Recognition of Another Sort: On Ethan Canin’s ‘A Doubter’s Almanac’

Unless you're inhuman or illiterate, you've felt the frisson of joy delivered by an instance of perfect mimesis in fiction -- that moment when a writer gets something so recognizably right that the act of recognition itself seems to confer a new reality upon the experience. Yes! you might say, that's exactly how it is, and underscoring your pleasure there might be recognition of another sort: the writer's recognition of your own experience of the world. Then there's the convincing depiction of experience that's recognizable, yet once-removed. For simplicity's sake, for the moment let's stick with experience or behavior rather than natural occurrence. Someone you might not have known or seen or heard firsthand becomes, through the deftness of the writer's rendering, distinctly and convincingly familiar. Yes, you might say in this case, that's what it must be to be someone like that. That's how he would talk. That's just what would happen. Reading Zadie Smith's NW, for instance, when a distressed Natalie (Keisha) wanders the streets of her old neighborhood with Nathan, who's never managed to escape its dire demographics, you might -- if you were someone like me -- never have known someone quite like Nathan, but now you do. You can hear him say, as surely as if he'd been standing next to you, “Everyone loves a bredrin when he’s ten…After that he’s a problem…That’s how it is…There’s no way to live in this country when you’re grown.” Or another type, one you've observed in one form or another, might become not just credible but comprehensible, as in the work of Curtis Sittenfeld in American Wife. You might have asked yourself (again, if you're like me, sadly), How is it possible to be Laura Bush? A smart, educated, seemingly enlightened woman as the self-affirmed conjugal flak of a spoiled, failed child of privilege turned evangelical war-mongering anti-intellectual politician on the world stage? And in Sittenfeld's fiction you might find an answer that resonates. Move one step further away from what you know, and you may be confronted with a character who's conceivable even though he or she might not exist. Yes, you say in this case, it's entirely credible that a character might be made up of such components -- now I see her! -- yes! -- that's what she'd say or do! She might be Oedipa Maas of The Crying of Lot 49. Or Jack Gladney, pioneering the field of Hitler Studies in White Noise. Or David Foster Wallace's Orin Incandenza. Or Charles Dickens's Mr. Dick. But what about experience that's inconceivable to most of us -- an act of genius, a moment of utmost extremity, a visit to the moon, a chat with Kim Jong-un, falling to the guillotine, challenging Julius Caesar? Anyone who has read The Iliad and understood that the pouting Achilles was a hero to Homer's audience must know that what we understand to be verisimilitude, let alone storytelling and heroism, is in some philosophical, even existential way uncommunicable across time and culture. And when we realize that nothing resembling what we understand to be a novel was written in the West before the 1600s or in the East before 11th century, we have to concede that fiction as a conveyance of experience, a depiction of reality, a connection between writer and reader is susceptible to time and interpretation. What do we want from it anyway, aside from the oh-get-me-from-here-to-there-already of plot, a perfectly acceptable demand for the satisfactions of seeing things make sense? This was a question that -- oddly, perhaps -- came up for me as I was reading Ethan Canin's new novel, A Doubter's Almanac. Canin is, in the old-fashioned sense, as Henry James said of Nathaniel Hawthorne, "a beautiful writer." His clear predecessor is the F. Scott Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby, as he can so perfectly capture a thought, a gesture, a look, a detail, or an event as it means something to a character whose reflections he's so precisely and evocatively conveyed that it means something to us. In this new book, the narrator is something of a mathematical savant, son of the not-at-all-somewhat mathematical genius whose story the first half tells and the second half retells from another perspective. This is fiction that captures reality in a way that's quite different from what I've described so far, because the reality that Canin is depicting is, for the most part, philosophical. The novel is steeped in a mathematical sensibility. In his father's mind, Hans, the narrator, tells us, "all the other academic disciplines -- including the physical sciences ...were irrevocably tainted by their debt to substance." And again and again we are asked to view the world as someone like Hans's father, Milo, might -- purely, you might say, without reference to its physical coordinates, though the physical coordinates are what orient Milo and make him aware of his gift, as we see when we first witness his extraordinary "positional aptitude" -- his uncanny ability to know precisely where he is on the "plane of the earth" -- a "sort of intrinsic, spatial mapping." “Mathematics is an invented science,” Milo tells Hans. “But strangely,” he continues, “the inventions of mathematics, which are wholly constructions of the mind, are in turn able to yield other inventions. That is why they seem more like discoveries than creations. In fact the distinction remains a debate...I also believe that this is why so many mathematicians feel that they have been privy to the language of God.” He thought for a moment. ‘Although I should also say that I’ve thought of it in other ways, too. As the language of the mind, for example. Or even’—here he turned to me more thoughtfully -- ‘as the language of language. The underlier of grammar. The skeleton of cognition. The rails on which the train of human advance steams up and down, one hill after the next.’ At this point, a mulberry twig falls onto the lawn in front of father and son. “Squirrels,” Hans says, looking up. The squirrels, of course, are the point. “Mathematics,” Milo says, “is like carving a wooden doll...and then, one day, you watch as your wooden doll gives birth to another wooden doll.” In its form and its fashion, the novel raises the question: do we look to fiction for the wooden doll or the squirrel? In A Doubter’s Almanac, Ethan Canin gives us a truly convincing picture of what it’s like to experience the world as most of us, probably, don’t. This is life in the abstract, which, predictably, doesn’t work out very well for those who are privy to this intellectually elevated existence. When Milo has failed in worldly terms: “His mind, he realized, was his only friend.” Though Canin wants us to care about Milo and his mathematically gifted children and grandchildren, what’s far more convincing is what’s familiar: “We watched a pair of red ants pitilessly drag a thrashing inchworm across the sand. It was like the ending of a great novel.” An inchworm or mayflies or lily pads: Canin takes us back to that moment of mimesis that reminds us of our connection to someone else’s vision or experience of the world: My mother looked up at the cloud of wings and feelers. ‘Mayflies,’ she said. 'They seem to be committing suicide in pairs.’ ’You’re right.’ She leaned back and let out a sigh. 'They’re mating.' There is in this novel a strange tension that makes me, at any rate, wonder what we ask of fiction anymore. Does it, as in the work of Lydia Davis or Diane Williams or perhaps even Jenny Offill, ask us to question how we experience reality -- or whether we experience it differently than others might? Or does it allow us to confirm what we think we know? In A Doubter’s Almanac we have two worlds, and two forms of fiction, in uneasy coexistence, one that psychologist Jerome Bruner says establishes “not truth but verisimilitude” and one that -- in Bruner’s view not fiction but argument -- “verifies by eventual appeal to procedures for establishing formal and empirical proof.” Just as, in a world that contains photography, a painter must reconsider the value of representationalism, a fiction writer in an age of the extraordinary documentation of television and the Internet, where every last little feature of reality might be found and viewed from virtually every angle, must reevaluate the merit of capturing every detail, every moment, of a story. Is that exquisite word picture of a person, a gesture, an instant -- that yes! of recognition -- what we want? Or do we want something different, something new, some sense that, with the same words, in the same world, we might, through the workings of fiction, find a way to rethink reality -- and to find the familiar strange, the world an ever bigger, more interesting place? Observing his daughter, the next generation of mathematical genius, admiring the carpet of lily pads on a slow spot in the river, Canin’s narrator remarks, I think Emmy likes the mystery of the spot, too, the way she knows from the undulation of the green that the water is there but never actually sees it. The feeling is much like the joy of mathematics itself, the original secret of the guild: that the miracle of the universe can be worshipped without actually witnessing the divine. I also think she might be counting the lily pads. Worship the miracle of the universe, witness the divine, count the lily pads: what do we, as readers of fiction, want to do?

The Post-Apocalyptic Present: On Quan Barry’s ‘She Weeps Each Time You’re Born’

The literary landscape, high and low, is awash in post-apocalyptic stories these days, particularly stories of a more ambitious sort (take Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Colson Whitehead's Zone One, Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, Edan Lepucki's California, or Sandra Newman's new weird and wonderful The Country of Ice Cream Star), a trend that's easy to attribute to a pervasive sense of dread about the planet's future among thinking people. Or, in the case of Whitehead's zombie tale, a dread of the unthinking present. For a smart writer, a ravaged future world also offers something like a perfect literary playground, a cleared field where everything from language to human psychology to social convention can be reconsidered and reframed, critiqued or reimagined. Poet Quan Barry's debut novel would not seem to fit into this category, yet it inhabits an eerily similar ruined landscape, which happens to be the history of Vietnam. And if that field of history, viewed from a certain angle, resembles much of the rest of the world and time, Barry might be said to have created a post-apocalyptic present, a fictional world in which it's possible to see how we always and everywhere are living among humanity's ruins. Barry seems especially well suited to the undertaking. Though born in Ho Chi Minh City, she was adopted as an infant and raised in the U.S. (on Boston's north shore, her biographical materials specify). She is thus both of Vietnam and not, and traveling there as she has done a number of times could be a matter of finding a life that might have been, looking for a haunted past and listening to its ghosts, much as her fey character Rabbit does. On one of her trips, in 2010, Barry first heard the story of a woman named Phan Thi Bich Hang, who is the "official psychic" of Vietnam: "She was bitten by a rabid dog when she was 5 years old. And when she came out of her coma, she could hear the voices of the dead. And the government actually uses her to help them find the remains of soldiers and other people who are historically prominent in Vietnam." Hearing this, Barry, who'd been working for a few years on a book about an American nurse during the Vietnam War, thought, "that's what this novel is supposed to be about," and started writing She Weeps Each Time You're Born, which begins with an American woman in present-day Vietnam seeking the mysterious Rabbit, who has lost her official status to a new psychic and is now kept under house arrest. "For Vietnam she gives up everything," the woman's guide whispers to her. "She will stay until every little one is heard. The northern and southern dead." The war is well underway when we first meet Rabbit, and the world is a dark, dangerous, and chaotic place. "[T]he air hangs fetid with the wet heat that follows the southwest monsoon." The bridge across the Song Ma River is destroyed. The charred remains of huts dot the shoreline. "The patriarch had gone running back into one of the burning huts to find his granddaughter, the thatched roof like a woman with her hair on fire." The faraway mountains are hazy with ash, and the night sky rumbles with distant planes. In the confusion of bombings and burning and death, people appear and disappear and nowhere is safe. And this is the shadowy, blasted countryside -- often lit only by the flickering blue flames of the spirits of the dead -- that Barry's characters wander. This, you might say, is a familiar wartime setting -- but what makes it something more is the presence of those flickering spirits, the dead whose voices Rabbit hears, whose stories take us far and wide, in time and space, and make of all of Vietnam's history a vast and troubled grave. And just as Rabbit is lifted, a newborn, out of her mother's grave (apparently the source of her gift), humanity keeps rising from its own ruins and remains. What's funny is Barry, in talking about her book, says she wanted to show more of the history and richness of Vietnam. "[W]hen we think of Vietnam here in the United States," she says, "we think of it as a metaphor. You know, it's synonymous with the idea of a quagmire." The history of Vietnam is another quagmire. And upon this sucking, unholy ground a novel is built. Upon her chthonic emergence, Rabbit becomes part of a makeshift family that roams Vietnam's countryside during the war and "reunification," staging an escape by boat that goes spectacularly wrong (even the water is a place of darkness and peril, afloat with human detritus), changing their human and geographic coordinates, giving us the intimate outlines of the view from above: "The population realigning itself because somewhere far away somebody had drawn a line on a map." In the death of an old woman along their way, Rabbit is able to hear of the awful French rubber plantations where the woman worked as a girl. In a trip to the forbidden purple city of Hue, the ancient capital, she hears of the horrors of imperial times. In Laos the voices of the Cambodian dead, the northern martyrs, the southern soldiers, the ethnic tribes, and the children overwhelm her. When walking one deathly landscape, Rabbit, we learn, has not thought of "the politics. Which stories the world is eager to bring into the light. Which stories it doesn't want told." It's probably not surprising that Barry's first book of poetry, published in 2001, is called Asylum. And it's probably even less surprising that Asylum harbors so many of humanity's mistakes and sufferers and sins -- the Salem Witch Trials, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, Agent Orange's deformities, the radioactive Bikini Atolls. Her next book, published in 2004, is called Controvertibles. In an interview about She Weeps Each Time You're Born, Barry said, "I think the thing I'm most interested in is the idea of possibility." That, to my mind, is the idea that her novel embodies. On this fictional landscape that I'm calling the post-apocalyptic present, where all the depredations of the past spread out like a broken boneyard, the blue lights of the spirit still flicker, and the dead still speak. And most important, someone hears.