If I cannot move heaven, I will stir up the underworld. Virgil, The Aeneid
My reading—and life—were swallowed by subterranean forces in 2019—and I’m all the better equipped to face our civilizational crisis because of it.
Besides the fact that I work out of a collective literary cave called the Writers Grotto, the primary reason for the obsession with underworldly literature is my own book: a reported memoir about my 30-year journey across the 2,500-mile chain of mass graves, forgotten dead, and devalued life. The book takes me from wartime El Salvador to the remote tropical forests, cartel-controlled deserts and other infernal places where underground elements—MS13 and other gangs, as well as governments—have killed, dismembered, and buried tens of thousands of their victims.
Underneath a refugee crisis story conveniently curated to begin at the U.S.-Mexico border is an altogether different reality from that contained in spectacularly shallow headlines that have, at different times, dominated the electoral and news cycle for weeks, as we will soon see again in the coming election year.
The refugees’ epic journeys through Mexico and the United States, my home country, are the closest thing many U.S. citizens will ever come to western civilization’s foundational underworld stories, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid.
Yet, if there was ever an English-language story that could benefit from narrative power of the depths it is the Salvadoran epic. Outside of translations of the virtuoso writing of award-winning journalist Oscar Martinez, the author of the The Beast and The Hollywood Kid (written with his brother, Juan), there are few to no major English language Salvadoran narratives about the ongoing crisis written by actually existing Salvadorans. Scholarly works by Leisy Abrego, Joaquin Chavez, Cecilia Menjivar, and other U.S. scholars do much to fill in the academic void in the English language. Journalism and literature are another story.
My research shows that a similar erasure of Central Americans and the resultant superficiality in storytelling exists in recent media coverage of the ongoing humanitarian refugee crisis. The effects of this lack of a English-language Central American perspective (except, that contained in two dimensional images of pain and sound bites of suffering) can be seen in the controversy surrounding the video of Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, a Guatemalan migrant who died in a south Texas immigrant prison.
After a news organization failed to ask their permission before releasing the disturbing footage of their boy’s horrific final hours, his parents released a statement in which they declared the following: “It’s been really painful for our family to lose Carlos….but having all these people watching him die on the internet is something we couldn’t have imagined in a movie or a nightmare.”
Left out of the crisis stories is a deeper context that includes the 74 other migrants who died similarly horrific deaths between March 2010 and early 2017. Unlike Hernandez Vazquez’s, these stories and bodies were buried in anonymous media graves by the inconvenient fact that they weren’t killed by Donald Trump.
Desaparecido in the English language is the voice of those hailing from cultures that the great Nicaraguan-Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegria described as a “map of deep mystery.”
In search of a deeper way to tell this perpetually-urgent story, I found the ideal trope with which to explore ideas and emotions in times of such epic and interconnected personal and political crisis: the trope of the underworld.
The magical literary workings of the Great Below are described in Wendy Lesser’s masterful The Life Below the Ground: A Study of the Subterranean in Literature and History. Hands down the best survey of the subterranean in literature, Lesser’s book helped me understand (pun kind of intended) how different authors have used narratives of descent as a way to structure, move and animate fiction, nonfiction and poetry, especially in times of profound personal and civilizational crisis.
Central to the different genres using underworld tropes—noir (i.e. The Maltese Falcon), thrillers (i.e. The Third Man), sci-fi (i.e. The Time Machine), psychological, working-class struggle (Hard Times), racism (Invisible Man)—argues Lesser, is the way such literature contrasts a surface world or reality with a parallel world below. And, more often than not, this contrast serves to attack the existing order. In our Age of the Spectacular Superficiality, dissent necessarily means descent.
To complement the shortcomings of Lesser’s marvelous book, my own reading drew primarily from the wells of a underworldly Latin American literary tradition that includes the Popol Vuh, the Mayan book of creation, Antígona González which uses the Greek tragedy Antigone to tell a story of the search for Mexico’s thousands of desaparecidos, and Yuri Herrerra’s outstanding Signs Preceding the End of the World, the story of a lyrical, hard-boiling journey into the criminal, political and migration depths. The first words of the protagonist, Makina, who works as a telephone operator, make clear the story’s abysmal ambitions: Estoy muerta.
A great 19th-century illustration of how the narratives of descent disorganize the senses of readers in ways Rimbaud demanded of all poets is Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Carroll deployed Alice’s journey, in part, to disrupt and deconstruct Victorian English sensibilities. He did so using a defamiliarizing technique that defines the workings of the underground in literature: literally deforming a character’s (in his case Alice’s)—and everyone else’s—body, their sense of identity and meaning. Also known as “katabasis,” the underworld journey of rebirth also serves to alter notions of time and space, as Carroll does to the spatio-temporal ideas created and enforced by the forces of industrial capitalism.
A more contemporary filmic example of the uses of the underworld trope to disorganize our senses is The Matrix, released at the beginning of the century, in 1999. Neo, the Wachowski sisters’ central character, undergoes an Alice-like descent into the depths of the myths and lies of post-industrial capitalism. These myths and lies are delineated in John Beaudrillard’s epochal Simulacra and Simulation, a book featured in the movie. Both remain relevant.
All the prizes and plaudits recently won by narratives using subterranean tropes appear to indicate that the literary and cultural establishment also believes these tropes can help us to grapple with our astonishing global crisis and inequality. Jordan Peele’s Us used underworld themes to great effect and garnered numerous awards. My favorite award-winning filmic example this year is Korean master Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, a brilliant satire about the class conflict brewing in the nuclear bunkers turned into housing beneath the apartment buildings and homes of post-war South Korea. The film’s acid critique of the Korean “economic success” story has already racked up Cannes’ Palme d’Or, eight Golden Globe nominations, and is generating serious Oscar buzz.
In similar fashion, this year’s Nobel prize in literature went to Olga Tokarczuk, the author of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a book whose protagonist balances her heavenly pursuit of astrological truths with her love of one of the greatest English language promoters of underworld power, William Blake. The theatrical re-telling of the Orpheus myth of Hadestown won eight Tony awards this year, including Best Musical, while The Ferryman, the story of a former member of the Irish underground, the IRA, won the Tony for Best Play.
On television, HBO’s Westworld series regularly takes viewers on this underworld journey each time its (robot and human) characters descend into the high-tech storeroom where androids, some of which/whom are becoming sentient, have the stories they’re programmed to enact in the amusement park world above erased. This descent into erasure parallels the crossing of the Lethe, the mythological Greek River of Forgetfulness (or, in some interpretations “river of Unmindfulness) that the souls of the dead must drink from before entering the afterlife. The literary treatment of the Lethe is described smartly in Herald Wienrich’s Lethe: The Art and Critique of Forgetting. “Lethe” is also at the center of the adventure and search for truth in the recent His Dark Materials television series based on the Phillip Pullman book series of the same name. The instrument guiding Lyra, the story’s central character, as she navigates a world layered in lies, intrigue and erasure is called a “alethiometer,” a kind of compass that finds the truth behind any question asked of it. This association of of the Lethe with truth also harkens back to the Greeks for whom the search for truth was directly related to remembering forgotten truths.
Our time, our literature require the narrative alethiometer that is the underworld. Recent revelations that 3 U.S. Administrations—Bush, Obama and Trump—lied to the public to keep almost a trillion dollars of our tax dollars flowing to military industrial contractors and others profiteering from death and war in Afghanistan should serve as a reminder to go deep—and then keep going deeper.
For these and other reasons, I let the underworld swallow my attention this year. And, from a glance up at the future, I will continue to follow Blake and and AC/DC in seeking salvation on the highway to hell.
1.Before ISIS toppled the minaret of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Anbar Province, or threaded the Mosul tombs of Daniel and Jonah with incendiary, Utnapishtim was somewhere in the desert. He was there before the Americans with their hubristic occupation, in some cave while soldiers in Kevlar patrolled the banks of the Tigris, M1 tanks of the Third Infantry rolling toward Baghdad and F-22s of the 101st Airborne cutting across the skies of Karbala. Utnapishtim survived Saddam’s reign, with his mustard gas, torture chambers, and the invasion of Kuwait; he’d seen men burnt alive on Highway 80 by the Americans; he’d endured the brutal war with Iran, when tanks got stuck in the mud of Dezful and Khorramshahr was turned into a city of blood; he was there when the Ba’athists overthrew the Hashemite monarchy.
Utnapishtim lived through the British Mandate of Mesopotamia, when Sir Percy Cox drank G&T’s at the officer’s club; he’d lived when Iraq was a backwater of the Ottomans, and he saw Mamluks, Jalayirids, and Mongols steer their horses across the desert; he witnessed Genghis Khan in Khwarizmi, more centaur than man. He snuck unseen into the Baghdad of the Abbasids, city of gardens and astrolabes, where he discussed Hadith with the humane Mu’tazila and parsed Aristotle with Ibn Sina. Prior to the Islamic Golden Age, Utnapishtim was in Ctesiphon when Yazdegerd III fled as the Arabs marched into the Sasanian Empire, the Zoroastrian mages unable to prevent the course of history (true of all of us). He was there when Trajan marched columns of iron-armored Roman centurions into Parthia, and when Alexander the Great established Seleucid.
Witness to when Cyrus the Great freed the Jews of Babylon, and when Hammurabi’s scribes chiseled the law into stone. Utnapishtim had endured Chaldeans, Babylonians, Assyrians, Akkadians. Our primogeniture, the oldest of men, born in Sumer; as old as cuneiform pressed into wet clay, as old as sunbaked cities and the farming of wheat on the Euphrates’s banks, as old as the words themselves. Enki of the stars and An of the sky, Enlil of the wind and Ninhursag of the mountains molded Sumer, and by the banks of Eden birthed humans like Utnapishtim. Our only refugee of that before-time, the only person to survive when the fickle gods conspired to destroy the world by flood shortly after having created it.
He dwelled when Iraq was Uruk, before civilization’s keystone was set, when the firmament was new. Utnapishtim survived leaders and conquerors, presidents and dictators. Breathing before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Muqtada al-Sadr, George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein, and the Ayatollah Khomeini; talking before King George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II; walking before Mehmed II, the Abbasid caliphs, and Genghis Khan; older than the Prophet Muhammad; older even than Yazdegerd III, Alexander the Great, Cyrus the Great, Darius II, Sargon of Akkad, and Ashurbanipal. He witnessed the inundation of ziggurats, the collapse of towers, the immolation of temples. For the thousands of reigns he lived through, the kings innumerable and emperors forgotten, only one had ever sought his counsel. Despite being two-thirds divine, a king who would ultimately die like the rest of us; a fearsome ruler named Gilgamesh.
2.The tale of a righteous man visited by a god who warned him of rising waters—who in response builds an ark, venturing forth when a dove that he’s released confirms that dry land has reemerged—may strike you as a story that you’ve heard before. Norman Cohn parses the purpose of these stories, writing in Noah’s Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought that “large areas of what used to be Mesopotamia…were frequently devastated by flood. When torrential rain combined with the melting of the snows… the Tigris and Euphrates could burst their banks.” Cohn explains that in “ancient times this phenomenon gave rise to a powerful tradition: it was believed that here had once been a flood so overwhelming that nothing was ever the same again.” But if Genesis focuses on sin and punishment, the anonymously written Epic of Gilgamesh has no moral, save for a brief on why we must die at all (or at least why most of us must).
Unlike Noah, who even with the antediluvian extremes of 950 years did ultimately die, Utnapishtim was gifted (or cursed) by the gods with immortality. Some other differences with the Bible’s account, for Genesis records nothing of having to fight scorpion-monsters to reach Utnapishtim. Gilgamesh was stricken over the death of his best (and arguably only) friend, Enkidu, the wild man domesticated by the priestess Shamhat with sex and beer (as so many people are). For the ruler of Uruk, Utnapishtim promised something that can’t be purchased in gold, the possibility of Enkidu’s resurrection and Gilgamesh’s immortality. In Stephen Mitchell’s reimagining Gilgamesh: A New English Version, Utnapishtim queries the ruler: “who will assemble/the gods for your sake? Who will convince them/to grant you the eternal life that you seek?”
Utnapishtim tasks Gilgamesh, the man who defeated the mighty ogre Humbaba, that immortality is his if he simply stays awake indefinitely. Despite quasi-divinity, powers temporal and physical, authority and prestige, Gilgamesh can’t defeat slumber. Utnapishtim mocks the king, “Look at this fellow! He wanted to live / forever, but the very moment he sat down, / sleep swirled over him, like a fog.” All of human weakness and desires—our need to eat, our need to shit and piss, our need to fuck—signal that our lot is not that of Utnapishtim or of the gods who created him. Even if you can defeat Humbaba, the Epic of Gilgamesh reminds us, sooner or later you’ll nod off.
Finally, Gilgamesh is informed that the only means of living forever is to acquire a magic plant growing at the bottom of all rivers’ sources, which the ruler promptly finds, only to have the wily serpent (at the start of an auspicious career) snatch the fruit away from him. Enkidu’s death has left the king raw and lonely, but Utnapishtim’s example is illusory and dangerous, for it “postpones Gilgamesh’s necessary acceptance until a time when he is more ready for it,” as Mitchell writes. Gilgamesh realizes that immortality is not literal; one does not live forever at the world’s eastern edge, but rather in deeds, memories, and in words. We’re told by less mature voices to rage against the dying of the light, but the earliest story has Gilgamesh confront immortality’s mirage, understanding how “now that I stand / Before you, now that I see who you are, / I can’t fight.”
Ironically, Utnapishtim’s story was forgotten for millennia (if filtered through other myths). “Though it is one of the earliest explorations of these perennial themes,” writes David Damrosch in The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh, “this haunting poem isn’t a timeless classic.” Hidden just as surely as Utnapishtim in his orchard, the influence of The Epic of Gilgamesh is subliminal in our cultural memory. Preserved on a few broken kiln-burnt tablets strewn about the floor of the Akkadian king Ashurbanipal’s library, The Epic of Gilgamesh wasn’t rediscovered until the 19th century by British archeologists. Of that, Utnapishtim’s discourse on eternity occupied only a few lines on the 11th tablet.
Literary historian Michael Schmidt in Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem describes the epic as constituting “the first road novel, the first trip to hell, the first Deluge.” So much has come after what that nameless scribe wrote; it predates Homer and Virgil, Dante and John Milton, William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, Anne Bradstreet and Emily Dickinson. Even though ignorant of Gilgamesh, they worked and aspired to the same timelessness, for as Schmidt writes, it “prefigures almost every literary tone and trope and suggests all genres, from dramatic to epic, from lament to lyrics and chronicle, that have followed it.”
The Epic of Gilgamesh reminds us that there have been many floods, many apocalypses, many deaths, and virtually nobody has ever come out the other side alive. To live forever may be a myth, yet for our lack of eternity, even after all these millennia, we are still “Wandering, always eastward, in search / of Utnapishtim, whom the gods made immortal.”
3.Sex evolved before death. Arguably the former was a prerequisite for the latter. Sexual reproduction, genetic material exchange resulting in a new individual, was first practiced among simple prokaryotes—unicellular organisms lacking membrane and nuclei—about two billion years ago. Birds do it, bees do it, educated fleas do it, and apparently even prokaryotes do it. Such hobbies introduce beneficial genetic variations that the date-night loneliness of asexual reproduction simply doesn’t allow for. When celibate organisms reproduce through mitosis, they’re cloning themselves—the individual is the species. If you squish an asexual prokaryote, there are millions more just like it—death is meaningless; it is fundamentally immortal. But once sex exists, the loss of any one thing can be considered the irretrievable death of something completely unique, no matter how simple it may be. As the old joke at my alma matter has it, “Sex kills. If you want to live forever, go to Carnegie Mellon.”
Immunologist William R. Clark explains in Sex and the Origins of Death that “Obligatory death as a result of senescence—natural aging—may not have come into existence for more than a billion years after life…programmed death seems to have arisen at about the same time that cells began experimenting [with] sex…It may be the ultimate loss of innocence.” From the first orgasm came the first death gasp—at least proverbially. Human culture has subsequently been one long reaction to that reality, debating whether it was a fall or a Felix culpa.
That sex precedes death isn’t just a biological fact, but it has the gloss of theological truth about it as well. Such is the chronology as implied by Genesis; though there was debate as to if Adam and Eve did have sex in Eden, there seemed little doubt that they could have (though St. Augustin said it could only be facilitated through pure rationality, and not fallen passion). That all changes once Utnapishtim’s wily serpent makes a reappearance, and God tells Eve that He will “greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” Only three verses later, and God tells Adam that “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Sent beyond Eden’s walls to live out their finite days in the desert, their only consolations are sex and death.
Eros and Thanatos endures in the human psyche. Since the 16th century, the French have referred to orgasm as la petite mort, the “little death.” When that phrase first appeared, Europe was in the midst of syphilitic panic. A disease of replacement: silver noses pressed into the viscus putty of a rancid face, and of the tics and mutterings of those who’ve gone insane. Anthropologist Jared Diamond writes in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies that when syphilis “was first definitely recorded…in 1495, its pustules often covered the body from the head to the knees, caused flesh to fall from people’s faces, and led to death within a few months.” If scolds were looking for the connection between sex and death, syphilis was a ready-made villain. Always a moralizing faith, Christianity was made a bit more so with the arrival of syphilis; in 15th-century Florence the fanatical Dominican Girolamo Savonarola taught that it was God’s punishment for decadent humanism; a generation later and the Protestant Martin Luther would concur with his Catholic forebear.
In Naples they called it the “French disease,” and in Paris it was an Italian one, but epidemiologists have configured it as American, noting its arrival shortly after Christopher Columbus’s return from the Caribbean. Syphilis was an export alongside potatoes and tomatoes; an unwitting revenge for the smallpox introduced into the Western Hemisphere. If modernity signals its own fall, than syphilis was perhaps an indiscriminate punishment, for as historian Roy Porter writes in The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity, syphilis “should be regarded as typical of the new plagues of an age of conquest and turbulence, one spread by international warfare, rising population density…[and] the migrations of soldiers and traders.” Sacrificed immortality was the price that living creatures paid for the possibility of connection, for if eternity was once a biological process, then its opposite was as well.
4.Ponce de Leon looked for immortality in Florida, it’s true. Somewhere near where tourists stroll eroding Miami Beach, soccer moms pick their children up from Broward County strip malls, or hearty adventurers visit Pensacola gator-parks, the conquistador had obsessively searched for the Fountain of Youth. According to (apocryphal) legend, de Leon was fixated on stories told by Native Americans of a mythic source water whose curative properties would restore men to youth—indefinitely. Immortality by water fountain if you will. “Ponce de Leon went down in history as a wishful graybeard seeking eternal youth, like so many Floridians today,” quips Tony Horowitz in A Voyage Long and Strange: On the Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventures in Early America.
Arawak and Taino spoke of a spring named “Bimini,” located everywhere from the Bahamas to the Yucatan. De Leon looked for it in the future Sunshine State, though you’ll note that he did not find it. If you’ve ever visited the Old Town of San Juan, Puerto Rico with its charming, crooked stone streets that meander by colonial buildings painted in pinks and blues, you’ll find that far from achieving immortality, de Leon is buried inside of the white-walled Cathedral of San Juan Bautista. In 1521, somewhere between Florida’s hidden Fountain of Youth and immortality, de Leon found himself in the way of a manchineel poisoned arrow wielded by a Calusa warrior.
When de Leon envisioned a bubbling creek that could restore him to lost youth (probably better to have just enjoyed the original more), by what mechanism did he see such a thing as working? Chemical or alchemical, natural or supernatural? Horowitz writes that a “Spanish historian later claimed that Ponce de Leon [searched]…as a cure for his impotence,” which gives us an emotional register for the conquistador’s obsession, if not the pharmaceutical specifics. Since no such fountain actually exists, the question of whether it’s magic or science is easier to answer—it’s neither. Or, perhaps, better to think of it as a magical belief about science; the idea that the fountain’s waters have mineralogical or medical properties is fundamentally just a mask for our supernatural inclinations, the fountain not so different from Gilgamesh’s restorative plant.
As early as the fifth century before the Common Era, and Herodotus would declaim in The Histories that the mythic Macrobians living on the Horn of Africa could live as long as 120 years with the assistance of a particularly pure spring. He writes of a “fountain, wherein when they had washed, they found their flesh all glossy and sleek, as if they had bathed in oil—and a scent came from the spring like that of violets…their constant use of the water from it [is] what makes them so long-lived” (gerontologists agree that 120 years seems to be the upper-limit natural expiration date for humans, if free of disease and accident).
Alexander the Great and the imaginary Christian king Prester John, whose realm was supposedly somewhere deep in either pagan Asia or Africa, are associated with the myth. The 14th-century faux-exploration narrative The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a post-modern picaresque or autofiction written before postmodernism and autofiction were things, claims that a similar spring exists in India, “a beautiful well, whose water has a sweet taste and smell, as if of different kinds of spices.” Some of the author’s accounts of Egypt and China conform to what we know about those places during the Middle Ages, and yet Mandeville’s claims about whole tribes that have Cynocephaly (they’re dog-headed) or of groups of Epiphagi (people with heads in their chests) strain credulity. How are we to trust such a source about the Fountain of Youth?
What these examples should demonstrate is that de Leon had a ready-made script. Not a dissimilar process to how Spanish colonists saw the ancient Greek legend of the Amazons in South America, or the Portuguese fable of the Seven Cities of Cibola in the red-baked American southwest. Theirs was never a process of discovery, but of the endless use and reuse of their own dusty legends. Who knows what Bimini really was? The conquistadors had their imaginings from Herodotus and Mandeville, and they were going to impose such a concept onto America. Immortality, regardless of whether it’s to be found in India, the Horn of Africa, or south Florida, is an obsession. Yet what the obsessive obsesses over tells us more about the obsessed than the obsessee.
5.Virginia Woolf didn’t wish to acquire immortality, far from it. A disservice to Woolf, not to mention the millions of those who suffer from depression, to reduce her 1941 suicide to allegory or symbol. When weighted down with rocks she walked into the Ouse near her East Sussex home, Woolf was not providing us with gloss on life and death. “I am doing what seems the best thing to do,” Woolf writes in the note left for her husband, “I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came.” That, in its straightforwardness, says the most important thing about Wolfe’s suicide—that it was the result of her disease. Depression is not allegory, it is a disease, and oftentimes it kills people. Woolf did, however, supply her thoughts on immortality some 13 years earlier, in one of the greatest meditations ever supplied on the subject, her novel Orlando: A Biography.
Woolf depicts an English courtier born during the reign of the Tudors, who, despite the limitations of having a finite body, is somehow able to will himself (and then herself) into immortality. Orlando may be a subject of Queen Elizabeth I, but by the end of the novel she’s able to fly over her manor house in an airplane. In the interim, the character experiences the Frost Faire of 1608 (when the Thames froze over and merchants plied candied apples and roasted walnuts on its surface), an affair with a beautiful Russian noblewoman, placement in an English embassy in Constantinople, adoption by a group of Roma, and marriage to an eccentric gender nonconforming sea captain with the unimaginably great name of Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine. And then around the age of 30, Orlando transforms from being a man into a woman as she slept one night.
No magic plants or springs, rather a sense that Orlando’s personality is so overabundant that it can’t be constrained through either sexuality or time. “Orlando had become a woman,” Woolf writes simply, “there’s no denying it.” A masterpiece of both temporal and gender ambiguity, in Orlando the author doesn’t desire immortality for herself, but she imagines it for her character, what her biographer Hermione Lee describes in Virginia Woolf as its quality of being a “masterpiece of playful subterfuge.” Unlike Gilgamesh with his overweening bloodlust, or de Leon with his immature obsession, Woolf envisions immortality as a radical, subversive, creative state; as Hill puts it, a “magnificent, surrealist erection.” For Woolf, immortality is better understood as an aesthetic act, living one’s life so fully, with such pure, unmitigated, wondrous agency that the contours of normal years and decades simply must expand to fit our enormity. With relativistic insight Woolf observes that “An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second,” a phenomenon that she cheekily claims “is less known than it should be and deserves fuller investigation.”
Orlando’s great negative capability is that Woolf describes depression without the novel losing sight of a certain wondrous enchantment. She writes that “At the age of thirty…this young nobleman had not only had every experience that life has to offer, but had seen the worthlessness of them all. Love and ambition, women and poets were all equally vain.” Such emptiness and disinterestedness—the sheer fact of being so tired—is the medium of depression. But the narrative itself is what demonstrates the illusoriness of such emotions, even if in the moment they feel to us to be inviolate. Orlando thinks that they have experienced everything, but have they been to Constantinople? Have they flown over Sussex in a plane? Not yet—and therein lay the rub. Life has a charged abundance, even if brain chemistry and circumstance sometimes deny us that.
Orlando was a roman à clef upon the great love of Woolf’s life—Vita Sackville-West. The character shares Sackville-West’s androgynous beauty, her poetic brilliance, and her aristocratic forbearance. Most of all, Orlando and Sackville-West are united in having lived their lives with such jouissance, with such unbridled life, that death itself seems to indefinitely pause to take them. An existence where we can observe in the Thames “frozen to a depth of some twenty fathoms, a wrecked wherry boat… lying on the bed of the river where it had sunk last autumn, overladen with apples,” the frozen corpse of the saleswoman visible in her blue-lipped magnificence at the bottom. What a strange, terrible, and beautiful thing this life is, that if we were to fully inhabit every single blessed second of it, we’d be as eternal as it were ever possible to be, within the very universe of a moment. How fortunate we are.
6.On the road from Santiago de Compostela in 1378, the French alchemist Nicholas Flamel and his wife Perenelle met eternity. According to almost certainly fabricated accounts written in the 17th century, the wealthy Parisian bookseller’s study of magic helped him to (among other things) derive the philosopher’s stone, and thus generate the so-called “Elixir of Life,” which granted him immortality. Flamel had journeyed to Spain, that liminal place between east and west, Europe and Africa, Christian, Jewish, and Islamic, under the assumption that some mage could interpret a manuscript he purchased in Paris. Flamel wasn’t so fortunate in finding assistance while actually in Spain, but on the road home a Jewish converso recognized the occult text for what it was—an original copy of the powerful grimoire The Book of Abramelin.
As with all such guides, The Book of Abramelin makes big promises. Within there are “the actual rules to acquire this Divine and Sacred Magic…therein find certain examples and other matters which be none the less useful and profitable unto thee.” It parsed the intricacies of summoning your guardian angel, how to bind demons, and how to walk underwater (which as impressive as it is, doesn’t really match the first two). There are a lot of magic squares scattered throughout. And, of course, there is the recipe for the philosopher’s stone. As with the stories about Flamel himself, The Book of Abramelin seems to be another 17th-century invention. The author is supposedly the German Kabbalist Abraham of Worms, who traveled to Egypt to confer with the reputed mystical master Abramelin himself. “And having written this with mine own hand,” writes the author (since we’re unsure of whose hand penned that line), “I have placed it within this casket, and locked it up, as a most precious treasure; in order that when thou hast arrived at a proper age thou mayest be able to admire, to consider, and to enjoy the marvels.”
No version of the text has been found that predates 1608, and the earliest copies are in German rather than Hebrew; all of which seems to indicate that just as with Flamel, the reputation of The Book of Abramelin is a fantasy borrowing authority from medieval exoticism. A fashionable Hebraism developed during the Italian Renaissance, and quickly spread throughout Europe, so that references to the Kabbalah could impart a degree of authenticity for Christian occultists. Gershom Scholem writes in Alchemy and Kabbalah that the “name of this arcane discipline became a popular catchword in Renaissance and Baroque theosophical and occult circles, having been declared and revered as the guardian of the oldest and highest mystical wisdom of mankind by its fist Christian mediators.” All the greatest stories about Kabbalah may be set in the Middle Ages, but for the Christian occultists who appropriated it, the subject was very much a Renaissance affair.
For alchemists and occultists like Paracelsus, Johann Reuchlin, or John Dee, Flamel was an instructive example. Knowledge was supposed to be the road to eternity, as surely as a Parisian scribe could return from Compostela, and perhaps the bookseller was somewhere wandering like the converso who gave him the secret to never dying. Could Flamel be glimpsed, in the court of the occult emperor Rudolf II in red-roofed Prague, discoursing on astronomy with Johannes Keppler and Kabbalah with Rabbi Judah ben Lowe? Would he be found on those curving stones of dark Cambridge with Thomas Vaughan, or among the sun-dappled courtyards of Florence with Giordano Bruno?
In reality, Flamel was moldering underneath the nave of the Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie in the fourth arrondissement. His tombstone now sits in the Musée de Cluny; the year of Flamel’s expiration was 1418. By all actual accounts, he was a loving husband and a successful merchant. Flamel’s fate, in all of its beauty, was the same as everybody’s. The psychoanalyst Marie-Louise von France gives a charitable reading of the Renaissance theorists of immortality, explaining in Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and Psychology that the desire for this knowledge “was actually the search for an incorruptible essence in man which would survive death, an essential part of the human being which could be preserved.” An accurate definition for poetry.
7.Enoch’s story is recounted across only four lines in Genesis. The King James Version of the Bible sets the cryptic tale of a man who ascended bodily to heaven, presumably having never died and still living immortally somewhere in the astral realm, in just 53 words. Father of Methuselah, who was himself so remarkably long-lived that his name has long been conflated with extreme seniority, Enoch simply never died. We’re told at Genesis 5:24 that “Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.” Such is the entire explanation of what happened to this man of the seventh generation. What an odd bit of poetry this is. For. God. Took. Him.
Even if the Bible is tight-lipped about Enoch, the copious fan-fic about him (which scholars call “apocrypha”) lacked a similar reticence. From the mystics of antiquity to the occultists of today, Enoch achieved not just immortality but actual apotheosis, seated next to a God who liked him so much that he transformed the mortal into a “lesser Yahweh.” Such is a description of his career change from a pseudographical rabbinic text called 3 Enoch, which is dated to the fifth century after the Common Era. Scholem provides gloss on this unusual book in his Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, writing that “[his] flesh was turned to flame, his veins to fire, his eye-lashes to flashes of lightning, his eye-balls to flaming torches, and who God has placed on a throne next to the throne of glory, received after this heavenly transformation the name Metatron.” There is a venerable occult tradition that holds that Enoch become immortal, was elevated above even the archangels, became the very voice of the Lord, and was given a name that sounds like that of a Transformer.
Enochian literature can be traced back to three apocryphal texts from the first centuries of the Common Era that all elaborated on the terse passage from Genesis. 3 Enoch (also amazingly called The Revelation of Metatron) is joined by the Book of Enoch, written in Ge’ez and still held canonical by the Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Ethiopia, and the Second Book of Enoch which only survives in Old Bulgarian (I’m not making that up). The last book’s alternate title is actually even better than The Revelation of Metatron, it is often referred to as The Book of Secrets. From translator Willis Barnstone’s version of The Book of Secrets, as included in his incredible anthology The Other Bible, Enoch speaks in the first person, telling us that “I know all things and have written them into books concerning the heavens and their end, their plentitude, their armies, and their marching. I have measured and described the stars, their great and countless multitude. What man has seen their revolutions and entrances?”
Metatron was the amanuenses of God’s thoughts, the librarian of reality who noted all that had, would, or could be done. A scribe as surely as Flamel was—Metatron was a writer. Enoch was the first figure in scripture to ascend to heaven, though he was not the first. Midrash actually records eight people as having achieved immortality this way, including the prophet Elijah who is consumed entirely up into a whirlwind; Sarah, whom is blessed by her grandfather Jacob with “May you live forever and never die;” and Ebed-Melech the Ethiopian who saved the prophet Jeremiah’s life during the Siege of Jerusalem. Catholics believe that the Virgin Mary ascended bodily, though after her death on Earth (a minority claim she was taken while still alive). Christianity more generally teaches that Christ rose to heaven, though he also died first, of course; while Muslims teach that both Muhammad and Jesus ascended.
Immortality, these accounts remind us, is a miracle. Perhaps no more so than with Enoch, for those other examples concern the ascension of prophets and the messiah, but the lowly man of the seventh generation was just some guy. A quiet beauty to the account, for why did Enoch walk with God? What about Enoch was so agreeable to the Lord that He would take him? What cracked beauty is there in a human gifted the ability to see the universe in its resplendence, so that as concerns the stars, Enoch speaks in a voice of awe from the Book of Secrets that “Not even the angels see their number, yet I have recorded all their names.”
8.While writing theater reviews for the Dublin Evening Mail, a 28-year-old graduate of Trinity University named Abraham Stoker would be the unlikely author of a gushing fan letter sent on Valentine’s Day 1876 to an American poet with an address in the distinctly unglamorous locale of Camden, New Jersey. That wasn’t Stoker’s first attempt at writing to Walt Whitman; he’d penned an effusive, borderline-erotic missive some four years earlier but kept the epistle in his desk out of embarrassment, before finally sending the original with a new note of introduction.
“Do not think me cheeky for writing this,” Stoker, who now went by “Bram,” wrote in the new letter, but “I believe you will like it,” he said regarding his original message. Whitman is a “man who can write, as you have written, the most candid words that ever fell from the lips of a mortal man.” For Stoker, only 9 when Leaves of Grass was first printed (and as of then completely unknown in Britain or Ireland), Whitman had “shaken off the shackles and your wings are free.” With a tragic pathos still clear more than a century later, Stoker confesses (which has afforded no shortage of literary gossip) that “I have the shackles on my shoulders still—but I have no wings.”
As obsequious as Renfield, Stoker tells Whitman that “You are a true man, and I would like to be one myself, and so I would be towards you as a brother and as a pupil to his master.” Perhaps he was, as there is something almost vampiric in Whitman’s 1891 revision of his poem “Trickle Drops,” done a year before his death and six before his protégé would publish his most famous novel. “Trickle drops! my blue veins leaving!…drip bleeding drops, / From wounds made to free you when you were prison’d / From my face, from my forehead and lips, / my breast…Stain every page, stain every song I sing, every word I saw, bloody drops,” Whitman enthuses. Stoker’s titular character in Dracula concurs with the American bard: “The blood is the life!”
Strange to think of the consummate rugged individualist with his broad shoulders and his Old Testament beard as influencing Stoker, but as an unconventional bohemian, Whitman may have shared more with Dracula than has been supposed. Biographer Barbara Belford notes in Bram Stoker and the Man Who Was Dracula that “the vampire at times resembles Whitman. Each has long white hair, a heavy moustache, great height and strength, and a leonine bearing.” Perhaps less superficially, “Whitman’s poetry celebrates the voluptuousness of death and the deathlike quality of love.” Whitman, with the gleam of the vampire in his eyes, promises in his preface to Leaves of Grass that the “greatest poet…drags the dead out of their coffins and stands them again on their feet.”
Leaves of Grass is a work that enthuses about immortality, albeit more in the transcendentalist sense than in the vampiric one. “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,” Whitman writes, “And if there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it…All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, / And to die is different from what anyone supposed.” Whitman fully expected a metaphysical immortality whereby his very atoms mingle into the streams and stones, the rocks and the rambles. Admittedly a different type of immortality than that surmised by Stoker, yet he borrowed from Whitman the poet’s charged, fully realized, erotic, bohemian persona. The Irishman noted that Whitman was the “quintessential male,” and its hard not to see some of that projection onto Dracula.
The immediate historical influence for Dracula was the 15th-century Wallachian prince Vlad Tepes, more popularly known as the “Impaler” after his favored pastime. Eros and Thanatos again, a bit of sex and death in that nickname. Radu Florescu and Raymond T. McNally note in their classic In Search of Dracula that the “ruler notorious for mass impalements of his enemies…was in fact called Dracula in the fifteenth century, and we found that he even signed his name that way.” From Whitman, Stoker took the transcendent nature of immortality, and from Vlad the blessed violence, bound together in the transgressive, bohemian personality of the aesthete. Literary scholars Joanna Levin and Edward Whitley write in Whitman Among the Bohemians that from the “bohemians to contemporary hipsters, Whitman still commands center stage, providing an ever-magnetic focal point for countercultural self-fashionings,” something that any goth can tell you is true of Dracula as well. As a reader, Stoker is able to comprehend that Whitman’s celebration of immortality must by necessity also have its drawbacks, that the vampiric can’t help but pulse through any conception of life beyond the grave.
With the smallest sprout in mind, Stoker writes that it’s a “strange world, a sad world, a world full of miseries, and woes, and troubles.” Yet we can “all dance to the tune…Bleeding hearts, and dry bones of the churchyard, and tears that burns as they fall—all dance together to the music.” Immortality kindled in the space of human connection, our lives able to exist indefinitely through others. Dracula does this literally, sucking upon the blood of innocents, but we ideally all do it when we ingest the words of others, and respond in kind. Whitman wrote back to Stoker. “I am up and dress’d, and get out every day a little, live here quite lonesome, but hearty, and good spirits.” He concluded the letter with, “Write to me again.”
9.Many lines are on the CV of the biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey: graduate of Trinity College Cambridge with a Ph.D. awarded for his dissertation The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging; Fellow of the Gerontological Association of America, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology, and the American Aging Institute; adjunct professor at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, and most famously the chief science officer at the California-based Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. Added to that, under “Skills,” could be “Still Alive.” Don’t knock it as an entry; the vast majority of people who have ever lived can no longer claim the same. De Grey, whose name is almost ridiculously on the nose, would argue that “Still Alive” could be easily translated into “(Effectively) Immortal,” for the researcher claims that death is a terminal illness that will one day be preventable, and that any dismissiveness to that is a case of sublimated religious nostalgia.
He looks the part of an immortal, more prophet than scientist. With a long, tangled, greying auburn beard that is positively druidic, de Grey appears as if he were Merlin or Galahad, some Arthurian immortal. If anything, that epic beard calls to mind those who’ve joined us already—the good, grey bearded ruddy complexioned poet Whitman, and de Leon with his face burnt from the Florida sun with unshorn hair poking out from his metal cap; Enoch’s cascading white mane (or so one imagines) and Utnapishtim’s curled black beard hanging in plaits from his gaunt, severe face.
De Gray has an advantage over all of these men, and that’s that he is still alive (or even exists in the first place). That may, however, be his ultimate disadvantage, for unreality has a type of immortality that biology can’t approach. Of no concern to de Grey, writing alongside Michael Rae in Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs that Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime, he argues that his field is “inhibited by the deeply ingrained belief that aging was ‘natural’ and ‘inevitable,’ biogerentologists had set themselves apart from the rest of the biomedical community by allowing themselves to be overawed by the complexity of the phenomenon that they were observing.” Not without some justification, de Grey argues that aging and death are biological problems and thus have biological solutions.
Utnapishtim had his magic plant and de Leon his spring of rejuvenation, but for de Grey immortality was an issue of his “own idea for eliminating intercellular garbage like lipofuscin [combined with]…making mitochondrial mutations harmless…for addressing glycation, amyloid accumulation, cell loss, senescent cells and cancer.” When it comes to the hodgepodge of techno-utopians who fall under the broad term of “transhumanism,” de Grey is positively a traditionalist in that he’s still focused on these meat bags filled with blood, piss, shit, and phlegm. More radical transhumanists have gone digital, arguing that consciousness could be downloaded to computers, the eternal soul an issue of making sure that your files are backed up.
Engineer Ray Kurzweil is one such evangelist for the coming of robot-Jesus, when Artificial Intelligence will be able to assist in the downloading of your mind, and the resurrection of those who’ve already passed before us (through purely material, scientific, technological means of course). He writes in The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology that when that eschaton arrives (always in just a few decades), it will “allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains. We will gain power over our fates. Our mortality will be in our own hands. We will be able to live as long as we want.” Apparently, such a project is easier than halting climate change, or at least the hyper libertarian funders of such transhumanist schemes, from Elon Musk to Peter Thiel, would have you believe such. The desire for immortality is a deeply human one, but with the irony that its achievement would serve to eliminate the human entirely. Ask not for whom the computer chimes, simply upload your soul to the cloud.
10.About two weeks ago from the time of my writing, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced that the legislature was “moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry” of Donald J. Trump. Pelosi’s announcement was broadcast on all major networks, on PBS and MSNBC, CNN and (even) FOX. In a vacuum, electromagnetic radiation travels at 186,000 miles per second; Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity tells us that nothing may go faster. That means that this happy bit of news can be heard as far as 225,327,187,473.16 miles away, and counting, though unfortunately what’s in that space is mostly dust and rock. The closest star system to us is Alpha Centauri, which is a positively minuscule 4.37 light years away, meaning that for any lucky extraterrestrials there Barack Obama is still president.
In EZ Aquarii, they just heard President Obama’s acceptance address in Grant Park; any planets near Procyon will have just been informed of the 2008 financial collapse, and at LPP 944-020 they’re leaning of the invasion of Iraq. At MU Arae they’ve discovered that humans made the puny jump to the Moon (as well as listening to Abbey Road for the first time), HR 4864 just heard Walter Cronkite deliver the sad news about President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and Zeta Virginis is now aware that the Second World War is over. In just a little less than a decade, assuming that such weak electromagnetic waves hadn’t been absorbed by the dust and rock that reigns supreme in interstellar space, Guglielmo Marconi’s first transatlantic radio broadcast of the letter “s” repeatedly tapped out in Morse code would be arriving at K2-18b, a massive “super-earth” exoplanet some 120 light years away.
Earth is surrounded by an electromagnetic halo, our missives in radio and light that grow ever weaker with distance, but which send our thoughts ever further into interstellar space with every passing year. Music, entertainment, news, communication, all of it sent out like so many dandelion spores into the reaches of the black cosmos. The continual thrum of that pulsating meaning—what Whitman could have described as “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking, / Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle”—a record of our having been here that can never be erased, though it’s ambiguous if there is anyone out there to listen. “O rising stars!” Whitman wrote, “Perhaps… [I] will rise with some of you,” an offering made up in a frequency between 88MHz-108Mhz. There is an immortality, disembodied and ethereal, that does turn to be out in the heavens—just in a form that may have been difficult for Enoch to imagine.
A harder chunk of our finality exists out there as well, the Golden Record included on both of the Voyager 1 and Voyager II spacecraft launched by NASA, which having passed into interstellar space beyond our solar system in respectively 2012 and 2018 are the furthest things that have ever been touched by human hands. Conceived of by the astrophysicist Carl Sagan, the Golden Record is a phonographic LP encoded with both images and a little under six and a half hours of sounds, meant to express our sheer enormity. For any extraterrestrials that should happen to find the record—Voyager 1 is about 40,000 years out from Gliese 445—Sagan and his committee’s record may serve as the only tangible example of our eternity, our only vehicle for immortality. In being able to select the contents of such a canon, Sagan is arguably the most influential human to ever live.
Any future listeners will be able to hear pianist Glen Gould’s transcendent interpretation of Johan Sebastian Bach’s mathematically perfect Brandenburg Concerto, the mournful cry of blues-singer Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground,” the Bavarian State Orchestra playing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Chuck Berry absolutely shredding it on “Johnny B. Goode.” Sagan reminisces in Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space that “any alien ship that finds it will have another standard by which to judge us.” Astronomer Jim Bell writes in The Interstellar Age: The Story of the NASA Men and Women Who Flew the Forty-Year Voyager Mission that “If the messages aboard the Voyagers ended up being the last surviving artifacts of our world, they would signify the brighter sigh of human nature…[we] wanted to send out sign of our hopes, not our regrets.” Unless Voyager 1 or 2 should slam into some random star or fall into a hidden blackhole, unless some bit of flotsam should smash it up or some wayward creature should use it for target practice, both probes will continue unimpeded for a very long time. Space being mostly empty, their lifespans will be such that they’re effectively immortal.
Fifty-thousand years from now, after climate change renders us extinct, the interglacial period will end and a new ice age will descend on Earth. In two million years, the coral reefs of the world will have had time to recover from ocean acidification. Sixty million years from now, and the Canadian Rockies will have eroded away. Geologists predict that all of the Earth’s continents will coalesce into a supercontinent 250 million years from now. Five hundred million years in the future they’ll have separated again. A little more than a billion years from now, and stellar fluctuations will increase temperatures so that the oceans will be boiled away. In 1.6 billion years the last of our friends the prokaryotes will most likely be extinct. By 7.59 billion years, the sun will reach its Red Giant phase, and what remains of the Earth will most likely fall into our star. Through all of that, slowly moving along in blackness, will be the Golden Record. “Better was it to go unknown and leave behind you an arch, a potting shed, a wall where peaches ripen, than to burn like a meteor and leave no dust,” Woolf wrote. Voyager, however, leaves dust, no matter how scant.
Our solar system will be dead, but somewhere you’ll still be able to hear Ludwig von Beethoven’s Symphony Number 5 in C Minor. Sagan’s satellite is as if Ashurbanipal’s library was buried in the desert of space. As these things have moved us, perhaps somehow, someway they will move minds that have yet to exist. In a lonely universe, the only immortality is in each other, whomever we may be. Included within the Golden Record are a series of sentences in various languages, including Akkadian. Only 19 seconds into the record, and for billions of years listeners may hear a human speaking in the language of Utnapishtim, delivering the benediction that “May all be very well.”
“And can you then impute a sinful deed/To babes who on their mothers’ bosoms bleed?” —Voltaire, “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster” (1755)
“God is a concept/By which we measure our pain.” —John Lennon, “God” (1970)
The monks of the Convent of Our Lady of Mount Carmel would have shortly finished their Terce morning prayers of the Canonical hours, when an earthquake struck Lisbon, Portugal, on All Saints Day in 1755. A fantastic library was housed at the convent, more than 5,000 volumes of St. Augustin and St. Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure and Albertus Magnus, all destroyed as the red-tiled roof of the building collapsed. From those authors there had been endless words produced addressing theodicy, the question of evil, and specifically how and why an omniscient and omnibenevolent God would allow such malevolent things to flourish. Both Augustin and Aquinas affirmed that evil had no positive existence in its own right, that it was merely the absence of good in the way that darkness is the absence of light. The ancient Church Father Irenaeus posited that evil is the result of human free will, and so even natural disaster was due to the affairs of women and men. By the 18th century, a philosopher like Gottfried Leibnitz (too Lutheran and too secular for the monks of Carmo) would optimistically claim that evil is an illusion, for everything that happens is in furtherance of a divine plan whereby ours is the “best of all possible worlds,” even in Lisbon on November 1, 1755. On that autumn day in the Portuguese capital, the supposedly pious of the Carmo Convent were faced with visceral manifestations of that question of theodicy in a city destroyed by tremor, water, and flame.
No more an issue of scholastic abstraction, of syllogistic aridness, for in Lisbon perhaps 100,000 of the monks’ fellow subjects would die in what was one of the most violent earthquakes ever recorded. Death marked the initial collapse of the houses, palaces, basilicas, and cathedrals, in the tsunami that pushed in from the Atlantic and up the Tagus River, in the fires that ironically resulted from the preponderance of votive candles lit to honor the holy day, and in the pestilence that broke out among the debris and filth of the once proud capital. Lisbon was the seat of a mighty Catholic empire, which had spread the faith as far as Goa, India, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; its inhabitants were adherents to stern Iberian Catholicism, and the clergy broached no heresy in the kingdom. Yet all of that faith and piety appeared to make no difference to the Lord; for the monks of the Carmo Convent who survived their home’s destruction, their plaintive cry might as well have been that of Christ’s final words upon the cross in the Book of Matthew: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
Christ may have been the Son of God, but with his dying words he was also a master of intertextual allusion, for his concluding remarks are a quotation of another man, the righteous gentile from the land of Uz named Job. If theodicy is the one insoluble problem of monotheism, the viscerally felt and empirically verifiable reality of pain and suffering in a universe supposedly divine, then Job remains the great brief for those of us who feel like God has some explaining to do. Along with other biblical wisdom literature like Ecclesiastes or Song of Songs, Job is one of those scriptural books that can sometimes appear as if some divine renegade snuck it into the canon. What Job takes as its central concern is the reality described by journalist Peter Trachtenberg in his devastating The Book of Calamities: Five Questions about Suffering, when he writes that “Everybody suffers: War, sickness, poverty, hunger, oppression, prison, exile, bigotry, loss, madness, rape, addiction, age, loneliness.” Job is what happens when we ask about why those things are our lot with an honest but broken heart.
I’ve taught Job to undergraduates before, and I’ve sometimes been surprised by their lack of shock when it comes to what’s disturbing about the narrative. By way of synopsis, the book tells the story of a man whom the poem makes clear is unassailably righteous, and how Satan, in his first biblical appearance (and counted as a son of God to boot), challenges the Creator, maintaining that Job’s piety is only a result of his material and familiar well-being. The deity answers the devil’s charge by letting the latter physically and psychologically torture blameless Job, so as to demonstrate that the Lord’s human servant would never abjure Him. In Bar-Ilan University bible professor Edward Greenstein’s masterful Job: A New Translation, the central character is soberly informed that “Your sons and your daughters were eating and drinking wine in/the house of their brother, the firstborn,/When here: a great wind came from across the desert;/it affected the four corners of the house;/it fell on the young people and they died.”—and the final eight words of the last line convey in their simplicity the defeated and personal nature of the tragedy. Despite the decimation of Job’s livestock, the death of his children, the rejection of his wife, and finally the contraction of an unsightly and painful skin ailment (perhaps boils), “Job did not commit-a-sin – /he did not speak insult” against God.
Job didn’t hesitate to speak against his own life, however. He bemoans his own birth, wishing the very circumstances that his life could be erased, declaring “Let the day disappear, the day I was born, /And the night that announced: A man’s been conceived!” Sublimely rendered in both their hypocrisy and idiocy are three “friends” (a later interpolation that is the basis of the canonical book adds a fourth) who come to console Job, but in the process they demonstrate the inadequacy of any traditional theodicy in confronting the nature of why awful things frequently happen to good people. Eliphaz informs Job that everything, even the seemingly evil, takes part in God’s greater and fully good plan, that the Lord “performs great things too deep to probe, /wondrous things, beyond number.” The sufferer’s interlocutor argues, as Job picks at his itchy boils with a bit of pottery, perhaps remembering the faces of his dead children when they were still infants, that God places “the lowly up high, /So the stooped attain relief.” Eliphaz, of whom we know nothing other than that he speaks like a man who has never experienced loss, is the friend whom counsels us that everything works out in the end even when we’re at our child’s funeral.
Bildad, on the other hand, takes a different tact, arguing that if Job’s sons “committed a sin against him, /He has dispatched them for their offense,” the victim-blaming logic that from time immemorial has preferred to ask what the raped was wearing rather than why the rapist rapes. Zophar angrily supports the other two, and the latecomer Elihu emphasizes God’s mystery and Job’s impudence to question it. To all of these defenses of the Lord, Job responds that even “were I in the right, his mouth would condemn me. /(Even) were I innocent, he would wrong me… It is all the same. /And so, I declare:/The innocent and the guilty he brings to (the same) end.” In an ancient world where it’s taken as a matter of simple retributive ethics that God will punish the wicked and reward the just, Job’s realism is both more world-weary and more humane than the clichés offered by his fair-weather friends. “Why do the wicked live on and live well,/Grow old and gain in power and wealth?” asks Job, and from 500 BCE unto 2019 that remains the central question of ethical theology. As concerns any legitimate, helpful, or moving answer from his supposed comforters, Greenstein informs us that “They have nothing to say.”
Finally, in the most dramatic and figuratively adept portion of the book, God Himself arrives from a whirlwind to answer the charges of Job’s “lawsuit” (as Greenstein renders the disputation). The Lord never answers Job’s demand to know why he has been forced to suffer, rather answering in non-sequitur about his own awesomeness, preferring to rhetorically answer the pain of a father who has buried his children by asking “Where were you when I laid earth’s foundations?/Tell me – if you truly know wisdom!/Who set its dimensions? Do you know? /Who stretched the measuring line?… Have you ever reached the sources of Sea, /And walked on the bottom of Ocean?” God communicates in the rhetoric of sarcastic grandeur, mocking Job by saying “You must know… Your number of days is so many!” Of course, Job had never done any of those things, but an unempathetic God also can’t imagine what it would be like to have a Son die—at least not yet. That gets ahead of ourselves, and a reader can’t help but notice that for all of His poetry from the whirlwind, and all of His frustration at the intransigent questioning of Job, the Lord never actually answers why such misfortune has befallen this man. Rather God continually emphasizes His greatness to Job’s insignificance, His power to Job’s feebleness, His eternity to Job’s transience.
The anonymous author’s brilliance is deployed in its dramatic irony, for even if Job doesn’t know why he suffers, we know. Greenstein explains that readers “know from the prologue that Job’s afflictions derive from the deity’s pride, not from some moral calculus.” Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu can pontificate about the unknowability of God’s reasons while Job is uncertain as to if he’s done anything wrong that merits such treatment, but the two omniscient figures in the tale—God and the reader—know why the former did what He did. Because the Devil told him to. Finally, as if acknowledging His own culpability, God “added double to what Job had had,” which means double the livestock, and double the children. A cruelty in that, the grieving father expected to have simply replaced his dead family with a newer, shinier, fresher, and most of all alive brood. And so, both Job and God remain silent for the rest of the book. In the ordering of the Hebrew scriptures, God remains silent for the rest of the Bible, so that when “Job died old and sated with days” we might not wonder if it isn’t the deity Himself who has expired, perhaps from shame. The wisdom offered in the book of Job is the knowledge that justice is sacred, but not divine; so that justice must ours, meaning that our responsibility to each other is all the more important.
Admittedly an idiosyncratic take on the work, and one that I don’t wish to project onto Greenstein. But the scholar does argue that a careful philological engagement with the original Hebrew renders the story far more radical than has normally been presented. Readers of Job have normally been on the side of his sanctimonious friends, and especially the Defendant who arrives out of His gassy whirlwind, but the author of Job is firmly on the side of the plaintiff. If everyone from medieval monks to the authors of Midrash, from Sunday school teachers to televangelists, have interpreted Job as being about the inscrutability of God’s plans and the requirement that we passively take our undeserved pain as part of providence, than Greenstein writes that “there is a very weak foundation in biblical parlance for the common rendering.” He argues that “much of what has passed as translation of Job is facile and fudged,” having been built upon the accumulated exegetical detritus of centuries rather than returning to the Aleph, Bet, and Gimmel of Job itself.
Readers of a more independent bent have perhaps detected sarcasm in Job’s response, or a dark irony in God’s restitution of new and better replacement children for the ones that He let Satan murder. For my fellow jaundiced and cynical heretics who long maintained that Job still has some fight in him even after God emerges from the whirlwind to chastise Him for daring to question the divine plan, Greenstein has good news. Greenstein writes that the “work is not mainly about what you thought it was; it is more subversive than you imagined; and it ends in a manner that glorifies the best in human values.” He compares a modern translation of Job 42:6, where Job speaks as a penitent before the Lord, exclaiming “Therefore I despise myself/and repent in dust and ashes.” Could be clearer–>Such a message seems straightforward—because he questions the divine plan, Job hates himself, and is appropriately humbled. Yet Greenstein contrasts the modern English with a more accurate version based in an Aramaic text found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, where the man of Uz more ambiguously says “Therefore I am poured out and boiled up, and I will become dust.” This isn’t a declaration of surrender; this is an acknowledgement of loss. Greenstein explains that while both the rabbis and the Church wished to see Job repentant and in surrender, that’s not what the original presupposes. Rather, “Job is parodying God, not showing him respect. If God is all about power and not morality and justice, Job will not condone it through acceptance.” Thus, when we write that the book’s subject is judging God, we should read the noun as the object and not the subject of that sentence.
As a work, the moral universe of Job is complex; when compared to other ancient near Eastern works that are older, even exemplary ones like Gilgamesh, its ambiguities mark it as a work of poetic sophistication. Traditionally dated from the period about a half-millennium before the Common Era, Job is identified with the literature of the Babylonian Exile, when the Jews had been conquered and forcibly extricated to the land of the Euphrates. Such historical context is crucial in understanding Job’s significance, for the story of a righteous man who suffered for no understandable reason mirrored the experience of the Jews themselves, while Job’s status as a gentile underscored a dawning understanding that God was not merely a deity for the Israelites, but that indeed his status was singular and universal. When the other gods are completely banished from heaven, however, and the problem of evil rears its horned head, for when the Lord is One, who then must be responsible for our unearned pain?
Either the most subversive or the most truthful of scriptural books (maybe both), Job has had the power to move atheist and faithful alike, evidence for those who hate God and anxious warning for those that love Him. Former Jesuit Jack Miles enthuses in God: A Biography, that “exegetes have often seen the Book of Job as the self-refutation of the entire Judeo-Christian tradition.” Nothing in the canon of Western literature, be it Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex or William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, quite achieves the dramatic pathos of Job. Consider its terrors, its ambiguities, its sense of injustice, and its impartation that “our days on earth are a shadow.” Nothing written has ever achieved such a sense of universal tragedy. After all, the radicalism of the narrative announces itself, for Job concerns itself with the time that God proverbially sold his soul to Satan in the service of torturing not just an innocent man, but a righteous one. And that when questioned on His justification for doing such a thing, the Lord was only able to respond by reiterating His own power in admittedly sublime but ultimately empty poetry. For God’s answer of theodicy to Job is not an explanation of how, but not an explanation of why—and when you’re left to scrape boils off your self with a pottery shard after your 10 children have died in a collapsing house, that’s no explanation at all.
With Greenstein’s translation, we’re able to hear Job’s cry not in his native Babylonian, or the Hebrew of the anonymous poet who wrote his tale, or the Aramaic of Christ crucified on Golgotha, or even the stately if antiquated early modern English of the King James Version, but rather in a fresh, contemporary, immediate vernacular that makes the tile character’s tribulations our own. Our Job is one who can declare “I am fed up,” and something about the immediacy of that declaration makes him our contemporary in ways that underscore the fact that billions are his proverbial sisters and brothers. Greenstein’s accomplishment makes clear a contention that is literary, philosophical, and religious: that the Book of Job is the most sublime masterpiece of monotheistic faith, because what its author says is so exquisitely rendered and so painfully true. Central to Greenstein’s mission is a sense of restoration. This line needs to be clearer: Job is often taught and preached as simply being about humanity’s required humility before the divine, and the need to prostrate ourselves before a magnificent God whose reasons are inscrutable.
By restoring Job its status as a subversive classic, Greenstein does service to the worshiper and not the worshiped, to humanity and not our oppressors. Any work of translation exists in an uneasy stasis between the original and the
adaptation, a one-sided negotiation across millennia where the original author has no say. My knowledge of biblical Hebrew is middling at best, so I’m not suited to speak towards the transgressive power of whomever the anonymous poet of Job was, but regardless of what those words chosen by her or him were, I can speak to Greenstein’s exemplary poetic sense. At its core, part of what makes this version of Job so powerful is how it exists in contrast to those English versions we’ve encountered before, from the sublime plain style of King James to the bubblegum of the Good News Bible. Unlike those traditional translations, the words “God” and “Lord,” with their associations of goodness, appear nowhere in this translation. Rather Greenstein keeps the original “Elohim” (which I should point out is plural), or the unpronounceable,
vowelless tetragrammaton, rendered as “YHWH.” Job is made new through the deft use of the literary technique known as defamiliarization, making that which is familiar once again strange (and thus all the more radical and powerful).
Resurrecting the lightning bolt that is Job’s poetry does due service to the original. Job’s subject is not just theodicy, but the failures of poetry itself. When Job defends himself against the castigation of Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu, it’s not just a theological issue, but a literary critical one as well. The suffering man condemns their comforts and callousness, but also their clichés. That so much of what his supposed comforters draw from are biblical books like Psalms and Proverbs testifies to Job’s transgressive knack for scriptural self-reflection. As a poet, the author is able to carefully display exactly what she or he wishes to depict, an interplay between the presented and hidden that has an uncanny magic. When the poet writes that despite all of Job’s tribulations, “Job did not commit-a-sin with his lips,” it forces us to ask if he committed sin in his heart and his head, if his soul understandably screamed out at God’s injustice while his countenance remained pious. This conflict between inner and outer appearance is the logic of the novelist, a type of interiority that we associate more with Gustave Flaubert or Henry James than we do with the Bible.
When it comes to physical detail, the book is characteristically minimalist. Like most biblical writing, the author doesn’t present much of a description of either God or Satan, though that makes their presentation all the more eerie and disturbing. When God asks Satan where he has been, the arch-adversary responds “From roving the earth and going all about it.” Satan’s first introduction in all of Western literature, for never before was that word used for the singular character, thus brings with it those connotations of ranging, stalking, and creeping that have so often accrued about the reptilian creature who is always barely visible out of the corner of our eyes. Had we been given more serpentine exposition on the character, cloven hooves and forked tales, it would lack the unsettling nature of what’s actually presented. But when the author wants to be visceral, she or he certainly can be. Few images are as enduring in their immediacy than how Job “took a potsherd with which to scratch himself as he sits in/the ash-heap.” His degradation, his tribulation, his shame still resonates 2,500 years later.
The trio (and later the quartet) of Job’s judgmental colleagues render theodicy as a poetry of triteness, while Job’s poetics of misery is commensurate with the enormity of his fate. “So why did you take me out of the womb?” he demands of God, “Would I had died, with no eye seeing me!/Would I had been as though I had been;/Would I had been carried from womb to tomb”—here Greenstein borrowing a favored rhyming congruence from the arsenal of English’s Renaissance metaphysical poets. Eliphaz and Elihu offer maudlin bromides, but Job can describe those final things with a proficiency that shows how superficial his friends are. Job fantasizes about death as a place “I go and do not return, /To a land of darkness and deep-shade;/A land whose brightness is like pitch-black, /Deep-shade and disorder;/That shines like pitch-black.” That contradictory image, of something shining in pitch-black, is an apt definition of God Himself, who while He may be master of an ordered, fair, and just universe in most of the Bible, in Job He is creator of a “fundamentally amoral world,” as Greenstein writes.
If God from the whirlwind provides better poetry than his defenders could, His theology is just as empty and callous. Greenstein writes that “God barely touches on anything connected to justice or the providential care of humanity,” and it’s precisely the case that for all of His literary power, the Lord dodges the main question. God offers description of the universe’s creation, and the maintenance of all things that order reality, he conjures the enormities of size and time, and even provides strangely loving description of his personal pets, the fearsome hippopotamus Behemoth and the terrifying whale/alligator Leviathan. Yet for all of that detail, exquisitely rendered, God never actually answers Job. Bildad or Elihu would say that God has no duty to explain himself to a mere mortal like Job, that the man of Uz deserves no justification for his punishment in a life that none of us ever chose to begin. That, however, obscures the reality that even if Job doesn’t know the reasons behind what happened, we certainly know.
Greenstein’s greatest contribution is making clear that not only does God not answer Job’s pained query, but that the victim knows that fact. And he rejects it. Job answers God with “I have spoken once and I will not repeat…I will (speak) no more.” If God answers with hot air from the whirlwind, the soon-to-be-restored Job understands that silent witness is a more capable defense against injustice, that quiet is the answer to the whims of a capricious and cruel Creator. God justifies Himself by bragging about His powers, but Job tells him “I have known you are able to do all;/That you cannot be blocked from any scheme.” Job has never doubted that God has it within his power to do the things that have been done, rather he wishes to understand why they’ve been done, and all of the beautiful poetry marshaled from that whirlwind can’t do that. The Creator spins lines and stanzas as completely as He once separated the night from the day, but Job covered in his boils could care less. “As a hearing by ear I have heard you,” the angry penitent says, “And now my eye has seen you. That is why I am fed up.”
Traditional translations render the last bit so as to imply that a repentant Job has taken up dust and ashes in a pose of contrition, but the language isn’t true to the original. More correct, Greenstein writes, to see Job as saying “I take pity on ‘dust and ashes,’” that Job’s sympathy lay with humanity, that Job stands not with God but with us. Job hated not God, but rather His injustice. Such a position is the love of everybody else. Miles puts great significance in the fact that the last time the deity speaks (at least according to the ordering of books in the Hebrew Scriptures) is from the whirlwind. According to Miles, when the reality of Job’s suffering is confronted by the empty beauty of the Lord’s poetry, a conclusion can be drawn: “Job has won. The Lord has lost.” That God never speaks to man again (at least in the ordering of the Hebrew Scriptures) is a type of embarrassed silence, and for Miles the entirety of the Bible is the story of how humanity was able to overcome God, to overcome our need of God. Job is, in part, about the failure of beautiful poetry when confronted with loss, with pain, with horror, with terror, with evil. After Job there can be no poetry. But if Job implies that there can be no poetry, it paradoxically still allows for prayer. Job in his defiance of God teaches us a potent form of power, that dissent is the highest form of prayer, for what could possibly take the deity more seriously? In challenging, castigating, and criticizing the Creator, Job fulfills the highest form of reverence that there possibly can be.
Image credit: Unsplash/Aaron Burden.
When asked, Marlon James is hard-pressed to name his favorite story. It’s admittedly a nearly impossible request to make of anyone, and surely more so of a novelist, whose trade relies so deeply on both intake and telling, however tangled, of tales. Unable to name just one, James improvised.
“My favorite stories usually tend to be stories about voyages, whether it’s The Odyssey or it’s ‘Sinbad’ or it’s Huckleberry Finn,” he said. “If John Gardner is right and there are only two kinds of stories, ‘a stranger comes to town’ or ‘people go on a trip,’ then I’m definitely into the ‘people go on a trip’ kind of stories. I’ve always liked journeys, journeys where people meet sea monsters, or human monsters. There’s something about people leaving everything they know and going into what they don’t know where you actually learn a lot about people.”
Pondering the significance of the journey, be it a principled quest or spiritual pilgrimage or merely a pleasant jaunt, is a perennial human occupation. And this week marks the publication, by Riverhead Books, of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first book in James’s Dark Star trilogy—a decidedly non-European medieval fantasy appropriately billed as an “African Game of Thrones” and, more recently, racking up comparisons to last year’s Marvel superhero blockbuster Black Panther—which fits into a long tradition of stories built around a great voyage, even as it is unafraid to challenge the conventions of that tradition.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is, in essence, the tale of a ragtag group of mercenaries seeking a missing boy who might be the heir to the throne of an empire spanning a large stretch of a fantastic medieval Africa. It is narrated by a man known only as Tracker, who is said to “have a nose”; his extraordinary sense of smell lets him track nearly anyone whose scent he has ever sniffed. Tracker and his on-and-off allies—among whom are a leopard who can shape-shift into a man’s body and back, a small giant, a Moon Witch, and an intelligent water buffalo—follow the boy from city to city, through stretches of dangerous, often mystical wilderness. Their hope is to bring him back alive, or to at least bring back news of his demise.
Many pieces of the novel’s plot will feel as familiar to readers of the Icelandic sagas or the Epic of Gilgamesh or Arthurian legend as it will to fans of speculative fiction properties from the likes of George R.R. Martin, Ursula K. Le Guin, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George Lucas, as they should. This is a hero’s journey, after all, even if its protagonist might not always seem heroic, and if the mythologist Joseph Campbell had been alive to read it, he’d be hard-pressed to disagree. Yet some might feel quite different, rooted as they are in settings and cultures that many, if not most, American readers, who remain unfortunately accustomed to fantasies set primarily in worlds of whiteness, have rarely, if ever, encountered.
Adding to this sense of newness is an intricacy James’s novels have become famous for sporting. For starters, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is only one of three books which will each tell the same overarching story from three separate perspectives, a technique evoking celebrated Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s seminal short story “In a Grove” and, more famously internationally, its film adaptation by Akira Kurosawa, Rashōmon. As such, it is an investigation into truth, and the more each “truth” the novel and its characters bear is held to the light, the slipperier or knottier (or both) it becomes. As James writes, truth is “a shifting, slithering thing.”
This proves to be the case from the get-go. “The child is dead,” reads the book’s first line. “There is nothing left to know.” What follows is…everything left to know. It proves true too in James’s pyrotechnic language, often so elliptical as to feel intoxicatingly dizzying.
It proves true even in the novel’s creation, it seems. The text in advance reading copies was markedly different from what was in final copies of the book, as James made significant changes to the story following the printing of the galley. (Some of those changes, he said, involved adding some 15,000 words to imbue its women characters, and their stories, with more depth.)
When James first began work on the book, the story started as a “stranger comes to town” narrative before changing its course. He starts writing characters first, “which can be very frustrating, because I don’t know what their story is.” The characters, he said, “just won’t leave my head alone.” Eventually, though, the story comes. “It’s always important to me, when I’m writing a book, that these characters have a pre-novel life,” he said. “When I figured out why these characters were here and what mystery they had to solve, I knew they would leave home and everything they knew. But I didn’t know when I started it.”
At first, James also did not know that Tracker would become its main character. And, in the next book, he won’t be. That novel will hold someone else’s story—that of the Moon Witch, Sogolon.
“When I really started to think of this novel and how much I wanted it to divert from what I usually read in all the fantasy books I like, Tracker just came to the fore,” James said. “For want of a better way of phrasing it, I didn’t want to write a fantasy novel about important people. I didn’t want to write a fantasy novel starring nobles and kings, although they all end up in it. No, I wanted it to start in the street.”
That’s a common theme in James’s work, and exemplary, he said, of his writing process. Often, he will actively turn his focus toward a character he “hadn’t thought twice about” and, as he puts it, “look at everything I have and do the opposite or the reverse or pick the least important character.” As an analogy, he mentions photos of basketball players doing a slam dunk: “I always wonder, who’s that guy way off in a corner who was frowning at it? Who’s the bit player in the great shot? I want to know their story. That’s always happened to me. When I’m starting something, it’s the people in the margins that I notice over in the corner of my eye.”
James lives alternately in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he teaches at Macalester College, and an apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but also keeps an office in the attic of Camp Cedar Pines, author John Wray’s brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which Wray has turned into something of a writers colony. It’s fairly spare, with an elliptical in the corner next to a blocky gray couch and a desk in the center of the room facing a wide glass window. As with most writers’ offices, it’s filled with stories, which is to say it’s filled with books.
Next to James’s desk, a single-volume version of Amos Tutuola’s novels The Palm Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts lies on the floor, and a stack nearby houses Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents and two academic books from 5 Continents Editions’ Visions of Africa series, Arthur P. Bourgeois’s Yaka and David A. Binkley and Patricia Darish’s Kuba. In another pile near the desk, the Icelandic Elder Edda, the Saga of the Volsungs, and Beowulf sit atop William Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Fran Ross’s novel Oreo, and two more scholarly texts, Brian M. Fagan and Roland Oliver’s Africa in the Iron Age and Richard W. Hull’s African Cities and Towns Before European Conquest, both published by white scholars in the 1970s.
The solitary nature of a writer’s office is strange to James, despite having a room dedicated to writing in each of his homes and this office at Cedar Pines—which, sitting as it does down the hall and above the quarters of a number of other writers, does allow for a little bit more company. Growing up in Jamaica, James said, he was surrounded by the noise of his family and community, and it was in that environment that he first learned to work. (It does not hurt that James is as insatiable a music listener as he is a reader; he mentions Alice Coltrane and Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis’s acid jazz albums, and the kora music of Toumani Diabaté, among many others, as being influential while he wrote this book.)
The novel itself replicates that noise, filled as it is with a motley of characters carrying their own passions, missions, fights to fight, sex to have, and tales to tell. The cities in Black Leopard, Red Wolf bustle, but so do the riverlands and the bush and the jungles—with humans, but also with giants, shapeshifters, demons, vampires with the power of lightning, bush fairies, merpeople, river spirits, gremlins, trolls, and flesh-eating monsters.
While James’s portrayal of mythological beings is distinctly African, the majority of these creatures appear in folklores all across the world. In a way, this allows the novel, which is such a paean to African history and culture and folklore, to double as an exhortation to fantasy readers: be drawn in by what is similar, and stay for what is unique. Or: Don’t stop at Tolkien and the Odyssey. Read Marlon James and the tale of Mansa Musa, The Lion of Mali, too.
The difficulty, as James makes clear, is that many stories of African peoples have only been available in the American and European markets in texts aimed at academia. Their authors, translators, and editors, almost invariably, are white academics. One major result of this is a lack of public awareness that leads to a perception of an inferiority of those stories, that James says just is not the case.
“Looking at the most recent translation projects of African epics, there’s been some really good work that’s been done,” James said. “The issue with a lot of those translations is that they weren’t translated by poets. They were translated for the academy. Which will lead people to think that these stories, these epics, are inferior to, say, the Icelandic sagas. No they’re not. I’ll bet anything the Odyssey wasn’t shit until a poet translated it.”
Until, that is, a poet retold its story. But with Black Leopard, Red Wolf, there’s no need to wait for the right translator. James is the teller, and Tracker, and Sogolon, and so many others. He, and they, have got a journey right here.
This profile was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and originally appeared on publishersweekly.com.
Cotton Mather, third-generation New England Puritan divine, wrote in his 1721 pamphlet India Christiana that “we have now seen the Sun Rising in the West.” Mather’s conceit was allegorical, yet an aspect of poetry’s power is its refusal to let you forget the implications of the literal. In a fascinating bit of ecumenical consilience, an Islamic Hadith agrees with Mather that Judgment Day awaits for when “the sun rises from the West.” Both demand their hypotheticals. A westerly dawn, the blood-skied evening transposed to morning, would be such a strange sight that one wonders if the human mind would even be able to initially comprehend what was seen. An apocalypse of the subtle unexpected.
Mather’s vision inspired my dissertation and would dominate the better part of a decade for me. The western dawn was striking to me, so arresting, that my reasons for that academic work flowed from this origin (even if the process was far from uncomplicated). Justifications for what one studies are always personal, but from that one line I built a personal cottage industry of bringing up Mather in incongruous circumstances, a familiarity with the stodgy, pudgy, wig-bedecked Calvinist I wouldn’t have anticipated.
A dissertation is normally a method of working through some stuff. For me, among other things, I was working through sunsets. Technically I was writing about early modern representations of western migration, but I was really chasing the sun. Dusk feels like weight to me, when apprehension and beauty are comingled, an hour that prefigures death. I would cite Barbara Lewalski on Protestant poetics and Leo Marx on technology and the pastoral; Louise Martz on medieval traces in Renaissance lyrics, and Sacvan Bercovitch on Puritanism, but fundamentally all of that was just filler. I simply wanted a method to approach the dusk.
I’ve not been particularly drawn to Jack Kerouac since high school: With maturity, that affection fades. Still, On the Road has some beautiful passages, such as Kerouac’s description of a southwestern sunset: “Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.” Kerouac can be florid (what are these “Spanish mysteries?”), and he inserted four references to wine in just one sentence. There is something to that comparison though, making explicit the strange intoxication of the sun as it collapses from the sky. A sunset can be both joyful and dangerous. If the witching hour is when ghouls stalk the earth, then the gloaming period is reserved for those creatures called duende in Spanish, that vital mystery which Federica García Lorca claimed is impregnable within “everything that has darkness” in it. Pablo Neruda wrote that “I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, / in secret, between the shadow and the soul.” Dusk is the hour of encroaching darkness and shadows; it’s when souls are most solid. Those are maybe the Spanish mysteries which Kerouac intuited. Describing a sunset is difficult, better to describe something else ineffable, like love or a shadow.
Kshudiram Saha in The Earth’s Atmosphere: Its Physics and Dynamics provides a soberer explanation of sunsets, writing that the intensity of a sunset is correlated to several different factors, including the process of the scattering, reflection, and absorption of light related to the size of the “particulate matter that may be suspended in the atmosphere” where “the degree of scattering depends upon the size of the molecules of particulars compares to the wavelength of the incident beam.” Saha explains that “light scattered is inversely proportional to the fourth power of the wavelength of the incident beam,” so that at sunset the “sky turns yellow or red because most of the blue is scattered away and lost” having to now pass through a “much thicker and denser layer of the atmosphere.”
Sunsets, with their panoply of blues, bouquets of yellows, bushels of oranges, and engulfment of reds, will move through a specified choreography as the earth passes from day to night. Such is the anatomizing of twilight, so that when the sun is only 6 degrees below the horizon and dusk’s sky is the color of a robin’s egg we call it “civil twilight,” when it’s 12 degrees and the color of the wine-dark sea we refer to it as “nautical dusk,” and when it’s at it’s darkest before night’s blackness, dyed that color of perfect blue which is called “tekhelt” in biblical Hebrew, the color of the garment fringes for the High Priests dwelling in the Temple’s tabernacle, we call it “astronomical dusk.”
Painters are drawn to the golden hour, when solar light is evenly distributed and the Earth seems to softly glow. Claude Monet was particularly obsessed with how light diffuses through “particulate matter” (as Saha would put it). Monet explored shadow and sun as shifted across both seasons and hours. A striking portrayal of dusk is his 1904 Waterloo Bridge, London, at Sunset. In Monet’s painting, a hazy, blueish bridge disappears into abstraction. Particulars are subsumed into the melting glow of the polluted city at twilight, yet what luminescence refracts off said particulate matter! At twilight faces disappear, buildings and mountains become occluded, and the universe erases nature from our vision. Monet composed “a hymn to fleeting time,” as Carol Strickland explains in Impressionism: A Legacy of Light—an artistry whereby “One paints an impression of an hour of a day.” Monet calls forth that heavy hour, when in late summer there can be a stillness, and in many places (though not perhaps London) there is the intensity of insect shriek through the atmosphere.
Monet’s younger contemporary Edvard Munch depicted a different persona of the dusk in his celebrated, copied, imitated, parodied painting The Scream. Composed in four different versions, Munch’s indelible image of a contorted, wavy, abstracted man on an Oslo bridge screaming in mask-like pantomime is replicated in dorm rooms posters and on countless kitschy museum gift shop objects, from neckties to pillows. The Scream captures not just the beauty of dusk, but the horror; not just the solar grandeur, but the intimations of extinction implicit in any good sunset. As his fellow melancholic Norwegian, the contemporary author Karl Ove Knausgaard, notes in his preface to the Gary Garrels- and Jon-Ove Steihaug-edited Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed, when viewing the works of Munch, one feels the need to exclaim “here was emotion, here was the abyss, here was the angst.” Knausgaard argues that even though “So much in our culture is rational,” we ultimately “have no words for the simplest of things,” including a fiery red sunset in late August. For Munch, the sky is nothing so much as coagulated blood coughed up into a sink.
When considering sunsets, it’s hard not to invoke that old literary critical cliché of the symbol, even though that word has been largely verboten from serious academic literary theory for half a century. Yet the sunset can’t help seeming symbolic of something greater than itself, perhaps even to an overdetermined extent. Mather saw Armageddon, Kerouac felt intoxication, and Munch heard a scream. Sunsets with their clearly delineated endings are difficult not to interpret as the last act, the final curtain call, the epilogue, death. So saturated with meaning, that overreliance on the setting sun in a novel, or a film, or a television show can’t help seeming easy. Jean Chevalier, in his indispensable The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, classified a number of concepts which the setting sun is used to represent. Of the direction of the setting sun, Chevalier writes that “West is the land of evening, of old age, of the descending passage of the Sun.”
In her meditation on the relative cultural semiotics of light and shadow, The Millions staff writer Jianan Qian elucidates how a sunset is never just one thing, arguing that in classical Chinese poetry there is a melancholy about dusk, while in western poets from Carl Sandburg to Gustave Flaubert the hour is imbued with a sense of hopefulness. She asks, “Can we reserve a little space for our own, where we worship our shadows, not your light?” The great power of the sunset, as I see it, is in that marriage of both shadow and light. From Gilgamesh to Cormac McCarthy, west has been the direction where the sun rests and light is extinguished, the inevitable location of death. We see ecstatic vision of that blood-red sphere, like the ripe yolk of some cracked egg sinking downward into the bowl of the western horizon. A symbol can be a fallacious thing, however, especially as we justify our belief in the Westerly Kingdom of Death, as a sunset is of course nothing but an optic trick. Like the Flaming Lips sang on 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, “You realize the sun doesn’t go down / It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round.” A sunset is finally nothing more than itself.
Humanity’s understanding of this illusion exemplifies the new rationality—of humanity’s rejection of symbol in favor of measurable phenomenon. Anticipating the Oklahoma-based rock band by a good five centuries, the man who would give his name to the accurate model of the solar system would write that “since the sun remains stationary, whatever appears as a motion of the sun is really due rather to the motion of the earth.” Heliocentrism predates Copernicus’s 1543 On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, but it was that Polish monk who would lend those models his name, his hypothesis later confirmed by Galileo Galilei, forever demolishing vestiges of the geocentric Ptolemaic model. Copernicus based his conclusion on a more parsimonious mathematics, eliminating the baroque system of epicycles that was previously required to explain anomalous celestial movements. In Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention from Fire to Freud, Peter Watson explains that the “traditional way to explain the heavens was in disarray,” so that the great genius of Copernicus was to simplify those models, even as in the process our exulted stature in creation would be displaced. Humanity was no longer at the center of reality, for the abolishment of the sunset was as if the abolishment of our significance.
Novelist and journalist William T. Vollmann, in his incredibly unlikely Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, wrote that “What moves me the most about [Copernicus]” was his struggle to “free the human mind from a false system.” Famed Russian dissident and dystopian novelist Arthur Koestler didn’t completely agree; in his classic The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe, he opined that “man’s destiny was no longer determined from ‘above’” but rather from “‘below’ by … sub-human agencies.” These things could determine our fate but “provide … no moral guidance, no values and meaning.” Koestler was not such a relativist that he’d deny the accuracy of Copernicus’s verified hypothesis; rather, he chose to acknowledge that sometimes mythos undeniably holds an appeal that can’t be exorcised by data.
Karen Armstrong writes in A Short History of Myth that “We are meaning-seeking creatures.” Armstrong, like Koestler, wouldn’t dispute Copernicus’s conclusions, but she would claim that it’s a category mistake to abandon myth simply because it isn’t literally true. She explains that mythology has never been primitive science or empiricism done poorly. Logos and mythos, Armstrong argues, are two different epistemologies; the former is concerned with what’s factual, the latter with what’s true. Myths can’t calculate the parabola of a satellite, they can’t sequence the human genome or program a computer. But Armstrong argues that it’s a positivist error to collapse mythos into logos, for myth is concerned not with explanation but with meaning.
That the sun should be so present across myths is not surprising; even in our contemporary era there is something mysterious about a sunset. A preponderance of sun gods: Egypt had Amun-Ra; Greece and Rome had Apollo. During the Amarna Dynasty, Pharaoh Amenhotep IV discovered monotheism and rechristened himself Akhenaten, abolishing the pantheon in favor of the singular Aten, god of the sun. The “Hymn to Aten,” whose language was later echoed in the Psalms, chants toward its subject that “When you have arisen, they live, / When you set, they die / You yourself are lifetime and men live in you,” transfiguring all of existence by the cycle of the sunset. Rosalie David in Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt explains that the pharaoh had “embarked on a course of action which has been … interpreted as a ‘religious revolution,’” whereby this imposed “form of solar monotheism” was defined by the “creative energy of the sun.”
With the changing of a single letter, Christians also worship the Son. After all, Psalm 84:11 reads, “The Lord God is a sun,” with all of the implications of death and resurrection that that endless cycle of dusk and dawn represent. David writes of how the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead drew “parallel between the sun’s passage from night to day, and the deceased’s emergence from the tomb to the daylight”—Pagan wisdom, for in the transit of orb there is a narrative of death and renewal told daily, as sure as Apollo or Sol Invictus led their chariots across the dome of the Earth. As logos, all such stories are literally untrue, but that’s the least interesting thing about them. Such stories aren’t cosmology, but what they tell us is that though the sun sets, it will rise again, with all that that formulation implies.
In his 1957 classic Mythologies, Roland Barthes writes that “Myth is neither a lie nor a confession: it is an inflexion.” At a frequency too high-pitched for most of us to hear, the sun god’s chariot still passes in transit from east to west. Laugh if we must at the strange contingencies of myth, but such narratives order our lives. When Mather looked westward across the massive expanse of that Hesperian continent where he imagined God’s Kingdom would one day dwell, could he have possibly imagined that at the terminus of this land there would be an empire of a different sort, devoted to the production of fantasy, albeit written in celluloid rather than mythos, in a place where Apollo’s chariot lands each dusk, and that we’ve elected to call Sunset Boulevard?
For most of human history, sunset meant something dangerous and intractable—the approach of darkness. In At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, A. Roger Ekirch writes that before the electric lights, the “darkness of night appears palpable. Evening does not arrive; it ‘thickens.’” Sunsets may be beautiful, but they bring “Night … man’s first necessary evil, our oldest and most haunting terror.” Camping can perhaps trick the city dweller into a simulation of that all-encompassing darkness from before the Industrial Revolution, but it’s a world that’s fundamentally inaccessible to us. Ekirch explains how “All forms of artificial illumination—not just lamps but torches and candles—helped early on to alleviate nocturnal anxieties,” yet even the brightest of candles flickers lower than the dullest of flashlights. This was an era where “bizarre sight and queer sounds” would come and vanish, a dark kingdom of the hours where “‘Night … belongs to the spirits.’” Perilous night, the totalizing regime of nocturnal darkness, would soon be banished. Artificial illumination steadily improved throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, with the mass production of candles, the introduction of burning coal, and the standardization of both oil and gas lamps.
What would ultimately destroy those old gods was the birth of new ones, or as Ernest Freeberg writes, such was the awe generated by a “light that could burn without spark and smoke … [which] promised to turn vast swaths of night into day.” In his account The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America, Freeberg explains that the invention of the electric light bulb was “rightly hailed as a ‘marvel’ and a milestone in human history.” Millennia of people had been terrified by the sun’s descent, fearful of whatever creature swallowed that disk every night. And in a bright, glowing second of filament, the darkness could be forever slain with a light bulb. Deicide by technology, for Aten and Apollo’s fickleness were ultimately tamed by Thomas Edison.
We may have abolished one master, but as Ekirch explains, so, too, was lost “a distinct culture, with many of its own customs and rituals.” Electricity has facilitated the never-ending thrum of commerce that defines modernity, so darkness may have been eradicated, but it’s been replaced with the tyranny of neon activity. Servant to such a master as this, there is something countercultural in reinvesting the sunset with its significance, in seeing it as that portal which shepherds us into the province of night, with all of those attendant differences.
Imbued with more meaning than its Christian descendant, the Jewish Sabbath is ideally a temporal utopia, a respite from the gods of this profane world. Measured from Friday dusk to that of Saturday, Sabbath represents a re-enchantment of the sunset. Anthropologist and physician Melvin Konner writes in Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews that the “Friday evening dusk was greeted as an arriving queen,” while the “Sabbath’s departure at dusk was marked with the rite of … separation.” Herbert Weiner in Nine and a Half Mystics: The Kabbala Today explicates the mystical symbolism of the “palace of the Sabbath,” writing that the period of time from dusk to dusk marks the “annulment of those divisions which characterize ordinary existence—between man and man, between mind and heart, idea and reality.” Dusk’s arrival abolishes our fallen world—at least for a day.
The medieval Sephardic rabbi Avraham Abulafia writes in his poem “The Book of the Letter,” included in the Peter Cole-edited anthology The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492, that the “Sabbath subdues all the days of the week,” or as I might put it: “Everybody’s working for the weekend.” That’s what it felt like when I was in high school, and my friends and I began to make a ritual of ending the week at a local hoagie shop in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill, where in imitation of back-slapping old men we’d shake hands and genuinely wish each other a “Gut Shabbes,” ironically over cheesesteaks. Walking home in December, reflecting on a tradition not my own, I would have opportunity to observe the early dusk through the low winter sun; the way that the orange, lolling fingers of light rippled over cloudy, compacted gauze, and sometimes in moments of youthful exuberance I thought that I felt what Konner describes as the “consistency of the Sabbath… [its] seeming taste of heaven.”
There are the Pittsburgh sunsets from when I was growing up, when the red sky could burst from the low threading of hazy greyness, light refracted from both drizzle and the particulate pumped into the atmosphere from the massive coke processing plant south of the city, the dramatic hurried rush of orange collapse as the sun sank below the unfairly gorgeous hilly skyline, looking like it had been planned by a sacred conspiracy of divinities.
Or, leaving by ferry from Hiroshima and approaching the stolid, painted red wood of the torii gate marking the entrance to the Itsukushima shrine, which seems to float on the water off of Miyajima Island, dedicated to the brother of Amaterasu, appropriately enough the sun goddess. This is the sort of dusk described by the 17th-century poet Matsuo Basho as encompassing the “twilight rain / these brilliant hued / hibiscus… / A lovely sunset,” where that beatific arch seems to connect the ocean to the sky as the fiery sun descends into the sea behind a fringe of green mountains on the distant main island—so beautiful that it seems incorrect.
Or, the pyrotechnic psychedelia of the massive sun burrowing into the Pacific Ocean off of Waikiki Beach, a sunset which reminds you that there is something like outer space about the sea, a performance of your personal, immaculate insignificance in the presence of something that absurdly glowing. Hawaii’s sunsets are appropriately described by Sarah Vowel in Unfamiliar Fishes as “lurid.” As is twilight on that other ocean, watching the sun’s vital hemorrhage on a beach in Curaçao, looking like Derek Walcott’s description of the Caribbean as being where “the sunset bleeds like a cut wrist.”
Or, the fragrant still of Central Park at dusk, when New York City is quiet enough, for just a second, that it charms you, air threaded with the warm charge of late summer, when that rectangular garden at the center of Manhattan allows you to contemplate such green thought in a green shade. Over the Hudson and New Jersey, the sun drops into that western home of the rest of the New World, and for a bit of the golden hour all of the light is refracted off of the glass, steel, and stone of Central Park West, the skyscrapers acting as prisms and mirrors for the sun, reflected a thousand times over in the windows of women and men.
Or, the raspberry-tangerine sherbet skies of an early autumn dusk over the outfield wall of a minor league baseball stadium in eastern Pennsylvania; the increasingly quicker nightfall of the season now interrupting earlier innings. Crackle over the diamond as the temperature drops, and the lights on the scoreboard now so bright they hurt your eyes. In A Great and Glorious Game: Baseball Writings, A. Bartlett Giamatti writes that the purpose of baseball in the fall is precisely that “It is designed to break your heart … when the days are all twilight.”
And of course, facing west from the Glasgow Necropolis, scattered with monuments to textile factory owners and brewers, looking out over the dense, crooked labyrinth of that grey city, a misty Scottish sun lolling towards the horizon, where she shines off of the broken windows of faraway tenement high rises. This sunset, this smear of yellow and orange, this eruption of blue and red, giving off final light as if it were God’s fireworks display, standing in a cemetery and realizing what sunsets have always really meant. Emily Dickinson understood dusk’s indomitable logic when she wrote that “We passed the Setting Sun – / Or rather – He passed Us,” where her and her traveling companion are headed west “toward Eternity.”
Dusk is nature’s enjambment. In the midst of the muggy Anthropocene, when humanity has seemingly wrenched the very seasons out of their proper order, with Antarctic ice-shelfs collapsing and river banks receding in drought while revealing the marked warning stones left from those in the lean times of famines past, dusk provides us a talisman reminding us that even we have our limits. In the filtered, gloaming light of an irreversible sunset there is profound wisdom, the experience of finality and the understanding that “This, too, shall pass.” Dusk reminds us that we’re not in control, not even of our extinctions. The poetics of sunset speaks of endings and closings, apocalypses and death. The hour before evening is not just the most contemplative one of a day’s existence, but the most poetic as well. Drawing a close to the light which illuminated before into the promises of darkness. Sunset is the most beautiful hour.
“An Army Newspaper” is a story by the Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim, published in the collection The Corpse Exhibition. The narrator details his time editing the cultural section of a military newspaper, presenting his readers with stories and poems celebrating the glories of war and the bravery of the nation’s soldiers. (The war in question is presumably the Iran-Iraq war that went on for almost the entire length of the 1980s, crippling Iraqi society, though the narrator neglects to give any specifics as to the nature of the conflict.) The content of the narrator’s newspaper section is rather lacking in literary quality, as it is written by soldiers who want only to valorize their nation and its leaders rather than speak truthfully about their own experiences. But the editor manages to make his section readable by adding his own rhetorical flourishes to the soldiers’ drab, dutiful prose. His superiors praise his work, stoking his dream of becoming Minister of Culture.
One day, a packet arrives on his desk. It contains five stories, all by the same author, written in school notebooks. Unlike the usual fare that comes his way, these stories are astonishing. “The stories were written in a surprisingly elevated style,” he says. “In fact, I swear that the world’s finest novels, before these stories that I read, were mere drivel, vacuous stories eclipsed by the grandeur of what this soldier had written.” The editor looks into this soldier’s background and finds he was recently killed shortly after sending in the stories. He takes advantage of this unique opportunity, publishing the soldier’s work under his own name. The editor is soon the toast of the literary world, attending conferences and giving interviews. The stories, however, keep coming.
Day after day, packets land on the editor’s desk, all of them containing more of the soldier’s brilliant work in the same school notebooks. Did he survive? The editor digs up the soldier’s grave and finds that he is quite dead, a single bullet wound, the handiwork of a sniper, in the center of his forehead. Just to be safe, the editor burns the body. But the stories don’t cease. Dozens of packets containing hundreds of brilliant new stories arrive daily. The editor burns these as well, purchasing an incinerator for this express purpose, but still they pile up, leaving him with only one option.
I found this story to be, as they say, relatable. I’ve been following the growing body of literature on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for a few years now, and it certainly feels as if there are endless manuscripts landing on my desk every day, demanding my attention, driving me to consider unorthodox methods of disposal. They’re not all deathless works of brilliance, for sure, but they are, more often than not, urgent and impassioned, writers trying to come to grips with their experiences of war, whether they’re veterans offering firsthand accounts or civilians making meaning from what they’ve seen and read. The lapses into sentimentality and cliché seem the result of haste more than dishonesty.
Roy Scranton is also familiar with the conventions of recent war literature, and from both directions. After serving in Iraq in the mid-aughts, he wrote essays and journalism about the war, and also worked with fellow veteran-writer Matt Gallagher to edit Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War. He was also working on a novel, starting it when he was still enlisted and spending the next ten years shaping the story. The result is War Porn, and it reads like a summary of this particular subgenre, underlining its shortcomings while pointing at new strategies.
War Porn follows three different stories: a barbecue in Utah on Columbus Day, 2004; a young soldier serving in Iraq during the first year of the war; and an Iraqi math professor in early 2003, just before the invasion. The three timelines are arranged in an A-B-C-B-A pattern, not unlike the “nesting dolls” structure of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. At the literal and figurative center is the math professor’s story, but I’ll get to that later. The novel opens, like so many books about the war, at home. It is quite possible that the literature of this war has focused on the homefront to a greater degree than any other conflict in U.S. history. Think of Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, still one of the best novels on the subject. The entire story unfolds over a single day, as a company of soldiers is flown back home after winning a significant battle to be lauded as heroes during the halftime show of a football game. The war itself appears only in Billy’s memory, strobe-lit flashes of heat and smoke. Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You, Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days, Roxana Robinson’s Sparta — these and others give just as much attention, if not more, to the conflicts that unfolded at home as those abroad. This is the result, I think, of having a volunteer military, one whose members move within their own world, rarely coming into contact with the wider public. The actual wars U.S. soldiers fight can feel so distant that civilian writers may be hesitant to depict warfare, opting instead to stick to more familiar territory and examine the struggles of veterans readjusting to stateside life. Indeed, the dominant trope is a vet stricken with PTSD, his journey to become whole once again.
Scranton is having none of this. The veteran in the homefront section of War Porn is a psychopathic rapist, his taste for violence stoked in an Abu Ghraib-like compound where he served as a prison guard, photographing the cruelties he inflicted and storing them on a thumb drive. There is no redemption, no absolution of guilt. It’s here that the novel’s title takes on a double meaning. “War porn” usually refers to such images of violence, but there is also the emotional pornography of stories of returning soldiers learning to forgive themselves, assuaging the guilt felt by good-hearted readers, flattering them for their performative compassion.
The thread about the war itself is just as terse, though much funnier. A young soldier named Wilson, rifle in hand and Noam Chomsky volume in his pack, stumbles through the initial stages of the war, witnessing the invasion harden into the occupation as democracy fails to spontaneously arise from the sands of the desert. He sees little and understands less, trying only to survive. His comrades are little more than nicknames spouting acronyms and profanities. The local factions vying for power are indistinguishable to him, their lives and values alien.
Ignorant American man-children wreaking havoc both at home and abroad: is this all War Porn is? Not at all, thankfully. Nestled in the book’s center is a kind of novella about an Iraqi professor named Qasim. He’s a genuine character, torn between professional and personal responsibility. His thread is by far the most humane part of the book, and this seems by design. After dismantling those homefront and combat tropes, Scranton maps out this new path into the subject, following Qasim into entire territories of the conflict that, thus far, have largely gone unexplored in American fictional representations.
It’s a different kind of Iraq War novel, for sure, but it’s not just that. It’s an expression of Scranton’s philosophy about telling new, different stories as a means of survival. Last year, Scranton published Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, a short book about climate change. After spending a couple chapters amassing more than enough evidence to persuade the reader that our civilization is royally, unavoidably fucked, Scranton wonders what we can do next. He’s not thinking about electric cars, however. His concerns are existential. Namely, when climate change is on the verge of upending life as we know it, what stories do we tell to prepare ourselves?
Scranton returns to civilization’s early days, finding in ancient stories like the Epic of Gilgamesh guidance for coming to terms with decline and death, equipping oneself with wisdom and dignity. Answers to coping with this systemic problem lay, in all of places, in the humanities, that living document of what our species has thought and felt.
War Porn offers a similar suggestion when it comes to the United States’s seemingly perpetual involvement in the conflicts of the Middle East. Our own soldiers and bombs will do little besides incite rival powers to offer up their own unorthodox weaponry. Studying their history, reading their stories, could uncover new strategies, new approaches we’ve resigned to thinking of as intractable.
At a wedding last summer, a guy seated at my table told me he hadn’t read a book in four years. I can’t remember the title of the traumatic work that occasioned his renunciation—perhaps it was Ovid’s Metamorphoses—but I distinctly recall panicking when asked by this prodigal reader to recommend something. Which magical text would show him the folly of his non-reading ways?
I entertained suggesting something patently inappropriate. Maybe one of those erotic French tales put out by Grove Press would get him back on track, something like Pauline Réage’s The Story of O, Guillaume Apollinaire’s incest-laden The Amorous Exploits of a Young Rakehall or Régine Deforges’s The Storm, the rawest of the lot. Or I could just say The Goldfinch and get it over with. However, with this tantalizing blank slate offered up before me, I froze.
“Let me think about it.”
I was mercifully saved by the start of a merciless best-man speech.
Ann Patchett would have turned that young man around. In a Washington Post article titled “Owning a Bookstore Means You Always Get to Tell People What to Read,” Patchett writes:
When Karen Hayes and I opened Parnassus Books in Nashville in November 2011, I hadn’t really considered what an enormous boon it would be to my lifelong preoccupation with forcing books on people.
There are many differences between Ann Patchett and me. She is a successful novelist and businessperson — I am most definitely not — but more important, I have a lifelong phobia of forcing books on people.
Patchett continues on the joys of hand-selling: “[Customers] just smile up at me, trusting and curious, waiting to follow my instructions. It makes my heart soar.” The very thought nearly stops my heart, cursed as I am with the neurotic inability to look into the smiling, trusting, and curious eyes of would-be readers and give them what they want.
One could charitably ascribe my hesitancy to recommend books an excessive respect for other people’s time: who am I to tell you how to spend so many hours? But that’s not really it. Reading is an investment, but unlike stock tips, there is profit to be had in even the most dubious recommendations. Nor does it have to do with the fear that the suggested title will reflect on my own aesthetic or moral deficiencies.
And still, as a recent encounter with a new neighbor made painfully clear, I just can’t not make a mess of things.
I first met him as he was pedaling by my house, bicycle-riding twins in tow. When I mentioned that I reviewed books, he naturally asked: “Oh, got any good ones to recommend?” For me, the equivalent of a politician’s “gotcha” question.
The usual reaction occurred: a rush of blood to the face, followed by blubbering equivocations and panicked attempts to stall for time as I cycled through every book I’d read over the last weeks, months, years, then all the books I hadn’t read over that same time. Given what I had gleaned about him in our brief chat, which of these hundreds of titles would be best?
Nothing was coming to mind. The helmeted twins glared at me, justifiably resentful that my deliberations were cutting into their playtime.
Come on, champ. Anything. Erik Larson has a new book about the Lusitania. Too many syllables? Anthony Doerr just won the Pulitzer. Or Phil Klay. Iraq, and all that powerful stuff.
But for some reason known only to my maker, I was seized by an almost Tourettic desire to scream out The Epic of Gilgamesh. I held it in, though as I squirmed I saw a flicker of doubt in his eye. He was wondering, I imagine, whether I had ever read, let alone reviewed, a book. Had a spy moved in next door, using the shaky cover of a freelance writer/editor? The twins grew more antsy, doing circles on the quiet street as they waited for their father to conclude with this stammering yutz.
Inspiration! I’d just read a Kindle Single, Jeff Wise’s The Plane That Wasn’t There, which put forth a rather fanciful account of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Alas, it didn’t seem like the best time to explain how the plane had been diverted to an airfield in Kazakhstan as a Russian-sent warning for NATO to stop meddling in Ukraine. I would save that for a summer barbecue when I had him good and cornered.
Good god, man, spit it out!
A book about neighborly quarrels could be fun, like James Hamilton-Paterson’s Cooking With Fernet Blanca. No, too arch. Or perhaps he could lose himself in some of Ezra Pound’s Cantos? That ought to keep him busy.
The light declining, I finally decided to put myself out of my misery.
“Let me think about it.”
The family pedaled off, fated to rely on more articulate acquaintances or Amazon’s algorithm for recommendations.
Perhaps because of my book-recommending block, I respect those with the courage to impose their reading will on others. Take my friend’s boss, who stopped him in the hall and “suggested” he buy a 600-page, dry-as-dust tome called Successful Executive’s Handbook, never to indicate any relevant sections or even mention it again. That’s a power move worthy of a successful executive.
Another good friend loved Norman Mailer’s massive CIA epic, Harlot’s Ghost, so much that for a period of six months he pressed it on people he met on the street, baristas, girlfriends, soon-to-be ex-girlfriends, and me. There was no dithering about whether you liked fiction or nonfiction, bios or memoir, character-driven or plot-heavy novels. You even hinted that you were looking for a book recommendation and the next thing you knew, there’d be a 1,400-page brick on your nightstand.
A few weeks after loaning me his copy of the Mailer, which I didn’t dive into quickly enough, he snatched it back to give to someone else. The new recipient trudged through 1,399 pages, hating every minute of it, before seeing “To Be Continued” at the bottom of the last page. This proved too cruel a joke. Released from her self-imposed burden, she refused to read the final paragraph as a matter of principle.
A few days later, when we were having coffee, my friend offered Harlot’s Ghost back to me if I promised to read it promptly this time.
“Let me think about it.”
Image Credit: Flickr/ginnerobot.
In my early and mid teens, I was a big reader of genre fiction: murder mysteries and thrillers, sci-fi and horror. Stephen King was a favorite, of course, and so was a novel by Frank de Felitta called Audrey Rose, about an eleven-year-old girl who turns out to be the reincarnation of girl who died in a gruesome car fire. The idea of being haunted from within, of being literally inhabited by the past, was deliciously frightening.
Then, at a new school, I came under the influence of teachers who lobbed some biggies at us: Dostoyevsky, Proust, Mann. Crime and Punishment showed me that the movements of a mind can be as suspenseful as migrating spirits and telekinetic powers, while Proust’s intricate explorations of time revealed less supernatural ways in which the past penetrates the present. Reading these masters, I began to feel, physically, the difference between sentences that merely move the plot along and sentences that are a type of music and a conduit for the exploration of human character. I became a lit snob and didn’t look back. There were only so many years to hit all the high points between Gilgamesh and the latest Alice Munro! Even when I was drawn to the premise or plot of the latest blockbuster, I found I lost interest by page 20. If a book doesn’t hold me sentence by sentence, it doesn’t hold me at all.
Dan Chaon is a writer for those of us who thought we’d left genre behind. Sure, contemporary writers such as Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Colson Whitehead import genre conventions into their literary fiction, but my guess is that their most avid readers tend to be those who never lost their taste for the detective story, the thriller, or the futuristic drama, stories in which character generally takes a back seat to magic and adventure. You may read Chabon or Lethem for their powers of invention and their remarkable sentences, but you don’t read them for richly nuanced characterization.
In Chaon’s work, character, and character’s corollary, relationship, are primary — and therefore so are the emotions of longing, grief, guilt, and rage. Chaon has long been creating completely realistic scenarios that nevertheless transmit all of the distressing uncanniness of the best supernatural tales. A lover of Austen, Eliot, and James may never warm to Lethem and Co., but is likely enough to fall for Dan Chaon.
Chaon published his first short story collection in 1995, but it was his second, Among the Missing, that put him on the map. It featured bizarre premises, such as a woman who purchases an inflatable doll to replace her dead husband, or a boy who believes that his next-door neighbor is literally himself, grown up. The standout stories created phenomenally convincing worlds in which Chaon’s typically isolated and self-distrusting characters are trapped by an ambivalence and epistemological uncertainty so strong as to become a crippling dread. In “I Demand to Know Where You’re Taking Me,” a woman is tormented by the pet parrot of her brother-in-law, who has been imprisoned for a series of rapes he says he didn’t commit (but the woman suspects he did). The parrot screams phrases like “Smell my feet!” and “Stupid cunt!” channeling the brother-in-law’s threatening presence into her previously safe-feeling home. In “Here’s a Little Something to Remember Me By,” a married man, on a visit to his childhood home, is suffocated by the saccharine attentions of the Ormsons, the parents of a boyhood friend who went missing when they were fourteen years old. Mr. and Mrs. Ormson treat the narrator like their substitute son, but their desperate affection feels vampiric. The horrors here are the horrors of ambiguity and unstable identity, of circumstances that feel supernatural even though they are always explainable in rational terms.
The pleasures and the impact continue with Chaon’s new collection, Stay Awake, following two well-received novels, You Remind Me of Me and Await Your Reply. While Stay Awake does not abandon Chaon’s signature themes of identity and isolation, disappearance and memory, it flirts even more openly with the line between the supernatural and the rationalistic – and indeed two of the stories, “The Bees” and “The Farm. The Gold. The Lily-White Hands,” have overtly supernatural elements. The situations have grown even more extreme: a couple has a two-headed baby, a woman drowns several of her children, a father comes into his young daughters’ bedroom intending to kill them in their sleep. Two men in two completely different stories fall off of ladders, severing a finger – a coincidence that I must admit I found distracting. Characters desperately want to or do escape their homes, their towns, the marriages they’ve made; they think they’re free of the past until memory or something even more sinister catches up with them. One character watches Soylent Green on late-night TV, and an actor in that horror movie is described as “running through the future, screaming.” The phrase could easily be an alternate title for this book.
Stay Awake also is more preoccupied than Chaon’s earlier collection with the sending and receiving of messages – from departed family members or loved ones, from the universe itself. Chaon has spoken publicly about his wife’s premature death from cancer in 2008, and it’s impossible not to see in these stories a yearning for communication between those who disappear and those who remain. Chaon nicely leaves open the question of whether it’s scarier to imagine that the universe is trying to send us certain messages, or is not.
While there isn’t a single clunker in the entire collection, the standout, for my money, is “Shepherdess,” which is also, I must say, the one most in the Among the Missing vein. No truly gruesome situations here — just a drunken woman who falls rather comically out of a tree — and no supernatural elements. “Shepherdess” is simply about a youngish man, his mother who has just died, and a girlfriend whom he suspects is about to dump him: the old story of human bafflement and longing. Waiting in the hospital while his possibly-ex-girlfriend is getting treated after her fall, the story’s narrator speaks for nearly all of the significant characters in Stay Awake when he says: “I am not really sure how I am supposed to behave in this situation.”
The last story, “The Farm. The Gold. The Lily-White Hands” shows Chaon taking major risks with point of view and style, and bringing it off wonderfully. The narrator is dead, albeit only in an alternative universe, and the result is really freaking spooky. In the margin of my copy I scribbled, “I’m sorry I read this at night.” (Beside another story, I wrote: “No!! This is horrible — and very effective.”)
Chaon’s style is tone-perfect but hard to quote; there are no lyrical flights or riffs of obvious brilliance. It mixes brisk, sometimes even brutal, colloquialism with unobtrusively elevated language, and its power is contextual and cumulative. Easiest to cite are the more comic moments, as in the terrific opening to “Shepherdess”:
This girl I’ve been seeing falls out of a tree one June evening. She’s a little drunk — I bought a couple of bottles of hopefully decent Chardonnay from Trader Joe’s on my way over to her house — and now she’s a little drunk and a little belligerent. There is something about me that she doesn’t like, and we’ve been arguing obliquely all evening.
Can people ever change? Are our identities fixed in all the worst ways and fluid in all the worst ways, too? Chaon says: Unclear, and Yes and Yes. The take-away? Be Afraid. The truth is I didn’t just stop reading books like Audrey Rose so long ago because my taste improved. It was also because, the older I got, the more they scared the hell out of me. Scared me beyond pleasure and into real distress. Maybe, upon leaving the cocoon of family and childhood, I discovered that reality was more than enough to be frightened of. Dan Chaon knows that, too, and evokes just enough of the uncanny to bring me back to those old innocent genre thrills, while offering the lit-snob side of me the realism-based subtleties of language and character that I need like bread and water.
Death is change. This is particularly true for abstract things that, by definition, can’t die. So when someone of some repute pronounces the death of something abstract–of God, of art, of history, of poetry, of fiction–I’m quick to think like a serf cheering at the funeral of a king: X may be dead, but long live X.
So it went with a recent Mother Jones article by Ted Genoways. Presiding like a priest over Fiction’s sinking casket, a number of people in the literary world rushed to the scene as though it were a birth. The possibilities of online “comment” sections shined their brightest as writers and editors of some of the better fictional content on the Internet pronounced, with great clarity, that fiction isn’t dead at all. It’s changing, they said. Castigating and criticizing Genoways like any good town hall mob or meeting of minds, they built an insight that, in my mind, goes like this: Fiction is dead, long live Fiction.
Literature is supposed to be a culture’s conversation with itself. A way of telling the story of its time, its moment. It’s a healthy and necessary thing, an authentic expression of the truth of the age. As a writer and student of literature and of this conversation, I went in search of the new fiction. I wanted to see its extent, the borders of its world. I wanted to do a little cartography to glimpse the map of our conversation with ourselves.
And I found gobs and gobs of it. Voices upon voices upon voices. Blogs and journals and magazines, communities of writers and readers and editors all talking at the same time to everyone and therefore no one in particular. It was and continues to be overwhelming. In my search for the conversation, I didn’t know who to listen to or why. I kept looking, keeping track of what I found as I went.
Much of this fiction is short. That is, from 50-1000 words. I’m not sure why. Long fiction exists all over the Internet, but I don’t see it surviving as well as shorter stuff. This could be because of the different kind of attention people pay to text on the Internet as opposed to text on the printed page. We might call this the Tab Effect. If I’m at my office working on the computer, I’ll have at least three tabs open at the same time: The New York Times, Gmail, and something for work. I’ll split my time between these, periodically reading, working, and chatting with friends or writing emails. While these periods of attention may vary, they usually don’t last longer than 30 minutes. The long-story form doesn’t survive this multi-task attention. It’s basic evolutionary competition.
With that in mind, what follows is an annotated list of a few of my favorite finds. These are places I’ve found during my search that I like for various reasons, sites notable for quality of design, content, and approach. Consider them a taste of the new fiction, places to start.
First, look Ben White’s Nanoism. White is a medical school student in Austin who’s developing the quality and presentation of twitter-sized fiction (140 characters or less). This isn’t a new form of fiction: fragments have existed from Gilgamesh to Kafka. But now these small pieces of language have won a currency in our minute-to-minute lives, a chirping and ambient speech. Sites have come about to present these “litwits” (Escarp, Thaumatrope, Outshine, PicFic). The difference with White’s stuff, both his own writing and the writing he publishes, is that in it you can see the litwit taking shape as a valid form, shaped by our technology, for getting at the truth.
For more good editing, but of avant-garde and fantastical stuff, see Dream People. The writing I’ve found here is immaculate in its imagination, both dark and humorous.
Anemone Sidecar also has good avant-garde prose/poetry/language stuff. Organized in unique chapters, these are lighter, more emotive and pastel-ish pieces presented in a very attractive way (sponsored by the ever-growing Ravenna Press).
Robot Melon has a completely unpretentious design. I get an excellent vibration from them. No bells and whistles, just issues full of writing, each piece with a different solid, metallic background. The ancient problem of the throbbing ego is ever-present in online fiction, but RB seems to manage it (as does Sir! Magazine, which I found yesterday.)
For lots of bells and whistles, but not necessarily ego, see two online writing communities: Fictionaut and Six Sentences. Each is under the auspices of another journal (the unstoppable and incredible Luna Park and the smaller but more town-like What Can You Say in Six Sentences, respectively). Each community provides the opportunity to share writing, read and comment on others’ writing, and organizes the data therein by theme and length. These are like perpetual workshops that one may watch as they happen, like a surgery or a convention. There is good writing here, but also many other opportunities to communicate about writing. (Fictionaut is by invitation only, though I’ve joined 6S and made several friends).
Bartleby Snopes is a no-nonsense, well-edited, straight ahead website for consistently good fiction. I’m impressed with their content, but maybe more so with their emphasis on editor-writer communication. Responses to submissions come within two weeks with personalized comments–a rare thing.
For a somewhat small place with great editors and a silly, intrepid style, see Zygote in My Coffee. The issues flow like water with all manner of poems and stories–it’s like going to that small coffee shop whose t-shirt you bought and wear all the time. You root for them.
Though it’s not a journal anymore per se, Eyeshot has created a unique approach to fiction’s relationship to social justice. Email the editors of Eyeshot with a donation for earthquake relief in Haiti, and they’ll thoroughly comment on your short story or poem. Everyone’s looking for comments on their fiction. The world is full of problems. Eyeshot puts these two truths together. For more of what I’d call “pragmatic fiction,” or fiction that works, see Greg McQueen’s project 100 Stories for Haiti, The Zero Emissions Book Project, Bottom Dog Press, and this issue of The Short Review.
I also think more conversation should occur between the literary and genre worlds of fiction. Images and fantasy are a part of storytelling, and each community would benefit from increased interaction with the other. Space Westerns is a reliable site that provides stories about exactly what its title says. Space Westerns. These are imaginative and indicative stories presented by a magazine that cares for its writers and readers. (See also Jason Sanford, Short Story Me, and Short, Fast, and Deadly.)
Meanwhile, the famous comment of the Nobel committee-member about the insularity of literature in English in the US continues to be true. Here we’ve only mentioned literature written originally in English and not literature in translation from everywhere else in the world. To branch out to more world literature, see the St. Petersburg Review, The Barcelona Review, and Words Without Borders.
I’d also like to take this opportunity to recognize all the purveyors of fiction that don’t need recognition. The New Yorker, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, Esquire, etc. There are also many literary magazines that have been around for years or decades that post fiction online. I know this list should continue with these other names, but I’m more interested for now in learning about what exists but isn’t as well known.
And furthermore, let all this be said with the obvious caveat: there’s much much more out there. Every site has a list of links to other sites that have lists of links to other sites that have lists of links, etc. The above are merely good indications of different types that I’ve found. (For a growing list, see the site I curate, fictiondaily.org.)
If one were to make a map of this new world of fiction (and it’s starting–see the Indie Publishing Wiki) the title of the map would have to be something like “The Thriving Life of Fiction.” This is because fiction is flourishing in myriad directions. Though, to continue with the map metaphor, its capitals and governments are shifting power and location. What was once a strict monarchy is evolving more and more into a muscular democracy. Voices, speaking from all corners, are gaining legitimacy through their own emergent means as opposed to the upper crust of university journals and large publishing houses. This isn’t a new shift: small zines and self-publishers have existed for decades (Chicago seems to have a penchant for tracking this: see Quimby’s and the Chicago Underground Library).
What’s changing is access. I might read a short story in a magazine in Australia. Then I’ll follow a link to a new journal that’s just popped up in York, England. Then I’ll read an author bio and find the author’s blog, which has more of her writing and links to other magazines and the magazines and blogs of her friends in Nashville, New York, Portland, Austin, etc. The et cetera continues indefinitely. I find new places everyday. More and more and more writing.
Like the political revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries, the people are acting and felling old, crumbling giants of power in favor of their own voices, slowly bringing the system to the masses. And this is the hope of fiction: that it take an active role in our culture’s conversation with itself. That citizens read and explore and question what it means to be a human being by reading the stories that their peers compose. In this sense fiction is very much alive, but in the mode of becoming. It’s old forms may be dying, but in these small journals and blogs it’s being born again. So I say, once more: Fiction is dead, long live Fiction.
[Image credit: boo!berry]