1. I worked with a public speaking coach during my last year of fellowship training. I’d been invited to give a talk at a national meeting, and my division chief worried that my lecturing skills would not reflect well on his program. The speaking coach sat through a practice run of my talk and had two simple suggestions: First, remove half the slides, and second, memorize the talk. “Simplify your message,” she said, “so that it comes across undiluted. And have the talk so committed to memory that you could give it without looking at the slides, as if you’re reciting lines from a script. That will take away most, if not all, of your nerves.” Her suggestions worked, not just for that talk but for every subsequent lecture I’ve given in the 10 years since that session, and I’ve passed along those two recommendations to colleagues and trainees who’ve shared their own angst about public speaking. In their new book, Now Say This: The Right Words to Solve Every Parenting Dilemma, family therapists Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright advocate an approach to parenting that parallels the public speaking coach’s advice on lecturing. They’ve simplified their message to a handy acronym, ALP, which stands for attune, limit set, and problem solve. And they provide a set of scripts incorporating the ALP method that parents can memorize and recite verbatim to their children. The ALP strategy is not particularly unique. Many parenting books, including some recent classics like The Whole Brain Child and How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen, promote a similar approach to the child in crisis. Start with empathy, then introduce reality, and together come up with a creative solution. Their scripts, therefore, strike conventional notes: “You don’t want to leave the park now because you’re having so much fun,” one such script begins. “But it’s starting to get dark and we need to go home for dinner. Do you want to skip to the car or have me carry you on my shoulders?” Now Say This emerges as a singular title, a parenting book I never thought I’d encounter, in its explicit instructions to parents that these scripts can and should be memorized. Turgeon and Wright established their credentials as parenting experts—and, in some households, divine saviors—with their first book, The Happy Sleeper. Children, from birth, have an innate biological ability and a strong physiologic need to sleep well, they argued in this bestseller. Most sleep issues lie at the feet of the parents and not the kids. Specifically, parents are too anxious, hovering, and present when their children are trying to sleep. With their Sleep Wave technique, which essentially translates to putting the baby down while awake and employing regimented five-minute checks only if the baby is crying, they introduced the concept of scripts with a three sentence mantra to be uttered during the five-minute checks. “Mommy (or Daddy) is here. I love you. Night, night.” The Happy Sleeper encouraged parents to be consistent and almost machine-like in their bedtime routines. Do the same activities in the same order leading up to putting the baby down to sleep, and stick to the five minute intervals and the three sentence script if the baby is crying. Let us design bedtime for you, Turgeon and Wright offered in this book, and we’ll get your kids to sleep all night long. Now Say This takes this approach to bedtime and expands it to the rest of the day. Turgeon and Wright have offered up scripts for how to deal with a range of parenting struggles, from babies who pull their parents’ hair to eye-rolling pre-teens, from siblings who fight with each other to toddlers who refuse to brush their teeth. This seems like a radical leap. It’s one thing for parents to admit they can’t handle bedtime, quite another thing for parents to prefer following someone else’s blueprint rather than their own at all hours of the day. Now Say This rests upon two assumptions—the first, that parenthood can be scripted, and the second, that it should—and makes no apologies for these beliefs. The authors relay the genesis of their new book in an introductory chapter. During their book tour for The Happy Sleeper, the question and answer sessions inevitably spread out beyond sleep issues to general parenting concerns. As Turgeon or Wright relayed an answer to a parent’s question, employing some version of an ALP script (before they’d formally named the approach), the mothers and fathers in the audience frantically scribbled down their responses. After the talks, these same parents approached the authors and showed them their notes to make sure they got the words exactly right. 2. Kim Brooks begins her riveting book Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear, with the story of how she left her 4-year-old son in the parking lot of a strip mall while she ran inside, for five minutes, to buy him a replacement pair of headphones. While she was in the store, someone called the police to report what he or she deemed delinquent behavior. In trying to understand why a stranger would feel compelled to do such a thing, Brooks realizes that she had “tapped into a common and long-established tradition of mother-shaming, the communal ritual of holding up a woman as a ‘bad mother,’ a symbol on which we can unleash our collective, mother-related anxieties, insecurities, and rage.” Her book explores why parenting and fear have become synonymous—how “parenting” has become a pervasive verb that represents, to quote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an “endless, anxious journey of guilt”—and one of her conclusions is that “the object of fear correlates less to the level of risk than to parents’ ability (or perceived ability) to exert control over the outcome.” Parents dissect and analyze their every action, their every word, their every gesture and endow them with far-reaching implications for their children’s long term futures. Is it any surprise, then, that such anxious parents are more than willing to recite a family therapist-penned script rather than improvise their own lines? My brother told me recently that he was having some behavioral issues with his 2-year-old, and when I pressed Now Say This onto him, explaining its modus operandi, he brayed at the idea of reciting prefab lines to his crying son. Because my brother is an executive, I appealed to his work life. “If you had to have an uncomfortable conversation with an employee,” I said, “like if you had to fire someone, wouldn’t you plan out what you were going to say beforehand, and try to have that conversation go as close to your plan as possible?” He would, he conceded, and eventually said he’d read the book, although I doubt he will. Not yet. He didn’t seem anxious enough. He still thought that he and his wife, on their own, could right the ship. He had yet to realize what Kim Brooks calls “our darkest fear as parents: the fear of failure.” I concede that I have realized that fear when I see the black eye my 7-year-old daughter gave my 4-year-old son “by accident,” or when I watch my 1-year-old mimic their shouting at the dinner table, and perhaps that is why I am so willing to follow the scripts penned by Turgeon and Wright. Why I’ve snapped pictures of the book for my phone’s camera roll and sneak peeks for suggested lines before knocking on my daughter’s locked bedroom door (“What are you trying to communicate to me right now?”) or responding to my son’s repeated requests for a snack (“It’s almost dinnertime, and it’s important to keep your belly empty so that you’ll enjoy the meal”). In Small Animals, Kim Brooks compares her irrational fears as a parent to her childhood terrors of a wolf that lived in the back of her closet: The wolf was going to eat me, though I begged him not to. He could not be reasoned with. He could not be appeased. The wolf was clever and well-spoken, and one day, amused by my pleading, he told me that if I counted to fifty before I fell asleep every night, he would stay in the closet; he would not come out. I still remember how I lay in bed, tight beneath the covers, counting slowly in my head. It made no sense, but I believed it. I knew that if I counted, I’d be safe. One, two, three, four, I counted every night, all the way to fifty. I never doubted or wavered in my counting. I wanted to be safe. So many parents want that safety, too, and, like the little girl that Brooks once was, seek solace in words. In addition to scripts for parents to recite to their children, Turgeon and Wright in Now Say This also provide mantras for parents to say to themselves in their worst moments, when they must seclude themselves from their children for a few seconds to calm down and muster up the strength to re-enter the fray of parenting in 21st Century America. “I can handle this,” is one such mantra. It may not be true, but it’s simple, and it’s easy to memorize. If anxious parents rehearse their lines enough, they can deliver the performance their kids need.
In 2018, the phenomenon of the magazine “agony aunt” might strike as an outdated relic. Within a climate where reactions and opinions to our most prosaic problems can be conjugated instantly via a parade of always-on messaging apps, “writing in” to a sagacious stranger to solicit thoughts seems quaint; a symptom of a more considered time where distance and perspective were esteemed above the restless tumult of the now. Heather Havrilesky—the long-standing respondent of The Cut’s popular “Dear Polly” column—accounts for this moment of insatiable communication at the cost of actual connection in her third book, What if This Were Enough? She updates the columnist’s stock Q&A format with a collection of more roving, labile essays. Not quite venturing “advice” per se, but brimming with the author’s warmly diagnostic and incisive voice, the pieces crystallize as potent blends of cultural critique, memoir, and anecdote, which take a scalpel to the inured surface of modern American life. Havrilesky’s second book, How to Be a Person in the World, which anthologized a selection of her column’s most insightful questions and responses, was conspicuously more sure-footed in tracing a path for how to navigate the strains of self-actualization. As its title signals, What if This Were Enough? is more hesitant and querulous in tone: less eager to lure readers, in this turbulent administration, with packaged certainties or digestible truths. At the same time, the book doesn’t shirk from the fact that in a late capitalist context, “There’s not much understanding in store for those who hesitate, change their minds, falter.” “Success” is found instead in strict, unwavering fidelity to a “chosen path”; or what the author laments as the dubious, anxiety-infected temples of your “best life” or “your truth.” Always briskly observant, and often mordantly funny, the topics of these 19 chiseled pieces range from an excavation of the blunt hypocrisies of Disney World, “a carefully honed feat of interactive advertising”; to the “callow” premise of the Fifty Shades trilogy, “late capitalist fairy tales that double as sexual daydreams”; to a meditation on the fragile state of the modern girl, “a delicate glass vase, waiting to be broken.” An essay wryly titled “Delusion at the Gastropub” unapologetically eviscerates the polarized and class-segmented food culture in America, which reifies “rabbit larb and Japanese uni” at one end of the spectrum yet feeds the masses on “a wasteland of over processed, cheap and empty grub” at the other, making neurotic, conspicuous consumers of us all. In addition to these flinty shards of cultural critique, autobiographical vignettes peer into Havrilesky’s family and marriage, which allow the author to expand her voice beyond her Polly avatar (“Playing House,” “Stuffed,” “True Romance”). More universal manifestos for women and their sense of worthiness and self-esteem more broadly also feature (“Bravado” effortlessly trumps the fatigued tropes of most Ted Talk scripts). Perhaps Havrilesky’s greatest strength of all, however, is her talent in distilling the specific grain of “the contemporary.” Much of the pleasure in reading her is derived from shivers of abrupt recognition: that Crossfit is kind of bullshit, actually; or that the dutiful quotidian imbibing of probiotics or “decaf coffee drinks” won’t “whisk away” the absence of an inner life (or what Joan Didion, in an essay in the volume Slouching Towards Bethlehem, famously defined as “self-respect”). With a view toward interior integrity—what her first book called “all the magic inside of ourselves”—one of What if This Were Enough’s key messages is that in these over-stimulated times, we must carve out space to “step back” and observe what isn’t good for us, or to claim time for “quiet wandering” out of the exhausting frame of “events and sounds and messages that have nothing to do with where you are.” This is most successfully exhorted in an essay called “Lost Treasure,” which recounts an old childhood friend of the author’s mother taking frequent three-hour walks to amass “aimless junk,” which she would later fashion into crafted artifacts, proudly displayed in her eccentric home. Though spliced with Havrilesky’s typical irreverent admissions—“When I go on walks these days, I listen to podcasts and answer texts and make phone calls and listen to Kendrick Lamar”—the serene state that “Lost Treasure” ultimately ends up counseling feels a little too abstracted, idealistic. Disconnecting and “tuning in on what’s around you” depends on certain material bolsters and secure coordinates, i.e., a baseline sense of privilege. The acknowledgment, in a later essay called “The Popularity Context,” of Havrilesky’s moderate and vaguely out-of-character Twitter addiction—that she likes to “look at her numbers” and attend to the “illusion of a waiting audience”—is therefore gratefully received. It is more in line with the book at large’s ode to “the miracle of the mundane” and the “off-kilter,” chaotic, often contradictory experience of being human. Obsessive shuttling toward being better, more “authentic,” or more abundant, Harvilesky warns, overwrites the stilling peace that can be found in straightforward acceptance: that one may indeed have spent an hour lost in a social media vortex, and, so long as such an act is generative as opposed to “numbing,” then that is, imperfectly, OK. In a short story simply titled “How,” from her 1985 collection, Self Help, Lorrie Moore writes, of the quietly spreading malaise that typifies contemporary adult life, “It hits you more insistently. A restlessness. A virus of discontent.” Today, that virus has spread so capaciously that to “go viral,” or to have your online life eclipse the imprint of your existence IRL is often held up as a way of being ultimately present, more connected and more alive. In What if This Were Enough? Havrilesky’s “answer” (for she retains some sketches of the columnist) to the problem of the now is the intentional “savoring” of the present (whether it be currently experienced online or in a forest, culling twigs) or the mantra that “This is exactly how it should be,” despite the pressures of the perfect, winningly on-brand people in our heads. It is glued together with the awkward bonds of everyday life, or with the rote “rhythms of survival”—attending children’s birthday parties, getting car checkups, watching reality TV—which hopefully encompass other people but sometimes don’t. The most visceral question, in the end, is whether we can sit down with ourselves amidst all the clutter. Yet instead of telling us to “streamline our message” or to excise everything in life that does not unilaterally “spark joy,” Havrilesky’s most resonant piece of advice is also her most simple: Let it all in.
His books are long out of print, basically forgotten. And when they were current, his last name always overshadowed his first. But contemporary readers fortunate enough to spend time with Shiva Naipaul, the late younger brother of Nobel Prize-winner V.S. Naipaul, will find the former a true original, perhaps the great lost author of the 1970s. “My choice of career must seem like an exercise in masochism,” he admits in the essay “My Brother and I”: The paradox is this: I was doing anything but following in my brother’s footsteps when I started to write. Rather, I had taken the first step on the road to independence, to the autonomy that had always been denied me. A dozen years younger than his celebrated sibling, Shiva Naipaul travelled a remarkably similar route, progressing from childhood in Trinidad to a scholarship at Oxford and eventually, pursuit of the writer’s life in London. Adding to the confusion, the subject matter of his books is, at first glance, remarkably similar to his brother’s, even patently Naipaulian. Two rich tragicomic novels set in his native island, Fireflies and The Chip-Chip Gatherers, garnered awards for Shiva Naipaul upon publication in the early ’70s—as well as inevitable comparisons to his brother’s first masterpiece A House for Mr. Biswas. For all their surface similarities to Sir Vidia’s early work, however, the younger Naipaul’s family sagas cast a more humane look upon the extended Indian immigrant clans settled in Trinidad, incorporating rounded, complete female characters and their points of view. Modern concepts of education and ambition bump up against old-world traditions in Shiva Naipaul’s Indo-Trinidadian characters, mixing and mingling in unpredictable, volatile ratios. While her neighbors consider Baby Luchtman, the resilient heroine of Fireflies, to be “too big for she boots,” it’s her uncle, the failed patriarch turned political wanna-be Govind Khoja, who skewers himself with ludicrous ambition: Deprived of his authority at the head of the family, he was like a fish out of water, breathing in the noxious air of rebellion and insult. Unhappily, in the years since his mother’s death, this is exactly what had happened. Thus, since he was to be debarred henceforth from playing the guru to his own family, he would be guru to the people at large. The purveyor of an incomprehensible doctrine on education could not be challenged or called to account: the masses could only listen, be mystified and obey. So at any rate, Mr. Khoja believed. Turning to narrative nonfiction after The Chip-Chip Gatherers came out in 1973, Naipaul invited further comparisons to his brother’s work by documenting a six-month trip through Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia in North of South: An African Journey (1978). Split between sharply observant travel writing and acidic political interpretation, North of South may work better as opinionated long-form journalism than objective history: It’s slightly anachronistic, and often problematic if judged by current standards. Once—or if—you get past his use of the word “primitive,” Naipaul expresses, and in fact demands, respect for indigenous cultures while unblinkingly documenting the complexities of postcolonial life, confronting the condescending white settlers and decrying their racism. [millions_ad] His next book is arguably Shiva Naipaul’s nonfiction apotheosis, and his personal Waterloo. Journey to Nowhere (titled Black and White in the U.K.) places the author in Guyana just days after the Jonestown mass suicides. Struggling to make sense of the senseless, Naipaul provides context and finally, insight into this still-inexplicable nightmare. The most recent account of the tragedy, Jeff Guinn’s The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple (2017), is far more thoroughly researched yet nevertheless pales in comparison to Naipaul’s fitful exploration. Tracing Jim Jones’s strange trip back to his ostensibly progressive roots in the Bay Area, Naipaul indulges in a touch of cliched California-bashing before unearthing the horrible and half-hidden truth about the cult leader: Deep racial terror was mercilessly exposed and exploited in the People’s Temple. Jones stripped bare his following and left them naked and defenseless. He did not liberate; he assaulted and traumatized those who believed in him. Once can sense at a certain level his raging hatred for the blacks whose God he claimed to be; a hatred so deep-seated, so tormenting that, it its fury, it turned itself inside out and called itself Love. Returning to fiction with Love in a Hot Country (1983), Shiva Naipaul portrays star-crossed lives in a corrupt and ravaged Caribbean nation after the revolution. His voice and vision are decidedly bleaker here yet no less compelling than in the previous novels. A stunning collection of essays and short stories titled Beyond the Dragon’s Mouth appeared in 1985—the same year Shiva Naipaul died suddenly of a heart attack at age 40. In the introduction to the posthumous collection An Unfinished Journey (1987), Naipaul’s father-in law Douglas Stuart recalls asking him about a return to the comic vein of his initial fiction. Naipaul replied: “How can I? I have walked over the bodies at Jonestown.” But he was far from exhausted. “Beyond The Dragon’s Mouth,” an autobiographical essay first published in 1984, relays the depth, and fortitude, of his inspiration: I grew up in a no-man’s land. Suburban life with its ease and unrelenting worship of American standards, American ideals, had not existed when I was a boy. Its assumptions and prejudices were unfamiliar to me. If I was like a fish out of water at a Hindu rite, I was no less a fish out of water at a drive-in cinema with the vapors of hot dogs and hamburgers. Such definition as I do now posses has its roots in nothing other than personal exigency. Every day, I have to redefine myself. In his abbreviated oeuvre, Shiva Naipaul conducts a restless search to comprehend the world at large, and himself. Whatever his further journeys, both real and imagined, might have revealed, he left us plenty to unpack.
Out this week: Insurrecto by Gina Apostol; The April 3rd Incident by Yu Hua; Death and Other Holidays by Marci Vogel; In/Half by Jasmin B. Frelih; The Patch by John McPhee; and The End of the End of the Earth by Jonathan Franzen. For more on these and other new titles, go read our most recent book preview.
1. Meeting Leonard I met Leonard Cohen—then a Zen monk—on a dirt road in the San Gabriel Mountains east of Los Angeles at the edge of the Mojave Desert. From the main road to the Master’s quarters was a gravelly avenue, dusty in the summer, shaded in parts by 100-year-old sugar pines that leaned high, toward each other, and seemed to whisper amongst themselves. Manzanita shrubs scaled the gentle climb of the mountain above and below the rocky drive. And occasionally a pickup truck or SUV would zip through the narrow way, driven by an ardent monk with an important sense of purpose: to, say, deliver asphalt shingles from Home Depot so that we could hammer them without delay to the hot tar-papered roof of the meditation hall, which we called by its Japanese name, the zendo. At the top of the road, I was walking with Andy, a bedraggled, long-haired, bearded, red-headed fellow initiate—more of a comrade than a friend—who ran about the Zen Center in the manner of his Chinese astrology sign, explosively, like a rabbit. I felt a car approaching and tensed. But quite unusually, the car slowed to a roll that met our walking pace. The engine quieted, and almost stopped. My body began to relax. Making its way past us, the Nissan Pathfinder’s window came down. The driver revealed his face, and spoke in a tired, dulcet voice, “Excuse me, friends.” It was Leonard. And then he pulled forward, leaving the gravel, dirt, and pedestrians unperturbed. 2. The Flame Since then, Leonard—his body—has passed. No more live concerts. No new songs, or poems, except those that might be posthumously published by his estate. His son, Adam Cohen, has now assembled and anointed The Flame. The Flame is a book whose completion Adam tells us was his father’s “sole breathing purpose at the end.” It was a project for which Leonard “renewed his commitment to rigorous meditation so as to focus his mind through the acute pain of multiple compression fractures and the weakening of his body.” Leonard died on Nov. 7, 2016. And I agree with Adam when he writes, “It feels darker now, but the flame was not killed. Each page of paper that he blackened was lasting evidence of a burning soul.” 3. Invoking the Realm of Chivalry Aside from his manners and his suits, Leonard invoked the realm of chivalry and romance, such as when—in a dining hall with fold-up tables and a flaking linoleum floor, in honor of his Zen Master Roshi’s 35th anniversary of teaching in America—he presented a wooden, silk-lined box of perfectly stacked rows of gold coins, generous in amount. The gift, offered with an over-dramatic speech about how the Master (who is now dead) had prevented a monk’s suicide, invoked the atmosphere of ancient song—like an offering at Solomon’s temple. And this seemed to be Leonard’s way. He transformed the world into his image of it. And those of us who were around when he did so were brought into a land of ancient poetic lore. It was fun to be transposed by his projections into a universe that seemed deeper—or at least more merry, rich and imaginative—than ours. Leonard augmented the atmosphere with an almost histrionic, celebratory air. He was resolute in wanting to avoid a dissolution into mundane lifelessness. He was vigilantly aware of the “great inevitable defeat that awaits us all,” and he wished to express this awareness “within the strict confines of dignity and beauty.” I’m pretty sure that Roshi was aware of Leonard’s effect, and certainly proud—one might even say boastful at times— to have the celebrity by his side. He used the poet for his own enterprise, and often to great effect, as did we all in our own little ways. [millions_ad] 4. A Relationship in Silence Leonard was gracious, and he let us use him. He let us feel good about ourselves by being friendly enough to us to allow us to say of him that he—Leonard Cohen—was our friend. And yet one never knew where he stood. He seemed nice enough. One felt close to him, but then we’d pull his Book of Longing from the shelf at Borders Books in Montclair Plaza beside Interstate 10 and read of his time among us: I was known as a Monk I shaved my head and wore robes and got up very early I hated everyone but I acted generously and no one found me out He was very kind to me. Upon graduation from my training I started a temple in San Francisco. It was a meager affair, but warm and sincere, made so by its dear attendees. And to support this gathering Leonard contributed a significant regular donation, without my having asked. Unsolicited, there arrived in the mail a purple card with the picture of a Spanish-looking guitar—very much like the one on Page 269 of The Flame. In the card was a check signed, “Leonard Cohen.” And every month thereafter, another donation arrived. I thanked, him, of course. My benefactor. I recall a moment when we dressed together, putting on our monk-robes for a formal talk by the Master, and he said, as if we were about to be inducted by a cult, “They’ll never get us.” He was implying by this, I think, that though we fled as refugees from American culture, because it degraded our standards of beauty and life, we would not—in turning to a Zen Buddhist alternative with powerful rituals and traditions—be taken in by another. But if Leonard let us take of his graciousness, he took of us. He drew inspiration from the world he created, but he needed us to create it—to nourish his G-d (as he always wrote it), his Spirit of Song—which, I believe, is what he truly worshipped. I think—and not in a bad way—that in a culture as broken and empty of meaning as ours, Leonard sought to cobble together a secular poetic religion. Such a thing demanded spaces in which his thoughts could live. The physical, worldly connections to his teacher, to us, and his fans allowed him to realize, incarnate and serve what he lived for: the Lord of Song. And this is one of the reasons that I think we love him—not for the excellence of his poems—but for his valiant effort to preserve through his imagination the importance of inner life, and the sources from which meaning and kindness are born. In this sense, his struggle and longing serve as a kind of heuristic device, a form of self-compassion that grants us permission to reflect on ourselves—on our solitary situations (our failures and our brokenness)—alone, together. Leonard was a Pop Prophet, and we love him for that—for honoring, respecting, enjoying and understanding life enough to keep The Flame alive. 5. Leonard’s Effect on the Princess of Spain My favorite piece in the book is Leonard’s thank you speech to Spain, the “Acceptance Address for the Prince of Asturias Award.” There is a line in that speech in which he tells us of the time he lifted his Conde guitar, light as helium, from its case. “I brought it to my face. I put my face close to the beautifully designed rosette, and I inhaled the fragrance of the living wood.” He was gracious, noble, a master of charm. And I think he knew it. But if he was a seducer, it seems to me that he worked to seduce us back to ourselves—to life and to living, to the creaturely meaning of our life, so that we might express thanks for it—and, in the spirit of surrender, mercy to G-d for his cruelty (for knowing that we ourselves can be as cruel, and to underscore the fact that however bleak our life may be, at the very least it’s life, and that as long as we have it, it’s our life, however small it may seem compared to the hugeness of time). All this while pointing us to the recognition that one of the great redeeming things we hold in our power, which allows us to rebel against our end, is our capacity for friendship. 6. The Greedy Monk in Our Midst I recall standing next to him, gathered for a group photograph after a Buddhist ceremony in L.A., happy to be there with Jikan—as Leonard was called by the “Zens”—as a person who had showed me so many small kindnesses in the midst of a challenging career. But as this joy settled in, a monk who prided himself on writing and who had written two poor (in my opinion) books about life as a monk quietly pressed his angry body against mine, to shove me off balance so that I might lose my spot beside Leonard for him to take. I found out later that Leonard wrote an introduction to one of this monk’s books. Leonard gave endlessly, and, one felt, indiscriminately, kindly, and generously. I was not thrown off balance, physically—but I was surprised by the monk’s behavior. Since then, it turns out, he seems to have abandoned his monastic calling, having used—maybe as Leonard had—Buddhism as a ruse, and as a source, for secular content. 7. Leonard’s Gift: Modesty, Majesty, and Love As it’s come to America, Buddhism has been cheapened. Psychologized, romanticized, popularized. If Leonard’s imagination was anemic in its ability to generate true religious content, it was nonetheless kind. And in the end, I think it is the spirit of his kindness that we’ll keep. Leonard’s attitude, his values, his vulnerability, and his seemingly sincere desire for humanitarian agreement, peace, decency, healing and connection are his legacy. And if that is what he provided as a voice, it’s a voice I believe we need, and one, maybe, that sings us in the right direction. A spiritual stem cell, perhaps, still to be developed in its various forms—but in the direction of gracious modesty, majesty, and love. Thank you for your care, Leonard. And thank you for L. Cohen—our friend. Image: Flickr/Bill Strain
William H. Gass loved words. “A word is a wanderer,” he wrote in “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses.” “Except in the most general syntactical sense, it has no home.” Gass longed to make worthy homes for words. He often chose lists. Lists were his secular litanies. Lists allowed Gass, who always longed to be a poet, to ladle his words into natural meter. We are lucky if we find a sentence or paragraph to hold onto—as a reader, as a writer. We write them on index cards and impale them into cork board. We let them collect dust under a lamp. We are strangely blessed if we can find a writer who can carry us even further—through a book, through a life. I return to Gass like a pilgrimage. His final offering, The William H. Gass Reader, is a gift. Nearly a thousand pages of his essays about writers and artists, his theories about fiction, and selections from his novellas and novels. When I say Gass loved words, I mean he genuinely, audaciously, absolutely loved words. Language seemed an infinite gift that he grasped. A typographic deity. “I am an octogenarian now and should know better, but I recently let a sentence reach print so embarrassingly bad its metaphors seemed frightened into scattered flight like quail.” He was not afraid to fail. “Skepticism was my rod, my staff, my exercise.” Gass was pessimistic. He was clothed in doubt. Yet that skepticism, as it does with the best critics, gave foundation and significance to his celebrations. You cannot love words without also loving writers. Gass loved writers. He loved Gertrude Stein. Her play, her power. “There are texts,” he writes in “Fifty Literary Pillars,” “and there are times, and sometimes both are right and ring together like Easter changes.” He thought Stein “did more with sentences, and understood them better, than any writer ever has. Not all her manipulations are successful, but even at their worst, most boring, most mechanical, they’re wonderfully informative. And constantly she thought of them as things in space, as long and wiggling and physical as worms.” We need critics who can admire. We need critics who can feel awe. Gass loved: Plato (“His dialogues are among the world’s most magical texts”). Virginia Woolf (Her diary “alters your attitude toward life”). James Joyce (“Finnegans Wake is the high-water mark of modernism, and not to have been fundamentally influenced by it as a writer is not to have lived in your time”). Samuel Beckett (“Beckett wishes to save our souls by purging us—impossibly—of matter”). Katherine Anne Porter (“From her first tale to her last, she was in complete command of her manner—a prose straightforward and shining as a prairie road, yet gently undulating, too”). Gass makes us want to read more, and to read better. He believed reading was an athletic act. He was not an athlete. But as a boy, he was a member of a speed reading team, and in “On Reading to Oneself,” in his typical self-deprecating form, he writes of how he learned to read as an act of love. He writes of how the “speeding reader drops diagonally down across the page, on a slant like a skier; cuts across the text the way a butcher prefers to slice sausage, so that a small round can be made to yield a misleadingly larger, oval piece.” His vision of the world was always slightly bent. He turned us toward his curves. He thought we were a mess. “Evil,” he wrote, “is as man-made as the motorcar.” He didn’t have much faith in us—our track record has not been particularly splendid—and concluded, “we shall probably be eaten by our own greed, and live on only in our ruins, middens, and the fossil record.” He knew what we are capable of, and it scared him. In an essay on Ezra Pound, Gass wrote of how Pound, in his later years, apologized for his anti-Semitism, calling it a “mistake” and some “suburban prejudice.” Gass’s rebuke is powerful: “The tone of that repentance is all wrong, suggesting that Pound had made some error in arithmetic on his tax forms which turned out to have unpleasant consequences. Anti-Semitism is not a ‘mistake’ or even a flaw, as if it left the rest of its victim okay and in good working order. As with racism, a little does more than go a long way; it goes all the way.” Peel aside his play and Gass, truly, was one to trust. What can a Catholic learn from an agnostic Protestant? More than I could ever imagine when I discovered Gass as an undergraduate—I devoured (to use his word) “The Pedersen Kid,” which is rightfully included in full within this Reader. I would never be the same. We both have an affinity for the word soul, and let me not parse our differing theologies: I appreciate the contours of his unbelief, for they live within a state of wonder. What a wonder it is to make a world of words. “Words are with us everywhere. In our erotic secrecies, in our sleep. We’re often no more aware of them than our own spit, although we use them oftener than legs.” Words “lift our spirits—these poor weak words. They guide and they coerce. They settle fights, initiate disputes, compound errors, elicit truth. How long have we known it? They gather dust, too, and spoil in jokes which draw our laughter like the flies.” While a graduate student at Cornell, where he studied philosophy, Gass took a course with the legendary M. H. Abrams, a seminar course on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The students read not only the Biographia Literaria—but also “every book it quotes from, mentions, alludes to.” Gass said the method “taught me how to read, how to reread, even how to overread.” He learned “never to rely on secondary sources, but to trust only primary ones—a teaching that leads directly to this ideal: write so as to become primary.” He left us with this book.
It hit me hard when I got an email from Linda and Susan telling their contributors that after 30 years, their literary journal, Glimmer Train, would print its last issue in fall 2019. Somehow through luck, timing, the stars coming together, and what talent I had magically focusing for a story, I managed to win their first New Writers Award in 1994, and was published for the first time. A friend handed me a piece of paper he’d clipped somewhere regarding Glimmer Train’s New Writer Award, and on a whim I submitted my story. I remember asking him if the journal was any good or not; I was that green. Every literary journal is, in its beginning and at its end, about people. Think of George Plimpton and the Paris Review, or Harriet Monroe who started Poetry in 1912. The renowned lit journal Story, founded by the husband-and-wife team of Whit Burnett and Martha Foley in 1931, folded in 1967. In 1989 Lois and Richard Rosenthal revived Story, fulfilling a promise to Burnett, only to shut it down in 1999. I remember how outraged I was at the time—I’d recently sold my second story to Glimmer Train and was expecting to take over the world. I longed and lusted to see my name in Story, because of its history, as much as any other journal. And now it was gone. How could that even happen? Keeping that journal alive was a responsibility, I thought, with the pure conviction of youth. How dare they shut it down! I somehow had the notion that primary literary outlets lasted forever, but they don’t—they can’t—especially when they rely on a few distinctive and, for better or worse, mortal beings bound by the limits that time and mortality lay upon us all. The reality is, those putting these labors of love together age with each issue because time, the most precious commodity of our lives, goes into them, even if it is time well spent. And it is. I’m grateful that the Paris Review has a foundation behind it to keep it liquid, and that the Missouri Review has the support of a major university (though I suspect that even such support is less solid than it appears). However, it’s possible the upside of a journal being limited to its founders, like Story and Glimmer Train, is that their tastes and personalities can’t help marking these journals distinctly, and that’s what makes them unique. That identity, wedded to the impermanence of both founder and journal, gives them, perhaps ironically, the vibrance of life. In 1990 Linda Swanson-Davies and Susan Burmeister-Brown, two avid-reading sisters in Portland, decided when Susan and her husband sold a software company they’d started in the ’80s to put some of that money into creating a literary journal. And since it was theirs and theirs alone, they could do whatever they wished. They decided they wanted a journal with content as high in quality as any other, but also—and this is one of the areas that set them apart—they wanted it to be fun. And most wonderfully, as far as their writers were concerned, they wanted to feature them like no other journal out there, to bring them as people to their readership. So they asked each author accepted to provide a children’s photo of themselves with a caption, then they gave each of those authors an entire blank page at the back of the journal where they could add another image and say something (anything) about the story. They even asked authors to put their signature on their title page. Finally, in the back of the journal they listed every author they ever published (name size shrinking with every addition of new writers). Each issue also ran an interview with a literary figure, as well as a feature on a writer silenced for political reasons in another part of the world. And as books are not just collections of stories and writers, but art objects in themselves, the sisters commissioned original full-color artwork on every cover, and used the highest quality paper available throughout. Inside the jacket there was always a greeting from Linda and Susan introducing the issue with an old black and white photo of a family gathering or their community from decades past. So in this way the reader would get to know their family too, and would be included by these artifacts into the larger family, or community, of Glimmer Train. Regardless of however much of this was planned out and how much was them just following their tastes and instincts, it turned out to be very smart business as far as selling journals. But beyond everything else that made the journal special, its focus, as it should be, was on the stories they picked. These stories couldn’t help but reflect the style and tastes of the sisters, and here’s where we get back to people. Glimmer Train stories, well—they told a story. This was not an outlet to submit experimental work, or to explode the form of the narrative. It was a place, cornball as it might sound, to explore the human heart. Theirs was an intensely focused human perspective, and whether through realism or magical realism or some other “ism,” a story couldn’t stray far from that heart, which for most of us is the center of narrative expression anyway. Simply put: They published stories about people. For that reason, getting your work in Glimmer Train was a great way to get noticed by an agent. They knew that a writer who could meet their standard was a writer who could reach a larger audience too. They added an e-bulletin that updated readers on contests and presented three to four craft essays on writing. Then they produced a basic, no-frills, stapled-at-the-crease publication called Writers Ask where they collected short snippets of successful writers in interviews commenting on various writerly subjects such as characterization, point of view, revision, etc. What I especially loved as I read this over the years was how often these experts contradicted each other with advice, proving that there is no one right way to manage this art. I’m sure Linda and Susan had little idea that their journal, focusing mostly on new and emerging writers, would grow to the point where they would receive 40,000 submissions for their three yearly issues (they made it a point to read every story themselves), or give out over $50,000 to writers each year, or have stories from Glimmer Train selected for the Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, New Stories from the Midwest, the O. Henry Prize Stories, New Stories from the South, Best of the West, New Stories from the Southwest, Best American Short Stories, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. It was, and is, until their little train rolls into the distance, one of the most respected literary journals in the country. How does this happen? How do two sisters take a small bit of money and start a journal just because they love literature, and then one day it’s suddenly this thing? The answer is, I guess, it just does. Like the rest of us living this writer’s life, we follow the spark of an idea, apply what craft we have, get feedback, revise, then send it into the world. Maybe it ends up somewhere; maybe it doesn’t. Maybe the stars and our talents and the cultural moment focus just right and our story not only finds publication, which is hard enough, but breaks through to the point where it actually has a life of its own, where it affects people. After I was first published in Glimmer Train I was certain that my life had changed. It had, but not in the way I expected. Agents contacted me, the story was anthologized … I mean, all this from nowhere. I was on my way! Again, I was, just not as I expected. I have not, this many years later, sold the big novel that would make me rich and get made into a movie and everyone would know my name and genius. There was a period of 10 years after that first story where I got nothing published, nothing! But by then I knew I was in it for life. And what I tell people (which is a way of telling myself) is that the life is what matters. Everything else this side of a Pulitzer, and probably even that, is a temporary high. It burns off surprisingly quickly. You write your stories. You produce your journal. If this is who you are, this is how you get to be you, and that’s where almost all the joy of a life in the arts lies. Your projects develop lives of their own, or they don’t. Regardless, you’re part of something bigger. You live your life serving something bigger, so you get to be bigger, as well as true to that thing deep inside you that always called even as people tried to run you off of it. You get to serve that. What more could you ask for in this world? And maybe, just maybe, because you’ve worked for years and you’re talented, and committed, and the timing’s right, your journal grows and puts a thousand stories into the world that might not have otherwise entered the world. And maybe those stories affect lives, and maybe the writers of these stories actually find out about that. And maybe they don’t. But I was one of the lucky ones. I’d written that short story about people and the land in West Texas, paid the submission fee and sent it to Glimmer Train, then promptly forgot about it. I was helping a friend and collaborator move from New York back to Austin. We loaded up his U-Haul and headed south by southwest toward Memphis. My buddy and I managed his truck down the street to Graceland where we took a left into the Elvis Motel across the street with its guitar-shaped pool and 24-hour Elvis movies on demand. Then we took a cab downtown, ate catfish, found a blues club and drank the music in, before hopping into another cab back to our room. There my friend went into the bathroom and—it was, I promise you, the stroke of midnight—I decided to check my answering machine for the first time in days, and on it I heard a message from Linda telling me my short story had won Glimmer Train’s New Writer’s Award. My heart stopped. The next message from her (probably from the next day) carried some stress—she wanted to know if the story was still available, and would I please get back to her? I quickly dialed the number she’d left and said yes yes yes and thank you. My friend came out of the bathroom and at the news, being prone to ritual, he recommended we cross the street to Graceland and light, puff on, and toss a “burnt offering” he’d brought along over the wall for Elvis, and since I was saying yes to everything that night, we did. When we returned, Elvis, via whatever movie we’d requested, started singing “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You” on the TV. It was, perhaps, the most magical day of my life. How could I turn away after this? Through the years of rejection that followed, the occasional successes, the personal relationships, the loss of a livable income and the city I loved, and the people I’ve lost, this work has sustained me. It is, to quote William Stafford, the “thread you follow,” and the thread that has carried my life. And so those of you blessed and foolish enough to attempt to create a space where art can live and thrive, a springboard where gestures of love and beauty and thought and intimacy can leap into the world and perhaps affect another human being, and thereby affect the world … Yes, please, yes, do that work. Start your lit journal, build that gallery, bring music into the pub. Do it as long as you can bear or stand it and I promise it will feed you, whatever does or does not happen otherwise. And know that there are those of us out here desperate and grateful for what you offer, even if we never find out who our creations reached. I open the latest issue of Glimmer Train to see my name in the back shrinking in size because of the latest additions—disappearing, like their little train on their logo headed into the distance—and thank the two sisters of Glimmer Train for the doggedness of their obsession and what came from it, for the beautiful living things they sent into the world, and give them leave to step away and let the little train recede. You did your part, I would tell them; others are already doing theirs. Correction: Travis Kurowski picked up the copyright on the name Story for the literary journal he published through York College from 2014-2017. Michael Nye acquired the name in 2018 and will reboot the journal with a triannual print publication in February 2019.
All first-person narrators are unreliable. This is less a structural feature of storytelling and more a structural feature of the human condition. We lie to ourselves, we lie to others, and even if we mean to tell our story with complete honesty, we can never fully understand it. As the saying goes, approximately: The proof that we’re unreliable narrators is the fact that everyone is the star of their own story. Certain kinds of genre storytelling, perhaps, get close to full reliability, as they are more concerned with driving plot than revealing character—we can essentially trust that Katniss Everdeen is reliable, since she exists mainly as a vehicle for telling the story of the Hunger Games she competes in. There would be no point, from Suzanne Collins’s point of view, in having her narrator fudge the truth. This is not meant as a slight—simply that the purpose of a great deal of sci-fi, fantasy, and thriller fiction is to drive plot, not to communicate hidden complexities of character. But in the realm of what we broadly consider literary fiction, character is paramount and true reliability is impossible. In fact, as many critics have remarked before, the most truly reliable literary narration is a kind of very consistent unreliable narration. The go-to example of reliably unreliable narrators is Lolita’s dissembling monster, Humbert Humbert. For the novel’s 400-plus pages, Humbert engages the reader in a pas de deux of hideous charm, seducing and repelling again and again, via his theatrical biography of child rape. The act of reading Lolita is fundamentally the act of decoding Humbert’s narration, a narration as reliably encoded as the diary he keeps in Charlotte Haze’s guest room. We are pulled in with his language until just close enough to be revulsed at the object of his language. And we understand that the project is, despite its purported intent as a confession and object of psychological study, an act of self-justification—the self-justification of pedophilia, not mainly via sympathy or historical precedent, but through a larger project of aestheticizing it, transforming assault into art. It is, finally, an act and artifact of Satanically grand egotism. Mr. Stevens, in The Remains of the Day, is another archetypally reliable unreliable narrator. The novel’s clockwork unreliability functions as a kind of equation that can be used to solve all of Mr. Steven’s statements of non-fact and pitiful delusion. Once we understand that Lord Darlington was a Nazi and that Stevens was in love with Miss Kenton, we know that for almost everything he says about them, we should believe the opposite: He is not going on his countryside jaunt to incidentally visit Miss Kenton; he does not especially want to “banter” with people; he is not proud of his service to Lord Darlington, whom he does not believe was a good man. Characters like Humbert and Mr. Stevens provide the reader a level of confidence and certainty of motivation mostly unavailable with conventional narrators. Someone who always lies, after all, is as easy to understand as someone who always tells the truth. Less intelligible might be a narrator like Holden Caulfield, who is not, from a narratological standpoint, strategically unreliable—that is, if and when he’s lying, he isn’t employing it for conscious effect or advantage. Caulfield, like most normal people, is full of flattering illusions about himself, dumb notions of how to live, unfounded prejudices, and so on, but they aren’t importantly arrayed around a guiding principle/theme/blindspot like Humbert’s pedophilia or Mr. Stevens’s professional and romantic regrets. Still, there is Holden's dead brother, and the fact that the narration is being told to a spectral psychologist. The reader, and the novel itself, understands that something is amiss even if Caulfield doesn’t, fully. While most first-person narratives are not as structurally deceitful as Lolita or Remains of the Day, most do consciously incorporate an element of uncertainty in the narrator’s telling of their story. This uncertainty has a rhythm and tone as much a part of the reading experience as the author’s descriptive tendencies, their syntax and diction. In this sense, paradoxically, while all first-person narrators may be unreliable, most first-person narratives are reliable—or, perhaps better put, intelligible. That is to say, the character’s blind spots and deceptions are congruent with the general aims and architecture of the text; more than congruent, they are an essential part of it. But there’s a rare category of book that seems to misunderstand its own narrator. Either the narrator is unreliable and the book itself doesn't understand it, or else the book understands the fact of its narrator’s unreliability, but misjudges its nature. [millions_ad] An example of the first case is The Big Sleep. Philip Marlowe is meant to be a fairly honest reporter of his own story—a bit of a haunted loner, maybe, but more or less what he seems: tough, sardonic, and scrupulous. This scrupulousness is often dramatized through his uncorruptibility vis-à-vis women, in particular, Carmen Sternwood, who throws herself at him throughout the novel to no effect. Well, to some effect, actually. After Carmen appears nude in his apartment, Marlowe relates the following: “I went back to the bed and looked down at it. The imprint of her head was still in the pillow, of her small corrupt body still on the sheets. I put my empty glass down and tore the bed to pieces savagely.” Raymond Chandler’s seeming intent here—to characterize Marlowe as a private, sexually principled man—badly overshoots his mark; still, on a surface reading, this reaction is consistent with the book’s conception of Marlowe as, fundamentally, a straight arrow. Drape a gold crucifix around his neck and he would be more recognizable as a moral crusader, a Christian brother cleaning up Sodom. Sure, he drinks quite a bit, and his crime-fighting methodology exists in a shadowland outside of regular law enforcement, but his spine is as erect as any Midwest rotarian standing at the podium. More than money, or professional curiosity, Marlowe seems motivated by a kind of prim, abiding disgust at the perverted world of the Sternwoods and Arthur Geiger and Eddie Mars. Among the many types who make Marlowe sick: the rich, pornographers, and gamblers. But mainly loose women and gay men. Gynophobia and homophobia are the twinned engines of fearful disgust that drive the novel’s emotional logic. In the Carmen scenes, we sense a narrator who is less inured to female advances than terrified and enraged by them. Likewise, gay men—a group the novel takes special pains to belittle. “A pansy,” says Marlowe, to the young man he’s preparing to wrestle, “has no iron in his bones.” A murder victim’s house has “the nasty, stealthy look of a fag party.” Homosexuality in Chandler’s 1930s Los Angeles, as it was most places in America at the time, was taboo, verboten. But even by those standards, there is a spectral seediness to depictions of homosexuality in The Big Sleep that feels unusual, accompanied by a visceral horror at vice’s general omnipresence, as though L.A. is a rotting log with maggots writhing underneath. Arthur Geiger, a gay pornographer, runs a smut library on Santa Monica Boulevard, trading in pictures of “such indescribable filth” that Marlowe—and the narrative eye—has to turn away. And yet he turns back, again and again, with a fascinated revulsion that on multiple reads seems less homophobic than bristlingly homoerotic. Again and again, he is drawn to Arthur Geiger’s house, the locus of the novel’s main motivating crime, like a moth to its hated, cherished flame. These movements hold special significant in the work of Chandler, a writer who famously did not plan his stories ahead of time and who himself claimed to be confused by his novels’ labyrinthine plots. They chart a kind of map of the narrative subconscious, and no location is more central than Geiger’s bungalow, with its frou-frou chinoiserie and bedroom occupied by Geiger’s secret young lover—Marlowe returns to this locale no fewer than seven times, mimicking The Big Sleep’s helpless attraction to its own subsumed queerness. On this point, Marlowe, and the narrative he spins, are truly unreliable, and The Big Sleep reads like nothing so much as the journal of a gay man remaining unaware of his sexuality at all costs. A different example of unreliable unreliability might be found in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. The book is aware, mightily, of its narrator Binx Bolling’s strangeness. A stockbroker in New Orleans, Binx is a flaneur and artiste at heart, a dreamy loner who spends his days in the movies, and we are given to know that he is in a kind of despair despite his protestations of enjoying the simple, all-American life. But the novel itself misjudges its main character. By my estimation, Binx revels, wallows, in an ersatz version of artistic ennui and emotional instability authentically embodied by his suicidal, bipolar cousin Kate. In habit, he is a fairly normal, privileged white man of his time who likes making money, who genially harasses a procession of his secretaries into sleeping with him, who presumes his comfortable place in the catbird seat of the social order. And yet he also wants to feel special, outside this world as well as a part of it, so he cultivates a sense of himself as a seeker via some mumbo jumbo about The Search and a related array of cutesy little mental routines. He takes full part in normal society while scorning it—no episode from the book is more illustrative of Binx’s unconscious character than his origin story as a frat boy, wherein he casually insults another pledge to mark himself as a member of the inner circle, then spends four years drinking beer by himself on the front porch while silently judging his brothers to be fools. The book ends with him sleeping with his unstable, vulnerable cousin, whom he marries and with whom he purports to have found a kind of complacent, co-dependent happiness. The epigraph of the book by Kierkegaard—“The specific quality of despair is this: it does not know it’s despair”—might be modified for Binx: “The specific quality of an asshole is this: they do not know they’re an asshole.” Neither, it seems, does The Moviegoer, or at least not to the extent it should. Binx’s narration is truly unreliable, unreliably unreliable, as the story he occupies misunderstands him much as he misunderstands himself. The reader must decode not only Binx’s misperceptions but the misperceptions of a narrative with an incomplete command of its narrator. In this sense, unreliably unreliable novels can present both the greatest challenge and the most fun as an active reading experience. Authors like Kazuo Ishiguro create texts that are gratifying puzzles, a kind of curated escape room for attentive readers to explore and solve. Most normal, less structurally unreliable narration, is more like a detective story, with the reader cast as sleuth piecing together clues about the narrator’s true self—the self as a mystery that is never fully or decisively solved. But books like The Big Sleep and The Moviegoer are more like faulty maps of the wilderness in which the reader finds herself stranded. You have to find your own way, interpreting the weather and wind and direction, charting your own course in spite—in defiance—of the book. Image: Flickr/recoverling
1. Step beneath the outermost leaves and the temperature drops, the light dapples, the path narrows, the situation becomes uncertain. There, out of direct sunlight, life rushes out in cacophonies of saturated color. Tree bark and humus curl past the edge of sight in choppy, gray-brown waves. Moon-pale mushrooms jut from fallen trunks like leering, drowsy eyes. Red smears of fox prey, turquoise flashes of diva birds, purpled cursive looping vines. Black mud sucking at boots in tiny pools, surface a-skitter with paratrooper swarms of translucent mosquitos. And everywhere green, green, and still more green. The understory of a forest or the ecosystem of a novel? 2. Every forest is full of trees, but it is the trees that make the forest. And so it is in Richard Powers’s latest novel, The Overstory. Across 500 pages of lush, sometimes overgrown prose, Powers nurtures a story of enlightened discoveries, social quandaries, and human disappointments set beside the centuries-long perspective of trees. Appropriately, The Overstory is built like an oak, and the book is broken into four sections called “Roots,” “Trunk,” “Crown,” and “Seeds.” The lives of the nine primary characters grow into this organic mold, and the eventual shape of the novel comes to resemble a plant in its maturity. The “Roots,” comprising the first third of the book, introduce the protagonists. They are given their own chapters, in which we glimpse the budding of their identities and personal mythologies. Each is linked to a species of tree, an archetypal cast for their character. For instance, Nicholas Hoel is born into the annals of a multi-generational Iowa farm family who developed an eccentric relationship to a doomed American chestnut. This root story foreshadows traits of Nicholas as an adult vis-à-vis his family chestnut; he’s distinctly “American” in his individualistic, grandiose, and downtrodden-but-not-down way. “My maple turns red like me,” says another protagonist, Adam Appich, whose discomfort with communication will outlive his youth. Elsewhere, a mulberry tree stains the flagstones of a suburban backyard patio and Douglas fir trees bristle against the prevailing winds—unique morphologies signifying complex personalities. Through these comparative chapters we meet characters diverse and discretely identified, as if in a botanical garden. But in the next section of the novel, these archetypes and their character cutouts feed into a larger vision. As readers start the “Trunk” section, the journeys of Nicholas, Adam, and all the others coalesce into a single, wild narrative. Action by action and year by year their lives contribute to a grander story—to put to an obvious point on it—like so many rings forming on the trunk of a tree. The plot straightens out, progressing at an impressive trajectory. Yet even linear stories like this one demand their own questions and reconsiderations. “If he could read, if he could translate ...” one character muses while tracing the wood-grain pattern of a prison desk at the beginning of the “Trunk” section: If he were only a slightly different creature, then he might learn all about how the sun shone and the rain fell and which way the wind blew against this trunk for how hard and long. He might decode the vast projects that the soil organized, the murderous freezes, the suffering and struggle, shortfalls and surpluses, the attacks repelled, the years of luxury, the storms outlived, the sum of all the threats and chances that came from every direction, in every season this tree ever lived. The pattern on the furniture before him clearly isn’t the only whorling conundrum occupying his thoughts. The incremental buildup of the novel’s tree-ring structure in the middle section defies easy interpretation, at least for the characters living through its accumulation. In typical form, The Overstory’s plot eventually reaches a crisis. In the “Crown,” the story structure takes a slightly different course than is found in more traditional novels—instead of collapsing, it branches out. After the climax of “Trunk,” the protagonists travel various paths, mostly alone and, differently vulnerable as individuals than as a group, weather their own stormy seasons. In “Seeds,” each character’s actions bear consequential fruit and, at the conclusion of each mortal micro-drama, they sow the seeds of future stories. Living trees are more than solitary organisms clinging to the dirt; they host fungal complexes in their root balls, beetle families and owl chicks in their odd hollows, and mossy carpets in their canopies. They are entire worlds to other creatures. The Overstory, with its tree-shaped arc, becomes a nurturing, metaphor-rich environment for storytelling. In its contours, individual lives beget remembrances, songs, and whole other people. And they all become a part of the bigger story, a tree of lives. Nicholas Hoel, you may remember, grows up beneath the shade of an American chestnut. When he inherits a collection of hundreds of photographs of the tree taken by his relatives for almost a century, he sees “generations of grudge, courage, forbearance, and surprise generosity: everything a human being might call the story happens outside his photos’ frame.” What is captured in them over the years is more inscrutable: “Inside the frame, through hundreds of revolving seasons, there is only that solo tree, its fissured bark spiraling upward into early middle age, growing at the speed of wood.” 3. Every forest is full of trees, but it is the forest that makes the trees. And so it is in an almost-forgotten Australian novel, Eucalyptus by Murray Bail. Published in 1998, Eucalyptus took root in the land Down Under and notched some of the continent’s most prestigious literary awards—including the Miles Franklin Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize—however, the book garnered little enduring attention elsewhere. Unlike the taxonomical sweep of Powers’s novel, Eucalyptus derives its unforgettable force by studying its sole namesake. By observing and re-observing the ever-changing eucalyptus, Bail writes a lyrical study on the teeming tilth of individual experience. In Eucalyptus, the hot scrub of inland Australian seems to go on forever, its kerosene-blue sky no consolation for its endlessness. The dead hills of grazing pasture unroll into the distance, measured off by sagging barbed-wire fences. The only features to catch the eye across the parched Aussie backcountry are the sentinel eucalyptus trees, somber and grand in their loneliness. Under the mottled light of these epic trees, a widower named Holland devises an idiosyncratic plan to arrange for his daughter’s marriage. The successful suitor of his beautiful daughter Ellen will be able to identify and name every variety of eucalyptus tree on his property, which number more than five hundred. Within the morphology of these multifarious trees, Bail finds striking metaphors to flesh out the people, places, and offshoot stories in Eucalyptus. “Each and every eucalypt is interesting for its own reasons,” writes Bail at the novel’s outset. And sure enough, throughout the book, he describes more than a hundred of these alien plants with the luxurious wonder of a poet. The salmon gum is “the color of a nun’s belly,” the hard-twisting gnarl of jarrah has “civil disobedience in its nature,” and the mallees with their spindly indecision, according to one character, “leave me cold” because “they can never make up their minds which direction to take.” If The Overstory is built like an oak tree, Eucalyptus is more of a brash and bushy thicket. Instead of a narrative structure composed of roots that form a trunk and branch thereafter, each chapter of Eucalyptus takes on the characteristics of different eucalypt subspecies. The name of the chapter tree clues readers into clever developments in the novel’s ecosystem or relates to another complementary story told by a character, of which there are many. Ever seeking fresh vantages from which to tell stories, the book has the crackling energy of recently burned land, where new growth riots in nutritious soil. In a chapter named for Eucalpytus regnans—the mountain ash, tallest of all eucalypts and a height competitor to giant sequoias and coastal redwoods—readers meet Ellen’s most accomplished and most-likely-to-be-successful suitor through metaphor. Mr. Cave is described by the town’s spinsters as “tall timber—a term used locally ... to render male flesh abstract.” This setup introduces us to Mr. Cave’s notable height and at the same time foreshadows a golem-like uncanniness to his limitless knowledge of eucalypts. Mr. Cave is, alternately, “a telegraph pole fashioned from a tree,” which speaks to a utilitarian rigidity derived from his cultivated hobby. Complicating the picture of Mr. Cave, later in the chapter, it’s told that “tall trees breed even taller stories” and further, “the tallest trees have the tiniest seeds.” This includes Eucalyptus regnans, “which shakes the earth when it falls and provides enough timber to build a three-bedroom house” and “grows from a seed scarcely larger than the following full stop.” Not only does the multidimensional thicket of metaphorical play help form a better picture of Mr. Cave; it also alludes to the ominous consequences of his character in Ellen’s story. We meet Ellen as a young girl and watch her grow up in the middle of nowhere with her father. She is introduced alongside her dad’s obsession with planting trees, and the first specimen in the ground was outside her window: Eucalyptus eximia, or yellow bloodwood. “The specific name is taken from the English adjective eximious, in the sense that the tree in flower is extraordinary,” writes Bail. Diamond in the rough, wheat in the chaff—pick your metaphor—Ellen cuts a beautiful figure in a dusty patch of the outback. Her blond locks and freckled face make her a topic of the town gossips; her beauty even caused a young man to crash his motorcycle after catching a surreptitious glimpse of her nakedness. Ellen’s femininity is a rare and remarkable species in the hot, male climate of the novel. But Eucalyptus is, at its heartwood, a story that tries to capture the interior life of Ellen while she’s in the throes of such an unusual upbringing and betrothal. For one birthday in late adolescence, Holland gives Ellen a sapling of Eucalyptus maidenii, or maiden’s gum. At the time, it marks not her maiden-like innocence but rather her ironic understanding that she’s matured beyond her father’s comprehension. Later in the novel and in her life, Ellen stumbles across her maiden’s gum again. This time, in the bloom of her teens, she arrives at it after a downpour. Impulsively, she decides to take off her dress to dry it over a branch. She finds her father has pounded a rusted nail into the trunk. “Hanging to dry,” Ellen reflects on this strange symbolic violation, “the dress repeated a collapsed version of herself.” Given her circumstances and the ways older men use these trees, it’s no wonder that she exclaims, “I’m not interested in any of them!” Despite the dread Mr. Cave inspires with his implacable march through Holland’s forest to Ellen’s marriage bed, the illuminating literary transformation of the trees along the way inscribes natural and transcendent qualities onto the margins of human need, want, ambition, and love. A twisted grove of snarling emotions, as well as tools like metaphor and parody we unpack to understand them, encircle Mr. Cave, Holland, and Ellen. These rootbound characters are rendered complicated, universal, and dreamlike by inhabiting this poetic copse of eucalypts. 4. But aren’t these botanical comparisons just tasked with the regular work of metaphor, which is always present in creative writing? In a way, of course. But the frequency, specificity, consistency, and overarching chapter structure in both Eucalyptus and The Overstory transcend the typical well-considered similes of other works. These novels become figurative microclimates and by doing so share how characters and stories fit into larger ecosystems of understanding. “Every country has its own landscape which deposits itself in layers on the consciousness of its citizens,” writes Bail, “thereby cancelling the exclusive claims made by all other national landscapes.” One bonus pleasure of Bail’s wild little novel is how, by exploring fictional personality quirks and eucalypt morphology, he is also able to make broad, convincing characterizations of his homeland. “The eucalypts stand apart, solitary, essentially undemocratic,” he writes at one point, and at another that they are “notorious for giving off an inhospitable, unsympathetic air.” We come to see not only his layered characters, but also the traditions and national traits that would generate such people as Holland, Mr. Cave, and Ellen. It is as if “Advance Australia Fair,” the national anthem Down Under, is being played through a flute made from coarse-grained eucalyptus windthrow. Through the pages of The Overstory (and this is true of Eucalyptus as well), readers are vined-over with tree metaphors, facts, and anecdotes and, thereby, become just a little greener themselves. It’s a strategy that Powers uses to set us up for the bigger takeaways of the book. “A chorus of living wood sings to the woman,” intones the omniscient narrator in the introductory pages of The Overstory. “If your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning.” It’s nearly the whole tome before Powers explicitly returns to his greening agenda. “Here’s a little outsider information,” says Dr. Patricia Westerford in a long soliloquy toward the end of The Overstory: and you can wait for it to be confirmed. A forest knows things. They wire themselves up underground. There are brains down there, ones our own brains aren’t shaped to see. Root plasticity, solving problems and making decisions. Fungal synapses. What else do you want to call it? Link enough trees together, and a forest grows aware. Having greened a little ourselves, we see how trees can become a little more human through our deeper understanding of them. Though rich in flawed characters, social turmoil, and contestable ideas, The Overstory’s primary mission is to show the majesty, complexity, and vulnerability of the other natural world that greenly sparkles all around us and instill empathy for it. Grafting the two stories—of us and of the trees—wouldn’t be possible, or at least not as effective, without convincing us through figurative language that we are part of the same ecosystem of meanings. “The artist, yes, humanizes the wonder of nature by doing a faulty version of it,” writes Bail, “and so nature—landscape, the figure—is brought closer to us, putting it faintly within our grasp.” 5. Is the tree-like structure of The Overstory, with its branching later acts and story-seeding finale, an evolutionary form for future novels? Is the feral underbrush of allusive meaning found in Eucalyptus a messier but more nuanced way to understand people in their fullness? Perhaps it’s better to leave the answers to the biological genius of natural selection. From Bail: What is frail falls away; stories that take root become like things, misshapen things with an illogical core, which pass through many hands without wearing out or falling to pieces, remaining in essence the same, adjusting here and there at the edges, nothing more, as families or forests reproduce ever-changing appearances of themselves; the geology of fable. Image: Flickr/Victor Camilo
Last week, a friend and I were discussing Robert Frost’s jab that “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” My friend (a poet himself) elaborated: Anyone can go out to a parking lot with a couple of rackets and swat a ball around. It soon becomes boring, pointless, unchallenging—but paint some lines on the ground and things change. A game takes shape. I would add, though, that rules do more than just turn haphazard strokes into scored points. The rules provide a framework within which a person can begin becoming a tennis player. The idea that rules—in poetry, on the tennis court, or in the classroom—are formative is nothing new. St. Benedict addressed this some 1,500 years ago. Writing in a monastery southeast of Rome, Benedict outlines the daily practices of his disciples. They will pray at these hours, they will read these scriptures at these times, they will devote themselves to these practices, they will turn away from these vices. By these practices, a person begins the process of becoming a monk. Might we think of the course syllabus the same way, as a rule of practice that makes it possible to become something? I don’t want to put the comparison too far—students are not bound to a syllabus for life as monks are to a rule—yet the similarities between The Rule of St. Benedict and a syllabus are many: an ordering of time, an established routine, a common set of readings, a shared gathering place, a way of conducting the self in relation to others. Even though a student may discard a syllabus following finals week, it still gives guidance (as a rule does) for a novice seeking to enter a community. Whether for a lifetime or a semester, this life together is marked by a practiced discipline—a telling word, given that in the academy we work within disciplines. We are disciplined into the particular ways of reading, writing, thinking, and being within a community of practice. It’s quite Aristotelian: “For the things which we have to learn before we can do them we learn by doing: men become builders by building houses, and harpists by playing the harp.” My wife’s paraphrase: Fake it till you make it. And so a student wanting to be a chemist begins doing the things chemists do: working with chemicals, measuring them, learning how to mix them, how to manipulate them. A student wants to be a historian, and so he begins doing the things historians do, visiting the archives to handle old manuscripts. Our daily rituals—like those Mason Currey profiles—are hardly inconsequential; they form us into a particular kind of person, the kind of person who does these particular things for these particular reasons to chase these particular goals. I wonder, then, what a syllabus might look like that established a common life for the classroom. In one sense, all syllabi do this, but the syllabus I’m imagining would do so much more intentionally. We might call it a Benedictine syllabus. It would still list assignments, include a plagiarism policy, and tell students about the writing center and other campus resources. It would look familiar to other syllabi in word; in deed it would behave much differently. Its motivations wouldn’t be punitive, nor would its use in the classroom. It would lay out the daily and weekly rituals of the class, ordering time and task so that all might dwell within that structured space and thrive. It would invite students to develop routines within which they can flourish. It would acknowledge that the classroom forms its students into a particular people, a people disciplined (in the best sense of the word) to engage the problems of their coursework, of their major, and of their communities. It would attend, first and foremost, to this formative work, and it would ask the hard question of who the classroom forms us to be. In practical terms, the syllabus might invite students to consider the practices that define their academic discipline, how these practices have evolved over time and what purposes they serve, how they differ from the practices of other disciplines, and how all these practices shape the student, both inside and beyond the classroom. A syllabus—and rule—can, of course, run afoul. Poet and Benedictine Oblate Kathleen Norris notes that “there are fussy monastic rules that predate that of Benedict ... in which fear and suspicion predominate, revealing an overwhelmingly negative view of both the world outside the monastery, and the motives of individuals within it.” I’ve seen syllabi like this, syllabi that assume each student is scheming, syllabi that list all the ways students have tried to undermine a course and the newly imposed penalties for each transgression. I’ve heard faculty tell their classes, “Don’t be the student who makes me add another line to the syllabus.” Here, the syllabus is defensive, a guard against chaos, a hedge against lawsuits. Benedict assumes this corruption, too, but there’s a big difference between Benedict’s rule and those others. As Norris says, Benedict’s rule is “relaxed and humane ... more laissez-faire, much more trusting of individual discretion.” Benedict knows that his disciples can thrive within structure, and he gives them space to do so. “We intend to establish a school,” Benedict writes, “In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome”—which might be the best rule for writing a syllabus.