Heart of Darkness: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)

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Stranger in a Strange Land: Dave Eggers’s ‘The Parade’

Someone once said, “Life”—or was it history?—“is one damned thing after another.” Whichever it was, and whoever said it, Dave Eggers’s The Parade—or any parade, really—is just that: one thing after another. The novella’s plot moves in a straight line, event after event rolling along day by day. But The Parade can’t be reduced to its plot any more than life (individual or collective) can be reduced to bare events.

The plot: A man is paving a road through a country that has recently (apparently) ended a devastating civil war. The road, as laid out by an unnamed foreign company contracted by an unnamed foreign power to aid the unnamed country, is destined to be as flat and straight and well-made as a road can be. Its stated purpose is to unite the torn-apart country; it will heal.

The protagonist, who calls himself Four (“for reasons of security, the company insisted on simple pseudonyms, usually numerical”), is a real square, a stolid worker whose experience, over 60-plus similar assignments, dictates that going by the company book means he’ll get the job done on schedule—without getting killed.

“Work like his often took place near the time and place of violence and atrocities, without actually intersecting with either…He once missed by minutes the scene of a crucifixion.” Safety and efficiency lie, above all, in keeping aloof from the people who populate the country he’s paving.

The paving machine is built for isolation. Inside its closed cab, all its operator need do, basically, is keep rolling. The roadbed awaits, prepped with pods of fuel and material at intervals matching the machine’s capacity. Four is almost literally at one with the machine, even before he hops into the cab. The story opens with him waking with “leaden head” in “platinum light” within a CHU (Containerized Housing Unit). It’s almost as if he’s a man flying solo in a space capsule. When he bathes, his goal is to remove “his human stink.” A perfect night, for him, is a black expanse “unsullied by human striving.” Four’s helper, Nine—as in the maximum single-digit odd number, not to mention the number of lives for a cat—is the spanner in the works. (Did Eggers do the math, to yoke two numbers that add up to bad luck?) Nine has hair that flops in his face; he smiles and chats. He has a mouth Four repeatedly observes as “womanly,” not with homoerotic overtones, but with distaste; such a mouth disrupts a manly face.

Nine’s job is to scout ahead, driving a quad, to “mitigate obstacles,” which can range from a crinkle in the roadbed’s surface to a shepherd and his flock crossing in front of the paver. Rather than mitigating obstacles, though, Nine generates them. Time after time, Nine goes off the company book, drinking the local water, eating the local food, shagging the local women. In getting down with the natives, he endangers himself and Four, and puts the job at risk of missing its deadline.

Four seethes. Not only does he want to get home to his family ASAP and in one piece, but the president of the newly reunited country has scheduled a grand parade, to begin “the moment the road was completed.”

Despite repeated omens that the country’s war-scarred people hold deadly bitter grudges, Four persists in believing that the road will heal the nation, that the people will rise to exploit the manna of foreign aid, with “joy and frenetic enterprise.” Neither his dour outlook nor his relentless pragmatism shakes this optimism, based as it is in a bedrock faith in progress and order.

Nine shares his optimism, though for him it’s all about people, about being human. Four sees the road, Nine sees the people who will travel it.

The book’s setting is conveyed vividly, yet without specificity. It’s dusty; refuse is burned or left in heaps; black plastic garbage bags containing “the waste of war” litter the roadside. It’s hot and humid, and air conditioning is not a norm, except in the “cockpit” of the paver. Nine is enchanted; Four sees nothing new: “Everything around them was standard for a developing country after a war,” including “white trucks full of aid workers fretful or debauched.” Four’s admiring and detailed assessment of the paving machine, with which a single operator can pave a roadbed and even paint the double yellow line in one pass, disarms doubt that such a thing can exist (it doesn’t) and conveys a time in the near future when road paving is no longer “messy and toxic work” involving too many human beings.

Eggers is less effective with the terrain. The characters see far into the distance, even in a “rough terrain, thick with foliage and outcroppings.”  Four rides shotgun on a motorcycle through “low scrub” to see a “mosaic of light visible through the woods.” Eggers might have intended to underline vagueness of place, but Four’s character, so tightly woven by Eggers, undermines the effect. Even as events unpin Four’s emotional center, a precise and widely traveled man like him would not misidentify his surroundings.

The inconsistencies in terrain distract, but overall Eggers succeeds in evoking a fractured Anyland, through which two men of opposing temperaments and views (mash them together and it’s Everyman) are tasked to pave a perfectly straight and level road. Nothing and no one have a proper name; for example, a local man who entangles himself with Four and Nine is called Medallion for wearing a “large silver medallion” whose design is never further described.

The lack of specifics molds The Parade into an allegory that, in sideswiping Joseph Conrad’s colonial-era novella Heart of Darkness, ponders the enterprise of intervention, here exemplified by foreign aid: help framed and executed largely by people who are not native to the land of the people they are helping, with motives on all sides shadowed by less than altruistic agendas.

Allegories don’t generally supply juicy psychological backstory, a complex plot, lush language. Even lacking such beloved elements of literary fiction, The Parade bestows in straightforward prose what only literary fiction can offer: a handful of time in which the reader can be embedded in another person, not to escape but to understand a part of our world that our own lives cannot reveal. Maybe it’s in this way that Eggers’s allegory avoids prescriptiveness; it’s plain that we’re living the allegory from one man’s perspective. Four’s acute observations of street life, as he and Nine head in a taxi to where the paver is parked, reveal as much about him as they reveal about the scene and its inhabitants, and we get a glimpse of Nine:
All around were scenes of reconstruction. On a rickety scaffolding made of gnarled sticks, a dozen masons were repairing a municipal building with a cloud-shaped hole in its facade. Next door, a middle-aged woman, wearing a fur-lined winter coat, sat under a striped beach umbrella, next to an office copier that she’d somehow wheeled out onto the roadside. A line of men and women in business attire waited to avail themselves of her services. The high-pitched whine of a diesel scooter overtook them, and Nine laughed.

“Whole clan,” he said.

Four glanced over to see that a family of five had arranged themselves on one small scooter, and soon passed them, and swung into their lane. Two of the children were standing on the runner in front of their father, whose wife clung tight to him with a baby strapped to her back. The baby, fast asleep and its face cloudy with diesel fumes, wore a stocking cap covered with jewels and bells.

This was a burgeoning city awake and alive after a civil war its residents assumed would have no end….
Eggers is a master of point of view; critic Michiko Kakutani lauded his “uncommon ability to access his characters’ emotions and channel their every mood.” You adhere to his protagonist, even if you have little or nothing (besides being human) in common with him (usually a him), and even when you’re not entirely on his side. In The Parade, Eggers needs every scrap of this mastery to pull off his ending. Be prepared to engage.

As in Eggers’s A Hologram for a King, the protagonist of The Parade is a stranger in a strange land, where circumstances conspire to take him apart. Four is so tightly welded together that only extremes will break him, his psyche so carefully protected, you both hope and dread it will be unpeeled.

One thing you know pretty much from the start (again, as in A Hologram for a King): the protagonist will fail, literally or in some other, essential way. What exactly he will lose, in failing, and what he might gain, is what you read to find out.

A Year in Reading: Hisham Matar

I just finished writing a book on a month I spent in Siena. There are paintings there that have for a long time exacted a strange pull on me. The book, called A Month in Siena, is in part an attempt to think about why these pictures have fascinated me for so long. One of the best books I read on that period is Timothy Hyman’s Sienese Painting: The Art of a City-Republic. A London-based artist, Hyman is also a curator. He brings to his subject great sensitivity and learning.

During writing A Month in Siena I also read a few works on the Black Death, partly because that plague brought altered the world of art and ideas, and partly because it began to be clear to me how important death was to my book. I reread the 14-century Moroccan author and traveller Ibn Battuta. His marvelous book, A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travel, I had adored with a passion as a child. I was unsettled once more by his evocative account of Damascus being taken over by death.

I have also had the privilege of reading Tears of Salt, Dr. Pietro Bartolo’s account of what we have come to call the “refugee crisis”, an inexact and offensive term given that the “crisis” is caused on to refugees and not by them. Dr. Bartolo runs the only medical clinic on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa where men, women and children fleeing war, oppression and unemployment risk their lives to reach. The privilege is due to Dr. Bartolo’s ability to bring to the heated subject his a broad and moving humanity. He is a man who feels and attends to the world about him.

This has been in the main a year of rereading. I reread the works of Joseph Conrad in preparation for Columbia University’s Edward Said Memorial Lecture, which I had the honored to deliver this year. I focused my attention on the Palestinian-American critic and thinker’s intellectual, psychological and emotional relationship to Conrad, the Polish nobleman who turned seaman and then became an English novelist. Said’s first book was on Conrad’s work and for the four decades that followed he never really stopped writing about him. The experience has left me in deeper admiration of Said and even more enthusiastic for Conrad’s work. There are passages where Conrad soars to the greatest heights, but even when he vanishes, as sometimes he seems to do, into a thick wood, I wanted to remain with him. If you have never read him before then perhaps start with the short stories—”Amy Foster” and “The Secret Sharer” are both, and for different reasons, utterly compelling—or, of course, his magisterial Heart of Darkness. And if you have read him then you might not have come across one of his lesser-known novellas, The Return, published by Hesperus with a forward by Colm Tóibín.

But this year has also been a year of discoveries. For example, I did not know the works of the American poet A.R. Ammons. I am grateful to Christian Wiman’s excellent poetry anthology Joy: 100 Poems for introducing me to Ammons’ luminous poem “The City Limits.” I immediately went and bought Norton’s The Complete Poems of A.R. Ammons, published in two thick volumes, each over a thousand pages long, and I have been gradually making my way through this unusually prolific but careful poet who appears to have been as scrupulous as he was unhindered.

A literary giant that I had somehow never read till this year is Elsa Morante. Her History: A Novel left me moved and immensely impressed. It is about how the politics, will, and whim of men impact the ordinary lives of women, men, and children. The fact that this isn’t recognized for what it is, a magisterial work and a 20th-century masterpiece, makes me even more anxious about our times.

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A Year in Reading: Jane Hu

For me, 2016 began — as most years do — in coldest Canada. “Edmonton,” as Wikipedia tells me, “is the most northern North American city with a metropolitan population over one million.” Last week, the temperature dropped so much that they made public transport free.

Edmonton sprawls, and because it’s always so damn cold, the transit system becomes a necessary part of staying alive. If anything, the city is as much connecting infrastructure — tunnels, ravines, subways, indoor walkways, sprawling malls — as it is actual living space. Here, we are constantly in motion, and we are also constantly stuck. During warmer weather, I take long walks along suburban highways with a book and often run into nobody. I read George Eliot’s Middlemarch five summers ago that way, and Edmonton’s flattening landscape has since merged for me with scenes of, for instance, Dorothea crying alone in Rome.

In 2016, I read for my English PhD qualifying exams —  which meant revisiting Middlemarch, though in vastly different climes. (Edmonton is obviously the more felicitous place to read about Eliot’s provincial town.) I have actual lists of what I read this year. Turns out, I love making lists. (Less loved: Following them.)

The only books I read in 2016 that were published in the same year were Alexander Chee’s Queen of the Night, Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, Claire Jarvis’s Exquisite Masochism: Marriage, Sex, and the Novel Form, and D.A. Miller’s Hidden Hitchcock.

More often, I was reading the greatest hits of British literature from Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814) onward. All I know about Scott is that he grows on you. During these last few months, I’ve begun describing how it feels like we’re living in historical novel time, which maybe only confirms that Waverley will never stop being relevant. I read William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847) — another historical novel — and for a week, fell asleep to documentaries about Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Revolution. There are a lot. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) and George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss (1860), and Middlemarch (1863) are also about very recent history. The Victorians loved historical novels. I wonder what kinds of novels these next few years will produce.

I’m not a good reader of poetry, but Arthur Hugh Clough’s historical long poem Amours de Voyage (1849) has something for everybody. It’s about the Roman Revolution, and is framed as a series of juicy letters. Speaking of, I started rereading Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Clarissa (1748) after reading Frances Ferguson’s shatteringly good essay “Rape and the Rise of the Novel” (1987). I didn’t finish Clarissa, but there’s always next year.

I read a lot of Victorian sages in 2016, and for what it’s worth, a lot of their work feels relevant too. Walter Pater might be my favorite — especially his essay “Style” (1888). William Morris is a close second. Say what you will about Thomas Carlyle, but Sartor Resartus (1833) is incredible.

Due to its focus on canonicity, exam prep often involves rereading. There will always be some things, however, that one will not reread: I never revisited James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), I watched the BBC Bleak House (2005) starring Gillian Andersonand crossed  Charles Dickens’s novel off my list.

Alternately, there are also some things that one finally reads for the first time. In my case, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1959), Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day (1989), and Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite poems. At some point I think I described Heart of Darkness to someone as “an oldie, but a goodie.” The most rigorous of critical reflection.

There was literary criticism too. I learned this year that tracking and reproducing other people’s arguments is often more difficult than we know. I combed through Fredric Jameson’s Antinomies of Realism (2013), and am maybe just starting to “get” it. It’s enormously productive, I believe, but there’s a bit of Stockholm syndrome in reading it too. By the end of November, I had drunk the cool-aid on two particular texts: Georg Lukács’s The Theory of the Novel (1916) and the final chapter of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1953). Things I never thought I’d want to do: read more Lukács over Christmas break.

I read, much of the night, and go north in the winter.

Two more recent novels that mean a lot to me (and which I shoe-horned onto my lists) are Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (2000) and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (2013). They’re by no means deep cuts, but if you haven’t read them, I couldn’t recommend them enough! The night of my exams, I was celebrating with friends and two of them remarked how they despised Life After Life. This came as a surprise, but it’s also a response that I want to think more about—because I ~~love~~*~*~* it. I keep selling When We Were Orphans as the Ishiguro novel that is better than both the one about clones and the one about the English butler. If Ishiguro’s historical novel (about WWII, the opium wars, and the golden age of detective fiction) could speak, it would ask, “Girl, why you so obsessed with me?”

I’m not sure if the Year in Reading tends toward synthesis or sprawl, but I know I personally incline toward the latter. Happily, some of the novels I read this year seemed to welcome this. Emily Brontë’s messy and muddling Wuthering Heights (1847) is still, like, The Best Novel. It’s just the best! It’s so bonkers!! I want someone to make a Wuthering Heights game, in which one (of course) never gets to leave Wuthering Heights. I finally finished Henry James’s The Golden Bowl (1904) and, did you know, this dizzying, late James novel can be broken down into less than 30 clearly defined scenes? This was somehow a revelation to me. So much stuff in The Golden Bowl! Metaphors upon metaphors involving — among bowls — other stuff! Stuff stuff stuff. Yuge, yuge objects. And yet — static scenes, a 30-scene-roadmap for a Hollywood 90-minuter, carefully set out, as though there were some logic to all this madness.

Immediately after my exams, I picked up Ed Park’s Personal Days, which both merits rereading and, really, everyone’s reading.

And finally, a year in reading is incomplete without Eve Sedgwick’s crucial essay “Paranoid Reading or Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You” (2003). I’ve read this essay more times than I can count and it always teaches me something new.

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The Ultimate Literary Cage Match: Hemingway vs. Faulkner vs. Trump

Who is the greatest American writer? In any such conversation, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner must be considered. And when discussing anything both great and American, Donald Trump — who has written more books than either aforementioned novelist and is perhaps the greatest American of all — obviously merits mention. But of the three, who is the greatest writer? The following comparison should move the discussion along:

Number of Books Written:
Hemingway: 15

Faulkner: 13

Trump: 18

Literary Influence:
Hemingway: Gertrude Stein

Faulkner: James Joyce

Trump: Scriptwriters for The A-Team, Airwolf

Often Compared To:
Hemingway: Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness)

Faulkner: Henry James (Daisy Miller)

Trump: Benito Mussolini (The Doctrine of Fascism)

Profound Quote:
Hemingway: “The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” — A Farewell to Arms

Faulkner: “Memory believes before knowing remembers.” — Light in August

Trump: “If you have laws that you don’t enforce, then you don’t have laws. This leads to lawlessness.” — Crippled America

On Love:
Hemingway: “You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.” (A Moveable Feast)

Faulkner: “They say love dies between two people. That’s wrong. It doesn’t die. It just leaves you, goes away, if you aren’t good enough, worthy enough.” (“The Wild Palms”)

Trump: “There’s nothing more terrible than an ex-spouse with a ten-ton axe to grind, and no agreement on how your common property is to be divided.” (Think BIG and Kick Ass in Business and Life)

Attitude Towards Women:
Hemingway: Troubling

Faulkner: Problematic

Trump: Medieval

Intractable Problem:
Hemingway: Depression

Faulkner: Alcoholism

Trump: Twitter

Memorable Film:
Hemingway: For Whom the Bell Tolls, starring Gary Cooper

Faulkner: Tomorrow, starring Robert Duvall

Trump: Cameo in Home Alone 2, starring Macaulay Culkin

Unifying Theme:
Hemingway: Life is a constant test of man’s will and fortitude.

Faulkner: We must confront the darkness that lurks within ourselves.

Trump: Donald Trump is like Scrooge McDuck, but with pants. Also, he hates himself.

Titles that Reference Thinking “BIG” While Assaulting Acquaintances and Business Associates:
Hemingway: 0

Faulkner: 0

Trump: 1 (Think BIG and Kick Ass in Business and Life)

Muse:
Hemingway: Martha Gellhorn, fellow war correspondent

Faulkner: Meta Carpenter, Howard Hawks’s secretary

Trump: Donald Trump, clothed orangutan

Politically Notable For:
Hemingway: Siding with the Republicans while covering the Spanish Civil War

Faulkner: Keeping his affiliations to himself at a time of great social upheaval

Trump: Running for president to extend his brand, then at some point realizing, Oh fuck, it’s for real

Image Credit: LPW.

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