Back in January, Casey N. Cep published a delightful essay at Page-Turner, The New Yorker's book blog. The piece was about maps--particularly, the obvious affection so many writers feel for them. She mentioned, of course, the big-book fantasy writers, J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin; but also, the map Sherwood Anderson commissioned of Winesburg, Ohio; the survey done of Walden Pond by Henry David Thoreau; and the hand-drawn map of Yoknapatawpha County signed by William Faulkner (as "sole owner and proprietor”). "Every map tells a story," Cep wrote, "and writers yearning for new ways to tell stories are drawn to them." I was surprised Cep didn't mention David Mitchell, though. In his Paris Review interview from 2010, Mitchell told this wonderful, on-point story from his childhood, as a way to account for his own beginnings as a storyteller. [My] parents discovered they could shut me up for hours by mounting a large piece of cartridge paper on a drawing board—beautiful quality paper, a big beautiful snowy expanse—and leave me to draw, and name, maps of imaginary archipelagos and continents. Those maps, I think, were my protonovels. I was reading Tolkien, and it was the maps as much as the text that floated my boat. What was happening behind these mountains where Frodo and company never went? What about the town along the edge of the sea? What kind of people lived there? In his sixth novel, The Bone Clocks, Mitchell has taken this fascination with the characters at the edge of the action and built a book around them. With one very important exception (which I'll get to shortly), the six novellas that make up The Bone Clocks take place on the margins of a grand, cosmic struggle, and explore the lives of the people who reside there. In fact, the least interesting and least moving part of the book is the one that doesn't occupy a point of some distance from the central action. The next-to-last novella, called "An Horologist's Labyrinth," is set in 2024, and features the climax of a mysterious battle between good and evil, the dimensions of which have only been hinted at in previous chapters. On the one side of this struggle stand the Horologists, an order of reincarnated immortals who have banded together to oppose the Anchorites. The Anchorites, envious of the Horologists' natural immortality, have discovered a grisly method of obtaining their own version of everlasting life, one involving “soul-decantation,” and the murder of innocent humans. Throughout the first four novellas, both Anchorites and Horologists beam in and out of the narrative, never taking up much time or attention (in a detail you might remember from the Men in Black movies, witnesses to horological or anchoritic phenomena find their memories curiously erased). This fifth section, however, belongs entirely to the immortals, and the novel frankly suffers for it, particularly because Mitchell plants a stylistic belly-flop into one of the more egregious cases of Sci-Fi technobabble you are likely to witness this side of a Star Trek fan-fiction site. The immortals' speech is full of these little idiosyncrasies and special meanings that don't serve to make the story any more vivid--they're more like the lumps left in a salad dressing after you've gotten too fancy with the spices. "As I ingress, I hiatus her," goes one sentence. "You could've suasioned me, if you cared so much," goes another. "I've eaten trays of dim sum with more psychosoteric potential than you"--that's Horology shit-talk, I suppose. And all terms of telepathic communication--the immortals can communicate telepathically, of course--for some reason are prefixed "sub." All of them. You’ll see "subask," "subvoice," "subreply," "suborder," "substate." "Subremark," for Christ's sake. This is uncharacteristically bad, and actually pretty strange, when you consider how world-beatingly good Mitchell usually is at this sort of thing. Mitchell's talent at using dialogue to flesh out invented worlds is unsurpassed by anyone writing today--compare the stiltedness of “An Horologist’s Labyrinth” with the science fiction portions of Cloud Atlas. And consider The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, where Mitchell had to pull off the same basic stunt, while also worrying about historical (semi-)accuracy. What he's done here, I think, is failed to avoid a problem he solved while writing The Thousand Autumns, of leaving off that “(semi-)” part. Mitchell has told the story in public several times, of how at first he strove for, and achieved, a truly accurate rendering of late 18th century dialogue. He showed it to his wife, who said, "It sounds like Blackadder!" (And apologies to Rowan Atkinson, but she didn't mean this to be complimentary.) Mitchell went back in, and contrived a new version of the dialogue, written in a vernacular he nicknamed "Bygonese"--close enough that the spell is cast, not so close that it's broken. To put it another way, Mitchell's failure with these telepathic immortals and their "subs" and "scansions" and "suasions" is actually just a kind of over-success. He renders the Horologists' language too completely, and strips the threads. Perhaps if this "Horologese" had been dialed down a little, it wouldn't be a problem; or, if the war of the immortals had taken over a larger part of the book, there'd have been more time to develop the concepts that undergird this techno-dialect. Of course that would have been to abandon the novel's organizational subtext, this attention to what happens “in the edges of the maps.” And Mitchell certainly didn’t want to do that. In fact, he found this subtext so important that at one point, he brings it right into the novel, through the voice of one of his characters. That character is Crispin Hershey, a novelist, who narrates the fourth section of the book, "Crispin Hershey's Lonely Planet"; and while you might roll your eyes at a novelist writing a novel about a novelist, rest assured that Crispin is pointedly nothing like Mitchell. Crispin is a former "Wild Child of British literature," whose first novel was edgily titled Desiccated Embryos. (There's a reference to Kingsley Amis on the first page of Crispin's section, and Crispin has a novelist father who was a grand old man of British letters; I think we're supposed to make of these associations what we will.) Crispin is a terrible man, a dull and vainglorious womanizer, whereas Mitchell seems (to this fanboy at least) sincerely humble, intellectually radiant, and solidly dedicated to his family. Which makes it all the more striking when Mitchell speaks so transparently through Crispin's voice. Again, compare this, a portion of a lecture Crispin gives on Auden, to what Mitchell told the Paris Review: Writers don't write in a void. We work in a physical space, a room, ideally in a house like [Halldór] Laxness's Gljúfrasteinn [the home and workplace of the Icelandic Nobel Laureate], but also we write within an imaginative space. Amid boxes, crates, shelves and cabinets full of...junk, treasure, both cultural--nursery rhymes, mythologies, histories, what Tolkien called 'the compost heap'; and also personal stuff--childhood TV, home-grown cosmologies, stories we hear first from our parents, or later from our children--and, crucially, maps. Mental maps. Maps with edges. And for Auden, for so many of us, it's the edges of the maps that fascinate... Forgive me a little digression, but there is something big going on on our planet. We’re the first generation in history for whom extinction is a problem to be solved. And this problem is so big, so all-encompassing, that not one of us can claim to live in the edge of its map. It’s this sense of global citizenship, I think, which accounts for why The Bone Clocks marks such a change of attitude in Mitchell, a turn toward something grimmer. He's always been drawn to elements of darkness, of course. Predacity--the animal way humans have of making prey out of each other--has been his primary theme throughout the five novels that came before this. And those novels, to be sure, are all full of monsters. In The Bone Clocks, though, Mitchell explores a new theme: regret. Previously, if his characters had regrets, they were, for the most part, regrets about how the world had treated them, about the hand they’d been dealt: Eiji Miyake, for instance, the hero of Number9Dream, who sets off for Tokyo after the death of his beloved twin sister, to find the father they never knew; or Jacob de Zoet, the heartbreakingly persnickety clerk for the Dutch East Indies trading company, nursing a forbidden devotion to Christianity while living in the swamp of greed and brutality that was the late-colonial Pacific. (And Robert Frobisher in Cloud Atlas is not wholly to the contrary--Frobisher is so youthfully rakish, so self-absorbed and talented, that you can't get too upset with him. He's a charming, artistic kid hounded by money troubles largely of his own creation, and what millennial can't sympathize with that?) But in each of the five novellas leading up to and away from the book’s climax in “An Horologist’s Labyrinth,” Mitchell’s primary characters suffer regret for their own actions. Holly Sykes begins as a lovestruck teenage girl who runs away from home, and isn’t there to stand in the way of the horrifying tragedy that befalls her family. Ed Brubeck is a journalist who goes where the story is (in this case, Iraq), but who knows that his story, as a partner and a father, demands that he stay home with his family to tell it. Crispin Hershey commits a terrible, life-altering prank against the critic who broadsided his "comeback" novel. And the second novella, “Myrrh is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume,” brings back Hugo Lamb, the intensely charismatic (but secretly psychopathic) cousin of Black Swan Green's Jason Taylor; he drives a friend and classmate to suicide over gambling debts. The four characters followed in these five novellas (Holly Sykes narrates the first and last sections) suffer the consequences of their own moral failures--failures of lust and self-absorption, of ambition and envy and insecurity. Unlike the characters in earlier Mitchell novels, these people aren't so much victims of the world as they are creators of their own little world of sorrows, which follows each of them around, reminding them how they went wrong. This theme is partly why Mitchell made two of his choices in constructing this novel. One, he called it The Bone Clocks, and the reader quickly realizes that he means us, humans--regular-order, plain-Jane, non-immortal human beings; it’s a title meant to remind us that we’re all just stopwatches counting down to some unknowable, but inevitable, zero. The second choice was to end this story in Ireland (where Mitchell lives with his family), in the year 2043. We are not finding so much in the current fiction any visions of the future that could be called "optimistic," and The Bone Clocks is no different. It’s not a dystopia--not quite. But it's a world where precious little civilization remains--and what does survive hangs by a frail and unraveling thread. A world that is, itself, one very big Bone Clock. There is a deep worry about this book; a sense of regret for a planet that may already have passed the point of redemption. Even so, there is a moment in the very last pages--you will definitely know it when you get there--where Mitchell reaches right into your chest, puts his fingers on your heart, and presses down. The kind of moment you would choose to live inside for all eternity, if you had to pick just one. Our greatest storytellers can remind us that these moments are possible; and perhaps I'm naive, but I think the more we are reminded of this, the more likely it is that we will ultimately gather together and save our world, and ourselves, before the clock runs out.
The Guardian recently posted a collection of short pieces by different authors on the books they reread, and what they gain from the practice. There even seems to be a sort of tradition among writers and serious readers, related to these perennial rereadings. Faulkner read Don Quixote once a year, “the way some people read the Bible,” and isn’t there a place in the Bascombe books where Frank invokes the old idea that all Americans everywhere ought to make an annual reading of The Great Gatsby? Perhaps Gatsby isn’t your choice for yearly touchstone fiction (although it is mine, and Mark Sarvas’ (see below), and was, in fact, the most commonly mentioned “rereadable” in that Guardian piece). Regardless, and no matter which one you favor, it shows adulthood and devotedness, I think, to try and get back to a book you love, every four seasons or so. That’s why I asked a few people about the books they reread, and why. Adam Ross, author of Mr. Peanut and Ladies and Gentlemen, spent a decade reading The Odyssey once a year. Matt Bell, editor of The Collagist and author of How They Were Found and the forthcoming Cataclysm Baby, makes a yearly reading of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which he first read at age 21. He says that, while almost every other book he revered back then has receded into the background of his personal canon, Jesus’ Son has gone the opposite way, and gained in its power to move him. The aforementioned Mark Sarvas (whose blog, The Elegant Variation, you should definitely check out,) reads The Great Gatsby once a year -- in fact, for 18 years, it’s been the first book he reads every January, and he always tries to do it in a single sitting. Changes in his own life have tracked these readings: he’s read it as a single man in his 30s, “very Nick Carraway-like;” he’s read it as a husband and a divorcee; he’s read it from the perspective of a writer and, more recently, as a teacher of writers. And, lately, reading it as a father, he’s found himself appalled at the way Daisy Buchanan treats her small daughter (although, frankly, there are very few characters in Gatsby whom Daisy’s treatment of couldn’t be described as appalling). After well over 30 readings, Mark’s never bored, never tempted to skim or skip, and the scene where Gatsby tosses his shirts on the bed always chokes him up. He also points out that a book not worth rereading is probably not worth reading in the first place. Hard to argue with that. Speaking of “inveterate rereading,” The Millions’s own Lydia Kiesling has a slightly different approach to her touchstones. She has an ever-changing list of books she makes it a point to reread every one to three years. Currently, the list includes The Sea, The Sea, The Chronicles of Narnia, Till We Have Faces, Cloud Atlas, Of Human Bondage, The Berlin Stories, The Blind Assassin, Burmese Days, Possession, Lucky Jim, The Corrections, The Stand, and A Suitable Boy. She rereads these books in part because they’re “witty even when they are sad,” and because they manage to deposit her in another world with minimal effort on her part, which is as perfect a definition of great fiction writing as any I’ve ever heard. Speaking of Stephen King’s The Stand, my wife, Jennifer Boyle, makes it a point to reread that one once a decade. Considering the book’s monstrosity -- both in size and subject matter -- every 10 years sounds just about right. Eric Shonkwiler, former regional editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books, reads Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream once a year. He likes the way it transports him to the Gulf, and for all the “standard Hem charms” we know and love. (Can we all agree to start using “Hem” as the favored adjective for anything Papa-related?) Finally, Emily M. Keeler, The New Inquiry book editor and LitBeat editor for The Millions, reads Zadie Smith’s White Teeth once a year, usually in September. She discovered the book in the autumn of 2003, when she was a 16-year old high school student. Her favorites back then were all dead white guys (Orwell, Steinbeck, Hem, Maugham, Waugh) and she was in a used bookstore, jonesing for more Hem, when White Teeth’s colorful spine sparked her interest. It was the most exhilarating book she’d ever read at that point, and she goes back to it every fall, “in an effort to remember that feeling of discovery,” the moment when she became aware that “literature lives both back in time and forward through it.” So which books do you all reread yearly, or biannually, or quadrennially, or decennially, and why? We’d love to hear about them in the comments section. Please share. Image Credit: Flickr/Sapphireblue.
While working on an essay, I found myself needing to use a word that meant “related to the study of proper names.” I knew exactly the word I wanted, because I’d just come across the same usage while re-reading David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. In the essay on tennis player Michael Joyce, Wallace has this really cool throw-away paragraph about how the Association of Tennis Professionals’ weekly world rankings “constitute a nomological orgy that makes for truly first-rate bathroom reading.” He goes on to celebrate such names as Mahesh Bhupathi, Jonathan Venison, Cyris Suk (!), Leander Paes, Udo Riglewski, and Martin Zumpft -- and that’s just like a fifth of them. It truly is good reading. Except it isn’t “nomological.” That was the word I went looking for, but I found this definition of it instead: “relating to or denoting certain principles, such as laws of nature, that are neither logically necessary nor theoretically explicable, but are simply taken as true.” For instance, the idea that two parallel lines will run forever and never touch is nomological, at least within Euclidean geometry. But that really doesn’t sound like what Wallace was trying to say. It’s pretty clear he meant to say “the rankings constitute an [adjective related to the study of proper names] orgy.” A quick search indicated that the word Wallace was probably looking for was “onomastic,” which means “of or relating to the study of the history and origin of proper names.” Where Wallace probably went wrong was in confusing the Greek nomos, meaning “law,” with onoma, meaning “name.” Consider that a variation of onoma was onuma; the switch from omicron to upsilon -- the latter of which tends to enter English as a Y -- helps form the root “-nym,” as in “synonym,” “antonym,” and “homonym.” So the clause should read, “and the rankings constitute an onomastic orgy that makes for truly first-rate bathroom reading.” I guess we should all take comfort in the fact that a titan like Wallace could make a mistake like this. On the other hand, it’s a testament to the late master’s genius that any of us even care.
1. One problem with modern American romance is that very little can prevent two Americans who love each other from getting married. (So long as they don’t share a combination of sex chromosomes, and it’s fair to say the tide is turning on that one.) This freedom -- relatively unheard of in human history -- is perhaps why we have more romantic comedies these days than romantic epics. It’s a limitation dictated by the times. Any story where two heterosexual Americans face any serious obstacle on the path to marriage is going to strain credulity or just plain bug people. While I’ve seen neither Valentine’s Day nor New Year’s Eve — and at the risk of being factually incorrect -- I simply can’t imagine those kinds of movies trade in a currency of love problems whose snags aren’t pretty easily untangled. Such stories, as a classical matter, deal, rather, in misunderstandings, missed signals, crossed signals, and bunglings of translation from one heart to another. They’re nice and all, but does anyone out there get hit where it really hurts when they see or read a romantic comedy? There’s something better, obviously, a more heightened version of the old Boy Meets Girl, Loses Girl formula. I’m talking about the previously mentioned romantic epic, and I’m talking about this because I’ve had a running conversation with my dear wife over the last few years about just what makes a romantic epic epic. This conversation hit a high point recently, as we’re finishing Gone with the Wind, a book I’ve been reading to her since last June. Somewhere out there, you’re thinking, “Oh my God, I’m a Gone with the Wind fanatic!” Look -- I don’t want to insult you, but if you’re a harder-core fan of Gone with the Wind than my wife, I’ll wear a red dress and dance the Macarena on the courthouse lawn. They just don’t make Gonezos (©) any bigger than my spouse. You cannot physically restrain her from paroxysms of joy when the damn thing’s on. She quotes from the film’s dialogue the way 2003-04 circa college guys spat lines from Old School. We’ve never been to the “Road to Tara Museum,” but it is strictly a matter of time. She’s not alone, obviously. Gone with the Wind inspires mad devotion, in part, I think, because it works as both a romantic epic, and a tale of female empowerment. One reason for the story’s universal appeal, in fact, might lie in how neatly it nails a tricky middle ground between the Left and Right on issues of feminism. Scarlett is a thousand percent devoted to women’s rights -- except really in any plural or political sense: Scarlett wants freedom for herself; she’s only truly interested in economic freedom; and could frankly give a damn about the rights of other women, or political liberty, voting, etc. She understands — with a clearsightedness that would be cynical if it weren’t so simply observant — that having money means you don’t really need to vote. For instance, late in the novel, she and Rhett entertain Georgia’s Scallywag Republican Governor at their tacky new McMansion, and even though Scarlett bears a real grudge against the Gov and all his Yankee ilk, she butters them up nonetheless, the better to use them for her own purposes. In this sense, Scarlett is both a proto-feminist hero, and an almost Ayn Rand-y paragon of self-advancement. Not only does she tickle the imaginations of liberals and libertarians, but her canny progress from marriage to marriage takes place entirely within the boundaries of so-called “traditional” womanhood -- something I’d bet more than a few Schlafly-types have found validating. Even Scarlett’s devoted anti-intellectualism works to her advantage. You will not find a character in American fiction more rigorous in her disdain for abstract or philosophical topics (except as they give pasty old Ashley Wilkes something to be amazing at). Scarlett is interested in nice things, food, money, property, and getting what she wants -- nothing else. The key feature of her character is therefore a sort of materialistic pragmatism -- and since every branch of American politics considers itself “the practical one,” Scarlett occupies prime real estate to be adored by all sides. All that being said, and just as ludicrously fantastic a character as Scarlett O’Hara is (the highest compliment you can pay a fictional character is Odyssean, and boy oh boy, is Scarlett Odyssean), none of this would register if Scarlett weren’t given an appropriately larger than life backdrop against which her labors could unfold. The Civil War? Check. Gone with the Wind also wouldn’t work, though, unless there were real problems for the story’s centerpiece romance. Something has to impair the parties’ full consummation in order for the love story to qualify as epic. The more grand the obstacle, the more epic the romance. A quick survey of romantic epics bears this out. War, of course, is about the grandest and most epic obstacle a love affair could ever trip over. (See The English Patient). Class distinctions also place high on the list. (Likewise Atonement). Tragic events (cue flute from “My Heart Will Go On”) are obviously another. In my opinion, the most epic American romance of the past ten years was a little flick called Brokeback Mountain (based on the short story from Annie Proulx’s “Close Range,” whose lingering after-effects are a version of the same gut-gnawing pity induced by the movie). Brokeback Mountain is a romantic epic for the same reason only same-sex couples are really good candidates to have epically problematic love stories, at least in modern America: the problem for that story’s couple is pretty damn intractable, given their time. In fact, Brokeback Mountain has a harder edge than other classic romances, because the characters aren’t simply kept apart by grand circumstance, but by a threat of doom. Some band of redneck vigilantes would definitely have murdered Jack and Ennis if they’d ever tried to live together happily. The fact that death was a strong possible outcome -- because of their love, and not incidental to it -- puts that story on a high plane, stakes-wise. Of course, Scarlett and Rhett face nothing like that. In fact, the inductions drawn from this drive-by survey point to a troubling conclusion for Gone with the Wind’s “epic” status. Scarlett and Rhett aren’t really kept apart by the Civil War. Rhett’s such a dastard that he sits most of the conflict out, right there in Atlanta, with Scarlett and the other ladies, speculating in foodstuffs and running off to England every now and then. Scarlett is in mourning, of course (her first husband died almost immediately after the War broke out), so preemptive norms of seemliness might interrupt the pair’s march to happiness -- but Scarlett didn’t even like Rhett at that point, and all Rhett was interested in (I don’t think this scandalous wrinkle is mentioned in the movie) is having Scarlett be his mistress, his (goddammit, but it fits) “no strings attached,” “friend with benefits.” Rhett does eventually run off to fight, in the last days of the Confederacy, and by the time he and Scarlett cross paths again, Scarlett’s desperate for cash to save Tara, and throws herself into Rhett’s arms, an offering of virtue given in sacrifice for the survival of Tara. Rhett sees right through this (with help from Scarlett’s grubby little turnip paws, of course), and flat, dropkick rejects her, sending her right into the arms of old Frank Kennedy. Once Frank dies, Rhett swoops in and proposes marriage, knowing he can’t wait forever to catch Scarlett between husbands. They marry, seem fond of each other, until Rhett figures out Scarlett is never going to get over that God damned Ashley Wilkes, and it’s “Adios amiga.” Microphone drop. I don’t give no damn. But take a closer look: What does this story lack that other romantic epics have? Are Rhett and Scarlett kept apart by war? Class distinction? Tragedy? Disease? Threat of destruction? Nope. They get together because they can, and they break up because one gets pissed at the other. A less grand set of circumstances could not be found. This is not epic -- this is mundane. 2. At this point I’m in deep trouble. If the takeaway from this essay is that Gone with the Wind lacks the status of an epic romance -- that it is, in fact, nothing but a love story with two rather bratty protagonists -- my wife is not going to be happy with me. Fortunately, the genuine size of Gone with the Wind, the sheer land area it occupies in the American imagination, offers enough glitz and orchestra to rocket even the flimsiest of romances up to orbital heights. Whether we’re talking about the novel or the movie, this story is celebrated. The film is such a gigantic deal that it’s easy to forget how enormous a deal the novel was: It won the Pulitzer Prize, captivated the nation, is apparently (if you believe Pat Conroy’s introduction to my copy) given a Biblical place of honor on many a Southern coffee table, and had its movie rights sold off for the unheard of at the time sum of $50,000. At any serious gathering of top shelf American cinema, Gone with the Wind would be at the Kane, Casablanca, Godfather table. Even as non-pop-culture-obsessed a writer as Flannery O’Connor has a story (one of her weirder ones (and that’s saying something)) that involves the famous Atlanta premiere of Gone with the Wind: “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” which in classic Flannerian style makes us feel both sorry for and annoyed by a cranky genteel Southern White who thinks too highly of himself, in this case because they gussied him up for the movie premiere in a Confederate military costume, which now that he’s way older thinks is actually his original battle uniform and so insists on wearing to special occasions. Think about that. Gone with the Wind is such a huge deal, Flannery O’Connor wrote a story that hinged on its status in the texture of Southern life. Flannery O’Connor. It doesn’t get any bigger than that. Which is all to say, something is epic about this story. Can it be an epic because it makes us feel epic? A horror story scares us, a comedy makes us laugh, a tragedy makes us cry -- I suppose a romance makes us feel, uh, twitterpated -- is that, then, the real mark of genre? Not some academic’s induction based on a leisurely survey of the available material, but the specific kind of blast the story delivers, the special effects it drives into the hearts and guts of readers? If that’s the case, then I think I’m sitting pretty with my wife. Because Gone with the Wind has got the chops in spite of the fact that the love problem at its center is not only mundane, but teenagerly so. Rhett really does love Scarlett, but has to act like he doesn’t, to protect his feelings, because he knows Scarlett never got over Ashley being the one man she couldn’t have. Drop that love triangle right into a CW plotline and nobody’s going to raise an eyebrow. In other words, Gone with the Wind surpasses the un-epicness of its romance, and makes us feel romantically epic all the same. This is a serious accomplishment. I wish I could explain how it’s done. Of course, part of it is the historical backdrop, but I think a more important factor is just the expansiveness of the couple, particularly Scarlett (though Rhett’s a pretty insanely intriguing character, too -- I’ve heard rumors he was based on Sam Houston -- go read about that crazy bastard some time). But maybe it’s epic because it’s just so successful as a story. I think we need to feel that a story is about everything in order to let it in, let it move us. That’s the mark, I think, of the true masterpiece, and if anything could coherently separate “literature” from “fiction,” that’d be it. It’s a pretty simple standard, actually — all any story has to do is just show us the meaning of life. Gone with the Wind qualifies. Something in Scarlett’s practicality, something in her determination, something in her hunger (I don’t mean the turnip-eschewing kind, I mean the way Scarlett from the very first scene is driven by this crazy, all-consuming, no-boundaries-recognizing hunger for everything, the way she just wants it all) -- there’s something brutal and fine to that. In her strange optimism, too, the way she pushes everything unpleasant from her thoughts, so that faced with the collapse of her third marriage, she is almost transported, idiotic, almost insensate, in her belief that she can fix it all, have it all, that she can get Rhett back -- which of course wouldn’t mean that she’d have to give up on Ashley, too — and, most impressively, in her faith that tomorrow holds all the space you’ll ever need to get what you want, and keep it. This is one of the strange centers of the world, a vein of pure human talent, unearthed and irrefutable, mysterious, friendly, beckoning, and fully beyond us.
Jonathan Franzen’s second novel, Strong Motion, was about a mysterious outbreak of earthquakes in Massachusetts. The novel’s heroine, seismologist Reneé Seitcheck, discovers that these earthquakes are the byproduct of industrial drilling. The responsible party is a petrochemical firm whose agents attempt to assassinate Seitcheck after she proves that the company’s practice of injecting toxic waste into the ground is the cause of the bizarre quakes. Something oddly similar might be happening in Oklahoma (which, like Massachusetts, is not your traditional hotbed of seismic activity). This past Saturday, a 5.6 magnitude earthquake struck the tiny town of Sparks in Lincoln County, Oklahoma. The quake was one of the largest ever recorded in the state’s history, and another example of the sharp increase in seismic activity Oklahoma has experienced in recent years. Up through 2009, Oklahoma had averaged about fifty earthquakes a year. The total number of quakes reported in 2010? 1,047. This swift and dramatic change in Oklahoma’s vulnerability to earthquakes has some people wondering if the practice of hydraulic fracturing -- or “fracking” -- might be the culprit. Fracking is the process of injecting highly-pressurized fluids into the earth to break up shale and rock and release otherwise inaccessible sources of natural gas. The waste fluid is then shot back underground at sites called “injection wells.” There are 181 active injection wells in Lincoln County Oklahoma. Energy companies deny that fracking causes earthquakes, and seismologist Austin Holland at the Oklahoma Geological Survey told the Associated Press there’s no reason -- at this point -- to blame these quakes on anything other than normal seismic activity. However, Mr. Holland has studied this question before, and his findings were quite a bit more troubling -- even if his way of putting them was transparently cautious. In a paper entitled “Examination of Possibly Induced Seismicity from Hydraulic Fracturing in the Eola Field, Garvin County, Oklahoma” (available here), Mr. Holland said: The strong spatial and temporal correlations to the hydraulic-fracturing in Picket Unit B Well 4-18 [located in Garvin County Oklahoma] certainly suggest that the earthquakes observed in the Eola Field [also in Garvin County Oklahoma] could have possibly been triggered by this activity. In that same paper, Mr. Holland admitted an important proximity in time between fracking and episodes of unusual seismicity, noted that the epicenters of the Garvin County earthquakes were within five kilometers of the injection wells, and that the earthquakes occurred at, or near, the associated injection depths. Mr. Holland’s conclusion, however, was basically, “Still -- we can’t say for sure that fracking causes earthquakes.” More troubling by far, though, is Mr. Holland’s weird epilogue, in which he agrees that studying the relationship between fracking and earthquakes might have one useful outcome: “It may also be possible to identify what criteria may affect the likelihood of anthropogenically induced earthquakes and provide oil and gas operators the ability to minimize any adverse effects[.]” Perhaps I got lost in Mr. Holland’s grammar, but aren’t the earthquakes the adverse effects we’re talking about here? If a scientist has shown that fracking causes earthquakes, hasn’t he or she already demonstrated the adverse effects of fracking -- namely, that it causes earthquakes? What minimization could he be talking about? Can you stop an earthquake once you’ve started it? Can it be hampered? Can it be softened? Or are we to understand that oil companies will pay to reinforce homes and repair damaged properties, foot medical costs, and make right any wrongful deaths? Because they obviously aren’t going to stop fracking -- even if they believe it causes earthquakes. We know this to be true, because at least one energy company wholeheartedly agrees that fracking causes earthquakes -- and they’ve decided to keep doing it anyway. Cuadrilla Resources, a British company, has admitted it’s “highly probable” their fracking operation caused a series of small tremors in Lancashire, England (read the press release here). Cuadrilla hopes to get right back to fracking, though, after implementation of an “early detection system” that will serve to minimize the seismic impact of their operations. I cannot imagine the circumstances under which I would discover that my actions had caused an earthquake. But I think if I did, my next move would probably be to stop doing whatever it was I was doing -- not to figure out a way to live with the earthquakes. Because if energy companies actually believe that fracking causes earthquakes -- and if they continue to frack -- where does it end? If a company learned that fracking was responsible for international terrorism, would they stop? If they learned that fracking caused blindness in little orphan baby girls, would they care? If the sudden and contemporaneous deaths of all first-born male children within a hundred-mile radius of the Lincoln County injection sites was conclusively linked to fracking, would the drilling companies even slow down? And if not, would anyone in power stand up to stop them? In Strong Motion, Franzen uses the language of earthquakes to describe forceful love. “Strong motion” is, in fact, a geological term for the powerful turbulence that occurs near the epicenter of a quake. It’s a good metaphor, with deep roots. Love is a force of biological authority, after all, and we humans are just bits of dust and dirt and stone that have managed over millions of years to stand up, to think, to mate and bear children, and to find ways to protect what we love. I live in Oklahoma, with my wife and two sons. Monday night we felt another earthquake. I was lying on our bed, holding my youngest boy -- he’ll turn two years old next month -- when the shaking began.
1. “The life story of every American soldier who died in Vietnam.” The idea came out of nowhere, just appeared in my mind and stayed, occupying my thoughts with visions of the enshadowed, marching dead. Every single man. The events of his life. The circumstances of his death. Page after page after page. A library for a lost generation. The stories would be humble, detailed, and clear. “Clarence Rowantree was born in Boston in the winter of 1949. He was educated in Catholic schools, and he played halfback for his high school football team. He had a girlfriend, Cathleen Trencher. He got her pregnant their junior year. Plans were made for the couple to wed, but Cathleen miscarried, and was afterwards sent to live with a spinster aunt. Clarence never saw her again. He was drafted the summer after he finished high school, when he was working in his grandfather’s barbershop, sweeping hair into piles, washing combs, and refilling the bottles of tonic. He trained at Fort Sill and was stationed at Mutter’s Ridge, near the Laotian border. His friends in the service called him Rowboat. He was very popular. He could stand upright on his hands for an impressive amount of time, and would perform this trick whenever the guys needed a boost in morale. He was also the company’s unofficial barber, performing trims and shape-ups for when the brass came around on inspection tours. He died after stepping on a landmine while out on routine patrol in his eighth month of service. He was 20.” The idea moved me greatly, and even though I knew the project would take a long time, I felt rallied by it, and full of energy, so I sat down and did some calculations, to see exactly what kind of commitment I was getting into. I thought that each man’s story needed a full day’s work, and probably more — but I used eight hours as a base figure for estimation purposes. I multiplied eight by 58,175 (the number of names on the Vietnam War Memorial). The answer came out at 465,400 hours. I divided that by twenty-four to get the number of days, and that number by 365 to get the number of years. I hit the equals sign on my calculator. The screen read fifty-three. My mouth dropped open. Fifty-three. Years. I leaned back from my desk and put a hand to my forehead, considering the implications. If I worked nonstop on this project — meaning nonstop, without stopping, at all, for anything, even sleep — I’d be finished in 53 years. Take that into your heart and tremble at the meaning. If you spent just eight hours composing the life story of every American man killed in the Vietnam war, the job would take you over half a century to complete. 2. I ran these results by a friend of mine, and even though I was still goggled, he was far less impressed. “It’s a nice image,” he allowed, “but it’s just a numbers game. You could do that with anything.” “Anything?” I asked. “You know,” he said. “Anything where lots of people died.” He was right, of course, and as soon as I started considering various death tolls (625,000 killed in the Civil War, six million in the Holocaust, fifty million in all of World War II together), it occurred to me just how truly impossible a complete account of those killed in war can be, depending on the war, depending on the number of the dead. In this way, war is categorically different from other kinds of tragedies. When one person dies a tragic death, we seek consolation in the story of who that person was. The details of his life — his flaws and heroics, the people he loved and cared for, the work he did — all that meaningful information has the power to outweigh the fearful or horrifying circumstances of his death. But when a thousand people die, or a hundred thousand, or a million, or fifty million, the magnitude of loss tilts the scales away from understanding, and toward despair, nihilism, and madness; because we can’t find solace or redemption in a million life stories: it’s absurd even to try. What we can do, though, is to seek analogs, avatars — ways of distilling the raw, titanic information churned up by war into something relatable and human. I’ll put it another way: If there were no such thing as fiction, we’d have had to invent it, if we ever wanted to make sense out of a thing like the Vietnam War. 3. All this was why, earlier in the summer, I set out to read three books on Vietnam: Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, and Dispatches by Michael Herr. Dispatches, a “New Journalism” account of the war, was the first to be released. It came out in 1977, just two years after the fall of Saigon. It’s an odd, free-wheeling set of stories, at times reminiscent of both Hunter S. Thompson and William Faulkner, with the same pawky humor, fractured lensing, dreamlike narrative, and deliberately subjective attitude toward the underlying reportage. The haziness of the book’s structure grows organically from the material itself, as does the spookiness of it all, the eerie setting and unpredictable action. Herr pays a lot of attention to the superstitions of the grunts, because through them, the men seem to face and even endure their own unrelenting mortal fear, like the man who carries around a sock containing a months-old, uneaten oatmeal cookie mailed to him by his wife. Then there’s the fanatical Lurp, who makes this one chilling war story into a kind of Zen koan: “Patrol went up the mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened.” Herr speaks to another young man, a marine from Miles City, Montana, who checks Stars and Stripes every day, hoping to learn that someone from his hometown has been killed. “I mean, can you just see two guys from a raggedy-ass town like Miles City getting killed in Vietnam?” The funky superstitions of the marines run parallel to their own black senses of humor and, because of this, Dispatches is at times spectacularly hilarious. Nothing sums up the book’s comic-terrifying take on the war — Herr at one point calls Vietnam a “dripping, laughing death-face” — better than this story from Ed Fouhy, another reporter, about a helicopter ride he took with a torpid, weary young soldier. Fouhy, trying to make conversation, asked the kid how long he’d been in-country. The kid half lifted his head; that question could not be serious. The weight was really on him, and the words came slowly. "All fuckin’ day," he said. 4. If Dispatches is Fear and Loathing in Vietnam, then The Things They Carried is Vietnam as MFA: a meditation on the craft of writing as well as a semi-autobiographical account of the war and the things it did to the author and his friends. “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” for example, is explicitly instructive. A story within a story, it presents a character in the frame-narrative who provides a running critique of the interior tale, arguing (Chekovianly) that each element of a story has to play some role in the central action, and that “clarification or bits of analysis and personal opinion” have no place in the tale: “It just breaks the spell. It destroys the magic.” Now, O’Brien knows this isn’t strictly true — after all, this same character makes his point by interrupting the underlying story O’Brien’s trying to tell. But that’s how people tell stories to each other in real life, and O’Brien is interested, perhaps more than anything else, in just that kind of storytelling — and with good reason. He thinks it’s how you survive a thing like Vietnam. Take “Speaking of Courage,” for instance, a disturbing account of cowardice and grisly death, and its immediate follow-up, “Notes,” in which the author breaks through to comment on the construction of the previous story: its emotional core (a returning veteran’s simple need to confess about his failure to save a friend’s life), its dramatic frame (the story takes place as the vet drives around and around a lake in his hometown), and the symbolic counterpoint between the lake and the muddy field in Vietnam where the vet lost his friend. The vet’s need to confess is stifled by the warm, protective, polite cocoon of peacetime society, in which it’s not seemly to talk about the realities of war. Without an outlet, though, the poor man suffers, and ultimately takes his own life. In “Notes,” O’Brien tells us about the man’s suicide, but he also tells us that the prior story — at least, the part about the man’s failure to save his friend — was entirely made up. To get at the hard truth — that these guys needed to talk about what had happened to them — O’Brien had to tell a pretty big lie. That’s how you raise the stakes, he says. That’s how you make the drama that makes the people pay attention so you can show them what you know. That’s writing. A final note: the direct incorporation of these technical aspects of fiction into the final product is something we might today categorize as “meta.” But there’s something natural, even inevitable, in their use in stories about Vietnam. They suggest a gruntlike impatience with the sleek packaging of professional fiction. In that way, they have an almost jury-rigged quality, as though they were thrown together under fire, and with all the guts still in full view. 5. Matterhorn (which I’ve described to friends as The Wire in Vietnam) follows a young Marine lieutenant named Waino Mellas as he survives his first three months in the bush. Waino is a Princeton graduate who abandoned a life of certain professional success to serve as a combat marine, a decision he hopes will come in handy later on (Mellas wants a political career). Although at first the other grunts are suspicious of him, Mellas quickly settles into life at firebase Matterhorn, a hill on the western side of Vietnam, close to the DMZ. Matterhorn is home to Bravo Company, a group of about 200 marines, and they have one big problem. The Company’s commander, Lt. Fitch, has gotten on the wrong side of his immediate superior, Lt. Colonel Simpson, a drunk who doesn’t like that a handsome young marine like Fitch has received praise and commendation from the higher-ups without having the good sense to share his glory with Simpson (who doesn’t actually deserve any, but still). Partly out of spite, partly out of simple dereliction, Simpson orders Bravo Company to abandon Matterhorn and march for eight days without food or rest in order to build another firebase on a cliff further to the south. This is part of a larger project — driven by political motivations coming all the way down from the Oval Office — that will involve the marines in a useless joint operation with the South Vietnamese army. The North Vietnamese easily exploit this retreat, capturing Matterhorn while the marines are busy elsewhere. Simpson then commands Bravo Company to retake the hill — not because it serves any useful strategic purpose (Simpson orders the company to abandon Matterhorn almost as soon as it’s recaptured), but because “the kill-ratios” are all off. And if killing more Vietnamese means that more Americans will have to die, they’ll just reclassify the whole thing as a battalion action, rather than a company action, and the numbers will even out. In spite of such mindlessness, the manly human spirit of Bravo Company endures, even finding a way to turn such evils into acts of spiritual rejuvenation. In the novel’s closing pages, a group of marines sit around a fire and sing a rondo about death: “If it’s good enough for Parker, then it’s good enough for me. If it’s good enough for Parker, then it’s good enough for me.” As they sing, they replace the name of each dead man with the name of another dead man, until they’ve sung out all the number of their fallen friends. The interchangeability of one grunt with another is a belief that damns the souls of men like Simpson; but in the hands of men like the marines of Bravo Company, that same belief becomes a bond, a testament. A pledge of relentless true faith. 6. In each of these books and in all the several stories they tell, one thing keeps popping back up. “There it is.” “There it is” was a common catchphrase among the guys in Vietnam, a sort of verbal asterisk that put the whole affair in proper light. Radios down just when the shit’s getting heavy? “There it is.” Colonel breathing down your neck about making checkpoints? “There it is.” All the many little ironies of bad luck, incompetent commanders, and pass-the-buck-to-the-bush politicians are summed up in those three little words. Like Vonnegut’s “So it goes,” there’s not much more to the phrase than a simple expression of futility, a throwing up of hands in the air, a sigh at the deadly indifference of the universe. But there’s power in these words, and it’s the same with these stories: They are each a human reaction to the inhumanities of massive, nonsensical death. Whether it’s the cluttered, dreamy information of Dispatches, the transparencies of Tim O’Brien, or Matterhorn’s tale of redemption in friendship, the Vietnam War is transformed through each of these books into something we can understand, distilled into something edifying, and saved from the overpowering magnitudes of death. These books close the gap between the untellable story of the dead in Vietnam, and the rest of us, the ones who want to know what happened over there. In this way, they are a powerful act of generosity, both to we, as readers, and to the men who died on the hills and in the jungle, the ones who didn’t make it out. Image credit: hookbrother/Flickr