinship with the women of Brooks’s other novels, and he draws our sympathy with his clear-eyed confessions.
Is it escapism to read about such a powerful figure when most of us lead lives of quiet inconsequentiality? Or is reading this book a way to hear that ancient chord in the chorus of literature, linking us to humanity throughout the ages?
Halfway through Richard Ford’s new novel, Canada, the young narrator, Dell, having been abandoned by his family, is spirited across the border between Montana and the Canadian province of Saskatchewan in the back seat of a car driven by family friend Mildred Remlinger. The world Dell has known in Great Falls, Mont., is in ruins following the arrest of both of his parents in connection with a botched bank robbery, and the world he is about to enter is entirely unknown to him:
Ahead, where the highway was only a pencil line into the distance, two dark low bumps became visible on the horizon, backed by blue sky in which there was not a floating cloud. I wouldn’t have seen the bumps if I hadn’t looked where Mildred was looking. It was Canada there. Indistinguishable. Same sky. Same daylight. Same air. But different. How was it possible I was going to it?
The two dark low bumps cohere into huts for customs officials on this lonely border road, and once Dell passes them, the novel, which has been spinning its wheels for more than 200 pages, suddenly locks into gear and begins to cruise toward greatness. In part, this sense of velocity is literal: after weeks of hanging around waiting for his parents to commit the idiotic crime announced on the first page of the novel, Dell is finally on the move, in the back of a car driven by a near-stranger, observing the world not through the eyes of a bored and perplexed teenager, but through the eyes of a first-class novelist inhabiting the consciousness of a frightened 15-year-old boy. Buzzards hang “in the sky, curving and motionless.” The night air is “sweet as bread.” The land itself is not merely land, but in a marvelously unforced way, an indicator of the narrator’s sense of loss and lostness:
Once we were out of the hills, there were no landmarks…There were even fewer trees. A single low white house with a windbreak and a barn and a tractor could be seen in the distance, then later another one. The course of the sun would be what told you where you were — that and whatever you personally knew about: a road, a fence line, the regular direction the wind came from.
Ford’s characters, too, which in the American portions of the novel, have been largely made up of loose collections of physical description and character tics, become stranger and far more interesting once we hit Canada. The first person Dell meets in Canada is the novel’s single great achievement: a gruff, unsavory Métis Indian named Charley Quarters, who lives alone in a filthy trailer and spends his days leading Americans on geese-hunting expeditions, but also wears lipstick and eye shadow and writes poetry.
Charley Quarters is the real thing, the sort of character who could exist nowhere but in fiction, but who feels utterly alive and real on the page, and for 50 pages or so, this odd, misbegotten novel comes alive as Dell settles into his strange new world, living in a shack in the middle of ghost town in the process of being reclaimed by the surrounding prairie. And then — splat — the book dies again, never to show any more than the occasional sign of life for another hundred-odd frustrating pages.
In truth, Canada is two novels, neither of which has much to do with the other, or, for that matter, with Dell, its ostensible narrator and central character. In the first novel, set in Montana in the summer of 1960, Dell’s parents, Bev and Neeva Parsons, rob a bank in a manner so criminally inept and for reasons so lacking in basic common sense that Ford is forced to spend dozens of pages just making it sound like actual human beings might do such a thing. The second novel, set in the fictional town of Fort Royal, Saskatchewan, focuses on Arthur Remlinger, a mysterious American hotelier and one-time political hothead who is in hiding after committing a politically motivated crime in Detroit years before.
Neither of these crimes, along with a double murder that, again, Ford announces on page one, make much sense, but from the reader’s point of view, the far larger problem is how little they touch on the life of the narrator. The bank robbery, which puts his parents in jail and causes his twin sister, Berner, to run away to her own, separate fate, radically alters the trajectory of Dell’s life, but up until then, it really has nothing to do with him. For 200 pages, Dell moons around Great Falls, friendless, reading obsessively about chess and beekeeping, while his idiot father loses job after job and gets on the wrong side of some no-good local Indians, leading him to conclude that his only hope is to pack his wife in the car and rob a bank in North Dakota without bothering to wear a mask or otherwise cover his tracks.
Once in Canada, after a few chapters in which Dell finally seems to be participating in his own life, Ford loses interest in his fate and changes the subject to Arthur Remlinger’s crime, which has even less to do with Dell than the bank robbery. The reader is asked to wade through page after page of exposition about what Arthur did years ago and why he did it, largely delivered in summarized dialogue by Charley Quarters. Why is Charley telling young Dell all this? I couldn’t figure that one out, but by then, frankly, my dear, I didn’t give a damn.
One comes away from Canada feeling as though a less gifted author was trying to write a knock-off of a Richard Ford novel, and has made a hash of it. All the classic Fordisms are there: the sensitive teen at the mercy of hopelessly bad parents, the lonesome Western landscapes, the borderline clichés dressed up as prairie wisdom, the sense that all is in elegy to a lost and fallen world. But unlike in Ford’s best work — the first two Frank Bascombe novels, The Sportswriter and Independence Day, and the excellent story collection, Rock Springs — where all this stuff works, in Canada, the old Ford magic comes off as half-baked and pretentious.
Richard Ford has earned his place in the pantheon of late-20th-century American novelists, and 15 years ago, one could plausibly argue he was among the best Americans writing, but his later work — that is, most of what he’s done since he won the Pulitzer Prize for Independence Day in 1996 — has seemed of a lesser quality. Now, this new book, Canada, exhibits a degree of badness that makes one wonder if the earlier stuff was really all that good. Wasn’t Frank Bascombe always a wee bit of a gasbag? Didn’t some of the stories in Rock Springs seem a little, well, contrived?
If you have a soft spot in your heart for Frank Bascombe and the other hard-luck characters in Ford’s earlier fiction, you may well want to skip this trip across the border.
When it comes to movie stars, the standards seem to stretch and shift more easily than they do for the rest of us. We’re apt to excuse the simply bad deeds of the rich and famous, and try to forget altogether the atrocious ones. We celebrate celebrities’ normal life milestones (giving birth, getting married) with a strange kind of fervor, and somehow when an actress picks up a box of Oreos or pushes her toddler on a swing set, it’s infinitely more exciting than if we’d done it ourselves. (Which is perplexing, as in only one of those scenarios do we actually end up with the Oreos.) In her new novel, Little Known Facts, which centers around the aging, charismatic film star Renn Ivins, Christine Sneed confronts this “celebrity disparity” head on.
“If you become famous,” says Renn, “more people than you expect will forgive you for things you probably shouldn’t be forgiven for.”
Forgiveness is at the heart of Sneed’s book, which is told from the perspective of Ivins and his inner circle: his children, his ex-wives, his current paramours. The book, reminiscent of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, switches point of view with each chapter. In addition to first and third person narratives that function almost as individual short stories, Sneed treats us to an excerpt from Renn’s second wife’s memoir, the aptly titled This Isn’t Gold, and Renn’s own notes for the biography he hopes will be written about him one day. By the book’s end, almost everyone has committed some sort of sin — infidelity, theft, possible extortion. But these characters are so richly drawn, and Sneed’s ability to switch voices so adept, that, as readers, we’re inclined to forgive these people most of their transgressions, almost as easily as they seem to forgive each other.
Which may in fact be Sneed’s point: that as readers we’ve become so jaded, so used to seeing celebrities crash and burn, perhaps even delighted to watch them crash and burn, that when they engage in something as unexceptional as adultery, we hardly care. By Tinseltown standards, the lives of Ivins and his inner circle seem almost banal — there are no stunning nose dives, no drug-fueled car crashes or belligerent telephone rants. As Curtis Sittenfeld points out in her New York Times review of the book, we rarely see Ivins in the act of being a movie star; Sneed glosses over a scene at the Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Awards are mentioned only in passing. Instead, Ivins is regarded as simply a celebrity, someone who is given most anything he wants easily and immediately, someone whose family, and particularly his children, have had to step out of his shadow. Renn’s daughter, Anna, a doctor, seems to have done this much more successfully than Will, his son, who grapples with defining himself outside of his relationship to his father. It’s the nuances of these relationships, of Renn’s interactions with his children and the people to which he is something other than a movie star, that make the narrative so intriguing.
Sneed says when she set out to write the story of the Ivins family, she didn’t give much thought to the fact that she herself didn’t know any celebrities. Imagining the lives of other people, she points out, is one of the chief aims of fiction.
“People think you have to have a certain amount of bravado to write about Hollywood,” Sneed says. “But I can write about anything. I don’t have to be the child of a movie star to figure out what it would be like.”
The book has raised Sneed’s own celebrity star, propelling her from a respected but not widely known short-story writer to an author with a novel on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. It’s recognition that’s been a long time coming for Sneed, who, after 10 years of teaching and submitting her work to little avail, finally caught a break when her story “Quality of Life,” was selected by Salman Rushdie for The Best American Short Stories 2008. It had been rejected by 18 literary journals. Sneed admits that by the time she sent it to the New England Review, where it was ultimately published, she was getting a little bit disillusioned.
“But I thought, what the hell,” Sneeds says of sending the piece to NER. “The worst that could happen was that they’d reject it too.”
In 2009, a year after her story was plucked for inclusion in the Best American collection, Sneed won the 2009 AWP Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, for her collection Portraits of a Few People I’ve Made Cry.
Sneed’s been bolstered by support from the Chicago literary community, which, she says, thanks to the growing number of well-known women writers like Gillian Flynn, Audrey Niffenegger, and Rebecca Skloot, is becoming a real landmark on the literary map. It was the support of the community, she says, including a number of independent bookstores, that helped sustain her while she was struggling to gain recognition all those years.
“I think people expect things to happen quickly, because the media elevates youthful success,” Sneed says, citing writers who’ve made splashes at a young age, like Téa Obreht and Dave Eggers. “But it really doesn’t happen overnight.”
That perhaps, is one of the major differences between writers and actors — along with the fact that, as far as most of the world is concerned, only one really constitutes a celebrity.