The Extraordinary Enigmatic: Kathryn Davis’s ‘The Silk Road’

Wormholes, portals, wizards, dachshunds, geological time, haute cuisine: these are a few of the things you will find in Kathryn Davis’s fiction. “My sensibility as an artist,” Davis said in a recent interview in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, “is (thank God) a Frankenstein monster of parts.” Ever since the publication of her first book, Labrador, in 1988, she has shown herself to be a writer of graceful sentences and wild creative power—the “love child of Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll,” Joy Press once called her. Wherever her imagination wants to go, Davis will follow, whether that means traveling from Denmark to upstate New York with an opera-writing murderess (The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf) or settling down in a 1950s Philadelphia partly populated by robots (Duplex). She has written a novel called Hell, in which time collapses on itself within the walls of a semi-detached house, and a novel called The Thin Place, about a Vermont town where the skin between this world and the spirit world is especially porous.

Davis’s new novel, The Silk Road, continues her exploration of the strange, but if anything, it’s even bolder than her earlier books. Rather than ease the reader into the extraordinary by way of the ordinary—as Duplex does, for example, by beginning with a sleepy suburban street before proceeding to introduce robots and sorcerers and air-borne scows—The Silk Road dives right into the extraordinary from the first paragraph:
We were in the labyrinth. Afterward, no one could agree on the time. Jee Moon was tucking someone’s right hand in under their blanket, having first tucked in the left. She did this tenderly but firmly, as if to suggest we could be doing it for ourselves. Next she took someone’s head and lifted it like it wasn’t part of a human body, a cabbage or a planet or the repository of all good thoughts and evil, which, when you think about it, is exactly what a human head is.
What is going on here? A yoga class winding down, with everyone in shavasana, or corpse pose. Where are we? In the labyrinth, like the narrator says, which we will soon learn is part of “the settlement,” located in the Arctic north, where the permafrost is rapidly melting. And who are we? A group of individuals known only by the names of our professions (the Astronomer, the Archivist, the Topologist, the Cook), guided by a mysterious woman named Jee Moon. And why are we here? To escape from a flea-borne plague that is devastating humanity.

This, anyway, is the novel’s frame story, loosely modeled on the frame story of Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which 10 characters fleeing the Black Death gather in a villa near Florence and swap yarns to pass the time. But, in The Silk Road, the medieval literary device gets a new, fantastical twist: The characters don’t just tell each other tales, they hear each other’s thoughts, which swarm “from our heads and—not being solely the province of the brain—from other parts of our bodies, and [rise] to link themselves with other thoughts in a molecular action.” Though such mind-melding might quickly become ridiculous in the hands of another writer, Davis harnesses it to powerful effect, using it as an excuse to blend the characters’ voices with voices borrowed from literature, scripture, and song.

Some of Davis’s allusions are bound to slip past the reader unnoticed. There are not many who will recognize both a line from Lucretius (“Moreover in the sum of all things there is no one thing that is begotten single”) and the lyrics to an old French pop song (Chariot, chariot, si tu veux de moi…). But the sources of these lines are less important than what Davis makes of them—how she orchestrates them into a meaningful and quite beautiful whole. Often the same passages that leave us scratching our heads are the ones that take our breath away. Describing the spread of the plague across the globe, Davis writes:
Everyone knew it was a physical condition—they were that knowledgeable—but the extent of what they knew was compromised by exposure to a glut of information and rumor, making it difficult to predict anything. Some people claimed mortality didn’t come through Saturn and Jupiter, but rather through Mars. Others said the work of the planets could not be avoided but there were things it was possible to avoid. Transmutation was easiest between bodies that had matching qualities. No one knew where the sickness came from or where it was going. No one knew which hospitals had medicine or empty beds or doctors or nurses. There were robbers abroad in the land. There were wild beasts.
As this passage indicates, it can be helpful to think of The Silk Road as a piece of music, in which meaning is produced through rhythm and repetition rather than rational exposition. The reader, holding onto his hat, has to trust that themes and variations will be revealed, even if nothing in the end is certain. But complaining about indeterminacy in a Kathryn Davis novel is like complaining about William Gass’s love of alliteration or Bob Dylan’s singing voice. The embrace of uncertainty is central to the whole endeavor. Like Emerson, Davis insists that “knowledge is the knowing that we cannot know.”

The Silk Road is full of enigmas. Are the main characters siblings, as their shared memories of childhood suggest, or are they linked in some more intangible sense—perhaps as different permutations of the same soul? Is the Arctic settlement where they find themselves the Tibetan Buddhist bardo between one existence and the next? When one by one the characters begin to disappear, where do they go? We can ponder possible answers, point to evidence, even argue for one interpretation or another if the spirit moves us, but finally the pondering is what’s essential. Davis’s style encourages us to remain open to multiple interpretations even when they contradict each other. A “cove of sparkling light” at the settlement’s edge may either be a “real pool of something like water—we were in agreement on that if nothing else—or just a gathering of attention, all of it in one place, as solid and bright-surfaced as a jewel but otherwise beside the point.”

Of course, the beauty of fiction is that things can be both. The cove can be liquidly real and also a potent projection. The characters can lead their individual lives—in which they walk an ancient pilgrimage route through France or bump their braces on a water-fountain spout in St. Louis—while at the same time blending their consciousness together in a hum of voices that summons all the living and the dead.

It would be safe to say that Davis is fascinated by multiplicity, but not by the distracted, all-over-the-map multiplicity that characterizes novels such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. These novels, whatever else might be said of them, suffer from a jittery lack of focus. Their structures, down to their syntax, seem born of the same impatient impulse that has given us Tinder and flights of beer. By comparison, The Silk Road is a calm book that, with its meditative poise and measured prose, invites us to reduce speed, concentrate, reread and reconsider. Even as it entertains us in the expected novelistic fashion by narrating the story of a group of characters over a span of time, it is constantly throwing our received ideas about narratives, characters, and spans of time into question—and sometimes throwing them overboard altogether.

I have, so far, read The Silk Road three times and can already see that I am going to have to buy another copy—I’ve messed mine up with so many marginal scrawls. These range from exclamation points made to mark favorite images (“a few clerics in long black cassocks, sliding up and down the steep pathways like chessmen”) and aperçus (“Furniture was important to people who cared about the surfaces of things”) to question marks curling next to what, in a conventional mystery novel, would be called clues. The mystery in The Silk Road, however, revolves around nothing less than the formation and dissolution of selfhood—what Joy Williams calls “the great wheel of time and its terrifying promises of rebirth and forgetfulness.” If this mystery has a solution, I have yet to find it. If you do, you’ll have to let me know.

Stranger in a Strange Land: Dave Eggers’s ‘The Parade’

Someone once said, “Life”—or was it history?—“is one damned thing after another.” Whichever it was, and whoever said it, Dave Eggers’s The Parade—or any parade, really—is just that: one thing after another. The novella’s plot moves in a straight line, event after event rolling along day by day. But The Parade can’t be reduced to its plot any more than life (individual or collective) can be reduced to bare events.

The plot: A man is paving a road through a country that has recently (apparently) ended a devastating civil war. The road, as laid out by an unnamed foreign company contracted by an unnamed foreign power to aid the unnamed country, is destined to be as flat and straight and well-made as a road can be. Its stated purpose is to unite the torn-apart country; it will heal.

The protagonist, who calls himself Four (“for reasons of security, the company insisted on simple pseudonyms, usually numerical”), is a real square, a stolid worker whose experience, over 60-plus similar assignments, dictates that going by the company book means he’ll get the job done on schedule—without getting killed.

“Work like his often took place near the time and place of violence and atrocities, without actually intersecting with either…He once missed by minutes the scene of a crucifixion.” Safety and efficiency lie, above all, in keeping aloof from the people who populate the country he’s paving.

The paving machine is built for isolation. Inside its closed cab, all its operator need do, basically, is keep rolling. The roadbed awaits, prepped with pods of fuel and material at intervals matching the machine’s capacity. Four is almost literally at one with the machine, even before he hops into the cab. The story opens with him waking with “leaden head” in “platinum light” within a CHU (Containerized Housing Unit). It’s almost as if he’s a man flying solo in a space capsule. When he bathes, his goal is to remove “his human stink.” A perfect night, for him, is a black expanse “unsullied by human striving.” Four’s helper, Nine—as in the maximum single-digit odd number, not to mention the number of lives for a cat—is the spanner in the works. (Did Eggers do the math, to yoke two numbers that add up to bad luck?) Nine has hair that flops in his face; he smiles and chats. He has a mouth Four repeatedly observes as “womanly,” not with homoerotic overtones, but with distaste; such a mouth disrupts a manly face.

Nine’s job is to scout ahead, driving a quad, to “mitigate obstacles,” which can range from a crinkle in the roadbed’s surface to a shepherd and his flock crossing in front of the paver. Rather than mitigating obstacles, though, Nine generates them. Time after time, Nine goes off the company book, drinking the local water, eating the local food, shagging the local women. In getting down with the natives, he endangers himself and Four, and puts the job at risk of missing its deadline.

Four seethes. Not only does he want to get home to his family ASAP and in one piece, but the president of the newly reunited country has scheduled a grand parade, to begin “the moment the road was completed.”

Despite repeated omens that the country’s war-scarred people hold deadly bitter grudges, Four persists in believing that the road will heal the nation, that the people will rise to exploit the manna of foreign aid, with “joy and frenetic enterprise.” Neither his dour outlook nor his relentless pragmatism shakes this optimism, based as it is in a bedrock faith in progress and order.

Nine shares his optimism, though for him it’s all about people, about being human. Four sees the road, Nine sees the people who will travel it.

The book’s setting is conveyed vividly, yet without specificity. It’s dusty; refuse is burned or left in heaps; black plastic garbage bags containing “the waste of war” litter the roadside. It’s hot and humid, and air conditioning is not a norm, except in the “cockpit” of the paver. Nine is enchanted; Four sees nothing new: “Everything around them was standard for a developing country after a war,” including “white trucks full of aid workers fretful or debauched.” Four’s admiring and detailed assessment of the paving machine, with which a single operator can pave a roadbed and even paint the double yellow line in one pass, disarms doubt that such a thing can exist (it doesn’t) and conveys a time in the near future when road paving is no longer “messy and toxic work” involving too many human beings.

Eggers is less effective with the terrain. The characters see far into the distance, even in a “rough terrain, thick with foliage and outcroppings.”  Four rides shotgun on a motorcycle through “low scrub” to see a “mosaic of light visible through the woods.” Eggers might have intended to underline vagueness of place, but Four’s character, so tightly woven by Eggers, undermines the effect. Even as events unpin Four’s emotional center, a precise and widely traveled man like him would not misidentify his surroundings.

The inconsistencies in terrain distract, but overall Eggers succeeds in evoking a fractured Anyland, through which two men of opposing temperaments and views (mash them together and it’s Everyman) are tasked to pave a perfectly straight and level road. Nothing and no one have a proper name; for example, a local man who entangles himself with Four and Nine is called Medallion for wearing a “large silver medallion” whose design is never further described.

The lack of specifics molds The Parade into an allegory that, in sideswiping Joseph Conrad’s colonial-era novella Heart of Darkness, ponders the enterprise of intervention, here exemplified by foreign aid: help framed and executed largely by people who are not native to the land of the people they are helping, with motives on all sides shadowed by less than altruistic agendas.

Allegories don’t generally supply juicy psychological backstory, a complex plot, lush language. Even lacking such beloved elements of literary fiction, The Parade bestows in straightforward prose what only literary fiction can offer: a handful of time in which the reader can be embedded in another person, not to escape but to understand a part of our world that our own lives cannot reveal. Maybe it’s in this way that Eggers’s allegory avoids prescriptiveness; it’s plain that we’re living the allegory from one man’s perspective. Four’s acute observations of street life, as he and Nine head in a taxi to where the paver is parked, reveal as much about him as they reveal about the scene and its inhabitants, and we get a glimpse of Nine:
All around were scenes of reconstruction. On a rickety scaffolding made of gnarled sticks, a dozen masons were repairing a municipal building with a cloud-shaped hole in its facade. Next door, a middle-aged woman, wearing a fur-lined winter coat, sat under a striped beach umbrella, next to an office copier that she’d somehow wheeled out onto the roadside. A line of men and women in business attire waited to avail themselves of her services. The high-pitched whine of a diesel scooter overtook them, and Nine laughed.

“Whole clan,” he said.

Four glanced over to see that a family of five had arranged themselves on one small scooter, and soon passed them, and swung into their lane. Two of the children were standing on the runner in front of their father, whose wife clung tight to him with a baby strapped to her back. The baby, fast asleep and its face cloudy with diesel fumes, wore a stocking cap covered with jewels and bells.

This was a burgeoning city awake and alive after a civil war its residents assumed would have no end….
Eggers is a master of point of view; critic Michiko Kakutani lauded his “uncommon ability to access his characters’ emotions and channel their every mood.” You adhere to his protagonist, even if you have little or nothing (besides being human) in common with him (usually a him), and even when you’re not entirely on his side. In The Parade, Eggers needs every scrap of this mastery to pull off his ending. Be prepared to engage.

As in Eggers’s A Hologram for a King, the protagonist of The Parade is a stranger in a strange land, where circumstances conspire to take him apart. Four is so tightly welded together that only extremes will break him, his psyche so carefully protected, you both hope and dread it will be unpeeled.

One thing you know pretty much from the start (again, as in A Hologram for a King): the protagonist will fail, literally or in some other, essential way. What exactly he will lose, in failing, and what he might gain, is what you read to find out.

Parallel Lives Lost: K Chess’s ‘Famous Men Who Never Lived’

In Ezra Sleight’s classic sci-fi novel The Pyronauts, the world ends in fire. Aliens in crystal spaceships arrive on Earth bearing peaceful solutions to humanity’s deepest crises: war, illness, racism, xenophobia. But the well-intentioned extraterrestrials bring along an unintended stowaway: a toxic parasite that destroys all plant life on earth. One by one, crops, flowers, and trees wither and die. Animals starve, and with them, humans. The scattered survivors resort to burning the infected landscape in hopes of killing the virus. The earth is left to smolder, charred black beyond recognition.

The Pyronauts is often heralded as a masterwork, a mournful allegory for the dangers of colonialism or the nuclear age. Sleight’s home in New York has been preserved as a museum, and his famous novel has been subject to one intricate analysis after another. There’s only one small problem if you want to read the book itself, which is that The Pyronauts doesn’t actually exist—at least not in this world. Ezra Sleight and The Pyronauts are part of an alternate timeline, a parallel universe that split off from ours in the early years of the 20th century.

Sleight and his apocalyptic masterpiece are at the center of Famous Men Who Never Lived, the debut novel by Providence-based writer K Chess. As the book begins, the parallel world in which Sleight wrote The Pyronauts actually has been destroyed by nuclear catastrophe, forcing 156,000 of its citizens to flee across the fabric of the universe to seek refuge in ours. These refugees—known as Universally Displaced Persons, or UDPs—find themselves in a world they both recognize and don’t. In their timeline, America is on the metric system, Latin America has organized into a powerful communist bloc called America Unida, airships are the preferred method of long-distance travel, online poker doesn’t exist, the Holocaust never came to pass, and the swastika, true to its Buddhist origins, is a universal sign of good luck. In this new world, New York is still New York. But the neighborhoods are different, the history has changed, the slang makes no sense, and Ezra Sleight died in an accident as a child, leaving his body of work unwritten.

Famous Men, like New York itself, jostles with the voices of many of these recent transplants as they struggle to assimilate. But it focuses in particular on two: Vikram Bhatnagar, a Ph.D. student whose field of study as he knew it—20th-century American literature—no longer exists, and Helen “Hel” Nash, a surgeon who was forced to leave her son behind in the evacuation and has sunk into depression. Forced to start their lives anew in an unfamiliar world that alternates between hostility and indifference, Hel and Vikram flail for solid ground. Vikram takes a dead-end job as a night watchman at a storage warehouse, where he’s haunted by glimpses, down darkened hallways and behind locked doors, of a mysterious blue light that seems to signal a way back home. Hel, meanwhile, stays at home rereading the last remaining copy of The Pyronauts in existence, and becomes obsessed with founding a museum dedicated to the “vanished culture” of her home world. But her plan is derailed when the sole copy of The Pyronauts goes missing, a development that drives her to take increasingly desperate and reckless measures to get it back.

Despite a premise Philip K. Dick would’ve admired, Famous Men isn’t quite a sci-fi novel, but something more like its inverse—a book less concerned with alternate universes than their absence. The disappearance of this parallel timeline, the trauma of its swift erasure, haunts the survivors, and haunts us in turn. Chess unspools her characters’ memories and points of reference with minimal context, foisting the UDPs’ disorientation onto the reader and leaving it up to us to discern the differences between two separate, competing universes. And as the book details the perilous crossing, demeaning jobs, and constant prejudice that Hel, Vikram, and the other UDPs face, it draws a clear parallel between their experience and our present-day refugee crisis—the wrecked cities of Famous Men’s alternate world recalling nothing so much as images of a leveled Aleppo or bombed-out Baghdad. In this way, Famous Men joins the recent surge of politically-minded speculative fiction, from the fantastical doors of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West to the ravaged landscapes of Omar El Akkad’s American War and the electrical jolts of Naomi Alderman’s The Power. What sets Famous Men apart is the scope of its ambition: Here we have a story about immigration wrapped inside a post-apocalyptic fable with multiple universes that also manages to be a meditation on art, fate, trauma, and loss. All this, in a scant 300 pages.

Indeed, the book’s focus on The Pyronauts—whose plot forms its own meta-narrative within the story—allows Chess to move beyond mere allegory to ask deeper questions about loss, integration, and belonging. Because what are we if not our culture, the stories we spent a lifetime consuming? Forced migration not only robs people of their geographical foundation, the book reminds us, but their social and cultural ones too. As Sto:lo elder and scholar Lee Maracle observes in her book Memory Serves Oratories, Western culture demands that non-white immigrants, and non-white people in general, “must disavow their own story, belief, and authority” if they wish to fit in. (It is surely no accident that many of Famous Men’s UDPs are queer or people of color.) But what does one do then with all those memories? Let them go and attempt to form new ones, at the cost of one’s identity? Or hold onto them and risk social alienation? Famous Men makes this trap explicit, forcing its characters to choose between the devastated world they left behind and, literally, “a whole separate twentieth century.” At one point, Vikram is struck by a repeating design of Barack Obama’s iconic Hope poster—a politician whose very existence is new to him. “So specific, that pattern,” he muses. “And in its own way, beautiful.” Left unsaid are all the patterns and slogans and beloved figures that shaped Vikram and his world, an ocean of history lost forever.

Famous Men is so chock-full of ideas that its plotting and characters come across as an afterthought at times; a scattered third act and too-neat conclusion in particular feel like they were taken out of the oven a little too soon. But the book also illustrates a side of immigration that often gets left out of the news reports: how refugees, seeking safety and security, first must paradoxically sacrifice those very things; how homesickness and grief linger without relief. How any of us, through wildfire or civil war or nuclear disaster, could unexpectedly find ourselves on the other side of that line, our family and possessions lost, and face the paralyzing choice of looking forward or looking back, unsure which is right, which choice will lead us, at last, to a place we belong.

Biography of a Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel

In retrospect, it’s easy to look at the life and career of John Williams and see a disconnect. Here’s a writer who was in charge of the Association of Writers and Poets, who networked his way into the lit scene through small presses, and who won the National Book Award for his 1973 novel Augustus. He edited Denver Quarterly for years, and his sophomore novel, Stoner—and his career as a whole— has enjoyed a recent word-of-mouth resurgence of interest. How, then, could such a writer view himself as an outsider?

Charles J. Shields notes in his newly released Williams biography, The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel: John Williams, Stoner and the Writing Life, that “readers of histories and biographies have the advantage of knowing the end of the story, but to the person living it, the darkness is all around.” Shields shows readers the insecurity that drove Williams to excellence in his writing career. His determination to succeed as a writer led him to cut corners in his personal and professional lives, to the detriment of himself and others. Through exhaustive research and sharp prose, Shields has composed a portrait of the complicated author and the particular darknesses that drove Williams to write, to overcompensate, to philander, to mansplain.

Shields’s framing device is simple but effective: A woman named Anne Marie Candido answers a grant-funded ad to sort through Williams’s papers, allowing readers to sift through the author’s life as she does. Candido meets him, works with him, warms to him.

Almost immediately, a revelation surfaces: Little John Williams was a living lie. His mother, Amelia, had married a man named George Williams—but he was not John’s father, Amelia revealed when John was 9. John’s true father was John Edward Jewell, who had flipped a parcel of land for cash, and was then robbed and subsequently killed later in the day by a hitchhiker. Or not. Shields reveals that no newspaper account of this killing exists, no proof, despite Amelia’s insistence that she was a widow. Regardless, for little John Williams, “news that he was not the person he thought he was called into question the importance of telling the truth,” a thread that Shields expertly weaves throughout the rest of the biography.

John Williams enjoyed stories of all kinds, often reading magazines with his mother and stepfather around the light of a kerosene lantern. He saw a film adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and was smitten by the performance of the dashing Ronald Colman, whose pencil-thin moustache and ascot conveyed a worldliness and authority to the young Texas boy watching in the theater. Williams wrote an eighth-grade essay on Colman’s role as the novel’s Sidney Carton, and was lauded for his work—the first time, Williams later said, he was praised for anything.

Williams applied his aptitude for telling stories to his own life. He enlisted for World War II shortly after his marriage, and was assigned to a small airbase in India, near the Tibetan border. His duty as radioman was harrowing: the C-47 planes Williams flew in didn’t have enough power to elevate above the Himalayas, a terrifying prospect before the addition of winter ice muddied the navigation instruments’ control. Inevitably, Williams was shot down, breaking ribs when the plane fell, and narrowly evading a troop of Japanese soldiers. But, as Shields states, Williams’s name does not appear on any official flight documentation. Williams’s story about being shot down is no doubt based on actual anecdotes from soldiers, and is in that way believable, one of many instances of Williams telling stories to live up to a fictional image of self, referring back to the derring-do of Ronald Colman.

Williams’s marriage (the first of four) didn’t survive the war. He relocated briefly to Key West, then to California, where his mother ailed. While in California, he began pitching publishers with his first novel, Nothing but the Night, and fell into the orbit of Alan Swallow, owner and operator of Swallow Press. The tiny Denver-based operation is easily understandable in punk rock terms: Swallow kept his prices intentionally low to make his product more democratic; he was an advocate of regionalism and didn’t advertise, preferring the books to be found by discerning readers. It was Swallow who urged Williams to enroll at the University of Denver on the potential of Nothing but the Night. Williams was accepted. He became an associate editor of Swallow Press, reading submitted manuscripts from new and established authors.

One of these authors was Yvor Winters, who discussed his philosophy of “practicing rationality in art over feeling” in a Swallow Press release titled In Defense of Reason. This book was especially impactful on Williams, who was impressionably new to academia. Williams fell under the older author’s spell, adapting his anti-Romantic, pro-Renaissance stand. Flush with these newly absorbed ideas about Romanticism, Williams wrote Butcher’s Crossing, in which an East Coast transplant travels to a Wild Western town intent on striking it rich on buffalo hides. His party decamps to a hidden valley full of buffalo, kills them all, and is snowed in for the winter, a possibility they didn’t plan for. They lose all the buffalo hides months later when they return to the town, left abandoned after an overabundance of hides killed demand, and the market.  With context and retrospect, the novel is an attack on the myths about the Wild West, influenced by Winters. Its fate, though, was sealed by a savage panning from The New York Times, which misconstrued the book as a Western, rather than a critique of romanticism about the Wild West.

To cope with the crushing review, Williams threw himself anew into the character he had constructed for himself, modeled after Ronald Colman. Shields says that “By fashioning himself as a cultured, sophisticated loner, like the Hollywood leading man of his youth, Ronald Colman, he restored his self-confidence.” Part of this renewed approach was immersion in the politics of University of Denver’s English department. The faculty was mostly male and operated with a level of misogyny and chauvinism that was sadly typical of the times. Shields pulls no punches in these depictions, later focusing on new faculty member Peggy McIntosh for discussion of the department and its gendered politics. It was McIntosh who coined the phrases “male privilege” and “white privilege” in her published work, and her account of the departmental interactions is a textbook instance of both. Williams is described as boorish and threatened by non-white male colleagues, with no sign of awareness about his behaviors. This narrow view extends to the larger literary scene, which is portrayed as a boys’ club.

Even this privilege could not protect him from scandal. Following the publication of Butchers’ Crossing, Williams pitched a textbook of romantic poetry to publishers, with the ulterior motive of highlighting the lesser-known poet Hulke Greville, on whom Williams had written his dissertation. By stoking Greville’s critical fires, Williams hoped to improve the chances of his dissertation being published. The assemblage of poets, however, was largely cribbed, uncredited, from the scholarship of Yvor Winters. According to Shields, “the overlap was about 80 percent.” Winters was angry about “the lack of attribution, which he believed was deliberate and typical of Williams.” In addition to what amounts to plagiarism, Shields discusses Williams as a textbook example of privilege, stating that “he had taken shortcuts since the beginning of his teaching career,” often delivering lectures culled from the work of his colleagues and passing the work off as his own as he devoted his energies to writing novels. Winters condemned Williams as arrogant, leaving the author again as an outsider.

Despite this, Williams soldiered on, weaving interdepartmental conflicts into the narrative of his own life in Stoner, the campus novel which since his passing has enjoyed a revival of interest. The novel’s titular protagonist continues Williams’s thematic exploration of the perils of romanticism. Like the author, William Stoner grew up on a farm. Through immersion in university life, Stoner is able to dissociate himself from the pastoral backdrop he came up in. Shields says that for Stoner, “language makes it possible for him to reach new consciousness. Words permit reasoning, which can be used to concretize elusive qualities of life.” The novel’s deliberate pace did not find the audience Williams hoped, nor did a rave review from the New Republic, leaving Williams again on the outside looking in.

Despite this, he continued teaching even after his plagiarism scandal. Williams started attending the prestigious Bread Loaf conference in 1968, where he continued networking with authors, adding new members to the literary boys’ club where he sought solace.

Through his Bread Loaf connections, Williams managed to get the rapidly out-of-print Stoner republished by a small press at around the same time as the publication of his novel Augustus, a polyphonic rumination on the titular emperor’s rise and fall. After its publication in 1972, Williams “took up a prominent spot in the English Department office, where he sat all day smoking and drinking coffee, expecting that some of his colleagues would congratulate him.” One of the many strengths of Shields’s biography is the duality with which it may be read: Depending on one’s outlook, Williams’s aggressive need for validation may be as a result of his upbringing—or it may be symptomatic of a typical white male privilege. Shields portrays Williams’s disappointment when things don’t go his way, and through anecdotes about his colleagues, depicts Williams’s seeming lack of metacognition about his position as a tenured professor, his large group of colleagues, even his talent.

One sees both sides of the coin when Augustus wins the National Book Award in 1973. The catch is that the judges couldn’t agree whether the honor should be bestowed on Williams’s book or on John Barth’s Chimera. The deciding panel, flummoxed, simply decided to split the award. Williams embarked on guest lecturer positions across the country. Back in Denver, his accomplishments were ignored by his colleagues because of his drinking, his lack of commitment to students, his philandering. Finally, the college invented an Endowed Chair title for him, asking only that he teach two of three quarters a year. Williams became increasingly less effective as a professor as health problems ravaged his lungs, retiring from teaching in 1985. He died of respiratory failure in 1994 while working on a novel titled The Sleep of Reason.

John Williams assumed a “carefully constructed identity” for himself, an outward projection of a literary swashbuckler like his hero Ronald Colman in A Tale Of Two Cities. Charles J. Shields’s The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel is similarly a tale of two John Williams: the one trying to live up to the fiction of self he invented, and the one oblivious to the fact that this fantasy does not come across in the intended manner.

Lost in an Infinite Twilight: Mathias Énard’s ‘Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants’

The novel begins in darkness and in mystery. A voice, unknown, speaks of night and its people, the drinkers, the poets, the lovers, the banished and condemned (though for what and how and by whom we do not know). A voice, who we will later attach to the text’s central enigma—a singer, dancer, prisoner, and erstwhile assassin—speaks to another figure whose name the novel here withholds. We know he, the second figure, has a Turkish friend, that he desires beauty. We know his beliefs—a prison of ideas comprising of strength and bravery and triumph, glory and wealth. We know that the voice sees through this shroud of conviction because the man is here, concealed in the night, in the “glistering uncertainty of darkness.” What the man really wants is possibility, unboundedness, an end not to doubt, but to the pains and limitations of his experience. The novel never reveals the voice’s name. The man is Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Mathias Énard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants, translated by the ever-superb Charlotte Mandell, imagines a version of history in which the most celebrated artist of Renaissance Italy flees his native country and arrives at the court of Bayezid II, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. His purpose there is to plan and supervise the construction of a massive feat of engineering—a bridge across the Golden Horn, linking Constantinople with Pera. The task, already attempted by “the immense” Leonardo da Vinci, whose design the Sultan found “rather ugly, despite its lightness,” would have been the crowning achievement of the young Michelangelo’s career, an undertaking to rival any of his architectural works back in Italy.

 In truth, this journey almost happened.

We know that at the end of April of 1506, while struggling to begin work on Pope Julius II’s tomb, Michelangelo and the pontiff fought bitterly. The record is unclear as to the cause, but it was either due to a lack of funding for materials or, less likely, on account of a screaming fit the artist pitched from atop his scaffolding, unaware that the functionary he was browbeating below was the Pope himself. Whatever the reason, we know that Michelangelo went hastily from Rome to the north, seeking protection from Piero Soderini, the Gonfaloniere of Florence. In a letter dated the second of May, Michelangelo wrote to the architect Giuliano da Sangallo: “I had cause to think that if I remained in Rome, my own tomb would be sooner made than the Pope’s.”

And so ensconced in Florence—during which time Michelangelo kept himself busy with a sequence of lesser accomplishments, primarily concerned with the adornment of the city’s Great Hall—the artist fell into what Martin Gayford, author of Michelangelo: His Epic Life, calls a “highly wrought state.” He brawled, was banned from certain neighborhoods, and, according again to Gayford, allegedly performed an unsanctioned dissection of a corpse belonging to a member of the powerful Corsini family. This he undertook, in the words of Soderini, “to add to his art.”

The Pope, meanwhile, sent three official briefs demanding Michelangelo’s return to Rome. Letters arrived on the 9th and 10th of the month from Giovanni Balducci the painter and Piero Rosselli the architect. Both implored Michelangelo to return to Rome. Michelangelo either did not reply or his return letters are lost—the Carteggio, the collected letters of Michelangelo that survive today, don’t list another letter written by the artist until December of that year. By the end of the summer, Michelangelo’s reticence brought Italy to the brink of a diplomatic crisis.

According to both his contemporary biographers, Giorgio Vasari and Ascanio Condivi, it was at this time that Michelangelo received a visit from a group of Franciscan friars, bearing the request from Bayezid, as Condivi writes, “to throw a bridge from Constantinople to Pera, and for other works.” In a copy of Condivi’s Vita di Michelangnolo Buonarroti, owned by Tiberio Calcagni the sculptor, Gayford notes that “next to the passage [were] the words, ‘It was true, and he told me he had already made a model.’” Ultimately, Michelangelo returned to Rome in the fall of 1506, with the prevailing view being that the artist never took seriously Bayezid’s request. It is from this point that Énard’s fiction diverges.

For the author of Compass, a hauntingly beautiful, elegiac novel about the influences of Islamicate culture on modern Europe, placing Michelangelo in the Ottoman court seems an almost too perfect project—exactly the kind of story on which Franz Ritter, Compass’s beleaguered, melancholic narrator might fixate. But whereas Compass allowed the scale of history to filter through those who study it—a cadre of lost soul academics variously strung out across Europe, Syria, and Iran—Tell Them reads more like a Saidian thought experiment, a historical counterfactual wrapped in the cloak of a novella. The bridge that the Sultan commissions from Michelangelo is, of course, not just imaginary architecture, but also a familiar, well-worn metaphor—the fantastical connection between Europe and Asia that never really was, or really never was so simple.

Énard’s Michelangelo
is terse, a serious and deeply proud man who nonetheless burns with a desire
for a world beyond his own. He arrives in Constantinople, furious at the Pope
and not without a sizable helping of petulance. The impiety of a Christian
artist plying his trade in one of the major capitals of Islam is not lost on

The bulk of the novel is spent hovering behind Michelangelo’s ear as he wanders the streets of Constantinople, accompanied at first by his dragoman—one of the many excellent words scattered throughout the book, it derives from the Arabic and Turkish words for interpreter and describes a man, often Greek, fluent in Turkish, Arabic, Persian, who serves as a guide to visiting Europeans—and then by Mesihi of Prishtina, who is also a real historical personage, poet and secretary to the Vizier Ali Pasha. Michelangelo draws, sketching his own left hand, men, horses, an elephant. He acquires a monkey, a gift from Mesihi, which he also draws. Énard’s language lingers in these scenes, writing around the activity of the artist rather than indulging in encomia of genius. “It’s work, above all.” Michelangelo says to Manuel the dragoman, “Talent is nothing without work.”

Early on, Michelangelo
intuits that his bridge must emerge from an understanding of the city, rather
than from an abstract aesthetic principle. This is where Leonardo’s design
failed, the “singular bridge, two parabolas that form a deck at their
asymptote, supported by a single arch, a little like a cat arching its back,”
held no common truck with the metropolis it sought to unite.

The bridge over the Golden Horn must unite two fortresses; it is a royal bridge, a bridge that, from two shores that everything keeps apart, will form a huge city. Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing is ingenious. Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing is so innovative that it is frightening. Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing is devoid of interest because he is thinking neither of the Sultan, nor of the city, nor of the fortress. Instinctively, Michelangelo knows he will go much further, that he will succeed, because he has seen Constantinople, because he has understood that the work demanded of him is not a vertiginous footbridge, but the cement of a city, of the city of emperors and sultans. A military bridge, a commercial bridge, a religious bridge.

A political bridge.

A piece of urbanity.

But here, Michelangelo’s confidence outpaces his comprehension. He has been in the city less than a week and has seen what little he has from the boat entering the harbor, from the window of his rooms, on the brief walking tours to the Hagia Sophia and to the Sultan’s palace. These influences, the novel tantalizingly suggests, will crop up 20 years later, in his design for the dome of the Basilica of St. Peter, but as yet they remain inconceivable. “The sculptor has never seen anything like it.”

As is so often the
case, it is through the traveler’s local proxy, here the poet Mesihi, that the
city opens up. Guided by this poet, this man very much in love with his
visitor, Constantinople becomes a twilight and midnight and dawn city, nights
of wine and melancholy, poetry that Michelangelo only half understands to be
about “love, drunkenness and cruelty.” As night falls, evening after evening,
Énard’s tone broadens, the perspective widening into a descriptive beauty that
he denies in the austerity of daylight.

They head west, where the sun has disappeared, leaving a pink trail above the hills; they pass the grandiose mosque that Bayezid has just finished, surrounded by schools and caravanserais; they follow the crest a little, then go downhill before reaching the aqueduct built by some forgotten Caesar which bisects the city with its red-brick arches. There is a little square there, in front of a church dedicated to Saint Thomas; the view is magnificent. The fires on the Pera towers are lit; the Golden Horn is lost in the meanderings of dark fog and, to the east, the Bosphorus outlines a grey barrier dominated by the sombre shoulders of Santa Sophia, guardian of the gap that separates them from Asia.

It is at night, too,
that Michelangelo encounters the voice that begins the novel, a dancer who
moves furtively in and out of the story, occasionally a distant silhouette
disappearing into shadows, in other moments supplanting the narrator to speak
directly to the artist and, by extension, us. The tragedy of this figure, at
times both man and woman, bears the emotional and moral core of the novel,
propelling a breathless intrigue that carries Tell Them to its
remarkable final act. “If you had breathed the madness of love into me,” the
dancer says to a sleeping Michelangelo, unable to hear, we gather, even if he were
awake, “perhaps we could both have saved ourselves.” A bridge goes up and a
bridge comes down, and history records neither its creation nor its fall.

With Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants, Matthias Énard continues his role as a profound chronicler of loss, a scribe of the long, sad story of Europe’s relationship with Asia. The Western imagination, his texts insist, is only ever partially capable of accepting the difference of its neighbors. Even as the tragedies of history are spoken, the listeners are asleep. And yet, Énard remains optimistic, his novels a powerful reminder that the possibility for connection remains. “Beauty,” Énard writes, “comes from abandoning the refuge of the old forms for the uncertainty of the present.” Would so-called Western civilization more easily recognize its debt to points east, had the events of this novel transpired? Perhaps. But perhaps, uncertain, the lesson is worth learning all the same.

‘Mothers’ Without Mothers: On Chris Power’s Collection

Chris Power’s debut short story collection, Mothers, is not a collection of stories about mothers. At least, not at first blush. Only three of the 10 stories in Power’s collection are anchored clearly—and even then tenuously—in a mother-child relationship: “Mother 1: Summer 1976,” “Mother 2: Innsbruck” and “Mother 3: Eva.” Using a variety of narrators, the three pieces track the life of Eva—a troubled, helplessly itinerant woman who was tragically mothered and who becomes, inevitably, a tragic mother herself. Eva’s impulses are protean. Her global travels both shield her and empty her, the drama of her life waxes and wanes. Her life’s end is a picture of despondency: There are no histrionics, no wild paroxysms—everything is simply bleak.

The three stories that follow Eva’s life—dispersed through Power’s collection as the first, middle, and final story—capture the thematic nexus that hovers under Power’s collection. The trio gets at the elusiveness that travels stubbornly—achingly—along with intimacy. In Power’s stories, as in life, a sense of estrangement begets (the pursuit of) freedom, begets longing, begets loving, begets estrangement… and so on. The strategic placement and probing nature of the pieces on Eva make them the support beams around which Power’s remaining stories take shape.

This is not to say, though, that the remaining seven pieces don’t stand alone. Power, whose column “A brief survey of the short story” has been a hit at The Guardian since 2007, wrote on James Joyce’s Dubliners that each story in the Irishman’s collection “functions perfectly well in isolation.” Power, too, has this writerly strength. His stories each have their own distinct ambiance, their own precise codes. You have the hollow sensuality and the teetering-on-the-cusp-of-breakdown tension in “Above the Wedding”—where Liam watches the man he desperately lusts after marry a woman he reluctantly respects. You have the complex ambivalence of “The Crossing,” where two strangers, after forging a partnership, deal with their profound misalignment; and then there’s the subtle crescendo of tension that blooms into brutal abandonment in “Run.”

You also have pure fun. Power is funny. He puts forth absurdity in the way you’d expect of a more modern (and better socialized) narrator of Beckett’s. The father of two daughters in “The Colossus of Rhodes,” for instance, remembers visiting the island of Cephalonia as a child. The island is impeccable, once the site of an ancient Greek wonder. He’d have written about his visit but his experiences don’t really merit the chore: “Boy gets felt up, sees kitten being kicked to death, then rips penis up in zip? What’s anyone meant to do with a story like that?” At least we as readers are comforted that he still has a bit of evidence in “the scar on [his] penis” which is, evocatively, “a line of raised, caramel-coloured skin as thin as a credit card”—I imagine the long side of a golden Visa, straight down the shaft.

In Mothers there is death—I mean arbitrary, misplaced-foot causing death—but there is also rebirth. In one story we witness a cocaine-induced epiphanic moment, where a struggling comic abandons his crutch act of “impersonating” Johnny Kingdom. He pulls over to the side of the road, tosses his Johnny Kingdom wig, jacket and shoes into the black field, and wipes his mouth with a hank of grass torn from the warm earth. We believe his real career, his real life, will start now. We see birth literally, too: When Eva dies at Mothers’s conclusion, her daughter is several months pregnant. Even in these emotionally wrenching scenes, Power is careful not to over-sentimentalize. Not once does he break the delicate combination of breezy and desperate that constitutes the tenor in much of his work. 

One question persists: If Power’s Mothers is mostly populated by a variety of fathers, gay men, and single and searching women—why, then, call the collection Mothers? Joyce’s Dubliners, for instance, is strictly about Dubliners, and Power points this out in his column. But Power also points out that while Joyce’s stories can function independently of one another, “reading each as part of a whole creates unique effects. Their themes, concerns and meanings overlap and reverberate.” This cohesion is true of Power’s work, too: Power’s literary feat in Mothers is in his stretching the hermeneutic bands of the very term mother.

mother, Power shows, is not only to birth and raise a child. When you consider
Power’s work as a whole you’re reminded that to mother is to nurture, sure, but
it is also to be irremediably blind to the object of nurture. It’s to brutally
abandon, as we see in “Run.” It is to agonize and obsess over, as we see in
“Above the Wedding,” and it’s to be utterly, often inexplicably apathetic
toward, even to hate. To mother is do
what’s most banal because it is most primordial, or atavistic, and it is also
to do what is miraculous, what is transcendent. It’s to shed “Johnny Kingdom”
on the side of the road—an act of mothering, even of birthing oneself—and
sometimes it’s to compulsively elude—the way Eva does—that which you’ve brought
into the world.

Harmony, Authentic or Contrived: On ‘Power, Pleasure, and Profit’

It seems appetite is limitless and everyone is its victim. In Power, Pleasure, and Profit, University of York historian David Wootton explores how and why the appetite-driven modern values that make up the title of his book have endured since they were elevated in the Early Modern and Enlightenment eras. Appetite, after all, is an inconstant constant always ranging about for objects, and it doesn’t seem to point the way to sustainable happiness, as most any honest person who grew up near wealth or power can attest. But if happiness can be built on something other than appetite, it’d have to be abstract, the product of reasoned reflection and acknowledgement of human frailty and limitations.

The alternative to appetite, then, is moderation and civic and personal virtue. Put another way, humane consideration of others and humane conduct of one’s own life could be paramount to indulgence. And, according to Wootton, the paragon of such moderation and virtue is Aristotle. “Just as Aristotle’s cosmos was limited,” he writes, “so too his moral and political philosophy depended on recognizing and respecting limits.” The problem is, with the advent of the modern era, appetites (and with them happiness and ambition) were increasingly viewed as limitless. What Aristotle’s worldview had held at bay through the medieval period was breaking out, and so thinkers had to reconsider how virtue and happiness could actually be predicated on limitless pursuit. The Western world is still sorting out the effects.

One unlikely alternative to heedless gratification, ironically, is Epicureanism, the original pleasure-seeking philosophy. Odd choice, one may say, but there’s a muted and sometimes not so muted sadness to much Epicurean writing (such as Lucretius), a melancholy love of a life that is limited in scope and duration, which makes the pursuit of pleasure understandable, even affecting and sympathetic. Wootton compellingly writes about the 17th-century French philosopher Pierre Gassendi, whose notion of Epicureanism rested on the pursuit of pleasure for the sake of tranquility. There’s a reassuring peace implicit in this worldview, a reflective (rather than hedonic) pleasure-seeking that isn’t self-serving so much as self-consoling, self-awakening. It’s a respite from the relentless stress of labor and self-assertion, which demands nothing but endless repetition of insatiable appetite and is, therefore, pointless.

The more happiness became about the limitless appetite of
individuals, the more conflict arose, Wootton contends. He writes with
remarkable prescience that “this paradigm of inexorable conflict, of
monopolistic ambition, is inseparable from the shift to a subjective notion of
happiness. As long as happiness is defined objectively, as identical to or
largely overlapping with virtue, conflict between individuals pursuing
happiness will be the exception, not the rule.” Throughout the Early Modern and
Enlightenment eras, some sought to create rational edifices to justify the
rightness of appetite, of individual pursuit in competition with the pursuit of
others. Still, managing an all-against-all world through rational systems by
believing everyone will live in harmony by pursuing their own way is nothing
more really than an article of faith of the modern era. We still call it

If indeed everyone pursuing their own self-interest against
everyone else leads to everyone getting what they want or need, it’s clearly
not working. The fabled “invisible hand of the market” seems to be either
missing in action or fulfilling a purpose contrary to the greatest liberty for
all. “The invisible hand of the market,” of course, is a foundational metaphor
of capitalist belief and, if viewed from the right angle (pun half-intended),
it’s swaddled in somewhat persuasive logic. Sure, theoretically, individual
pursuits and interests are so vastly varied that a marketplace composed of them
could serve all interests.

But competition, if it is to exist at all, needs a referee—and it feels in the current cultural moment where capitalism around the world takes on a more authoritarian/oligarchical posture that maybe it’s fundamentally broken. In theory, of course, authoritarians should be knocked aside with a flick of the invisible hand’s fingers, but it’s not happening. And sure, conservatives and their very wealthy Silicon Valley liberal kin (both often highly persuaded by Ayn Rand’s “thinking”) would say that, with the jettisoning of competition comes the enshrinement of mediocrity. Except what these pro-capitalist partisans fail to register is the vulgarity of their own claims. 

To assume virtue or greatness is predicated on the pursuit of power, pleasure, or profit (and heck, let’s throw in technological “innovation”) is vulgar and materialist in a way more offensive than the same charges brought against, say, socialist equality. After all, in socialism one is free to pursue self-interest only because one’s life isn’t mostly directed toward securing the material necessities of life. So is it more vulgar to assume virtue and happiness are predicated on materialist or instrumentalist pursuit, or to assume pursuit of virtue and happiness are more meaningful, more sustainable, when they aren’t enchained to the wheel of necessity? Nothing, in my estimation, is more vulgar than dressing up the indulgence of appetites or profit-churning machines as virtue or personal liberty, even with abstract justification provided in good faith by, say, Adam Smith.

And speaking of Adam Smith, Wootton excels in unpacking his complicated intellectual legacy. He quotes the capitalist godfather himself, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, expressing reservations about the rich and “their natural selfishness and rapacity.” Smith goes on to say that, despite those flaws, the rich are still led by the the invisible hand to carry forth “nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society; and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition.”

Like any sentient person, Smith sees through the manners and put-ons of so many of the rich to the growling appetite beneath. Sadly, though, that’s where it might end. Smith seems to think that somehow God allowed for the masses to flourish through the supposedly egalitarian opportunity afforded to them by the will of a few enterprising, paternalistic types. A God that would subject its unique, vulnerable creations to so-called “lordly masters” like, say, Rex Tillerson or Jeff Bezos is not, in my humble opinion, a deity any decent person would want to be associated with.

So what is to be done? Wootton’s notion of modest, practical
Aristoteilian-esque virtue in the face of limitless appetite is a compelling
one, and he stakes his claims methodically and persuasively. His is not exactly
a clarion call to action, but scholarship need not be part and parcel of
activism to be relevant. Ultimately though, Wootton’s theme speaks to the
ongoing conflict between short-term and long-term thinking. Obsession with
profits, pleasures, power, stock markets, science denial, narcissism, political
solipsism, anti-intellectualism, and so on in America and a lot of the West
today is symptomatic of our cultural reliance on short-term thinking (if any
thinking) at the expense of the environment and the humane consideration of
self and others, each the province of long-term thinking.

Whether our passions and appetites are boundless or not, it
might be time to at least pragmatically pretend they aren’t. It’s time to
consider ourselves as limited people with limited scopes pursuing lives
delimited by time, space, mortality, and chance. It’s time at the very least
try to live as if people are connected—economically, morally, spiritually—even
if, deep down, many don’t really feel it’s true. All there is to lose is
ceaseless competition and mounting unhappiness. Harmony, authentic or
contrived, is worth a try.

Maryse Meijer Sketches the Figure of Cruelty in ‘Northwood’

Most books are an experience, some books act as precious objects, but occasionally—when many stars and aesthetics align—a book can be both. Maryse Meijer’s Northwood enters that slim, murky category of journey and sculpture. Here is what you will notice about it first: It is physically, texturally gorgeous to see and to touch. Two distorted figures ooze across the bright red cover in a disturbing series of bulbous movements. These impressionistic bodies are both avoidant and entwined, in a fight or an embrace. The pages are black, the text is white, and the forms of the poems vary. Sometimes Meijer scatters the lines across the page, ostracizing each individual word. Sometimes there are fat chunks of prose crowded near the top of the page, the words hunched together in fear. You’ll want to rub your hands on the smooth covers, you’ll want to conspicuously leave this book lying around your desk. Friends will be drawn to it, coworkers will covertly flip through it.

The book’s artful appearance melds with the voice of the protagonist, a lonely artist who spends a year in a secluded cabin in the woods. She studies the figure, and her favorite figure happens to be an older man turned fairy tale villain whom she embraces with her whole body. Upon first seeing him, the anxious and self-destructive protagonist thinks he’s “older than any man I’d ever thought was beautiful, your beauty the first thing that hurt…”

A warning: The man is physically abusive. Meijer sketches the man’s cruelty as a figure, examining every aspect of that abuse, including its allure. The book studies the appeal of punishment for a person who feels they deserve pain; it examines the wrongheaded and sickly appeal of deep self-hate that once made you pick your acne or pull out your eyelashes in moments of stress.

Of course, the text often sharply veers from allure into ugliness. Instead of purely romanticizing a man who loves by hitting—which, of course, would be a mistake—the book also reacts to its subject with deep disgust. The poems overflow with bodily fluids: Blood is just about everywhere, crows shit all over streams, and “the sink/is streaked with bile.” There are also nagging anxieties about family members who might discover the affair; there is a concerned and clueless mother in the mix and a couple of spouses linger at the corners of the narrative, poking their heads in on occasion.

The only caveat is that the book falls short of fully realizing one of those spouses. At one point, a prince charming barrels into a story in the form of an unassuming husband. He first appears gracelessly, almost as a throwaway line: “There’s your husband now, asking you if there’s an extra jar of hot sauce somewhere he can’t find.” The protagonist loves him, but their relationship delves into darkness during one particularly sad night. After that evening, the husband fades into the background of the story, like wallpaper. Does the book dismiss him because he actually leaves? Does it reject him because he never mattered in the first place? Does the protagonist hate him for being a man who just wants to be a Nice Guy, does she hate him for not offering violence to validate her worst feelings about herself? Regardless, Meijer’s protagonist will drag you down into her most hideous, most beautiful pathos and ultimately, all of that outweighs anything about the guy who can’t find the hot sauce.

One last note: Perhaps the best part of this book is Meijer’s ability to add new dimensions to ancient cliches. She handles “once upon a time” imagery with a careful eye for cruelty, for weirdness. She so breathtakingly captures “the fox fingering his bride— / the dragon striking his tail on the stone.”  To indulge in a couple cliches in response: This book is a page turner; you won’t be able to put it down; you’ll read it all in one go.

A Horseman for the Headless: On Ismail Kadare’s ‘The Traitor’s Niche’

1978 was a good year for Albanian literature, if not for Albania. Its great man of letters, Ismail Kadare, released two books. Kadare is best known for his pitch-black humor, authentic to the painful saga of Balkan history, and for winning the inaugural International Man Booker prize in 2005. It was two years after his country’s Third Republic era had commenced in 1976, when readers of the Albanian language devoured his pair of linked historical novels, Three-Arched Bridge, and The Traitor’s Niche.

It was a time fraught with anxiety over the erasure of recorded time, as the infamous Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha instituted a new constitution in 1976 further enforcing the destruction of the multi-faith establishment that had been part of the small nation’s contested ancient Illyrian legacy, bloodstained by some five centuries of Ottoman occupation. According to atheist state law, preaching was a crime punishable by up to ten years in prison. Other such crimes were inconceivable beyond the isolationist government that ended in 1992, three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall lifted the Iron Curtain.

At the cusp of that epochal paradigm shift, Kadare chose exile in France, where he has lived out his golden years, since becoming a global voice who defends the artistic integrity of literature foremost over its political import. Yet, it is difficult to read his works without identifying certain critical parallels to the times in which he lived and wrote. Forty years after its publication in Albanian, the English translation by John Hodgson is effective in relaying the creative naturalism of his informal, though skillfully poetic, idiosyncratic tone. The complexity and sharpness of Kadare’s sentences are delivered with a powerful candor by Hodgson, an English writer and professor who also translated Three-Arched Bridge. It is the case that Kadare is an artful literary writer, a quintessential prose stylist, leading to his brushes with Nobel candidacy.

The Traitor’s Niche is not plot heavy. Kadare’s fiction intuits the spirt of the art movements of his day, orbiting the dark ambiance of indie cinema, goth punk, shock installation. The gift of Kadare as a writer is also not merely in the aesthetics of his language, but in the rudimentary transmission of deft, witty meaning, and deeply satirical commentary in dialogue with pages in history that were thoroughly obscured from his perspective in Albania, particularly as he wrote while priceless manuscripts went up in flames, disappeared from state-ransacked mosques and secularized churches.

Such blind and irreversible cruelty finds its perfect metaphor in the severed head. Be it a head of state without its body politic, as Ali Pasha of Tepelene came to resemble in the example of Hoxha, symbolizing the drive to sheer, ideological madness, often manifest in the form of extreme nationalism unfollowed by the national majority. But in the Balkans of Ottoman times, nations went doubly silent, unable to speak by law, while thoroughly disenfranchised of all cultural faculty as victims of multiple, overlapping forms of extractive politics. Finally, in Kadare, an Albanian voice penetrates the abyss of lost time.

Under the pen of Kadare, the central square of the old city in Istanbul resembles the present day with an unsettling likeness. It could be read as an imagistic comment on undemocratic, superficial progress, intractability at the core of Turkish life, where premodern and current trends constantly commingle. Like a freak of modernity, the word, “tourist,” as hotly used today as in the past, opens the narrative from the first page.

With his deft knack for original turns of phrase, Kadare writes: “The square was like a swimming pool whose water changed every half hour.” Fixed within its earthly tide is the introductory character of Abdullah, guardian of the traitor’s niche, a cutout of stone where decapitated heads are displayed. Kadare has a talent for conveying disgust, to the point where his readers may feel the need to retch at the thought of the overcrowded, overfed masses streaming past unfocused, dead eyes, blank with a colorless expression like “the distant reflection of a void,” stuck to a dish of honey.

Abdullah has his own, more personal problems. He breaks at a cafe, where many of the news-criers retire after losing their voices, also their livelihoods, as they read the news aloud in the streets for the illiterate masses. He also partakes in a bit of hashish. He needs it, as so many Turks do today, considering the parallel crises of national financial and political instability. As he notes, the price of currency is often a better indicator of imperial and international disputes than newspaper reports. But his problems are not merely shared by the state, and that is where he finds his greatest source of difficulty, given to envy and later delusions of grandeur that will be his downfall.

Abdullah is unable to satisfy his young wife. He visits a gregarious doctor. It happens to be the Night of Power, an Islamic holy day marking the eve when Muhammad first heard the Quranic revelation, also when the Turkish sultan traditionally takes a virgin into his bed. This is a point of great psychological friction for Abdullah, exacerbated by the rumors of the legendary harem of 38 women in far-flung Trabzon which the owner of the first head in the traitor’s niche is said to have enjoyed during orgies that turned his face yellow. That man was Bugharan, and he ended up bodiless in the traitor’s niche because he failed to vanquish Ali Pasha from his seat as the separatist Albanian governor who ruled from the seat of the Ottoman province that is now the northwestern Greek city of Ioannina.

As in historical fiction by contemporary Turkish writers like Ihsan Oktay Anar, who, in his, Book of Devices, details the sexuality of characters with cartoonish exaggeration during 19th century Ottoman times. Kadare also maintains the dirty mind of his repressed characters with the rawness of a pulp romance bought from a dusty used bookstore at the turn of the century in Istanbul. In that way, he cleverly portrays the spirit of the age when stuck-up, early Victorian mores imported from the West met with the fundamentalist traditions of Islam, only to unravel under the guise of self-censorship before the all-too-human spells of sex, drugs and violence.

Abdullah listens to the the doctor at a coffeehouse as he bluntly advises the impotent young man in public, assuring that his virility will return when his bride regrows her pubic hair. Kadare’s sense of humor is woven through his wordplay of the administrative language of Ottoman military and scholarly contexts, almost in the vein of a David Foster Wallace brand of outlandish mockery of official vocabularies. There are “assistant pronouncers of curses” who stand ready among the soldiers on the frontiers of battle, and a manual, “Regulations for the Care of Heads of the Condemned” with a chapter, “On the Use of Salt” which the decapitated head courier Tundj Hata refers to on route from the provinces back to the capital with the grisly state prize essential to his mission.

Hata endures throughout The Traitor’s Niche more than any other character. In fact, even after exhuming the third and last head of the novel from a grave five fathoms deep with his yataghan dagger, he returns home to the marital care of his loving wife. Hata ties many of the loose ends from head to head, capital to frontier, as the action of the novel follows him as he retrieves and delivers the remains of enemies of the state from the neck up. He is an unsavory presence, a quality that lends itself to his amoral attitude and bullheaded perseverance in the lifeless underworlds of the Ottoman-era Balkans. Like an enigmatic growth of the wilderness, ugly to the bone with his hennaed beard and flaxen face, he emerges out of the wintry mist like a misbegotten spawn of evil.

From the perspective of Hata and his reason for being, Albania is the sharp as the edge of the formidable empire, with its longest running dynasty in history. And over a hundred years after the novel’s period has passed, its geography on the southern reaches of the Adriatic Sea prompted inhabitants under the mid-20th century’s Communist rule to make a break for Corfu despite shoot-to-kill guards and floating mines. It has the aura of an outdoor prison, a terrorized ghetto, where people endure an existence without the light of humanity, driven to suicidal extremes, to see if there is life beyond the interminably overcast skies that darkened life from extremity to the heart of the empire under a uniform shade of foreboding.

There are passages in The Traitor’s Niche that evoke a reality worlds apart from that experienced by most around the world today, before near-universal, personal, handheld communication illuminated geographical remoteness with user-friendly information technology. Kadare writes, that when Hata traverses the no man’s land on the road between the capital and frontier, “the nothingness and the darkness were severing all his connections to this world.” And in that way, Kadare trains his novelistic writing into something more akin to the lost, versified literary forms of old, with his repetitions on the theme of decapitation, figurative and literal.

Kadare then breaks up the environment of darkness with flashes of levity, as when Hata takes unwanted shelter in an inn one night when the weather is too bad for him to continue, placing the head of Ali Pasha down at the hearth where a group of civil servants were gossiping about the private lives of famous people in the arts. Some things do not change. And while Kadare captures the historical moment about his subject, he has a swift ability to humanize it with a timelessness that makes for fine reading, whether in 1978, or 2018, as his penetrating sentences are unencumbered by glaring, technical research, but have all of the substance of eyewitness verity. The author clearly spent his life reading broadly enough to crack the hard shell of unknowing that confined his countrymen to state-approved knowledge.

Like the true Balkan tale, that “makes your flesh creep,” as Kadare states, he animates the territorial character. His settings are shrouded in deep, bold atmospheric writing. The natural border to Albania, for example, is bridged by the Ujana e Keqe, which is said to hold a body of a dead man in its structure. Every element is distilled into an effect that makes the skin crawl. While in the countryside, Hata espies a bride riding on horseback, and what could have been rendered into a scene of beauty is lowered to the humor of a ghastly scavenger who simply imagines her genitals riding up against the saddle.

The grim mood is punctuated by constant attention to the head itself, as it requires vigilant care. At one point, Hata must bargain to buy a handful of snow for its weight in silver from a village on his way through the backcountry. Demonstrating a pillar of historical fiction, Kadare brandishes his ingenious literary ear to the authenticity of provincial diction among the rustic, uneducated rabble who inhabit the featureless zones between provinces whose names are merely designated numerals. In one, where Hata gives a show of the head, he notices a mosque that had, “swallowed the old chapel without digesting it.” In his intelligent wording, Kadare gives vent to the visual history of Ottoman rule, even as it continues today in both historical preservation efforts and in Turkey’s political conservatism.

In some examples, the historical believability of Kadare’s storytelling reaches its limits. Vasiliqia, the 22-year-old wife and later widow to Ali Pasha identifies Byron’s literary merit, comparing him to the Albanian poet Haxhi Shehreti, who composed an epic poem about the height of Ali Pasha’s rule in Ioannina. In his lonesome hours, Ali Pasha is something of a political philosopher. While he was compared to Napoleon by the likes of Victor Hugo for his militant audacity, he was, by all accounts, a figure given to vanity and duplicity more than any socially redeemable qualities that would have made for a successful attempt at national separatism from the Ottoman Empire.

At one point, the autocrat engages himself in an inner monologue of sorts, in which he considers his resemblance to Scanderbeg, the mythical Albanian rebel leader who stood up to Turkish forces in the 15th century with great strategic skill and popular support. Ultimately, bankrupt of a real connection to the hearts and minds of his people, he sees his imminent death as his only ticket to eternity, throwing aside such measures of posterity as Byron’s celebrated “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” in which he is mentioned.

Exploring the condemnation of Ali Pasha, Kadare reflects on the complicated tradition of Albanian nationalist thought. He muses on the capricious hand of death that swept down to take the head of Hurshid Pasha, Ali Pasha’s killer who was once deemed the finest Ottoman general with claims to the title of grand vizier, yet had failed to find the proto-capitalist tyrant’s treasure. Kadare recognizes the legacy of violence in the Balkans as it has echoed down the halls of history indiscriminately, despite the many and varied changes of the guard over the centuries.

Before explaining the administration of language death, how Ottoman authorities meticulously unthreaded the Albanian social fabric of its cultural memory, the people grow as indistinct as the loose, colorless garments they are forced to wear, punished for having survived separatist leadership. Albania is epitomized as a place where people are forced to close the ends of their chimneys so their children are blackened and suffocate from soot, where tax collection is performed like bodily functions and borders are defined by human death. Even the way the country is named becomes dehumanizing, as its native tongue is replaced by the sound ravens make. Caw-caw, writes Kadare, renaming his country to denote desolation, emptiness, and the extinction of all humanity.

In the final passages of the slim, spacious novel, a dream comes to the capital from the reaches of Anatolia, to the imperial capital’s Palace of Dreams, where subconscious visions are gathered, circulated, and interpreted. It is said to hold the fate of Albania, a place that, even in the center of Istanbul no one really knows how to pronounce, despite a steady stream of heads coming from there to the traitor’s niche. Kadare translates the original meaning of Albania, from its autochthonous place name, Shqiperia: “a convocation of eagles with bloodstained plumage scattered by the winds and storms.”

‘Now Say This’: Rehearsing Lines for the Role of Parent

I worked with a public speaking coach during my last year of fellowship training. I’d been invited to give a talk at a national meeting, and my division chief worried that my lecturing skills would not reflect well on his program. The speaking coach sat through a practice run of my talk and had two simple suggestions: First, remove half the slides, and second, memorize the talk. “Simplify your message,” she said, “so that it comes across undiluted. And have the talk so committed to memory that you could give it without looking at the slides, as if you’re reciting lines from a script. That will take away most, if not all, of your nerves.” Her suggestions worked, not just for that talk but for every subsequent lecture I’ve given in the 10 years since that session, and I’ve passed along those two recommendations to colleagues and trainees who’ve shared their own angst about public speaking.

In their new book, Now Say This: The Right Words to Solve Every Parenting Dilemma, family therapists Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright advocate an approach to parenting that parallels the public speaking coach’s advice on lecturing. They’ve simplified their message to a handy acronym, ALP, which stands for attune, limit set, and problem solve. And they provide a set of scripts incorporating the ALP method that parents can memorize and recite verbatim to their children. The ALP strategy is not particularly unique. Many parenting books, including some recent classics like The Whole Brain Child and How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen, promote a similar approach to the child in crisis. Start with empathy, then introduce reality, and together come up with a creative solution. Their scripts, therefore, strike conventional notes: “You don’t want to leave the park now because you’re having so much fun,” one such script begins. “But it’s starting to get dark and we need to go home for dinner. Do you want to skip to the car or have me carry you on my shoulders?” Now Say This emerges as a singular title, a parenting book I never thought I’d encounter, in its explicit instructions to parents that these scripts can and should be memorized.

Turgeon and Wright established their credentials as parenting experts—and, in some households, divine saviors—with their first book, The Happy Sleeper. Children, from birth, have an innate biological ability and a strong physiologic need to sleep well, they argued in this bestseller. Most sleep issues lie at the feet of the parents and not the kids. Specifically, parents are too anxious, hovering, and present when their children are trying to sleep. With their Sleep Wave technique, which essentially translates to putting the baby down while awake and employing regimented five-minute checks only if the baby is crying, they introduced the concept of scripts with a three sentence mantra to be uttered during the five-minute checks. “Mommy (or Daddy) is here. I love you. Night, night.” The Happy Sleeper encouraged parents to be consistent and almost machine-like in their bedtime routines. Do the same activities in the same order leading up to putting the baby down to sleep, and stick to the five minute intervals and the three sentence script if the baby is crying. Let us design bedtime for you, Turgeon and Wright offered in this book, and we’ll get your kids to sleep all night long.

Now Say This takes this approach to bedtime and expands it to the rest of the day. Turgeon and Wright have offered up scripts for how to deal with a range of parenting struggles, from babies who pull their parents’ hair to eye-rolling pre-teens, from siblings who fight with each other to toddlers who refuse to brush their teeth. This seems like a radical leap. It’s one thing for parents to admit they can’t handle bedtime, quite another thing for parents to prefer following someone else’s blueprint rather than their own at all hours of the day. Now Say This rests upon two assumptions—the first, that parenthood can be scripted, and the second, that it should—and makes no apologies for these beliefs. The authors relay the genesis of their new book in an introductory chapter. During their book tour for The Happy Sleeper, the question and answer sessions inevitably spread out beyond sleep issues to general parenting concerns. As Turgeon or Wright relayed an answer to a parent’s question, employing some version of an ALP script (before they’d formally named the approach), the mothers and fathers in the audience frantically scribbled down their responses. After the talks, these same parents approached the authors and showed them their notes to make sure they got the words exactly right.

Kim Brooks begins her riveting book Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear, with the story of how she left her 4-year-old son in the parking lot of a strip mall while she ran inside, for five minutes, to buy him a replacement pair of headphones. While she was in the store, someone called the police to report what he or she deemed delinquent behavior. In trying to understand why a stranger would feel compelled to do such a thing, Brooks realizes that she had “tapped into a common and long-established tradition of mother-shaming, the communal ritual of holding up a woman as a ‘bad mother,’ a symbol on which we can unleash our collective, mother-related anxieties, insecurities, and rage.” Her book explores why parenting and fear have become synonymous—how “parenting” has become a pervasive verb that represents, to quote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an “endless, anxious journey of guilt”—and one of her conclusions is that “the object of fear correlates less to the level of risk than to parents’ ability (or perceived ability) to exert control over the outcome.” Parents dissect and analyze their every action, their every word, their every gesture and endow them with far-reaching implications for their children’s long term futures. Is it any surprise, then, that such anxious parents are more than willing to recite a family therapist-penned script rather than improvise their own lines?

My brother told me recently that he was having some behavioral issues with his 2-year-old, and when I pressed Now Say This onto him, explaining its modus operandi, he brayed at the idea of reciting prefab lines to his crying son. Because my brother is an executive, I appealed to his work life. “If you had to have an uncomfortable conversation with an employee,” I said, “like if you had to fire someone, wouldn’t you plan out what you were going to say beforehand, and try to have that conversation go as close to your plan as possible?” He would, he conceded, and eventually said he’d read the book, although I doubt he will. Not yet. He didn’t seem anxious enough. He still thought that he and his wife, on their own, could right the ship. He had yet to realize what Kim Brooks calls “our darkest fear as parents: the fear of failure.”

I concede that I have realized that fear when I see the black eye my 7-year-old daughter gave my 4-year-old son “by accident,” or when I watch my 1-year-old mimic their shouting at the dinner table, and perhaps that is why I am so willing to follow the scripts penned by Turgeon and Wright. Why I’ve snapped pictures of the book for my phone’s camera roll and sneak peeks for suggested lines before knocking on my daughter’s locked bedroom door (“What are you trying to communicate to me right now?”) or responding to my son’s repeated requests for a snack (“It’s almost dinnertime, and it’s important to keep your belly empty so that you’ll enjoy the meal”). In Small Animals, Kim Brooks compares her irrational fears as a parent to her childhood terrors of a wolf that lived in the back of her closet:
The wolf was going to eat me, though I begged him not to. He could not be reasoned with. He could not be appeased. The wolf was clever and well-spoken, and one day, amused by my pleading, he told me that if I counted to fifty before I fell asleep every night, he would stay in the closet; he would not come out. I still remember how I lay in bed, tight beneath the covers, counting slowly in my head. It made no sense, but I believed it. I knew that if I counted, I’d be safe. One, two, three, four, I counted every night, all the way to fifty. I never doubted or wavered in my counting. I wanted to be safe.
So many parents want that safety, too, and, like the little girl that Brooks once was, seek solace in words.

In addition to scripts for parents to recite to their children, Turgeon and Wright in Now Say This also provide mantras for parents to say to themselves in their worst moments, when they must seclude themselves from their children for a few seconds to calm down and muster up the strength to re-enter the fray of parenting in 21st Century America. “I can handle this,” is one such mantra. It may not be true, but it’s simple, and it’s easy to memorize. If anxious parents rehearse their lines enough, they can deliver the performance their kids need.