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


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.

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?

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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’


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’
The School of the Americas has since moved from Panama to Fort Benning, Georgia.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell it slant. Re-tell it slant. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

— Point Omega

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DeLillo knows we will also leave the world in silence.

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

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


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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus Link:
A Year in Reading: C Pam Zhang

Humble Words Organized Beautifully: Ward Farnsworth on Style


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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