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?
Death arrives in the first sentence of Ann Patchett’s sixth novel, State of Wonder. Deep in the farthest reaches of the Amazonian rainforest, a middle-aged drug researcher who was sent there on business but has no business being there succumbs to fever, and the secretive field scientists he’s with dash off a quick note to the States. It arrives “a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world.” How terrible a weight these things still carry. Someone must tell his young family. Someone must pack up his office. And someone must be sent back up the river to recover his body and find out what the hell is going on.
When the Company in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness goes after its rogue and raging ivory trader, Mr. Kurtz, it sends Marlow, a veteran boat captain; his mission is the river. When Vogel, Patchett’s invented pharmaceutical giant, goes after its rogue drug researcher, Annick Swenson, a brilliant doctor who has disappeared into the jungle with millions of Vogel’s dollars while developing a radical fertility drug, it sends Marina Singh, a mid-level lab scientist and former Swenson student; her mission is the body, the drug, and the aging Swenson herself. It’s no vacation, but Singh desperately needs a dose of something exotic. “She was forty-two. She was in love with a man”—Vogel’s CEO, twenty years her senior—“she did not leave the building with,” and April in Minnesota is bleak. “The crocuses she had seen only that morning, their yellow and purple heads straight up from the dirt, were now frozen as solid as carp in the lake.”
Patchett does not trade in weak women. (It’s the men, like Singh’s father, an Indian graduate student so absorbed in his studies that the family ate dinners on the floor, so as not to disturb his stacks of papers piled in the dining room, who are little more than shadows in Patchett’s work.) She subjects her women to terrible losses, and then lends them the strength to march forward in ways that are as heroic as they are practical. Singh is a winning narrator. Life has muddled her plans and substituted its own realities. An early marriage fizzled two years into her medical residency, so at thirty, she and her husband “bought their own divorce kit at an office supply store and amicably filled out the paperwork at the kitchen table.” A tragic accident at the hospital drove her from clinical medicine and sidelined her into a pharmacology PhD program. Having arrived, without intending to, alone at middle age, she might be permitted some bitterness. Instead, she wears her quiet self-composure like a charm, and if she suffers long nights of indecision about her mission to the Amazon, she doesn’t betray it. Feeling needed, she goes. Her boss and lover packs her off with a bundle of GPS technology and extra anti-malarials. He’s doesn’t want to stay in touch so much as he wants to keep her healthy and on a short digital leash. To borrow Wilde, to lose one employee is tragic—to lose two smacks of carelessness.
Minnesota bookends the novel, but Patchett has written a Brazilian adventure tale. When she arrives, Singh’s passport is a “booklet filled with empty pages,” and she’s welcomed to the country by the disappearance of her luggage. Suddenly, luxury is a toothbrush and shopping in the market is an obstacle course of language and custom. By the time she leaves, months later, she’ll be wearing entirely new skin. Patchett captures well the essential loneliness and boredom of traveling solo; the foreign becomes exhausting, the heat devastating. Dr. Swenson stays in the field for months on end, and her gatekeepers in the port town where Singh is waiting are a pair of blithe young bohemians—house sitters who collect the doctor’s mail, smoke dope in her apartment, and stonewall inquisitive journalists. (“She was such a pretty girl. It must be hard, Marina imagined, for her to have no place to go.”) There is little to do but wait. As the pages pass, and the odd trio go on one field trip after another, we begin to forget why Singh has come in the first place. Then, like apparition, Dr. Swenson is back in town. Finally, we’re headed “down a river into the beating heart of nowhere,” the throttle on the boat—and on the novel—open full.
History and art provide some useful examples of how things turn out when the white folks rush headlong into the wilderness, brimming with ambition and delusion, and Patchett slyly pays her dues. “Dr. Singh, I presume,” Marina is greeted when she arrives at the upriver research station. Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog’s 1982 film about dragging a steamship over a small Peruvian mountain, makes an appearance, as does Lost Horizon, the 1933 novel that invented Shangri-La. Dr. Swenson has been living among the remote Lakashi tribe for more than a decade, unlocking the secret to their astounding fertility, which allows women to bear children into their seventies. “Their eggs aren’t aging, do you get that?” an excited researcher asks Singh. “This is the ovum in perpetuity, menstruation everlasting.” Now there’s an idea that only a male drug exec could love. And though the stakes—and potential profit margins—couldn’t be higher, we don’t feel the tension build until the human dramas begin to play out at the station.
Dr. Swenson is a tropical storm of genius and brio. She delights in adding exponents to the ethical equations at hand in the jungle. She preaches a gospel of absolute non-intervention— “They are an intractable race,” she lectures Singh on the Lakashi. “You might as well come down here to unbend the river”—even as she pricks their fingers, collects their spit, and swabs their vaginas. She issues demands, barks her thanks, and keeps her emotions stoppered in a test-tube. In perhaps their most tender moment, Singh visits an ailing Swenson in her quarters; the elder woman sends her away. “I know how to sleep, Dr. Singh. I don’t need you to watch me unless it is something you are trying to learn to do yourself.”
Patchett has set herself an ambitious task. She begins far from home—Nashville, where she lives and writes—and moves steadily away from the known world. Her prose, as she established with Bel Canto and earlier works, is full of tenderness and insight; she writes of sorrow and invasive medical procedures with equal ease. Her language shows devotion to how the sentence unfurls across the page. She has remarkable skill, as a storyteller, knowing precisely when to cut away from a scene. She doesn’t write dialogue; she writes conversations, full of human surprise, humor, and outrage, which act in service to the many Big Ideas she’s probing—about aging and fertility, children and careers, ethics and abuse. Heart of Darkness had a post-colonial mission, well ahead of its time, and Conrad was swinging for the fences. State of Wonder has some questions, none of them as urgent, but compelling still.
The jungle hides its secrets until the very last, threatening to swallow Singh altogether. The story is still roaring at full-throttle as she heads down the river, back to beautiful, mundane civilization and Minnesota’s summer raspberries. But escape is never so easy, and after what she’s seen, we doubt very much that her fevered dreams will leave her soon.
The class met on weekends – three hours on Saturday, three hours on Sunday – and was filled with working people: grocery store clerks, UPS delivery guys, off-duty cops, all trying to squeeze a few extra community college credits into their overstuffed lives. A giggle ran through the room when I showed the class Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the first book on our syllabus. At the time, fifteen years ago, Maus was still fairly new, and “graphic novel” wasn’t yet a term you saw on the shelves at Barnes & Noble. My students couldn’t believe they were actually going to read a comic book for an English class, much less one that told the story of the Holocaust as a kind of Tom & Jerry cartoon with the Nazis as cats and the Jews as mice.
The students were mostly Asian and Latino immigrants, and they came to the class knowing next to nothing about Nazi Germany. In some ways, that was the most startling part of the class for me. How do you explain the slaughter of six million Jews to a group of people who couldn’t find Germany on a map? It was like describing ice cream to room full of Martians. They just couldn’t get it. Why were the Germans so mad at the Jews? Why didn’t the Jews fight back? Why didn’t the Americans just bomb the bejesus out of the camps and set all the Jews free? Finally, on the last day, when we were deep into the Auschwitz section of the book, one of the younger students, a tall, skinny Vietnamese gangbanger kid named Loc raised his hand. “It just doesn’t make sense,” he said. “They’re all white people.”
Whatever lesson plan I’d written for the day sailed out the window and for the next hour we talked about how racism works. To one degree or another, nearly every student in the class had suffered discrimination at the hands of white people, but to them, wise to the ways of the American melting pot, racism was largely a matter of skin color. To be dark was bad; to be lighter, even the tiniest bit lighter, was a gift. But what if racism wasn’t based on skin color? What if it had no fixed basis whatever? What if two groups of equally white people could hate each other to the degree that one group would try to wipe the other off the face of the earth?
The stories began to pour out. Loc, my lanky young gangbanger, talked about how much he’d hated members of a rival Vietnamese gang, even though to most Americans the two groups looked identical. Other, older students talked of Mexican-on-Mexican violence in Chiapas, Catholic-against-Communist violence in Vietnam. What made the conversation so electric was that they had moved out of their comfort zone of talking about their victimhood. Now, in many of these stories, they were the aggressors. They were the cats and other people who looked just like them were the mice. When we returned to the book, and to the stories of the Nazis’ brutal treatment of Spiegelman’s parents, Anja and Vladek, in the camps, Auschwitz was real to them in a way that no documentary film or historical lecture could have ever hoped to achieve.
I was reminded of that electrifying class session recently when I read Spiegelman’s new book, MetaMaus. Timed for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Maus, the new book is built around a series of interviews University of Chicago professor Hillary Chute conducted with Spiegelman and his family. Sprinkled between the interviews are dozens of old family photos, early drafts of certain pages of Maus, reproductions of cartoons and other art work that influenced Spiegelman, and, just for a bit of mean-spirited fun, copies of the many rejection letters he received, with the names of the editors, whose cluelessness cost their companies untold millions after Maus became a hit, there for all to see. Appendices include a full transcript of Spiegelman’s taped interviews with his father and a DVD containing hours of original audio recordings, along with more family photos and early drafts of Maus.
The book is thus little more than an artfully curated culling of Art Spiegelman’s attic, and yet for those of us who have come to regard Maus as one of the half dozen or so truly indispensable works of post-World War II American literature, it is a treasure trove of background material and historical context. More than that, though, MetaMaus is a loose, rambling treatise on the alchemical process of transforming the raw material of one’s own experience into a work of art capable of reaching – and teaching – millions.
Some may chuckle at the notion of Maus as one of a handful of truly indispensable works of post-World War II American literature. American literature since 1945 encompasses Nobel laureates Saul Bellow and Toni Morrison, along with Philip Roth, who if anybody ever listened to me, would already have his Nobel by now. The period also includes the likes of John Updike, John Cheever, Joyce Carol Oates, and Thomas Pynchon, to say nothing of more recent authors such as Tim O’Brien, David Foster Wallace, and Louise Erdrich. Do I seriously mean to compare modern classics like Beloved or Gravity’s Rainbow to a comic book?
In fact I do, and to explain why I need to go back to that community college classroom fifteen years ago. The students in that class were by no means stupid. They weren’t in the least intellectually lazy, either. I find myself annoyed by teachers like the mysterious Professor X, author of In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, who depict their students as lazy, ill-mannered lunks who have no business being in college. This view has no relationship to the reality I encountered in my years teaching in community colleges. After all, those students were giving up their weekends to take an introductory English course. They weren’t saints – I busted a plagiarist in that class, as I recall – but they understood, probably better than the kids in my classes at Fordham University today, that the American dream is built upon education, and they struck me as hungry to get started.
Still, no one in that class was ready for Saul Bellow or, God forbid, Thomas Pynchon. One of the first lessons of teaching literature in the real world is that you have to meet your students where they are, not where you want them to be. In academic jargon, this is called finding your students’ “zone of proximal development,” the sweet spot between what they already know and what they couldn’t possibly comprehend even if you were there to help them. The wonder of Maus is that it fits into everyone’s zone of proximal development. I taught it to those working-class immigrants in California fifteen years ago; I taught it at a third-rate night school in Virginia; and just last month, I taught it in an advanced writing class at Fordham, a prestigious, four-year private university. Every time, in every context, students told me they’d stayed up half the night finishing the book, and then when we discussed it in class, it took the tops of their heads off all over again. Maus is that rare work of literature that speaks to everyone while pandering to no one.
MetaMaus is a record of how Spiegelman pulled off this magic trick. The first, and perhaps most important piece of the puzzle, has to do with the form itself, the fact that Spiegelman chose to tell one of the most horrific tales of the twentieth century in the form of a barnyard comic book. In Maus, not only are the Germans cats and the Jews mice, but the Poles are pigs, the Americans are dogs, the French are frogs, and for a few antic pages late in the book, the Swedes are reindeer. But at the same time, they aren’t. In Spiegelman’s comic book, the characters have animal heads, but the rest of their bodies are human, and so far as the story is concerned, they are human. Even more perversely, the animals can wear masks to pass themselves off as other kinds of animals. Thus, when Spiegelman’s father wishes to pass as a non-Jewish Pole, in the comic his mouse character wears a pig mask, tied with a string visibly knotted in the back.
It’s a simple conceit, stolen from a million superhero comics, but set here in the middle of a story of Nazified Europe, the image makes a startlingly modern argument. Or, rather, it offers a series of startling arguments that intertwine and contradict each other in ways that only literature can do. On the one hand, Spiegelman’s central visual metaphor answers the question, in a chillingly deterministic fashion, why the Germans killed the Jews. They did it for the same reason cats chase mice: because it’s in their nature. On the other hand, if a mouse can become a pig, or even a cat, merely by behaving like one, then racial categories aren’t fixed in biology and are instead artifacts of performance. And if race is rooted in behavior, not biology, then it is essentially meaningless, and Hitler’s racial ideology is a murderous sham.
This is just one example of how Maus takes on the knottiest of historical questions in the simplest of terms, without losing any of the underlying complexity. For the dedicated reader of Maus, what is fascinating about MetaMaus is how carefully Spiegelman thought through all this complexity. MetaMaus functions as a sort of public scrapbook of the twenty-year process from Spiegelman’s first fumbling attempts to draw his parents’ story in comic book form in the early 1970s to the finished book, the second volume of which was published in 1991. At the same time, the book works at the atomic level, walking the reader through Spiegelman’s agonizingly slow process of creating individual panels, layering in his taped interviews with his father and his historical research with his encyclopedic knowledge of the comic-book genre, and then using his skill as an artist to tie it all together into an arresting visual image. Panel by painstaking panel, Spiegelman’s images serve to answer a basic question that hangs mutely over the entire project: Did this terrible thing really happen?
The Holocaust, after all, didn’t just strike Spiegelman’s family. It is a vast and controversial war crime that has inspired an enormous range of responses from outright denial to what Spiegelman calls “Holokitsch,” his term for the numbing stream of books and movies that use the backdrop of the camps to lend weight to the unbearable slightness of their premises:
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Communists ceased to be attractive as villains. I guess interest in the Holocaust really metastasized at that point: “This is the perfect hero/villain paradigm for movies.” It’s replaced cowboys and Indians… The Holocaust has become a trope, sometimes used admirably, as in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, or sometimes meretriciously, like in Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful.
In MetaMaus, it becomes clear that Spiegelman spent almost two decades creating Maus because it took him that long to figure out how to force his readers to tune out the blaring cultural noise of Holokitsch and actually see what had happened to his parents.
To help American readers up to their eyeballs in Holokitsch see this oft-told tale anew, Spiegelman conceived of a great, overarching metaphor structure, and then, masterfully, set about getting the reader to ignore it. What we see when we open up Maus is a work of head-spinning surrealism – a bunch of people walking around with animal heads – but its power as literature lies in the fact that it presents itself as documentary realism. The very unreality of the imagery allows viewers who might never be able to sit through a realistic documentary about Auschwitz that showed dead bodies stacked like cordwood in the snow to follow Vladek and Anja Spiegelman through six long years of Nazi terror. At the same time, the humanity of their interactions, the way they talk and scheme and love one another, forces us to in effect draw faces on their mouse heads, to enter the story in our imagination. As Spiegelman puts it: “In other words, you’ve got to do the work the same way you do when you’re reading prose, and Maus retains that attribute of prose.”
It is this liminal state – part comic book, part family saga, part war documentary – that explains the book’s staying power as a teaching tool and as a work of literature a quarter century after the first volume appeared. Maus is, like the comic books that inspired it, a profoundly democratic text, accessible to anyone who has ever sat in front of a TV on a Saturday morning. Yet unlike its many imitators, it doesn’t stop there. The book demands that its readers “do the work,” look closely and follow its many telling details, and in doing so, readers melt into the story, becoming not just the mice, but also, terrifyingly, the cats and pigs that torment them.
The most startling fact of William Styron’s existence is that it ended naturally. Suicide is the subject of his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, a Faulknerian tragedy set in the aftermath of Hiroshima, which made him instantly famous at 26, and of Darkness Visible, his revealing and revered late-in-life memoir about the 1985 depression that found him on the cusp of pulling the trigger.
A second depressive episode would strike in 2000, and these two calamities constitute the sturdiest pillars of Reading My Father, Alexandra Styron’s memoir of the novelist she called “Daddy.” She notes that though the official cause of his death in 2006 was pneumonia, “Drowning would probably have been more appropriate,” given the anguish that engulfed him whenever he was not writing or drinking.
William Styron was from that virile mid-century caste of writer-warriors of which few remain; literature, meanwhile, has been relegated from the bar stool to the seminar table. George Plimpton, for whose Paris Review Styron was an early contributor, died in 2003; Norman Mailer, who once warned Styron that he would “stomp out of you a fat amount of yellow and treacherous shit” over some unflattering gossip, died in 2007.
Styron is more elusive, a Southerner who loved Connecticut and Martha’s Vineyard and whose most memorable characters are entirely unlike him: a Catholic Holocaust survivor in Sophie’s Choice(his greatest novel) and a slave in the Confessions of Nat Turner (his most controversial).
As his daughter writes in Reading My Father, he was eternally occupied with the “dispossessed, disaffected, condemned to die, unable to die.” The confessional of Philip Roth was not for him: Only in his sixties did Styron turn to his own story, confronting demons (his mother’s fatal cancer foremost among them) that fiction and bourbon had muzzled.
Like many nurtured in the penumbra of genius, Alexandra Styron got a good story out of her privations. At twelve she totes Sophie’s Choice to school, only to be arrested by the novel’s lush sexuality. Arriving at “the bone-rigid stalk of my passion,” she slams it shut and, deciding that “Daddy didn’t actually do these things,” does not return until her late 30’s.
This episode was first recounted in a fine remembrance Styron (who has a novel, All the Finest Girls, to her name) wrote for the New Yorker in 2007. Reading My Father, an expansion of that article, attempts to combine self-searching memoir and literary biography, with only partial success.
For one, much of her father’s early life (Virginia, the Marines, Duke, New York) was recounted in a solid, authorized 1998 biography by James L. West III. The comparison to West would be unfair if it were not so obvious: Reading My Father recycles much of his material without improving on it.
But Styron’s child’s-eye-view is not without its triumphs, either, endearing the reader most when she is observing (and, often, pouring wine for) the resplendent characters who consort with her father and his poet-activist wife, Rose Burgunder: “Jimmy” Baldwin, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller. To a teacher she announces, “Joan Baez was at my house last night.”
But despite her father’s prominence, Alexandra Styron says that he lived a “hunted and haunted” existence. He regularly focused his rage on the author, the youngest of his four children, berating her for being “a fucking princess” or suddenly emptying the house of junk food.
His later years were spent trying to replicate the success of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice with a war novel, The Way of the Warrior, that went through three drafts but remained unfinished. As Styron neared 60, frustration curdled into depression, culminating with him on the edge of suicide, only to be pulled back by “some last of sanity” (as he would later write in Darkness Visible) that brought him to the safety of Yale-New Haven Hospital.
A grown woman struggling to make her way in Los Angeles as an actress, Styron can now see her father with the fullness of vision missing from earlier chapters. Anyone familiar with mental illness will identify with her “almost surreal sensation of watching, up ahead of me, my once imposing father shuffle sadly down the sterile hallway, toward the locked door of the mental ward.”
There follow fifteen calmer years of Styron “squarely looking at himself,” writing finally about his own past in the story collection A Tidewater Morning. But while self-knowledge is restorative, it is hardly an armor. In 2000, depression again bowls him over. There are poignant scenes in Reading My Father of Styron panicking on an airplane, sinking into paranoid delusions (“I wonder if any of these hotels has a direct line to the Vatican”), berating his daughters as “sluts.” Finding her father “essentially ungovernable” until electroconvulsive therapy provides relief, Styron gives a refreshingly unvarnished account of how frustrating it is to play caretaker to madness.
But maybe Styron’s mind gave out only because it had been so completely engrossed in the creative process for so long. There is a lesson in Reading My Father for today’s writers, weaned as they are on the MFA’s anodyne comforts: “Writing is a matter…[of] dogging yourself to death,” he once said. They don’t teach that in workshop.