Wow. Sports Illustrated has just published an excerpt of Game of Shadows by SF Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams that lays out what can only be described as incontrovertible evidence that Barry Bonds has been a rampant steroid user for the last several years. This is going to rock the baseball world, and I hope it really does shake things up – I’d love to see the game get back to the way it was before wierdly beefy guys started launching home runs night after night. This is big book news too. I got a breathless “news alert” from a publicist pointing to the impact the SI excerpt is having on the book’s sales. As of this writing, yesterday’s Amazon rank for the book was 119,745 and now it’s up to 75, and climbing I’d assume. So here’s to a clean, non-chemically enhanced baseball season. Can we make it happen this year, please?
Joan Didion writes in her essay “The White Album” that the cultural paranoia known as “the Sixties” had ended — or rather been fulfilled — on August 9, 1969. That night, four members of Charles Manson’s “Family” broke into 10050 Cielo Drive and stabbed Sharon Tate Polanski, eight months pregnant, a total of sixteen times. Shortly after, as Paul Watkins and other members of the Manson Family watched a television report of the murders, somebody turned to him and said, “Wouldn’t it be somethin’ if old Charlie did that?”
Paul Watkins had been just out of high school when he joined the Manson Family. He was a former class president with a handsome face, and a smile sweet enough to recruit young girls to the commune. After the Manson murders, Watkins would ultimately testify against Charles Manson. He would outlive the Sixties. He would become president of the Death Valley Chamber of Commerce, appear on CNN, raise two daughters. On his deathbed, he would tape a video for his daughters, beginning with, “Here I am, my girls. I want you to know how much I loved you. I want you to know who I was.”
This is not the story his daughter Claire Vaye Watkins tells in “Ghost, Cowboys,” which opens her sweeping debut story collection Battleborn. Instead, “Ghost, Cowboys” explores the stories from Death Valley as a whole, in which her own family history plays only a small episode.
The narrator begins her story in 1859, when a man named Charles Fuller builds a toll bridge that was to become Reno decades later. Then, the narrator flashes forward to 1941, when George Spahn converts his ranch into a lucrative movie set. And yet again to 1968, when a group of ten hitchhikers offer George to “help” with chores if he gives them permission to “camp out” in the empty set buildings. Two of those ten are the characters Charles Manson and Paul Watkins.
At this point, the narrator reveals herself to be the writer’s fictional namesake. The character Claire Watkins lives alone in Reno after both her parents have passed. She lives a mostly stoned, humdrum life, save for the various movie producers who seek her out for her thoughts on a possible Manson movie. They take her out to dinner, and the dinners often go like this:
“How are you?” they say.
“I’m a receptionist,” I say.
“Good,” they say, long and slow, nodding as though my being a receptionist has given them everything they came for.
It isn’t a stretch to say that anyone familiar with the Manson Family legacy is also wondering how the daughter of Paul Watkins is doing. Battleborn is the answer to that question: she became a storyteller.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live. That line, which opens Didion’s essay “The White Album,” may very well serve as the epigraph for every story in Claire Vaye Watkins’ collection. The stories include a wild teenage girl who drives to Las Vegas with her best friend to find a group of collegiate boys to sleep with; a false prophet who lies to keep from losing his brother, an emaciated 49’er, to gold rush fever; a group of jaded hipsters who roam the deserted graveyards of Virginia City.
Each of these stories, set in a different part of Nevada, feature vagrants — whether traveling to Nevada in search for gold, or attending an out-of-state college — and the shameful stories they tell to themselves and the people they love. As if Watkins’ prose embodies the desert landscape of Nevada itself, the stories are stony, unkind, and harsh, though never unattractive. And as I read through the collection, I kept asking myself why I didn’t find her stories unattractive.
“Rondine Al Nido” confronts the reasons why one is drawn to the dark and the morbid. We’re first introduced to a couple who takes to candle-lit confessions in bed after sex. The man, a former social worker, tells her about the cases he’s seen: the father who made his son live under the floorboards of their porch, the snack bar employee who lured a retarded girl into the men’s bathroom with a lemonade. The woman, a typist, tells him about the terrible things she’s done: the tropical lizards she begged for, then abandoned in a field once she bored of them; the wretched, ring-wormed boy she asked to meet her for a kiss at the flagpole, and how she laughed when he actually showed up.
Beneath these confessions runs a spiritual undertow — that salvific beauty can arise when brutality is brought to light. It’s the same masochistic quality I find in the female gothic writers that precede her, such as Flannery O’Connor, Mary Gaitskill, Alice Munro.
Here, Watkins describes the couple with emotional acuity:
It will be as though she’s finally found someone else willing to see the worst in the world…For the first time in her life, she will feel understood.
While Watkins exposes her characters’ darker moments, she also indulges in the need for cinematic escapism. In “The Past Perfect,” a story previously excerpted in The Paris Review, Watkins tells of a twisted, tragic love triangle.
The story opens with an underage Italian tourist who frequents a brothel as his missing friend starves to death in a desert. As he waits for results from the search teams, he falls in love with an escort, a former gymnast who plays up the “good girl” look amongst her bustier counterparts. Meanwhile, the brothel’s gay “madam” watches their relationship form as he’s unable to prune his own growing feelings for the Italian. All of this is rendered with references to film noir tropes, and the pacing is as entertaining as a Hollywood classic.
Not every story is as gripping. “The Archivist” ultimately gets swallowed up by Battleborn’s more obvious showstoppers. “Wish You Were Here” could easily stand out in a different kind of collection, but following “The Past Perfect,” it feels off-beat. However, the collection does exhibit an ambitious diversity as a result. The final story “Graceland,” which in part explores the suicide of Watkins’ own mother, is quietly devastating in all the ways that “The Past Perfect” is flamboyant. All of her stories left me feeling purged and oddly cleansed, easily making Battleborn one of the strongest collections I’ve read in years.
There are three worlds in The Curfew: the unsettling police state in which William and his 8-year-old daughter Molly live, the shared world of games, riddles, and sadness that William and Molly create together, and the world through Molly’s eyes as she tries to reconcile the first two.
That first world was formed when the government was overthrown, quietly, overnight. “An ordinary nation… had gone to sleep one night and woken the next morning to find in the place of the old government an invisible state, with its own concerns, difficulties, cruelties, injustices. Everything was strictly controlled and maintained, so much so that it was possible, within certain bounds, to pretend nothing had changed at all.” In this new state, the government and the police were unseen. The mysterious disappearances of suspected rebels are the chief proof of their existence. In return, those suspected of being the secret police, or police informers, are in danger of being killed in broad daylight – shot on the sidewalk, pushed in front of a bus – by a seething citizenry.
Brief, unremarked-upon episodes of violence are therefore frequent, as the government and its resistors wage anonymous war on the street, and the rest of the population try to stay out of the way. The book opens with the sound of a gunshot outside William and Molly’s home, which they sleep through.
William is a former violinist, now an epitaphorist, employed by a mason to visit families of the dead and collaborate on the epitaph for the gravestone. He is no longer a violinist because music is forbidden, and because his wife mysteriously disappeared, and there’s no point in inviting more trouble when he’s the only one left to take care of Molly.
Their life together is William’s attempt at an antidote to Molly’s bleak childhood — motherless, a student at a school where she is “told repeatedly to repeat things,” and increasingly aware of the bizarre violence around her. It’s a familiar tale — a parent trying to shelter their child from the harshest reality, knowing that everything they want for their child’s life is unavailable, and having to compensate. William is Molly’s guardian, teacher, and only friend. They spend their evenings playing logic games and solving riddles. In this world bereft of any candor, even this feels subversive. “Is it possible, wonders Molly, for the finest things to be hidden? To be hidden and never shared?”
Much of Ball’s writing takes place in worlds that are slightly off, where the rules of society have been changed, and both the characters in these worlds and we, the readers, aren’t entirely clear what the new rules are. I’ve never felt oriented in one of Ball’s novels, but I’m quite sure I’m not meant to. When you’re in one of these muddled worlds, and something authentic happens – a daughter solves her father’s riddle, or two friends meet on the street – it shines like a beacon.
Ball cultivates these quiet moments for us to see. When William asks bereaved families what they want as their loved one’s epitaph, he always ignores their first suggestion, like “rest in peace” or “dutiful son.” If he sits and waits, the unique details and talents come out, and he’ll eventually add “friend of cats” or “could skin a pig in the dark.” (N.B. One of the men he visits, who wants to decide on his own epitaph before his death, is named Stan Milgram. Stanley Milgram was a noted social psychologist who conducted a famous experiment on people’s ability to torture each other.)
One day, as William is walking from one appointment to the next, he “passed through several alleys, which were themselves connected to other alleys. Here, the backs of things could be seen, unrepaired, unconstructed, unrepentant. Still, one was watched.” In The Curfew, everything and everyone has a hidden life incongruous with the conformity of the police state. One assumes that this is their sustenance, and they’ll make do with it. But one day William runs into someone who claims to have information about the disappearance of his wife. William can meet him later, to collect this information, but he’d be leaving Molly alone, and breaking the curfew.
At this point in the novel, the narration shifts to Molly’s point of view. As William risks his and Molly’s existence in order to learn the truth, we are re-introduced to their lives through her eyes, emphasizing the fact that if William’s risk turns foul, hers will be the only perspective left.
The Curfew is a refracted book, showing that each person is several different stories, depending on who’s looking. As such, it’s a book that evades rational conclusion. But, as someone says to Molly, “The effect of irrational beliefs on your art is invaluable. You must shepherd and protect them.”
See Also: The Millions Interview: Jesse Ball
A few of the twentieth century Russian history books that I’ve read have touched on a detachment of Czech soldiers who were stranded in Russia after World War I. The Bolshevik Revolution soon followed and the soldiers remained stranded, thousands of miles from home. The soldiers who numbered as many as 40,000 and were stretched out along the length of the Trans-Siberian were, according to John Keegan in his history of World War I under the sway of an anti-Bolshevik officer and were “both in a position and soon in a mood to deny the use of the railway to anyone else.” In his novel, The People’s Act of Love, James Meek drops into to the town of Yazyk amongst a stranded group of these Czech soldiers. In a book of many protagonists, the point of view of Lieutenant Mutz, one of those Czech soldiers, is the most reliable. Mutz, who mostly wants to return home after years in Siberia is surrounded by a collection of eccentrics. Anna Petrovna, the woman who Mutz would like to escape with, is restive and noncommittal. Mutz’s boss Matula is a vicious young man drunk on the power he wields over the small backwater that his soldiers occupy. Yazyk is also home to mystical sect of castrati who lurk through the town like ghosts. But the catalyst for much the book’s action is Samarin, an escaped prisoner who claims he is being chased by a cannibal. Meek ably handles these characters and many others as he crafts a story that feels both otherworldly and historically accurate. The novel was longlisted for the Booker and is engagingly dense and action-filled – worthwhile for any reader but a must for anyone interested in Russian literature or history. Meek himself is not Russian. He’s British, formerly a journalist, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent for many years.
Irmgard Keun was born in Berlin in 1905. Her life was the stuff of fiction: she was a best-selling debut novelist at twenty-six, published a second bestseller a year later, was blacklisted by the Nazi regime and in exile by the spring of 1936. She drifted through Europe in the company of various other anti-Nazi intellectuals, stateless, driven from country to country by financial and immigration difficulties. A shadow existence that took her across the continent and briefly to the United States, where she traveled in 1938 and left, Geoff Wilkes reports in his excellent afterward to the new English-language edition of her novel After Midnight (more on that later), because she was unable to secure anything more permanent than a tourist visa. She published several more novels in exile and was in the Netherlands when the war broke out.
She could find no exit out of Europe, and when the Netherlands fell, she took a remarkable step: she somehow managed to convince a German officer to issue her a passport in the name of Charlotte Tralow (her middle name and her married name, although she had divorced Johannes Tralow in 1937), either initiated the story that she’d committed suicide or allowed the rumor to spread unchecked or had someone falsely report her death — the precise details of the pseudocide are unknown — and slipped back into Nazi Germany. In August 1940, the British Daily Telegraph reported that she’d killed herself in Amsterdam. She lived out the war with her parents in Cologne.
Until recently, Keun’s work has been difficult to find in English. (Having encountered the story of her fascinating life only in essays, I’m tempted to learn German just to read her biography.) But then, this year, a wonderful development: two independent publishers have just released English editions of two of her books. The Artificial Silk Girl just came out from Other Press, while Melville House has released After Midnight. (A third Keun novel, Child of all Nations, was published by Overlook Press in 2009.)
“She’s an immensely important writer,” Melville House Publisher founder and publisher Dennis Loy Johnson said in a recent statement, “and it’s a crime that she was forgotten for decades and had to be rediscovered.”
Irmgard Keun was possessed of a spectacular talent. She managed to convey the political horrors she lived through with the lightest possible touch, even flashes of humor. The Artificial Silk Girl and After Midnight make for an interesting pair. The former was her bestselling second novel, published in 1932. The Los Angeles Times called it “a truly charming window into a young woman’s life in the early 1930’s,” which is somewhat startling to me; the young woman in question is vastly appealing and, yes, charming as a narrator, but the book’s only truly charming if you like your charm dark.
Doris, a beautiful and somewhat dim nineteen-year-old who aspires to a life of luxury and film stardom, embarks on a tour of the bedrooms of the Weimar Republic in pursuit of a level of glamour that she cannot possibly obtain on her own. The Artificial Silk Girl chronicles her long slow drift from reasonably respectable secretary in Cologne to homeless waif in Berlin, and the drift is harrowing. She’s a slightly unhinged figure, a girl who will literally starve before she’ll sell the expensive fur that she stole from a coat check at the beginning of her descent. (Although, in all fairness, the fur seems to be her only friend. She gives it a Christmas present.) The fur represents the life she longs for. She’ll never let it go.
She is frighteningly blind to the political storms that surround her. An industrialist she was dating has recently dropped her, for instance, “all because of politics.” Doris hates politics. She’s willing to be almost anything a man requires her to be, but in this particular conversation, she misunderstood his intent: “So he asks me if I’m Jewish too. My God, I’m not — but I’m thinking: if that’s what he likes, I’ll do him the favor — and I say: ‘Of course — my father just sprained his ankle at the synagogue last week.’”
The novel is presented as her diary. Doris struggles to write her own script, which she expects will chronicle a fast rise into film stardom and unfathomable glamour, but she can’t grasp hold of the narrative arc and flounders in a life lived out in episodes. Recent comparisons have been made to Sex and the City, but Doris reminds me of no one so much as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s leading couple in The Beautiful and Damned; she will endure any number of humiliations in order to avoid the indignity of working for a living. She’s convinced of her own specialness — “And I think it will be a good thing if I write everything down, because I’m an unusual person” — and her understanding of the world is that all she needs to do is remain beautiful and available, and the right man will sweep her up into an extraordinary life. It’s an exhausting pursuit — “I want to bury my face in my hands to make it less sad. It has to work so hard, because I’m trying to become a star. And there are women all over the place, whose faces are also working hard.”
The book has an oddly timeless quality, with sharp-edged and still-relevant observations about the impossibility of societal standards of beauty and success, and about certain hypocrisies surrounding sex and money:
If a young woman from money married an old man because of money and nothing else and makes love to him for hours and has this pious look on her face, she’s called a German mother and a decent woman. If a young woman without money sleeps with a man with no money because he has smooth skin and she likes him, she’s a whore and a bitch.
Paragraphs like that one helped The Artificial Silk Girl and its author run afoul of the more conservative elements of the German literary establishment. Geoff Wilkes cites Kurt Herwarth Ball’s 1932 review of the novel, “which castigated Doris’s unconventional morality, and concluded by adjuring Keun to ‘write in a German spirit, speak in a German spirit, think in a German spirit, and refrain from her sometimes almost vulgar aspersions against German womanhood.’”
Write, speak, and think in a German spirit? My God. Which spirit? Whose Germany? It’s hard to conceive of a less tolerable demand for an artist as ferociously independent and intellectually able as Keun seems to have been. Speaking as a novelist, I’m not sure I want to think about the fury I would feel if a critic had the nerve to tell me how to think.
There are surface similarities between The Artificial Silk Girl and After Midnight. Both works are narrated by very young women attempting to navigate the fraught landscape of Germany in the years preceding the Second World War. But these are wildly different books: The Artificial Silk Girl was published in 1932, After Midnight in 1937, and that span of years was not trivial. After Midnight, published in exile after Keun fled the Nazis, is a darker, more driving, and to my eye more accomplished work.
After Midnight ostensibly takes place over the course of a single evening leading up to a catastrophic and climactic party, but easily integrated flashbacks and digressions flesh out the characters’ pasts. By 1937 a fictional character who was entirely oblivious to politics was less plausible, and Sanna, the narrator, is anything but indifferent. She is intelligent and observant, she is watching the country go mad around her, and she lives a life of quiet, unbearable strain. Her friend Gerti struggles as much as Sanna does, but she’s less able to contain herself; she’s prone to fury and coming a little undone, reckless to the point of insulting SS officers in bars. Gerti is in love with a half-Jewish boy. Sanna accompanies the couple sometimes in public:
…so that the impression they make in the bar won’t be quite so dangerous. I don’t like doing this, and I always feel very foolish. I could weep with the worry of it. They’re both so pretty and so nice, and they may be hauled off to jail tomorrow. Why are they so crazy? I can’t understand it. Other people dance, but they can’t. The radio is playing string music, soft as a feather bed. Bright light shimmers in the wine. The wine is sour, but they are drinking hot, bright radiance.
The prose is gorgeous. Life continues, in all its beauty and complexity and love and friendship, but the cage doors of the police state have closed over it and the world has ceased to make any sense, the world is unspeakably dangerous; saying the wrong thing, expressing the wrong thought, being seen with the wrong person can mean death. Sanna lives in Frankfurt with her brother and sister-in-law, because she had to flee Cologne after her horrendous future mother-in-law reported her to the Gestapo. She did this ostensibly because Sanna mentioned her distaste for Nazi radio addresses, but also, Sanna can’t help but realize, because it’s in the woman’s best financial interests for Sanna not to marry her son. Reporting on one’s fellow citizens is often a matter of convenience. A shopkeeper effectively shuts down a competitor by reporting imaginary subversive activity to the police.
The screams of the tortured spill out of a prison on a certain trolley route. The tension is unspeakable: “I feel tired. Today was so eventful, and such a strain. Life generally is, these days. I don’t want to do any more thinking. In fact I can’t do any more thinking. My brain’s all full of spots of light and darkness, circling in confusion.”
It’s tempting, although perhaps too easy, to project Sanna’s desperation on another young woman. Irmgard Keun writes movingly and convincingly of the unbearable stress of life in the Third Reich, and she knew of what she spoke. Keun survived the Nazis, but the cost was steep. In her years drifting through Europe in the late thirties, Wilkes reports, she confided in letters that she was cutting herself.
“This dictatorship has made Germany a perfect country,” one despairing writer tells another in the final third of After Midnight,
“and a perfect country doesn’t need writers. There’s no literature in Paradise. Can’t have writers without imperfection around them, can’t have poets. The purest of lyric poets needs to yearn for perfection. Once you’ve got perfection, poetry stops. Once criticism’s no longer possible, you have to keep quiet.”
But Keun never did. She railed all her life against authors who deferred to the Nazi regime, and had the audacity to sue the Gestapo for loss of earnings after her work was confiscated in 1933. (Unsurprisingly, this went nowhere.) She continued to write and publish after the war, although never quite with the success or the dizzying prolificacy of her early years. She enjoyed a second wave of literary fame when her novels were reissued in the late 1970s, and died in 1982. Her work stands as a brilliant record of the era she survived.