In Marilynne Robinson’s brilliant and engaging essay, “Imagination and Community,” she writes that we live on a small island that consists of what can be said, “which we tend to mistake for reality itself.” As she transforms the voices of her narrators into the sentences of her fictions, she tries to make “inroads on the vast terrain of what cannot be said — or said by me, at least.” The result has been three novels, all award winners, still selling well in dozens of languages. Now along comes A Questionable Shape, a wisely titled and rich first novel by Bennett Sims, who in his own way explores what Robinson calls “the frontiers of the unsayable.”
Before I go further, perhaps I should say that I am sixty-something and a picky reader, someone whose favorite novels fill a single shelf. There sit Robinson and Faulkner, Isaac Babel, Elio Vittorini, J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. Herta Müller’s Herztier, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo. Nuruddin Farah’s Maps, Javier Marías’s Your Face Tomorrow. Like Sims, I studied with Robinson. Unlike him, I have not found an easy way into the works of David Foster Wallace, with whom he also studied, and to whom he dedicates this book: “For Dave.”
On the surface, the storyline of A Questionable Shape is simple. During an epidemic of undeath that has savaged Baton Rouge and the world, a loner, plumber, and collector/hoarder has vanished and is presumed undead. His son wants to find him, even though the father he knows and loves has changed so completely that he would bite his only son and leave him incurably undead. The narrator joins the search, thereby risking being bitten, too.
“What we know about the undead so far is this: they return to the familiar,” the narrator begins. “…They will climb into their own cars and sit dumbly at the wheel, staring out the windshield into nothing. A man bitten, infected, and reanimated fifty miles from home will find his way back, staggering over diverse terrain — which, probably, he wouldn’t have recognized or been able to navigate in his mortal life — in order to stand vacantly on a familiar lawn.”
Who among us has not sat at the steering wheel of a vehicle staring into nothing, or stood vacantly on a lawn or a grassless patch of dirt staring at something no one else could see? Or, for that matter, staggered. Herein lies one strength of Sims’ novel — we are as likely at certain moments to identify with the undead as with the living: to see ourselves too easily as stunted, ravaged, hardly human.
But, dear Reader, do not be fooled. You are fully human. Also, undeath is the topic of A Questionable Shape the way Yoknapatawpha County is the topic of Faulkner, which is to say, it is merely the apparent topic, the setting, the metaphor, the externality that allows the narrator to settle in and explore the shades, shapes, and melodies of consciousness and experience. As Sims’s narrative moves forward, he uses footnotes, asides, diversions, explications, and lyrical imaginings to produce in the reader a kind of double vision of the mind, an extra set of eyes somewhere back in the head.
The two friends, both of whom are addicted to books, but in different ways, try to imagine themselves deep enough into the mind of the missing man to discover the locales he would long for in his undeath. When he was living, he lifted coffee to his lips in a certain café, browsed through the daily objects of yesteryear in a particular antiques mall, watched movies with his son in their favorite theater. But does that mean his savaged mind, reduced to its most intense nostalgias, would drag its ruined body back to any of those spots? This and other questions lead the narrator into meditations on yearning, life, death, time, memory, nostalgia, sight, insight, wisdom. On the world as it is and as it seems to be. On the perplexities of trying to know and understand the people we are closest to.
Often the narrator observes his partner closely, trying to understand her. In his recounting, these scenes become prisms of life. In one, she lies on a red blanket on the grass, intent on protecting her white sweater from grass stains, when “a rogue dead leaf” becomes enmeshed in the fine fuzz of the cashmere. “From a certain angle, this gave the brittle leaf the appearance of hovering in the air…. Beaming down at the levitating leaf, she said it looked as if it were bodysurfing on a crowd of ghosts. And by God it did: that dead leaf, brown and crispate, seemed to be borne aloft by a thousand invisible, white hands.” The allusion-loving narrator labels such moments “my private Bethlehem stars.” But Sims is fastidious in fashioning his metaphors. Readers will find meaning within meaning in those invisible white hands.
A Questionable Shape offers its readers many Bethlehem stars. For me, the first were the phrases, in an early footnote, “infected texts” and “phantom feet.” They lifted me away from the narrative and sent images flying back and forth between memory and imagination. When I returned to the page, I felt more alive, ready to move forward through the coming explorations. Reading on, I had the sense that I was tramping towards the roar of many rivers, wondering where and how they might join. Along the way, the characters and their search grew gradually more important to me, until their quest was mine, their thoughts and doubts and worries mine, their dangers mine.
Are we not every day in our own quests large and small exposed to attacks on the body, to outbreaks threatened or actual against the spirit or mind? Where I live, among the mesas and mountains of northern New Mexico, at any dawn or dusk a mountain lion could spring from behind, bite my neck and break it, giving me no chance to raise my mace and spray. I would be lucky to be merely undead. Bears here open doors, enter living rooms and kitchens, eat pies or popcorn, occasionally people. Fleas spread plague, ticks carry spotted fever. Mice with deer-like ears spray the air with Hantavirus every time they pee. A rattlesnake might sink fangs into my calf, a boulder overhead break loose and smash me, a flashflood wash me into the Río Grande. Meanwhile, chemicals leach from the earth they were carelessly buried in. I might any day tramp through an invisible, unfeelable patch of radioactivity and, with the sole of my shoe, pick up a particle containing plutonium and transport it unknowingly into the bedroom. As I set out for Santa Fe, drivers pass with bumper stickers like these: “Atomic bombs=sixty-five years of peace” and “Keep your sissy hands off my guns.”
Am I to give up the highways, the neighbors, the mesas, the state, my homeland, the planet? Am I to wear side mirrors on my glasses or devise armor, costume, incantation, poultice to keep danger away? Am I to lock myself in a room and fall undead, forfeiting beauty, mystery, pleasure, wisdom, as termites chew the roof and walls away?
A Questionable Shape is a novel for those who read in order to wake up to life, not escape it, for those who themselves like to explore the frontiers of the unsayable. I envision the core readership as brilliant and slightly disaffected men and women. In the larger circle will be fans of Anne Carson, Nicholson Baker, Rivka Galchen, Juan Rulfo, W.G. Sebald, Henry and William James, and gaggles of Russian and German writers. Also, I suspect, fans of David Foster Wallace.
There may be readers who will — on discovering that A Questionable Shape combines a quest, a romance, humor, and an epidemic of zombies, with philosophy, footnotes, history, science, the arts, half of Daniel Webster, cascades of lyricism and truckloads of realism — refuse to so much as open the back cover and peer at the author’s eyebrows. The same may be true of those who expect a novel to contain certain elements and behave in certain ways.
I wish them peace. I wish them well. I wish they would do what I so often do not, and rethink their decision.
To the rest of you I say, Climb a tree and take this book into the leaves and branches with you. Stuff it in your backpack and read it in a meadow. Take it to Dallas. Take it to New Zealand. It is more than just a novel. It is literature. It is life. It is going on my shelf between Your Face Tomorrow and Pedro Páramo.
If the skeleton standing on the corner tapping her watch and staring at me doesn’t drag me off first, I may yet find joy in reading David Foster Wallace.
It was the fall of 2000, and I had just read David Foster Wallace’s article in Rolling Stone about his experiences hanging out with John McCain aboard the Straight Talk Express, McCain’s cannily christened campaign bus. At the time, McCain was running a spirited, if underdog, race against George W. Bush for the Republican party nomination. McCain had positioned himself as the anti-politician politician, the truth-telling everyman — an image he would reinvent as the “maverick” eight years later, only to be out-mavericked by his own running mate.
Why this strange marriage between a youth-oriented music magazine, a pop-culture savvy young writer, and a sixty-three-year-old-war-hero-turned-politician? It came about because commentators had observed that McCain’s studied lack of politicking seemed to be lifting the stupor of the country’s most politically apathetic — and thus most cherished — demographic. McCain was threatening to awaken the eighteen-to-thirty-five-year-olds who otherwise fell into a deep slumber every fourth November. “No generation of Young Voters,” Wallace announced in only the second sentence of the article, “has ever cared less about politics and politicians than yours.”
Apathy was a common trope, then as now. And although I had no statistics to disprove Wallace’s pronouncement, less than one year earlier, in late November 1999, I had watched in awe as tens of thousands of demonstrators, most of them in that eighteen to thirty-five demographic (as I was myself), descended upon the city of Seattle to protest a meeting of the World Trade Organization. United against the WTO’s policies toward labor, the environment, and economic development, the protestors effectively shut down the meeting, and the city with it — much as the Occupy Wall Street protestors are struggling to do now. The event was exactly the sort of thing we’d long been told could no longer happen — something that existed only in the dewy memories of ’60s nostalgists. My generation was said to be too cynical and self-absorbed to bother with causes. We’d given up on trying to change the world. For David Foster Wallace, our apathy was a form of sales resistance. We’d been marketed to our entire lives. Civic duty had come to seem like just another product.
But I, for one, was feeling optimistic. Maybe what had happened in Seattle was a sign that things were starting to change. Maybe apathy was giving way to engagement. That fall I was teaching composition to college freshmen. I had a classroom full of enthusiastic young students who for the first time in their lives would be old enough to vote. And I had the idea that it would be exciting to spend the semester reading essays like David Foster Wallace’s and writing about what it meant to be young, to have ideals, to live in a democracy, and to have a political voice. As I handed out the syllabus on the first day of class, gazing out upon their fresh, eager faces, I thought how satisfying it would be to prove those naysayers wrong.
The students saw the reading list. The collective groan was audible.
As it turned out, the naysayers were right.
That Americans hate politics is something everyone seems to agree on, even if no one knows exactly why. Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne has written that American hatred of politics derives from the “false polarization” created by liberalism and conservatism, a consequence of the cultural divisions that arose in the 1960s. For David Foster Wallace the culprit is the numbness of living in a consumer society. But both arguments suppose that, in the eras before Madison Avenue and Haight-Ashbury, Americans were thronging to rallies to shake hands with our beloved public servants. It may be true that we did so in larger numbers then than we do now, but there’s nevertheless a general sense that right from the start we’ve been a nation of individuals who have regarded politics with suspicion.
I grew up in the suburbs of Central New York in a middle-class family with college-educated parents whose political ideologies were a complete mystery to me. To say “mystery,” though, suggests I spent any time actually wondering what their ideologies were. I didn’t. I had no idea whom they voted for, and I seldom had any idea who was even running. My after-school activities were sports, not debate club. If I looked at the newspaper, it was to study box scores. In this I was no different from any of the rest of my friends.
Like a lot of kids in my position, my own political awakening, such as it was, occurred in college, but probably not in the way it was supposed to. It was the mid-’90s, and I remember one of my first college girlfriends — a feminist when it was still fashionable to confess to being such a thing — badgering me into taking a position on abortion. “I don’t know,” I finally admitted. “I don’t know if it’s right or wrong.”
“If you don’t know,” she said, not bothering to conceal her exasperation, “that means you’re pro-choice.”
I decided to take her word for it.
The main reason I’d chosen this college — one of the lowest tier in the New York state system — was its proximity to mountains. Some people went to college to learn and to expand their horizons. I wanted to go backpacking. Also, it was one of the few colleges that would have me. My apathy for politics was exceeded only by my indifference toward school work.
But once at college, my attitude gradually began to change. My crash course in women’s rights — compliments of my girlfriend — was an important first step. I began to wonder what else I was supposed to know.
My roommate and I had no TV. The internet wasn’t yet widespread. Aside from my girlfriend, the campus had virtually no detectable political pulse. But this small mountain town, which lacked virtually everything else, at least had a public radio station. The hour in the afternoon when they broke with pallid classical music to broadcast an international news program became a fixture of my college curriculum. It was both daunting and exhilarating to discover how big the world actually was, and how little of it I understood.
By my sophomore year, backpacking was no longer enough. I’d decided I was ready for something more. So I set my mind on a plan to escape, and suddenly I found myself willing to do even the unthinkable: study. I buried myself in books, pushed myself to write, and managed to make the dean’s list. And then, before the start of my junior year, I transferred from the mountains of New York to the plains of Ohio, to a school at the opposite end of every measurable spectrum: Antioch College, a place so infamous for countercultural rabble-rousing that its bookstore sold T-shirts touting the college’s unofficial slogan, “Boot Camp for the Revolution.” Overblown rhetoric or not, the campus certainly looked like a boot camp, with barrack-like dormitories and grassless, muddy footpaths. I was both awestruck and dazed. Even though it was 1996, not 1966, at Antioch the revolution was still very much alive. The school’s official slogan, borrowed from Horace Mann, the school’s founder, was “Be ashamed to die until you have won some small victory for humanity.” Even if I wasn’t quite ready to be worrying about how my tombstone might read, I liked the idea of being surrounded by people who were. What better way to make up for all those years of indifference than full immersion at the epicenter of activism?
But in all the excitement of starting over, I forgot to ask myself one important question: where in this atmosphere did someone like me belong? Although I had managed to shake off my apathy, I had no real intention of replacing it with fervor. I was introverted and increasingly bookish. I had no ideology. I was merely curious. My Antioch classmates wanted to change the world; I mostly just wanted to write short stories.
Instead of plotting victories for humanity, I spent my college years cloistered in the tiny office of the Antioch Review, logging fiction and poetry submissions on index cards. The Antioch Review is one of the longest-running literary journals in the country. I was one of the only students at the college who knew it even existed.
The other thing Antioch is known for, besides its activist student body, is being the butt of jokes. In the early 1990s, at the height of the culture wars, the school was a cautionary tale about the perils of political correctness, culminating in a Saturday Night Live skit lampooning the school’s Sexual Offense Prevention Policy. The SOPP was a document that required verbal permission before any sort of sexual contact could be initiated.
If you missed the skit, just close your eyes and picture a trembling Chris Farley (playing a “nose tackle and a Sigma Alpha Epsilon brother”) asking a scowling Shannen Doherty, “Can I put my hands on your buttocks?”
Needless to say, Antioch has neither a football team nor fraternities. And of course, Shannen Doherty said no. Within this triangulation you find the familiar caricature of progressive politics: that it’s the exclusive domain of the humorless and dull. Antioch, though, was anything but dull. Given the proliferation of unicycles and art cars and tattoos, the place often felt more like a circus than a campus. What the SNL skit overlooked was the important fact that the SOPP had been written and introduced entirely by the students themselves. Sexual harassment on college campuses was a problem; Antioch students had decided to come up with a solution. I appreciated the bullshit-free way in which my peers had set out to fix something that they believed was broken. If I’d been asked to take part, though, I have no doubt I’d have said no.
David Foster Wallace was probably right that no generation has cared less about politics than Generation Y. Then again, whoever said the same thing about my Generation X would have been right, too, as would whoever said it about the generation before that. The idea that Americans are selfish and individualistic isn’t new. There’s even a school of thought that suggests the idea is virtually as old as the nation itself, that these tendencies might be, paradoxically, an inheritance of the Puritans themselves. The Puritans’ relentless pursuit of self-denial, the argument goes, wound up turning the corner into self-indulgence. So closely did they identify themselves with the divine America that they came to feel they actually personified it. Which led, in a roundabout way, to that great American mystic, Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose preachings about self-reliance and transcendentalism begot Walt Whitman’s songs of himself; they became something of a national anthem. Ever since then, it seems, the majority of us have beat a hasty retreat from public life.
There are numerous variations on this idea, with different starting points and interpretations. Literary scholar R. W. B. Lewis calls his version of this mythic, individualist national identity “the American Adam.” He traces its evolution from Emerson to Thoreau to Whitman, and on to the early American novelists James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James. Lewis describes the American Adam, celebrated in this literary lineage, as “an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race; an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources.” The American Adam is a figure of pure innocence, focused inward, detached from the larger concerns of the world. He is Adam before the Fall.
If I was failing to become everything Horace Mann might have wanted me to be, I at least got out of my time at Antioch an awareness of the complicated matrix of political issues surrounding everything we do, including the telling of stories. I learned that even great works of literature were products of social values and ideas, too many of which often went unexamined. I came to understand instinctively what George Orwell meant when he wrote, three decades before Fredric Jameson, that “no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”
While at Antioch, my tolerance toward the compatibility of literature and politics gradually grew. I developed an interest — sacrilegious for a budding writer — in critical theory: Marxists and postcolonialists and postmodernists. The whole solemn crowd. I spent a seminar on Toni Morrison deconstructing the ways in which Beloved, Song of Solomon, Sula, and her other novels blended controversial social issues such as slavery and race with high art.
During the two years I spent at Antioch, my opinions did eventually grow stronger, my convictions more firm. My admiration grew as well for my classmates — for their passion and determination. They were as far from the American Adam as one could get. And yet, I didn’t try to emulate them. Or even to join them. I remained probably the only student at Antioch who took no part in demonstrations. Whenever my classmates were organizing and meeting and debating, I was somewhere else.
As was my tendency with most things, I fed my fascination with political activism by reading. I read everything I could find: Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life, histories of the Situationists, the SDS, the Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, the Angry Brigade. I read Hakim Bey and borrowed whatever dog-eared tracts my friends had lying around. I was like an anthropologist trying to decipher some exotic alien society. I wanted to understand their culture, their myths and religion. I wanted to know what propelled them. I wanted to know, in short, what made them so different from me.
In time I learned that there were things I lacked that true activists, like my classmates, had in abundance. Above all else, a tolerance for confrontation and a productive ability to channel anger. My instincts were hopelessly reversed. When it came to the issues I cared about most, what got triggered within me was more often flight than fight. The injustices of the world made me indignant, but more than that, they made me depressed. And the only way to escape the depression was to detach. This has remained true even as I’ve gotten older. My attraction for politics is still, more often than not, outweighed by my aversion.
In 2000, when George W. Bush was handed the presidency through a Supreme Court decision, it was the process that I wanted my students to be interested in. What mattered was taking part and caring, not about the outcome, but about why a thing like democracy was important.
In 2004, when Bush was reelected, I turned my radio off, and I’m not exaggerating when I say a year passed before I was able to turn it back on.
My attempt to interest that class of freshmen in writing about what it meant to be political was far from a success. The fault for its failure was undoubtedly mine. After all, how could I expect them to unravel their complicated feelings about democracy and political identity when I was still struggling to do so myself?
But even after the class was over and I packed my syllabus permanently away, these questions about my political self continued to nag at me. Then, in 2002, I happened to read an article in the New York Times about the difficult political situation in Haiti. The focus of the article was an enormous estate on that tumultuous island that had become occupied by armed gangs. In addition to being the site of a once-lavish hotel, the estate was also said to contain the last scrap of the island’s ravaged tropical rainforest. Against the armed intruders the article pitted the estate’s caretaker, a white Canadian whose mission was to try to save the estate, particularly the forest, from oblivion. (This was almost eight years before the devastating earthquake and cholera epidemic.) At the time, my knowledge of Haiti was sketchy, but I knew it was a place embroiled in unrest. I couldn’t help wondering what it meant that this Edenic estate had ever existed here, and what it meant for someone to be trying to preserve it amid widespread environmental destruction and political upheaval.
My desire to understand the complex situation there led me to a related article from twenty-seven years earlier. “A New Retreat for the Rich — Surrounded by Tumbledown Shacks” documented a party held to celebrate the opening of the hotel on that very estate in January 1974 (a year and a half before I was born). With a mixture of bewilderment and contempt, its author described the jet-setters and society figures gathered poolside in tuxedos and diamonds, utterly oblivious of the dire poverty and political instability surrounding them even then. The hotel had been built atop a powder keg. In fact, the earlier article could in retrospect be said to predict the one that would first catch my eye more than a quarter century later.
There was also a seemingly minor detail that both articles mentioned in passing. But this detail captured my imagination almost as much as the rest: at the turn of the nineteenth century the estate had been the home of Charles Leclerc, a French general who in 1801 had been sent by his brother-in-law, Napoleon Bonaparte, to restore slavery on the French colony. Since 1791, the slaves, led in part by Toussaint L’Ouverture, had been fighting to win their independence. Not long after they succeeded, Napoleon dispatched Leclerc to take it back.
But despite his warships and his forty thousand troops, Leclerc’s army was decimated. The general himself succumbed to yellow fever. His successor, Rochambeau, fared no better. Although L’Ouverture would not live to see it, the war he had helped to wage became the first successful slave rebellion in history. In 1804, Haiti became the world’s first independent black republic.
This bloody episode was not, however, the end of Haiti’s troubles. It was instead the beginning of a different struggle. The following two hundred years have been characterized by nearly perpetual autocratic rule and fairly regular American meddling. At the time of my initial research, Haiti was in the midst of a difficult transition to democracy. The country’s first popularly elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, brought to power in 1990, had already been overthrown once by a military coup. He’d been reelected in 2000 for a second term, but alleged irregularities and deep divisions among the electorate had created a tense, often violent atmosphere.
Amy Wilentz’s Rainy Season chronicles the plight of Haiti’s poor and the rise of Aristide, their champion, from firebrand priest to politician. The book is the story of a nation that for generations has suffered oppression most Americans can barely fathom. But the book also makes clear that this is not a nation of passive victims. In Haiti, brutality has always met resistance. The struggles of individuals, communities, and the populace as a whole reveal a relentless determination to see justice done — a determination still plainly visible in the midst of post-earthquake reconstruction and a new round of democratic elections.
For many Americans, politics is an abstraction, something that happens somewhere else, overseen by people we pay to handle things so we don’t have to think about them. In a place like Haiti, I came to see, politics is virtually inescapable. In 1964, while in exile during the reign of dictator Françoise Duvalier, Haitian scholar (and future president) Leslie Manigat wrote of the situation back home, “Everything is political… The reputation earned by an engineer in his special field is regarded as a political trump. The prestige that a professor gains among his students may represent a political threat to the government… Such is the encroachment of politics on all aspects of life that if a man does not go into politics, politics itself comes to him.”
Poring over newspaper articles from the country’s recent past, I found one from 1987, not long after the thirty-year father-and-son Duvalier dictatorship finally came to an end. The constitutionally required “free and fair” elections scheduled for that year — the nation’s first — pitted candidates from numerous camps against one another. And as the ruling military junta began to realize that it stood no chance of retaining power, they concluded that their only recourse was to stop the election from taking place. This they accomplished by orchestrating a campaign of violence culminating in a daylight attack on a school where at least two dozen men, women, and children were slaughtered while waiting to vote.
Could there be any more stark a contrast than between David Foster Wallace’s bemoaning of voter apathy in the U.S. and the situation in Haiti, where in 1987, daring to vote could get a person killed, and where people persisted in doing it anyway? For most of us, the impossibility of something like this happening in our own lives, in our own country, makes the horror feel pretty abstract, too. We can’t conceive of such a world, even though it’s less than a two-hour flight from Miami.
The more I read about Haiti, the more I came to believe that conceiving of such a world is one of the most important things literature can do. And I realized that some of my favorite novels, the ones to which I felt the greatest affinity, were concerned with politically averse individuals caught in the middle of similarly fraught political situations. I’m thinking, for instance, of Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile, which depicts the complicity in dictatorial brutality of a priest who wants nothing more than to be a poet. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, by Ayi Kwei Armah, places a government clerk stricken with malaise in the center of Ghanaian political and social turmoil. And many of J. M. Coetzee’s novels explore this terrain, too, including Waiting for the Barbarians, in which an unnamed magistrate wishes to disassociate himself from the evils of the empire he serves. It’s worth noting that none of these are American novels. Which suggests that maybe political aversion isn’t limited to our shores after all.
It probably shouldn’t be surprising then that the book I came to write, based in part on the events I’d been reading about in Haiti, also placed political aversion at its core. I don’t think it was a conscious decision, but it was clearly a symptom of what my mind was working through. I couldn’t help asking, as I looked back on my own complicated relationship with politics: if I had been born in such a place, how might I have been different? Might I have been stronger, someone with the courage to take a stand? Or might I have found a way to be the same detached observer that I am? Or something even more extreme: a true American Adam, determined to remain innocent in a place where such a luxury seemed inconceivable, where attempts to secure it were doomed to fail? These questions felt important to me.
But the questions also felt personal. It soon became clear that despite writing about someone whose circumstances and skin color and place of birth could hardly have been more different from my own, I was writing in large part about myself. In fact, I was writing, albeit in a much different form, the sort of thing I had asked my students to write back in 2000 — about what it meant to have ideals and a political voice, and about the strength it sometimes took to express them, especially when it was so much easier not to. It’s taken me more than ten years to do what I hoped they could accomplish in a semester. Little did I know how difficult an assignment it would turn out to be.
Image: 2006 election in Haiti via Wikimedia
I began 2010 in Provincetown reading J. M. Coetzee’s latest book, Summertime. Though published as a novel, Summertime can be read as a sequel to Coetzee’s two volumes of memoir, Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life and Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II, both of which Coetzee wrote in the third person. In Summertime, a famous writer named John Coetzee has died. The book is made up largely of a young biographer’s interviews with various people (all but one female) who once knew the writer. Much of what these people have to say is unflattering, at times contemptuous and even cruel. When their words are put together with excerpts from the writer’s journals, a fascinating—if less than lovable—portrait of “Coetzee” emerges. This is a strange, poignant, and often very funny hybrid of a book, though, for me, not quite as haunting as the earlier autobiographical works, particularly Boyhood.
The end of 2010 finds me in Marfa, Texas, reading Coetzee again. Coetzee has long been a favorite writer of mine, the restraint and asceticism of his short books making so much other literary writing seem undisciplined and turgid by comparison. I had read almost all his work, but in the house where I’m staying I found two novels I hadn’t gotten around to yet: The Age of Iron and Life and Times of Michael K. The bleakness of the characters’ lives (hopelessly sick, poor, friendless souls crushed by South African society’s brutal systems) makes for almost unbearable reading. Yet Coetzee seems to me one of the few contemporary writers whose work can be called “necessary” without fear of overstatement. And who else could have written Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace?
For years people have been urging me to read James Galvin’s The Meadow, and this year I finally did. The Meadow is the story of a particular piece of land in a mountainous region on the border of Colorado and Wyoming over a period of a century. It is both a natural history of the place and a portrait of the various people—ordinary in some ways, utterly extraordinary in others—who have struggled to make their lives there. As the meadow lies on the border of two states, so The Meadow lies between fiction and nonfiction. Not like any other book I’ve ever read, almost a new genre, it contains passages as beautifully written as anything in American literature. When I read work as fine as that of either of these two wonderful writers I think: I’ll write like that in heaven.
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Why did J.M. Coetzee write The Master of Petersburg?
I mean this as an existential question; the purpose of the novel itself is unusually explicit: not content to be merely “Dostoevskian” in tone, Coetzee’s protagonist actually is Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the story is a fictional account of events in Dostoevsky’s life prior to, and leading to, his writing of the novel Demons. In that way, Master of Petersburg is a sort of reverse mathematical problem. Given a set of factors, it is a matter of simple calculation to derive their product. But what if you start with the product – can you work backwards to discover the original sum from which that product was derived? The possibilities, particular with a large, complex figure, would be infinite. Here, the novel Demons is the product, the effect, the outcome. And from the known answer, Coetzee imagines the unknown questions.
Set in Russia in 1869, Master of Petersburg follows “Dostoevsky’s” grief-stricken return to St. Petersburg after news of the death of his stepson, Pavel, for whom he felt a profound though inscrutable love. While living in Pavel’s old room, he develops a sexual relationship with Pavel’s old landlady, the widow Anna Sergeyevna, along with a fascination with her adolescent daughter, Matryosha. As he becomes increasingly enmeshed in the enigma of his stepson’s death, he discovers Pavel was a member of the nihilist Sergei Nechayev’s revolutionary gang. Nechayev, who is living in hiding, has all the while been scheming to trap Dostoyevsky so to exploit his fame as an author by forcing him to write a pamphlet endorsing the Nechayevite philosophy. Out of these ultimately ambiguous social and political interactions, Dostoevsky begins writing a new novel, ostensibly Demons, in the last chapter of the book.
This plot lies at the murky intersection between fact and two fictions, Coetzeean fiction and Dostoevskian fiction (i.e., Demons). Several elements are based in fact: Dostoevsky did have a stepson named Pavel, who was likewise something of an enigma, although he survived his stepfather. Sergei Nechayev was a real Russian nihilist and revolutionary, and his association with the 1869 murder of a fellow student, Ivanov, partly inspired Dostoevsky to write Demons, where he portrays such idealists of his time as demonic. But the story also draws from the plot of Demons itself, most heavily from “At Tikhon’s,” a chapter originally suppressed by Dostoevsky’s editors, in which the character Stavrogin confesses to having once seduced his landlord’s 12-year old daughter, Matryosha, and driven her to suicide. And finally, to this heady mix Coetzee adds some fiction of his own.
You have to give Coetzee credit for this undertaking, this deconstruction of both the power and process of writing. As a prominent South African writer, no doubt Coetzee was keen to examine the political power of the authorial voice, through Nechayev’s belief in the import of having a famous writer pen the words of a revolutionary pamphlet – and the extreme measures he would take to bring about such a coup. Equally contemplated is the personal power of writing, as it is a means for “Dostoevsky” to access his son, to “give up his soul” so as to “meet him in death.”
But when it comes to the process of writing, you can’t escape the fact that this is not Dostoevsky writing about Dostoevsky writing. It is Coetzee writing about “Dostoevsky” writing. Given this structure, it’s Coetzee’s own role in solving the reverse mathematical problem that compels above all. Why did he choose what he did, from fact, from Dostoevskian fiction, and from Coetzeean fiction? Moreover, Demons is not a novel in a vacuum: many of Dostoevsky’s real-life inspirations are documented, yet Coetzee replaces several of these with fictional inspirations of his own design. Is Master of Petersburg then an account of a fictional writing process? Or is Coetzee laying his own writing process bare?
It’s nearly impossible not to be sidetracked by these thought experiments while reading Master of Petersburg. The fact that much of the (Dostoevskian) fictional parts of the plot are dedicated to Demon’s excised chapter involving the young girl’s molestation is particularly distracting. Coetzee is not alone in holding Stavrogin’s confession as integral to Demons: while some think that Dostoevsky himself was dissatisfied with the confession, others view the forced excision of what was an indispensable chapter as rendering the novel morally asymmetrical. But the extent to which “At Tikhon’s” aligns Demons is not my issue; rather, it is “Dostoevsky’s” largely unexplained tendency to continually attach a sexual subtext to the young girl Matryosha’s interactions, whether with Nechayev, with a sort of version of Pavel that he imagines in the future, or even with himself.
[Dostoyevsky] has no difficulty in imagining this child in her ecstasy… This is as far as the violation goes: the girl in the crook of his arm, the five fingers of his hand, white and dumb, gripping her shoulder. But she might as well be sprawled out naked…
It’s eventually jarring how Coetzee deliberately (and repeatedly) advocates that “Dostoevsky” would be prompted by his own perception of a young girl as above all a sexual object to conceive of the particular molestation scene described in Stavrogin’s confession. I’m not implying this rings false (though it’s somewhat overdone), just that it highlights the major weakness of Coetzee’s particular form of the reverse math problem as fiction: the reader is often far more preoccupied with why Coetzee made his choices than with the choices themselves.
This brings me back to my original, existential question: why did Coetzee write Master of Petersburg? It’s an inspired project, but by its own premise it is merely an experiment, a study, rather than a novel. Coetzee has been criticized for his metafiction before: his 1986 novel Foe, which weaves its plot around Robinson Crusoe, drew him criticism for being a disappointingly politically irrelevant work coming from one of South Africa’s most lauded writers. The New York Times concluded that “the novel – which remains somewhat solipsistically concerned with literature and its consequences – lacks the fierceness and moral resonance of [Waiting for the Barbarians] and [Life and Times of Michael K]…”
However, my criticism of Master of Petersburg is of the literary, not political, variety. Countless excellent novels have been inspired by existing works, but though Coetzee’s writing is stunning, the story, composed of curious but ultimately inconclusive events, never takes hold. It offers much by way of intellectual exercise, but on its own fails to satisfy. More autonomous novels similarly fashioned out of vague questions and ideas contain a central truth or truths that are not merely valuable, but in a sense new, and that have thus driven the author to sit down to write. Here, the underlying purpose, the answer, exists in another novel altogether. And as it turns out, Dostoevsky’s answer is more interesting than Coetzee’s questions.
Many of my favorite books – Dracula, The Rings of Saturn, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – came to me as assigned reading. Even more than specific titles, I inherited my favorite authors from professors: Nicholson Baker, Harryette Mullen, Turgenev, George Saunders.
This literary bestowal carries on into adulthood as I seek my favorite authors’ favorite authors. At HTMLGIANT, Blake Butler started a broad compendium of David Foster Wallace’s favorite works, encompassing books he blurbed, books assigned on his syllabus, books mentioned in interviews and in passing. It is a nourishing list, a place to turn when I think about what I should read next.
But my road with the recommendations of my favorite authors has been unpaved and rocky.
I devoured U and I, Nicholson Baker’s endearing, humorous volume on John Updike. I loved that he read the copyright page of each Updike book, tracing where essays or excerpts had been previously published. U and I is about Updike, yes, but it is more about Baker wrestling with Updike’s impact on a personal level. Early in the book he lays it out: “I was not writing an obituary or a traditional critical study, I was trying to record how one increasingly famous writer and his books, read and unread, really functioned in the fifteen or so years of my life since I had first become aware of his existence…”
Because the book is about Baker not about Updike, I found it easy to like. Baker recounts the 125th anniversary party for The Atlantic where Tim O’Brien tells him that he and Updike golf together: “I was of course very hurt that out of all the youngish writers in the Boston area, Updike had chosen Tim O’Brien and not me as his golfing partner. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t written a book that had won a National Book Award, hadn’t written a book of any kind, and didn’t know how to golf.”
And so, under Baker’s tutelage, I read John Updike. More accurately, I tried to read Updike, tried and tried. Rabbit, Run. Pigeon Feathers. The Poorhouse Fair. I didn’t finish any of them, I barely started them. I would have scoured Couples for the passage where Updike compares a vagina to a ballet slipper – which Baker mentions – if I could have gotten through the second chapter.
After quoting his own mother and Nabokov, Baker tells me, “There is no aphoristic consensus to deflect and distort the trembly idiosyncratic paths each of us may trace in the wake of the route that the idea of Updike takes through our consciousness.” Updike is not an idea that is tracing its way – neither trembling nor idiosyncratic – through my consciousness. There is no Updike boat leaving a wake in the waves of my mind like a yacht leaving Cape Cod for the Vineyard.
Rather than accept that Baker and I – being of different eras and different genders – have different taste, I concluded that I must be intellectually and creatively deficient; I am a bad reader. I was disappointed in myself for disappointing the Nicholson Baker in my mind, shaking his bearded head, tut-tutting at me: Poor girl, she’ll never understand.
A few months ago I picked up The Anthologist and started it, in the midst of other selections. (When the book came out last September, I actually drove twenty miles to Marin to see Baker read. I was the youngest member of the audience by thirty years. But I am afraid to buy a book at a reading, and petrified of the prospect of having an author sign the book. I could make a fool of myself as Baker did when asking Updike to sign a book in the early 80s.)
Then a couple weeks ago I received a mass email from a writer I know about how he was reading The Anthologist, and I felt the urge to pick it up again. He even said, “I’m really loving The Anthologist.”
I haven’t read everything by Baker, but I’ve read a bunch and enjoyed it on my own; yet, his authoritative praise weighs more than my own evaluation.
Recently in Maine in a used bookstore (that was also the bookseller’s refurbished garage), I stumbled on three of Carson McCullers’ books for $1 each. (In case you are wondering, and you should be wondering, I was not close to Nicholson Baker’s home in Maine, but further up the coast near E.B. White’s former home, near the county fair where Fern bought Wilbur.) The cover of the tattered McCullers paperback proclaimed “One of the finest writers of our time” from The New York Times. I couldn’t recall exactly where I’d heard her name, but it was vaguely familiar. I bought all three.
I started The Ballad of the Sad Café and she drew me into her vivid, textured Southern world. Her descriptions are precise ideas: “The hearts of small children are delicate organs. A cruel beginning in this world can twist them into curious shapes.”
She commands the reader and directs me what to do: “See the hunchback marching in Miss Amelia’s footsteps when on a red winter morning they set out for the pinewoods to hunt… See them working on her properties… So compose from such flashes an image of these years as a whole. And for a moment let it rest.” This second-person imperative jumped out of the smooth, poetic narrative, but it fit like a nest on a tree. McCullers is unafraid to acknowledge you and make you do what she thinks you should. Yet she maintains authorial distance and control by refraining from the first person while directing your attention like a gentle guide: “Now some explanation is due for all this behavior,” she opens an aside on the nature of love. She then elides authority by saying, “It has been mentioned before that Miss Amelia was once married.”
Even before I’d finished the novella, though, I dug around online to verify my delight. Didn’t I read somewhere that David Foster Wallace liked her? Did I remember a retrospective on her in the TLS? No, I didn’t, I was mistaken. Try as I may, the highest compliment I found was from Graham Greene who said, “Miss McCullers and perhaps Mr. Faulkner are the only writers since the death of D. H. Lawrence with an original poetic sensibility.” Now, don’t get me wrong. Graham Greene is fine, but I didn’t even finish The End of the Affair, and he is nowhere near my top ten. From whom did I inherit McCullers?
My Internet searching revealed some critical acclaim (in the Modern Library Revue column on The Millions, for one) and she is mentioned in the same breath as Saul Bellow, Flannery O’Connor, W.H. Auden, and Tennessee Williams, each time with a different, equally flattering comparison.
But I was disappointed. In myself? In McCullers? In other authors who did not love her as I am growing to?
I suppose if I can find an author and grow to love them outside of a direct inheritance, maybe, too, I could reject select elements of my more obvious literary heritage. Hesitantly, I have begun to dismiss other favorites’ favorites. When a former student of his published David Foster Wallace’s syllabus, I promptly downloaded the PDF. As I read the list, I was very self-assured: I’d been meaning to read Waiting for the Barbarians! I loved the Flannery O’Connor story he assigned (“A Good Man is Hard to Find”). He boldly included young contemporary writers like Aimee Bender and Sam Lipsyte. But Silence of the Lambs. Really? I would not follow him there. Maybe I am only disadvantaging myself. Silence of the Lambs may be the literary masterwork that could forever change my outlook on literature and fiction, just like Updike was supposed to.
Where I formerly swallowed recommendations whole, I now cull through them – not exactly on my own but in a more independent fashion. I find books, I do not just receive them. Or, I try to.
I am not a bad reader nor am I intellectually and creatively deficient, or, if I am, it is not because I do not like John Updike but for entirely different reasons.