When I seek lonely women in literature, I usually find them flocked by too many perfectly un-fun creeps. You know what I mean: those lonely boys who trail behind the lonely women to make it clear that true love with an equally lonely person is the cure for all ills. It usually works out so that a quirky, lonely woman finds her complementary quirky dude partner and a happy ending ensues. Alcy Leyva’s novel And Then There Were Crows succeeds at giving us a very weird, super isolated, lonely woman protagonist whose story is not sodden with a shoehorned love interest. Instead, Leyva’s lonely woman protagonist fulfills the role of the antisocial slayer who mostly just needs to make friends. Crows stars an agoraphobic Queens native named Amanda Grey whose combination of financial instability, neuroses, and family issues lead her to seek a Craigslist roommate. The search quickly goes awry: “When she inadvertently rents a room to a demon, Grey goes from a woman concentrated on her own personal demons to the woman responsible for recapturing the six Shades from Hell she’s unleashed upon the city.” Grey’s efforts to recapture all of the pesky Shades obligates her to go outside, talk to strangers, and assemble a ragtag group of friends (including a very shifty seraphim). Leyva pits Grey’s agoraphobia against the Shades’ desire to dominate New York City. Grey prefers to hide in her apartment, avoiding everything she hates: “Staying indoors was perfect for me and I never complained, never thought I was missing out in life. I only came out when necessary ... but every time it was like landing on an alien planet. People are weird, sick, creatures; mouth breathers.” Grey’s loneliness and total hermit status is as an addiction, a best friend, and a trap. She clings to solitude but feels deeply guilty when the Shades incite chaos and slaughter. As much as she longs to hide in her comfort zone, she also wants to clean up the mess she’s accidentally made. The text plays with this dichotomy between the safety of Grey’s apartment inside and the anxiety-inducing world outside. New York also plays a part in the novel; even though Grey abhors the mouth-breathers of the world, she begrudgingly admits that she values the hell out of Queens and resents the encroaching gentrification. When she visits Brooklyn, she notes the borough’s “assimilation limbo” with disgust. She’s protective of her fellow New Yorkers and resentful of “the young hipsters” who have “no idea what a piping hot two dollar chop-cheese with extra onions does for a person’s soul.” What Grey values about Queens, her neighbors, and other ungentrified pockets of New York reflects the best facets of her own personality, too. She likes the ultra-casual, I-plainly-do-not-give-a-fuck-ness of the super in her building, or the eclectic indifference of the Polish couple who run a greasy burger joint across the street from her apartment. Clearly, Grey respects a willingness to be funny and weird. This respect for quirkiness explains why she devotes so much time digressing from her quest to explain the terrible “ramen pop” recipe she crafted while holed up in her apartment. Digressions aside, when Grey lovingly describes the crazy idiosyncrasies of her neighborhood, it urges the reader to care more about whether or not demons overtake New York. Also, the whole business of protecting New York from pure evil could devolve into a depressing and torturous burden, but Leyva is willing to be funny about it all. The text respects hijinks—Grey, her wily seraphim, a good-natured neighbor who Just Wants to Help, the demon roommate, and Grey’s estranged sister all team up to vanquish the Shades in a series of very wacky plots. When Grey and her crew target a Shade who aspires to commandeer the local government, the novel twists into a Mission Impossible-meets-Scooby Doo ploy that involves a children’s programming host and a large bookstore full of riotous people. The whole thing is so wild that the seraphim refers to it as “the worst fucking plan I have ever heard in my life. And I’ve lived for several thousand centuries.” As mentioned, the text notably does not shove a lonely boy love story down the reader’s throat, nor does it decide that a heavily romantic subplot will cure all of Grey’s neuroses. The book provides a slight romantic interest in the form of the caring neighbor, but Grey’s transformation from total recluse to Shade slayer prioritizes her increasing ability to relate to other people and challenge her social anxiety and agoraphobia. The book avoids using their chemistry to engineer a simple, happy resolution. The final chapter is not romantic, nor quite of this world—but despite some serious turns, Grey retains her ability to make fun of just about everything. Even after learning of a bruising and supernatural betrayal, she decides to laugh it off: “I figured that’s where I should start—just straight up laughing at the whole thing.”
If you’re a slob, you’re a pig. If you’re sneaky, you’re a weasel. Cowards are chickens, and followers are sheep or lemmings. If you give bad loans, you’re a shark. If you’re fat, you’re a cow, or maybe a whale. If you’re lazy, you’re a sloth. Crazy folks are batty; people who talk shit are catty. Villains are snakes, women are bitches, and the lowest of low are dogs. The president of the United States of America recently said of undocumented immigrants, “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people—these are animals.” In the English language, at least, being compared to an animal is rarely a compliment. (Even if you’re called a fox because you’re oh so sexy, there’s also the implication that you’re sly, tricky, and untrustworthy.) In fact, comparing people to animals isn’t just unflattering, but dangerous. According to Genocide Watch, equating members of an ethnic group with animals, vermin, insects, or diseases is the third stage of genocide, as this type of comparison “overcomes the normal human revulsion against murder.” During the Holocaust, Jews were called rats; during the Rwandan genocide, Tutsis were called cockroaches. This made them easier to kill: They weren’t humans. They were animals. They were less. But if you called Sy Montgomery a dog, she wouldn’t be insulted; she would be flattered. In Montgomery’s new book How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals, the renowned nature writer best known for her book on eight-armed mollusks focuses her observant eye on her own life and the creatures that shaped her. “Though I’ve been blessed with some splendid classroom teachers—Mr. Clarkson, my high school journalism teacher, foremost among them,” Montgomery writes in the introduction, “most of my teachers have been animals.” In her memoir, Montgomery argues the point that not only should being compared to an animal be taken as a compliment, but we should be humbled in the presence of our fellow creatures. We have so much to learn from them. The first creature Montgomery introduces us to is, naturally, her beloved childhood dog, Molly. A strong-willed and independent Scottish Terrier, Molly seemed to be more of a roommate than a pet, and she enjoyed her days freely roaming the Brooklyn army base where Montgomery grew up. “She wouldn’t come in when we called her in at night,” writes Montgomery of Molly. “Eventually my parents figured out we could blink the front porch lights on and off to signal that we would like her to come home. It was merely a suggestion.” Perhaps because of the independent nature of Scotties, Montgomery never seemed to feel control or power over the dog—Montgomery was not Molly’s master, but her peer. “Many young girls worship their older sisters. I was no expectation,” writes Montgomery. “But my older sister was a dog, and I—standing there helplessly in the frilly dress and lacy socks in which my mother had dressed me—wanted to be just like her: Fierce. Feral. Unstoppable.” Molly, in Montgomery’s eyes, wasn’t just a dog; she was a superhero. “I was entranced by Molly’s otherworldly powers,” writes Montgomery. “She could hear my father’s approaching staff car long before it arrived in the driveway. She could smell an opened can of Ken-L Ration from the moment my mother took it out of the refrigerator. She could see in the dark.” Dogs are so much more than cute fuzz balls to curl up with on the couch or toss a Frisbee to, Montgomery reminds us—they quite literally have superhuman abilities. No wonder Montgomery followed Molly around like, well, a puppy. The image of a little Montgomery in a muddied dress and Mary Janes chasing after her Scottie dog, in turn chasing after a rogue Brooklyn rabbit, is a charming visual. “Cute,” one might think. “She wants to be just like her dog. What a delightful phase.” But the thing with Montgomery is that this desire to emulate the animals in her life was not a phase. She has spent the past 60 years admiring animals and following them to some of the most obscure locations around the globe to study and write about them. “I was never, my mother told me, a ‘normal’ child,” writes Montgomery. It’s true: People—children, and especially adults—who obsess over animals are seen as odd. It’s okay to like animals; it’s okay even to love them, but not too much. It’s not “normal.” It is easy to dismiss Montgomery as one of those over-the-top animal people: She is a vegetarian, she lives on a farm in New Hampshire, she has had pet dogs, turtles, ferrets, parakeets, cockatiels, chickens, and even a pig named Christopher Hogwood (who not only gets his own chapter in How to Be a Good Creature but about whom Montgomery already wrote another entire book). She’s the crazy animal person who would hold a tarantula. It’s too much, right? It’s not. In the same way that we are told that being compared to an animal is an insult, people are taught to believe that it is unhealthy to be too fond of animals. It’s all social conditioning. “People aren’t born with a fear of spiders,” argues Montgomery. “You can quickly teach a young person or animal to fear anything, including a harmless flower,” she writes in her chapter on Clarabelle, a tarantula she came to know and love when doing research in French Guiana. Montgomery herself wasn’t too fond of spiders before going on this South American expedition with a biologist who specializes in studying Goliath birdeater tarantulas. But eventually, she found herself holding a tarantula when “something magical happened. Holding her in my hand, I could literally feel a connection with this creature. No longer did I see her as a really big spider; now I saw her as a small animal.” It’s all about changing your perspective. Montgomery was able to hold a tarantula after she learned that spiders rarely bite people and that, actually, encased in their exoskeletons, tarantulas are quite delicate. In this same way, Montgomery makes the point throughout her memoir that if you open your eyes to the complex beauty of the natural world, you can see that being called an animal is actually something extremely remarkable. It’s something to be proud of. If you’re called a pig, you’re super smart. If you’re called a weasel, you can hold on tight to the things you want. If you’re a chicken, you’re affectionate and have many friends. Animals have so many admirable qualities that we would be better humans if we worked harder to emulate our non-human friends. When President Donald Trump tweeted that Steve Bannon had been “dumped like a dog,” Jennifer Weiner wrote an essay for The New York Times called “What the President Doesn’t Get About Dogs.” According to how Trump uses “dog” to insult his enemies, “dogs are failures, dogs are unattractive, dogs are unworthy of faith,” writes Weiner. But anyone who has ever had a dog knows otherwise; if someone calls you a dog, it should be because you are loyal and kind. Trump is one of the only American presidents not to have a pet at the White House, and as Weiner writes, “It takes a lot to elicit sympathy for a man whose life goals seem to be deepening America’s divisions, lining his pockets and starting a third world war on Twitter, not necessarily in that order. But it’s hard not to be a little sad for anyone who won’t ever know the singular pleasure of a dog’s companionship.” Sy Montgomery’s latest book is all about the pleasure that comes from a life rich with many creatures. How to Be a Good Creature, though, is about more than appreciating animals: It is about learning from them. It is about how to be a good creature. “Knowing someone who belongs to another species can enlarge your soul in surprising ways,” writes Montgomery. There is something about animals that is pure. Animals are observant. Animals are loyal. Animals only attack when threatened. Animals respect the world they live in. Animals would never break up family groups into separate cages or discriminate against people for their religious affiliation or make a thinly veiled rape joke. Animals love homeless people and members of the 1 percent equally. Animals don’t care about your job or your power or your fame or your status. Animals value you for the content of your character. This is why we should follow Montgomery’s advice and be more like animals ourselves. While How to Be a Good Creature is Sy Montgomery’s memoir, it is actually much more about our current political climate than Fear or Fire and Fury or any of those “fuck Trump” books. What Montgomery seems to be saying, underneath her personal story, is that when our human leaders fail us as role models, we should look to animals. “I can tell you that teachers are all around to help you: with four legs or two or even eight; some with internal skeletons, some without,” writes Montgomery. “All you have to do is recognize them as teachers and be ready to hear their truths.” When you feel despair at the actions of your fellow humans, turn to other species for guidance.
Out this week: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan; The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish by Katya Apekina; Boomer1 by Daniel Torday (whom we interviewed); Heartland by Sarah Smarsh; Writers Under Surveillance: The FBI Files; The Dictionary of Animal Languages by Heidi Sopinka; These Truths by Jill Lepore; My Pet Serial Killer by Michael Seidlinger; Static Flux by Natasha Young; and Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini. Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.
1. Donald Trump was hardly into his first full calendar year as president before a chorus of critics and pundits began to use the word “dystopian” to describe his administration and the social milieu that it seemed to precipitate. In March 2017, novelist John Feffer wrote, “Unpredictability, incompetence, and demolition are the dystopian watchwords of the current moment, as the world threatens to fragment before our very eyes.” Months later, Entertainment Weekly ran an article with the hypertext title, “How the Trump era made dystopia cool again.” The A.V. Club and Vulture both proposed that we had reached “peak dystopia.” Writing for The New Yorker, Jill Lepore described our era as “A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction.” (Not of, but “for.”) In early 2018, when the internet was briefly galvanized by talk of Oprah Winfrey running against Donald Trump in 2020, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane described that potential contest as “troublingly dystopian.” What a curious, discomfiting situation we find ourselves in when the buzzword à la mode is 130 years old, and the literary genre we once relied on to explicate life behind the Iron Curtain is now apparently reflective of contemporary America. But what exactly is it about the Trump administration that makes us reach for such specific literary terminology? Is it the sudden resurgence of white supremacy and fascist sympathies in the American heartland, providing a speculative path toward American authoritarianism? Perhaps, but neither racism nor fascism are requirements of the genre. Are we terrified that this administration will instigate a world-ending nuclear conflict with North Korea, and/or Russia—and/or a devastating economic war with China, and/or Europe? If so, the relevant literary genre would be apocalyptic, not necessarily dystopian. Or do we say “dystopian” hyperbolically—reflecting our anxieties about a nightmarish social sphere of distress, confusion, and disorientation? That might be better described as surreal, or absurd. Are we alarmed by the hard pivot away from professionalism, decency, and decorum? Issues like these are more at home in the novel of manners, such as Pride and Prejudice. Or are we simply dismayed and alarmed by the convergence of an outrageous, semi-competent administration and a general mood of anti-intellectualism? That would be a job for satire. Trump himself—bumbling, bombastic, egoic, unaware, unpredictable, unread—would be more at home as the quixotic protagonist of a picaresque, or as a delusional child king in a fairy tale. It is my suspicion that we call some things “dystopian” for the same reason we sometimes abuse correct usage of “gothic,” “ironic,” or “Kafkaesque”: We like the sound of it, and we enjoy invoking its vaguer associations. But if we’re going by conventional definitions, it is arguable that there was nothing specifically or egregiously dystopian about the Trump administration until last April, when the administration announced a new “zero tolerance” policy on illegal border crossing, becoming the first White House in memory to implement a standing procedure for separating migrant children from their parents, even as they attempted to surrender themselves legally in a plea for sanctuary. Dystopia is a rich, heterogeneous, and dynamic category of film and literature. However, when we look at the most successful, enduring works of this genre, we find the same institution caught in the crosshairs of various fictional totalitarian regimes, again and again: the independent and autonomous nuclear family. 2. Dystopian fiction was preceded by utopian fiction, beginning in 1516 with Thomas More’s novel Utopia. (The synthetic Greek toponym “Utopia” was simply More’s joking name for his setting—an invented South American island—as the word literally means “no place,” or “nowhere.”) Utopian novels were immensely popular in 19th-century England, as humanist philosophies and medical and industrial technologies at the tail end of the Enlightenment combined to suggest a better and brighter tomorrow. Theoretically, a fruitful Eden was almost within reach. Yes, dystopia is commonly described as the opposite of utopia, but this obscures a common trope in which dystopic future societies are presented as the aftermath (or consequence) of failed attempts to bring about an actual utopia. Perhaps the precursor to dystopian fiction is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s anti-utopian novel Notes from the Underground, published in 1864. Dostoevsky’s skeptical narrator monologues at length on the preposterousness of the idea that science and Western philosophy were ushering in a radical new era of human progress: “Only look about you: blood is being spilt in streams, and in the merriest way, as though it were champagne.” Dostoevsky’s intention, partly, was to deride and pick apart Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s utilitarian, materialist novel, What Is to Be Done?, in which characters make grand, romantic statements about the joyful founding of an eternal, collectivist utopia. Dostoevsky’s Underground Man sees two major flaws in this thinking. First, if given the opportunity to submit to rational prescriptions for a better life, people would rather be free to suffer. Second, idealism—when taken too seriously—tends to breed dissociation, distortion, and interpersonal alienation. Today we associate a handful of qualities with the concept of dystopia: governmental overreach, unnatural social configurations, paranoia, state-driven propaganda, digitally panoptic surveillance, and other alienating technologies. However, none of these characteristics are intrinsic to the genre, just as dystopian fiction isn’t necessarily satirical or allegorical, regardless of the popularity of Black Mirror. Dystopia is such a diverse and mutable canon overall that there are no essential commonalities—with one possible exception: a significant distortion of family relations. Nearly all landmark works of dystopian fiction feature an oppressive governmental order that interferes with what we might term the “natural” process of family-making: choosing a partner and raising a family freely and relatively unencumbered by external power structures. This is observed from the outset in the seminal dystopian novel We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, published in Russia in 1921. Set in the walled-off, hyper-rational future society One State, in which sexual liaisons are overseen by the government, the conflict in We is precipitated by a moment of illicit flirtation, and the principal transgression upon which the plot later hangs is an unlicensed pregnancy. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, fetuses gestate in artificial wombs and are raised by the state. Here, too, an illegal pregnancy is a major plot point, and the word “father” is an epithet. In 1984, George Orwell’s Oceania allows marriage but prohibits divorce, as well as non-procreative sex. Winston Smith’s central offense is his illegal affair with Julia, and it is her whom he must betray to restore his safety and good standing. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag’s unhappy, alienating marriage is the consequence of an illiterate, spiritually unwell society. In Lois Lowry’s The Giver, infants are not raised by their biological mothers but are assigned to families—if they are not summarily euthanized. Even in the bubblegum dystopia The Hunger Games, the action commences with Katniss’s motherly intervention on her little sister’s behalf, sparing her from certain death, allowing her to continue to have a childhood. The most influential dystopian novel of this moment is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, thanks to the Hulu miniseries adaptation starring Elisabeth Moss, previously a different sort of feminist icon in AMC’s Mad Men. In Atwood’s novel, a near-future United States is replaced by an Old-Testament Christian theonomy in which healthy young women are forced to bear children for high-status men and their infertile wives. This feature of Atwood’s world-building can’t exactly be chalked up to pure fantasy crafted in the welter of creative genius. To borrow a phrase, we’ve seen this before. In an essay for Glamour last year, Jenae Holloway writes that she is “frustrated and jealous that [her] white feminist allies are able to digest The Handmaid’s Tale through the lens of a fictitious foreboding”—in other words, that the show does not strike them as it strikes her: with a sense of “déjà vu.” Holloway’s essay reminds us that an even cursory look into slavery in the Americas reveals separations of children from parents, forced adoptions, and rape as standard to the experience. Breaking up families is not simply a systematic and normalized aspect of state control; it is a requirement to maintain the system itself. Historically, human slavery may have been a relatively limited phenomena in Atwood’s Canada; however, indigenous families were routinely shattered by administrative bodies between 1944 and 1984, including 20,000 children in the “Sixties Scoop” alone. Conventionally, the non-academic reader or viewer only associates these phenomena with science fiction when the writer works in this palette explicitly—Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred and her short story “Bloodchild” come to mind—but once one considers the potential for reverberations of chattel slavery in literary dystopias, one begins to see them everywhere: in Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron,” wherein a teenage übermensch is taken from his parents, who later witness his televised execution; in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” where citizens of an agrarian community cannot protect their spouses or children from ritualized public execution; and most obviously Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” which depicts a perfect society enabled by the unending agony of a single imprisoned, tortured child. None of this is to say that participation in a family is categorically “natural,” or what legitimizes one’s existence. The world has more than enough space for people who abstain from family-making. Nor does this observation require us to attempt to define what a family is. What is important is to note that our most successful, compelling, and enduring literary dystopias consistently present antagonists to the nuclear family dynamic. They create rigid legal frameworks around everything from sexual union to rearing of children. This is the dreaded commonality at the root of mainline dystopian fiction: the simple formula, “government authority > family independence.” Whether you were raised by biological or adoptive parents, older siblings, or more distant relatives—or by a foster parent, or some other surrogate or legal guardian—what you share with the vast majority of humans is that you were once the object of a small, imperfect social unit responsible for your protection and care. This is the primary social contract, based not on law or philosophy, but on love and trust. For better and worse, our bonds to our families pre-exist and preponderate the accident of our nationality. Accepting this truth may be the first test of a legitimate state. It is the illegitimate, insecure regime that seeks to disrupt and broadly supersede the imperfect moral authority of reasonable, well-intended parents—in all of their many forms and situations. 3. In separating migrant families seeking amnesty, President Trump brought us into dystopia at last. It is a small comfort that he clearly knew from the outset that this action was morally untenable. He told reporters that he “hated” the policy of family separation, claiming that it was “the Democrats’ fault,” the repercussion of a do-nothing Congress. In reality, neither Barack Obama nor George W. Bush separated migrant children from their parents as a standard practice. There is no law or settlement that requires detained families to be broken up, and the general legal consensus was that if Trump were being honest—if family separation had actually been an unwanted, pre-existing policy—he could have ended it, overnight, “with a phone call.” As usual, executive dissimulation instigated bizarre performances lower down the chain of command: On June 18, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen held an extraordinary press conference in which she denied the existence of an official family-separation policy while simultaneously arguing for its legitimacy. Nielsen’s denials were particularly astonishing as two months before her press conference, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced—publicly and on camera—the instigation of family separation as a deterrent to improper border crossings. In fact, the DHS had already published guidelines explaining the system of family separation and admitted to detaining approximately 2,000 migrant children. The truth was that the institution of a heartless, zero-tolerance border policy was a calculated effort led by administration strategist Stephen Miller, who was also a key architect of the travel ban in 2017. Writing for The Atlantic, McKay Koppins characterizes Miller’s push for this policy as overtly xenophobic and intentionally inhumane, designed to appeal to Trump’s base while also sowing chaos among his opponents. To our nation’s credit, outrage was abundant and came from all corners. Evangelist Franklin Graham said that family separation was “disgraceful.” Laura Bush wrote that the policy was “cruel” and that it broke her heart. Even former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci described the policy as “inhumane” and “atrocious.” Governors from eight states announced they would withdraw or deny National Guard troops previously promised to help secure the Southwest border. Even Ivanka Trump, who has yet to be accused of hypersensitivity, allegedly asked her father to change course on family separations at the border. Condemnation also came from both houses of Congress, with Senate Republicans vowing to end family separations if Trump did not. On June 20, after repeatedly claiming that only Congress could end family separations at the border, Trump reversed course, signing an executive order that would ostensibly keep migrant families together during future detentions. Technically, this order allowed family separations to continue as a discretionary practice, until the ACLU brought a lawsuit before Judge Dana Sabraw of the Federal District Court in San Diego, who issued an injunction that temporarily halted family separations and required all separated migrant children be reunited with their parents within 30 days—a requirement that was not met. As far as steps down a slippery slope toward totalitarianism go, Trump’s “zero-tolerance” border policy has been significant. Nearly 3,000 migrant children were traumatically separated from their parents, with some flown across the country. In Texas, children were routed to a detention facility in a converted Walmart Supercenter in Brownsville and a tent-city detention center near the border station in Tornillo—where summertime temperatures regularly approach 100 F. Some migrant children and babies were kept in cages—a term the administration resisted but could not deny, just as the smiling image of Donald Trump in the converted Walmart cannot be reasonably considered anything other than gloating propaganda. For many migrants, significant emotional and psychological damage has already been done. Recently, dozens of female migrants in a Seattle-area detention facility were separated from their children, having to endure hearing them crying through the walls. One such detainee informed U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal that she told a Border Patrol agent she wanted to see her children, to which the agent replied, “You will never see your children again. Families don’t exist here.” That same week, a Honduran man named Marco Antonio Muñoz, who had been separated from his wife and toddler after crossing the Southwest border, hanged himself in his Texas holding cell. 4. Not only has the executive branch of this government launched an assault on the dignity and sanctity of the family; they have simultaneously begun work to erode the permanence of citizenship, through a process of “denaturalization”—an action not attempted since the paranoid 1950s of Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare. This would transfer the authority to strip citizenship from the court system to law enforcement agencies, such as DHS, or ICE, who would presumably go looking for naturalized Americans who may have misrepresented themselves in some way during their application for citizenship. This situation would subject naturalized citizens to the paranoia and potential exploitation of an East German-like police state, in which they are under warrantless surveillance, threatened by informants, and potentially expugnable for nothing more heinous than a paperwork error. Simultaneously, conservatives such as Tucker Carlson have argued for a referendum on birthright citizenship, the foundation of the equality Americans purport to enjoy. This fits with the administration’s pattern of using diverse methodologies to thwart and rescind legal and illegal residency alike, in what has increasingly come to look like a new front in the multi-pronged effort to alter the racial and cultural demographics of the electorate. This, too, conforms to the genre of dystopia: the existence of a large and oppressed underclass living adjacent to privileged elites, who are sometimes floored to learn that not everyone perceives the status quo as the next-best thing to a true utopia. If given even tacit approval, policies like separating families at the border will lead to an open season on immigrants—legal residents and undocumented migrants alike—as well as millions of other natural and naturalized citizens who are not both white and perfectly fluent in English. We will see an emboldened expansion of unconstitutional checkpoints at places like airports and bus depots. We will see the normalization of racial profiling. Our children will see their friends taken out of school without warning. They will be disappeared. But if we’ve read our dystopian literature, we are prepared. To a degree, we are insulated. We can understand this moment in history, and how comforting it must feel to curl up inside the illusory sense of security offered by an impenetrable border, or a leader who boldly intones our weaker ideas and more shameful suspicions, or some fatuous, utopian aphorism about making a nation great again. We will remind ourselves and each other what is at stake. We will remember that the only thing we need to know about utopia is that nobody actually lives there. Image: Flickr/Karen Roe
One of the pleasures of reading critic and fiction writer Yahya Haqqi’s essays in Arabic is that I am always astonished by the breadth of his knowledge, the depth of his experience, the nimbleness of his mind and his eloquence. In the collection Crying, Then Smiling, he has a number of eulogies, one of which is for his uncle, Mahmoud Taher Haqqi, who wrote the first Egyptian novel, The Maidens of Denshawi, about the tragedy of Denshawi in 1906 where British soldiers carelessly killed a villager while they were shooting pigeons—the incident ended tragically when villagers were rounded up and executed by the British. Haqqi points out that it was the first novel to focus on fellaheen, peasants, and their problems and opened the way for Mohamed Hussein Haykal’s novel, Zeyneb (1913). Haqqi wrote that his heart trembled when he read The Maidens of Denshawi—which is what good stories should bring about. Haqqi deserves a eulogy, much like the ones he so generously wrote for others, about his place in Egyptian literary heritage. This seems appropriate in light of the recent celebration of the classic black and white film Al-Bostagy, or The Postman, directed by Husayn Kamal (1968), featuring Shukry Sarhan, based on Haqqi’s novella. But one cannot write about this poignant film without mentioning Sabri Moussa, the talented novelist who translated the spirit of Yahya Haqqi’s novella into a suspenseful screenplay. (He also wrote the screenplay for Yahya Haqqi’s Om Hashem’s Lamp.) Sabri Moussa, who died recently, January 2018, deserves a eulogy as well for his film scripts, short fiction, and novels—the unusual sci-fi tale The Man Arrived from the Spinach Field, the mythic fable Seeds of Corruption, and Half-Meter Incident. Interior monologues so crucial to building a psychological portrait of a character in fiction have to be handled differently in film, another genre. Much of Yahya Haqqi’s novella The Postman relies upon the interior monologues of the male hero, the postman, Abbas, and the thoughts of Gameela, the young girl who has fallen in love with a young man named Khaleel who promises to marry her. The isolation of the postman is shown through the scenes where he is sitting alone in the dusty, decrepit house he is renting—steaming open the letters while alone drinking cheap booze and reading about the romance of Gameela and Khaleel, or even riding his donkey to deliver the mail. An educated Cairene, he cannot relate to the people in the village and feels he has been banished to Mars. Moussa also added certain scenes to the screenplay that were not present in the novel to augment dramatic tension linked to sexuality in a village in upper Egypt in the ’40s. For instance, the servant girl who is raped by Gameela’s father is taken away by her relatives and will certainly be killed. Abbas invites a Romani woman to his house and she is almost murdered by a mob. Both of these scenes foreshadow the murder of the young girl Gameela when her father discovers she is pregnant. At the end of the novel, Abbas hears the church bell toll for someone who has died, but Haqqi, the author, does not state explicitly that it is Gameela who has died—that is left ambiguous. However, in the screenplay, Moussa added a scene of the father carrying his daughter’s corpse through the village after he has killed her. The addition of this extra scene is reminiscent of King Lear carrying his daughter Cordelia in his arms: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life and thou no breath at all?” However, this is the antithesis of the scene in King Lear since Gameela’s father intended to kill her to save the family’s honor—the price is still dear. The mother trails behind, wailing. The Egyptian classic The Postman reminds me of the 1954 film thriller Rear Window, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and featuring Grace Kelly and James Stewart. James Stewart plays a photographer with a broken leg who cannot move—he sits at his apartment window in New York City, watching his neighbors. At first, it is entertainment. The game becomes dangerous when the killer realizes he is being watched—and stalks the photographer and his lovely girlfriend. The lonely postman who resides in a village town in upper Egypt alleviates his boredom by reading the letters of the villagers and then stumbles upon the letters of two young lovers and their secrets. The photographer also stumbles upon a deadly secret: His neighbor has killed his wife, cut up her body, and crammed it into a trunk. Abbas in The Postman realizes that Gameela, the unmarried young girl, has committed herself too wholeheartedly to a feckless, immature lover. Pregnant, she is in danger of being killed for dishonoring the family, yet Abbas is helpless to save her. Both men are isolated bachelors who entertain themselves by spying on their neighbors. Despite the fact that one story is set in America in the ’50s, the other in an Egyptian village in the ’40s, they both focus on the universal themes of solitude, voyeurism, and disorientation. We may think we know our neighbors, but often are surprised. Unfortunately, the novels of many exceptional writers are not known to a wide audience unless their works are adapted to film. At the same time, the revival of The Postman on its Golden Jubilee recently in Cairo can inspire viewers to return to his written word.
“What is justice?” This is the inquiry around which Lauren Levin’s Justice Piece // Transmission orbits. Unflinching, dialectical, and curious to its core, Levin’s work grapples with the nature and practice of justice—what it is, what it isn’t, who defines and enforces it, how we learn or create it, and how its absolutes buckle under the weight of examination. Consisting of two prose poems, “Justice Piece” and “Transmission,” Levin’s explorations raise even more questions—about motherhood, illness, family, and whiteness—which form a tangled, poetic body of limbs, placental membranes, and beating hearts. At moments, Justice Piece // Transmission reads like text messages from a brilliant friend who starts conversations midstream without context, or who suddenly picks up a conversation from weeks ago with renewed vigor. Levin is often funny and cringingly honest: “I read articles, read commentaries, read reactions. / Feel frustrated with myself, white women, white feminists, myself. Or: When A was very small ... I walked around naked / in front of the windows / in front of my parents, there must have been something aggressive / about it / since everyone begged me to stop and I persisted.” Levin analyzes and draws material from copious sources, including political philosophy, art history, Rocky Horror, parenting blogs, and statistics about racial violence. Juxtaposed across paragraphs, and sometimes embedded in the same paragraph, you can’t always follow the connections, nor are you necessarily meant to. Meanings rub against each other, finding friction and sparking connections that sometimes only become apparent on the second or third read. Other lines continue to elude, referencing a “he” or “it” that cannot be definitively pinned down, yet holding space for infinite meaning and interpretation. Each of Levin’s inquiries is an entryway into fundamental questions about justice, care, and transformation. Each line is a mode of grasping at the truth. Even if you don’t understand, the book’s incessant current will keep pulling you by the throat. To understand justice, Levin asserts, we must understand what it isn’t. “Justice Piece” opens with Levin’s 2-year-old daughter after she stops nursing: “But now that a connection has been severed / She’s more affectionate, lies in my lap / head under my chin / sucking her thumb.” The rifts between their bodies creates a new kind of connection. As the poem continues, we realize the attempt to define justice is also an act of severance, separating it from what it is not. Channeling 18th-century painter Joshua Reynolds, Levin writes: ªIt’s the artist’s task to find this nothing that isn’t / and give it form in order that it may reject / everything that is.” Later, Levin is more explicit: “I try to imagine justice as the opposite / of whatever the police do. This process of distinction-marking is also the process of language-making: a word cannot exist without its opposite. How does language then help us in our search for justice? Curiosity isn’t justice. Empathy isn’t justice. Love isn’t justice. / Connections can’t be lived in all the time. / All the points at which empathy fails,” which begs the question, can we only know what justice isn’t, rather than the substance of what it actually is? And if so, how do we enact it? The real-world stakes of these inquiries ring loudly, as injustice is not an abstraction but a corporeal reality that plagues our national body. Levin raises urgent questions about the language we use to describe violence and its consequences. Alluding to the destructive headlines used by journalists and TV anchors, Levin addresses the McKinney, Texas pool party incident: A male was shoving someone’s face into the ground A cop was shoving a girl’s face into the ground A cop was shoving a black person’s face into the ground A white cop was shoving a young black girl’s face into the ground Officer Eric Casebolt was shoving a young black girl’s face into the ground Officer Eric Casebolt was shoving Dajerria’s face into the ground Eric was shoving Dajerria Becton’s face into the ground Every headline tells a story. When is there room for ambivalence, the ability for words to hold so much, and where is there only room for the particular? What does language reveal and elude? Who has the right to say what? As Levin makes evident, how we choose to tell stories of injustice contributes to whether justice can be procured. [millions_ad] Levin also grapples with the question of how we rediscover or recreate justice in a world in which injustice has so deeply penetrated how we think, feel, act, and relate to one another. And will it be a discovery or a creation? It’s a vital query, one which activist groups demanding racial and economic justice across the country have long been asking: How can we keep justice from becoming another commodity of those already in power? Levin calls this “the problem with imagining justice / As everything that doesn’t exist yet.” When the invisible does come into being, it will appear “formed around the axis that so many tiny imperceptible motions have shaped.” In one of the most riveting juxtapositions of the book, Levin applies the metaphor of the placenta: Political struggles are not fought on the surface of things but through how they are made The placenta that kept A alive grew from her cells, not mine Cells from the outer layer of the embryo burrowed into my uterine lining by pushing my cells out of the way destroying them with digestive enzymes or secreting substances that caused them to kill themselves These placental cells then drilled into 80 of my uterine blood vessels When the placenta was fully formed My whole blood supply flowed through it every 5 minutes The placenta, like justice, is the site of transformation. Where creator meets creation. Where creator yields creation, which yields even further creation. What is the body from which justice will grow? Everything has an origin and yet transformation is always possible. As visionary as we may be, Levin reminds us that transformation can also be a physical act, one that happens thousands of times a day without any fanfare: “I don’t think it’s an experience one can only have through pregnancy / childbirth or parenting but those experiences are the closest I have come / to realizing how different things can be because I became so different / so quickly.” Birth is a radical transformation from the inside out. Perhaps so is justice—though we, as Levin herself admits to, may have difficulty trusting this: “In spite of everything I still want to proceed / As though knowledge could protect me from the feeling of the world / As though it were something I could wear / Instead of something that reaches inside and shapes me.” In Levin’s work, the relationship between motherhood and justice is as messy and complicated as you would hope. “On the surface, an ethics based on maternal care sounds kind of great. But there’s no room / for the mother’s anger or ambivalence, that bothers me.” Yet in a chat message to a friend, Levin also makes explicit how her lived experiences of white privilege and mothering drive her investigation: “Socializing her makes me more aware of my whiteness, since I become more aware of everything I’m passing on to her, including my position in white culture.” In “Justice Piece,” there are no absolutes, no givens, no definitive answers, and sometimes there is nothing to say at all: “I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to say.” Governed by ambivalence, “Justice Piece” is nonetheless driven by the conviction that justice must be possible—and that the journey, as meandering and chaotic as it may be, is also necessary: “to go so far beyond the frame / as to risk getting entirely lost.” While Levin’s inquiries are rooted in her white body and set of experiences, her approach refuses to settle for a justice that excludes people of color, trans people, or gender nonconforming people. In the second part of the book, “Transmission,” Levin casts her incisive gaze on her own ancestral lineages. It’s ugly and Levin knows it: “The side of my family that started out poor is the more overtly racist / side ... My grandfather, the kindest and most giving one, says the worst things.” Here, Levin interrogates the prevailing assumption that white people are simply white and always have been. She digs into the mythologies of her multiple heritages, the contradictions and hypocrisies that hold belief systems in place, and the relationships with care—our desire, disgust, or disinterest about giving it, our (dis)comfort receiving it—that underlie our relationships with power: “Both my parents were partially raised by black women who they felt less ambivalently about than they did about their own parents.” We encounter members of Levin’s family across her four lineages, including the Jewish grandfather who justifies looking down on others because he raised himself up “and so should you”, the uncle from the “more overtly racist side of the family” who works as Beyonce’s accountant, and the New Orleans grandmother who tried to bribe Louisiana State University with money from her future estate into accepting her grandson for admission. We never linger too long with any one family member, which underscores the tangled quality of being a body brought into life by so many other bodies and the confusion of all that we inherit unconsciously and without choosing. Levin wisely recognizes that justice is not an abstraction about the “other,” or exclusively concerned with an idealized future: “As I talk [to my daughter A] I touch my navel, realizing I have some odd visceral belief that my umbilical cord connected me, not to my mom, but to A... But, reciprocity – care doesn’t work that way. It leads back – backwards.” For those of us who think of themselves as white, the journey into our ancestries is glaringly important—Levin’s collagic examination of her lineages prompts white readers to ask: How did your family lines learn to think of themselves as white? When did it happen, and how, and what was gained and lost? It is not usually comfortable—“Because I am a white, I feel it in me: Lee Circle in the background, the comfort of things that don’t change”—but Levin suggests our discomfort may be the barometer of how close we’re getting to the problem. In Levin’s work, justice is about embodiment; our bodies, our blood, our origins are not separate from ourselves: “I couldn’t sever myself from my family anymore than I could sever a limb. I mean, I could tell myself to cut off my hand if it offends me, but what is me?”
An earlier draft of this essay was published in Be: A Journal of Creative Expression in April 2017. Ever since I came to Iowa City, I’ve spent a lot of time watching the sunset. The view is very different from anything I have seen in China. The first thing I’ve noticed here in Iowa is that the sunset lasts so long. The sun seems so reluctant to retire to his palace that until 8 p.m. the summer night is still glowing, unbelievable for those who are used to a dark sky at 7. My old sense of the sunset is challenged. I don’t really see a circular red sun, like a boiled egg yolk, slowly sinking into the horizon; instead I see the gold light, dyeing the entire sky. I used to regard the color gold as more artificial than natural—a royal hue claimed exclusively by the emperor in the olden days, or the vulgar bling the newly rich like to wear in the modern day. Never have I seen it shimmering thus in the boundless sky, and I am transfixed by it. If you go back to classical Chinese poetry, you will probably see that the image of sunset usually refers to “sorrows” and “sadness.” Li Shangyin, a famous poet in Tang Dynasty, wrote in “The Leyou Tombs,” “To see the sun, for all his glory, / Buried by the coming night” (translated by Witter Bynner). The sunset in Chinese is often called a “night sun” or a “slanting sun,” both metaphors of the very last light that one can hold in his life. The other day when I was waiting for a bus at around 7:30 p.m. in Iowa City, I saw the sky blazing and all the clouds outlined by the gold sunset light, like the gilded bronze reliefs in Gates of Paradise in Florence. I felt as if cherubs were about to jump out of one of the clouds. In 30 minutes’ ride, the horizon was still burning gold. I wondered, if I kept heading west, would I see a line of gold horizon forever? The sunset light conveys a message of hope rather than despair. Now I understand why the distinguished poet Carl Sandburg wrote the opposite of how Li Shangyin responded to the sunset: I tell you there is nothing in the world/ only an ocean of tomorrows. / a sky of tomorrows. / I am a brother of the cornhuskers who say/ at sundown: / Tomorrow is a day. The glowing gold lends infinite power to look forward to tomorrows. In order to dig deeper into American culture when I came to Iowa, I attend a weekly Bible Study with Elva Craig, a fellow of Faith Baptist Church in Iowa City. Elva asked me a question when we were in the very beginning, reading Genesis: “The sun and the moon were not created by God until the fourth day of creation, and so where do you think the light came on the first day?” I have never thought of such a question before. “Well, I don’t know exactly myself,” Elva said. “But I pictured that on the very first day, God opened a window from Heaven to let the light of Heaven flow to the Earth.” There is some difficulty here—heaven was created after light rather than before light, on the second day. But I liked her interpretation. I thought many people in Western context might have a similar picture in mind when reading Genesis for the first time. Light thus becomes a crucial symbol in Western culture—the Lord’s first gift to lift men out of darkness. Little by little, the concept of light broadens, and it incorporates richer content. Enlightenment Europe vividly depicted how “light of knowledge” is shone on men. Light seems to determine aesthetic criteria in the Western culture too: When decorating houses, people in America install plentiful windows, as glass is friendly to sunlight. You like to tile the floor of toilets with white ceramic tiles as those will bring more light in to make the place brighter and cleaner. City parks in Europe and America are patches of wide-spreading grass where one can enjoy as much sunshine as possible. Oh, how you love to bathe in the sun! Even when the beauty of a woman is presented in oil paintings or in literary works, the woman must be lit; otherwise, her beauty cannot be seen. Once, during a thaw, the bark of the trees in the yard was oozing, the snow melted on the roofs of the buildings; she stood on the threshold, went to fetch her sunshade and opened it. The parasol, made of an iridescent silk that let sunlight sift through, colored the white skin of her face with shifting reflections. Beneath it, she smiled at the gentle warmth; drops of water fell one by one on the taut silk. This is how Gustave Flaubert describes Emma in Madame Bovary. Without the sifting sunlight, Charles couldn’t catch her beauty. Perhaps that is why God created light on the first day. Ancient Chinese people contributed many inventions to human civilization, but we did not invent glass, nor did we use glass often (even though we did have it as early as the late Spring and Autumn period, i.e., early fifth century B.C.). It seems to me that the reason is more due to aesthetic considerations than practical ones. Glass lets in too much sunlight, rendering the space totally exposed. Ancient Chinese people frowned at the idea of a complete view of a place. How boring! How unromantic! They preferred shadows to light. [millions_ad] In traditional East Asian architecture, we cover the window frames and door frames with paper. Paper softens the strong sunlight. The shapes of window frames and door frames—flowery patterns, shapes of Chinese characters—can cast their long mellow shadows to the inside of a house. Toilets become poetic, too! The fabulous Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki praised the Japanese toilet as “a place of spiritual repose.” Like Chinese ones, it is built outdoors, keeping a modest distance from the main building, and is usually set under a thatch roof in China, or in a grove “fragrant with leaves and moss” in Japan. “No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden,” Tanizaki wrote in In Praise of Shadows. These lines are by far the most beautiful words I have ever read of a toilet. Our city parks are also different from their Western counterparts. Traditional Chinese city parks were designed in such a way that as you take a step forward, you capture a different glimpse of the same view. For example, our conventional parks are often dotted with pavilions. When you glance at a pavilion from far away, you see it surrounded by the stream and plants. When you near the pavilion, you will see how the roof, columns, and railings altogether frame a certain part of stream and only one or two plants, just like a Chinese painting—the Chinese poems carved on the columns echoing the verses inscribed by an artist on the margins of his painting. Then, when you go inside the pavilion and look out from one of its windows, you will notice in a corner where we place grotesque-shaped stones (“fake mountains” in literal translation) near the plants, in a way to mimic the bridges, mountains, and animals. Thus this corner becomes a miniature of nature itself. You never get a single view of a Chinese city park. Instead, you need to walk to discover the innumerable possibilities for beauty. When drinking wine (baijiu, soju, and sake), we use colored ceramics or potteries, and often we inscribe Chinese characters on them or carve them into plantlike or animal-like shapes; then we can enjoy the colorful and interesting shadows in the cup when drinking. If you have watched a few traditional Chinese operas, you would probably notice that Chinese beauties on the stage are likely to hide half of their faces behind their painted fans or long, well-embroidered sleeves. To us, these sleeves and fans render the women even more glamourous. Instead of having a full picture of what the woman looks like, we imagine her looks, her voice, and her character based on our limited sight of her. In our fantasies, her beauty is infinite. Also, we dare not look directly at a woman as it is considered very rude in our culture. What we can do is to steal a look at a tiny little part of her and complement our delight as well as regrets with our imagination. A woman’s eye floated up before him. He almost called out in his astonishment. But he had been dreaming, and when he came to himself he saw that it was only the reflection in the window of the girl opposite. Outside it was growing dark, and the lights had been turned on in the train, transforming the window into a mirror. The mirror had been clouded over with steam until he drew that line across it. The above paragraph is from Snow Country, written by Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata, the 1968 Nobel Prize winner for literature. His angle of showcasing a woman’s beauty is distinct from Flaubert’s. He lets the male narrator capture a glimpse of only a small part of the woman: her single eye. It could seem more terrifying than pleasant for Western readers. This kind of gaze is very common for a man in Eastern countries to meet a woman. Zhou Zuoren, a great prose writer in modern Chinese literary history, depicts the beauty of his first love only by showing her feet, as her feet are the only sight he dares to catch—he merely glues his eyes to the floor. Whereas Flaubert eventually focuses on the light cast on the white skin of Emma, Kawabata blurs his literary camera with “steam.” Here, the steam, functioning similarly to the sleeves or the fans in traditional Chinese operas, holds the woman at a decent distance from her admirer, thus making her untouchable and more enigmatic. Beauty is not what we see in the light, but how we imagine what we cannot see. I am writing nostalgically of a traditional Eastern culture; it is all gone. Nowadays, we all install glass windows, tile the floor with white ceramic, and try every means to make our “home, sweet home” a “clean, well-lit place.” Modernization and Westernization have compelled us to abandon cherished practices. But I can’t help wondering: Can we reserve a little space for our own, where we worship our shadows, not your light? Image: Flickr/halfrain
At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child. —Lydia Davis, “A Double Negative” Like many Lydia Davis fans, I sometimes mentally write parodies of her very short stories as I go about my day. Once you’ve been steeped in her work, this can become a mental tic: The plastic things in the dishwasher never get dry. I do not want to dry them by hand before I put them away, yet if I do not put them away I cannot load the dirty dishes that are in the sink. I could put the plastic things away wet, but I am afraid of mildew. Davis is mostly an acquired taste, but her way of seeing is contagious. She writes in a form that is, as far as I know, entirely her own. There is such a thing as flash fiction—stories of a page or so—but Davis takes brevity one step further. Many of her stories are no more than three or four lines; most are no more than a medium-sized paragraph. The sentence in the epigraph is not an excerpt from “A Double Negative.” It’s the whole story. She is, The New Yorker once quipped, “a writer’s writer’s writer”—but her work isn’t really difficult. It’s oddly shaped, true, but it’s also entertaining and frank and often full of emotion. Her subject matter is often maddeningly quiet: A rug is sold; strangers silently judge each other on a train; a woman tries to decide what to do while her baby naps; a bowl of cornmeal releases steam. Yet what she writes is somehow clearly fiction, not prose poems or aphorisms or miniature essays. She doesn’t so much compress the classic short story form as throw it out entirely. She is mostly uninterested in character development, exposition, setting, and conventional plot. Her stories tend to be linear, logical, cerebral, and funny, revealing oddities of thought and feeling, tiny shifts in character, quirks in language. I recently reread her five story collections and found them far more personal than I remembered, and also strangely comforting. Strangely, because Davis can seem like cold comfort. Her metaphysical outlook is bleak, her scope microscopic. A surprising number of stories have to do with insects and mice. She revels in the small, the mundane, even the petty. Taken individually, her stories can be baffling; a single one is usually too slender and strange for the mind to grab hold of. Read cumulatively, and they take you somewhere new. She can be a usage scold, ferreting out writing problems and holding them up to the light with philosophic curiosity. (“The trouble you reported is now working properly.”) Her third collection is titled Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, and a number of her stories take the form of letters to hotel and store managers complaining about misworded signs. The habit can feel misanthropic, but it reveals a ferocious protectiveness of language and a thirst for precision. Her own sentences are pristine, so she is in a position to cast stones. “A Double Negative” is typical of her. The title indicates that this is not a story about people or feelings, but syntax. Then comes an unapologetic statement of ambivalence toward motherhood. And yet the woman described seems prepared to go ahead in order to avoid regret. She is making a ruthless calculus, but an honest one. What will motherhood be like for her? What will childhood be like for her children? In the final phrase, attention to language reasserts itself with the nearly punctilious sensitivity to verb tense—but this is also a psychological development, because there is a difference between not having and not having had. At the end we are left looking at all that white space on the page, which elevates this complicated sentence to the level of a story. Which implies that something has happened. Most of her narrators conspicuously lack vanity. They wear their own worst qualities on their sleeves—their selfishness, impatience, anxiety, or addiction to comfort. They are bad mothers and wives and teachers, and they don’t mind if we notice. (The early stories about bad girlfriends are equally undisguised about neediness.) But the lack of disguise is attractive, to me anyway. Her brevity has a lot to do with it; we never have time to tire of the tiresome qualities. So does her humor. (“Like a tropical storm, I, too, may one day become ‘better organized.’”) She is rarely metaphysical. Christianity makes appearances in Davis’s work, but far less frequently than commuter trains, Flaubert, and bugs. “The Churchyard” mentions a dream image of cradling the living body of Jesus “amid a cozy pile of people.” A really motivated reader could argue for this as an image of the universal church, except that Davis’s work in general doesn’t really support this. The story “Index Entry” reads, in its entirely, “Christian, I’m not a.” It’s as though she thought we might be wondering. At five pages, a very long story by her standards, “Pastor Elaine’s Newsletter” is her most sustained meditation on the Bible. In a newsletter from a church they visited once at Easter, a couple reads the pastor’s lesson on a verse from the book of Romans: “I do not understand what I do; for I don’t do what I would like to do, but instead I do what I hate” (a 2,000-year-old sentence that reads like a Lydia Davis story). The verse, and the pastor’s letter, provoke the couple, and they read a little further in a King James Bible one of their mothers has left in their house (which might be a metaphor for Davis’s own relationship to religion). They read in the book of Galatians about the fruit of the Spirit, in particular “long-suffering,” a quality they feel the lack of when it comes to their children: We think how we have been with our children this day or the day before, how we have stood holding the little one, so heavy, and put out our hand to push the arm of the older one to get him out of our way or to make him move faster, or driven in the car with them in the heat, damp, with a knot of rage in us, and yearned to reach inside, or outside, somewhere, and find more long-suffering, and have not known how to do it. Having driven in a hot car with bickering children myself, when Davis’s complicated sentence turns its final corner at the phrase “yearned to reach,” I expect not a yearning to reach inside the self but a yearning to reach into the back seat and grab someone’s arm, not gently. The interior turn takes me by surprise. Davis is not a religious writer, but she is often a moral one, and her moral stories strike hard. This one ends with a chilling, this-worldly consciousness of the effects of the parents’ anger: And we wonder: What stores of anger have we laid down in the older one already? What hardness are we putting in the heart of the little one, where there was no hardness? The very funny “I’m Pretty Comfortable but I Could Be a Little More Comfortable” is a list of 67 upper-middle-class complaints like: “This pesto is hard to blend” and “The sound system in the exam room is playing folk music” and “The people in front of us are taking a long time choosing their ice cream.” Taken as a whole, they reveal an excruciating level of self-concern that feels unsettlingly familiar. [millions_ad] It’s probably clear by now that Davis is both a cerebral and a domestic writer, and for me this is her main appeal. I might like to live more in the world of language and ideas, like I did in grad school, but I now spend a lot of time on mundane chores I sometimes enjoy and sometimes loathe. Davis is a philosopher who situates her interrogations in the workaday world. “Cows” is on the one hand a painstaking study of visual perception, but it’s also about standing in the kitchen looking out the window. “We Miss You” is about the subtle ways in which language reveals character, but it’s also about children writing to a sick classmate. “Priority” is about existential paralysis and dishes. This habit of mind has a feminist dimension: She gently but firmly sets aside the false binary between women who wonder about the nature of time and women who deal with cat pee. If the struggle of middle age is accepting life as it is, with its limitations and commitments, the creeping frailty of the body, the ingrained habits of mind, not all of them good—and if the sweetness of middle age is a better ability to see one’s flaws and sigh or smile over them rather than grinding one’s teeth—then Davis is a writer for midlife. Perhaps she writes so very briefly because she deliberately avoids justifying or explaining faults. Many great novelists take pains to help us empathize with difficult characters, to show us what history has shaped them, how their minds work. Dostoevsky wants us to understand why Raskolnikov murders the old woman, to see his choice as in some way logical and sane. Nabokov seduces us with beautiful language so that Humbert Humbert does not seem like a monster. Davis takes an opposite approach. Though she writes about sins far more tepid and small than these, it’s the lack of defense that shocks. Davis has said in an interview that she is judgmental because her mother and mother’s mother were judgmental, and that the critical voice is always with her. Throughout the stories runs a secondary thread of moral anxiety that an old Catholic might call scrupulosity—a paralysis over the fine shadings of right and wrong—painted with a mix of humor and pathos. The story called “Right and Wrong” begins, “She knows she is right, but to say she is right is wrong, in this case,” then spins out a dozen variations and contingencies without ever mentioning what the woman is right about. The story “How Difficult,” about a woman whose mother has continually called her “selfish, careless, and irresponsible” ends this way: Now I’m the one who says to myself, “Why can’t you think of others first, why don’t you pay attention to what you’re doing, why don’t you remember what has to be done?” I am annoyed. I sympathize with my mother. How difficult I am! But I can’t say this to her, because at the same time that I want to say it, I am also here on the phone coming between us, listening and prepared to defend myself. In such a stringently judgmental context, a naked statement like “she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child” feels like an act of rebellion and courage. Davis is not indifferent to the consequences of real failings (“What stores of anger have we laid down in the older one already?”), but she seems to indicate that we can only tell our real problems from imaginary ones if we first see clearly. We must first clear away the well-intentioned, softening camouflage. And after all, decluttering is what Lydia Davis does best. Image: Flickr/Hey Paul Studios
John Larison’s Whiskey When We’re Dry speaks the American language of the tall tale: Its braggadocio is disguised as candor, and the novel mutes any trace of absurdity with its sharp plot, its tendency to whisper secrets rather than dwell on them, and its preference for scene overexposition. Set on the American frontier in the mid-1880s, Whiskey When We’re Dry presents itself as the confessions of one Jessilyn Harney, then an orphaned, teenaged girl who embarks from her ruined family farmstead to track (and reunite with) her outlaw brother Noah. Jess narrates the novel in her own gruff idiom, a blend of frontier gumption and the brusque wisdom of her Pa, a disgraced Union sniper who refused to betray much about his past. Rather than a cacophony of dialect, though, Jess speaks with a ballad’s cadence and a con man’s lethal intent. Her voice plays a variation of the hollow, aggressive masculinity of the American West and the refrains of Manifest Destiny. In doing so, her frontier journeys illustrate how vacant the promises of the West are: Its rewards are reserved for those with political and economic power, the ones who become the official authors of history. But circumstances nonetheless provide Jess with frequent occasion to study and emulate the self-important posturing of settler men. Her mother died in childbirth, so Jess spent her formative years orbiting the inevitable clashes between her Pa and Noah—Oedipal disputes that devolved into fistfights, drove Noah from the homestead, and launched his career as a notorious outlaw. After her Pa is killed, possibly in an ambush by other ranchers, Jess realizes that she cannot manage their remaining cattle by her lonesome—especially when the only conventional recourses permitted to a teen girl on the frontier were marriage or sex work. But she knows that conventions exist to be flouted, a lesson she learned when her Pa took her to a trick shooter’s performance. In the trick shooter, Jess has found an alternative to frontier womanhood: Straight-Eye Susan wasn’t no man, of course. She was a woman some years past marrying age wearing a white dress with flowers embroidered on it and a showman’s hat and a golden revolver to match the golden action of her Winchester repeater. The men in the crowd called at her and said things they might only say to a whore, and she picked these men from the audience and dared them to stand still while she shot matches from their teeth and casings from their hats. Not a taunt rose from the crowd after that. After her Pa’s death, a cruel winter, and troubles maintaining their herd of cattle, Jess resolves to follow Straight-Eye Susan’s model, but with a twist. “The idea had been coming to me for weeks,” she admits. “I just then set about doing it.” She hacks her hair, outfits herself in some of Noah’s too-tight boyhood clothes, and sets out with her Pa’s pistol and rifle—a fateful decision that takes her through ambushes, trick-shooting contests in which she alternately fails and wins, a stint serving in the territorial governor’s private guard, and an ultimate reunion with Noah (and his gang of outlaws). [millions_ad] If the narrator were different, or if the novel were in third person, Larison might not have managed the feat of constructing Jess’s frontier, let alone maintaining the novel’s breathless pace. In his introduction to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, collected in The Braindead Megaphone, George Saunders offers a possible explanation for how a writer like Larison might pull this off: “This first-person voice turned out to be one of the most natural and poetic literary voices ever devised, a voice still startling in its ability to bring the physical world ... off the page and into our heads.” Saunders makes the geography of Huckleberry Finn seem much lusher than it is, and the rhythm of Larison’s prose has a similar effect. Here, for instance, is Jess describing the approach to a valley while she, Noah, and their fellow outlaws are fleeing the forces of the territorial governor: “From here we had a long view over the terrain we’d just now transcended. In all directions stood rocky crags. The wind sifted the pines. A pair of jays mimicked the call of an eagle. We didn’t stop to gander but kept on and soon broke over the top of the lip.” The language is concrete, taut, but not particularly evocative. It needs the nearly iambic cadence of Jess’s voice to become more rugged, more textured, than a stock still of a John Wayne flick’s crags and scrublands. Still, the brutalism and self-interest of this novel’s characters seem a necessary indictment of the American ethos, especially in 2018. The Civil War remains a tender scar for Larison’s white settlers, as they align themselves with the Yanks or the Rebs. (The only common traits are their shared xenophobia toward Mexicans and Native Americans and their racism toward the novel’s few black characters—almost all servants caught up in institutional traps that perpetuated the power dynamics of slavery.) But while Jess is complex, the tall tale seldom tolerates a wealth of round characters. So Larison falls back on types. The men are usually cutouts, generic gun-slinging toughs, too incompetent to see around Jess’s disguise. The other women are either stoic ace shooters like Straight-Eye Susan or Jess’s eventual love interest Annette, sweet-talking sex workers in brothels, or starry-eyed angel-of-the-household types like the governor’s daughter Constance and Noah’s wife Jane. One wonders how the novel might have retuned the tall tale’s timbre if Whiskey When We’re Dry had looked to the women of Willa Cather’s frontier novels or the men of Ron Hansen’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (even if Hansen’s prose feels dowdy, if not pedantic, next to Larison’s). However, since Twain’s tall tales are the more obvious ancestors of Larison’s novel, we should approach Whiskey When We’re Dry with a rapt skepticism. If Twain’s Huck Finn can hoodwink Saunders into declaring the first person so sincerely “natural,” Larison’s Jess Harney can also fleece the 21st-century reader. After all, Jess has a stake here: Telling this tale gives her a final shot at preserving her own reputation as a gunslinger and undercutting the history peddled by the territorial governor and the victors of Manifest Destiny. In telling it, Jess Harney situates herself as the true outlaw who stood against the brutality of the American West and the fickle whims of men, even if they claimed credit for her skill as a schemer and a hired gun. And she does so at the expense of Noah’s legend: She credits herself as the mastermind who pulled a daring, dead-of-night counterattack when the governor’s militia besieged a town under Noah’s care, and she takes for herself the mantle of the willing martyr who sacrificed her own mythic stature in the West so Noah, his wife Jane, and their daughter could escape to Canada. What makes a tall tale like Whiskey When We’re Dry so distinctly American, though, is its interest in chronicling the individual rather than the past. For Jessilyn Harney, telling her story is akin to Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world”: She can insist that she existed; that she had the mettle to shape the world after her own vision; and that neither history, prison, nor infamy can stifle the sound of her voice over the frontier’s endless terrain.
Out this week: She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore; Crudo by Olivia Laing; Ordinary People by Diana Evans; The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman; The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar; and The Personality Brokers by Merve Emre. Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.