The Many Labors of Philip Levine

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I only first read about the work of Philip Levine last year, when I saw his obituary on the front page of The New York Times’ website:
Philip Levine, a former United States poet laureate whose work was vibrantly, angrily and often painfully alive with the sound, smell and sinew of heavy manual labor, died on Saturday morning at his home in Fresno, Calif. He was 87.
Often considered a blue-collar, workingman’s poet, much of Levine’s most evocative work drew from his experience on the car assembly lines during the decline of The Paris of the West, Detroit. Like Levine, I also grew up in the industrial Midwest — about 170 miles west along Lake Erie, in Cleveland, the spiritual sister to Levine’s native Detroit. While the era of an after-school job in a soap factory had passed me by, my childhood home was a short two miles from Cleveland’s river valley, the heart of steel country, and the big rusted blast forges that spewed fire into the night sky. Recently, when a friend offered to buy me a book, I eagerly asked for Levine’s What Work Is, his seminal, National-Book-Award-winning collection that cut to the quick of what it means to be a man of industrial means and memories, in search of “work.”

As it turns out, to read Philip Levine in this moment is to crack open a road map into the zeitgeist of populist, nativist, and nationalistic sentiments fueling unrest in globalized, post-industrial nations across the world, from the rise of far-right political parties in Europe, to the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, to the rise of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential elections. Even as political support for both factions, originally deemed “protest candidates,” spread to both rural and affluent demographics, the appeal of these movements comes from a Philip Levine-like anxiety of loss and decline. Campaign slogans like Sanders’s “We need a political revolution” or Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” are bred from a despair of losing something that was once a golden promise of individual success. There’s a palpable feeling of outrage and indignation at being left behind or sold out for the greater ideals of free trade and commerce, something that, way back in 1991, Philip Levine felt keenly, such as in his poem about the daily grind, “Every Blessed Day:”
Even before he looks he knows
the faces on the bus, some
going to work and some coming back,
but sealed in its hunger
for a different life, a lost life.
In the poem, the narrator, much like Levine once did, works at the “Chevy Gear & Axle #3.” Before going to punch in, he tries to find the “elusive calm/his father spoke of and searched for all his life,/there’s no way of telling. . .” To read Levine’s poetry is to fall into the ragged void of inexplicable loss, and it is to read poems about people who know there should be something more but cannot wrap their mouths around those words or look too closely into its core for the sheer pain and misery of this long demise. In “Coming Close,” Levine paints a portrait of a woman working at a polishing wheel — bone-weary after three straight hours without a single break — finding that the line between woman and machine wears away until:
 . . .she would turn
to you and say, “Why?” Not the old why
of why must I spend five nights a week?
Just, “Why?” Even if by some magic
you knew, you wouldn’t dare speak
for fear of her laughter, which now
you have anyway as she places the five
tapering fingers of her filthy hand
on the arm of your white shirt to mark
you for your own, now and forever
The woman’s “‘Why?’” seems to be a question with an eternal flame, and it would be easy to put all sorts of identifiers after it: Why are my student loans so untenable? Why am I unable to find good, honorable work in my small town? Why does this job make me feel like an animal or a machine? Why cannot I not seem to get ahead? Why do we do this at all? But the simple provocation is enough, and the lingering stain of it causes the disruption and the true notion that there is unfairness in this despair. The question is an answer to a lie that has been brought about after doing everything right: graduating college or applying endlessly for work or working two jobs yet feeling unable to live a life worthy of a human being, let alone an “American.” In prognostic fashion, Levine’s “why,” as filthy and prohibitive as it might seem, is contagious and irreversible, and once it stains you it is forever a branding iron.

For Levine, however, the nature of this loss was not one of anger or even redemption, but of melancholy and introspection, as something that could always be delved into and learned from.  Nowhere is this more potent than in the poem, “M. Degas Teaches Art & Science at Durfee Intermediate School.” The narrator is a student in the class when the teacher draws a chalk line diagonally across the board and asks, “‘What have I done?’” The children take cracks at the obtuse riddle — one guesses a hypotenuse, one the roof of a barn — but the narrator’s thoughts are elsewhere, out on the window and on recess:
…It was early April,
the snow had all but melted on
the playgrounds, the elms and maples
bordering the cracked walks shivered
in the news winds…’
Yet despite the allure of the playground, the students are still stuck, trying to answer this incomprehensible question, and in many ways it feels the same as the “Why?” from earlier: if only the answer could reveal itself then they might be delivered to the sweet release of the playground or a quick sprint to the candy store to buy a Milky Way. Still, they are stuck in-between, not quite learning and not quite free: “I looked back for help, but now/ the trees bucked and quaked, and I knew this could go on forever.” The desire for help and resolution is so powerful and desperate, perhaps because it feels so caustic now with the appeal of national leaders who can say this stasis, this eternity is not the fault of the disenfranchised working class or professional peoples, instead it is the fault of a series of convenient boogeymen: immigrants, ineffectual leaders, power-hungry economic trading blocks, a sepia tone-soaked desire for the “good old days” rife with lopsided and clear-cut ideals, punctuated by much more “winning.” What’s interesting about Levine’s poetry in What Work Is is that he does not deign to imagine such woeful nostalgia and loss as solvable. For Levine, it is a clear and teachable thing to guide one’s life. The point of M. Degas’s question is not to solve the riddle, but to temper oneself in the face of its complex insolvability.

Central to all of this, quite clearly, is the elusive definition of “work,” as alluded to by the titular poem. Levine’s poetry shows it to be one of the most deeply held and vaguely defined words in English: work is eight hours in front of excel spreadsheets, but it’s also eight hours laying asphalt or cleaning gutters or taking care of children. It’s all the work people do in relationships, on themselves, for the greater good, for selfish ends, and more. You can see this in the poem, “Growth,” detailing Levine’s experience working as a teenager in a soap factory:
the squat Ukrainian dollied them in
to become, somehow, through the magic
of chemistry, pure soap. My job
was always the racks and the ovens—
two low ceilinged metal rooms
…the color of sick skin.
At once the work is ritualistic and meditative, wheeling these large drums back and forth, but despite its crass, grueling, and reductive nature, it is also singularly beautiful that their collective, rough, factory motions could — through the magic of chemistry and labor — turn fat into soap. The process is like alchemy, that amidst an act so disgusting and exhausting is the foundation of a civilized society, a thing as simple and essential as soap. Work, it would seem, is transcendent not just for the fat-turned-soap, but also for the young Levine himself at the end of the poem: “…my new life of working and earning,/ outside in the fresh air of Detroit/ in 1942, a year of growth.” There is a bitter taste of nostalgia in that last line, and it is clear that Levine values the factory horrors as much as his time spent in school or doing much else, and that the work there was very much the work of becoming himself.

The dichotomy and variety of “work” and what it ultimately means to Levine is perfectly captured in “What Work Is,” a poem that highlights Levine’s simplistic yet evocative style while striking near the heart of the brutality of this loss and questioning. In the poem, Men are waiting in the rain for “work:”
…the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants.
The men are waiting for work, but there is also work being done to suffer through the rain, to have the patience and resilience to endure and earn that miserable answer. The narrator then shifts to remember his brother, who he thought he recognized in the crowd. He remembers their filial love and the work his brother did: working the night shift at Cadillac only to wake later to study German in order to sing Richard Wagner in an opera, as disparate a form of work as one waiting in the unemployment line at Ford Highland Park can imagine, but perhaps he can also begrudgingly admit that it is work, too. Finally, he wonders how long it has been since he’s done the work to tell his brother he loves him, if he ever has even said so:
…You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.
This one word, “work” is key to Levine’s success as a poet, and his ability to adapt it to so many different situations and forms gives his poetry a bottomless depth and nuance that is at once immediate, harrowing, and personally estranged. It seems, as a culture, we have calcified in our definitions of work: work is global trade or work is done with your hands and rewarded with a pension, work is against others or work is for me, and on and on. The winnowing of the variety of work has lead to derision and confusion and an anger that is fueled by a terrible sorrow — if there is only one sort of labor, and that is taken from you, then what do you have left? To read Philip Levine is to remember that work is done at the Chevy Gear & Axle plant, it is done bent over the polishing wheel, it is done over the music stand, it is done while waiting in the rain, it is done while scribbling poems, and it is even done in the words you form from your very own mouth.

‘Infinite Jest’ in the Age of Addiction

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After twenty years, David Foster Wallace’s grand overture on humans and addiction, Infinite Jest, has only become more powerful. Since its publication, the world has moved past the events and years of the novel’s shaky mid-2000s dystopian world. But the most addictive force in Infinite Jest is a seemingly innocuous videotape referred to simply as “the entertainment.” Television holds the strongest allure and danger to Wallace’s many characters. It was an adversarial and endlessly interesting fixture in American life for Wallace, one that he wrote on at length in his essay “E Unibus Pluram.” “Television, from the surface on down, is about desire,” he writes. “Fictionally speaking, desire is the sugar in human food.”

At the core of Infinite Jest is a story about addiction and the different ways that people find themselves hooked. Wallace’s key argument is that to be human and alive is to be addicted to something, and the real power comes in choosing to what you might find yourself beholden. In his famous 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, Wallace warned college graduates that, “There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” In Infinite Jest, Wallace’s addicts are largely centered around Boston, on a hilltop near Brighton that separates an elite tennis academy run by a family shaken by a suicide and a halfway house filled with a picaresque crew of recovering drug and alcohol addicts. What brings them all together is that mysterious videotape, “the entertainment,” a piece of media at once so literally captivating that it causes certain death. The viewer cannot look away and will forgo the entirety of Maslow’s hierarchy for the sake of watching.

The worship is more multifaceted than just television and narcotics. The young boys at Enfield Tennis Academy worship the perfection of their tennis games and the rising of their rank, a task replete with ritual, superstition, and devotion. Yet some of the boys also use tennis to avoid family angst, failure, or personal faults, and in that way too the uncanny need to play tennis begins to resemble other addictions in the novel. The halfway house residents are addicted to cannabinoids and alcohol and cocaine and opioids and murdering small animals. The most dedicated of them, such as the halfway house staff member and partial-protagonist, Don Gately, have exchanged the worship of painkillers for the worship of A.A. itself.

Television, much like “the entertainment,” is its own form of worship. It’s the desire to be seen, the desire to be a voyeur. It’s the desire to be approved of and to feel communal. Yet our concept of television has rapidly changed since 1990s, when television was still considered the “boob tube,” a uniformly low art that was acknowledged as an aesthetic horror driven by shows like Cheers or The Price is Right. No one would confuse them for art. Now, we have entered — or passed through — television’s Golden Age, and the duplicity and seduction of the media have become hidden behind good storytelling, compelling acting, and excellent cinematography. The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Arrested Development, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and more have changed TV from a knuckle-dragging affair into something sophisticated and worthwhile.

Many of the shows that have marked the Golden Age of television first aired around 2000, right at the start of the current opioid epidemic — a spooky correlation, if not a scientific one. Since 1999, opioid overdoses in the United States have quadrupled as a result of increased prescriptions, heavy marketing from big pharmaceutical firms, and a cultural familiarity and acceptance with seemingly casual drug use. In the new century, our nationwide desire to be tuned out, euphoric, and entertained seems to go beyond both medium and function. While many of those who find themselves worshiping television are unaware of the effects of something like “the entertainment,” perhaps no character is more aware of his addiction than Don Gately, an addict recovering from his own enthrallment to Demerol and Talwin, who would find himself at home in the America of today.

Fall 2015 brought a sobering study: Death rates for middle-aged white Americans had started to increase, bucking other demographical and historical trends. The cause behind this grand uptick in fatalities was largely attributed to drug and alcohol abuse, which has become brutal and rife in America’s small, postindustrial towns and regions like New England and the Midwest. Heroin and its potent synthetic successor Fentanyl seem destined to find people, particularly those whose circumstances leave them unable to realize traditional markers of personal success in America. To be rural and “working class” is to live in an economy and culture that is increasingly focused on technically skilled and urbanized workers. To be left behind by your country, as one might feel in rural New Hampshire, is to open the door to something sinister but palliative: opioids. Opioids activate the reward centers of our brains. They give pleasure and a sense of wellbeing. They provide momentary fulfillment and satisfaction with one’s life. Tolerance to prescriptions leads to cheaper, easier-to-get opioids, namely heroin and synthetic versions thereof. The how of these addictions is relatively simple, with doctors trained to relieve pain and large pharmaceutical companies pushing their products heavily to their masses, but the why feels more elusive.

Infinite Jest is set roughly in the mid 2000s, right into the thick of a prescription drug epidemic. Despite it being a novel inherently farcical and dystopian, Wallace’s troupe of addicts have only become more commonplace. It’s no mistake that in Infinite Jest two agents from rival governments, in fear and admiration of the power of the entertainment, discuss the seminal experiment of Rat Park: a foundational 1970s study of drug addiction that showed that rats when given a rich, fulfilling environment tended to avoid readily-available, opiate-laced water, but when faced with a stark and denuded cage, the rats found themselves hopelessly hooked on the same opiates. The denuded cage for a person can take a variety of forms: economic stagnation, faltering relationships, lack of enrichment or challenge in one’s life.

The question for Wallace then is what exactly does it mean far a person to be in that cage? Early on in the novel, one character struggles with an infestation of cockroaches before coming up with a rather brutal solution:
The yellow tile floor of the bathroom is sometimes a little obstacle course of glasses with huge roaches dying inside, stoically, just sitting there, the glasses gradually steaming up with roach-dioxide. The whole thing makes Orin sick. Now he figures the hotter the show’s water, the less chance any small armored vehicle is going to feel like coming out of the drain while he’s in there.
This is perhaps the most heartbreaking image of addiction, not just of being imprisoned and slowly dying, but also being unconscionably trapped behind an invisible force field. It’s to not realize that you are dying only that it is happening slowly, and to know yourself as the most disgusting, and hated of creatures.

While narcotics might present the most desperate and fanatical way to dismiss the denuded cage, there’s a more salubrious method among American households. As Wallace argues in “E Unibus Pluram,” television offers a perfect release. Instead of testing the parameters of one’s crappy cage, TV offers escape: perfect families, perfect bodies, perfect jobs, and challenges that are deemed perfectly manageable by the implicit promise that the characters — and thereby the show — will triumph through to the next season. Now, in this Golden Age, the families are more real, the plot lines more complex: we feel smart, sophisticated, involved. If early TV was the heroin, now we have the Fentanyl. While watching Breaking Bad you “get” that Walter White is an antihero. In The Wire, you “get” the comparisons between drug dealers and the police as factions of equal merit. These things are like delicious breadcrumbs of self-confidence, completing little puzzles for our neurological reward centers. Make no mistake that each of these crumbs was laid down by an intentional hand, drawing us further and further in. Now, in this Golden Age, TV has snuggled up close to the critics that once derided it as stupid and trivial. TV as art makes Wallace’s original statement in “E Unibus Pluram” ring just as true:
Television culture has somehow evolved to a point where it seems invulnerable to any such transfiguring assault. TV, in other words, has become able to capture and neutralize any attempt to change or even protest the attitudes of passive unease and cynicism TV requires of Audience in or to be psychologically viable at doses of several hours per day.
Could one imagine that the new season of House of Cards, inspired third-hand by Richard III, could be considered low-quality in The New York Times or any other critical venue that once trashed television as cheap and vapid?

From the easy access of cheap, reliable, and deeply enthralling television, comes the very Wallacean term: “binge-watch.” The concept of consuming television in large swaths as if it were another narcotic like alcohol or cocaine or Oxycontin has a self-imposed irony to it. In Infinite Jest, one of the characters has an eerily prescient and predictive moment that anticipates the addictive, binge-watching nature of online video streaming:
What if — according to InterLace — what if a viewer could more or less 100% choose what’s on at any given time? Choose and rent, over PC and modem and fiber-optic line, from tens of thousands of second-run films, documentaries, the occasional sport, old beloved non-‘Happy Days’ programs, wholly new programs, cultural stuff, and c., all prepared by the time-tested, newly lean Big Four’s mammoth vaults and production facilities and packaged and disseminated by InterLace TelEnt
If I call the six hours I spent watching the old seasons of Parks And Recreation “binge-watching,” then I am doubly insulated by, first, acknowledging upfront the gluttony of it, and, second, by the irony of calling it a binge in the first place. If I jokingly pretend I’m binging on television, then it’s ironic because watching television is better than knocking back a case of beer, right? Yet television, like narcotics, has a certain intentionality behind it, as Wallace lays bare in “E Unibus Pluram”: “Because of the economies of nationally broadcast, advertiser-subsidizer entertainment, television’s one goal — never denied by anybody in or around TV since RCA first authorized field test in 1936 — is to ensure as much watching as possible.” Wallace’s conclusion is as true as ever, but due to the allure of the Internet as the new “low” art, filled by Youtube, Reddit, viral videos, and vociferous memes dominating the sort of repetitive desire that an American Gladiators marathon used to hold, TV had to change its tactics. Ultimately, the new strategy for capturing their viewers, to convince them of their true desire to watch more and more, was a sea change towards quality entertainment, turning TVs strongest critics into its greatest allies. After all, it is hard to feel poorly about spending a Saturday watching an entire season of The Wire, when its creator, David Simon, won a McArthur “genius” Grant

As a novel, Infinite Jest is intended as a loop. Once you finish the last page, the story pushes you to return to page one in order to put all the clues together and understand what you’ve read, over and over again. The final “joke” of Infinite Jest is that the book is intended to be almost as endless and mirthful as the addictions it depicts. To miss the desperate worshipping hidden beneath the strange, erudite, belly-deep joy of Infinite Jest is to fall prey to its pleasure. The ease of access to satisfaction in the Digital Age, from smart phone to Oxycontin, is perhaps even easier and more gratuitous than Wallace envisioned twenty years ago. The desire for distraction and appeasement has rushed up to meet this pleasure in all its forms, in these new ways to worship that shield the reality of disenfranchisement or pain. To have looked into the abyss of addiction, as Wallace does in Infinite Jest, is to see all of life’s worst parts washed away by a torrent of pleasure. But what if the pleasure took too strong a hold? What if, in the end, you could not look away?

The City of Lost Things: Rediscovering Fernando Pessoa’s ‘The Book of Disquiet’

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The first thing to notice about Lisbon is its relative quiet. The people tend to walk soundlessly through the streets, and the cars silently creep their way up and down the many hills. The most jarring noise comes from the ancient “eléctricos,” the name for the creamy yellow trams that screech up the hills. Lisbon’s charming sleepiness, I discovered, was not unique to me:
In the light morning mist of mid spring the Baixa comes sluggishly awake and even the sun seems to rise only slowly…A few passers-by signal the first hesitant stirrings of life in the streets and high up at a rare open window the occasional early morning face appears. As the trams pass, they trace a yellow, numbered furrow through the air, and minute by minute the streets begin to people themselves once more.
Thus observes Bernardo Soares from his café table on a sidewalk esplanade in The Book of Disquiet, the largely forgotten modernist classic by seminal Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa.

For my first trip to Lisbon, I knew I wanted to immerse myself during my four-day jaunt to the beautifully tiled, outmoded, and wholly Romantic Portuguese capital, which was how I found myself poring over Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet at his former café haunt, A Brasileira, several yards from the bronze statue that bears his likeness. Pessoa, often considered a writer lost to time, was a transformational Modernist who still has a strong presence in Lisbon — at least in the form of statues and prominence of place in the windows of Bertrand’s (one of the world’s oldest bookstores) on Rua Garrett. He is often compared to Franz Kafka: Both men are strongly associated with one place, be it Prague or Lisbon, and both died in obscurity, with much of their writing being discovered after their respective deaths. Pessoa felt himself a permanent outsider looking in on life in Lisbon, and much of these meditations were found on scraps of paper in an old trunk in his room, later turning into collections of poetry or The Book of Disquiet, as narrated by Bernardo Soares.

Bernardo Soares would become Fernando Pessoa’s favorite and most prolific pseudonym, but Soares quickly grew from a name into its own life and person. The existence of Soares, as well as Ricardo Reis, Alberto Caeiro, and 70 other of Pessoa’s identities are known as “heteronyms” for their expansive individual lives and personalities. For Pessoa, Soares, Reis, and Caeiro were people with desires, dreams, personalities, histories, and styles all their own. To say that Fernando Pessoa wrote The Book of Disquiet is disingenuous. Fernando Pessoa became Bernardo Soares, channeling each scrap of paper making up The Book of Disquiet through his alter ego.

The Book of Disquiet is much more philosophical quandary than it is a novel, and retroactively engineered at that, where various editors and translators arranged the hundreds of fragments and diary-type entries. As a result, no two editions are truly the same in order or content (my edition by the British publisher Serpent Tail Classics was on the slender side, only 272 pages, whereas the Penguin edition is 544 pages). Throughout the course of the “novel,” Soares documents his days as a bookkeeper on Rua Douradores and the heavy ontological and existential musings that weigh down his hours, particularly the disconnect between the vivid world of the mind and the monotony of a daily, work-driven existence. As Soares writes, “my soul is a hidden orchestra; I know not what instruments, what fiddle strings and harps, drums and tambours I sound and clash inside myself. All I hear is the symphony.” What makes Pessoa’s creation of Soares so effective is the way that these feelings tap into the unspoken truths that most people feel, on those lonesome, idle days where it seems that the other seven billion people on this planet are automatons and that only you, standing in line at the grocery store or at the DMV, are perhaps the sole original spark in the universe — an undisprovable treatise.

There is something uncanny in how approachable Lisbon is as a city and in Soares’s writing. Despite its confusing and cramped streets, endless hills, and shabby buildings, when the wind blows off the Tagus you can smell the ocean. From the summit of most hilltops you can see the wide stretch of the river as it heads out to the Atlantic, and from this it is simple to see how an entire culture could be so tied to the sea as the Portuguese are. Perhaps there is an antiquated magic in the air and a certain ancestral kinship in the city’s layout. Soares notes it, too: “I love these solitary squares that are dotted amongst the quiet streets and are themselves just as quiet and free of traffic. They are things that wait, useless clearings amidst distant tumults. They are remnants of village life surviving in the heart of the city.” Lisbon, at times, feels caught in amber. From the top of the old Moorish quarter of Alfama, the medieval castle of São Jorge still stands sentinel over the city. The little trams, the only really rational way to negotiate the steep hills, still wind up Alfama as they have done since the 1930s. When you ride one, you can see where the brass handles have been worn clean from the thousands of hands that have clung to them. Soares, too, rode the tram:
I’m riding a tram and, as is my habit, slowly absorbing every detail of the people around me…I sense the loves, the secrets, the souls of all those who worked just so that this woman in front of me on the tram should wear around her mortal neck the sinuous banality of a thread of dark green silk on a background of light green cloth.
Alfama was spared the worst of the apocalyptic 1755 earthquake that reshaped the city, and since Lisbon has avoided the terror of world wars and civil wars alike, Alfama is a look hundreds of years into the past, a place, like Soares, that the Portuguese always seem to be looking. While the fade of imperialism struck blows to all European powers, none have seemed to land in the same strange cultural stasis as Portugal and her former colonies.

Portuguese is the sixth most spoken language in the world and, according to UNESCO, the fastest-growing European language after English. Yet despite the over 250 million speakers, the cultural and literary influence of the Lusophone — or Portuguese-speaking — countries has dwindled to nearly nonexistent. This in itself is rather baffling; after the United States, the largest country and economy in the western hemisphere is, unexpectedly, Brazil. Yet Brazil has been notably minor in the “Latin American Boom” that made Spanish-language authors like Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Mario Vargas Llosa household names in the United States. In most American bookstores, the most prominent and well-represented Lusophone author is the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho for his parable, The Alchemist. A coarse equivalent would be like having The Bridges of Madison County be the sole emissary of American letters to non-English-speaking countries.

Somewhere along the way, Portugal, and her fellow Lusophones, lost the path of literary influence. The apathy towards reading and writing seems particularly dire in Brazil, as Vanessa Barbara, one of Granta’s “Best Young Brazilian Writers,” noted in an opinion piece for The New York Times titled, “Brazil’s Most Pathetic Profession.” “And yet, despite all this fanfare, when in Brazil, do not tell anyone you’re a writer. Not only will they deny you credit at the grocery store, but almost certainly they will laugh at you, asking right away: ‘No, seriously. What do you do for a living?'” The paucity of Portuguese writing is a global deficit, for Portuguese is an undeniably beautiful language to the ear and wonderfully varied, from the lovely sing-songy rhythms of Rio de Janeiro to the muffled notes of Lisbon, where the ends of words become puffed from lips like a ring of smoke that so perfectly fits their mournful folk music of fado. Fado is one of Portugal’s strongest cultural touchstones, and, much like the blues in America, it is an ode to the mourning and melancholy days of a people and their history.

In Lisbon’s Bairro Alto stands Tasca do Chico, a famous little bar that seats perhaps 20, shoulder to shoulder, with another 10 or so hanging out the windows. When the mood is right, the guitar and lute are plucked off the wall and the old owner with his pipe hushes the crowd, asking for silence as the two young men strum away and he begins to sing a melancholy tune about a girl he once knew. Soares describes fado, the wistful Portuguese folk music, as,
through its veiled words and its human melody, the song spoke of things that exist in every soul and yet are unknown to all of us. He was singing as if in a trance, standing in the street wrapped in a sort of ecstasy, not even aware he had an audience…The song belonged to us all and sometimes the words spoke to us directly of the oriental secret of some lost race.
Loss is a central part of life in Portuguese culture, particularly in Lisbon, where the gentle patina and crumble of an empire seems to hang in the air. The patron saint of the city is Saint Anthony, the patron saint of lost things. Empire, culture, literature all seem just out of reach in Lisbon, which in many ways is the most Portuguese feeling of all. Soares notes a longing for a past moment in Lisbon, for an unnamed soul who he has missed. “I love you as ships passing one another must love, feeling an unaccountable nostalgia in their passing.” The Portuguese have a special word for this “unaccountable” feeling or longing to reach back into the past and capture a moment lost to the stream of time: saudade. Here, the translator Margaret Jull Costa translates it as “nostalgia” for the sake of simplicity. The original second clause reads as “há saudades desconhecidas na passagem,” which might also be, “there are unknown saudades in the passage.” Saudade is untranslatable into English and only really done by approximations like “nostalgia,” but what Soares feels is keenly different throughout The Book of Disquiet, and his examples serve better than any definition. “With the aid of a cheap cigarette I can return, like someone revisiting a place where they spent their youth, to the time in my life when I used to smoke. The light tang of that cigarette smoke is enough for me to relive the whole of my past life.” Saudade is the vividness of that past as well as the simultaneous reality that it is gone forever.

To call Lisbon a “city of lost things,” is to say it is a place where those losses can be felt in the cafés and the streets and with each “Bom dia” you might say to a garçom on the esplanade, just as Fernando Pessoa did. You can feel the loss of power, the loss of culture, the loss of self, and the loss of time, the quiet aging happening to everything going around you: the bougainvillea hanging from the window box, the cracked tiles of the apartment across the way, or the people at the next table down. For Soares, the past is unforgettable and loss is a most palpable thing, and so is Lisbon.
But I love the Tagus because of the great city on its banks. I enjoy the sky because I see it from a fourth floor window in a street in the Baixa. Nothing in the countryside or in nature can give me anything to equal the ragged majesty of the calm moonlit city seen from Graça or São Pedro de Alcântara. For me no flowers can match the endlessly varied colors of Lisbon in the sunlight.

Love and Land: Ann Packer’s ‘The Children’s Crusade’ and the Legacy of ‘East of Eden’


My first image of California was the Salinas River valley, just south of Soledad, lush and green in the full peak of summer. This little grove is a rite of passage for millions of the county’s eighth graders, standing on the river bank and listening to the gentle rustle of fauna in relative seclusion, as painted with John Steinbeck’s brush in the opening scene of Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck’s strokes spread over all of California as an iconic vision, especially in the opening scene of the parabolic epic East of Eden: “From both sides of the valley little streams slipped out of the hill canyons and fell into the bed of the Salinas River. In the winter of wet years the streams ran full-freshet, and they swelled the river until sometimes it raged and boiled, bank full, and then it was a destroyer.” But that is not California anymore, and in the 60 years since East of Eden’s publication, the dense farmland has become something else.

When writing about California, the land and Steinbeck hang as an overture, as family patriarch Bill Blair discovers in the opening of Ann Packer’s new California epic, The Children’s Crusade. He heads south, driving out of San Francisco, noting: “This king’s highway boasted car lots and supermarkets, nothing to fill Bill’s heart, but every so often a vista opened and included the sudden rise of yet more hills, some thickly forested, others the color of hay bales in autumn.” Bill, in his exhaustion as a young doctor, is searching for the last vestiges of Steinbeckian farmland, finally settling on a broad stretch in the Portola Valley with a large, lovely oak tree:

He lay on the ground under the oak tree and looked up between its snaking branches at the bits of startling blue. He wanted to figure out a way to live under that sky without forgetting the other sky, halfway around the world, that for two years had seemed always gray and always to bear down on the land and sea, no matter the season and no matter the weather.

From here, Packer launches her broad and pensive family epic of the Blairs: Bill and his wife, Penny, followed by their four children, Robert, Rebecca, Ryan, and James. As adults, the four Blair children are brought together again when they must decide whether or not to sell their childhood home and land, the one that their father had founded for them. By settling the Blairs in the Portola Valley, a mere 100 miles away from Soledad, the legacy of East of Eden is inescapable.

East of Eden, lacking the social consciousness of Grapes of Wrath or the accessibility of Of Mice and Men, is possibly Steinbeck’s most difficult work and relatively neglected — despite the scope of its ambition and the author’s own declaration of it as his magnum opus. The story follows the thinly veiled biblical tale of Adam Trask and his brother Charles, as well as Adam’s sons, Caleb and Aron, as they rise and fall on their paradisiacal slice of the Salinas Valley and contend with Adam’s wicked wife, Cathy. Steinbeck’s work is rife with the toil of Genesis: men versus the hardscrabble, scarcely arable land, then men and women versus their temptation as women face the trials of Eve, and brothers’ hands twitch over the jealousy of Cain.

The inheritance of Steinbeck in Packer’s multigenerational novel is strong and diffuse. The Blairs take their creation myth as seriously tied to their land, their house, and their oak tree, well before the advent of strip malls, subdivisions, and the rise of Silicon Valley mansions that narrow in their once green-and-brown landscape. In 1950, two years before East of Eden was published, farmers accounted for 12 percent of the labor force; in 2015, they only amount to one percent. With the evolution of farmland into Silicon Valley and the change from farming to an industrialized and urbanized workforce, the nature of conflict changes, too. Men no longer struggle against the land, toiling as Adam once did because of the bounty of Whole Foods down the road. For Packer’s generations, the conflict has become a much more internal and introspective view of self.

Packer’s Blairs might find themselves much more at ease with Celeste Ng’s Lees in Everything I Never Told You or Jonathan Franzen’s Lamperts in The Corrections, where the percolated failings of the parents — and the stress fractures of their marriage — have reverberating effects throughout the lives of their children. If East of Eden represents an essential parable of American Genesis, then The Children’s Crusade is the complication of that parable and its strict morality. As the land has grown, so has its people, their lives replete with a dinner table trauma of harsh words and youthful brawls and spoiled clothes that hang about their days like the scent of ozone before a storm. Bill is the kind, conflict-avoidant, and well-meaning patriarch whose axioms of “carry on” and “children deserve care” are interpreted by each of his children differently. Penny is the manic mother fraught with unassailable dreams of her own artistry. Robert is the duty-bound and approval-driven eldest son, Rebecca the thoughtful and calculating daughter, Ryan the overly loving and close-minded middle child, and James the damaged and tossed aside youngest of the family. Initially, the “crusade” of The Children’s Crusade is a foolish list, made by the children, of activities that might please their mother and engender her doting love. These are certainly pithy descriptions compared to the deep, sprawling mental landscapes that each of the children explores in their joint desperation to understand the loss of their childhood home, land, and the weighty portent of their father’s oak tree. The land means so much to the four of them because it’s where they have rooted their love and history, and in this singular love and necessity for the California earth, the Trasks and the Blairs are not so different.

Each of the four siblings narrates a section of the novel as adults looking back, with interluding scenes from their communal upbringing. The psychological weight is heavy and palpable for each child, such as Robert, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a doctor. Although Robert is well-established in his mid-40s, all of his decisions are weighed against his father’s imagined approval of him and his work. Often, Robert, Rebecca, Ryan, or James try to puzzle over their distant childhood memories in an attempt to piece together how they came to where they are in their lives. For the most troubled child, James, the turmoil of growing up focuses on his dire opposition to his mother, keying on one supremely traumatic moment surrounding his favorite stuffed animal that forms his “rocklike” opposition to her and results in them not speaking for more than a decade. For the Blairs, the land has been long conquered, leaving only the rolling hills of their own hearts and minds to plow through and build upon.

Throughout The Children’s Crusade, Packer lets emotion do the heavy lifting, leaving the writing itself to snake a methodical trail about the characters, such as when Bill is talking to Robert. “As he spoke, his face changed around his eyes and mouth, as if love lived in particular regions of the skin, and Robert felt his own face grow warm.” Packer’s terse words ride high on this ripe emotion to the point of exhaustion, feeling each moment so deeply and fully on behalf of each child to the depth of minutiae. The story itself swings like a pendulum, with wandering interstitial and omniscient scenes of a summertime party, a family dinner, or a teenage birthday, filling in the thoughts of whichever family member is closest, even latching onto significant others, with such sudden leapfrogging that at times the cacophony of thoughts becomes oppressive. Between these are the children themselves, grown and worried adults now. In these passages, Packer shows the reach of her creation in the awful nuance of the fraught and doubtful adults in the fullness of their lives: Robert with his self-imposed mantel of pater familias, Rebecca with her thoughtful and oppressive problem-solving, Ryan with his burden of endless and unconditional love, and James with his rootless wanderlust — all of it so painfully real and confessional.

In East of Eden, Cathy is an evil and selfishly depraved soul set against her righteous and caring husband, and as a parable, it’s simply a moralizing black-and-white tale baked into the beauty of the Soledad River valley. Yet in The Children’s Crusade, the shift between the children’s monologue and the collective memory pushes the reader into the role of investigative psychoanalyst. Packer is most certainly aware of this, having one of the children, Rebecca, become an introspective psychiatrist whose memory and its distortion is a constant tease in her life, probing what might be real and whether it matters or not. Treading through the mottled family life of the Blairs, Packer pushes you to ask these questions: What is the motivation behind each memory or action? How have these scenes built Robert or Rebecca or Ryan or James into who he or she now is? Why might they be so broken?

The Children’s Crusade, at times, dips into heavy-handed moments, such as having a group of children sit around and discuss their “crusade” to bring their mother back into the fold, but if anything, the emotion and intent is genuine. For all the biblical Cain and Abel navel-gazing of East of Eden, the same hunger runs through Caleb’s urgent desire for his father’s love and approval. For both families, the crux of it is the dire attempt to fit together, with love as both the solvent and connective glue.