Novelizing Turkish Feminism: On Suat Derviş’s ‘In the Shadow of the Yalı’

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The novel In the Shadow of the Yalı has been translated afresh for contemporary Anglophone readers by Maureen Freely, an author of seven novels, chair of English PEN, and perhaps best known as a translator for Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk. In the Shadow of the Yalı was initially written as a Turkish newspaper serial in 1944, and Freely likens its flamboyant prose to the heady atmosphere of midcentury feminism led by Simone du Beauvoir, particularly in her book The Second Sex. When Suat Derviş’s pulpy novel first appeared for Turkish readers, France had just granted women the right to vote, a full decade following Turkey’s suffragette movement, which, while granting women voting rights in 1934, did not overturn single-party rule until 1950.

In the wake of such seemingly garish political contradiction, Derviş and her sister, Hamiyet, lived and starved in Paris between the Literary Left and the Communist Party, the latter eventually supporting Derviş because of her connections with poet Nazim Hikmet, who was then exiled from Turkey in the Soviet Union. In France, she rewrote her novel in Turkish, and Hamiyet translated it into French. The sisters were navigating the borders of liberality, where society and literature were lovers whose intimacies turned heads from Paris to Istanbul. Freely reflected on the pressures that Derviş experienced from the general secretary of the French Communist Party, putting her name to romantic fictions that served to express the very bind in which women were caught: between stable marriages and impetuous affairs, under the multigenerational gravity of patronymic male inheritance, and at the mercy of officialdoms that treated women as voiceless functionaries born to uphold family honor.

In the Shadow of the Yalı, as it appears in the 2021 edition published by Other Press, is more true to the Turkish original, even if Freely herself confessed that its language was “breathy,” “occasionally baggy,” and dripped with the “gothic excess” of its emotional extravagance, making it comparable to a soap opera or telenovela. The plot is simple, even redundant, and although its literary merit is arguably farfetched, Derviş wrote with an evergreen intuition for metaphor. It is a classic tale of wifely disenfranchisement, of a party-going modern woman named Celile who goes from a steady, 10-year marriage with Ahmet to his financier and her seducer, Muhsin, whose political ambitions and unrivaled wealth appear as spectacular as the night sky. Celile, however, is from a decrepit Ottoman yalı, or seafront mansion on the Bosphorus strait, many of which still dot Istanbul’s shores. Her romantic tragedy is indicative of the dishonor that Ottoman families endured as 1920s modernism roared them into oblivion.

Derviş was a prolific novelist, writing since the age of 16, setting her fictions in the manner of social realism, a genre that, when she wrote, was surpassed by interwar postmodernism. Yet, with Turkish women as her readers, she drew her genteel audience to the page amidst a progressive if censorial publishing climate in Turkey that had printed feminist news and views since the 1870s. She had led double lives in those pages, as a political journalist, she earned the attention of her mostly male readership while becoming a popular subject of interest herself. She could be found overspending at dessert cafes in sight of the Bosphorus mansions that she novelized to capture Ottoman decadence—a reality that continues in Turkey’s government culture of Islamic populism. In the Shadow of the Yalı frames Celile and her mansion-bound grandmother, Çeşmiahu, as figments of a vestigial past in confrontation with a sociopolitical guard that, while changing, adheres to a shared and ongoing patriarchy in which Turkish women fall between the cracks of male-led Westernization.

Çeşmiahu is a lightly fictionalized autobiographical adaptation of Derviş’s grandmother, as both grew up as Circassian slaves to the sultan’s harem before being married to wealthy pashas. Yet, if Freely’s prefatory biographical notes are any indication, Celile was perhaps the least like Derviş herself (their beret-clad feminist bohemian fashion sense might have been similar). Although she would go on to marry the general secretary of the Turkish Communist Party, Derviş preferred to be seen as an independent woman, not in her husband’s shadow. She demanded to be introduced as a writer, not a wife. That the status quo saw her as subordinate to her spouse runs parallel to Celile, not only in the shadow of the Ottoman yalı but of her husband and lover. She rewrote her novel in French, but, as Freely’s translation emphasizes, its English reads like a quotidian Ottoman romance, Francophile in its gushing melodrama, roundly simplistic and full of tropes that challenge the reader to wonder if, at times, Derviş merely co-opted the salable objectification of women that she spent a lifetime rewriting, exposing, and overturning.

Toward the novel’s end, Celile repeatedly bemoans her fate, pitying herself after listening to Muhsin mansplain her into submission to convince her that their love is such that they need not marry, appear in public, or, when she is pregnant, have a child. But she later hides three months of pregnancy from him. He reacts by demanding she abort the baby. As a narrator and in Celile’s voice, Derviş blurred representation and critique of misogyny for dramatic effect: “‘What a helpless, passive creature I am!’ she thought. She lacked the will to die, just as she lacked the will to live.” In other passages, such as when Celile goes missing on the night of another young woman’s death, Derviş uses terms like “loose” or “demented” for women (as translated into English by Freely).

Celile’s character is divulged elaborately, her personality formed in the vise of her school, which was mostly comprised of modern children from the “new order.” That she came from a “rotting, crumbling yalı” where “dying traditions” could be smelled in the air, placed her square outside of the social life of her fellow students. Her anxiety as an outsider defined her marriage, although her condition, which she suppressed, went unnoticed by her husband Ahmet, who would not be able to detect her affair until Muhsin broke the news to him face-to-face. It was 10 years after they were married when Ahmet came across Muhsin at a “gazino,” where men gathered to eat, drink, and revel. Muhsin secured a bank guarantee for Ahmet, who had been involved in smuggling food from Bulgaria.

In the Shadow of the Yalı is shaped by the narrator’s voice, an omniscient observer whose running commentary reflects on Celile’s experience as a woman in Istanbul, where, despite being married, “a beautiful woman was always under watch, no matter how private or solitary her life.” The narrator wonders, on behalf of Muhsin, why Ahmet might exhibit his wife, and more, why she might accept his advances. The colorful narration has the effect of fomenting a gossipy Greek chorus that explores the dramatic tensions of moral conscience against the temptations of love and money—and of belonging to the saga of modernism. When the cat is out of the bag and Celile’s affair with Muhsin is known, Ahmet responds, firstly, with affectionate forgiveness. His relatively progressive stance is matched by Muhsin, who poses a number of arguments for Celile to remain with him, in love, but unwed.

Quite quickly, Celile exclaims that she loves Muhsin, the words falling from her lips to enchant him. As the narrator unsentimentally explains, “Wouldn’t any woman say this to her lover as she lay in his arms in his small apartment.” It is his love that provides an antidote, however fleeting and deceptive, to her lifelong waywardness. The yalı’s shadow lifts when they consummate their passion, and by the force of their desire slaked, she is, as Derviş wrote: “Freed at last from the decaying yalı and its dying breed.”

There is an undercurrent to Muhsin’s motives in which his desire to subdue Celile comes to symbolize the assimilative, even imperialistic tendencies of modernism. Celile, to him, is not merely a beautiful woman, nor simply the wife of his underling business partner, but an emblem of the past that they would all like to see snuffed out. After describing the voluptuous features of Celile—her “leopard eyes” and “white skin, soft as velvet”—Derviş wrote: “For what he sensed in Celile’s devotion was the extravagance of the old aristocrats, whose wealth and power belonged to the distant past.”

But instead of digging further into a more nuanced tale of socio-historical metaphor, Derviş, pressured by the conditioning of her immediate social spheres among the elite leftists who supported her in Paris, dove headlong into what Freely has called “puzzling aspects of indigenous sexual mores.” These, as her novel reads, are the surface-level tit-for-tat in which Muhsin and Ahmet engage, quite pathetically, by a series of unspoken or indirect gestures. Theirs is a shamefaced and rather flaccid passive-aggressive male sexual competition over the possession of a woman. The sore loser, Ahmet rages at parties defaming his wife as a prostitute, while Muhsin is rankled by doubt and jealousy. He imagines that Celile has successfully played him to benefit her husband, sacrificing herself to social suicide out of love for Ahmet, or worse that, eventually, she could leave him too.

Ultimately, Derviş leaves the last word to Celile, but her utterance is as obscure and unfulfilled as her very life. The men, as is common to patriarchal oppression, are heavy-handed in their words and actions so that by the time she has a moment to speak, she has lost all sense of love, life, and self. She is still every bit in the shadow of the yalı, those fixtures of the past that, like American suburbia or the downtown tenements of New York and Istanbul, once glimmered with the sheen of hope but since have endured the depravities of impoverishment—returning to capture the imagination of new money and old stories.

Grace and Oblivion in the Forgotten Neighborhoods of ‘Shaky Town’

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Knowing full well that every city’s defining sights take up only a scant percentage of the whole, Lou Mathews has spent much of his life chronicling the ignored sectors of Los Angeles. His stories investigate the ways in which our best and worst tendencies play out in community—and the paradoxical manner in which community itself both preys upon and elevates the individuals within it. Yet, like the broken neighborhoods his fiction documents, Lou Mathews’s work has remained rather close to the shadows, its many qualities passed over as readers make their way to established literary landmarks. This is an unfair oversight that his newest work, Shaky Town, is poised to correct.

Shaky Town is a tough and beautiful mural of a novel constructed though interwoven short stories that explore the streets of East Los Angeles in the 1980s. Eschewing even the faintest strain of stereotypical L.A. glam, Shaky Town is populated with chain link fences instead of pools, pollution instead of seashores, and the “watercolor sadness of smog,” as an art professor tells his students.

Like the city itself, Shaky Town is situated precariously on a latticework of geological, interpersonal, and psychological fault lines. The characters and locations crisscross each other’s narratives, providing the novel’s natural sense of zoning. Throughout the book, our through-line is Emiliano, the self-appointed mayor of Shaky Town. We are first introduced to Emiliano in “Emiliano Part I: The Mayor Proclaims” as he chats up a “constituent” at a bus stop, trying to convince him that they share a knowledge of Spanish. When the “constituent” denies this, Emiliano says, “You know burrito. You know taco. Enchilada. Maybe even chile relleno… That’s part of the language,” which causes a chuckle and a small degree of camaraderie. In Lou Mathews’s capable hands, it is enough.

And it is essential: after this fleeting moment, the stories veer sharply into tragedy, beginning with Emiliano recapping his long life in Shaky Town. Employed, years prior, by the movie industry to make breakaway furniture for fight scenes, Emiliano lost three of his fingers while working drunk after his son died of polio. “I measured wrong… The table saw didn’t care.”

Soon after, in “Crazy Life,” we follow Dulcie Gomez as she goes to the police station to advocate for her boyfriend, Chuey, freshly arrested for his role as wheel man in a drive-by. Chuey now shares a cell with the Mephistophelian Sleepy Chavez, who did the actual shooting and threw the gun out the window to blur responsibility. Dulcie knows if Chuey betrays Sleepy, he is putting himself in immediate danger from the gang. But, if he doesn’t, he will take the fall and enter the legal system. So, Dulcie watches helplessly as Chuey shuts down in indecision and the lawyer “packs his briefcase and walks away, shaking hands with everybody. The TV is waiting for him outside.” Though Chuey will eventually choose, we already know neither choice leads to good things.

“The Garlic Eater” finds Mr. Kim buying a local grocery store, in which he proudly displays Korean flags and products behind the counter. His wife “thought it was foolish to put the only goods their customers wouldn’t steal behind the counter, but Mr. Kim liked the display.” Immediately after opening, Mr. Kim is greeted with the tough realities of his new neighborhood and, shortly after his wife is brutally beaten by the junkies he is trying to fend off, he decides to stand his ground—and to buy a gun.

Providing the emotional center of the book, “Emiliano Part II: A Curse on Chavez Ravine” recounts the redevelopment Chavez Ravine in the 1950’s to accommodate the construction of Dodger Stadium. The stadium, Emiliano says, is built upon a place that once was “like living in the hill country of Mexico. No paved streets, no sewers, no electricity… It smelled like Mexico. Woodsmoke, chiles… tortillas, and beans. Roosters woke you in the morning, but you could see City Hall.” But the city unscrupulously repossessed the land from residents, and the final holdouts were forcibly removed. Emiliano recounts how his Aunt Lupe fought the city by chaining herself to her house. When she failed to stop the demolition, she put a curse “on any Latino who played for the Dodgers.”

Then, with “The Moon Reaches Down for Me Like the Fist in a Siqueiros Painting,” we return to the book’s current time, as an art professor punctuates his commute with liquor stores and drinks his way home, “safe: inside the car, behind the [sun]glasses, surrounded by music” while his mother is in a nearby hospital, dying from cancer.

In “Con Safos Rifa,” aimless machismo drives a group of St. Patrick’s high school students to arrange a fight with students from a rival school. As it turns out, the fight would have been a rout aided by local gang members had the St. Patrick’s students not first been arrested while waiting for their opponents to arrive.

Again and again, oddly graceful moments present themselves as the antidotes to the haze of violence and self-destruction. Emiliano, in “Emiliano Part III: Last Dance,” delivers a speech praising a neighbor he resents at her 75th birthday party after the priest scheduled to give the speech doesn’t show up. Emiliano paints a lush and flattering portrait for the crowd and, though he doesn’t believe his own words, his speech is a balm for his neighbor’s hidden emotional wounds. After the speech, he dances with her while the band plays her unfaithful late husband’s favorite song, then he leads “her to the dark corner of the gym so that her family won’t see her crying and blame me.”

In the eponymous novella occupying the bulk of the book’s closing, Brother Cyril, the newly appointed dean of discipline at St. Patrick’s, discovers his position was previously occupied by a priest who had molested numerous children. Learning the school’s new marble alter table had recently been donated by the diocese in exchange for the school’s willingness to harbor the priest, Brother Cyril takes a hammer and destroys the gift. His faith in the church shattered, he turns to alcohol and prostitution.

Finally, with “Emiliano Part IV: Ride the Black Horse,” we are presented with a panoramic view of the earthquake we’ve long been sensing. Providing a perfect coda, Emiliano describes how the landscape itself loses solidity. “The freeways looked like gray snakes rippling upward… The hills of Elysian Park humped and twisted.”

Lou Mathews never shies away from exploring the way integrity so often becomes a liability diametrically opposed to self-preservation. Again and again, the social, emotional, and economic fissures that striate Shaky Town are exposed by sudden bursts of pent-up aggression. Our choice of actions may not be easy, Mathews reminds us, but it is usually clear: though there is often no reward, do the right thing.

With Shaky Town, Lou Mathews has constructed a prismatic singularity replete with elegant and empathetic renderings of people forced to weigh difficult choices. The stories gleam, despite their sadness, with the glow of every person’s potential to rise above the wreckage that surrounds them or, if nothing else, to go down swinging for what they know, beyond all else, is true.

Over, Under, Sideways, Down: On Louis Menand’s ‘The Free World’

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Louis Menand has generated an uninterrupted flow of far-ranging critical commentary in the pages of the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, and his books, one of which—The Metaphysical Club—was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. American Studies, published almost 20 years ago, is a wonderful, representative sampling of his magazine writing. Many readers would like a sequel.

The Free World is Menand’s newest book, which bears the almost audaciously broad subtitle Art and Thought in the Cold War. The Free World, though, emphatically makes good on its promise: It is a Herculean, revelatory examination of this vast historical terrain. Within its pages are a far-ranging dramatis personae that include—to name but a very few—Susan Sontag, Elvis Presley, Jasper Johns, George Orwell, and Hannah Arendt.

Did he feel any inhibition about attempting a work of this scope? “I didn’t really know what I would include until I had written three or four chapters,” Menand says via email. “Then I was able to see where the trend lines were that would get me to my predetermined terminus, Vietnam. It was then a matter of deciding which stepping-stones would get the reader to see the changes I was trying to document.

“Things included were things that gets us there (U.S. as center of increasingly global culture, international exchanges, opening up of American society and the arts), so generally not conservative thought or other ‘backlash’ tendencies—though of course they are there and are part of the story,” he says. “I feel I could have written 18 more chapters, if I could live forever.”

The Free World is wisely structured into discrete, yet cross-pollinating, loci. By dint of narrative sweep, analysis, a judicious use of statistics, and some not-inconsequential dollops of humor, the book presents a comprehensive picture. The Free World also—crucially—provides the space for readers to draw their own conclusions.

Drawing one’s own conclusions about this large swath of history makes sense for many reasons. “[I]n general,” Menand says, “as a historian, you are giving readers the tools to analyze for themselves topics you did not take up.”

The era of the Cold War was undergirded by apocalypse. World War II was in the very recent past. With the advent of the atomic age, there was the real prospect of another apocalypse, this one capable of ending sustainable life on the entire planet. America’s insidious notions of racial superiority were legally codified. The CIA, as Menand amply documents, was unleashed. And The Free World is unflinching in chronicling the era’s “deeply entrenched ideology of gender difference” that manifested itself in vicious, often violent misogyny.

At the same time, the United States went through a cultural and intellectual big bang. Higher education expanded to unprecedented levels. One could function on minimal income and still be able to write, paint, make music. Magazines proliferated. Ideas mattered.

There was also an envy-inducing dose of serendipity. The legendary movie critic Pauline Kael, we read, “started out writing plays, but one day in 1952, she was sitting with a friend in a coffeehouse in Berkeley talking about Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight. The discussion was overheard by Peter Martin, who was the co-founder, with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, of City Lights Book Shop. Martin also edited a movie magazine called City Lights. He invited Kael to write up her reviews on Chaplin. She did.”

The sweep of advancement was stunning, but just as stunning was the plethora of so many hideous elements. How can one properly assess this wide, complicated swath of history? Or do we live with the contradictions?

“Gotta live with them, but with regret,” he says. “I was a little surprised to see how small a role Cold War politics played in the art and poetry (apart from Howl) world, actually. It’s there, but it does not really impact the creative elements. The success the U.S. had as an emerging cultural power does make one think that the ‘hideous’ elements were unnecessary. But the government was hawkish all through the period (and beyond). We wasted not only a lot of money in the arms race but a lot of political capital as well.”

So much of Louis Menand’s oeuvre has focused on the craft and practice of writing? What was his practice in the crafting of The Free World? “You just roll out the carpet,” he says. “You want every sentence to follow, as though inevitably, the last sentence, same with paragraphs and chapters.

“Because that is how you want the reader to experience the book, as a continuous whole.”

Nature Isn’t Always Nice: On Megan Kaminski’s ‘Gentlewomen’

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In Being Wrong, her insightful study on the importance of error in our lives, Kathryn Schulz writes that “however disorienting, difficult, or humbling our mistakes might be, it is ultimately wrongness, not rightness, that can teach us who we are.” Upon initially seeing the title of Megan Kaminski’s third book, Gentlewomen, I had erroneously thought it might be a reference to and critical rewriting of Gentlemen, the 1993 album by the indie-rock group Afghan Whigs (much like Liz Phair’s 1993 album, Exile in Guyville, was a rewriting and critique of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street). While the wrongness of my first impression served a welcomed dose of humility, the mental redirect was equally helpful in reading Kaminski’s engaging and deft poems with a fresh perspective and without the weight of peculiar expectations.

Instead, the gentlewomen Kaminski refers to are the historically feminine Natura, Providentia (referred to as Providence), and Fortuna, which she imagines as sisters. Each of the sisters has a section of her own in the book along with two “Dear Sister” interludes, which function as part epistolary poem and part somatic song. Although the book has nothing to do with the Afghan Whigs, Kaminski’s poetic speakers take aim at patriarchal and humanistic hubris, the aggregating centuries during which men have bent both heaven and earth to their methods. As Kaminski notes in a recent interview, in writing the book she asked herself: “What would happen if Nature was given the chance to speak? How gentle would she really be?”

And indeed, in the book’s first section, we’re treated to Natura speaking for herself in the poem “Lake” when we’re warned that:
…Nature isn’t always nice but if you come inside
I’ll share my wardrobe, water-drenched by silken fine: kelp scarves
wrap necks and wrists, chiffon shroud violet-ribboned, pewter noose
saturated with precious stone. Lick ankle, calf, thigh––I devour with
satin tongue.
As it turns out, Natura––like many mothers, unfortunately––has to repeat herself to finally be heard. Kaminski reinforces this point by offering us five poems in the opening section entitled “the lost girls,” three called “Oh, Natura,” and several other poems noting the term lady in the title (e.g. “Velvet Lady”; “Furred Lady”). The serial yet dispersed poems of “the lost girls” sequence highlights, through sheer repetition, the myriad ways that losses compound: the loss of self (“we carry no I”); loss of consideration (“await whispers from mothers that never come”); and the general loss of a sort of Blakean innocence that was never allowed to take hold in the first place. In perhaps one of the most chilling lines from “the lost girls” poems, Kaminski writes that “a daughter who never returns / never disappoints.”

As the poem “Instructions (how to hold the world)” demonstrates, Providentia, for her part, is pluralistic and dynamic: “[t]he porous body of we and I and they and so. To contain to let wander to give and give and.” Moreover, “Instructions (how to hold the world),”which can be read almost as a kind of mantra amidst the blurs and folds of Pandemia, imbues the infinitive form with urgency, emotional resonance, and propulsion—and, when seen from Providentia’s point of view, reveals the all-too-real effects of planetary disregard on both micro- and macro-scales:
To give yourself until there is nothing left. To be broken into so many
pieces the only option to piece something new. To open to dust. There
is nothing and everything and perhaps no you anymore.
The subsequent poems in the Providentia section are a catalogue of “I”-cum-world, often pairing the environmental and the man-made, with poems such as “I am wind and hot wings” or “I am power line and brush fire”; there’s even a wink to Emily Dickinson in “I am fly buzz and oak blight.” In these poems, we’re treated to a toggling between “I” and “eye” that simultaneously extends empathy while also implicating us in our environmental inertia: “the beer in the ice bucket / the clock ticking into the wall.”

Kaminski says she is “interested in the lyric self as site for commingling with historical, cultural, and political systems, with genetic and projective ancestors, with the various plants, animals (including humans), and material objects that inhabit our worlds,” and these concerns are evident in the poems of Gentlewomen. The final section of the book, devoted to Fortuna, is a long poem assessing the price (and damage) of relentless want, as one speaker exclaims “Oh horror Oh longing for a new dinner jacket” and another exclaims “my palms tremble / wistful entreats for gouted legs to carry firm / and fast, currency-swapped and option-hedged.” The structure of the long poem envelops the reader in the ruthless consumption that Fortuna is barraged with, her much-deserved break from consumption forever out of reach.

In Gentlewomen, readers will find echoes and dialogue with the poetry of Lisa Jarnot, Sarah Mangold, Jennifer Moxley, Evie Shockley, Elizabeth Willis, and C.D. Wright, among others. Kaminski astutely shifts registers and formal structures in the book to give voice to often unseen or unheard ecologies, and the poems continually explore the sonic and somatic boundaries of the page. It’s a testament to Kaminski’s gifts as a poet that Natura, Providentia, and Fortuna are distinct characters even as they share concerns. She has written a captivating book of lyric poetry that radiates pathos and raw verve, but, as a withered Fortuna explains, that generosity comes at a cost:
and I and my sisters,
ever present always listening,
tended until our hands blistered
bent until our bones snapped
gave until lungs extinguished aflame
Amidst so much isolation and loss over the past many months, Kaminski’s laudable effort cleaves a space for us to listen a bit more attentively; to learn from the accretion of errors we’ve both inherited and bequeathed as a species (and not just in terms of my misplaced musical associations from the ’90s); and to empathetically navigate a way forward through the world she so heartbreakingly articulates and envisions.

Who Is Unthinkable? On Imbolo Mbue’s ‘How Beautiful We Were’

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1.
Fake news has never angered me on a visceral level. I don’t earnestly engage with conspiracists who fret about Satan worshippers or baby-eaters, for instance, and I have always found those who do amusing curiosities. For me, real anger has to imply a degree of sincerity and investment. Viscerally, I worry about how it is possible to possess the right knowledge without following through with the right actions.

It pesters me, for one, that I and every person I know agree with the scientific consensus that we are on track to log a two-degree temperature rise by 2050, which would herald “catastrophic” consequences. But few take this knowledge seriously. I’m not saying such a person doesn’t exist; that person is just weird and extraordinary enough to warrant his own ProPublica profile, and his profile reads more like a description of performance art taken too far than a considered ethical response to crisis. Dumpster diving for leftover food, practicing “humanure,” and driving a biodiesel converted car—the outlandish austerity of these practices make Peter Kalmus an archetypal American eccentric. But that view of him—eccentric!—defangs the righteousness of his undertaking. Kalmus has long ago given up any semblance of a “normal” life, and his wife is at the end of her rope. Who wouldn’t be, with a partner obsessively confronting everyone at every turn in all-caps “NOT TO DESTROY THE FUCKING EARTH?” But maybe this is the kind of reckless abandon of social convention—or, conversely, the assumption of radical personal responsibility—that is demanded of us amidst systemic failure.

The pandemic has intensified my malaise regarding the irremediable gaps between the individual and the collective, knowledge and action. The absence of any coordinated response or consistent messaging has tinged daily decision-making for mundane tasks like buying groceries, sending kids to school, and seeing friends with streaks of nihilism. On some mornings, I think virtuously to myself of George Eliot’s line, “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts.” I pat myself on the back for making unhistoric sacrifices for the sake of a greater good. But by the evening, as I drift to sleep, I dwell on how short life is, how it only belongs to me, and how I am therefore accountable only to living my best life for myself.

2.
In The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh, whose genre-crossing novelistic work integrates elements of fable, science fiction, and memoir, asks why climate change persistently eludes our powers of comprehension. The most compelling essay in Ghosh’s tripartite investigation focuses on the conventions and limitations of literature. Why is climate change and its impacts on our lives, he asks, so resistant to representation in novels?

The archetypal literary fiction novel, Ghosh claims, relies on establishing a “sense of place.” To succeed in foregrounding its own particular human drama, the novel has to first delineate a discrete space and time. Historically, this logic mirrors assumptions accompanying the social station of an emergent bourgeoisie in Europe. The family unit flourishes and enters society when it has carefully secured the property lines of its own well-pruned estate. Novels, too, are meaningful so long as their events and relationships unfold within their temporally and spatially bound settings. Against this backdrop, the “individual moral adventure,” which John Updike distinguished as the defining characteristic of the novel, takes place.

To illustrate the historical constraints of the novel, consider how uniquely absurd the following rewrites of classic works would be. A violent cyclone upstages the weddings at the end of Pride and Prejudice! A tornado destroys the March family home in Little Women! Believable? Not at all. These novels are rich and capacious enough to entertain deception and romantic betrayal, illness and even (offstage) war—but introducing the nonhuman agency of weather events to their plots would exile these books to the science fiction shelves.

Ghosh’s treatise diagnoses the symptoms of a pervasive cultural inability to grasp climate change in literary expression. Now, he poses, can the novel be remade? Can it be refashioned to tell stories about our collective predicament in the temporal horizon of the present rather than the future, the everyday rather than the fantastical? Or will the chasm widen between the literary mainstream and science fiction; between mundane life set in this world in the present, and supernatural events set in a fundamentally other world in the distant future?

Ghosh’s questions resonate with the frustrations I often have with myself these days. How long can I sustain the fiction of life as usual when the scientific facts scream emergency? Are readers and writers complicit with a delusion—indeed, a “great derangement”—of epic proportions? And why is our “collective predicament” so recalcitrantly inconceivable?

3.
Imbolo Mbue’s second novel, which follows her PEN/Faulkner winning debut Behold the Dreamers, casts doubt on the exasperating enterprise of crystallizing a “collective” challenge in climate change.

“We should have known the end was near. How could we not have known?” Mbue’s How Beautiful We Were, begins with these remorseful words, narrated in first-person plural. Her elegiac, post-apocalyptic narrative voice quickly brings into focus a standoff between representatives of Pexton—a multinational oil conglomerate that is polluting the air, water, and land of Kosawa—and villagers, who are dying from associated diseases. The villagers demand answers; Pexton officials tell them to carry on with their lives. Pexton smiles and tells them there is nothing to worry about.

For years, the villagers have attended these meetings to no avail. They go because they are required to, not because they want to. They silently curse the Pexton officials—their children are dying!—but they accept that they are powerless. This longstanding gridlock is finally dispelled when Konga, the village madman, steals the Pexton driver’s keys one evening. This impetuous action, committed by Kosawa’s inhabitant of lowest rank, should be easily reversible, except village custom dictates that Konga is untouchable. As such, there is no simple solution to ensure the safe return of the Pexton officials back to the capital city. As the situation rapidly escalates, Kosawa’s leaders are cornered into holding the Pexton officials hostage.

In How Beautiful We Were, the usage of the first-person plural contains none of the frivolity or falseness of contemporary invocations of solidarity among millennials or people living under late-capitalism—solidarities which only exist in the vaguest of ways. Here, the “us” is defined in opposition to “them”: governors in the capital and Pexton employees, who live in brick houses furnished with modern appliances.

This voice of solidarity also excludes Konga, who the narrator claims “had no awareness of our suffering and lived without fears of what was and what was to come.” Konga, the village idiot, is dismissed, mocked, and reviled by the villagers. Mbue restores suspicion to the first-person plural, reminding readers that any people who speak with one voice have repressed and excluded other voices.

What, then, is being repressed and excluded? For one, behavior that challenges the status quo—a status quo that is killing the villagers. While the villagers know that Pexton is the proximate cause for their maladies, they refuse to follow this knowledge to its logical consequence. Afraid to provoke a violent response from Pexton and the government—who are in cahoots—villagers fret about the uncanny illnesses afflicting their youth, but avoid looking apocalypse squarely in the eye. They suppress their own grief and anger, feeling “helpless.”

All of this leaves them with just a lamenting narrator, who has no recourse decades later but to repeat, “We should have known.”

4.
On the other hand, the madman’s unexpected action sets off a chain reaction. For the first time in a long time, nothing can be taken for granted. The first-person plural voice fragments, besieged with internal questioning and conflict:
“How can you be so stupid as to think we have any chance? Konga has shown us we stand every chance. Konga is a madman. Perhaps madness is what we all need. How can you say such a thing? We were once a brave people, the blood of the leopard flows within us—when did we lose sight of that? We’ll be dead tomorrow—is that what you want?”
Presented with an opportunity to gain the upper hand in their confrontation with Pexton, the village leaders attempt to use their hostages as a bargaining chip. The villagers, for once, are optimistic. The tables have temporarily turned.

Their gambit is a risky one. And, eventually, it succeeds. Kosawa’s plight becomes the subject of journalistic reporting, fueling outrage overseas and throwing Pexton’s shady practices into the spotlight. But all of this is won at a heavy cost: a bloody massacre takes place, and several villagers, including children, are gunned down by soldiers in broad daylight. For a hint of progress, the villagers exchange unimaginable tragedy. This episode presages the asymmetric and unjust sacrifices Kosawa villagers make to have even the smallest chance at living healthfully on their land.

It also recalls a painful conversation between a husband and a wife in Kosawa the evening before he leaves to confront government men in the capital and disappears forever. The wife implores him not to go, knowing that the endeavor is doomed to failure and entails significant personal risk. The husband responds curtly, “I don’t understand: how can you not think about the future?” He continues, “You want me to not fight for my children’s future because you’re afraid.”

In this confrontation, both husband and wife are correct in their knowledge. She is right in her apprehension that he will be persecuted and destroyed in his search for the truth. And he is right that they will all die if nothing is done. She is driven by her familial self-preservation instinct, and he is moved to action by witnessing his own son’s bout of illness (from which he has made an unlikely recovery). Ultimately, she is left to suffer as a widow who cannot even get basic answers on whether and how he has died.

5.
The heroine of How Beautiful We Were is Thula, the daughter of the disappeared father. A studious and intelligent child, she receives an unprecedented opportunity to study in New York. Returning to Kosawa as a revolutionary with global sensibilities, she travels from town to town to galvanize a national, anti-colonial movement, organizing joy-filled Liberation Day protests to celebrate power and strength among her people. Fully dedicated to her political vision, she refuses to marry and remains childless. Her friends and family look askance at her choice, though she remains widely admired.

After supporting his sister Thula for years, Juba recognizes that he does not have it in him to dedicate his life to a revolutionary cause that is not his own. “Our nation was decaying with us inside it, all one could do was abscond with whatever one could,” he relates. He rationalizes his decision by quoting his wife, who frequently says, “we’re only taking what’s ours; we have the right to do so.” This turning point is marked by Juba’s newly defined scope of solidarity, which contracts from his countrymen to his new family. When he invokes the first-person plural—who “we” are and what is “ours”—he no longer refers to his nation Kosawa or even his family of birth; he has chosen a new tribe.

Thereafter, Juba purchases houses, cars, and luxury clothes for himself and his in-laws. He is not the only one from Kosawa to take a government job and betray the revolution—in fact, many people his age do. It is significant, of course, that Kosawa’s descendants now drive cars fueled by the decimation of their ancestral land.

By the end of the novel, the elders have scattered and Kosawa has been fully taken over by Pexton. These elders, some of the last who have lived the majority of their lives in Kosawa, can only tell their grandchildren stories of what once was. This intergenerational novel thus ends where Kosawa’s lineage ends: Kosawa may have grandchildren by blood, but not by heart and soul. The memories of Kosawa will soon die out.

6.
The grim conclusion to How Beautiful We Were is Kosawa’s extinction. Apocalypse, Mbue seems to say, is not mysterious, unimaginable, or unthinkable. It has been confronted many times before, by many different communities and people, and it will be confronted many times to come.

Today, it is common for artists and writers to harp about a widespread cultural failure to think in collectives. This line of thinking, modeled well by Ghosh, goes: if only we could think in aggregates, and reflect that consciousness in our expressive forms, then we would be better equipped to tackle climate change. Mbue’s novel follows in a long tradition of works that toy with collective perspectives and nonhuman agencies. The ambitiousness of Mbue’s four-decade, polyvocal epic yields some shortcomings: the facts of the narrative become redundant at times, and the repeated rehearsals of sentimentality do not always feel meaningfully distinct between the various narrators.

Still, what kind of clarity can Mbue’s storytelling—encompassing an intergenerational time horizon and occasionally a first-person plural voice—give us? What is gained when collective thinking and feeling is taken seriously?

My interpretation flouts the premise of these questions, and it is that collective subjectivities guarantee nothing. Until the apocalypse consumes us whole, it is possible, a survival mechanism even, to adapt by redefining our affinities and solidarities. By doing so, the end—for “us”—might be evaded for a little longer.

In How Beautiful We Were, the fault for Kosawa’s evisceration lies entirely and unforgivably with Pexton, systems of extractive greed, and neocolonialism. Nevertheless, this fact makes it no less dissonant when the children of Kosawa callously dismiss their parents’ deeply felt concerns about who is harmed by the oil they use. Kosawa’s last generation grieves: “It marvels us how much suffering we bore, our parents bore, our ancestors bore, so our children could own cars and forget Kosawa… One day, we know, our world and our ways will vanish in totality.”

When “the collective” is alluded to in discussions about climate change, it is assumed that the word points to humanity as a whole. Can this assumption be taken for granted? Can it be said that the consequences of climate change are unimaginable when they are already taking their toll in communities right now?

By definition, a collective is nothing more than a number of people loosely formed into a group. I cynically find a Darwinist hellscape of social fragmentation eminently imaginable: the wealthy will build higher walls to escape the coming ravages of climate change, and the dispossessed will falter and perish. In some ways, this reality is already underway. In this gradually arriving dystopia, collectives will tend toward entropy, atomizing until even the futures of their children, grandchildren, and the elderly are sacrificed as unavoidable collateral damage.

7.
I am reminded of a lecture I heard during college. Most memorable was how my professor insisted on calling various acts of 20th-century political resistance “inhuman.” Gandhi’s non-violence, Nelson Mandela’s prison organizing, Martin Luther King’s message of love—he argued that these responses to oppression were so counter to what could be expected from humans that they were inhuman feats. I had only ever heard that word used in a derogatory sense, and was surprised to hear it in this context. What these political heroes—and so many unrecognized people—did was indeed extraordinary, but did it defy human nature?

The conclusion to Mbue’s novel does little to console the reader, but Thula’s character refutes the notion that cataclysm is fated for humanity. Intrinsic to being human is the germ of the inhuman, and it is the inhuman—rather than the clouded ideas of a natural and universal collective—that may need to be summoned today.

Bonus Links:
Dissidents, Revolutionaries, and Protestors: On Imbolo Mbue
A Year in Reading: Imbolo Mbue

True Love is Feeding Yourself: On Melissa Broder’s ‘Milk Fed’

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Milk Fed might make you hungry. Milk Fed might make you horny. Milk Fed might make you believe in god, or in love, or at least make you want to try. Hungry, horny, and trying to believe are three of the most predominant modes in which Rachel, the main character of Melissa Broder’s new novel, operates. Rachel has a rigorous system to maintain control of her weight, and thereby her life. Chain-chewing nicotine gum; protein bar and low-cal yogurt regimens; regular evenings on the elliptical or the stationary bike; and a weekly night on stage at a comedy club are Rachel’s favorite means of feeding her existential hunger for approval. This is a deep hunger, directed first at her mother, and then, after her therapist encourages her to take a 90-day communication detox, her judgmental coworker, the older-but-still-beautiful Ana. There are not many other people in Rachel’s life to approve or disapprove of her, not counting the revolving tourist-filled audience at This Show Sucks. Then Rachel meets Miriam, an obese Orthodox Jewish woman Rachel’s age, who works at her favorite frozen yogurt shop. Miriam is everything Rachel is not: religious, easygoing, indulgent. Miriam is everything Rachel fears she might become: “Amorphous. Out of control. Disgusting. Exploding.” Rachel speculates that she conjured Miriam into existence through a therapy exercise during which she sculpted those fears. It does not take long for Rachel to fall in love. And love, in this case, is transformative.

Broder’s first novel, The Pisces, encounters and explores the question of emptiness and fullness in a way that is similarly erotic and romantic. As Jia Tolentino writes, “The Pisces convincingly romances the void.” It’s a story that should be weird (a washed-up PhD candidate falls in love with an emotionally unstable but very sexy and sexual merman) but reads like realism (aside from the merman sex, which, while necessarily fantastical, is undeniably erotic). When I finished reading The Pisces I felt that I had come to a revelation with the main character, Lucy: what is love, if not sticking around, seeing things through, being there for the people and pets and work to which we’ve made commitments? Milk Fed takes this question further. If love is responsibility, what is self love? What is our responsibility to ourselves?

Over pages teeming with mouthwatering descriptions of food—frozen yogurt sundaes that drip with sprinkles and hot fudge and strawberry sauce; the Golden Dragon’s kosher pu pu platters and wonton soup and noodles and chicken and steak; a Shabbat feast at Miriam’s family’s home; the fast food and bakery binges that Rachel increasingly allows herself—Rachel sheds her hollow obsession with self image that her mother instilled in her. When she’s around Miriam, she’s comfortable with consumption. And as she becomes more comfortable with consumption, she is herself consumed by a new desire. The more Rachel eats, the more Milk Fed reveals itself as a surprisingly trans book. As Rachel’s commitment to the status-quo of her feminine self image wanes, she steps out of the gender binary still further, exploring a boyish, at times manly, facet of her identity. Midway through the book, for instance, she’s at the gym, her skin chafing against suddenly too-small workout clothes. She pedals on the stationary bike, and starts to fantasize that the bike seat is her cock. In the fantasy, she is powerful, completely in control, not of Miriam, but of Ana, the mother-stand-in from her office. It’s a satisfying scene to read, and one that is satisfying for Rachel to experience. Not only is she met, in her mind, with the motherly approval, she is wanted by the matron, and the matron does exactly what Rachel wants. This is one of the driving hungers in the novel.

But real, physical hunger also drives here. Rachel’s empty body could never have had the strength to pedal herself to orgasm. Having fed herself physically, she has the energy to feed herself spiritually. “‘It’s a mitzvah, you know,’” Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel tells her in a dream. “‘I just came to let you know that it’s nice to see you trusting your kishkas.’” ‘Kishkas’ mean your intuition, which the Rabbi also refers to as your guts. The line between body and mind, belly and mind, is drawn with a fat-tipped pen. Rachel starts to eat like “normal people… It felt like a miracle to be able to eat what I desired, not more or less than that. It was shocking, as though my body somehow knew what to do and what not to do—if only I let it.”  And giving her body what it wants is where her power lies, a power far more resonant than the neurotic control she exerts at the beginning of the novel.

Milk Fed, like The Pisces, is compulsively readable. However, unlike the Pisces, where Lucy determines only in the last pages to give dry land a last chance for the sake of her sister, it ends on more than a hopeful note. Rachel, having left behind her yearning for motherly and societal acceptance, has taken on a new look, a new confidence, and a new career in comedy. She loves herself now, enough to make up for what was missing from her mother. We know because she feeds herself.

Between Fact, Fiction, and Memory: On Daniel Loedel’s ‘Hades, Argentina’

Daniel Loedel’s debut novel, Hades, Argentina centers on the human cost of Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship. In a country blighted by military regimes, this one—locally known as la última or “the last”—was by far the most brutal and another shameful footnote in Latin American Cold War history. Weaving history and humanity, Loedel crafts a powerful and compelling narrative of a seemingly dystopian world that, unfortunately, was all too real.
Loedel’s novel follows Tomás, who, in 1976, was a young medical student and recent Buenos Aires transplant. Ten years later, Tomás is a mentally-scarred and emotionally numb immigrant living in New York City. Unbeknownst to him, otherworldly forces from the novel’s titular Hades bring Tomás back to Argentina under the guise of visiting an old family friend who is dying. From there we accompany him on a harrowing journey through his past, including the choices and circumstances that forced him to flee Argentina in the first place. Tomás returns to the Buenos Aires of 1986, yet spends most of his trip in Hades—a timeless purgatory inhabited by the spirits of his past—along with his memories and glimpses of what could have been: life’s endless possibilities denied by the finality of death. Tomás’s journey through Hades is ultimately one of redemption; he’s seeking atonement for being unable to save his childhood friend Isabel from dying at the hands of the country’s military dictatorship.
One of the novel’s greatest strengths is Loedel’s treatment of time and memory, which speaks to the reality of post-dictatorship Argentina. General Jorge Rafael Videla, the first president of the dictatorship’s ruling junta, once said of the thousands of Argentines that went missing after the military took power: “[They] are neither dead nor alive–[they are] disappeared.” Here, too, in Hades, we find ourselves doubting whether Tomás is among the living or the dead, or in the limbo of his memories; we even find ourselves doubting the veracity of the memories themselves. The point of entry into Loedel’s Argentine Hades is Recoleta Cemetery, a prime spot for the living and the dead to intermingle, along with Tomás’s memories of his past—both those he cherishes and those he wishes to forget or, perhaps, remember differently. The category of desaparecido (“disappeared”) was weaponized by Argentina’s last dictatorship to deliberately blur the nation’s collective memory, to alter reality, so that those targeted by the military never existed to begin with. When inquiring about their loved one’s whereabouts, relatives of the disappeared often received a similar response: “No such person exists.” It is also in Recoleta Cemetery where Tomás himself “disappears” in 1976 by receiving false identity documents that allow his seamless passage out of Argentina, first to Rome and later to New York City. But unlike the rest of the desaparecidos, Tomás is able to reappear alive.
Loedel has created a cast of mostly fictional characters with the occasional incorporation of real-life figures, most notably Aníbal Gordon, an infamous Argentine military intelligence agent and Tomás’s boss at Automotores Orletti—the real-life secret detention center for disappeared prisoners where Tomás works as a Montonero mole. Fact and fiction remain intertwined in the character of Rodrigo Astral, the so-called Blonde Angel of Death, that works with Tomás at Automotores. The real Blonde Angel of Death was Alfredo Astiz, one of the Argentine dictatorship’s most emblematic and notorious representatives, who was best known for infiltrating the human rights group Mothers of Plaza de Mayo and “disappearing” some of its founders. Loedel’s inclusion of both real and fictionalized versions of real people helps ground his ghost story in a particular moment and place in history, along with providing a subtle nod to readers familiar with Argentina’s tumultuous recent history.
While in this Argentine underworld, Tomás encounters numerous ghosts, including Isabel and Colonel Felipe Gorlero. Isabel is a young, rebellious Montonera[1] and Tomás’s first and only true love, while the Colonel is a military man who acts as a mentor and a benefactor to Tomás—both in life and in Hades. At first glance, Isabel and the Colonel may seem like simply drawn representations of their respective groups–the idealistic, young activist and the strict, authoritarian soldier–but Loedel’s writing transcends these tired stereotypes. Isabel is the source of Tomás’s ultimate undoing, the one who first asks him to exploit his relationship with the Colonel to engage in life-threatening work for the Montoneros. And Tomás, blinded by his love for her, agrees. The Colonel, meanwhile, is a surprisingly erudite, free-thinking man who, nevertheless, remains complicit in the carnage because he believes in the Armed Forces’ stated mission to “reorganize” the country.[2] Tomás is both a victim and a victimizer, finding himself in the position of witnessing horrific acts yet unable to stop them. Tomás wrestles with the same questions anyone living under a violent authoritarian regime would ask: do we stand up for what we know is right at the risk of losing everything, including our lives? Or does silence equal “health,” as the generals in Argentina used to say?[3]
Another notable achievement of Hades is the way it relates Argentina’s complex and often confusing recent history in an accessible way to a primarily North American audience. On Peronism, the enigmatic movement that has dominated Argentine politics for over seventy years, Loedel writes, “Peronism is like poetry—it can’t be explained, only recognized.” Many English-language novels set in Argentina ignore the complexities and contradictions of Peronism and their impact on Argentine political life—either out of ignorance or a lack of will to tackle it in fiction. Loedel, instead, embraces and seamlessly incorporates them into the novel’s rich historical and cultural background. The inclusion of Peronism is not only important in terms of accuracy and authenticity, but also in terms of memory and the way that we—as readers, as writers, as engaged citizens—remember the past. Many of the disappeared—including Loedel’s own half-sister, to whom he credits his inspiration for the novel—were left-wing Peronist activists A specific past is more likely to be remembered than a generic one, and remembering the dead and disappeared more specifically honors their memory in a way that broad brush-strokes cannot.
Many have pejoratively remarked that the United States in the era of Trump has become more like Latin America–more unstable, more violently divided. However, as Loedel reminds us, the United States  helped exacerbate many of the issues North Americans attribute to the region in the name of anti-Communism. From providing weapons and money to these brutal Cold War military regimes to training their leaders at the School of the Americas in Panama,[4] the United States has long exported the chaos, hatred, and division that has now taken root at home. Even during these politically volatile times, the United States remains thankfully far from the Argentina that Loedel depicts and the one that actually existed in the 1970s. Nevertheless, the novel can and should serve as a warning for its North American readers, and an opportunity to learn more about a dark period of world history that little is known about in the United States. Hades, Argentina may be inhabited by ghosts, but it is more like the real world than it seems; it’s a place where the ghosts are human-like in their moral complexity and a place where we, along with Tomás, must come to terms with our complicity.

[1]The Montoneros were a left-wing Peronist urban guerrilla group that was targeted by Argentine military and security forces before and during the last military dictatorship.
[2] The name the last Argentine military dictatorship gave itself was the National Reorganization Process (Proceso de Reorganización Nacional).
[3]In an Atmosphere of Fear, ‘Silence is Health’
[4]
The School of the Americas has since moved from Panama to Fort Benning, Georgia.

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

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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’

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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’

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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.