The Stories We Become: On William Cash’s ‘Restoration Heart’

Restoration Heart begins in 2009 with William Cash, the British journalist and publisher, hiding from the tabloids. He listens as a photographer and reporter banter outside his front door. Cash, frazzled and melancholy, huddles inside. His girlfriend’s photo appears “on the front page of the Sunday Mirror, alongside that of a well-known British politician, touted as a future prime minister.” Cash’s girlfriend was embroiled in a political sex scandal with none other than Boris Johnson.

Cash, who has often written of society and scandal, is adept at setting dramatic scenes throughout his memoir. Yet there’s another layer to Restoration Heart—an acute literary sense. While “camping out in a former tack room,” lamenting another failed relationship and the family he has always longed to have, Cash thinks of a line from Graham Greene: “No man is a success to himself.”

It is an appropriate quote—Cash once wrote a biography of Greene that examined his long affair with Catherine Walston, a relationship that influenced The End of the Affair—yet another line from Greene might be even more appropriate: “I feel there’s something awful in sealing up the envelope, not being able to add to this.” Cash’s memoir is the story of a man whose penchant for letters suggests a desire to hold on to the present. Sealing up the envelope means ending the letter; it means allowing our fantasies and stories to be finished, read, and judged.

Greene haunts this book in the way perhaps only the British novelist can; a lingering but vacillating Catholicism, a predilection for drama, and the worry that life is a series of disappointments. Those disappointments—and accompanying hopes—are often set at Upton Cressett, an Elizabethan manor in Shropshire, England. In 1970, Cash’s parents “had become afflicted with that most British and expensive of diseases: the ‘dream’ of finding an old English manor house and restoring it, the more of an overgrown ruin beyond hope, the better.” Built in 1580, the house, Cash quips, “has always been the most durable of my relationships—more reliable than any love affair or marriage.”

In 1899, H. Thornhill Timmins wrote in Nooks and Corners of Shropshire of the home’s past: “The course of the moat, the ancient well, and the site of the drawbridge can still be identified.” Rumor has it that an underground tunnel once ran from the home to Holgate Castle in Corve Dale, six miles away. Yet now, Cash laments, the home “had come to resemble an architectural salvage yard.” He decides to renovate the house, and his life.

The action is uniquely British. “The Germans, French, and Italians don’t understand the British Cult of Restoration,” Cash affirms: “restoring an old manor farmhouse, mill or ruined abbey until we are driven into the financial grave. It relates to our national obsession with the past and how our best domestic architecture—from castles to cottages—gives character and identity not only to our towns and villages but also defines who we are.” 

Cash quotes P. H. Ditchfield, from The Manor Houses of England, that manors such as his “do not court attention,” nor do they “seek to attract the eye by glaring incongruities or obtrusive detail. They seem in quest of peace, love and obscurity.” For much of his life, Cash seemed the opposite. Drama found him, or compelled him. Failed relationships were compounded by literary ambitions. 

He documented it all. One of his teachers at Trinity College was Eric Griffiths, who made Cash realize that “Letters or poems to those we have loved, or still love, can live on, long after the relationship is dead. I am sure this contributed to my chronic inability to let go of my past, and my habit of photocopying and collecting my letters.” Cash tended to fax his letters to lovers, friends, and foes, which left him with boxes full of originals. He confessed his deepest desires, but those desires also remained near. It is a not-always pleasant paradox to have our secrets archived and in reach.

Cash is full of secrets and stories. In a representative tale, he first met the actress Elizabeth Hurley in 1992, and lived with her for some time, including “when Hugh Grant had his notorious back-seat encounter on Sunset Boulevard with Divine Brown.” Cash hunkered down while paparazzi swarmed their home—perhaps preparing for his own encounters with the gossip press.

Cash placed Hurley “far too high on my usual pedestal for anything more than being her confidant.” Although Hurley was only a friend, Cash had a succession of girlfriends and lovers, and each relationship seems not only a potential marriage, but a marriage with children—which might include “having twins, writing bestselling thrillers, buying two borzoi puppies, importing wild board to roam around the medieval wood and peacocks for the garden, flooding our medieval moat, learning to cook, paying my credit-card bills each month.” 

Restoration Heart is buoyed by Cash’s self-effacing humor. He’s a romantic when it comes to love, and also writing.  The novelist Jay McInerney once told Cash there are two types of books: “the type you put in everything you know, and the type you leave out everything. Make sure you know which yours is before you start.” Cash puts his life—loves, losses, and longings—on display here, and the result is a paean to hard-worn optimism, and an affirmation of the epistle as cherished form. Reflecting on his many letters, Cash concludes: “So many are hopelessly self-indulgent attempts to win a heart or offer some thread of hope (often self-deceptive) to myself. Is the narrator of my letters really me, or a persona I created? I can’t answer that. I don’t know.” Restoration Heart suggests we don’t need an answer; that the stories we tell others, ultimately, become us.

Past Made Present: On Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s ‘Photostats’

1.A year ago I revisited the HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. I’m still convinced I first saw the play on a high school field trip in the mid ’90s, though I can’t find any documentation that it was staged at the University of Maryland. Still, I remember being profoundly moved by its beauty and gravity, the tragedy of so many lives lost so early, and the prevailing homophobia of the mid ’80s. But what struck me this time, when watching the miniseries, wasn’t any of these things. Instead I was floored by Al Pacino as the dying Roy Cohn, Donald Trump’s mentor and former attorney, who provides a direct political through line from McCarthyism (Cohn was Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel) to our current political mayhem. Watching Angels in America, the foundations of Trumpism had never been more apparent. 

And now, in 2020, the parallels are even more striking.

Then: the president didn’t acknowledge AIDS publicly until years into the pandemic, and only as his friend Rock Hudson died. 

Now: the president refuses to acknowledge the continuing health crisis and the 225,000-plus deaths and growing.

Then: Cohn refused to publicly admit he was HIV positive and dying of AIDS, or that he was gay — instead claiming he had terminal liver disease. 

Now: The Trump team’s Covid outbreak was first reported by the press. The president’s timeline from symptoms to diagnosis remains in question, with his doctors, at times, making contradictory public statements and refusing to state the date of his last negative test.

Released from Walter Reed, the president refuses to acknowledge Covid’s threat and instead tweets: “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.”

Then: Cohn used his political power to access the then-experimental treatment AZT.

Now: Trump uses his political power to access the experimental treatment, Regeneron’s monoclonal antibodies.

History repeats itself, or Trump learned a lot from his mentor.

Tell it slant. Re-tell it slant. 

“Do you think you might be a super-spreader, Mr. President?”

2. When I consider Felix Gonzalez-Torres, his name conjures the tactile pleasures of my first encounter with his work at the Art Institute of Chicago, specifically its visual warmth, its physicality and playfulness. Candies are piled high in the corner of the room, which the visitor is encouraged to touch, take from, and consume—generally a forbidden pleasure for museumgoers. I recall the delight of undoing the shiny wrap, the hard, sweet candy melting in my mouth. The work is “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.),” made in 1991, the year that González-Torres’s lover Ross Laycock died of AIDS. The sweet pleasure, this melting in one’s mouth is sexual, illicit, and also a woeful replacement. The work has been assigned a target weight of 175 pounds, which is the weight of an adult male body—presumably Ross’s weight. This knowledge makes the memory of taking and eating so bittersweet. 

In 1991, the year that Laycock died, Gonzalez-Torres also created a billboard, a black-and-white image of an empty bed. It’s a stark reminder of his personal mourning conjured on a public scale. How many loves were lost, and beds emptied during the AIDS epidemic? 

Two years earlier he created a billboard to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. It was mounted at the corner of Christopher Street and 7th Avenue, across the street from the historic Stonewall Inn. The billboard’s black rectangle contained two lines of white type that run across the bottom:

“People With AIDS Coalition 1985 Police Harassment 1969 Oscar Wilde 1895 Supreme Court 1986 Harvey Milk 1977 March on Washington 1987 Stonewall Rebellion 1969”

These names and dates commemorate significant moments both celebratory and tragic in the fight for gay rights and liberation. Gonzalez-Torres called this billboard “an architectural sign of being, a monument for a community that has been ‘historically invisible.’” 

3.Visibility is key for public awareness, especially during a pandemic that governmental leaders would prefer to ignore, downplay, or pass off responsibility for to someone else. It also presents the conundrum, how to commemorate an absence? Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” replaces the mass of his lover’s body with a pile of candy. His billboards, too, are confrontational, inviting the public to intimately gaze upon an emptied bed. 

1988 is the year Felix Gonzalez-Torres made most of the photostats recently collected in the volume by Siglio Press called simply, Photostats. Their design matches that of the Stonewall billboard, only they’re vastly downsized.

1988 is the year Ross Laycock was diagnosed with AIDS. At the time testing positive was a death sentence. I’d assume Gonzalez-Torres would’ve had an awareness then that he too would likely die from AIDS-related causes. 

The photostats were originally printed on photographic paper using what was effectively an early photocopy machine. The term now sounds exotic, evoking medical lexicon—”stat” being a term used ubiquitously in hospitals to reflect an acute need demanding swift attention, but also “static”—like the white text on black, like a memorial. Visually these photostats evoke another somber memorial, The Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington DC, designed by Maya Lin. There the simple, stolid black granite walls are etched with a year, followed by the names of fallen American troops. Together the individual names amass into a sea of downed men in a war that mars our history.  

The paper Gonzalez-Torres uses is ephemeral, like the many lives lost to the pandemic, to the wars. It’s ephemeral, too, like our nation’s historical memory. 

As Ann Lauterbach comments in her essay that accompanies this volume, “History is a noun. Is it a thing?”

In recent years especially it’s become apparent that what’s “great” in American history has been made so not by what’s happened as much as by what we’ve collectively chosen to ignore. 

Photostats captivates with its bright red cover, conjuring AIDS like the red ribbons worn in the ’90s to signify solidarity with those with HIV (I wore one pinned to a bag). The title is embossed in gold and possesses an elegance and beauty suited to Gonzalez-Torres’s aesthetic. As Mónica de La Torre observes in her accompanying essay, his work, even here, is about love and infiltration, “To look closely here involves taking a deep dive into history’s ash heap, getting lost in the process, knowing there’s no one way to read the works.” There are multiple beginnings and no end: open the book on either side to the series of photostats, one series is gloss (to see the image as it’s displayed, to reflect the viewer), the other matte. Each is followed by an essay, one by de la Torre and the other by Lauterbach.

The photostat texts cite names and events that elicit and implicate the reader/viewer in a varied American and world history— that of bloodshed, protest, celebrity, glamour, oppression, and scientific prowess. Just glimpse the first page: “Patty Hearst 1975 Jaws 1975 Vietnam 1975 Watergate 1973 Bruce Lee 1973 Munich 1972 Waterbeds 1971 Jackie 1968”—and consider the commingling of history, corruption, pleasure, death, fantasy, adventure, and wealth. As de la Torre writes, “González-Torres’s inscriptions do act as constellations, as celestial alphabet.” Each page can be seen as a snapshot, read as a couplet, or a contorted haiku. What emerges are the connections a reader makes, between words and events conjured, while discerning their entanglement. There are names of fighter jets and bombs and court trials and, of course, references to the AIDS epidemic. 

I don’t have to try very hard to tease out the resonances and parallels to our current pandemic. 

“PTL 1987”: the televangelist Jim Bakker stepped down from his position after being outed for embezzling money and improper sexual acts. In 2020, Bakker was sued and sent a warning by the FDA for pedaling $80 bottles of silver solution as a Covid treatment and cure.  

“New Life Forms Patents 1987”: allowed for the trademark of the genetically manipulated OncoMouse used to develop cancer treatments; a similar transgenic species—VelocImmune® mice—was used to develop antibodies for Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody treatment that Trump received.

Toward the book’s center, names, images, ideas, and incidences cited in the photostats run on, run together so that they merge: “Diana Princess North Zero Oliver Patient” and “supreme 1986 court crash stock market crash 1929 sodomy stock market court stock supreme 1987.” Here Black Monday 1987 dovetails with another black Monday, not as often recalled: the day the Supreme Court upheld a Georgia sodomy law outlawing oral and anal sex between consulting adults.

As a child of the ’80s I’m already fluent in the patois of Photostats, and familiar with the names dropped—be it Ollie, Spud, Princess Di. The disparity between this lightness and the weightier remembrances, or those that I have to look up, creates a rift through their seeming inequivalence. But also, isn’t this how history plays out? Diana was an icon when the aforementioned outcome of Bowers v. Hardwick was decided; and I doubt Gonzalez-Torres would’ve guessed Princess Diana would die only a year after he did. These coincidences only accentuate the intermingling of beauty and carnage and power. 

I’m thinking now of how those in Generation Z will create their own lists with their own penumbras of resonance: what names and court decisions will they contain, and what aspects of the present will spin on into our collective future? Perhaps one might look something like: “Osama 2001 Obama 2008 Hobby Lobby 2014 TikTok 2020, Breonna.”

But also, in considering these fragmented histories, what becomes apparent is what’s so easily forgotten. Photostats reveals how the past still lives on, only reinvented. I’m wondering, when will there be an intervention, a disruption, a reckoning with the current trajectory we’ve taken? Perhaps it begins with the 2020 elections and becomes something we enact daily.

The Narrative Drama Triangle: On Sayed Kashua’s ‘Track Changes’

The first few chapters of Sayed Kashua’s latest novel, Track Changes, didn’t impress me much. For those acquainted with the most common tropes of immigrant fiction, the setup is familiar: one day, our narrator receives a note that his father is dying. He leaves his wife and three children in the United States and flies back to his hometown of Tira in Palestine. Gradually, we learn more about his extreme estrangement. He has not talked to his parents or siblings for 14 years. Meanwhile, his marriage in the States seems like a piece of wreckage: every night after kissing his children goodnight, he rides a bus back to his grad student dorm alone.

I wondered as I read, is this another narrative about the unbearable burdens of displacement, or about the failure of the American Dream, with a bit of mid-life crisis in disguise?

However, as the multi-layered narrative unfurled, piece by piece, like the skin of an onion, I was surprised and satisfied to see all my expectations overturned. This inventive structure drives readers, deliberately and yet subtly, into the core of a larger, abstract question regarding the nature of fiction.

In a speech last year at San Francisco State University, Kashua confessed that for him, “writing always caused a lot of troubles.” In Track Changes, the anonymous protagonist inherits a similar fate. In college, he composes a piece of precocious fiction piece that derails his life, as well as the life of a young woman he barely knows. In his story, he makes love to a female character named Palestine on the rooftop of a high school. Unfortunately, the story circulates back to Tira where there is actually a young woman of the same name. Rampant rumors abound and the protagonist is obliged to marry her.

“Fiction is never innocent,” Brett Ashley Kaplan concludes in her review of Track Changes for Haaretz. From her perspective, the novel demonstrates the potential danger of “fabrication and invention.”

I harbor mixed feelings about Kaplan’s reading. On the surface, the disastrous outcome of the protagonist’s teenage writing confirms the high stakes inherent in fictionalizing. But it is also misleading to suggest writers should abandon their creativity altogether. To me, Track Changes explores the deep roots—rather than the tragic consequences—of “fabrication and invention.”

For one thing, the novel implies that alterations of fact are inevitable. Earlier in the book, the protagonist recalls a childhood episode: a car crash that left his uncle confined to a hospital bed and killed his uncle’s wife and children. As the “good kid” of the family, the narrator is asked to stay with his uncle and hide the horrid reality from him.
“Why hasn’t your aunt come to visit?” he asked me as soon as it was just the two of us alone in the hospital room.
“I don’t know, Uncle,” I told him. “She’s probably with Omar in Petach Tikva.”
[…]
“Have you seen him [Omar]?” he asked, and I, who only that morning had seen Omar’s body, answered that I had and that he was “fine, totally fine. He even asked about you, and then we played that game that he likes with the chutes and the ladders. He beat me four to one.”
“Yes, he likes that game,” my uncle said and smiled. “You know, you’re the only one I really believe. Now I can relax. I thought the adults were lying to me. Adults always lie.”
“Never, Uncle,” I said. “I never ever lie.” And I swore to God.
What shall we, then, make of the protagonist’s lie? Is it a white lie aimed at some fundamental goodness? Or is it a betrayal of his innocence and faith? The novel is filled with such moments when we are compelled to answer those difficult questions. I take his lie as his concern for his uncle; he doesn’t want to see him hurt.

In the same vein, the narrator’s later habit of editing and altering his own and others’ memories also stems from his emotional needs. He slips his fondest childhood memories into the memoirs, which he ghostwrites because he has to get his pent-up nostalgia out. He glosses over the tension that happens in reality between him and his family members because he longs for their understanding and forgiveness. Even the short story that reshaped his entire life serves his yearning for a homeland. After all, the protagonist is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, and Palestine is a state, not a woman.

That is the complicated relation of truth to fiction: although the story is a lie, the emotions couldn’t be more real.

Ideally, if readers read the stories as what they are, the same emotions will come through and the stories will, in a way, strengthen human empathy. However, as Kashua’s sobering novel suggests, the readers participate in the reading, bringing their various presuppositions and sentiments with them.

Going back to “Palestine,” the short story that changes the protagonist’s life forever: The culture of honor that runs through the Palestinian community of the novel denies its members the space to read the story as fiction. In that regard, the protagonist and his soon-to-be wife, Palestine, are innocent; they both come under a microscope where even fiction is proof of transgression.

In 1968, psychologist Stephen Karpman theorized what is known today as the drama triangle. In this social model of human interaction, a conflict usually involves three players: the victim, the rescuer, and the persecutor. Different role-players are acting upon their own distinct needs. In Track Changes, we can see how those roles switch from one to another across a narrative depending on the characters’ needs. After the protagonist’s father wakes up in his sickbed, one of the first questions he hurls at his son is whether the latter still fabricates his memories and whether he is still the victim in those stories. The narrator does and is. Earlier in the book, he keeps dreaming the same dream of brandishing a machine gun to protect his village in a war: a victim of war, but a rescuer, too.

Almost all the post-traumatic narratives in the novel are shaped in the same way. For those Palestinians who take on the role of persecutor of the innocent woman, Palestine, they feel their belief in preserving traditional culture is threatened by the protagonist’s fiction and so their punishment is vindicated. A similar shift of roles happens to the Jewish residents of Tira as well: after three Jewish boys are kidnapped and murdered, the protagonist feels his Jewish colleagues look at him differently—they now feel the right to accuse, hate, and oppress him—and that is why he chooses to leave his hometown for the United States.

Here the novel becomes a precise metaphor of a larger cultural context, i.e., the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Both nations are shaped by the experience of collective suffering and memory: the Holocaust and the Nakba, experiences that continue to trap generations in conflict.

Track Changes thus reads as an agonized citizen’s failure to belong. Returning to the sickbed of his dying father, the protagonist hopes to leave his past transgression behind and reconcile with his family and community, only to find his people and state still filled with a sense of shame and hatred from historical traumas.

Paradoxically, the key to end the drama triangle of post-traumatic narratives may inevitably require an extent of “fabrication and invention.” Toward the end of the novel, losing his father—his organic bond to his people and state—the protagonist imagines an alternative historical moment, a moment in which he can see Palestine as a whole and without bitterness. In that polished memory, he stands on the roof of his high school, on the eve of Independence Day, and sees a girl “so beautiful that it is enough to look at her once and know that life has a purpose.” She takes down the Israeli flag and replaces it with a hand-drawn Palestinian flag.

A Liturgy of Language: On Don DeLillo’s ‘The Silence’

1. “Man has every right to be anxious about his fate so long as he feels himself to be lost and lonely in the midst of the mass of created things.” — Père Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn of the Universe 

In the opening chapter of The Silence, the new novel by Don DeLillo, Jim Kripps and Tessa Berens are flying home. Turbulence will come soon; the plane will go down. But first there is a steadiness: “Here, in the air, much of what the couple said to each other seemed to be a function of some automated process, remarks generated by the nature of airline travel itself. None of the ramblings of people in rooms, in restaurants, where major motion is stilled by gravity, talk free-floating.” All of their speech echoes the novel’s opening line: “Words, sentences, numbers, distance to destination.” DeLillo’s liturgy has always been one of language.

2.“I think my work has always been informed by mystery; the final answer, if there is one at all, is outside the book. My books are open-ended. I would say that mystery in general rather than the occult is something that weaves in and out of my work. I can’t tell you where it came from or what it leads to. Possibly it is the natural product of a Catholic upbringing.” — DeLillo, Rolling Stone interview (1988)

The Catholic kid from the Bronx. The son of immigrants from Abruzzo. The student who maybe slept through his four years at Cardinal Hayes, but who then went to the Jesuits at Fordham, where they taught him “to be a failed ascetic.” 

One of my former editors at America magazine, the Jesuit review, told me that he and DeLillo shared a professor at Fordham, and he’d gotten a peek at DeLillo’s term papers. At Fordham, DeLillo would have read Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit paleontologist whose theological views of evolution—past and future—later permeated DeLillo’s novels. Teilhard’s influence comes first with Gary Harkness, the running back turned desert monastic in End Zone. Harkness’s fever-stricken body seems to become fully spirit at the end of the novel, but the Jesuit’s presence arrives more explicitly in the Teilhardian titled Point Omega.

3.“I studied the work of Teilhard de Chardin…He went to China, an outlaw priest, China, Mongolia, digging for bones…He said that human thought is alive, it circulates. And the sphere of collective human thought, this is approaching the final term, the last flare.” 

***

“Father Teilhard knew this, the omega point. A leap out of our biology. Ask yourself this question. Do we have to be human forever? Consciousness is exhausted. Back now to inorganic matter. This is what we want. We want to be stones in a field.” 

— Point Omega

DeLillo has said that for a Catholic, “nothing is too important to discuss or think about, because he’s raised with the idea that he will die any minute now and that if he doesn’t live his life in a certain way this death is simply an introduction to an eternity of pain. This removes a hesitation that a writer might otherwise feel when he’s approaching important subjects, eternal subjects. I think for a Catholic these things are part of ordinary life.”

The Silence, from start to finish, feels like an overcast book—a night book, taking place on that holy day of the Super Bowl. Friends—Martin, Diane, and Max—are watching the spectacle of the game, until the “images onscreen began to shake.” The disruption “formed abstract patterns that dissolved into a rhythmic pulse, a series of elementary units that seemed to thrust forward and then recede.” DeLillo avoids conflagrations; his end of the world is an absence of sound. A pulled plug. A flipped switch.

Why should we expect more from him? From the world?

4.“All pessimistic representations of the earth’s last days—whether in terms of cosmic catastrophe, biological disruptions or simply arrested growth or senility—have this in common: that they take the characteristics and conditions of our individual and elemental ends and extend them without correction to life as a whole.” — Père Teilhard, The Phenomenon of Man

DeLillo’s characters have lost their faith. They are anatheist—they seek faith after faith. “The important thing about the paranoia in my characters,” DeLillo has said, “is that it operates a form of religious awe. It’s something old, a leftover from some forgotten part of the soul.” 

The characters watching the Super Bowl together are left with nothing without the game. Max, bored, speaks in contemporary tongues: “Ground game, ground game, crowd chanting, stadium rocking.” The silence surrounds them outside. No cars, trucks, or traffic. The characters wonder: “Is everyone at home or in darkened bars and social clubs, trying to watch the game? Think of the many millions of blank screens. Try to imagine the disabled phones.” 

It recalls lines from Wyatt in DeLillo’s play, The Day Room: “I used to imagine, listening to a ballgame, as a kid, on the radio, that when I turned the radio off, in the seventh inning, say, with two out, men on first and third, that everything sort of shut down at that point. It simply stopped.”

When our power goes out at home, we soon wonder: are we the only ones? There must be others. There’s comfort in that idea. 

5.“The more one reflects on this eventuality….one comes to the conclusion that the great enigma presented to our minds by the phenomenon of man is not so much how life could ever have been kindled on earth as how it could ever be extinguished on earth without finding some continuance elsewhere.” — Père Teilhard, Hymn of the Universe 

The game off, the silence surrounding them in the apartment, Diane quotes a line from Finnegans Wake, “a book I’ve been reading on and off, here and there, for what seems like forever”: “Ere the sockson looked at the dure.” 

Outside, people “began to appear in the streets, warily at first and then in a spirit of release, walking, looking, wondering, women and men, an incidental cluster of adolescents, all escorting each other through the mass insomnia of this inconceivable time.” 

The end will take us all by surprise, but that there will be an end is not surprising. DeLillo is the laureate of this unsettling truth.

6.“Man came silently into the world.” — Père Teilhard, The Phenomenon of Man

DeLillo knows we will also leave the world in silence.

Bonus Links:—End Zones: On Football, Sports Scandals, and Don DeLilloThe Novel Still Exists: The Millions Interviews Don DeLilloFaith in Appearances: Don DeLillo’s ‘The Angel Esmeralda’Oil Plumes and White Noise: On Rereading DeLillo

The Light and the Dark: On Ali Smith’s ‘Summer’

Don’t you think it’s sad when people say they can’t wait for summer to end? Like, I can’t wait for this chunk of my life to be over with. It’s too hot, it’s too boring, the sky’s not blue enough. It’s not autumn.

I couldn’t wait for Summer to arrive this year, though Spring was a bit disappointing. And when finally I held Ali Smith’s book in my hands, I wasn’t eager for it to end. Though it had to, of course.

So?

So.

Ali Smith’s Summer opens:
Everyone said: so?
As in So what?
The so-question mark of indifference, rejection, defensiveness,
…their own punchy little
so?
So.
The so-period. The so that announces: Listen. I’m about to dare to say something sincere. It might not be earth-shaking (or it might be that), but it’s important to me, and not only is it important for me to know, it’s important to me that I tell you about it. With this so, the tales told by Summer truly begin.

Smith’s Seasonal Quartet runs: Autumn (published October 2016), Winter (November 2017), Spring (April 2019), and Summer (August 2020). Each book pokes relentlessly at our consciences with accounts of people, including ourselves, affected by climate change, Brexit, immigration, homelessness, social indifference, the lethal missteps of public health authorities during the Covid-19 pandemic. Each book loves duos and paradoxes. Migrants can be fleeing refugees or swifts flying from Africa to England. There’s the meaning of art and/or life, or the lack thereof. Families are sundered by external forces like poverty and detention, and by internal forces like divorce and drift. Silence can be meditation or muteness, elected or imposed, with human communication breaking through for better or worse. Isolation can offer time and space for insight and inspiration, or it can be a punishing confinement, or at the least a frustrating restriction. Or, as we know, all of these.

Each book has rants, often out of the mouths of children, about the mangling of human discourse in social media and in the mouths of politicians. In each, the work of a woman visual artist, renowned in her time and nearly forgotten in ours, figures prominently. Not to mention a motley crew of cultural icons, especially Shakespeare, Dickens, and Charlie Chaplin.

Most of all, the Seasonal Quartet is a foursome of togetherness and apartness, life and death, brought close by memory. Or are togetherness, et cetera, really the elements of this foursome? And if so, is it memory—rather than vague kinship or friendship, or duty imposed by family chosen or born, or plain old coincidence, or fate—that brings them together? Or is there a blamed foursome at all, besides the four seasons?

To assemble the puzzle pieces of an Ali Smith book is a challenge that might not be meant to be met. But to quote another familiar figure of Smith’s—the sage girl or woman—from Summer: “I really am me. And you really are you. But if we follow Einstein’s thinking [in his response to a bereaved man who asked, ‘what was the point, in being innocent, and gifted, and dying and becoming nothing but dust’] and add together you plus me plus time plus space. What does that all make?…It makes you and I more than just you or I… It makes us us.”

Summer’s “us” includes most of the ensemble Smith has been building through the previous seasons. (Though, curiously, Spring’s people barely make an appearance at all.) Daniel is now a very, very old man floating amidst memories, especially of his father and his sister Hannah during World War II. Grace Greenlaw, a former actress, ushers along in life, sometimes fumblingly, her two children, Sacha and Robert, both of them annoying and clever in equal measure. Iris, once a hippy, always an activist, connects again with Art, her earnest nephew, and with Charlotte, Art’s friend and ex-girlfriend. Missing fathers, grandmothers, brothers and sisters, and even an artwork, reunite with kin, in memory if not in the book’s present.

Summer brings us, too, a completion of the cycle of seasons: suffering to hope, green to gray, life to death, and back again. Or all of them at once. Or not really at all. For example, “life to death and back again” is not a given.

Take The Winter’s Tale, paradoxically, the Shakespeare play that runs through Summer. Grace remembers it from a long-ago summer tour with a theater company. She played Perdita, a dead queen who comes back to life—or a queen who pretended to be dead and to come back to life. After a particularly catty exchange with her fellow actors, Grace took a walk, ending up in an old church graveyard, talking with a mason working there. When she tells him of the (possibly mock) resurrection, he asks about the children who died in the play.
Do they come back too?
Only one of them, she says. It’s a very uneasy play, really. Pretending to be a comedy.
Smith’s references to Charlie Chaplin and Lorenza Maretti, two artists with unbearably harsh childhoods, caution the reader on the precariousness of pretend comedies, of happy endings, and happy beginnings and middles.

Hope, or optimism to put it in more practical terms, pulls people through. Grace says to the mason, “The Winter’s Tale’s all about summer, really. It’s like it says, don’t worry, another world is possible. When you’re stuck in the world at its worst, that’s important. To be able to say that. At least to tend towards comedy.”

Ali Smith’s Summer tends toward comedy. Though unable to turn her face from the suffering happening right now, right here in our world, Smith can’t resist…To say she can’t resist seeing the bright side is to invoke a phrase appealing, but long gone trite.

So?

So.
Summer’s like walking down a road just like this one, heading towards both light and dark.
Bonus Links:
Things Fall Apart: On Ali Smith’s ‘Autumn’ and ‘Winter’
Rites of Spring: Does the Latest in Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet Satisfy?

Correcting History: On C Pam Zhang’s ‘How Much of These Hills Is Gold’

1.
As a life-long lover of long shots, I was delighted by the news that C Pam Zhang’s stunning debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, made the long list for this year’s Booker Prize. The field was larded with the predictable odds-on favorites, including two-time winner Hilary Mantel (who was up for the third installment in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror & the Light), plus the much-decorated thoroughbreds Anne Tyler (Redhead by the Side of the Road) and Colum McCann (Apeirogon).

Though Zhang’s chances against this field appeared slim, her gorgeously written novel deserves praise not only for its artistry but also for its attempt to fill a shameful gap: the scarcity of Chinese characters in the literature and history of the American West. Yet Zhang’s novel is much more than a long-overdue corrective; it’s an absorbing, richly imagined account of one Chinese family scrabbling to survive the violence and racism that prevailed in the California gold fields and in the gangs that built the transcontinental railroad. Historians have been less neglectful than novelists in probing this material. To name just a few of the many valuable history books: Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad by Gordon H. Chang; the oral history Voices from the Railroad: Stories by the Descendants of Chinese Railroad Workers, edited by Connie Young Yu and Sue Lee; and Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Natives, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad by Manu Karuka. Despite these commendable efforts, there are too many stories still untold.

How Much of These Hills Is Gold opens with two young sisters, Lucy and Sam, setting out to bury their father, a tortuous, gruesome mission that will invite inevitable comparisons to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. But Zhang uses this mission as a springboard to tell the story of how the father, Ba, met his wife, Ma, and how they were brought together by a horrific accident and, possibly, by the attack of a mythical tiger. These passages, narrated by Ba from inside his coffin, are the needed beginnings of the creation of an American anti-myth, a first step toward dismantling the widely accepted narrative that the American West was won through rugged individualism, resourcefulness, persistence, and hard work. The truth is that the California railroads were built with taxpayers’ dollars and the sweat and blood of underpaid immigrants who remain largely invisible to this day. That invisibility is at the heart of this novel, and it’s the source of Sam’s desire to cross the Pacific and live one day in a land that might become a true home. “Over there they won’t just look,” Sam says. “They’ll actually see me.”

2.
To understand just how overdue Zhang’s novel is, we need to flash back to an event from a century and a half ago that has become a cornerstone of the myth America chooses to believe about itself. On May 10, 1869, a pair of locomotives was parked nose-to-nose on a stark stretch of Utah desert called Promontory Summit. Facing east was the Jupiter of the Central Pacific Railroad; a few yards away, facing west, was No. 119 of the Union Pacific. Standing on the tracks between them with a silver maul in his soft hands was a portly, bearded robber baron named Leland Stanford, a former Sacramento shopkeeper and a former governor of California who had used lavish federal subsidies to buy the land and lay the track from Sacramento to this historic spot. He was surrounded by a boisterous throng of politicians, dignitaries, businessmen, reporters, and photographers. Someone is holding a bottle of champagne aloft, the crowning touch on the nation’s first orchestrated media event. As cameras clicked, Stanford raised the maul and dropped it on a ceremonial golden spike, sinking it into a pre-drilled hole in a laurel tie. The spike was wired to a telegraph line that sent a simple message jittering across the land and, via the undersea telegraphic cable, all the way to the United Kingdom: “DONE!”

The transcontinental railroad was complete. It was now possible for people and goods to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific on a patchwork of iron rails that had only one gap. The Missouri River would not be spanned for another three years, so passengers and cargo had to be ferried between Omaha, Neb., and Council Bluffs, Iowa. This trifle failed to dampen the spirits of the coast-to-cost celebrants, who were too giddy to be bothered by a few inconvenient truths. The first of these truths is revealed by the iconic photograph of that historic day at Promontory Summit—or, more precisely, by what is missing from that iconic photograph. In keeping with the jingoistic spirit of the pre-packaged event, there are no immigrants in the picture, even though Stanford and his partners—known alternately as the Big Four and the Associates—employed more than 20,000 Chinese laborers to do the brutal, deadly work of blasting a path and laying track from Sacramento through the Sierra Nevada mountains to Utah. And the pay given these laborers? Half of what they paid white workers, mainly Irish immigrants.

That famous photograph finds its way into the closing pages of How Much of These Hills Is Gold. Lucy, now a teenager, has wound up in San Francisco, where she has spent years working off a debt run up by her wild, androgynous sister Sam, who has fled across the Pacific seeking that home where people will actually see her. When the telegraph wire announces that the transcontinental railroad has been completed, Zhang writes of Lucy: “She hears the cheer that goes through the city the day the last railroad tie is hammered. A golden spike holds track to earth. A picture is drawn for the history books, a picture that shows none of the people who look like her, who built it.”

3.
Leland Stanford had been swept west with the gold rush just as the first Opium War and famine were pushing tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants across the Pacific to California, where they flooded the gold fields and joined the gangs of workers laying railroad tracks. (Zhang’s fictional Ma was one of these desperate immigrants; Ba was born in California, a nice dig at the stereotype that all Chinese in the West were recent immigrants.) Inevitably, violence flared between white miners and the Chinese newcomers, and the state responded in 1852 by passing the Foreign Miners Tax—$3 a month on non-citizens—and two years later the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Chinese immigrants, like African Americans and Native Americans, were forbidden from testifying in court, leaving them virtually defenseless against mob violence.

Also missing from the record of that historic day at Promontory Summit are these remarks Stanford had made at his inauguration as governor of California in 1862: “To my mind it is clear, that the settlement among us of an inferior race is to be discouraged by every legitimate means. Asia, with her numberless millions, sends to our shores the dregs of her population…It will afford me great pleasure to concur with the Legislature in any constitutional action, having for its object the repression of the immigration of the Asiatic races.”

It took 20 years for Stanford’s dream to come true in the form of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which suspended Chinese immigration for 10 years and made Chinese immigrants already in the country ineligible for naturalization. It was the first of many laws to restrict immigration, but it fit a pattern already established in California and much of the rest of the nation, a pattern stoked by fear that immigrants would seize jobs from Americans—that is, white people—while depressing overall wages. The 1882 law was also a precursor to the Immigration Act of 1924, which set strict quotas designed to encourage immigration from Western Europe, block most immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, and bar all immigration from Asia. The law was, in the words of the eugenicist Madison Grant, an attempt to protect Americans from “competition with the intrusive people drained from the lowest races.” It is not a stretch to say that these precedents made possible—even inevitable—the brutal internment of American citizens of Japanese descent after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This history illustrates that the xenophobia that helped Donald Trump win the presidency in 2016 is nothing new. Such deep-rooted xenophobia in a nation made mostly of immigrants and their descendants is the second of this nation’s two abiding paradoxes. The first, of course, is that men who owned human beings were able to conceive and publicly embrace the notion that all men are created equal.

4.
Now we flash forward to the present day. While the president of the United States strains to build a wall along the Mexican border to repress immigration from Latin America, it comes to light that dozens of people doing menial, low-paying jobs at his resorts and golf clubs are undocumented immigrants from Latin America. So venality and duplicity, like the desire to wall out the “dregs” and “rapists” of an “inferior” race, are simply old pillars of American politics that refuse to die. In keeping with the Sinophobia first codified in the Chinese Exclusion Act, this president has dubbed the current global pandemic “the Chinese virus” and “kung flu.” In doing so, he has completed the second of the two knee-jerk reactions that have greeted the arrival of pandemics throughout human history. The first reaction is denial, which Trump has expressed masterfully; and the second is the need to blame the disease on an outside source. During the plague in Athens in 430 B.C., Thucydides, who contracted the disease and survived, claimed it originated in Ethiopia and passed through Egypt and Libya before entering the Greek world in the Mediterranean. During a smallpox plague in the Roman Empire, Marcus Aurelius blamed Christians, who’d failed to appease the Roman gods. During the Black Death that decimated Europe in the 14th century, Jews were the scapegoat, falsely accused of poisoning wells. Today in America, according to our government, it’s the Chinese—not the appalling failures of our government.

These events, coupled with our current national reckoning over race, make How Much of These Hills Is Gold not only overdue but also vital and timely. As I’d expected, Zhang did not make the short list for this year’s Booker Prize. Unexpectedly, neither did Mantel, Tyler, or McCann. No matter. I’m hoping for many more novels like How Much of These Hills Is Gold: novels that breathe life into people who have gone unseen too long.

Bonus Link:
A Year in Reading: C Pam Zhang

Humble Words Organized Beautifully: Ward Farnsworth on Style

Something disappointing in the fact that despite his immaculate New Yorker essays and his perfect children’s books (the latter of which is nothing to scoff at), E.B. White will most likely be primarily remembered for his over-valorized and pedestrian composition guide based on punched-up lecture notes from his old Cornell professor William Strunk. I’ll confess that White’s Stuart Little moves me more than Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, even if the former is about an anthropomorphic mouse who falls in love with a bird and the latter is about Virginia Woolf killing herself, but when it comes to The Elements of Style, I’m left completely cold. Linguist Geoffrey Pullum gleefully demolished the shrine to Strunk and White in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece where he condemned the “book’s toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity,” which is not “underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar.” Still you’ll find precocious English majors and pretentious English professors who cling to White and Strunk’s guide as if holy writ, repeating their dogma of the best (or only) writing as “being specific, definite and concrete” or that “Vigorous writing is concise,” as if those were postulates of physics and not aesthetic suggestions mediated through a particular time and place (with the attendant masculine obsessions of that time and place).

The Elements of Style endures, however, like some antique bacterium in Siberian permafrost released by climate change and threatening us all; something better left as a relic of the time that produced it rather than as a universal guide to good composition. They arrogantly pose laws as if they were the Author of the Decalogue, and their stylistic affectations are configured as inviolate rules of grammar. Strunk and White are mummies of the Lost Generation, bound in typewriter ribbon and pickled with scotch, and their adjective-slaying, adverb-slaughtering, violent Fitzgeraldian demands to kill your darlings reflect a type of writing that’s only one example in the many-mansioned house that is literature. It’s not that the advice they give leads to bad writing, and if concision is your aim than by all means dog-ear those pages of their book. It’s rather that Strunk and White exclude anything with a glint of the maximalist, a hint of the baroque, a whiff of the rococo, a sniff of the Byzantine, or—egad!—even a touch of the purple. They make totems of simplicity, fetishes of concision, idols of conventionality. I can’t in good conscience tell students that they should “Prefer the standard to the offbeat” or that that they should “not affect a breezy manner.” Literary style, as with clothing, is an issue not of dressing like somebody else, but of being the most fully you that you can be (as Queer Eye’s Tan France would no doubt confirm). If Brooks Brothers is your thing, then by all means let Strunk and White be your guide, but never forget that the wardrobe goes back a way. “It’s sad,” Pullum writes of the regard in which the book is still held a century after it was written. For 13 years I’ve taught college composition, and for all 13 of them I’ve refused to teach The Elements of Style.

Luckily there are no shortage of composition guides of varying qualities and uses, and I’ve taught a cornucopia of them (veggies both rotten and succulent). The nearest to Strunk and White is George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” which for what it shares with The Elements of Style—in demands for the elimination of excess words, the denigration of the noble passive voice, and the provincialism that piously intones that we should “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word”—still has crusted about it some interesting philosophical observations about the relationship of language to thought. Many of my colleagues are partial to Gerald Graff’s They Say/I Say, which is less a style guide than it is a general first-year composition guide, focusing on the way in which arguments can be posed—a useful volume, even if its Stanford doctorate holding author’s affectation of being a reformed ‘50s greaser who learned the importance of higher education leaves Generation Z befuddled. Several years ago, I put in a book order for Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, enchanted by his mea culpa that “Some people are bird watchers…I belong to the tribe of sentence watchers.” Yet like many Fish books it seemed like a good idea at the time. For similar reasons, I never even thought to crack the spine of Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, with its promise to bring cognitive science to bear on the humble scribbler’s trade.

Style guides that deserve less snark include Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s delightfully gothic and grammatical The Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed, Sam Leith’s excellent oratory and composition guide Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama (as terrible a title as that may be), and the wonderfully practical and pop culture infused primer by Arthur Plotnik, Spunk & Bite: A Writers’ Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style (as great a title as that is). I’d be remiss not to mention Random House’s chief copy editor Benjamin Dreyer’s engaging Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, which is a chatty, if thorough, encomium for the lost art of line editing, and which I’ve been pleased to read but have never taught. I’ve neither taught nor read Francis-Noël Thomas’s Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose, with its promise of continental elegance and the Attic style, with its sophisticated sense that “learning to write cannot be reduced to acquiring writing skills,” but it’s to my loss.

Now our bookshelves can include a new title by Ward Farnsworth, dean of the University of Texas Law School, entitled Farnsworth’s Classical English Style. This title concludes a trilogy of Farnsworth’s, joining the unlikely cult hits of Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric and Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor, bringing to a close his series of vaguely Victorian, vaguely tweedy, and vaguely Anglophilic guides to style and writing (joining The Practicing Stoic, which I reviewed for The Millions). In his preface, Farnsworth avails himself well in the style guide turf war between linguistic prescriptivists and descriptivists, noting with admirable writerly latitudinarianism that “Most modern books offer advice: write this way, not that way. This book does not offer advice of that kind.” Belying the slightly fussy affectation that the book presents, from its title evocative of the 19th century, to the bulk of Farnsworth’s examples coming from writers like Dickens, Churchill, Lincoln, and Dr. Johnson, his philosophy of composition is wonderfully anarchic when compared to the partisans of prescription who dominate the writing classroom and the style-guide racket. The packaging says “conservative,” but the spirit says “rip the pages out of your book.” Farnsworth’s Classical English Style is a Molotov cocktail wrapped in paisley; a hand-grenade cushioned in madras. “Books on style usually state precepts that have merit but that talented writers violate often. Much of this book is about the violations and reasons to commit them,” Farnsworth writes, but “Our topic, in part, is when to make exceptions.” A manifesto for the preppy revolutionary of the writing seminar. Because every single dictum of the Strunk-White Industrial Complex is complicated by Farnsworth; within the pages of his book you will encounter a defense of passive voice, a glorying in the labyrinthine curve of sentences that pack clause upon clause, and a celebration of the Latinate (though not at the expense of the Saxon).

Orwell offered six rules of writing; Strunk and White had their 11 principles (as if writing were a management course), but Farnsworth correctly notes that the “only rule really worth worrying about is simple: have a reason for whatever you do in your writing.” The whole of the law is thoughtfulness, otherwise do what thou wilt. Consequently, Farnsworth’s grills the sacred cows of muscular modernism’s style guides into bloody hamburger. If a revolution refers to a turning back (a “revolving” back) than Farnsworth doesn’t reject the icons of efficient writing so much—Papa Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy with all their swagger and exterminated adjectives—so much as he turns back to the rich classical rhetoric of the era that modernism supplanted, valorizing Thomas Paine and Charles Dickens, Mary Wollstonecraft and Frederick Douglas—with all of their biblical phrasing, their classical allusion, their gargantuan sentences and erudite diction. None of these writers would have passed the Strunk and White smell test; they could be long-winded, they could be multisyllabic, they could be meandering, allusive, and illusive. Eighteenth- and 19th-century prose calls to mind the Victorian critic Thomas Macaulay’s ambivalent assessment of Dr. Johnson, that “All his books are written in a learned language, in a language which nobody hears from his mother or his nurse, in a language in which nobody ever quarrels, or drives bargains, or makes love, in a language in which nobody ever thinks.” Which naturally makes one ask if some things might not precisely call for an unnatural language; which makes one apprehend that there might be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in The Elements of Style.

Farnworth notes that “different styles are right for different occasions,” and while he doffs his cap to the style guides that reign triumphant, he also makes clear that “This book treats efficiency as important but as not enough.” The clipped sentences were advocated for and the endangered punctuation, adverbs, and adjectives threatened by the modernists and their intellectual descendants, who have long dominated the teaching of correct style and derived their conclusions in part because they were constrained by material conditions. A journalist like White was naturally limited by the tyranny of the margin, and much of style guide orthodoxy comes from print reporting where one really did have to be judicious with verbiage. Little wonder that efficiency and concision, in all of their capitalist and Protestant dreariness, became the shibboleths of proper style. Farnsworth’s point is that things were not always as such, nor that they always have to be so. If advocates for simplicity believe that the “purpose of a piece of writing is to transmit meaning to the reader; so, the writer’s job is to make the meaning easier to understand,” they’ll find little to agree with in Farnsworth’s Classical English Style. He summarizes the White-Strunk Consensus as being that good writing uses “simple words… short sentences… [and is] direct.” From that ideal there must be an exterminator’s crusade against “Needless words, needless length, or needless anything,” since they are rank inefficiencies. Farnsworth challenges every single one of those assertions.

But he’s not a complete libertine, and if anything, Farnsworth’s Classical English Style provides some deeper and more useful axioms of writing. Farnsworth offers a novel encapsulation of what makes good writing good, whether in the King James Bible or the Gettysburg Address. He hypothesizes that “Rhetorical power doesn’t come from just being clear or just being concise or by pushing in any other one direction. It’s usually created by some sort of push and pull, or in a word by contrasts.” Where a traditional style guide would emphasize shortness and simplicity as a means to writerly elegance, Farnsworth says its in the display of difference that writing becomes most fully engaging, with the union of oppositions, “usually one of friction or contrast, between two things.” Illustration of this is provided when he analyzes the average sentence structure and length in the writing of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, arguably the greatest American legal writer (and thus close to Farnsworth’s judicial attorney’s heart). While taking care to emphasize that sentence length should be varied, most contemporary style guides hew towards the mantra that shorter is better. Farnsworth compares two paragraphs of legal writing, one from Holmes and the other from the entirely more pedestrian writer (and man) Chief Justice William Rehnquist. What Farnsworth discovers isn’t that Holmes’s sentences are either shorter or longer on average than those of Rehnquist, rather Holmes’s shorter sentences are much shorter and his longer sentences are much longer. The consensus perspective might be that briefer sentences are preferable, and the oppositional pugilist might challenge that, but the reality is more nuanced—it was in the juxtaposition of such extremity, Farnsworth argues, that Holmes’s talents lay (It would be fascinating to see an analysis of Antonin Scalia, for what that justice lacked in scruples or ideas he made up for in style).

The rhythm of like and unlike is what becomes Farnsworth’s stylistic equivalent of the unified field theory of physics; it is (not unconvincingly) his argument for what separates the sublime from the passable. A shift in difference can take many forms; he writes that the “two things might be plain and fancy words, long and short sentences, hard and soft syllables, high or rich substance and low or simple style…the concrete and the abstract, the passive and the active, the dignified and the coarse, detachment from the audience and engagement with it.” The point, he seems to be saying, is that strict prescriptions for what words to pick, how long to make your sentences, what tone to affect, miss the point—the whole game is in setting up some pair of dueling Manichean principles and letting that tension be the energy that propels the prose. The whole thing puts me in mind of an old comic strip that one sees posted upon many a faculty office door. Underground cartoonist Matt Groening, now very wealthy from being creator of The Simpsons, had an entry in his strip Life in Hell entitled “The 9 Types of College Professor,” which included the “Single Theory-to-Explain-Everything Maniac.” His warning about this genus of academic was that their “Theory may be correct.”

That’s a bit what Farnsworth’s contention feels like to me—I’m skeptical, but his rhetorical analysis goes a long way to reverse engineering what makes great prose effective. The strength of his theory is that it’s general enough, for disjuncts in prose can be manifested in a variety of ways. He shows the strength of his observation when turning towards the Gettysburg Address, often configured as an exemplar of the plain-spoken Attic style. “The beauty and power of Lincoln’s wording,” however, “lies not in a relentless use of Saxon words but in the movement between earthy language and airier words and phrases that elevate.” Contrary to the Orwell prescription that native English etymology must always be preferred, Farnsworth says that Lincoln’s genius was in knowing how to weave the various strains of English together, so that “The Saxon words create feeling and convey simplicity and sincerity. They hit home. The Latinate words evoke thought and connect the images to concepts and ideals. The sound and tone of each balances the sound and tone of the other.”

If there is a drawback to Farnsworth’s Classical English Style, it’s that he leans so heavily on excerpts from “Shakespeare and the King James Bible, from Lincoln and Churchill, from Charles Dickens and Mark Twain.” His contention that “writers of lasting stature still make the best teachers” is well taken; I always tell my students that there is no shortcut to good writing, it can only come about by reading all of the time. But the problem with the canon is that it’s a surprisingly anemic syllabus. Farnsworth says that the “premise of the book” is that these canonical authors provide “a set of lessons on style drawn from writers whose words have stood the test of time.” To which it could be retorted that that’s true for some of them; Lincoln and Churchill are unambiguously great, G.K. Chesterton is a bit too sherry-pickled for my taste, and the passages from the Irish parliamentarian Henry Gratan were certainly good, but I don’t know if he’s withstood the test of time in the sense that he doesn’t appear on a Barnes & Noble tote bag. At a certain point the litany of selections from Cardinal Newman and Patrick Henry, Daniel Webster and Edmund Burke gets tiring. Farnsworth doth protests too much about there not being enough contemporary examples exhibiting the exact qualities he celebrates, pernicious modernist minimalism or not. Farnsworth’s Classical English Style would have benefited by some Joan Didion or James Baldwin, if we’re hunting for great sentences.

A small quibble, that. Because while Farnsworth’s tastes might be conservative, his appreciation is radical. Farnsworth’s Classical English Style has a great benefit in exploding all of the pious certitude of every grammarian who has yelled at somebody for ending a sentence in a preposition, every knife-wielding composition teacher who with red pen excises succulent meat from the bare-bone of the sentence, every sectarian of shortness declaiming that their way of writing is the only way of writing. Questions of composition pedagogy are often configured as a pitched battle between conservative prescriptivists and liberal descriptivists, the former drafting laws that must be followed and the later simply describing language as it’s actually used. Any number of conservative commentators who decry the so-called degradation of contemporary language, blaming texting or pop music, are within the prescriptivist camp even while most teachers of writing are firmly descriptivist. It would be easy to see the author names that Farnsworth uses to illustrate his points and to assume he’s in the conservative faction, and it’s true that he opposes a certain literary entropy, but he’s not mounting the same argument that people who decry text-speak are making. “Those who wring their hands about the decline of the language sometimes worry too much about the wrong things,” Farnsworth writes, “They observe with horror that people confuse uninterested with disinterested, or don’t know when to say fewer and when to say less, or fumble in their use of the apostrophe or other punctuation marks.” But grammar is incidental, in many ways; the true decline has been one of style, in part ironically pushed by the very people who claimed to be defending the honor of English. He argues that “the more meaningful decline of the language doesn’t involve the presence of mistakes. It involves absences that are easier to overlook: the abandonment of half the orchestra, the erosion of rhetorical ability, the dwindling of attention spans, the scarcity of speech that inspires and rouses and strikes deep.”

Farnsworth’s Classical English Style is a worthy rejoinder to The Elements of Style. If Strunk and White sent half the orchestra home, furloughing all of the grab-bag of rhetorical tropes that make language musical from anaphora to zeugma, then Farnsworth is passing around a collection plate to make sure that we can still hear their music. He’s correct that the style promoted by the composition guides that dominate our definitions of good writing have worthy observations in them—there is no shame in that mode, as long as we acknowledge it as one among many. But the full variety of ways of writing are reduced, minimized, obscured. Farnsworth is right to mount a defense of the beleaguered Byzantine. It puts me in mind of a volley in the Pedant’s War that I once got into with a colleague who objected to my favored use of the rhetorical trope of asyndeton, the practice of deleting conjunctions so as to effect a kind of breathless rhythm when listing ideas at the end of a sentence. For him this was unconventional and distracting; for me, it gave the structure of the sentence exactly what I wanted—a sense of things as being rushed, energetic, incomplete. Count me in Farnsworth’s camp. What he offers is a beautiful stylistic disestablishmentarianism. A sentiment that gives student and writer alike the permission to be breezy—the permission to prefer the offbeat to the standard. Follow the call: enjoy the unconventional word, the meandering sentence, the affected rhetorical trope. Extremism in defense of the baroque is no vice; moderation in pursuit of minimalism is no virtue.

Bonus Links:—A Year in Reading: Ward FarnsworthThinking Makes It So: Ward Farnsworth Reframes the Stoics with Wit and InsightWard Farnsworth Doesn’t Mess Around: On ‘Classical English Metaphor’A Review! A Review! Farnsworth’s Classical English RhetoricScenes From Our Unproduced Screenplay: ‘Strunk & White: Grammar Police’Prescriptivists vs. Descriptivists: The Fifth Edition of The American Heritage DictionaryThe Impediments of Style: Advice from Steven Pinker and the CIA

Kent Russell’s Long March

When Kent Russell published his debut collection of essays back in 2015, I readily enlisted in his growing army of fans. My review of Russell’s book, the unfortunately titled I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son, praised his imagery and sentence-making and his empathy with fringe characters, while lamenting his tedious dissection of his relationship with his impossible father. Readers reacted to that review with some foam-at-the-mouth vitriol. One reader identified as Toad wrote: “It’s not uncommon for young, confidence-lacking writers to baldly ape their influences (and to pepper their work with obscure, incorrectly utilized mega-words), but such attempts are better left in the desk drawer.” A reader named Anon suggested this alternative title for the book: I Am So Tired To Think That These Types of Books by These Types of Insufferable Twits Are Still Being Published and Will Continue to Be Until My Asshole Bleeds Out.

Wow. Russell is now out with a new book called In the Land of Good Living: A Journey to the Heart of Florida that’s sure to make readers like Toad and Anon foam and bleed all over again. Not because it’s a bad book, but because it is wildly uneven—with flashes of brilliance that are too often bogged down by half-baked analysis, clunky mega-words and, most disappointing of all, muddy writing.

The trouble begins in the opening pages, which are written in screenplay format. Why? Because our three heroes—Glenn, Noah and Kent—have loaded up a shopping cart with camping packs and film gear, and they’ve embarked on a thousand-mile walk from the Florida panhandle all the way to Russell’s hometown, Miami, a journey they hope to turn into a “gonzo” documentary movie—and this book. Kent, our author and tour guide, is described in screenplay-ese as a “PAUNCHY NEBBISH” and “something of an ARTIST and/or INTELLECTUAL” who grew a “long flowing mullet” for this return to his home state. Glenn is “a blond, blue-eyed, dad-bodied man in his early thirties” who is “UNAPLOGETICALLY CANADIAN.” And Noah is “a short, scowling IRAQ WAR VETERAN” whose once-bulging muscles are now swaddled in fat, “as if the action figure of his past life has been packed away under Bubble Wrap.” So far, sorta so-so. The real trouble is Kent’s reason for embarking on this journey: “I owed $37,000 in back taxes to the Internal Revenue Service. For, you see, when you are granted an advance on a book prior to its publication, the check you receive has none of your federal, state, or city taxes deducted from it. It’s one big lump sum, like the number stamped on an over-sized game-show check.”

So there you have it. Kent Russell is a graduate of the University of Florida, he has taught at Columbia University—and yet when he sold his first book to a major New York publisher, he was unaware that writers, like all other working stiffs under God’s sun, have to pay income taxes. What do they teach the kids down there in Gainesville? So by page 13, you’re aware that you’re reading a back-taxes-plus-penalties-and-interest book. A little later, Russell comes right out with his motivation for undertaking this project: “I am in debt up to my fucking eyeballs.”

From this unpromising set-up, the book tries to take flight, and sometimes it succeeds. Russell is especially good at thumbnail historical sketches of the avarice and chicanery that made Florida possible, beginning with the first white visitors from Spain and running right up to American industrialist Henry Flagler and Walt Disney. We learn interesting things not only about conquistadors and tourism and orange groves, but also about the influx of retirees, the spread of military installations, the importance of air conditioning, the demise of the Apalachicola oyster beds, the rapaciousness of real-estate developers, and Donald Trump’s deeply visceral appeal to Floridians. (The trip took place during the 2016 presidential campaign, which now feels like the Paleozoic Era.) Along the way we meet some engaging characters, including shrimpers, strippers, swamp dwellers, a “nuisance-alligator wrestler” (nice work if you can get it), and a recovering junkie named Rodrigo who plays Jesus at Disney World’s Holy Land Experience. These people go beyond being merely colorful, all the way to perceptive and, frequently, insightful. They’re also a reminder that Russell is at his best when he gets out of his own skull and does what good reporters do: he listens.

Less successful are Russell’s attempts to analyze What Florida Means. This produces a cloud of gas and a bushel of those mega-words that so infuriated Toad, including simulacrum (a word only a French philosopher could love), synecdoche (don’t bother looking it up, just watch the pretentious Charlie Kaufman movie with the word in its title), plus pestiferous, scrying, gibbous, plosive, syncretic, and strabismic. This is tricky terrain. No writer should be faulted for having an expansive vocabulary, but there’s a fine line between using unfamiliar words to good effect and using unfamiliar words to show off or, worse, to give badly assembled ideas a glossy paintjob. Too often, Russell uses these candy-apple words to dress up analyses that are, to be kind, on the thin side. Consider St. Augustine, America’s oldest city, which, according to Russell, has been turned into “a taxidermied approximation of its former self” and “a historical fiction like Colonial Williamsburg” and an “olde tyme simulacrum of Spanish Florida.” Which leads to these 10-cent aperçus: “History qua history matters only to the extent that it can be monetized. That it can be disarticulated into a series of attractions—a competitive advantage.” And: “The lure and blur of the real. That’s what St. Augustine had to work with.” Our trio deals with the lure and blur by pitching a coke-fuelled blackout drunk.

That world “real” keeps popping up. At one point, Glenn voices a reasonable fear: “I’m afraid we aren’t getting the real Florida. Right now we are just drifting through towns barely scratching the surface.” Russell shoots back: “You wanna get Florida? OK, well—you get Florida by inventing an interpretation of it. Preferably a for-profit interpretation. Think of, like…Seaside. Seaside got Florida by substituting its own simulation ‘Florida’ in the place of Florida.” I think I get it, but I’m not sure.

In this meta vein we learn why Dale, the aforementioned nuisance-alligator wrestler, rebuffed the overtures of a “real ‘reality’ TV” crew from L.A. but allowed Russell and his fellow gonzo documentarians into his world—because the L.A. crew had come to Florida “wanting to show the country how they already think we are back in L.A.” This leads Russell to an epiphany about the makers of “reality” TV that’s worth quoting at length:
These folks have power, real power, to fabricate narratives about the world. And Dale with his practical knowledge—his common sense—will forever be at odds with the malleable “reality” encoded and presented by television, social media, all of it. This malleable “reality” (which, let’s be honest, is displacing Dale’s reality via every screen in the land) is largely a rhetorical achievement. “Reality” no longer refers to the natural world and its limits. “Reality” rejects preconditions. “Reality” is whatever people want it to be, and then say it is, individually and en masse, making it so. In a sense, the real “reality” folks and the stars they have produced really are a breed of artist. Credit where credit is due…These artists, they act natural. And that is their art. The real “reality” artist is his own best fiction. His best fiction is his true self. One thing you could say about him—he’ll never be found guilty of insincerity! Or, for that matter, sincerity. “Kent” can no more be separated from Kent (were I one of these cretins) than lightning could be separated from its flashing.
Shortly after that flash of insight, Russell agrees to give a talk to a magazine-writing class at his alma mater. Russell’s writing has appeared in The New Republic, Harper’s, GQ, n+1, and The Believer, among other venues, so his former thesis adviser figures he has some “real”-world wisdom to pass along to the students. “Brass tacks,” Russell begins, while chugging on a Contigo full of hundred-proof booze, “if you’re going to be a magazine writer, you’re going to have to deal with magazine editors. You will prepare for these editors a free-range, pan-roasted squab of a story, OK, and they will take it, and they will rip it apart, and they will pluck nuance and complexity like so many fine bones.” Chug, chug. Lowering his voice, he staggers on, “This is the secret to all publishing, from magazines, to books, to I don’t care what. If you really want to get published, what you do is ape the stuff that’s already succeeded. You go after consensus. You tell a story to these editors about the things they already believe to be true. You hand them a mirror they can see themselves in. Or see themselves as they wish they were. Now, if that sounds less like writing than flattery, well…Not everybody is cut out for this business. I’m not even sure I am, now that I think about it.” After delivering this cynical screed, Russell polishes off the Contigo and heads for the exit while saying, “Writing is serving. Living is serving. Choose what you’re gonna serve…Point is, you gotta serve something.” If I were paying tuition for such hard-won wisdom, I’d demand my money back.

Which brings us to the muddy writing. In Timid Son, Russell showed himself to be capable of producing dazzling sentences and diamond-hard metaphors, but here the writing is frequently fuzzy and imprecise. A few samples: “Kent’s glare ratchets toward him like the head of a socket wrench.” (This makes no sense if you have ever used a socket wrench.) “Torn clouds flew overhead like the last shavings of a buzz saw nicking through wood.” (Likening clouds to buzz saw shavings strikes me as a stretch.) “Children kept their eyes trained on us while remaining still as things trapped under ice.” (Shouldn’t that be “trapped in ice”?) “The green inferno was humid to the point of hindered exhalation.” (This is what I mean by fuzzy and imprecise.) Disney World brings out the worst in Russell. There he boards a trolley that’s full of “a whole honking gaggle of Europeans.” These geese-like “Euros,” as he calls them, carry “water-bladderesque purses,” smoke unfiltered cigarettes and wear Capri pants “hemmed at inspired lengths.” Then: “I stretched out as the Euros exited the trolley. To the driver they trilled thank-yous, their English scented with accents that sounded the way flavored waters taste.” This sounds like it was written by one of the 200 million Americans who don’t own a passport and who, having never traveled to Europe, assume that all “Euros” share an accent, whether they come from Latvia or Luxembourg. It’s just plain bad writing—condescending, provincial and lazy.

Russell claims to loathe walking narratives, their “epiphanies” and “treacly sentimentality.” But the truth is that walking trips have inspired memorable writing by the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Muir (whose own thousand-mile walk ended not far from where Russell’s began), Jon Krakauer, Bill Bryson, and Cheryl Strayed, to name a few. You could even throw Mao Zedong into the mix. At its best moments, In the Land of Good Living is a reminder of the walking narrative’s chief virtue: it allows a writer to pass through ever-changing worlds, observing and absorbing at a leisurely pace. In our revved-up, screen-addicted age, it’s quite possibly an idea whose time has come again.

In the end, Russell does arrive at some sharp insights. “Florida isn’t just Weird America,” he writes, “it is Impending America.” Meaning it’s where we’re headed as a nation— straight off the cliff and into the deep warm sea. Florida, he adds, is an “unplanned, untenable boondoggle,” a place where “fixed meanings are prohibited by the spirit if not the letter of the law.” Surprisingly, the book’s sharpest insight comes from UNAPOLOGETICALLY CANADIAN Glenn, who looks around at the human flotsam of central Florida and delivers an observation that explains a lot of things, right up to America’s botched handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Some 300 miles into the journey, Glenn stretches out his arms and blurts: “All of this Rebel flag, meth lab, Breaking-Bad-slave-compound militia business. Like, ‘I got a God-given right to defend my crappy, ignorant life! You wanna make my existence better? You wanna send my kids to school? You wanna give me healthcare? Fuck you!’” It would not be much of a stretch to update this sentiment with: “You wanna try to tell me to wear a mask? You wanna try to tell me to stay six feet away from that sneezing meth-cooker in the MAGA hat? I’m an American! Fuck you!”

I’m not giving up on Kurt Russell because of one uneven book. He has too much talent and too much promise. I just hope he clears up his back taxes and finds a subject that springs from his pure passion—as opposed to his need for a quick buck. And when he embarks on his next book, I hope he has the good sense to ditch the Canadian and the Iraq War vet, then keep his mouth shut and listen to the people he meets along the way.

A Nightingale in the Lion’s Den

I first met Kaya Genç at his home in Istanbul. It was 2017, and I lived a short walk away, up and down a few steep, sloping streets in the city’s historic core of Beyoglu. The district is a collision course of ideologies, where family grocers and underground factories compete with vegan restaurants and vintage clothiers. It snakes through a swathe of art galleries and antiques dealers before leading to a cross section of two alleyways, Altıpatlar and Çubukçu, which translate to six-shooter and pipe-maker, respectively. Under the nostalgic spell of meters-long Ottoman smokers and the 19th-century weapon-of-choice, the young journalist grinned, approaching mid-career prestige as arguably the most important Turkish writer writing in English still living in Turkey.

Around the corner, The Museum of Innocence received guests into a world of fictive artifacts based on Orhan Pamuk’s novel of the same name. Before becoming a political exile, the Nobel laureate would stroll under the shadow of Armenian tenements to schmooze with curators exhibiting contemporary installations on bare concrete floors, well-lit for teasing out the latest theories in conceptualism. It’s a milieu that Genç captures with verve in his second nonfiction book, The Lion and the Nightingale, which begins and ends on New Year’s Eve, encompassing the bittersweet political and cultural dramas that ensued and changed history in the year 2017 in the Turkish Republic.

Genç poured coffee, and raised his phone to snap a photo of me. He was making a record of every visitor. I was an admiring fellow writer, the younger; a year into my life in Istanbul, far-flung from my Anglo-American world. We wrote for the same arts section of a Turkish daily newspaper’s English-language edition. His criticism displayed a signature deftness and plain professionalism that lent itself to descriptive prose and the creative interpretation of his subjects. His style was spare, and incisive. He introduced his first-person voice with surprising freshness. When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won reelection in 2018, Genç finished his New York Times op-ed with a tone of apathy, weary of his nation’s affinities for military coups and single-party rule.

I asked him what his aspirations were, as a writer who had published a novel in Turkish, and reams of journalism in two languages, leading to his 2016 book of reportage about the 2013 Gezi Park Protests, titled Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey. He pointed to a tome by Masha Gessen, one of many stacked and shelved along with magazines of every variety, most including his contributions to the book reviews, from New York, Los Angeles, London, as well as The Nation, The Paris Review, and The New Yorker to name a few. He wanted his nonfiction to read like fiction. If that is the litmus test, The Lion and the Nightingale earns its keep.

The book opens tragically, with an intimate account of the Reina Nightclub massacre. Genç has a talent for writing about Turkey to Western taste, providing the usual fare of terror and oppression. Yet, he accommodates multiple perspectives while remaining convincingly independent, at times proudly and transparently leftist. His is the writing of a Turkish journalist committed to freedom of speech and assembly in a country where those rights are endangered. It is a boon for readers to have that delivered to them directly in English, from the source. In his humanist approach to bias, Genç stands with the artists that he portrays so personally in The Lion and the Nightingale. Journalism, Genç defends, is an art. And he has proven its merit as literature.

Artists, writers, musicians, intellectuals, generally liberals, are symbolized as nightingales by Genç, who sees Turkey’s sociocultural fabric as riven by their confrontation with representatives of militarism, industry and politics. On the right, populist strongmen and conservative demagogues assume his metaphor of lions. That dualism is fixed and encircled by multifarious external forces both malign and freeing, such as Turkey’s vulnerability to international terrorism and the compulsion to fight for individual, free expression as a people divided by ethno-religious majoritarianism, mass incarceration, and multigenerational diaspora.

But, as is typical to nations traditionally allied to the global East, liberalism has had a wholly different narrative in Turkey’s political history than that of Western democracies. Briefly, the Republic of Turkey was born out of a nationalist, secular dictatorship, a totalitarian liberalization led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The Lion and the Nightingale is an apt reflection on a mirror-like opposition to Western historical convention. The book’s focal point revolves around the rise of Erdoğan and his unprecedented consolidation of presidential power following the 2017 constitutional referendum. In response, nightingales changed their tune, migrated, or fell silent.

“In the eyes of liberal Turks, Erdoğan’s term in office began promisingly,” he wrote, giving ample background to the counterintuitive progression of Erdoğan’s ascent. “Here was a politician critical of Kemalism. He questioned the nationalistic foundations of the Turkish state. He appeared to criticize its patriarchal national identity. This was music to Nightingales’ ears. For a long while, many artists openly or discreetly supported the governing party. Through their art, they interrogated many aspects of the Turkish identity that it undermined. An awkward period ensued. The Turkish art world’s provocative iconoclasts were saying the same things as Turkey’s conservatives.”

But as he later comments, “Their overlapping agenda with the Lions was too good to be true.” The Lion and the Nightingale is also a work of meta-nonfiction. Genç takes the reader on the adventure of his research, explaining how and why he chose to interview certain people, barbers and housemaids as well as cultural and political elites. He empathizes with workers and their struggle to process their disempowerment. He approaches people especially skeptical and unused to voicing broad, societal concerns, and paints a number of intimate psychological portraits. “There is a strong element of fear of the state among Turks,” he wrote.

Adhering to principles of New Journalism, Genç reports in a way similar to Gay Talese, who confidently inked the thoughts of his sources. The reader rides shotgun with Abdulkadir Masharipov before and after his nightmarish shooting in the first hours of 2017. On his way to gunning down 39 people at Reina Nightclub, Genç profiles the terrorist’s exchange with the cab driver in staggering detail. “He felt awkward when the passenger asked if he could use his mobile,” he wrote. “The passenger was talking to someone he called hodja; the driver thought he was getting spiritual advice from an authority.” Reporting the thoughts and feelings of key witnesses makes for a stiff cocktail of literary journalism and crime drama.

Genç delivered a premeditated shock to the system by opening The Lion and the Nightingale with a sobering account of brutality in the heart of Istanbul. Four chapters chronicle each season set to despair, hope, dissent, and silence, in that order. Cingöz, a married man from a conservative neighborhood in Istanbul, has a nightmare and pens an arabesque poem on his morning commute: “I take refuge inside the smoke of my cigarette.” Genç charts the mental and emotional landscape of his people with visual acumen, to reflect the thoughts of the working class and professional artists that he followed and documented, down to their everyday activities, from the Anatolian countryside to the offices of Hong Kong.

With ample tact, reporting on the private lives of citizens is an ethical balancing act that, when effective, clarifies into the roots and ramifications of widespread social ills. It is particularly strategic when writing about the political atmosphere of a country like Turkey, where people are censored and criminalized for expressing themselves freely in public forums. “There was a gap between people’s views and their articulation in public,” wrote Genç. “In an Istanbul coffeehouse I thought how these two issues, the gap between private and public views, and our ability to cut ourselves off from reality, reflected my conflicted view of the state.”

Orhan Pamuk described the private-public gap in personal opinion most memorably for Genç in his 2014 novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, as “evidence of the power of the state.” Frequently, he compares Turkey’s stifling political climate with its complex relationship to American foreign policy, and the old European appetite for Orientalist prejudice. “This belief in our freedom to choose a future for Turkey is a very American way of thinking,” he wrote. As a student, Genç cultivated his unique stance within the domestic political spectrum as an internationalist intellectual. He grew up after Turkey’s first democratically elected politician, Adnan Menderes, fell to a military coup in 1960, entangled in U.S. withdrawal and intervention.

“I sensed people silently considered Turkey as a laboratory that could teach them about the future of the United States more than the history of my country,” he wrote. “I found this frustrating. Treating foreign cultures as testing grounds for their own was quintessential Orientalism.” Leftists Turks label advocates of progressive American values, liboş, or “sissy.” Since the media purge following 2016’s failed coup, foreign journalists increasingly claimed local coverage of Turkey in the international press. “I knew I could face the same prospect. Exile. Friends around me moved to London, Amsterdam, Berlin and other European capitals.”

As a self-proclaimed nightingale, Genç has been surprised by his reception at home, where, for example, after the publication of his first nonfiction book, Under the Shadow, about popular resistance against the current government during the 2013 Gezi Park Protests, the state-owned television station TRT World invited him to interview. He has a sense of humor remembering how mainstream Turkish newspapers reviewed his book positively. At the same time their columnists were rallying for the unjust detainment of philanthropist Osman Kavala, who spent more than two years in Europe’s largest maximum-security jail, located just outside Istanbul, for allegedly funding millions of protestors in 2013. (Kavala was acquitted in February only to be rearrested on equally spurious charges linking him to the 2016 failed coup.) Writing in English is a major part of Genc’s self-preservation. The vendetta against Kavala, Genç reported in his new book, is ideological warfare, waged by the lions incriminating nightingales, i.e. the culture sector, as the opposition.

In his recent essay for The Point, published in May, “How to Lose a Language,” adapted from the book How to Lose a Country by exiled Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran, he reflected: “Absence of critical and scholarly attention, of financial reward and global reach, and lack of interest from peers all played a part in my decision to write in English. I have no regrets.” His English has a clear, distanced perceptivity underscored by his cultural and linguistic objectivity. The Lion and the Nightingale, however, enters deeply into the work of fellow Turkish journalists who write in Turkish, with special empathy for their struggles, personalities, and careers on the other side of a distinctly opaque language barrier.

One endearing nightingale is named Murat Çelikkan, whose quarter-century service to journalism culminated in his incarceration in the wake of the July 2016 failed coup. Working for a mainstream Turkish newspaper, he became a guest editor at Ozgur Gundem, a daily read mostly by Kurdish people. Genç realized he had walked past the paper’s offices at least twice a day for the last five years when he saw a video of the raid that shut the paper down. Çelikkan could often be seen in the bohemian neighborhood, red in the face and roaring with laughter behind his mischievous smile. But by September of 2016, he was learning Kurdish in a cell with four other inmates. It wasn’t the first time he suffered jail time, nor the second.

“In Cihangir, journalists were saddened by the news of his conviction. At a goodbye party, many broke down in tears. If such a senior editor could be put behind bars, what were the chances of young journalists who covered human rights issues,” Genç wrote about Çelikkan. He also depicts a young journalist named Ömer Şan. When San wrote his first poem in his hometown of Rize, along the Black Sea, a far cry from progressive circles in Istanbul, he shared stomping grounds with Ahmet Erdoğan, the father of the Turkish president. The region, Genç explained, is vital to understanding “New Turkey.”

Şan covered environmental protests, bolstering a tradition that inspired 3.5 million people to join the Gezi movement. “I found Şan’s story interesting not only because he spent his life attending May Days, like me, but also because he was a reporter. He had devoted his life to documenting injustices and stories that define life in Turkey,” Genç wrote in solidarity. “Despite censorship and state pressure, Şan remained a muckraker.” It is a stretch to imagine a nightingale raking the muck of concrete-heavy oppression. But when a country becomes a den of lions, a song, the night, and wings are saving graces. Or, as Genç wrote of his visit to the reclusive, prestigious artist Evlent Kutluğ Ataman, “He seemed victorious to be living in a massive house in the middle of nowhere.”

The Mystery of the Other and Preoccupation with the Self: On Meng Jin’s ‘Little Gods’

In her now-classic feminist manifesto The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir talks about “the myth of woman”: “If the definition provided for this concept is contradicted by the behavior of flesh-and-blood women, it is the latter who are wrong: we are told not that Femininity is a false entity, but that women concerned are not feminine.” The concept’s aim, as argued by Beauvoir, is to cast women as “the absolute Other” so they will always remain a subject that, in turn, “justifies and even authorizes” the abuse of the ruling caste: the men.
As we see in The Second Sex, and in later feminist movements, such a political manipulation of “myth” does not only apply to women, but to all underprivileged social groups: ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people. When one says, “Oh, they are just different,” what he is really doing is reconciling ignorance and indifference. This manipulation of myth—with its concomitant ignorance and indifference—also creates problems in the portrayal of minority characters in fiction. Today, we are aware of the racism inherent in the so-called Western Canon. When white male authors wrote The Other—consider, for example, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Kipling’s The Jungle Book—they tended to exploit the racial and cultural difference to render an unfathomable myth, thus consolidating white supremacy. To me, the flaws of those authors reflect the pervasive racism of their times. But, to this day, a literary dilemma persists. On the one hand, fiction requires an element of the mysterious to keep readers engaged; on the other hand, does the mysterious—similar to the concept addressed by Beauvoir—perpetuate the unfathomable myth and abet readers’ inability or unwillingness to truly understand The Other?

There is, of course, another option: writers can kill the mystery/myth, can resolve it, at least, in the end and teach readers a cheap lesson: that every human, regardless of background, is similar by nature. But that methodology can be problematic. I remember discussing A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood with some workshop friends in Iowa City. A woman said the novel helped her realize that love between gays was no different than love between man and woman. “But that’s not the point,” a gay friend interrupted. “Every individual and every love story are unique. If an author only shows the similarity without touching on individuality, then he pleases his readers by simplifying the facts.”
As a writer of color, Meng Jin must know the stakes and inherent challenges in writing a novel set mostly in China featuring characters that are Chinese or Chinese immigrants . The setting and characters will be The Other to English-speaking readers—and this means the mystery of the novel will naturally be received as foreignness. Additionally, Su Lan the central character of Jin’s debut novel, Little Gods, is not a likable person by any conventional standard. The book opens with Su giving birth to her only daughter, Liya, on the night of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. As the novel progresses, we learn more and more about Su’s complicated personality. She is a woman who endeavors, deliberately, to erase all the traces of her past, a scientist who devotes so much time to her research that her daughter feels neglected and unwanted. Su also behaves in such a way that her husband suspects that all men—himself included—will fall victim to her cruel, manipulative games.
Yet, Jin offers insights into the debate surrounding literary mystery/myth. And, Little Gods retains an element of mystery to its very end, without simply feeding readers a pleasing political message. In a way, Little Gods responds to Beauvoir’s myth of woman: in essence, the myth of woman is conjured by other self-centered parties. In Su Lan’s case, the two parties are her daughter, Liya, and husband, Yongzong.
Mother-daughter conflict is all too common. A lack of maternal warmth may result in a daughter’s constant hunger for love and intimacy; an excess of motherly love, by contrast, may diminish a grown daughter’s adulthood. But, what underlies all these tensions is perhaps the reduction of women to motherhood. As Beauvoir put it, if the definition of motherhood “is contradicted by the behavior of flesh-and-blood women, it is the latter who are wrong.”
In Little Gods, Liya, cannot understand or appreciate Su’s longings outside the realm of motherhood; and this lack of understanding and ignorance mutate into a growing mystery in the narrative. Su’s scientific aspirations—she dedicates her life to reversing the flow of time—are to Liya a rival for her mother’s attention. Of course, this is understandable for a small child, vulnerable and sensitive. A childhood episode explains the root of Liya’s tense relationship with Su: one night, Liya woke to find her mother missing. Frightened, she went to look for Su, ending up in the house of a neighbor who called the police. Su had gone to her lab to finish some work; she is, of course, reprimanded for neglect. But her mother’s frustration at juggling her various roles cements in Liya long-standing feeling of shame. “As I got older,” Liya confesses, “as my mother and I grew apart, I would be visited from time to time by that grey-black failure. I would find myself crouching again behind my mother’s legs, watching my opportunity to save her walk away.”
Immigration reinforces and perpetuates Liya’s inability to understand her mother. Su encourages Liya to learn English and to “sound exactly like an American.” However, the urgency of cultural assimilation pulls against maternal intimacy. “When I realized what was happening,” Liya says, “that with every new word of English I was becoming more and more unlike her, it was too late. I wanted to be exactly like my mother and she wanted me to be nothing like her.”
Indeed, prioritizing work and imposing integration on her daughter could be seen as maternal failures. But, as Liya later learns—when she takes Su’s ashes back to China after her mother’s unexpected death—a daughter has her own blind spots. Liya failed to recognize Su’s flesh-and-blood humanity, her pains, passions, and introverted personality. Additionally, Liya doesn’t grasp the hidden gender issues until she comes of age and reads Su’s letters: “Did you know Einstein was cruel to his first wife? And probably to his second? He was a bad father too. He had a daughter he never met—no one knew what happened to her. He had two sons. One died in a mental institution, alone.”
The heartbreaking story of Liya and Su Lan reminds me of a short essay I stumbled upon years ago. I forget its title, but still remember the opening: “Before grandma’s funeral, I only knew that I’d lost my grandma; but after that, I realized that my mother had lost her mother.” We are all likely to only perceive our relationships, and that is a major reason why The Other always appears so mysterious, almost impossible to comprehend.
Su’s husband, Yongzong, shares the limitations and faults of all mediocre, self-absorbed male characters in fiction. As his family’s only son, Yongzong has “no chores,” and picks “the best pieces of meat at meals.” Growing up taking his family’s care and attention for granted, Yongzong lacks sympathy even for those closest to him. After Su first visits his family, she speculates as to the magnitude of his mother’s illness, a fact to which Yongzong—then a trained doctor— had never paid enough attention. On an aesthetic level, I find Yongzong’s narrative the most suspenseful and intriguing
Take the love triangle between Yongzong; his high school best friend, Bo; and Su. Yongzong suspects he and Bo are made pawns in Su’s game of romance. But, the text also suggests a loss of primacy in adulthood is what really unsettles Yongzong. Su, like every woman, is free to choose her significant other, and this process is inevitably replete with confusion, regrets, and reluctances. Yongzong, habituated to viewing women as object of desire, fails to tackle the complexity of relationships. And only by blaming all his problems on Su, can he gloss over his incapacity for love between equals.
What I admire most about Little Gods is the intersection of Yongzong’s personal failures and China’s epochal political event. Since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests are among the few things American readers know about China, a writer must fight the temptation to take advantage of that existing knowledge. Meng Jin refuses to let politics define her fictional characters. In the novel, the marriage between Yongzong and Su is failing before the political storm rages. The main reason is fundamentally personal: Su’s pregnancy changes her body and makes her ugly; at least it seems so to Yongzong. However, the coming political movement provides Yongzong an opportunity to leave his mediocracy and selfishness at home—and to appear as a respected, responsible citizen on the streets. Su’s observations sound the alarm for today’s protesters:

Have you seen these children? If you watch them for even a second you can see they just love the attention, they love hearing the sound of their own voices followed by thunderous clapping, they love hearing their words repeated and chanted by the mob, and that’s my husband too.            

Later in the novel, Yongzong, irresponsible husband and father, will accuse his wife of being indifferent, irresponsible, and unpatriotic. In this way, his hatred for his wife finds legitimacy in a politically charged context.
Besides the brilliant and beautiful depiction of the myth/mystery in the eyes of egocentric beings, Meng Jin exhibits a rare appreciation of the depth of humanity. Su’s most striking attribute is a desperate need to wipe away the traces of her past. In a country that values history and rootedness, her conduct seems uncanny. However, toward the end of the novel, in an earnest effort to better know her mother, Liya learns Su’s choices have everything to do with China’s decades of poverty and her people’s toxic tendency to glorify self-sacrifice and suffering.
In the same chapter of The Second Sex where the aforementioned quotes appear, Beauvoir calls out for women to be recognized as human beings. “To discard the myths,” she announced, “is not to destroy all dramatic relation between the sexes, it is not to deny the significance authentically revealed to man through feminine reality; it is not to do away with poetry, love, adventure, happiness, dreaming. It is simply to ask that behavior, sentiment, passion be founded upon the truth”
Little Gods is lyrical, stunning, full of wisdom, and the fruit of Jin’s pursuit of truth. Seventy years after the publication of The Second Sex, I find myself possessing a more flexible attitude toward the concept of “myth” and the more commonly used literary term “mystery.” After all, there is always the myth and mystery of humanity, which authors shouldn’t ignore or simplify. Yet, we must not allow any myth or mystery to excuse self-involvement, and every truth-seeking author must not facilitate readers’ unwarranted complacency.
Bonus Link from Our Archive:– Writers to Watch: Spring 2020