God in the Trash Fire: Thomas Traherne Endures

“To burn a book is to bring light to the world.” —Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) “Every book burned enlightens the world.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) Circumstances surrounding the occasional rediscovery of the poetry of the 17th-century divine Thomas Traherne are as something out of one of his strange lyrics. Intimations of the allegorical, when in the winter of 1896—more than two centuries after he’d died—and some of his manuscript poetry was discovered in a London book stall among a heap that was “about to be trashed.” William Brooke, the man who rescued these singular first drafts, had originally attributed them to Traherne’s contemporary, the similarly ecstatic Henry Vaughan, ensuring that at least until proper identification was made the actual author could remain as obscure in posterity as he had been in life. How eerily appropriate that among that refuse was Traherne’s Centuries of Meditation, which included his observation that the “world is a mirror of infinite beauty, yet no man sees it.” Not until he chances upon it in a London book stall. Traherne’s lyrics have reemerged like chemicals in a poetic time-release capsule, with the majority uncovered only after that initial lucky find. As his poetry expresses sacred mysteries, holy experiences revealed, and the subtlety of what his contemporary George Herbert termed “something understood,” how appropriate that Traherne’s work should be revealed as if an unfolding prophecy? Traherne, after all, prophetically declares that he will “open my Mouth in Parables: I will utter Things that have been Kept Secret from the foundations of the World,” a poet of secrets whose poetry had been kept secret, a visionary of paradox whose work celebrates “Things Strange yet common; Incredible, yet Known; Most High, yet plain; Infinitely Profitable, but not Esteemed.” With prescience concerning his own reputation, Traherne wrote of that “Fellowship of the Mystery, which from the beginning of the World hath been hid in GOD, [and] lies concealed!” Like so many of his contemporaries, from Herbert to Vaughan, Traherne was of Welsh extraction, smuggling into English poetics the mystically inflected Christianity of the Celtic fringe. Unlike them, he has remained largely unknown, with the Anglican priest born in either 1636 or 1637 to a Hertfordshire shoe maker and a mother whose name doesn’t survive. Traherne published only a single book before his death in 1674, an anti-Catholic polemic entitled Roman Forgeries. Such didacticism obscured Traherne’s significance, for in his other work uncovered during the 20th century, Traherne has emerged as a luminous, ecstatic, transcendental advocate for direct unmediated experience of the divine, where he instructs in “many secrets to us show/Which afterwards we come to know.” Now an Anglican divine, honored by the Church of England on October 10 and Episcopalians on September 27, Traherne is venerated in votive candle and stain glass, exemplifying the High Church perspective he embodied—rituals of incense and bells, of Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer and the liturgy of hours. Traherne, it should be said, was a bit of a cracked saint, however. As Leah Marcus notes in her essay “Children of Light,” reprinted in the Norton Anthology Seventeenth-Century British Poetry: 1603-1660, Traherne may have “loved Anglicanism” but “he built a large body of thought quite independent of it.” Following the chaos of nonconformism which marked the years of civil war, Traherne’s theology exceeded even the relative tolerance afforded by the developing policy of “latitudinarianism.” Marcus explains that Traherne contradicted “many of the chief tenets of Anglicanism,” possibly believing in a borderline pantheistic sense of God’s immanence in the natural world. Traherne, Marcus writes, intuited that “Heaven, eternity, paradise… are not places. They are a state of mind.” Such a strange poetic saint has continued to pay academic dividends for scholars fortunate enough to come upon misplaced work, exemplifying Traherne’s contention that “Some unknown joys there be / Laid up in store for me.” Among several such discoveries of “unknown joys,” there was the Traherne recovery by two scholars in 1996 at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., when Julia Smith and Laetitia Yeandle found an epic poem that reworked the narratives of Genesis and Exodus. Only a year later, and Jeremy Maute—working in Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the archbishop of Canterbury—discovered Traherne’s The Kingdom of God; unread for more than 300 years and regarded as a masterpiece, fulfilling the marginalia of an anonymous 17th-century annotator writing in that book’s flyleaf, who rhetorically queried, “Why is this soe long detained in a dark manuscript, that if printed would be a Light to the World, & a Universal Blessing?” For sheer miraculousness in the capricious contingency of the Lord, the most striking example of such a discovery is described by Kimberly Johnson in Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry, where she writes that a “manuscript of visionary, rhapsodic work in mixed genre called Commentaries of Heaven… was rescued, half-burning and stinking, from a Lancashire trash heap in 1967.” Singed and still smoking, these singular papers were chanced upon by a man scouring the trash yard for discarded car parts. If said scavenger had been tardy in his scrounging, those verses would have been sent heavenward like the images of luminescence which permeate Traherne’s poetry. Helpful to remember the argument of Fernando Baez in A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq, who explained that when it comes to books, sometimes ironically, “Fire is salvation.” Such power to “conserve life is also a destructive power,” for fire allows us to play “God, master of the fire of life and death.” After all, we often “destroy what we love,” and if there is anything at the center of Traherne’s poetry it is the ecstasies of God’s obscured love, absconded away in lost books hidden at the center of fiery whirlwinds. A parable worthy of Traherne: hidden scripture as a variety of burnt offering upon the pyre of the Lord, in the form of a smoldering Lancashire garbage heap. Browned paper blackening and curling at the edges, atoms of ink evaporated and stripped to their base elementals, literature reduced to an ash where poetry can no longer be read, but must rather be inhaled. Fortunate that Commentaries of Heaven was found, and yet there is a profundity in disappearing verse; the poem written, but not read; consideration of all which is beautiful that has been lost, penned for the audience of God alone. In that golden, glowing ember of such a profane place as a garbage dump, there is an approach to what literary historian Michael Schmidt references in his Lives of the Poets as Traherne’s “Images of light – starlight, pure light” as belonging to the “fields of heaven and eternity.” As metaphysical conceit, the manuscript was not simply a burning tangle of paper, but it was as if finding God himself in the trash fire, where the words “Who cannot pleas far more the Worlds! & be/A Bliss to others like the Deitie” were rescued from an oblivion of fire. Baez writes that by “destroying, we ratify this ritual of permanence, purification, and consecration.” After all, it was presumably only the heat and light that drew the scavenger’s attention, a brief moment when the volume could announce its existence before it would be forever burnt up like a Roman candle, lest it rather forever mold and rot. Baez writes that “we bring to the surface” through flammability, there is a restitution of “equilibrium, power or transcendence.” To burn sparks a light; to enflame such poetry is to set a purifying fire, and to find such an engulfed volume is to encounter a glowing divinity on the road from Lancashire. Traherne, the burning poet, who wrote “O fire of heaven! I sacred Light / How fair and bright, / How great am I, / Whom all the world doth magnify!” Categorized as a “metaphysical poet,” of which Dr. Samuel Johnson in his 1781 Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets described as being “men of learning” only interested “to show their learning.” Dr. Johnson infamously defined the metaphysical poets, 17th-century figures including John Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, and (sometimes) Andrew Marvell, as trading in clever metaphorical conceits whereby “the most heterogenous ideas are yoked by violence together.” In Donne’s verse, for example, two lovers could be described as the arms of a compass, or as Herbert’s devotional poetry took on the shape of objects he describes, as in “The Altar” from his 1633 The Temple. Often dismissed as more concerned with cleverness than depth, wit rather than rectitude, T.S. Elliot would refer to them as a “generation more often named then read.” Defense of the metaphysical poets was a modernist endeavor, begun by criticism like Elliot’s 1921 essay in the Times Literary Supplement, so that eventually the movement came to be regarded as the exemplar of the late English Renaissance. Traherne’s identification as a metaphysical, especially concerning his erudition and his religious enthusiasms, makes a certain sense. Yet he is less fleshy (and flashy) than Donne, less conventionally pious than Herbert, less political than Marvell, and nearest in tenor to Vaughan. It’s true that they share mystical affinities, even while the enthusiasms of the former are far more optimistic than those of the later. Yet Vaughan, associated with that philosophical circle the Cambridge Platonists, was privy to circulation—to being read and written about—to in short, influence. Traherne, by contrast, scribbled in obscurity. In designating him a member of such a group, we should remember that he had no influence on the rest of that school, for they hadn’t read him. But as Schmidt writes, “Such obliquity doesn’t obscure the material world; it illuminates what exists beyond it.” Traherne may be a poet outside of history and a creature without canon, but his audience is in eternity. Dr. Johnson wouldn’t have read him a century later, either. For that matter, Elliot wouldn’t have been able to read the majority of work attributed to Traherne, since the initial rediscoveries of the poet’s work only saw print little more than a decade before “The Metaphysical Poets” was published in TLS. More apt to think of Traherne as being a poetic movement of one, for when reading his cracked verse, with its often-surreal content and its ecstatic declarations, it’s just as easy to see Emily Dickinson as Donne, William Blake as Herbert. If anything, a blind analysis of Traherne’s poetry could lead a reader to think that this was verse by an exuberant Romantic, a mystical transcendentalist, a starry-headed Beat burning in the dynamo of the night. Consider his startlingly modern lyric “The Person,” where Traherne writes of “The naked things” that “Are most sublime, and brightest.” Inheritor of a Christian tradition of our innate fallenness, Traherne focuses on the divine immanence that permeates creation, as well as that transcendence that nature points towards. Nature is precisely not fallen, as when Traherne writes that “When they alone are seen: / Men’s hands than Angel’s wings / Are truer wealth even here below.” An almost exact contemporary of the Dutch Sephardic Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, Traherne evidences that pantheistic fervor which understands creator and creation to be synonymous, arguing for direct experience of the noumenal, for their “worth they then do best reveal, /When we all metaphors remove, /For metaphors conceal.” Traherne argues for divine language, a semiotics that approaches the thing-in-itself, poetry of experience that recognizes metaphor as idolatry, for the “best are blazon’d when we see / The anatomy, / Survey the skin, cut up the flesh, the veins / Unfold, the glory there remains: / The muscles, fibers, arteries and bones / Are better far than crowns and precious stones.” When Traherne wrote, Puritan typologists investigated scripture and nature alike for evidence of predestined fallenness; when Traherne wrote, Christian apologists charted irreconcilable differences between language and our world after Eden. But Traherne, rather, chose to write in that lost tongue of Paradise. His was an encomium to direct experience, an account of what the very marrow of life thus ingested did taste like. A language which in its immediacy seems both shockingly current and as ancient as gnostic parchment. Encapsulated in his poetry there is something not just of his era, but of all eras, occluded though that eternal message may be. Demonstration of Stuart Kelly’s description in The Book of Lost Books of “an alternative history of literature, an epitaph and a wake, a hypothetical library and an elegy to what might have been.” Traherne’s poetry was written during years of first Puritan Interregnum and then High Church Restoration, but for either authority the poet’s views would be idiosyncratic. Detecting intimations of consciousness on the moon and in the sea, dreaming of both angels and aliens when he “saw new worlds beneath the water like, / New people; ye another sky.” Marcus writes that Traherne couldn’t “be entirely defended against charges of heresy,” which might have been an issue had anyone read his poetry. Arguments can be proffered that Traherne was a pantheist who believed that nature was equivalent with God, that he was a Pelagian who denied the existence of original sin, or that he was a universalist who anticipated eternal salvation for all. A poet for whom the human body is to be celebrated, who would opine that “Men are Images of GOD carefully put into a Beautiful Case,” who with urgency would maintain that the souls of man are “Equal to the Angels” and that our bodies could be reserved for the “most Glorious Ends.” With antinomian zeal, Traherne argues that “through many Obstacles full of gross and subterraneous Darkness, which seem to affright and stifle the Soul,” the individual who transgresses will find themselves “at last to a new Light and Glory.” He evokes Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell a century before his fellow visionary would engrave his plates. In Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake, Leo Damrosch accurately describes Blake’s verse as presenting infinity “here and now in the real world we inhabit, not far away in unimaginable endlessness. Eternity, likewise, is present in each moment of lived experience,” but so too is this a description of Traherne. Evocations of not just Blake, but Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalism, for when Traherne describes God as “a Sphere like Thee of Infinite Extent: an Ey without walls; All unlimited & Endless Sight,” do we not hear the 19th-century American philosopher’s wish to “become a transparent eye-ball?” When Emily Dickinson sings of “Wild nights – Wild nights!” do we not hear Traherne chanting with declarative exclamation mark of “O ravishing and only pleasure!” And when Walt Whitman wrote in his 1855 Leaves of Grass that “I celebrate myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” we are reminded of Traherne’s conviction that “all we see is ours, and every One / Possessor of the While.” Traherne anticipates Whitman’s “conviction that all the world’s loveliness belongs to him,” as Marcus describes it, the two bards united in the faith that “although the world was made for him alone, it was made for every other single human being just as it was for him.” Traherne derived his ethic from Psalm 139, an orthodoxy holding that we must “praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” But from scripture Traherne finds a heterodoxy which plumbs the city that “seemed to stand in Eden, or to be Built in Heaven.” In this New Jerusalem, Traherne would list with a catalogue of Whitmanesque regularity that the “Streets were mine, the Temple was mine, the People were mine; their Clothes and Gold and Silver were mine, as much as their Sparkling Eyes, Fair Skins and ruddy faces.” Such similarities could lead one to assume that Whitman had a copy of Traherne as he gripped notebook and looked out on the brackish waters of New York Harbor writing of those “Crowds of men and women attired in usual costumes, how curious you are to me!”, or that Emerson considered the poet in his Concord manse—save for the fact that it’s impossible. Such are the vagaries of the lost man, the hidden poet who sings of “room and liberty, breathing place and fresh-air among the Antipodes,” this gospel of “passing on still through those inferior Regions that are under… feet, but over the head.” Traherne wrote in the 17th century, but he seemingly had memory of all those who came after. all those women and men who echo him even though they could never have heard him, who came to “another Skie… and leaving it behind… [sunk] down into the depths of all Immensity.” Writing poetry from a position of eternity, Traherne presents a fascinating anomaly of what Johnson describes as “poetic inspiration,” for until 1896, or 1967, or 1996, or 1997, Traherne couldn’t have inspired any of those poets who are so similar to him. Blake or Dickinson had never picked up a volume of his verse.  Traherne’s very life is oddly yet appropriately allegorical, his liturgy concerned with this “preeminent figure… [of] the Unknowable,” as Johnson describes it. She writes that at the heart of devotional poetry is the “perceptual inaccessibility of the divine,” defined by the “fundamental principle of mystery and unknowability.” How perfect then is Traherne’s verse, lost in libraries or singed in trash fires, hidden from view until revealed like some ecstatic epiphany? In the book of Acts, St. Paul speaks to a group of Athenians about their shrine to the “Unknown God.” Traherne is our “Unknown Poet,” overturning our ideas of influence and inspiration, whose work with a mysterious, thrumming electricity courses through the lines of oblivious Whitman or the stanzas of unaware Dickinson, as powerful as magnetism and as invisible as gravity. Prisoners of linear time that we are, hard to understand that the vagaries of influence don’t simply flow from past to future. When Traherne celebrates “every Mote in the Air, every Grain of Dust, every Sand, every Spire of Grass” that is “wholly illuminated,” do we not detect Whitman? When he sings of “O heavenly Joy!” do we not hear Dickinson? In Traherne’s “On Leaping Over the Moon,” one of his oddest and most beautiful lyrics, I like to imagine that when he writes “I saw new worlds beneath the water lie, / New people; ye, another sky” and where in “travel see, and saw by night / A much more strange and wondrous sight” that what he espied were Blake and Whitman, Dickinson and Allen Ginsburg, you and me. Traherne is a poet who wrote for an audience that had not yet been born—perhaps still has yet to be born. From his poem “Shadows in the Water” he writes of how “Thus did I by the water’s bring / Another world beneath me think: / And while the lofty spacious skies / Reversed there, abused mine eyes, / I fancied other feet / Came mine to touch or meet; / And by some puddle I did play / Another world within it lay,” so that I imagine Traherne saw nothing less than that other world which is our own, looking onto the mirror of the water’s surface as if it were a portal to this parallel dimension, these “spacious regions” of “bright and open space,” where he sees people with “Eyes, hands and feet they had like mine; / Another sun did with them shine.” There is hopefully a future yet to come, where “chanced another world to meet… A phantom, ‘tis a world indeed, / Where skies beneath us shine, / And earth by art divine / Another face presents below, / Where people’s feet against ours go,” for in scribbling in secrecy what poet has addressed himself more perfectly to people yet to be imagined? Proper understanding relies on imagination, not just the role played in his composition, but Traherne’s strange status as imagined literature (for whatever manuscripts await to be plucked from burning trash heaps?). Alberto Manguel, writing with Borgesian elegance, argues in The Library at Night that “Every library conjures up its own dark ghost; every ordering sets up, in its wake, a shadow library of absences.” What is most sublime and wondrous about Traherne are not just his literal words on a page, but how we can’t disentangle him from what could have been lost, what perhaps still remains lost, and that which is lost forever. Perhaps in book stalls or trash fires there is more undiscovered Traherne; more rhapsodic, even more visionary than which we’ve been blessed enough to read. Traherne makes the comparison that an “Empty Book is like an Infants Soul, in which any Thing may be Written. It is Capable of all Things” and so is the infinite multitude of not just Traherne’s writings which we shall never read, but the full magnitude of all writings that we shall never see. Traherne’s magnum opus exists in the gaps, written in the lacunas, on a scroll kept inside the distance between that which is known and that which can never be found. Traherne describes this place as a “Temple of Majesty, yet no man regards it. It is a region of Light and Peace, did not man disquiet it. It is the Paradise of God.” Poetry of empty sepulchers and disembodied tombs, of empty rooms and cleared shelves; a liturgy of the Holy of Holies which contains no idol, but only a single, deafening, immaculate absence. At the Temple’s center there is that ever tended, ever burning, ever consuming fire which gives off that sublime heat and light, where Traherne could imagine with prescient clarity that “From God above / Being sent, the Heavens me enflame: / To praise his Name / The stars do move! / The burning sun doth shew His love.” Power of such words written in light, heat, and flame. Such books can burn sacred holes in our soul, a holy immolation in our hearts, giving off that intense light, which diffuse though it may be awaits those eyes that have yet to be born generations hence. Image: Flickr/Ernest Denim

The Trump Administration Has Finally Brought Us to Dystopia

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

Light in the West and Shadows in the East

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

A Writer’s Writer’s Writer: Lydia Davis and the Naked Mind

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

When the Wreckage Is in the Writer: On Creating Death and Disaster

Although David Means is one of our best writers of sentences, one would be hard-pressed to commit any of those sentences to memory. His lines unfold and refold upon themselves like animate origami, offering lush visual imagery and word choice as pointed as an awl. Take this fragment of description from “The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934”: “The way the road spread out of the vanishing point, exposing its mouth to the farm while, at the same time, tapering back into the quivers of heat in a manner that made it hard, and at times impossible, to watch.” That’s not some lyrical outburst in the stream of his stories. It’s closer to the median. The complexity of his sentences makes them virtually unmemorizable. They flit around you like the mating dance of a bird whose movements you’ll never afterward be able to retrace. But the one David Means sentence I’ve never been able to forget comes midway through his collection Assorted Fire Events: “I don’t want anyone to die in my stories anymore.” By the time it arrives, Means’s stories have given us a distraught widower beaten and left to die in a train tunnel, a brother who drowns in an capsized canoe, a toddler plunging through her back lawn into a creek concealed by a shady construction company. A high school misfit has suffocated in a sandslide. The collection is a register of deaths that are exotic and pedestrian at once, arising from small miscalculations and unseen hazards. And it’s a bit grisly. This line from Means shows up right in the middle of the collection, in a brief, lyric story—almost more of a prose poem—called “What I Hope For.” The first time I read it I dismissed it as a metafictional gimmick. I rushed past it in my hunt for more of the high-grade sentence work that makes his writing singular. But after finishing the collection, and in the years since, it’s hung onto me as one of the sincerest lines in literature. I don’t want anyone to die in my stories anymore. The statement is an intention, but also a hope. It has the potential for failure. It acknowledges that Means, whose stories leap so acrobatically in time and point of view, may be powerless to realize that hope. The line is probably more heartbreaking for writers than for readers. We are the ones who have imagined our characters into existence, and their plights as well. Shouldn’t we be able to do better by them? I’ve wondered this as I try to write stories that don’t end with a character dying, or shaming himself, or giving up hope, or giving up art. What does it mean when I have a wholesome evening reading my kids Horton Hears a Who before bed, then retreat to the living room to write a story about the purposeful destruction of biodiversity? One school of thought says the author is the master of the story. Nabokov likened his characters to galley slaves. A more popular school says the story is the master of the author. As Mario Vargas Llosa says, “It becomes apparent that the author cannot mold characters as he pleases, that they have a certain autonomy.” The line from “What I Hope For” posits an act of creation almost in line with Michelangelo’s predestined work of art: a work that cannot be changed at will but that might, with enough heart, be influenced. “From here on out it has to be glorious life,” Means continues in “What I Hope For.” And what does it mean if it isn’t? Is that why those two lines ring with something like anguish? Why the fourth wall is ripped open so briefly but so bracingly? As dangerous as it is to psychoanalyze an author by his work, I do theorize that an author sometimes has to grapple with what it means when his imaginings all lead to those railroad incidents and drownings and sandslides. If he can’t prevent all that wreckage, maybe the wreckage is inside him. Perhaps it is just a metafictional trick, of course. Means is adept at so many levels it’s hard to put anything past him. But I’ll choose to believe that he’s honestly contending with the direction of his art. That says more about me than it does about him, but I find myself asking sometimes as I walk down a supermarket aisle: Why, when I live a conventional and largely satisfied suburban life, do my stories tend toward dread and disaster? I ask myself the question my wife asks me—why can’t I write something with a happy ending? I can only say that I’ve tried to nudge the rolling boulder out of the path of the character, but it is too heavy. Whatever the splinter is in me that drives my work to dark places, I have not been able to pluck it out. But I would not say that I’ve stopped trying. In the years since I first read Assorted Fire Events, I forgot whether Means was able to accomplish his goal. Whether he had kept them alive. I reread it recently, hoping with the author that no one would die in the coming stories. Here’s what I rediscovered in the second half of the collection: A homeless man is beaten to death after interrupting a wedding; a mean-spirited truck driver in a critical care unit dies of a heart attack a few days after yelling at the family of a young Israeli girl, who also dies; a man reflecting on the premature death of his son drives into a movie set, killing the director; a woodcutter takes his own life; and in the title story, the “Assorted Fire Events” include a man setting a live dog on fire and the narrator’s aunt immolating herself in her car. So reading this collection can induce a certain amount of despair. A cynic might ask what the point is in adding to sum total despair in the world. A certain answer would be that those of us with that splinter of hopelessness lodged in our brains are helpless to do anything but share it. One could even say that immersing ourselves in such tragedies has its own logic. “The plot of fire is nebulous and serene,” Means writes in the title story, “wildly fanatic and calm at the same time, trailing up curtains and along the undersides of carpet padding, taking its own sweet time and then conversely becoming diametric, logarithmic.” But I’ve come to believe there is a less cynical answer, and it comes from source of the despair in these stories, which is not the tragedies but the lives that precede them. The boy suffocated by a sandslide in “Sleeping Bear Lament” is remembered by a narrator who, in a moment of random adolescent cruelty, knocked out the boy’s front teeth with a trumpet mouthpiece. That’s a shame memory that won’t let the narrator go. Years later it becomes a lament, after the brief disappearance and reappearance of a friend, for the better person he could have been, the friend he wasn’t. Not exactly hopeful, I know, but it does something to keep the random death by sandslide from falling into the mouth of time. In “The Gesture Hunter,” the narrator’s ramming of the movie set could be comically absurd. The director dies as a result and the narrator, presumably from jail, does not have much ahead of him in life. But he has the past, the parts of his life that did mean something—a gesture, a memory trigger, of his son fly fishing. And much, much further back, even this perfect memory of his baby son in the bath: “It seized me and sent me reeling, knowing full well that what I was seeing would never repeat itself and was certainly the most beautiful sight in the world. The water boiled up around his fist. The slick oily light slid off his skin. His smiling face looked up at me, and his tiny fleck of hair lay pasted to his scalp while my wife, behind me in the hall, softly folded a towel over her arm and outside the summer air moved, tainted with lavender.” That is where the story ends, though in the realm of emotional cause and effect, it’s more where the story begins. Say we agree that these stories could not be otherwise. In that case, all the gymnastics Means does with time and memory and consciousness show us how attempting to make sense of them opens up all the beauty of the world. Tragedy exists in the world, but it is surrounded by meaning. Characters in our stories will die, even when we don’t want them to. Yet there is glorious life—even if sometimes, we have to look back in time to see it. Image: Flickr/Quinn Dombrowski

Stories Bad and Good: Understanding Appalachia Through Reading

Asher looked up at all those stars again. It wasn’t right for such a sky to be shining above them when so many people had lost so much. But the sky doesn’t pay a bit of attention to the things that happen to us, the joys or the sorrows, either one.” –Silas House, Southernmost 1. I ordered the sweatshirt—the navy with bright yellow lettering—from Kin Ship Goods, the offbeat apparel store in Charleston. “West Virginia vs. The World.” I suppose I didn’t really need a new sweatshirt, although I felt compelled to get this specific one. Kin Ship only sells super soft sweatshirts and tees, with a whole line of WV-themed clothing. One place of several that feels uniquely our own. Our. Possessive. The language of belonging to others, to someplace, even if that someplace tends to be a much-maligned and misunderstood corner of the world. That’s what it means, many times, to be from Appalachia. As the only state wholly contained within Appalachia, “West Virginia vs. The World” indeed. I attempted to, in an almost literal way, wear my heart on my sleeve, except the wording on my sweatshirt stretches over my entire torso. You can’t miss it. 2. In his novel Southernmost, Silas House begins with a flood biblical enough for a small borough of East Tennessee and its preacher, Asher Sharpe. “The rain had been falling with a pounding meanness for two days, and the waters rose all at once in the middle of the night …” As the waters rise, Asher tends to his soggy, wiped-out flock. Reading about the flood in House’s novel reminded me of two summers past, when, away for some training in New York City, I awoke to the morning news showing Joe Manchin III, a senator from my state, outside Clendenin, West Virginia, which, like many other places in the state, suffered severe flooding. Rains came down in such quantity and force that the creeks and streams and rivers swelled into every available hollow. From Clendenin, the cameras panned to images of Richwood, also flooded, a river through the local library, where, somehow, the library’s orange cat had been saved. Meanwhile, Manhattan’s sun was bright, baking the flat grid of pavement below my feet. The land in Appalachia rises and dips so close, so hemmed in, that if it rains hard enough, there’s nowhere for it all to go. “This one feels like judgement,” House writes of the flood that overtakes Asher’s little town. Reading it, I recognize that nugget, as true for the novel’s slice of Appalachia as it is my own. 3. Steve Almond believes in stories: “Stories don’t fall from the clouds, after all. They are invented and refined and promoted by particular narrators with particular agendas.” Almond explores what stories can do and explores darker aspect of stories through the lens of the 2016 election in Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country. Just as stories have the potential to lift us up, they can also instill within us rather toxic beliefs. As “the basic unit of human consciousness,” Almond implores us to understand the underlying meaning behind the stories we tell ourselves as we struggle to make meaning in our lives and from that which swirls around us. Modern life proliferates stories with increased velocity, which makes pausing on them, let along parsing them, a particular challenge. “The stories we tell and the ones we absorb are what allows us to pluck meaning from the rush of experience,” writes Almond. “Only through the patient interrogation of these stories can we begin to understand where we are and how we got there.” Problem is, we don’t live in a time where patience is the virtue it once was. Instead, we live in a time when the patience of which Almond speaks feels particularly undervalued, where instead, speed and sensationalism reign. Our politicians tell us we’re done reading books, favoring squawking television sets. Culturally, we prize that which grabs our fleeting attention spans. This, of course, makes the exercise of painstakingly parsing stories even more important. Can we truly value stories if we casually consume them, and can we find their flaws without painstaking investigation? We careen through unexamined lives, more concerned with the idea of protecting ourselves than submitting to more difficult, more examined, and ultimately more satisfying existence. When Elizabeth Catte read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, she unpacked many troubling stories relating to her home region, Appalachia. One might say she harnessed her anger at J.D. Vance’s one-voiced, sloppy, and self-serving narrative through the salve of her own meticulous research and impassioned prose. In considering the book, Vance’s title is instructive; he considers the story of his experiences and his family indicative of an entire culture, as if the whole of Appalachia as well as Rust Belt Ohio (which he often conflates with Appalachia) should be viewed through his and only his point of view. It shouldn’t be a stretch to say that a 400-plus-county region extending across many states probably has more cultural nuance than a single man’s story, and in her slender but intellectually hefty book, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, Catte identifies Elegy as one of many “bad stories” to be debunked. When her unwavering eye is trained on Vance’s book, Catte pulls apart his flimsy arguments much the same way Steve Almond confronts other bad stories: by seeing how the narrator constructs narrative to serve an agenda. Catte unpacks narrator J.D. Vance by showing us how he wants us to read him: “He is simply an individual burdened with the dual identity of both cosmopolitan elite and hillbilly everyman, performing what he calls his ‘civic responsibility’ to contribute his talent and energy to solving social problems.” She identifies a crafted persona and cautions against his agenda: “Perhaps it is wise to consider if this humility is just a strategy.” We should beware Vance’s humblebrag lest we miss the manipulation he pulls us through, his personal pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-type memoir as the only way to “save” a region. Vance ignores any other viewpoint than his own; Catte rightfully takes Vance’s case study of one to task, unmasking the personal myth with which he underpins the entire book, and challenges its claims to cultural ethos. In this way, Hillbilly Elegy is best-seller and a bad story. In a similar way, Catte pulls apart another “bad story” from the region, one she calls “Trump Country” pieces, journalism that privileges outside writers-as-experts on Appalachia to explain Donald Trump’s appeal as a presidential candidate and later the support of his presidency. “Trump Country pieces share a willingness to use flawed representations of Appalachia to shore up narratives of an extreme ‘other America’ that can be condemned or redeemed to suit one’s purpose,” she writes. “This is the region’s most conventional narrative, popularized for more than 15 years by individuals who enhanced their own prestige or economic fortunes by presenting Appalachia as a space filled with contradictions only intelligent outsider observers could act on.” She articulates this bad story which emanates from Appalachia by using the Almond formula of seeing what particular narrators and particular agendas invent, refine, and promote. It becomes far easier to blame the working class and the poor voters in Appalachia for Trump than other, more genteel-seeming places for the Trump phenomenon, despite the impossible math. Take West Virginia, for instance. We only have five electoral votes. J.D. Vance, while not specifically writing Elegy as a “Trump Country” piece, has fashioned himself into a news-segment Trump Country whisperer, manipulating his persona as hillbilly insider and intellectual outsider (as if Appalachia couldn’t have intellectuals inside its borders) as a clever tactic to get rich. All the while, Vance continues to improve his own position without complicating the narrative within existing “Trump Country” pieces. He is, as Catte describes, “a well-educated person with a powerful platform who has chosen to accept a considerable amount of fame and wealth to become the spokesperson for the region,” and he’s telling America the story it wants to hear. When I read Elegy, it struck a pervasive false note, the same way Trump Country pieces magnify only the small part of the region necessary to tell the author’s prefabricated story without looking for intricacies that would complicate a narrative or challenging easy notions that might exist. For instance, when a reporter writing a Trump Country piece for Vanity Fair came to Morgantown, he failed to report on the patrons at the local coffee house The Blue Moose, where one might find West Virginia University professors grabbing morning coffee, or students writing everything from poems to doctoral dissertations, or business colleagues meeting up. A place like The Blue Moose might reveal an interesting range of opinions and impressions rather than just supporting the bad story that’s become an accepted one. The author doesn’t cite anyone from the university, the state’s flagship land-grant institution, a Research 1 university, where he could have talked to experts in regional history and politics. Instead, this writer chooses the seedy Blue Parrot, a local club that boldly advertises “all nude” dancers on its marquee. As you might imagine, he finds the source he’s looking for: a gun-toting Trump supporter who, for the purposes of the Vanity Fair article, becomes representative of my little corner of Appalachia. To show a potential dichotomy of views could have proven intellectually and culturally valuable. To seek only the one view that fit a prevailing outsider narrative reveals manipulation, a sign of a bad story. The Vanity Fair article came out before the West Virginia primary, where Trump did win the Republican bid, and where Bernie Sanders carried each of the state’s 55 counties, a fact often missed, or conveniently omitted, in reporting about our region. I would never argue that Trump didn’t enjoy support here, but he wasn’t the only candidate that did. Steve Almond writes in Bad Stories that “so long as our free press operates as a for-profit enterprise, its managers are duty-bound to sell whatever we’re willing to buy.” Reading this reminds me of all the Trump Country pieces I’d read in national publications about West Virginia and the rest of Appalachia. Trump Country pieces were what those other Americans were willing to buy. The story of the region, its role as the “other America,” is preserved in these stories. Even as the historic teachers’ strike happened, the reporters had their agendas for poverty porn. And this extends beyond journalism, to book publishing, television, and film. What continues to perplex me is why so many people are so willing to buy into this one narrative without any curiosity. Good stories often force us to reexamine our preconceived ideas. They open us through more plurality of perspectives, or surprise us with what lies beneath the surface. The typical Appalachian story unfolds to the taste of those outside our borders. [millions_ad] 4. Asher Sharpe, at a crossroads when we meet him in Southernmost, changes from judgmental preacher to judged man. Raised by a fundamentalist Christian mother, he’s grown up to be a preacher according to her narrow understanding of scripture and doctrine. His mother, so steadfast in her beliefs, runs her other son, Luke, out of town by putting a gun to his head and threatening to kill him to put him out of his misery. Luke had just come out to her and Asher as a gay man. Asher says and does nothing, and it’s the nothingness of his response that haunts him later. At the story’s beginning, Asher is married to Lydia, a woman born and bred to be a preacher’s wife. In the aftermath of the flood, Lydia refuses shelter to two gay men—two gay men who helped saved Justin, her own son, from rising flood waters. The men’s home has been destroyed and they have nowhere to go. Asher does not contradict his wife, but he feels shame at her behavior and at his own cowardice. He can’t see her in quite the same way anymore. “She had grown afraid of everything,” writes House. Perhaps Asher is losing fear as he recognizes it in her. Lydia’s litany of anti-gay beliefs, “We have to stand up for what’s right,” or some version of it, is parroted by most of Asher’s congregation. They feel their position is a moral one ordained by God. Using the imaginative power of fiction, Silas House dares to imagine a straight, Appalachian preacher going through a significant change of heart on an entrenched issue in his faith community. House belongs to both the LGBTQ and Appalachian communities—born in the region, living and writing in Eastern Kentucky. Southernmost confronts the tensions of these two communities, and it does so through the eyes of the least likely character. It is the magic alchemy of fiction writing—and fiction reading—which allows us entree not just into what is but what could be. This, perhaps, feels most significant about Southernmost. In a novel, unlike in memoir, we can see the world how it could be. Where J.D. Vance tries to imprint his own experience on others, Silas House invites us to imagine what actually changes a person’s beliefs. House explores what makes people change and grow through Asher. Against the idea of faith used as judgement, Asher confronts his flock: “He plucked his Bible up from the pulpit and held it in the air. ‘You can use the Word to judge and condemn people or you can use it to love them.’” Later, Asher sees his own role in the judgment he saw in in his church: “He thinks about the man he had been, just a couple years ago. Judging and preaching and telling others how to live, filled up with the weight of thinking he knew what God wanted.” Some characters change. Asher Sharpe converts to a whole new mode of understanding. 5. Reading House’s novel, I began to understand Asher’s journey, in part, as the unraveling of a bad story, one deeply entrenched but not impossible to pull apart to find a new, better understanding. And in fact, Asher articulates the magic that reading does: “For most of his life Asher had devoted all his reading to the Bible, of course. That had been expected of him, to read the Bible and nothing else. His congregation had hired him because he had not been to seminary. Only recently had he realized the way books could give a person wings.” Being inculcated with only one set of stories—in Asher’s case only reading the Bible—narrows the view. But by embracing how stories help grow our understanding, he imagines them as wings—that which allow a body to soar. Steve Almond asks of us, “What happens when we treat hope as a sucker’s game?” House gives us gives us a sideways answer: “When people lift their voices at the same time, when they join together to pray, God pauses.” For Elizabeth Catte, it’s about recognizing what’s in front of us to notice: “Appalachia’s images of strikes and strife and land hollowed out for coal, but it is also images of joy and freedom.” 6. Even problematic books increase our understanding. While I did not enjoy nor agree with Hillbilly Elegy, it opened my eyes to a narrative of the region I call home. It’s one I don’t always want to see or confront. I felt I was being duped. Despite lacking in the artfulness I admire and seek out in the books I read, the let-me-tell-you posturing behind the story struck me as a snake-oil-salesman tactic. But I cannot ignore that this story exists and that it speaks to others. I believe the books we’ve previously read can influence the books we come to read. An impression of Elegy comes from my reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Not in style, of course, but by the “invented” quality of the character Gatsby. Jay Gatsby has fashioned himself into the man he believes will win over his beloved Daisy—a prize, it’s important to note, not worth winning. Gatsby commits himself fully to his own myth making. While lacking in the charm and better qualities of the fictitious Gatsby, JD Vance channels the powerful force of mythmaking, crafting himself through story into a one-of-a-kind hybrid of Appalachian country boy and Yale-educated cultural elite. With just enough truth in each, he stakes his claim through persona and story, as invented as James Gatz into The Great Gatsby. He ultimately fails because for his narrator to work, I recognize that my own story and voice would have to be silenced. It goes back to his subtitle, which says his story is the story of a culture in crisis. He takes the mantle only for himself. There’s no room in Vance’s narrative for an educated woman of Appalachian roots to return to the region and to carve out a life where she hopes to help others. My way, I suppose, is both too simple and less best-seller-worthy. It does have two benefits: authenticity and honesty. I live and work in Appalachia, and I have deep family roots here. My story is one of many stories that make up this place. I continue to read Appalachian writers and stories of this region because place shapes people. I yearn to better understand this place that shapes me. I hope to make a positive mark on it. One of the things I liked best about Southernmost is that Asher Sharpe and other characters are people I could know. Eastern Tennessee is not West Virginia—we share some cultural overlap, and we also have our particulars and peculiarities, as different parts of a whole. However, House’s description of the tight community, the landscape, and the slow-changing attitudes toward LGBTQ people struck a chord of recognition as I read. Soon after the book’s release, many writers and readers of Appalachian literature began talking about the significance of Southernmost. Often, the praise for the novel includes the adjectives “brave” and “important.” The book was not reviewed in The New York Times despite House’s good literary reputation and the articles about Kentucky—particularly Appalachian Kentucky—he’s written for the Times’s op-ed section. House continues to support other writers from Appalachia and to speak from the heart about the region’s struggles as well as its splendor. 7. If Almond shows us how to parse bad stories, which perhaps leads us to recognize good stories, and Silas House serves as example of the importance of region, story, change, and growth, then Elizabeth Catte reminds us that stories are about power. She issues a directive to Appalachians to “write about your people as an act of power.” If not, stories will end up in the hands of those who might craft them into just the kind of bad stories Almond also warns us of. Catte implores us to write about our people to establish our own ethos and to overcome the source of bad stories about Appalachia: It reflects how credibility falls easily to those given the privilege of defining who or what Appalachian is. It also shows the rewards that fall to individuals, universally men and exclusively white, regardless of the company they keep. It is the power to grant yourself permission for continued exploitation of vulnerable subjects. It is the power to have your work selected as emblematic of a cultural moment by individuals and organizations that didn’t care one iota about Appalachia until their gaze could fill the region with pathologies. “People believe what they need to believe,” writes Almond. “Our stories about the world arise from the panic of our inner lives. Beneath our lesser defenses—the swirling rage and paranoia and indifference—are human beings somehow in pain.” In two very different ways, Silas House and Elizabeth Catte channel that pain. It’s in these stories that we learn how we might change a narrative’s trajectory for the better. Not in the easy, Pollyanna-ish ways of sloganeering and whitewashing, but in the harder way of living through the difficulties of our lives and crafting authentic stories from experience: what people might mean when they say they “speak truth to power.” When we write or when we otherwise imprint our stories into the collective narrative we might call culture, we can choose acceptance and equality and authenticity. We can choose hard-earned redemption. While we can’t flee the past, we can imagine beyond it. We can imagine joy, even through the grim. There is a way, even, to rescue that most tenuous of feelings—hope. The stars above may be indifferent to our plights. We do not have to be like the stars. We have the ability to open books. Flickr/Richie Diesterheft

Shells for the Creation of Human Dramas: Living, Breathing Settings in Fiction

Reading The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick for a creative nonfiction craft lecture during the final residency for my MFA program gave me a greater appreciation for Hardwick’s work and changed the way I read. One essay from the collection,“Locations: The Landscapes of Fiction,” taught me to give more attention to objects and places in fiction instead of just viewing them as props that help set the stage or fill space. Using works from Hawthorne, Fitzgerald, Wharton, and others, Hardwick explores the connections between interior and exterior landscapes in American fiction and the characters who inhabit those landscapes. She writes about how the landscapes created by these authors inform readers beyond establishing the setting. Hardwick writes: The landscapes of fiction, the houses and things, are a shell for the creation of human dramas, the place for the seven deadly sins to do battle with probity and reality or outrageous demand and vanity. The shells, the habitations of America are volatile, inventive, unexpected, imponderable, but there they are, everywhere. Dwellings—and the objects found in these dwellings—help form characters and their stories. Layers of landscape are placed around and within stories for readers to examine in order to grasp deeper meanings, like the rings of a tree. Hardwick devotes a good chunk of “Locations” to fiction that takes place in New York City. She writes: Manhattan is not altogether felicitous for fiction. It is not a city of memory, not a family city, not the capital of America so much as the iconic capital of the century. It is grand and grandiose with its two rivers acting as a border to contain the restless. Its skyscrapers and bleak, rotting tenements are a gift for photographic consumption, but for the fictional imagination the city’s inchoate destiny is a special challenge. Those who engage this “culture of congestion” today need a sort of athletic suppleness, such as we find in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. Anna Qunidlen must possess the athletic suppleness Hardwick mentions; Alternate Side, a novel that unfolds in Manhattan, still contains elements of memory and family in addition to plenty of congested restlessness. Quindlen introduces the reader to the vacant lot around which Alternate Side revolves in the opening pages: In the line of narrow townhouses that made up their side of the block, standing shoulder to shoulder like slender soldiers of flawless posture and unvarying appearance, there was one conspicuous break, a man down, a house-width opening to a stretch of macadam turned into an outdoor parking lot. It held only six cars, and since nearly everyone on the block wanted a space, it had become a hot commodity, a peculiar status symbol. All of the residents on the block vie for one of the vacant lot’s six parking spots close to home. Those lucky enough to score one are obsessed with the lot and their spots. Convenience and comfort are powerful drugs. Feeling superior to your less fortunate, parking-spot-bereft neighbors is a powerful drug, too. Quindlen explores themes connected to race, class, privilege, friendship, and family in ways that are only possible because of the empty lot she plops down in the middle of a rare dead-end block in Manhattan. After an act of violence occurs for reasons connected to the lot, the lucky six are no longer allowed to park their cars there. The relationships between various residents begin to unravel. Their homes start to fall apart as well, and the emptiness of the lot reflects the emptiness of some of the marriages and friendships on the street. Early in the novel, Nora (the protagonist) contemplates the old New York of her youth compared to the current New York: the New York of her married-for-several-years-with-two-kids-in-college days. Quindlen writes: It was crazy, but there was a small, secret part of Nora that was comfortable with trash on the street. It reminded her of her youth, when she’d first arrived in a nastier, scarier, dirtier New York City and moved into a shabby apartment with her best friend, Jenny. A better New York, she sometimes thought to herself now, but never, ever said, one of the many things none of them admitted to themselves, at least aloud: that it was better when it was worse. Nora longs for a different New York, for a past version of herself—when a vacant lot wasn’t so important, when much of what her life has become wasn’t so important. Nora later discovers, thanks to the lot—the shell for the creation of her human drama—that people and circumstances aren’t always what they seem to be. [millions_ad] The hotel-cum-addiction-recovery-facility in Denis Johnson’s “The Starlight on Idaho” (from The Largesse of the Sea Maiden) serves as another notable shell. The main character in this epistolary short story, Cass, is going through detox in the Starlight Addiction Recovery Center and writes several letters to various people, including God and Satan. Cass writes a letter to his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, Bob: Dear old buddy and beloved sponsor Bob, Now hear the latest from the Starlight Addiction Recovery Center on Idaho Avenue, in its glory days better known as the Starlight Motel. I believe you might have holed up here once or twice. Yes I believe you might have laid up drunk in room 8, this very one I’m sitting in at this desk writing this letter … And in a letter to his father and grandmother, Cass says: Do you remember when the Starlight was a motel? I remember when it was a motel and whores used to sit out on the bench at the bus stop across the street, really miserable gals with blotchy skin and dents in their head after getting run out of San Francisco … I mean you wouldn’t cross the street for them, but I guess once in a while some desperate character from one of these rooms in the Starlight would make the journey. Do you know what? I’ve had one or two minutes here when I might’ve done it myself. But the whores are gone, the bus-stop benches are empty. I don’t think the bus runs past here no more. The Starlight helps make this story what it is. Johnson uses the Starlight as an additional character in the story, one that has gone through its own turnaround. At the end of the story, readers learn that Cass has been told several times that he shouldn’t have survived some pretty terrible situations. But he’s still alive and he still hopes this round of recovery will stick. Perhaps some past frequenters of the Starlight Motel have ridden by—probably by accident—and noticed buses no longer serve the area; maybe they thought the motel would be abandoned and condemned but instead discovered it’s still alive, now a place where people go to recover, where people who should be dead have another chance at redemption. I'll keep paying more attention to locations and landscapes when I read and write now. Maybe I’ll include locations that have traits that mirror those of my characters or locations that represent a sort of redemption my characters desire for themselves. Maybe I’ll introduce locations that are unexpected, inventive, volatile. Image: Flickr/Stephen L Harlow

Unsung Women: Buddhist Women’s Poetry and the Revival of the Female Teaching Lineage

One of the holiest forms of practice in Zen is the chanting of names of one’s Buddhist ancestors and teachers. In Japan, China, and Korea, prayers reciting one’s teaching lineage are a common part of the rituals, soaring back in Japanese, Korean or classical Chinese through the venerable line of monks, masters and saints, all the way back to Bodhidharma, the monk credited with bringing Buddhism from India to China. Every Zendo has a different founder and thus a different lineage; teachers proudly recite these chains as pedigrees of legitimacy and power. The thing all these traditional teaching lineages have in common is that they are made up almost exclusively of men. Women have participated in Buddhist traditions as far back as the time of the Buddha, but they exist only tenuously in the stories, poems, and songs: a nun in a folktale here, a relative of the Buddha there. When I first started reading Buddhist folklore and poetry as research for my novel about contemporary American women practicing Zen, I kept seeing signs of erasure. An unnamed nun who is one of the Buddha’s earliest followers; the Buddha’s stepmother, insisting she has the right to practice alongside men; girls entering convents because their birth shamed and disappointed their families. As in many other religions, the role of women has been largely erased from artwork, stories, and prayers, unless you know where to look. They’re there, though. And perhaps because they were excluded from telling stories in the traditional canon, Buddhist women’s stories often take the form of poetry. In the Therigatha, one of the earliest collections of Buddhist nuns’ writings, women sing of their lives before renunciation, and how freed they were from oppressive marriages or life choices by donning the yellow robe of a nun. This text, long forgotten, has been revived thanks to a luminous new translation from Buddhist scholar Susan Murcott in First Buddhist Women: Poems Stories of Awakening. In one typical example, a woman rejoices at joining the sangha (the Buddhist community) and leaving married life behind: Free, I am free. I am free by means of the three crooked things, mortar, pestle, and my crooked husband. I am free from birth and death and all that dragged me back. Their stories are tragic and funny, and always personal. Unlike the stories of particular monks, which are characterized by magic powers and feats of miraculous strength, the nuns emphasize humility, community, and freedom. The nunnery meant freedom to many women forced into prostitution or trapped in abusive homes. In the Buddha’s India, life for women was strictly regulated and governed at every stage until the state of widowhood. Only when women had produced children and lost their duty to their husbands were they permitted to explore spirituality the way men could at any stage of their lives. Many of the women who became followers of Buddhism were widows, or had lost children, and their grief and sense of loss fills every line of their poetry. Only the life of the nun, the simplicity and the fellowship they found there, provided solace. In one dialogue, Mara, the god of deception and desire, tests one nun’s faith by reminding her of her rage and grief at the death of a beloved child. The nun replies: I have finished with the death of my child, and men belong to that past. I don’t grieve. I don’t cry. I’m not afraid of you, friend. Everywhere the love of pleasure is destroyed, the great dark is torn apart, and Death, you too are destroyed. It is women who are drawn overwhelmingly to Zen practice today in America, and I think what draws them are often the same losses that drew women over two millennia ago. Zen in the west sometimes models itself as a form of therapy more than a religious practice; there are Zen groups for the bereaved and Zen hospice centers. The kind of experience Zen offers is powerful consolation for the ill, the dying, the anxious, or the bereft. It teaches us that life is fleeting and that clinging to worldly phenomena will only lead to suffering; being aware of each present moment and treasuring our interdependence as living beings can provide solace to those who have had chaos enter their lives. It’s also refreshing not to be preached to or be given promises that can’t be kept. When I lost my mother to cancer, nothing irritated me more than the declarations that she was in heaven, or the more vaguely palatable “she’s in a better place.” I didn’t believe it, and I didn’t want to be told that there was some other realm where she was living a better life without the people she loved. I didn’t like the idea that her life was only a waiting room adjoining the real thing. My grief told me that her life was precious and that the suffering I felt at her loss was real. I looked to literature for consolation, and the poems and narratives of Buddhist women were a balm. In one classic folktale called “Vasitthi the Madwoman,” a woman who has lost her child to disease begins wearing rags and wandering homeless and bereft through her village. The Buddha tells her to go to every house and find a single one where someone has not died. Vasitthi visits every house but cannot find one where someone has not been lost to disease or old age or war. This realization—that death visits us all, and that we will all be united, ultimately, in grief—is oddly soothing and cures Vasitthi of her madness and rage. She dons the yellow robe and becomes a nun. The Buddha does not offer empty promises or explanations; he only makes her aware of grief as a universal human condition. Zen, in its quiet way, has infiltrated American culture. Today you can find a Zen or Tibetan center or a private residence with a few zafu mats laid out in almost every city and town in the country. There’s the Dalai Lama’s personal North American headquarters in Rochester and Chogyam Trungpa’s massive compound in the Hudson Valley; the San Francisco Zen Center, Naropa University in Boulder, private Zendos and basement meditation rooms in Brooklyn, Boston, and Seattle. You can see its influence in a television ad for a new flavor of ginger ale, in which a man-bun-wearing white guy seated on a mat asks what nirvana tastes like. You can participate in Japanese tea ceremonies at cultural centers around the country or visit the Buddhist Temple Room in the museum of fine arts of Boston. You can listen to the poetry of zen, the haiku, taught in elementary school classrooms and studied on college campuses. There’s a sanitation and appropriation of the religion going on right now, with businesses sending their employees to “mindfulness meditation” and articles written on how mindfulness can increase your chances for a promotion at work or help you burn belly fat. There’s mindful eating and mindful jogging and mindful mothering. The practice and the philosophy of Zen is a powerfully compelling antidote to the perceived problems of American life, and it has been neatly unzipped from the culture, language, and ritual of its roots. As Americans often do, we look elsewhere for solutions—to another culture, to a snowy mountaintop, to an exotic stranger. As in most religious traditions, women have been marginalized in Zen, treated as “tea ladies” or accessories to the spiritual genius of men. But there’s a new tradition becoming popular in Zen centers across the country: the chanting of female teachers’ names, as part of the ritual of remembrance, reverence, and respect. Members of the Zendo begin their practice with prayers to the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha: the teacher, the teaching, and the community. And then they begin the long recitation of forgotten women, invisible teachers, unsung women. There are a surprising lot to get through. In fact, they’ve been there all along down the centuries, writing about their experiences of the divine. They’ve been passing down their own poems and songs. And current leaders of Zendos and Tibetan centers are increasingly women. There’s Elsie Mitchell, founder of the Cambridge Buddhist Association; Maurine Stuart, the first female Zen master to teach in the U.S.; Zenkei Blanche Hartman, the San Francisco Zen Center’s first abbess. They are the leaders of the next generation of American Zen. Now the long, elegant lines of teaching lineage, once exclusively male, are peppered with female names, Western names, a funny hodgepodge of old and new, tradition and translation. Image: Pixabay/truthseeker08

Take a Writer Like Him: My Complicated Love Affair with Kingsley Amis

1. As much as I may rack my brain, there are 15 minutes or so in the dark that I can’t account for and that I’ll never get back—15 minutes during which, I have to think, that creep’s hands were touching my body. It’s a weird thing to think about all these years later, this weird little grain of rice in my consciousness, a scratch where the record skips. The truth is I will never know what happened, exactly. None of it will ever be resolved. He didn’t rape me, at least in part because he didn’t get the chance. He probably touched me, roamed his hands all over my body, but who’s to say? Only he could. I was passed out.    It was the fall of my senior year of college. A few days before, I’d gone to happy hour with my boyfriend and he’d dumped me shortly after the pizza arrived. I was crushed and caught off guard, and my incredibly intelligent way of responding to this was to rebound, or at least try to. The weekend came. I slid my bruised ego into the World’s Tiniest Dress and went to a party at the house of a grad-student friend of mine. I didn’t usually go to strange parties because I had my boyfriend and our tight-knit group of friends, except now I didn’t have the boyfriend and I was too embarrassed to see the friends. I left my apartment with the idea I’d do something dumb—kiss someone or something. If he heard about it later, all the better. That was the point. When the two guys started talking to me at the party, I was drunk. Even so, some lizard part of my brain knew that when they asked me to leave with them, the right answer was nope. Drunk as I was, I could feel them watching me closely, so closely that I can still see the deep muddy brown of one’s eyes, his white-blond eyelashes. They were DJs, they said, and they were going to a late-night rave. I should come, too. They could get me in. They’d give me a ride. No thanks, I said, and stumbled off to the tiny guest room my friend had promised to me. She had this old millworker’s house. The bed was narrow with some antique, almost Dickensian frame. I remember pulling the blankets over me and staring at the wall a minute, feeling disappointed and lonely and, even before anything else happened, just incredibly ashamed of myself. Then I closed my eyes. 2. Flash forward, 14 years later. It’s the fall of 2017; I’m talking about #MeToo with a friend and we start coming up with a list of literary characters who, had they been real, might now be exposed as rapists, sexual harassers, workplace bullies, and/or terrible boyfriends. A dark joke, our list is long but hardly comprehensive: Humbert Humbert, Oblonsky, Mr. Rochester, Steven Rojack. Well. You’re kind of spoiled for choice. One of the lesser-known names on the list was Patrick Standish, the main male character in Take a Girl Like You, Kingsley Amis’s 1960 novel. In his era, of course, Amis was a near-ubiquitous man of letters who wrote novels as well as movie and restaurant reviews, poetry and criticism. He’s not nearly as widely read now, despite the New York Review of Books recently reissuing much of his catalogue. If people know Amis’s work, they tend to know his name-making first novel, 1954’s Lucky Jim, or perhaps The Old Devils, which won the Booker Prize in 1986. It’s a shame, because Take a Girl Like You is among his best—a great work of art, deeply moral and wonderfully realized. A lost classic. Still, to make this argument, I’ve got to spoil it for you, and this is a novel which turns on an essential one-two punch, a lot like that Wilco song, “She’s a Jar,” that you can only hear for the first time once. It’s a funny, sometimes-rapturous love story that ends with a rape. Jenny Bunn meets Patrick Standish. She’s a virgin and he’s a seasoned, self-aware lothario. They fall in love (“she had a sort of permanent two gin and tonics inside her” while “he had felt the wing of the angel of marriage brush his cheek, and was afraid”). But Jenny still isn’t quite ready to have sex, and Patrick spends several hundred pages trying in vain to seduce her. At last, he breaks up with her at a party, telling her, “We’re finished. Even if you walked in on me naked I wouldn’t touch you.” In despair, Jenny gets super drunk and passes out in a guestroom: It all faded away. Time went by in the same queer speedless way as before. Then Patrick was with her. He had been there for some minutes or hours when she first realized he was, and again was in bed with her without seeming to have got there. What he did was off by himself and nothing to do with her. All the same, she wanted him to stop, but her movements were all the wrong ones for that and he was kissing her too much for her to try to tell him. She thought he would stop anyway as soon as he realized how much off on his own he was. But he did not, and did not stop, so she put her arms around him and tried to be with him, only there was no way of doing it and nothing to feel. Then there was another interval, after which he told her he loved her and would never leave her now. She said she loved him too, and asked him if it had been nice. He said it had been wonderful, and went on to talk about France. Their host comes into the room, realizes what Patrick has done, and kicks him out of the house. So maybe it’s perverse, but I feel as though I am in a kind of catbird seat for understanding all this, though it’s true I never bobbed up to consciousness like Jenny Bunn did. In my case, I just woke up the next morning, with no interval of awareness. I helped my friend clean up, drank a cup of coffee, drove home. I didn’t know anything before four o’clock that afternoon, when she called me and told me she’d thought it over. If it had happened to her, she’d decided, she’d want to know. One of those guys got in bed with you, she told me. He’d taken off his pants but didn’t seem to have an erection. He’d only been in there a few minutes. He hadn’t had time to do anything. Anyway, she’d kicked him out of the house. I thanked her for doing that and hung up the phone. I was sitting on my bedroom floor by this point, because my legs had given out for the first time in my life. On the surface, Take a Girl Like You is a sex comedy, and tellingly, not every contemporary critic believed Jenny’s experience to be rape. In Postwar British Fiction, published in 1962, James Gindin describes the novel’s conclusion this way: “Jenny loses her virginity, but not as a result of moral or immoral suasion; Patrick tricks her into capitulation while drunk” (a view Merritt Moseley would decry in 1993). The 1970 movie adaptation, starring Hayley Mills as Jenny Bunn, portrayed the story as a kind of sexual slapstick, changing the ending so that Jenny chooses to sleep with another character. Then Patrick chases Jenny down a road in what’s meant to be a madcap scene. Cue a breezy theme song by The Foundations, roll credits. But Kingsley Amis knew that what happens to Jenny is terribly wrong, though the word “rape” is not used, even by Jenny herself. The next morning, she wakes up puking, hungover: Jenny decided reading would be too much for her. She smoked a cigarette until her insides felt as if they were getting as far away from the middle of her as they could. Then she put it out. But even with that big hollow in her interior she was recovering enough to start getting the first edge of thought. For it to have gone like that, almost without her noticing. At that she rebuked herself, sitting up straight in her chair. What was so special about her that it should have happened the way she imagined it, alone with a man in a country cottage surrounded by beautiful scenery, with the owls suddenly waking her up in the early hours and him putting his arms around her and soothing her, and then in the morning the birds singing and the horses neighing, and her frying eggs and bacon and spreading a wholemeal loaf with thick farm butter? A lot of sentimental rubbish, that was—she would be asking for roses and violins next. Much better be sensible, think herself lucky it had not gone for her as it did for some, sordid and frightening and painful and with someone you hated or hardly knew. That was happening every day. That’s the crux of the novel, its turning from comic to tragic. Jenny deserves better and she doesn’t get it. In fact she is almost pathetically grateful that she has had it no worse. As light as Amis’s touch is here—Take a Girl Like You is not political, not a polemic—you can’t mistake his grief and revulsion. Amis would later describe Patrick Standish as the worst person he’d ever written about, and this when he made a career of writing about unpleasant people, including Roger Micheldene, the hideous antihero of 1963’s One Fat Englishman. Amis knew he wasn’t writing about any straightforward “capitulation.” Take a Girl Like You is often compared with Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, but I say the better foil is Nabokov’s Lolita, in which the subtle, below-surface moral weight of the novel is with the victim—all of it springing from her loss and victimization. The Lolita comparison is, yes, a little ironic because Amis hated Lolita and hated Nabokov. Still, there’s a central likeness. Nabokov did not intend that we should fall for Humbert Humbert’s artsy, tortured rationalization of rape; Amis didn’t intend that Patrick Standish be taken for a sympathetic hero, either. Patrick is charming and funny and fun, even erudite, and he’s also a complete asshole. (As well as raping Jenny, Patrick sleeps with his boss’s 17-year-old daughter.) [millions_ad] You could even argue that Take a Girl Like You is in some senses a subtler and certainly a more realistic portrayal of rape because Jenny is not eye-poppingly young, and there’s no continuous, hysterical fireworks of justification. Amis gives both Jenny’s and Patrick’s perspectives in alternating sections, and Jenny’s experience is as deftly handled as it is, in part, familiar. I read the novel swearing under my breath. Kingsley Amis nailed it. The natural next question is, how’d he do that? In his lifetime, most especially in his later career, Amis was notorious for his misogyny. As the biographies reveal, he was himself a prolific womanizer who sometimes felt guilty about it and often wrote about that guilt, not least of all in Take a Girl Like You. That’s not necessarily the same thing as being a sexist, repentant or otherwise. The evidence is mixed; you can neither dismiss him as a misogynist nor declare his misogyny merely supposed and perceived, as Paul Fussell did in his 1994 book on Amis, The Anti-Egotist. To hear Fussell tell it, Amis is merely “tired of the automatic imputation of virtue and sensitivity to the female character … Women, Amis knows, can be fully wicked as men. They can lie and cheat and destroy with the best of them.” That’s true and yet not the whole picture. In some of the novels, the women do nothing but lie, cheat and destroy while the men struggle vainly to run the world in spite of this ongoing assault. Is that still satire? It is, in the case of 1978’s Jake’s Thing, where the crazy women are leavened out with pathetic women and no character, the men included, is in any sense to be admired. You can’t miss the comic brio of its penultimate paragraph: Jake did a quick run-through of women in his mind, not of the ones he had known or dealt with in the past few months or years so much as all of them: their concern with the surface of things, with objects and appearances, with their surroundings and how they looked and sounded in them, with seeming to be better and to be right while getting everything wrong, their automatic assumption of the role of injured party in any clash of wills, their certainty that a view is the more credible and useful for the fact that they hold it, their use of misunderstanding and misrepresentation as weapons of debate, their selective sensitivity to tones of voice, their unawareness of the difference in themselves between sincerity and insincerity, their interest in importance (together with noticeable inability to discriminate in that sphere), their fondness for general conversation and directionless discussion, their pre-emption of the major share of feeling, their exaggerated estimate of their own plausibility, their never listening and lots of other things like that, all according to him. But 1984’s Stanley and the Women is a bridge too far. There’s just one minor female character who isn’t a complete emotional monster, while every male character is sympathetic. Here the satire, if it still is satire, is as sour, unrelieved, and unrelenting as anything Amis ever wrote. In the U.S., several publishers turned down the book because the women on their boards objected. There’s a nadir in the poetry, too, though the 1987 poem that begins “Women and queers and children / cry when things go wrong” went unpublished and unfinished. In his excellent The Life of Kingsley Amis, Zachary Leader described the poem as “calculated to cause the maximum possible offense.” (I’d add, without glee, that it’s also a bit rich coming from Amis, who had a paralyzing fear of the dark and couldn’t be left alone.) Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t separate art from artist here because the offense is the whole point. Still, that convention—holding out the work from the person who made it—is flimsy to begin with. It presents a false choice. In the end, we don’t really get to choose between great works and flawed people. We get both. As Christopher Hitchens wrote of H.L. Mencken: “He had very grievous moral and intellectual shortcomings and even deformities … But any reductionist analysis of Mencken runs the risk of ignoring a fine mind that engaged itself in some high duties.” It’s an uneasy position for this Amis fan. But what’s the alternative, not reading him at all? I love his work. Even in the minor novels, the ones that don’t quite come off, there’s always, always the intelligence, the bite in the closely observed details and those trademark Amis sentences that are wonderfully precise and yet never pretentious, never overwrought. My copies of his books are dog-eared and misshapen from repeated drops in the bath. I’m always in some stage of rereading The Old Devils, and I keep multiple copies of 1990’s The Folks That Live on the Hill because I’m always pushing it on friends. About the time I was at risk of rape at that party in 2003, I was working my way through everything Amis ever wrote, because my college library had every title. I have never encountered that happy condition since, and it almost makes me wish I’d never left school. Maybe you’re not supposed to have a favorite writer—maybe he shouldn’t be my favorite writer—but Kingsley Amis is my favorite writer. That Amis remains a complex figure is fitting, full stop. There remains something akin to the “problem from hell” that Martin Amis identifies in Nabokov’s work. In the case of Amis senior, it is not a recurring preoccupation with the “despoiliation of very young girls”; it’s a recurring, vigorous anti-woman streak that does not at all preclude him from seeing what women sometimes suffer at the hands of men. In 1969’s The Green Man, for instance, the narrator labors to banish the ghost of a long-ago rapist. And Amis’s 1976 alternate-world novel The Alteration, as William Gibson has written, “depicts the oppression of patriarchy, given full reign by theocracy, as thoroughly as any novel prior to, say, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.” To dismiss Amis as a misogynist would be an attempt to resolve the sort of frustrated justice he himself depicted over and over again. Great works, flawed people. The facts do not really compute. 3. I never saw that guy, the one who got in bed with me, ever again. I got up off the floor and moved on with my life because it did not occur to me that there was a choice. I did not consider calling the police, not for a second. I was too embarrassed as it was, and in my gut I know that if I had been raped that night, I wouldn’t have reported it. Imagine saying to the police: I’d just been dumped. I was very drunk. I was wearing this napkin of a dress. I don’t remember it. Dear God. Even now. I didn’t even say #MeToo last fall when the hashtag was trending because I didn’t want to have to explain anything to anyone. Also because I didn’t think of it as anything special. Also because it wasn’t the worst thing that ever happened to me. The breakup hurt me much worse, and for longer. For me, “trauma” doesn’t seem like the right word; whatever happened to me that night I just took as part of the fabric of experience. Why make a fuss, and open myself to judgement and blame? Wouldn’t I have to be a purer victim for it be really wrong in the eyes of our culture? This points to the ultimate triumph of Amis’s Jenny—his sense of the full scope of her predicament. Jenny not only moves on with her life; she makes up with Patrick. In the last lines of the novel, Patrick says, “It was inevitable,” and Jenny responds, “Oh yes, I expect it was. But I can’t help feeling it’s rather a pity.” In the sequel, 1988’s Difficulties with Girls, Jenny and Patrick are married, have been married eight years as the novel begins. The rape has receded from view, becoming just another part of the knit of Jenny’s experience, and in this way, I’m convinced, Amis brings our dilemma into focus as few other novelists ever have. The question that #MeToo is answering is, in part: What do we do with these experiences? How do we describe them and how do we integrate them into our lives, and why have we tried to integrate them? How have we been encouraged to erase them? Shouldn’t we hold them apart? What exact behavior becomes legible here, and who benefits when we keep our mouths shut? Almost 70 years after Take a Girl Like You, we’re having that public conversation. Amis was there in 1960. Rereading it and the rest of his catalogue over the last couple of months, I’ve come to see again the particular wingspan of his accomplishments as a writer. The range of the novels, the humor and precision in the poems. All that lively, fun, cutting intellectual energy put to such wonderful use—most of the time. If we’re left with irreducible ambiguities (and indefensible shit like “women and queers and children”), well, at least we get the art, too. As Amis knew, misogyny and rape don’t take place at some great remove from art and life. They’re part of an ambient hum that drifts in and out of our consciousness, moving from background to foreground and back again. Then as now, that’s the awful problem.

What Do They Want from Us? On the Return of Big Bookstore Chains

Bookstores have become cultural Rorschach tests. After the past decade or so, you’ve either been traumatized by watching your favorite store go dark, or you’re fine with the coffee and craft cocktails now served alongside exquisitely curated books. This fall begins a new era, or maybe a retro one, marked by the reemergence of national bookstore chains and two prototype stores opening next month. In New York, Shakespeare & Co. is growing to three locations, laying the groundwork for its national expansion, while Indigo, Canada's largest bookstore chain, is opening its first U.S. store in New Jersey, staking its claim before growing west. Both believe there’s big potential in general bookstore chains despite wildly different ideas about how we buy books. Shakespeare & Co. looks awfully familiar, with table displays, category shelving and café service, while Indigo is aiming for a "cultural department store," built on cross-selling gifts and books with the soft-pedal feel of an Anthropologie space. One is recognizable, and the other takes a leap, but both face down familiar looming threats: the "omnichannel" strategy driving Amazon and Barnes & Noble, which blends online and offline services and discounts. To back up their faith in chain bookstore selling, both giants have new stores in the works: Amazon Books is opening three new ones this fall, and B&N is transitioning to more nimble real estate. It’s another stab at disruption, framed in brick and mortar, and for the most part, it’s the kind of threat your local indie knows well. Their best defense: localization. And you see it everywhere: As natives to your neighborhood, local indie booksellers know best what you want. In Ann Arbor, Literati is strident in its coffee- and community-based model, in line with its proximity to a progressive college campus; in Miami, Books & Books claims solidarity with the slow food movement; and in downtown Los Angeles, The Last Bookstore shares space with a local visual art collective. All of them might flop if they ever swapped places, and that’s probably how they've earned our trust.   In San Francisco, The Booksmith opened a satellite event space two years ago and then kept going, acquiring an adjacent bar earlier this year, claiming "reading at a bar with a delicious cocktail is one of life's greatest pleasures." The expansions fit with the Haight-Ashbury locale, and a pop-up breakfast service offers morning-after relief. But to meet expectations widened by the internet—and delivered on by Amazon—general service bookstores like the ones noted above also have to go wide. It's a broad industry that's only getting broader, and “local” tastes span as wide as the web. To cite two extremes: Lenny, Lena Dunham’s imprint, is still going strong, while Politico unearthed efforts to publish more titles for Trump voters. Is a non-niche, non-specializing, general-service bookstore even feasible anymore?  And if the online giants can fine-tune their algorithms with the same precision that they pull off online, can’t we assume they’ll stock their new stores as expertly as the established bookseller down the street? How does that mess with our loyalties and habits, especially with cheaper books and more add-on service than your old favorite store provides? And for the two new aspirants, what’s the smarter path, Indigo’s seductive books-plus-stuff mix or the dependable, familiar shelves of Shakespeare & Co.? [millions_ad] In London, Foyle’s is the city’s mothership of bookstores, and the recent remodel of its Charing Cross store is a wonder to behold, brightly lit and smartly merchandised without being overly precious. Rising up four floors, it doesn’t feel like a warehouse or a coffee bar that sells books—through deceptively simple display principles, it’s seductive without belaboring the sentiment, breathtaking in its breadth and depth without being imposing, pedantic or self-aggrandizing. And somehow, along with four miles of shelves, it still houses an auditorium, a gallery space, and the requisite café. It’s staggering to imagine an algorithmic alternative, but then again, we haven’t seen how the omnichannel will mature and evolve. A few indie publishers offer their own take on retail, as if they didn’t already have enough on their plates. In Minneapolis, the Minnesotan calmness of Milkweed Editions’ store is nestled in a community literary space, and in Los Angeles, Red Hen Books offers up spare working space for event rentals—two indie publishers investing in street-level experiences, both focused on building communities of loyalists. On a bigger scale, Taschen keeps 14 branded stores around the world, and Chronicle Books maintains two in San Francisco, showcases for their books’ visual appeal. In Brooklyn, Powerhouse recently expanded to powerHouse on 8th, building on its landmark event space and its celebrity-packed imprint. Back in New Jersey, Indigo’s concept store will bank on the IRL experience, “creating a wayfinding strategy based on a sense of discovery rather than a distinct pattern of aisles. Just like reading a good book, the sense of discovery moves customers forward, taking them on a journey within the store.” Indigo also launched Reco this summer, an app that shows book recommendations from your Facebook network. Combined with its soft-sell store design, it adds up to another omnichannel package, just tied with a spiffy bow. Shakespeare & Co. is packing a few tech tricks, too. Each store will feature print-on-demand services, which could deliver whatever locals want right on the spot, freeing up the retail floor for more curated discoveries. As CEO Dane Neller told Publishers Weekly earlier this year, "Each new bookstore should be rooted in the local community and offer a cultural sanctuary …” If most of the books are housed in a machine, a bookstore’s physical space is wide open to possibilities. So what do we want from our bookstores? Should we expect them to surprise us and deliver discoveries? Or do we need them to serve up exactly what we need, the book we just learned about on our phone? Are they supposed to be sanctuaries for cultural explorations? What about the thousands sold from palettes on the floors of Costco? On the brink of this new era, the questions keep coming: What if some of these ideas are just good economics and, as a byproduct of their cyber efficiency, put books and reading back into more lives? What if they bring books back to underserved markets? For book lovers, a new chapter is just starting to unfold. Image: Flickr/Joshua Kirby