The bibliochaise, a clever hybrid of chair and bookshelf.
If the forecast calls for snow, get ready for tweets about James Joyce’s “The Dead.” Literary Twitter’s favorite winter ritual is quoting Joyce’s lyric final line: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
I’m just as guilty as the rest. And why not? It is a gorgeous, solemn sentence. A conclusion to a masterful story; the crescendo of a funereal paragraph. Joyce’s melancholic consonance and inversion almost compels us to stand in front of a cold window and watch snow blanket the streets. Mary Gordon has called it “a triumph of pure sound . . . And he did it all when he was twenty-five. The bastard.” “No one,” Gordon says, “has ever equaled it.”
No one? Perhaps no one has equaled Joyce’s grand final sentence — but there is a greater, darker, more consuming snow story than “The Dead” out there, ready to be tweeted: “The Pedersen Kid” by William H. Gass.
First published in 1961 and later collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, a handful of unusual stories set in the Midwest, “The Pedersen Kid” is suffused with snow — as solemn as Joyce’s tale but somehow more claustrophobic. Gass began writing the story “to entertain a toothache.” That’s an appropriate anecdote. A philosopher by training and a critic by practice, Gass has always been in love with language. Words are his God.
“The Pedersen Kid” is his finest offering. Unlike other stories — like Joyce’s — that include snow at opportune moments, Gass’s novella is suffused with snow from start to finish. Set in North Dakota, a quirky Swedish-American family makes a horrific discovery: a snow-covered child from a neighboring farm on their front steps. “The sun burned on the snow” as they rush the Pedersen kid inside and put the child “on the kitchen table like you would a ham.” They take off the child’s frosted clothes and try to resuscitate him.
“Resuscitate” might not be the best word. The child appears dead, and they seem to resurrect him with a Gass-appropriate Holy Trinity of whiskey, dough, and slapping. The child soon retreats into the background of the story, as the Segren family is more concerned with understanding why, and how, the child made it through a blizzard to their home.
Gass couldn’t have created a more absurd cast. Pa is a violent alcoholic who “don’t like to get waked.” Big Hans, the farm hand, is unpredictable, and lives to antagonize Pa. Ma is overwhelmed, frustrated, and afraid. Jorge, the young narrator of the story, is sarcastic and unpredictable: it is not clear if the Pedersen kid is dead, or if Jorge simply wishes the child was dead so they could be done with this mess.
Snow rages outside the small home, and the kid is asleep upstairs, but the family is consumed with the desire to know the story of how the kid got there. Only Big Hans seems to have answers. He says the kid told him a stranger broke into the farmhouse. The boy’s testimony is fragmented: “The green mackinaw. The black stocking cap. The yellow gloves. The gun.” The man put the Pedersen family “down the cellar,” so the kid ran away, into the snow. The Segren family wonders if he stranger is on the way to find the kid — the on the way to their home.
Big Hans and Pa argue. Should they go to the Pedersen farm? Should they catch the killer before he ambushes them? Pa looks out the window, and says “See — see — what did I tell you — snowing . . . always snowing.” He’s convinced the snow will strangle and suffocate them, and taunts Hans: “You’re a bigger fool because you’re fatter.” Pa and Hans continue to argue as they drift, with Jorge, into the snow.
They enter the vast Dakota expanse like cutouts from a Beckett play. The second half of Gass’s novel is a frightening trek into the windless, unforgiving snow. “Sometimes the snow seemed as blue as the sky,” Jorge marvels, as they sink into the white stuff. Their horse scrambles to move forward. Big Hans has a shotgun and a Navy-issue .45.
They trudge forward, and joke about freezing to death. “It was frightening,” Jorge thinks, “the endless white space . . . Winded slopes and rises all around me.” Jorge “could hear us breathing and the snow, earth, and our boots squeaking. We went slow and all of us was cold.” By the time they reach the Pedersen farmhouse, they are exhausted, hallucinating, their souls frozen.
Back at home, Ma is with the Pedersen kid. She has biscuits, elderberry jam, and coffee. But what happens to the men at the Pedersen home is a nightmare. Jorge’s final sentence is chilling and Joycean: “The winter time had finally got them all, and I really did hope that the kid was as warm as I was now, warm inside and out, burning up, inside and out, with joy.”
“The Pedersen Kid” is a wild, wacky horror story about snow that deserves to be rediscovered, appreciated — and, instead of Joyce — tweeted, as the snow falls upon all the living and the dead.
New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert, whose global warming opus Field Notes from a Catastrophe has been much excerpted in the magazine of late, is blogging for the week at the Powells.com blog. From her first entry:When you write about global warming, you start to feel that a lot of what we all spend our time worrying (or blogging) about isn’t what we should be worrying (or blogging) about at all. (Which isn’t to say you stop worrying about it – or, I suppose, blogging.)By blogging, Kolbert is briefly joining another New Yorker staff writer who has taken up more permanent digs in the blogosphere.
As would befall a good William Boyd protagonist, I fell ill and had to get penicillin shots during my vacation in Turkey. My only consolidation as I lay there was reading Boyd’s A Good Man in Africa, the story of an aspiring diplomat, Morgan Leafy. Morgan is stuck in Kinjanja, a British colony in Africa in the aftermath of World War II, and gets involved in plots to rig the fast approaching elections, hence finding his way out of Africa and to a better, higher, position somewhere more civilized. Torn between his boss, mistress, love affair, local tribe leader, and adversaries among the British population, Morgan struggles to make ends meet but the rising demands of the British government and the impending visit of a duchess further complicates his plans. A Good Man in Africa presents an amazing build up of circumstances and characters for uproarious laughter. Towards the end of the novel I was laughing uncontrollably as Morgan dug himself deeper in a hole. Misfortune and reflection of absolute British arrogance has never been as funny as it is in Boyd’s A Good Man in Africa.Upon my return to the United States and catching up on my Millions reading, I decided to pick up Don DeLillo’s Libra per the venerable J.P. Hasting’s suggestion. Previously, I had only read White Noise by DeLillo, which did not really impress me that much and furthermore left a bad taste for DeLillo in my mind. I am, however, very glad to have read Libra, which, along very similar lines to Oliver Stone’s JFK, presents a conspiracy theory explaining the President’s assassination. I have a tendency to get carried away and believe in the pieces I read, and Libra took my fascination with JFK’s assassination to a new level. The context that DeLillo creates, post-Bay of Pigs and Cuban missile crises, and the characters that he presents, all unique with their grudges, distrust, hate of communism, and patriotic frenzy, make for a marvelous “fictional” read and an excellent conspiracy that I, personally, find extremely convincing. I strongly recommend reading Libra and watching Stone’s JFK back to back.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. 7
From the far side of the Great Financial Meltdown, 1994’s Speed, ostensibly just another popcorn flick, starts to look instead like a brilliant allegory. Pop quiz, hot shot:
Dennis Hopper: “The airport. Gunman with one hostage. He’s using her for cover. He’s almost to a plane. You’re a hundred feet away.”
Keanu Reeves: “Shoot the hostage.”
Don’t see it yet? Consider: Keanu is the government, Hopper is the neoliberal consensus, the crazy person waving the Glock around is the financial industry, the bullet is two trillion dollars in losses, and the poor schmo being jerked hither and yon is you and me.
Readers concerned to further understand the dynamics of our own particular hostage crisis would do well to look at a couple of more recent documents: The Big Short and Diary of a Very Bad Year: Confessions of an Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager. Their charms are complementary. In the former, Michael Lewis, a Salomon Brothers alum, brings an insider’s savvy to the subprime crisis. In the latter, N+1 (in the person of Keith Gessen) lends an outsider’s ear to the brilliant disquisitions of a guy caught in the middle of it all. And read side-by-side these books do something even more valuable. They suggest that our captivity is at least partly in the mind – that even the most astute critics of what Lewis calls “The Doomsday Machine” have internalized some of the premises that made it possible.
In the case of The Big Short, that suggestion feels accidental. Lewis (also the author of The Blind Side, among other bestsellers) knows that every good story needs someone to root for, and so, against the big New York investment banks, he fields a kind of Magnificent Seven of scrappy smaller investors. (Smaller is a relative term, of course; most of these guys have tens of millions of dollars of assets under management.) Most compelling is his central character, Mike Burry, a California-based hedge-fund principal with a glass eye and Asperger’s syndrome. Burry, as Lewis tells it, was one of the only people in America with the acumen – and, thanks to the Asperger’s, the patience – to evaluate the actual mortgage tranches underlying those now infamous “toxic assets.” And, with our American admiration for an underdog, we cheer Burry on as he tries to find a way to monetize his discoveries before the subprime market collapses.
Lewis explains with great lucidity how, via the esoteric financial instruments Burry engineers (or rather, has Goldman Sachs engineer) theoretically endless profits can be manufactured from a single piece of subprime paper, like Xeroxes from an original. What he never quite spells out, though, is that the huge profits Burry amasses shorting the subprime market also represent huge losses for his counterparties – and thus (by way of bailouts and layoffs) to taxpayers all over the world. Perhaps this is why the The Big Short, in the end, lacks a sense of moral payoff. It’s as if the Wall Street Journal narrative of enterprise as an end in itself has gained traction not only with Burry, but with Lewis. At the very least, it says something that he takes as his hero of the financial crisis…a hedge-fund guy.
Gessen is more explicit about the amorality of postmodern finance. In an introductory note about the anonymous hedge fund manager who is his subject (henceforth, and in the book, HFM), he laments “that a mind so excellent, so generous, so curious, should spend all its time on relative trading in foreign jurisdictions and yelling at people who refuse to pay him back. . . .” But in this note, as in the interviews that follow, we can feel him being seduced, as we are, by HFM’s formidable intellect. Indeed, Gessen wants us to feel that seduction. HFM’s mind is “excellent” – and makes for excellent reading. Listening to him discourse on capital flows, currency speculation, real estate, literature, and hedge-fund folkways is like taking a terrific college elective, minus the final exam:
There’s some people who think the problem is so bad that if you actually recognize the losses, that it’s akin to smashing the equipment in the factory. Because these institutions can’t exist anymore, right? That for a bank, if you say, “Look, you can’t exist anymore. You’re so deeply insolvent that everybody’s fired and everybody’s got to leave,” at that point financial intermediation won’t work anymore. It doesn’t matter that you’ve marked everything down to the level that makes sense – you don’t have a financial system anymore. And a lot of people think that’s one of the reasons the Great Depression was so difficult to get out of, that the financial machinery was smashed. So I think which camp you fall into depends a little on how bad you think the damage is.
Still, like Burry’s, and perhaps even Lewis’, HFM’s is a captive mind. For all his candor about the causes of the financial crisis, he speaks from within a framework of essentially Friedmanite, free-market fundamentalism. As he’s speculating about martial law and breadlines, his biggest worry remains not widespread unemployment, but…the possibility of inflation and its effect on currency values. (His concessions to Keynesianism seem to evaporate as the immediate crisis of the Lehman Brothers collapse recedes.) Nor does HFM appear to see the shenanigans of the financial sector as systemic, rather than as tokens of personal fraudulence on the part of unsavory “dirtbags.” Gessen’s interviewing strategy – to present himself as a novice in search of instruction – succeeds brilliantly, in that it gets HFM to open up in all kinds of compelling and admirable ways. On the other hand, it means that his macroeconomic premises tend to go unchallenged.
Narratives about the horrors of stimulative deficit spending, in particular, have lately become a viral element in the body politic. As with New York’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s, or the various currency collapses of the 1990s, the public is being set up to choose between punishment at the hand of “bond vigilantes” or draconian “austerity measures” designed to ward off default. Notice, though, that those bond vigilantes are the very people who got us into this mess in the first place. Notice that the rate of inflation reported a few days ago was essentially 0%. And notice that, if we accept the choice as it is being framed for us, the hostage is screwed either way. I invite you to think back to Speed. One of the first questions we’re trained to ask about any narrative is whether the narrator is reliable. And if history has taught us anything, people, it’s that Dennis Hopper is f-ing crazy.
After a long lazy summer living in a temporary arrangement (with my generous parents) in the Maryland suburbs, Mrs. Millions and I are picking up and moving again, this time to Philadelphia and this time (hopefully) we’ll be there for a while.After spending our post-college years soaking it up in LA, we left for Chicago where I went to grad school. We found it considerably colder than Southern California, as you might expect, and the whole time we were there we felt halfway home, which makes sense considering that we’re East Coasters by birth. While in Chicago, we discovered that it’s hard to really settle in and get to know a place if you feel like you’re just stopping over, even if that stopover is nearly two years long.But now we’re moving Philadelphia with the idea that we could be there a while, “indefinitely,” a word we’re happy to be able to say after living out of boxes for months. We’re excited about this move because it’s situated nearly evenly between Washington, DC and New York, our two childhood homes, yet it is almost unknown to us. After a few visits there in the last few months to find an apartment, we’ve already taken a liking to the place. We’re living near South Street in “Center City” as they call it. Though we’ve lived in cities before, we’ve never lived in a setting this urban, usually ending up in the grittier, cheaper outskirts of downtown areas. But Philly is small and compact, and we’re a little tired of almost living in cities, so we’ll be in the middle of it all, with dozens things to do just steps from our door.The fact remains, however, that despite our being thrilled about our new city, we know almost nothing about it, and we know only a couple of people who live there, so, with that in mind, I’d love some suggestions from current or former Philadelphians. I’d especially love to hear about the city’s best bookstores and good books that are about or based in the city, but I’ll happily take recommendations on restaurants, cultural venues, and any other “must see” stuff in Philly. Any ideas?
I won’t be posting again until Monday because I’m leaving for Las Vegas tomorrow. I’ve got plenty of books to read right now (and anyway, I’m not sure if I’ll do much reading), but I was wondering what I might pick up if I wanted to do some Vegas-themed reading. The obvious choice is Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a book that I read years ago and loved, though I prefer some of HST’s other books. But, no, that’s far to cliched. Or I could read John O’Brien’s Leaving Las Vegas, the devastating novel of alcoholism that was turned into an Oscar-winning triumph for Nicolas Cage, but that would be far, far too depressing. A little research reveals that Larry McMurtry wrote a book set in Vegas called The Desert Rose. I’ve never read McMurtry, so this might be a reason to start. But, as usual, I have a hankering for some non-fiction as well. There happens to be a good, recent book about Vegas called The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America by Roger Morris and Sally Denton, which might help explain why we are drawn to this desert fantasyland like so many moths to the flame.
Lulu, a self-publishing outfit, went back through 50 years of New York Times fiction bestseller lists and determined that the average age of the bestselling author is 50 and a half (via BBC). It makes sense in that the upper reaches of that list are often dominated by franchise-type writers – Stephen King and Danielle Steel are cited – whose careers plateau at a point where every book they write goes to number one, no matter the quality. A younger writer with few books under his or her belt has no reputation to ride on, but the middle-aged writer can ride on reputation to year after year of number ones. But NYT bestsellers are kind of a bore, I’d be more curious about the average ages of the winners of different prizes. Regardless, it almost goes without saying that the most exciting voices in fiction are younger than 50, except for the ones who aren’t.