A Reader’s Diary: On Alan Moore’s ‘Jerusalem’

“This will be very hard for you.” -- Alan Moore, Jerusalem (spoken by an angel) Day 1. Jerusalem, the new novel by Alan Moore, sits on my desk, thick and foreboding. At 1,279 pages, it’s a behemoth compared to the author’s last prose work, Voice of the Fire, a relatively scant 304. One doesn’t just dive into a novel this size without testing the water. So I hold the book in my hands (it’s heavy, as expected, like a dense loaf of bread). I flip through the pages (the resultant breeze feels nice on this soupy summer day). I read over the marketing copy (vague, as expected). I think back on other Alan Moore works I’ve enjoyed (Watchmen, of course, but also his true magnum opus, the Jack the Ripper study From Hell). I wonder why I’ve taken up the task of reading this novel when my shelves are a graveyard of similarly sized ones, finished (Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day) and unfinished (David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest) alike. I think: Alan Moore’s an imaginative storyteller. Despite Jerusalem's intimidating size, it should be fun. I also think: Maybe I should be reading this book on a Kindle. Day 2. There’s no clear way to approach Jerusalem other than to plunge in, so I do. I’m a little over 200 pages in and already getting a sense of how Jerusalem is less a “mere” novel and more a grand literary project: an ambitious attempt by Moore to encapsulate the soul of his hometown of Northampton, England. The city was the same setting for his first novel, in which its spirit was captured by polyphonic voices speaking to us from 4000 B.C. to the end of the 20th century. So far, Jerusalem is a novel the conceit of which (chapters told from different characters’ perspectives at different historical moments in different literary styles) has more strength than the story. I’m briefly introduced to Mick and Alma Warren, modern-day sibling residents of Northampton on whom the rest of the novel’s events (both past and present) supposedly hinges. I’m more excited to be thrown back into the past in chapters the disparate subjects of which seek to cast Northampton as the omphalos of England; the nexus of existence in which can be gleaned the entire story of humanity. This is an obvious Joycean undertaking, and it goes a long way toward explaining (and perhaps justifying) Jerusalem's generous length. Moore’s writing is nothing if not hyper-descriptive; baroque, even. One wonders if this is compensation for the lack of visuals that accompany his similarly grand, tangled comic book narratives. These early chapters cross the point into self-indulgence. But just as I’m about to give up, Moore casts me into a different time frame and I’m enthralled. One moment, I’m peering over the shoulder of a fresco restoration artist in St. Paul’s cathedral hallucinating (or not) a conversation with an angel. The next, I’m following a drug-addled sex worker walking Northampton’s streets in 2006. If there’s one thing uniting his characters here, it’s their station as members of the working class. They live and work in The Burroughs, Northampton’s lower-class area and the site of frequent tension with the forces of redevelopment. Is there some kind of equitable justice above these streets? Some cosmic force that can set things right? Knowing Moore’s work, I’m sure these questions will have not just metaphoric answers, but literal ones as well. Day 6. I decided not to bring Jerusalem with me on a three-day vacation. So now I’m back at home and hunkered down in Alan Moore’s Northampton. My new goal: read around 150 pages a day. I carry Jerusalem with me everywhere. I take the novel on public transportation to and from work, where it sits open in my lap like an infant. I try to read it on the elliptical machine at the gym, an awkward task that means I’m switching to a reclining stationary bike for the next week or so. I dip into the novel during my lunch break, after dinner, before bed. This is heavy reading in more ways than one. The density of Moore’s prose forces me to constantly come up for air. And yet, I’m never tempted to stay above water for long. I’m intrigued by the characters: a Benedictine monk making a spiritual stop in medieval “Hamtun;” “Black Charley,” an American transplant and one of Northampton’s first black residents; the struggling modern-day poet Benedict Perrit, doing what all us struggling writers do best (namely, beg friends for drinking money). Some characters, like the aforementioned poet, we follow from the moment they wake up to the moment they return to bed at close of day. Moore pays particular attention to mapping the city streets his characters wander. I’m reminded of a similar scene in From Hell, where Dr. William Gull’s calculated perambulations past London landmarks ultimately reveal the shape of a pentagram. I’m also reminded of W.G. Sebald, whose semi-fictional wanderers uncover the psychogeography of particular places; the secret histories trapped in landscapes and buildings. There is true world-building going on here. Whitmanesque, these pages contain multitudes. And I’m starting to realize these disparate voices aren’t that disparate at all; in fact, they’re delicately interconnected. Figures from the past and the present, alive and dead, bob and weave and brush up against one another. This book, I’m learning, is haunted by history. Day 7. One of the most striking things of Moore’s best work over the years: his focus on the nature of space-time; of time as a fourth dimension; of past, present, and future all happening at once. Time, in his Weltanschauung, is an architectural dimension that can be mapped and explored. It’s the same philosophy that haunts Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen and that propels Jack the Ripper’s legacy through time in From Hell. Jerusalem is a startling expansion on these ideas. While ideas of space-time have appeared in nearly every chapter so far, they’re concentrated in one marvelous section I’ve just finished. Snowy, a member of the Vernall clan (of whom the siblings Mick and Alma Warren are present-day descendants), hangs off the top of a building while below, in the gutter, his wife gives birth to a daughter. During this moment of suspended time, Snowy explores the idea of the world as an “eternal city” -- one in which everything has been preordained. There’s something frightening (and oddly comforting) about this philosophy, which borrows from the poet and mystic William Blake (an influence on Moore’s work), Friedrich Nietzsche's myth of “eternal recurrence,” and the ideas of like-minded thinkers. We’re meant to see this idea as not a curse but a kind of hope. If it’s true, it means, in a sense, I’ll be reading this book forever. Day 8. I’m now over 400 pages in, and I’ve just discovered that Jerusalem is also available in a three-volume slipcase edition. My wrists ache. While the economy of reading an enormous book in more manageable, digestible “books” are a comfort (see a similar edition for Roberto Bolaño's 2666), I’ve convinced myself that by reading Jerusalem in its uninterrupted, single-bound version, I’m getting the more authentic reading experience. The 2016 Olympics are on in the background. Indeed, there’s something Olympian about reading Jerusalem as one entire text. I feel strong. I’m also glad I’ve opted out of reading Moore’s novel on an e-reader. I’d most likely miss out on the physical sense of accomplishment that comes from feeling the weight of this book gradually increase in my left palm and decrease in my right: one page, then 10 pages, then 50 pages. Day 9. The second hefty part of Jerusalem finally lays bare the vast supernatural cosmology Moore’s hinted at in previous pages, with all their angelic visions and ghostly hauntings. What he’s created: a three-tiered universe of Northampton: the Burroughs (in our everyday reality), Mansoul (a sort of astral plane from which all time and space can be seen, the name borrowed from John Bunyan), and a mysterious Third Burrough. For more than 300 pages, we follow Mick Warren on an odyssey through this landscape, the result of a near-death experience as a child in 1959. During the few moments where Mick’s body loses consciousness, we travel in and around this “world above a world.” We meet angels (known as “builders”). We meet demons (former “builders”). We meet a ragtag gang of ghost children called The Dead Dead Gang, some of whose members can literally dig through time. We’re flung back to seminal moments in Northampton’s history, spending the night with Oliver Cromwell on the eve of a decisive battle in the English Civil War and watching two fire demons, salamanders, cavort through the city and bring about the Great Fire of 1675. There are some indelible images in these pages, including the ghost of a suicide bomber who’s eternally trapped in mid-explosion (the rules of this afterlife being that the form you occupy is the form you had during your greatest moment of joy) and a serpentine ghoul that haunts the River Nene and plucks newly dead souls into her underwater purgatory. Day 12. It’s unfair to expect perfection from mammoth books. Yet the longer a novel runs, the more unforgiving a reader becomes about moments in the story that could be tightened, or excised altogether. Great Big Novels bring out the editor inside us all. I’ve spent three days trapped, so to speak, in the otherworldly realm of Mansoul. I’m starting to long for the voices of the humans back on three-dimensional Earth. Moore’s too talented a writer to waste his time (and ours) with much of this rambling middle section. You’ll get an important episode told from one perspective, then a shift in perspective in the next chapter that requires a recap of earlier events. This means pages go by before the narrative moves forward. Twelve days after starting this book (holding at bay, for the moment, the deluge of other reading materials in my life), I round the halfway point of Jerusalem. It’s the moment where the spine finally cracks and I can read the book on a desk without the use of my hands. I like to think I crack the spine out of necessity, not vindictiveness. Day 14. Moore, you sadist. I’m back on the human plane of existence, back in the polyphony of voices that is Jerusalem's strength. And then, on page 900, I’m dropped into a 48-page narrative from the perspective of James Joyce’s mentally ill daughter, Lucia, a patient at Northampton’s St. Andrew’s Hospital. These pages are written in a mock-Finnegans Wake word salad built on puns and double meanings. It feels a little sadistic, placing such a passage here. It’s an inventive idea that’s fun at first, but, like a lot in this novel, it goes on for longer than it should. Also: I’m frustrated at being impeded so close to the end by having to sort through this linguistic playground. So here is where I make a confession. I skimmed. With a copy of the original Finnegans Wake looming over me on my bookshelf (similarly unfinished), I quickly stopped trying to parse the logic of each sentence. As soon as I got the idea -- al fresco assignations with men who may not really be there, painful memories of childhood abuse -- I moved on. Perhaps one day this section will be worth revising and translating. As of now, I’m rabid for Jerusalem to end. Day 15. Moore, you genius. A few chapters after my troubled date with Lucia Joyce, I come across one of the more brilliant, transcendent sections in the novel. It’s composed of a pivotal character’s final earthly moments interspersed with a fantastical journey in which his essence (along with that of his deceased granddaughter) travels into the future. Together, the pair witness the evolution of the human race, its eventual demise, the resurgence of giant crabs and land-walking whales as the new lords of the earth, the heat death of the universe, and the last spark of light before eternal darkness. It’s a lovely, touching moment that rewards my investment in this novel. Arriving on the heels of a farcical play (featuring the ghosts of Samuel Beckett, Thomas Becket, John Bunyan, and John Clare), it’s a testament to Moore’s skill at genre juggling, at cultivating a sense of awe at the universe’s frightening expanse and its beautiful mysteries. Day 16. Sixteen days later, making the final lap of a noir-ish detective story, a poem from the perspective of a drug-addled and ghost-haunted runaway, and a somewhat anti-climactic gallery opening, I arrive at the last page. I close Jerusalem and drop it on the floor at my feet. I don’t need to do this; it’s a purely dramatic gesture. The resultant thud is a satisfying testament to my accomplishment. I’m drained. But I’m also grateful. And a little sad. It’s a paradoxical feeling I get after finishing big books like this one. The quiet thrill of having been completely submerged in an author’s vision. The feeling of finally coming up for a merciful breath of air. The longing to read flash fiction by Lydia Davis. I’m still thinking about this fascinating mess of a book and its countless allusions (both major and minor): the art of William Blake, episodes of the U.K. version of Shameless, comic books, modern art and poetry, the time theories of Charles Howard Hinton and Albert Einstein, the hymns of John Newton, demons from apocryphal books of the Bible, H.P. Lovecraft, Melinda Gebbie (Moore’s wife), Tony Blair, Jack the Ripper, Buffalo Bill, billiards, global warming, the Crusades, the War in Iraq, the end of the world. A cacophony of material that doesn’t always coalesce perfectly but that, fittingly, creates what one character describes as “an apocalyptic narrative that speaks the language of the poor.” And the mad. And the sad. And the frustrated, the lonely, the lost. In a sense, all of us. Day 17. My wrists stop aching.

Keep Trying. Be Content: On Belle Boggs’s ‘The Art of Waiting’

1. It is an innocent train ride, full of the banal chatter we save for our post-work hours, until my coworker Marthine pulls out her phone and shows me a video of her laughing son. At what she calls the “sweet spot,” those tender months between squalling and teething, Arun (whose name refers to the dawn in Sanskrit) glimpses himself in the mirror and chortles, drool pooling between his lips and chin. He is as smitten with himself as the world is with him. He observes himself; he loves what he sees. We observe him; we love what we see. There is a portion at the end of Belle Boggs’s The Art of Waiting in which, as she’s holding her infant at home, a mason says, “Imagine if there was only one baby in the whole world...Wherever that baby was, we’d put down our things and go see it.” “You’re right,” she says. “I’d go.” At 26, newly struck with baby fever, I would be there in line, craning my neck to behold. I can’t point to the moment that it started, and yet it accrues every day, the inverse of my bank account. The way I accuse men of thinking with their penises, I’ve begun thinking with my ovaries -- sidelined by tiny outfits, ogling at babies on Instagram, indulging vague daydreams about pregnancy clothes worn with wide-brimmed straw hats. I am an unfit mother: a smoker, a shopper, a too-frequent cheese eater, and bill forgetter. I inhabit (with my husband) a tiny one-bedroom in the most expensive city in the country, where we can barely afford our square footage. I’ve over-drafted my bank account buying cat food. I’ve celebrated the arrival of my period in college with cake and champagne, bought anxiety-inducing pregnancy tests at the pharmacy with nail polish and cheap beer. And yet; and yet. 2. “It’s spring when I realize I may never have children,” Boggs opens the first chapter, this forthrightness setting a precedent for the rest of the memoir. The Art of Waiting delves directly into the process of assisted reproductive technology (ART) in all its pre- and mis-conceptions, its prose like a sledgehammer cracking through drywall. She probes beyond the clinical terminology and atmosphere of the doctor’s office and takes as her subjects cicadas and gorillas, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, and Raising Arizona. She sees motherhood everywhere, like I do: it’s inescapable, especially because we do not have it. In a book that could easily become insular, instead the reader finds Boggs’s considered, holistic approach, wherein she covers families of numerous formations and facets -- different races, socioeconomic categories, and world views pepper this intelligent and insightful treatise on fertility, medicine, and motherhood, which spans years of Boggs’s life and years of research on childbearing, its successes, and its failures. Science meets narrative; the global meets the personal; the reader meets the author, or at least feels that way, a knowing closeness that builds with every revelation and dispersal of personal, painful fact. The world of reproduction is hardly beautiful, with its sanitized wands, needles, and oocytes, and yet we’re privy to it, as if standing next to the stirrups. We’re privy, too, to stories that vary dramatically from Boggs’s. There are her mentors, professors, and friends who choose to forgo children in favor of careers and lives of artistry. There is Virginia Woolf, who writes, feeling euphoric after completing The Waves, “Children are nothing to this." There are gay couples facing rampant discrimination. There are her friends who adopt from overseas, and face the harrowing knowledge that their black child will live an entirely different life in their mountain community because of the color of his skin, the story of his origins. Perhaps the most important lesson that The Art of Waiting imparted was its insistence on the long game; that the things worth wanting are worth waiting for, and that impatience is a tax we pay for arriving at our fateful conclusions. There’s a decided sense of fatedness about the entire book, a necessary corollary for a treatise on building a family. Who are we meant to be, and in relation to whom? Is a struggle with infertility a sign that we’re meant to walk a different path? Is resisting the body’s futility an act of bullheadedness, foolhardy? Boggs, who describes herself as non-religious, persists, questioning every phase of intrauterine insemination (IUI), the consideration of adoption, and eventually of in-vitro fertilization (IVF). The result is ultimately a baby -- Beatrice -- but the question lingers, essential to the book: if we’re always in the process of becoming, what are we meant to become? What if that end isn’t the one we had in mind? Boggs aptly describes the arduousness of ART without writing an arduous narrative -- she spares no detail, be it negotiating insurance coverage with a cut-rate pharmacy or injecting herself with one of many medicines each cycle. These details never become drudgery. They’re an inherent and interesting part of the narrative of modern pregnancy. It’s easy to forget, amidst the deftness of Boggs’s prose, that this book depicts a clinical process. The experience of child-rearing, of adoption, of infertility, impacts more than just the person at their center, despite the feelings of isolation they bring about. Mr. Cheek, the aforementioned mason, embodies this knowledge. “He knew something bigger, more profound,” Boggs writes. “Each baby is born not just to her parents, but to the world surrounding her. To neighbors, friends, teachers, enclosure mates. To ex-cons and allomothers and cousins and grandmothers, who will each want a peek and will each have some impact.” The same could be said of unintended childlessness; in the void created by such powerful wanting, whole communities are implicated. I pass babies in their carriages on my street and sometimes we lock eyes, as if my desire is transparent. Round-headed and wide-eyed, taking in the new world, they take me in, and I take them in right back, pining for something I’m too sacrilegious or jaded to call a miracle. Meanwhile, I care for my cats. I love my husband. I yearn, and I scheme, and I imagine what fate will deal me next year, or the year after that. In the present, I am only a collection of wants, imagining what it’s like to shape the destiny of a tiny, malleable being. “Keep trying. Be content. How do you reconcile those two messages?” Boggs writes in her epilogue. She has no exact answers; this is not a textbook. Rather, it’s a primer on waiting and wanting, something we’re arguably always doing, whether it’s for the end of the workday or whatever missing piece we feel might complete us, for whatever unknowable reasons. We’re waiting for the world to adapt, to accept all forms of family; for our bumbling bodies to perform as we wish; for fate to unfurl like a carpet, its threads and fibers as intricately, tightly woven as our own desires.

Made of Sterner Stuff: On Roald Dahl and ‘Love From Boy’

As a fellow English boarding school veteran, I have always felt a certain kinship with Roald Dahl. His famous autobiography of his childhood, Boy, memorably captures the hierarchical structure of boarding school life, and although Dahl’s experiences were somewhat more brutal than my own (I was never forced to thaw a frozen lavatory seat with my own posterior) there is a definite sense of recognition in reading about his childhood days. However, upon reading Love from Boy, a newly published collection of Dahl’s letters to his mother, I feel as though I may have to discard any claim to familiarity. As it turns out, there are even more differences between the boarding schools of the 1930s and those of the 2000s than were previously evident to me, and, if I learned anything about myself reading Love From Boy, it is that, had I been unfortunate enough to live in Dahl’s day, I probably would have ended up like “poor little Ford,” a briefly-mentioned fatality of one of the school’s many measles epidemics. If the measles did not claim me, there would have been no shortage of other possibilities for a premature snuffing-out. Dahl, made of far sterner stuff, and arguably the most effortlessly macho of all 20th-century writers (including the posturing Ernest Hemingway), survived them all: being forced to fight a fire in his boarding house and then spending the night in the “black and charcoaly” building on “brown and nasty” beds; coming under fire when a student accidentally used live ammunition instead of blanks in a field-day training exercise; and experimenting with eating boiled lichen on a school trip to Newfoundland due to a lack of sufficient food. Dahl detailed all of these horrors in regular letters to his beloved mother, and continued to write to her faithfully up until her death. Donald Sturrock, author of the acclaimed Dahl biography, Storyteller, collects a selection of over 600 of these surviving letters, dating from 1925 to 1965, in this new volume, entitled Love From Boy, after the phrase Dahl affectionately used to sign off his letters from school. After he left boarding school, Dahl’s adventures continued and became even more outrageous. He moved to Africa, working in Tanzania and Kenya for Shell, where he contracted malaria, fought off a black mamba snake, and invented the game of strip darts. When war broke out in 1939, Dahl trained to become a pilot in Egypt, Iraq, and Greece. He shot down at least five enemy planes during the war before crash landing in the Libyan desert and being sent home to England to convalesce. Following a chance encounter in a private London club, he was given a curious job offer and moved to Washington D.C. to work for the RAF. His military assignments there, as well as his own blossoming success as a freelance writer, soon launched him to the peak of American high society: he played tennis with Vice President Henry A. Wallace (winning 6-0, 6-0, 6-0), joined President Roosevelt for Thanksgiving dinner, went on a date with Ginger Rogers, attended a party with Charlie Chaplin, and worked on a major motion picture with Walt Disney. What is most extraordinary about this is the fact that it all took place decades before he found his ultimate success as a children’s writer, which would not come until 1961 with the publication of James and the Giant Peach. These remarkable events (which must surely constitute one of the most interesting biographies of any writer) are all detailed in Dahl’s letters. Although one might feel a sense of unease reading or critically analyzing personal letters that were never meant for publication, Dahl’s may prove an exception since, as Sturrock argues, they were always written “primarily to entertain.” Therefore, although there might be a few personal details, such as inquiries about relatives, all in all the letters are highly accessible for those otherwise unfamiliar with Dahl’s life, and primarily document his extraordinary anecdotes in the ever-humorous style of a born entertainer. My personal favorite of his many comical descriptions concerns the two elderly patients he shares a hospital room with after recovering from surgery, who fart “quite openly and unashamedly just as though it was like saying good morning.” For those (like myself) who are fond of these kinds of immature observations and jokes, there is plenty more to be found in Love from Boy, including Dahl’s description of a statue of a bison whose penis is painted bright red by vandals -- “a very fine sight;” a picture by Dahl of “Hitler fucking himself,” annotated with an instruction to “note the smile of ecstasy on his face;” and a warning against the painting of toilet seats, lest some unfortunate “adhere to it,” followed by a conclusion that this would be “an excellent cure for constipation.” (Another difference between Dahl and myself: I would never dare to record any of these things in a letter to my mother, for fear she would be scandalized to the point of fainting, or worse.) Although the letters themselves are fascinating and consistently funny, if the book has one flaw it may be that Sturrock tries too hard to force his theme of motherhood. It is clear that Dahl and his mother had a devoted relationship, but none of her letters survive, making the conversation in this collection entirely one-sided. Sturrock’s conclusion that Dahl’s mother “was an essential and invaluable foil” for the development of his writing is something we just have to take his word for. As a noted biographer of Dahl’s, it is likely that Sturrock is privy to more insights into her character than we are, so his conclusions may be valid -- they are just not made immediately evident from what we have collected in Love from Boy. Nonetheless, the book does a valiant job of collecting these letters for the first time and providing sound biographical context for them. For fans of Dahl’s writing there is also an additional layer of enjoyment, as one can seek out potential origins for elements later found in his fictional works. One obvious example is the cat, Mrs. Taubsypuss, whom Dahl and his fellow Shell workers took care of in Dar es Salaam -- she later gives her name to the U.S. President’s cat in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. Other more subtle details, such as Dahl’s descriptions of flying, may be the catalyst for scenes from his final book, The Minpins, which features miniature people flying on the backs of birds. Likewise, his eventual disillusionment with high society excesses (“Dinner of course was eaten off gold plate, but it tasted just the same”) may contain the seeds for the spoiled and greedy consumer-obsessed characters that populate Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Reading Love from Boy, one gets the sense that it was inevitable that Dahl would become a great writer. Not only did he get plenty of practice, composing a huge number of letters, all in a style that served to sharpen his skill as a humorist; but he also lived more in the 10-year period from his leaving school to the end of the war than most of us do in a lifetime. He carried with him a rich memory of innumerable fascinating anecdotes and ideas -- enough to fill countless books. Love from Boy provides a wonderful summary of this extraordinary life and an intimate insight into his development as a writer. It will prove a charming read for anyone who has ever enjoyed his work. Plus (did I mention?) it also has lots of rude bits, which is always a nice bonus.

American Appetites: A Fiction Review in Three Courses

Three recent works, an updating of a Franz Kafka story, a rambunctious saga, and a cautionary tale about the home-wrecking potential of home-buying provided my reading sustenance this summer. Each is predominantly about appetite -- for food, sex, fame, money, adventure -- and its potential wasting effect on the human soul. 1. By making the narrator of his first novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, a talking chimp -- and an orotund one at that -- Benjamin Hale pushed the boundaries of the human. He does the same, quite literally, in the title story from his new collection, The Fat Artist, in which a man attempts to become the fattest -- or rather, heaviest -- man alive under the glare of Guggenheim museum-goers. The artist, Tristan Hurt, is “blessed with the gift of bullshit” and, in thrall to the “fame drive,” has made a name for himself through a series of “ugly, angry, abrasive, disgusting, violent, scatological, pornographic, antisocial, and antihuman” installations. Or as he succinctly sums up his aesthetic: “I lived as if my parents were dead.” And that’s before he plants himself in a glass box, vowing to eat whatever is brought to him by visitors attracted by the ghoulish spectacle. Hale’s glib showman doesn’t register with the same intensity as Kafka’s starving artist-saint, or even the “young panther” that replaces him, but Tristan, blessed with a liberal arts education, is by far the best theoretician: a culture of abundance and affordable luxury, bodily self-abnegation no longer retains this primeval horror. Rather, the twenty-first-century middle-class American must actively labor not to become fat. Thus eating becomes moralized behavior. How often have you heard a woman describe a rich dessert as “sinful”? To eat is to sin—in secular society, the body replaces the soul. Good and evil are no longer purely spiritual concepts—these words have been transubstantiated into the realm of the flesh. Aquinas, who laid out five specific kinds of overindulgence, might have raised an eyebrow at the claim that eating has just now become a moralized behavior. Tristran’s is a facile argument for a facile character, but that doesn’t mean the provocateur hasn’t stumbled on the culminating project of his career, in which his ego and self-loathing swell in equal measure. 2. Something of a “fat artist” makes an appearance in Donald Ray Pollock’s The Heavenly Table as well: Willy the Whale, a carnival act who dies after eating “half a hogshead of raw crawdads in an hour.” Willy the Whale’s is one of many prodigious appetites in the lusty novel, which could hardly find a more fitting epigraph than Ben Jonson’s “On Gut:” “Gut eats all day and lechers all the night/so all his meat he tasteth over twice….” (Pollock’s debut collection of stories, Knockemstiff, also had its share of lust and gluttony, their connection highlighted in a brief portrait of two women “who, out of sheer loneliness, end up doing kinky stuff with candy bars, wake up with apple fritters in their hair.”) Early on, we meet a hermit preaching the virtues of asceticism and waxing rhapsodic on the “heavenly table” awaiting us in the afterlife: “Won’t be no scrounging for scraps after that, I guarantee ye.” The rest of the story is about how that celestial vision is translated, or mistranslated, in the earthly realm where human appetites run amok. I say “human” appetites, but one of the more chilling scenes involves a satiated intestinal worm working its way out of a corpse. The Heavenly Table opens on the Georgia-Alabama border in 1917 as a white sharecropping family shares “a bland wad of flower and water fried in a dollop of leftover fat.” When one of the widowed father’s three sons makes a wisecrack he doesn’t appreciate, a swift chokehold dislodges even that meager repast from the offender’s throat. The father soon dies, and with his passing the novel’s atmosphere of hardscrabble abstemiousness dissipates. The novel shifts tone from eerie Southern Gothic to Rabelaisan picaresque, and the feast, “pork chops thick as a bull’s cock, beefsteaks the size of wagon wheels, buttered biscuits as hot and fluffy as...tits,” begins. And with the feast, a lot of shit -- a scrupulous latrine inspector is among the central characters. First, the three sons gorge on a sick hog: “People most always have a big feed after a funeral, don’t they?” They gorge again after murdering their employer, an exploitative landowner who spends “comfortable evening[s] alone drinking brandy in the dark and idly thinking of all the women he had molested over the years.” The crime commits them to a fugitive life as semi-competent bank robbers -- the “Jewett Boys” as they are known in the tabloids -- a journey taking them north towards Meade, a southern Ohio town catering to the various needs, and vices, of a nearby army camp preparing soldiers to go overseas to fight in the First World War. Along with a memorable meal -- “eight lobsters, along with boiled potatoes and slaw, an entire plate of macaroons” -- Meade offers them an opportunity to whet other appetites. “Shit, I could have gone five or six if I’d known what I was doing at first,” says one brother after a visit to the local brothel, the Whore Barn. Along with books, women, and booze, books are avidly consumed. The brothers have memorized one of their few possessions, a pulp novel called The Life and Times of Bloody Bill Bucket. It is “filled...with every act of rape, robbery, and murder that [the author’s] indignant syphylitic brain could possibly conceive.” (The elder, and most refined, brother covets more refined fare, fantasizing about a well-lined bookshelf rather than a well-fed stomach.) Another character partly blames his son’s dissolution on getting his hands on a copy of Tom Jones, a similarly rollicking episodic adventure. In the novel’s most hamfisted scene, it suddenly dawns on an army officer trained in classical literature that he is gay. His harrowing, ill-fated attempt to lose his virginity to a ravenous hotel maid is less revelatory than a flashback to his college reading syllabus: “After all, his revered Greeks and Romans had written so much about it. Buggery. Pederasty. Homosexuality.” The Eureka moment brings tears to his eyes, and the formally staid lieutenant is indulging in drug-fueled orgies by week’s end. L’appétit vient en mangeant... In brief, passions, and portions, are outsized in The Heavenly Table, which gives it an indigestible quality. The fast-moving adventure and gallery of grotesques consistently entertain, but as one shovels down the novel’s 72 chapters, the concentrated flavor of the exquisite opening becomes a distant memory. 3. Faintly audible behind all the novel’s noise is an elegy for a world threatened by the “ego-driven, cannibalistic forces of twentieth century capitalism.” A ravenous economic system produces ravenous subjects, and jumping to the ego-driven, cannibalistic forces of the 21st century, we meet two such subjects in Joe McGinniss Jr.’s Carousel Court. Carousel Court takes place close to the present, during the recent housing crash, yet it feels post-apocalyptic, Flip This House meets The Road. Nick and Phoebe have relocated from Boston to California, planning to rent in Los Angeles and renovate a house in Serenos, Calif., an inland development. The young couple spare no expense in their “virtual homebuilding” -- an hourglass pool, Italian marble bathroom, and an indoor climbing wall, which, as events spiral downward, stands as a mocking reminder of their upwardly mobile aspirations. Nick loses his job, the economy tanks, and the 30-something pair are marooned among “rotting five-bedroom corpses,” their desolate neighborhood visited nightly by “mountain lions and bobcats, pit vipers, and Latino gangs trolling for new turf.” They have bitten off more than then they can chew, and are now at risk of the “barren landscape fold[ing] in on itself, this patch of earth swallowing” them whole. Their underwater mortgage is actually less disastrous than their caustic marriage -- an epistolary novella could be constructed entirely out of their hostile text messages -- which from the start is threatened by a mismatch in drives. Try as he might to satisfy it, Nick recognizes a hunger in his wife he can never satisfy, “an appetite that seemed to border on compulsion.” The most pronounced, and intoxicating, feature of her beautiful face is “that jaw of hers,” seductive and menacing, even more so as it juts out more prominently from her emaciated face. Phoebe’s hunger is entirely figurative; indeed, her diet consists primarily of booze and Klonopin, and her budget-busting trips to Whole Foods are less about eating, or feeding her child, than restorative glimpses of paradise: “She’ll linger in the wide, bountiful aisles, the cool air, the welcoming faces, and mist will cleanse fresh-cut kale, and time itself will stop.” Allen Ginsberg saw the ghost of Walt Whitman in a supermarket in California; Phoebe has had her own, distinctly yuppie vision of the heavenly table. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Sour, Obscene, and Obsessed with Saints

“The two worst sins of bad taste in fiction are pornography and sentimentality,” Flannery O’Connor wrote. “One is too much sex and the other too much sentiment. You have to have enough of either to prove your point but no more.” Just enough of either to prove your point. O’Connor’s dictum applies perfectly to three writers creating great fiction set in the world of the Christian evangelical south: Jamie Quatro, April Ayers Lawson, and Michael Bible. Their stories are steeped in sex and spirits. They are willing to make imperfect characters do terrible things. They are better than most writers dramatizing God at the moment. I spoke with Quatro back in 2013, soon after her debut collection, I Want To Show You More, was published. She claimed unity with O’Connor in thinking “the role of the artist, even -- no, especially -- the Christian artist, is to present the world as it is, in all its complexity and ugliness. Sometimes, to make sin appear as such.” She sent me back to O’Connor herself, quoting that an artistic must find “distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem [is] to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience.” For Quatro, that violence is not through wounds and blood, but in the “coexistence of the erotic and spiritual, the sexual and sacred...It’s why lovers often talk in such exalted terms, say things like they want to eat one another, to be one another. An artist must probe into these moments. She cannot look away.” I find the same spiritual sense in Lawson, whose sleek yet complex debut, Virgin and Other Stories, arrives later this year -- though I think the Christian pulse is a bit more subdued. More shadow than statue. I would place Michael Bible’s novel Sophia somewhere on the spectrum between Quatro and Lawson. Sophia arrives in fast, crisp sentences: first-person narrated, increasingly surreal vignettes that follow the misadventures of Reverend Alvis Maloney. He might have been a Flannery O’Connor character if there had been someone to pray for him every minute of his life. He’s sour and obscene and obsessed with saints. In short, he’s worthy of a book, and Bible lets him loose. There are other characters in this novel, friends and lovers and enemies like Eli, Tuesday, Boom, Finger, Darling and Mayor Dick Dickerson, who owns a pawn shop and slaps bad employees with his antique cane -- but this is Maloney’s show. He’s the self-admitted “lazy priest of this town’s worst church, nearly defrocked for lascivious behavior with female parishioners.” He’s the kind of pastor who finishes his prayers with “Amen?”, profoundly unsure about God but profusely hoping to figure it out. “I want to die for the King of Kings,” he says, “but can’t quite get it right.” His examples are a litany of saints, described in prose-poetic legend, whose deaths are each more eccentric and violent than the former. His friend Eli asks him why he needs to read so many stories, and Maloney says “I’m trying to find a way to die with honor.” Or, more accurately, as he later says: “I want so bad to be a saint but I’m a coward and barely Christian.” I might hate Maloney in the hands of another writer -- I might find his jaunty obscenities tiresome -- but Bible is a real talent. I’ll listen to a writer who offers paragraphs like this: Behind the abandoned hospital on a peach tree hangs one rotten peach. Two black wizards approach dumpsters behind the church, black hoods and staffs. They are cosplay people maybe worshiping a comic book. They cast spells on each other, high five, chest bump. They pretend the peach is forbidden fruit. They wear jester’s shoes and speak Elizabethan. They try to light the Sunday sports section on fire with their eyes. Sophia is a whirlwind. Maloney often doesn’t know what to do with himself, but he’s a character in constant awe, who prays almost as much as he has sex, who says “Lord, you give us tornadoes and purple sunrises. We praise your beautifully illogical ways. You performed great miracles long ago and nothing since. Why such confusion? We love you, wonderful idiotic Lord.” Maloney loses more than a few lovers in Sophia but moves on, following Eli on the professional chess circuit, traveling across the country and back but staying grounded by his odd fantasies. The Holy Ghost is a woman that he flirts with nightly -- and often hopes for more. Imagine Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony set behind a Waffle House. When one character quips that Maloney should go to church, he responds “I am church.” I found his response less solipsistic than honest. If the body is a temple, it must occasionally get dirty, and Maloney gets filthy. At many points in the novel it is unclear whether he is experiencing a waking nightmare -- including when Mayor Dickerson gains a penchant for kidnapping and brandishing a gun. Bible makes a nice transition from plot-by-osmosis to some good old-fashioned chase scenes, but the real star of Sophia is Maloney’s jaw. Maloney never quite takes himself seriously -- it is really difficult to find God holy if you don’t also find existence a bit hilarious -- though Sophia does end on a note of grace. Flannery would be proud. I invoke O’Connor here for obvious reasons, but also because she is a convenient contrast. O’Connor was a Catholic writing about evangelicals; Quatro, Lawson, and Bible are looking at the evangelical world from within. As good as “Parker’s Back” might be -- I’m willing to say that it is a perfect story -- it pivots from a Catholic theological position. These three new writers of the Christian evangelical south are operating more from a place of inhabitation than analysis -- although they document similar messes. Sophia lives in a world where a pastor concludes “Too much beauty makes me sick.” Amen.

Bango! Tom Wolfe Surfs the Net

Tom Wolfe’s 16th book, The Kingdom of Speech, begins with the author “surfing the net” (he was born in 1931) and discovering a highly unusual article in which the world’s experts on the study of language evolution announce that they don’t really understand language evolution at all. This small book is written in Wolfe’s trademark New Journalism style, which has lost none of its lip-smacking pep, its wild associative leaps, or its fondness for exclamation points. But this time, the author never leaves his chair. Anyone with a Wi-Fi connection could have conducted all of the research in The Kingdom of Speech. If you want close encounters with Merry Pranksters and Black Panthers and daredevil astronauts, you’ll have to try Wolfe’s other 15 books. The Kingdom of Speech is a dual portrait of Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky, with special attention paid to the two little Davids who (in Wolfe’s telling) felled those Goliaths. If you don’t already have a strong opinion of Darwin, Wolfe will happily give you his. Wolfe thinks Darwin was a fraud, a snob, a cheater, and an asshole. And he doesn’t like Chomsky much better. The trouble starts when Darwin (in Wolfe’s telling) steals the idea of natural selection from another man, Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin can do this is because he is a proper English gentleman, with an impressive education and wealthy friends, whereas Alfred Russel Wallace is a mere naturalist, a “flycatcher” spotting bugs and taking notes in the Malaysian jungle. Darwin and his wealthy friends are “in a position” to take Wallace’s research and give all the credit to Darwin. So they do. What a bunch of snobby cheaters, right? Wolfe certainly thinks so. Even their blandest comments piped out UPPER CLASS! UPPER CLASS! without bringing up the subject of class at all. According to Wolfe, Darwin was not so much a scientist as a religious figure, preaching his own personal “cosmogony.” A cosmogony is a Theory of Everything that unlocks the secrets of the universe, like the Navajo creation myth, or string theory. Although his ideas captivate London’s upper crust and storm the ivory tower (thanks to his influential friends), Darwin basically pulled the evidence for evolution out of his ass. When his students ask him to explain where the first “cells” came from, Darwin pauses for a long time before giving his feeble, tautological response: “probably from four or five cells floating in a warm pool somewhere.” In this respect, Darwinism was typical of the more primitive cosmogonies. They avoided the question of how the world developed ex nihilo. Darwin often thought about it, but it made his head hurt. The world was just…here. Are you wondering how Wolfe is able to report that Darwin’s head was hurting during this particular historical moment? You should try not to wonder about such things when you read The Kingdom of Speech, because Wolfe makes a habit of turning all the “great men” of history into straw men. Here’s how he depicts Sir Charles Lyell conspiring with “Charlie” Darwin to steal the glory from Alfred Russel Wallace: Oh, Charlie, Charlie, Charlie…said Lyell, shaking his head. Who was it who warned you two years ago about this fellow Wallace? Who was it who told you you’d better get busy and publish this pet theory of yours?...So why should I even bother, this late in the game? But…we are Gentlemen and old pals, after all…and I think I know of a way to get you out of this predicament. It so happens there is a meeting of the Linnean Society, postponed from last month in deference to the death of one of our beloved former Linnean presidents, coming up thirteen days from now, July 1. Unfortunately, we don’t have any way to notify Wallace in time, do we. But that’s not our fault. We didn’t schedule the meeting. That’s just the way it goes sometimes. We’ll bring our good friend Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, the botanist, in on this. All three of us are on the society’s council. We can make the whole thing seem like the most routine scholarly meeting in the world. Am I the only person who pictures Lyell, in this scene, as Gargamel, the villain from The Smurfs, rubbing his hands together in a dark forest while he plots his next evil scheme? It seems profoundly inappropriate for Wolfe to write a book about scientific research in which most of his arguments are based on invented scenes, biased characterizations, and witty insults. New Journalism was about the author asserting himself in the story by becoming a part of it. But when Wolfe stays in his chair, he becomes just another elderly man shouting at his computer. This is not entirely a bad thing -- nobody shouts at his computer quite like Tom Wolfe. By the time Noam Chomsky appears, The Kingdom of Speech has established its pattern. Chomsky is Darwin -- the brash, beloved intellectual whose singular epiphany lights up the intellectual world. Daniel Everett is Alfred Russel Wallace -- the lowly “flycatcher,” hunting for linguistic evidence among isolated Amazon tribes. Before he turned into the grandpa of the American left, Chomsky rose to fame for his pioneering work as a linguist. His boldest and most influential claim was that all humans are born with the ability to learn language encoded in their brains. It’s biological. Decades of linguistic research took Chomsky’s assertion as truth, and countless careers were built upon exploring it. Then Daniel Everett, the “flycatcher,” found a tribe in the Amazon whose language didn’t match any of Chomsky’s predictions about the shared structure of language in our brains, and all hell broke loose. Now it seems that the ability to learn language is not biological; instead it is cultural, a tool that humans create together, like a broom or a toaster oven. Decades of linguistic research are going down the drain. If you’re interested in this story -- and you should be, because it’s fascinating -- you should check out John Colapinto’s New Yorker article and Daniel Everett’s book, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. That’s what Wolfe did -- long passages of The Kingdom of Speech are mostly summaries of those two sources. The publishing company behind The Kingdom of Speech describes it as “a captivating, paradigm-shifting argument that speech -- not evolution -- is responsible for humanity’s complex societies and achievements.” That’s bullshit. Wolfe doesn’t even begin to make an argument about the role of speech in human society until page 163 of this 169-page book. Bango! One bright night it dawned on me -- not as a profound revelation, not as any sort of analysis at all, but as something so perfectly obvious, I could hardly believe that no licensed savant had ever pointed it out before. There is a cardinal distinction between man and animal, a sheerly dividing line as abrupt and immovable as a cliff: namely, speech. Bango! What’s insane about Wolfe’s climactic epiphany is how hypocritical it is. For the past 163 pages he has accused Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky of being frauds because their grand scientific breakthroughs were (in Wolfe’s telling) just a hunch. Wolfe compares Darwin’s writing, unfavorably, to Rudyard Kipling’s stories of the jungle -- but at least Kipling had the decency to call his work fiction. As for Darwin’s theory of evolution, “it was still a story. It was not evidence. In short, it was sincere, but sheer, literature.” When Wolfe calls Darwin’s The Descent of Man “a real tour de force of literary imagination,” he means it as an insult. And yet here is Wolfe, at the conclusion of his own book, announcing his own grand scientific breakthrough with nothing but Bango! as evidence. What the hell is going on here? Is Wolfe aware of the irony that he, a noted literary figure, is faulting Darwin and Chomsky for being literary figures? Does he really believe that science has no place for personal epiphanies and leaps of faith? Has he ever heard of a “hypothesis?” Will he refuse to believe in black holes until some intrepid writer gets sucked into one and returns to Earth with a cosmic shard of New Journalism? Honestly, I don’t know. The Kingdom of Speech never blinks, never reveals a coherent motive. It’s either a clever, two-faced provocation, or the dumbest thing Wolfe has ever written. If he were so inclined, Wolfe could have used The Kingdom of Speech to ask colossally interesting questions like, “What does Everett’s claim that language is cultural, not biological, say about our understanding of humanity?” Or, “Even if Chomsky is wrong in saying that language evolved in our bodies, what other, valid discoveries did his theory inspire?” The Kingdom of Speech pretends to be a treatise on language evolution, but it’s really just an old-fashioned underdog story. Wolfe puts intellectual giants in a boxing ring with hard-working little guys, and then he cheers like crazy for the little guys. [Everett] was an old-fashioned flycatcher inexplicably here in the midst of modern air-conditioned armchair linguists with their radiation-bluish computer-screen pallors and faux-manly open shirts. Bizarrely, that’s not the only time Wolfe mocks Chomsky for having air conditioning, as if it’s the source of all weakness and corruption. From its wildest accusations to its smallest details, The Kingdom of Speech turns “the intellectual status battle” between entrenched theories and upstart discoveries into a wild spectator sport. And I loved it! I loved reading it. Where else can find a whole paragraph of pyrotechnic prose about how Darwin was such a lazy writer that he based all his metaphors on the family dog? Maybe I wasn’t born in 1931, but I’m pretty sure The Kingdom of Speech is what used to be known as “a hoot.” Never have I been so entertained by such a shoddy argument. And somehow, that effect feels brilliant. Whether it was Wolfe’s intention or not, The Kingdom of Speech offers strong evidence that fiction and sheer personality always win in the end.

Looking for Meaning in ‘Riverine’

Angela Palm is obsessed with metaphor. Or: Angela Palm is obsessed with finding meaning. In the end, do they amount to the same thing? In Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here, Palm’s memoir about her upbringing in rustic Indiana and her subsequent post-rural life, she deploys a veritable gallery of lyrical comparisons, probing every possible detail for some sort of larger significance. Here, for example, is the author reflecting on the destiny of a childhood friend: Bifurcation comes to mind when I think of Corey. As in the division of the common carotid artery. As in the shape made by the branching of the Kankakee River and the Illinois River. As in me going one way and Corey going another. As in the way people lose themselves, splitting further and further from their origins. As in the roots of hosta shoots, separated by mutation or by force. At work in this passage and in the book as a whole is a mind that can’t help but see everything as somehow connected, as intrinsically meaningful. And isn’t this, after all, what all writers -- all humans -- do? Is that not how we come to understand the unknown, grasping the unfathomable by comparison with what is familiar to us? If Riverine is, in this sense, mining the territory familiar to any coming-of-age narrative, then it stands out both by the relentlessness with which the comparative mind of the author works and by her willingness to question her own metaphor-making tendency. From the start, Palm draws on a rich, imaginative vein to not only give a sense of the place in which she grew up, but of the ways that her childhood self viewed that place. She recalls staring at a map when she was a girl and seeing two pink dots representing the town in which she technically lived and the town whose name, by a quirk of the postal system, appeared on her mailing address. Obsessed by the yellow space on the map in between the two dots, the young Angela has her mom drive her out to the no-man’s land, only to find it is the familiar territory of her everyday life -- that they have barely moved any distance from their house. From this, Palm conceives of herself as living in the “fringes”, not only not belonging to either town, but neither fully connected to nor fully distanced from the geography of her childhood. “Filled with this new view,” she writes, “I knew that I was neither sort, but instead some half-breed spawn of both worlds and alien to both.” Where Palm lives in the first section of the book, comprising the earliest years of her life, is on the banks of the Kankakee River, in the middle of a floodplain. Vividly evoking this liminal space, subject to perennial overflow from the river and isolated from her more prosperous classmates who live properly in town, Palm suggests that geography may well be destiny. Like the Kankakee River returning to its plan from its pre-19th-century rerouting, only to flood Palm’s childhood home, the inhabitants of the author’s neighborhood seem unable to escape the circumstances of their land’s harsh geography. Generally poor and socially immobile, the community is fixed in its position both by the unfavorable land and the economic circumstances that keep it tied to that land. Among those neighbors of the young Angela is Corey, a boy three years older than she who lives next door. Childhood playmates, the two skirt a romantic and sexual involvement as they grow into their teenage years, one that never quite manifests but remains as a tantalizing what-if. This what-if becomes the stuff of pained contemplation for Palm when Corey is sentenced to life in prison for killing an elderly couple. But as Palm is quick to point out, Corey was not wholly to blame for the murders, his path having been set by a life of poverty and a series of petty crimes for which his lowly social status had not allowed him to escape harsh justice. “If Corey hadn’t spent four of his formative years in juvenile detention centers for crimes that rich kids had been let off for,” Palm wonders, “would it have gone this far?” How much of a person’s course in life is determined by their geography, by the circumstances of his or her upbringing, and how much is that person in charge of shaping his or her own destiny? This is where the stakes of Palm’s metaphor-making take on a more serious import. If we understand everything as metaphor, if everything can be slotted into a pre-ordained meaning, then we are left with very little freedom as individuals, entrusted with almost no responsibility for our actions. As such, Palm continually struggles against her natural comparative tendency and, in so doing, provides much of the tension of the book’s later sections. Talking about an old boyfriend, for example, she writes, “Greg worked as an excavator, rearranging the terrain. I liked his job as a metaphor” before quickly acknowledging that metaphor isn’t enough to sustain their relationship and that they were always completely incompatible. The dangers of seeing everything as metaphor, of adhering to strict notions of geography, become much greater when Palm finally gets around to considering her own path in contrast with that of Corey. Although they grew up in the same environment, subject to the same flood patterns of the Kankakee, their lives took on very different trajectories. Palm moved to Vermont, married, had kids, and became a writer while Corey remained confined to an Indiana prison. While both these new environments had their effects on the two childhood friends, Angela’s semi-rural Vermont home opening up her world as Corey’s prison home constricted his, Palm ultimately recognizes that a person’s life is not simply a product of his or her environment, not understandable by simple recourse to metaphors of rivers and flat plains, but something autonomous and unpredictable. “In some ways, he was made by where we were from and who he was from,” Palm concludes after visiting Corey in jail. “But he had also made bad choices. And by his word, he’d never valued his own future enough to make better ones.” But then after coming to this conclusion, she tracks backward, introducing yet another metaphor, one that seems to retip the balance toward environmental determinism: “People, especially young ones, are malleable. Like wet sediment. Guided by whatever kind of banks have lined their river, by what has held them.” Endlessly searching for ways to understand the world around her, Palm by turns reaches for and rejects her surest tool for bringing clarification to her life. By struggling against her own tendencies to impose arbitrary meaning while still searching for and locating that meaning, she does the hard work of essaying. As such Riverine stands as a bold reckoning with not only an individual’s past and present but with the very apparatus of truth-making itself.
Quick Hits, Reviews

We Are 1: A Poem for Black Lives

To paraphrase the critic Georges Poulet: a poet of written poems does not necessarily aim only to write a poem; he or she aims to become, and for those who read his or her poems to become. Becoming is an activity that many young African Americans are engaged in today -- whether it be formal, revolutionary, or informal -- and it is an activity that requires undivided dynamism. If Kendrick Lamar’s chant “we gon’ be alright” -- four words that when repeated meld a fight song to a primordial moment in the foundation and the defense of a collective and its culture -- is now considered the foremost musical expression of this era’s black activism, Nate Marshall’s poem “repetition & repetition &”, the very first poem from his book Wild Hundreds, should be considered the foremost articulation of contemporary blackness’s dynamism in literature. It’s an engine of becoming. Our is a long love song, A push into open air, A stare into the barrel With those three lines, Marshall begins an epic comparable to Robert Hayden’s renowned “The Middle Passage” and other black epics; but this is an epic of guidance and instruction. It’s built on the thesis that black “works,” as painful as it may be to be black. The poem begins by posing the question What do I feel as a black person, its title “repetition & repetition &” having given us the context. The opening of the poem removes any ambiguity we might attribute to the poem’s message, plunging us into the poet’s project. We are a pattern, A percussive imperative, A break beat “repetition & repetition &” quickly comes to feature the collective “we” as fundamental to the poem. Marshall uses the word "we" as the black community loves for it to be used. If “I” is modernism, and postmodernism, Marshall pushes it aside for the beloved “we” -- the “we” of the hard road to salvation and joy. Sorry, he seems to be saying: despite claims that our sentiment is tribalism or that we are just Americans, the black community remains a place where a black “we” is a beautiful way of saying “me.” With “we” he expresses the blackness that has us all feeling, one that cannot be found in oh-so-many poems that center the lonely “I” or “me.” “We” is brilliantly defined in the line “we are love.” We = love, in convivial crowds and effective political rallies. Baby we are hundreds: Wild until we are free. Wild like Amnesia This is an epic of identity. It proposes black identity (love, being wild) to its reader, as a written articulation of “black is beautiful”; it functions as a model of identity to adhere to and trust. Identity is an old and persistent question in black life, to the point where passing, pretending that one is not black or not claiming one’s blackness, has been a theme of many black novels (see Nella Larsen’s Passing). Faith in blackness and in one’s own blackness is a feature in our age of contradictions: of a black president, of interracial marriages, of a growing middle class, of foreclosures of homes owned by blacks, of predatory and racist practices, of the killings of young black men and women, of Black Lives Matter. It’s an age of youthful comic modernities, where tragedy is not the sort of thing that co-workers of other races want to talk about. Should I be happy in public? Who am I in all of this? Marshall answers these questions and others with an epic that can guide, in terms of how to think about blackness or being black. The black identity being proposed is not a simple one. As John Edgar Wideman wrote as a blurb for Mitchell Jackson’s novel The Residue Years, it embraces the English language as a means of expression, saying loud and clear, Despite my difference, I am culturally a descendent of the English language and of poetry in English. It is perhaps the most complex aspect of the poem -- the poet does not want to settle for blackness as some sort of noble savagery. His language tells us that a black person can read French theory and find solace in Modernist English poetry all the while feeling the pain and rage that comes from seeing a dead black child on a television; all of it combined being who “we” are or “I” am as a black person. In the end, Marshall offers an engine for the pursuit of self that can only be the undercurrent of black production -- ranging from Beyoncé's Lemonade, or Greg Osby’s many great yet unknown albums of genius Jazz blackness, or a teacher’s persistence with children -- but also a vehicle for any non-black person to think about the blackness of co-citizens and friends. His poem is an epic of strength in love and in numbers, where in despite "a stare into the barrel," and "repetition," as he ends the poem, ‘we are 1’ and will remain it.
Essays, Reviews

British Humiliation and ‘The Cursed Child’

In late July, a kind of spell fell over London’s West End as the latest iteration of the Harry Potter saga opened: a play that even the New York Times’ imperious theatre critic Ben Brantley deemed magical. “The Eighth Story. Nineteen Years Later,” as the tagline goes, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts 1 & 2 picks up where the last film left off, as Harry, Hermione, Ron, Ginny, Draco, and their receding hairlines drop their Hogwarts-bound offspring at Platform 9 ¾. Subsequently released as a script, The Cursed Child almost immediately broke book sales records, consumed, like the “Hamiltome,” by hundreds of thousands of fans who have no hope of ever finding their way inside the theater. Whether you consider Harry Potter and The Cursed Child exhilarating fan service or terrible fanfic, its purpose is less to give us a “where are they now?” than to exhume the original series and examine the workings of the plot. The discovery of a contraband Time Turner by Albus Potter and Scorpio Malfoy -- the sons of Harry and Draco -- allows us to consider a Ronmione-free future; a scenario in which Potter and Malfoy offspring are sorted into Slytherin and develop a close, Drarry-like bond; and the cosmic importance of that gif of Neville Longbottom slaying Nagini. But beyond the threads of parental legacies and the heroism of friendship, going back in time to fiddle with the knobs teaches us one thing above all: the formative properties of humiliation. [SPOILERS] When Scorpio Malfoy and Albus Potter travel back to 1995 to save Cedric from dying in the Triwizard Cup, they disarm him, tweaking the events of the Yule Ball such that Hermione believes Viktor Krum played a part in sabotaging Cedric, and attends the Yule Ball with platonic friend Roonil instead. Without the Hermione-Krum pairing, Ron is never humiliated into admitting his feelings for his buddy (in the original story, "Ron got jealous and behaved like a prat”); without the catalyst of the crying on the stairs and ginger angst, Ron marries Padma Patil, and has a naughty son, Pradu. (Won't someone think of Pradu?) Our lamb Cedric is still killed. On a second trip back to 1995, Scorpio and Albus inadvertently humiliate Cedric with an engorgement spell that puts him out of the running for the cup. This ripples into a future in which the spiteful Cedric is a Death Eater (so un-Hufflepuff!), Harry is killed and Voldemort lives on as lord: “SCORPIUS: Humiliating Cedric turns him into a very angry young man, and then he became a Death Eater and—and—it all went wrong. Really wrong… He killed Professor Longbottom.” Yes, patron saint of awkward adolescence, the late-blooming Neville Longbottom, is another victim of this alternate future in which people greet each other with the humorless “For Voldemort and Valor.” Worse, perhaps, killing off Harry in a more efficient manner (fewer books) robs us of perhaps the greatest gif of all time; that of the infamous Draco-Voldey hug that comes to mind any time I find myself in a conspicuous social situation. [END SPOILERS] The Draco we see in a meddled-with future in which Voldemort lives is the same knob we know from the original book series, sans-humiliating clinch, rather than the soft, aggrieved "Sorry about your floor, Minerva" Draco introduced at the beginning of The Cursed Child -- a character who appears to be a better father than Harry. The common theme with all of these toggles is humiliation. To even get the Time Turner, located inside Minister of Magic Hermione Granger-Weasley’s office, young Albus Potter takes polyjuice to disguise himself as his Uncle Ron, and winds up kissing his aunt (“Let’s have another baby!”), as his disgusted friend Scorpio watches on. Make no mistake, bollocksing things up in front of your peers and suffering a metaphysical death from embarrassment is a fundamental part of the British human condition, if one that is downplayed in the fan worship abroad. The parts of Harry Potter most glommed onto by Americans are patriotic concerns like honorable sacrifice, bravery in the face of an existential threat, unabashed declarations of love, and a fierce work ethic. But the heart of Harry Potter is really the Weasley’s burrow, that den of poor, gangly, knit-sweatered gingers, and perhaps most emphatically in the character of the endlessly put-upon Won-Won. You can feel the difference of tone in the recently announced American wizarding houses, which lack the whimsy and ironic pride of their British counterparts: where the name Gryffindor is linguistically silly enough to give its position as the Hero House a self-deprecating vibe, "Thunderbird" sounds just a bit too into itself. My American husband was recently sorted into Hufflepuff and covered his head with a pillow, misunderstanding the hidden honor in being deemed a badger. Harvard is the Harvard of Harvard; in the U.S., there isn’t the offsetting pride in being the slightly silly underdog. Contrast Donald Trump and Boris Johnson: both are flame-haired buffoons, but Trump is virtually incapable of admitting his own stupidity, where Johnson will at least give us a self-effacing photo op in a climbing harness. Britons are, as ever, on the watch for numpties. Back to literature, Evelyn Waugh's hero Paul Pennyfeather kicks off Decline and Fall with a drunk, trouserless jog through Scone College that gets him booted from Oxford and installed as a teacher at a boarding school. From there, things generally get more and more degrading (“‘We class schools, you see, into four grades: Leading School, First-rate School, Good School, and School. Frankly,’ said Mr. Levy, ‘School is pretty bad.’”), until he fakes his own death and starts again. It's the penultimate British tale! Or consider Lucky Jim, whose hapless Dixon exists in a world of imbeciles, each stupider than the last. The dramatic high point of the novel comes when Dixon gets up to deliver a lecture and prove himself to the gallery shortly after taking a couple of "tonics" to calm his nerves. The result is a mash of hysterical incoherence, accents, and impersonations that sends the hall into disarray and gave me such an exhilarating sense of spiritual shame on Dixon's behalf that I needed four crumpets to overcome my emotions. The plot of Pride and Prejudice is really just "well-to-do people desperately trying to stave off public embarrassment” -- which is why the moment where Mr. Bennet ushers Mary off the pianoforte is one of the most cringe-worthy for me -- and adapted nicely into the reindeer sweater and sundry indignities of Bridget Jones's Diary, while one of the worst single details in 1984 is the humiliating way that husband and wife engage in sexual relations ("She would lie there with shut eyes, neither resisting nor cooperating, but submitting. It was extraordinarily embarrassing, and, after a while, horrifying.”). Even Thomas Hardy understood how generally embarrassing it was to be a woman in Victorian England. More recently, Caitlin Moran turned adolescent awkwardness into a roaring tale with her YA novel How to Build a Girl. The promise of English literature, and YA lit most especially, is that we shall rise like Phoenixes from the ashes of our latest mortification. Several years ago on a ski-date, I tumbled down a cliff face after an attempt to gracefully execute a jump turn failed, and I found myself leaning out into space. My skis were plucked from my feet as I somersaulted over and over, beaming off my back, head, shoulders. Certain that this was my last, sublime mistake in this world, the only thought that crossed my mind was, "How embarrassing this is, the hot guy from ski school watching me die." That is how deep my instinct to shame runs; that is the legacy the British bequeathed my homeland, Australia. But is it heroic? I think the opposite; being cut down a peg or two stops the metastasizing of narcissistic personalities, the ultimate example of which is Voldemort, with his various attempts to stow his soul in different places. In The Cursed Child, the most sympathetic character is the sweet Scorpius Malfoy, who grows up dogged with the rumors that he was the product of some freaky time-travel IVF with Voldey. Embarrassment allows a concession, a change of heart, a level of empathy, where the earnestness of someone who knows they are right does not. People aren't crazy to feel like the atmosphere amid the election is a little Wizarding War-ish; the problem is that everyone is so entrenched in their positions, so coddled in self-righteousness, that compromise and conversation have become impossible. J.K. Rowling, who didn't write The Cursed Child (though she conceived the story with John Tiffany and the playwright Jack Thorne), has been the flashpoint for any criticism, most commonly for creating plot holes in the original story, and for allowing its weaknesses to be re-examined in this speculative trip back. I'm all aboard the bandwagon though, because a willingness to sift the contents of her masterpiece before an audience of millions, and even allow us to second-guess her choices, has to be unprecedented among authors. It's almost as though she's letting us go through her old wardrobe, where we are guaranteed to pull out her parachute pants and tiny backpacks and squeal "What is this?!!!" And that’s a bit heroic.

Vast and Riotous: On Rion Amilcar Scott’s ‘Insurrections’

Toward the middle of Rion Amilcar Scott’s debut collection Insurrections, in a story called “Juba,” a black man in Cross River, MD, is arrested on the way to a job interview. He is later released with a tepid apology. It turns out to be a case of mistaken identity: the police are looking for a drug kingpin named Juba, to whom our protagonist bears a slight resemblance. As angered as this man is for the inconvenience (he misses his interview and doesn’t get the job), he is also intrigued. He makes it his mission to track down the near-legendary drug dealer, upon whom he begins to project a preternatural significance. He is right to do so: when he finally meets Juba, the famous fugitive is living an unexpectedly monastic existence, trading bags of weed for snippets of slang that he uses to translate the Bible into the local vernacular. Juba explains that the people of Cross River are losing their distinctive patois as they try more and more to sound like white people. “We done lost our tongue,” he tells the narrator. “Some shit I got to say to you, I won’t even try to say ‘cause there ain’t no words for it. I got to use more words than I would have to use if we had our language back. I got to speak slowly so you understand me, even though we from the same place. Ridiculous, but it ain’t your fault. I’m trying to complete the Cross River tongue.” It is tempting to read Juba’s explanation as an ars poetica of sorts for Scott, who goes to great lengths to establish the anomaly that is the fictional city in which his stories are set. Cross River exists at that intersection of reality and alternative history. It was founded by the survivors of the only successful (and yet curiously obscure) slave revolt in American history, led by a man known only as Ol’ Cigar. It remains predominantly black to this day, divided into the bougie Northside and the more impoverished Southside, the latter of which is subject to routine and extreme flooding whenever the rains fall heavy. The city is home to the historically black Freedman’s University, as well as three notorious crime families (the Jacksons, Johnsons, and Washingtons). It boasts its own local sound, called Riverbeat, as well as its own local demonyms (either “Cross Riverian” or “Riverbaby,” depending on who you ask). It sits in close proximity to Port Yooga, Virginia, but also to the Wildlands, a swathe of undeveloped wilderness populated by madmen, wolf hunters, and escaped zoo animals. That all might sound like worldbuilding worthy of Karen Russell, but Scott’s fiction is mostly absent of fabulism and whimsy. A few of the stories operate as satire -- “Party Animal” describes the reverse evolution of a young man from the debate team to a state of forest-dwelling ferality, and the very brief “Klan” involves a surreal psychology experiment on the campus of Freedman’s -- but most of the book exists firmly within the realm of naturalist fiction. In “202 Checkmates,” a young girl learns to play chess from her unemployed father, who patiently instructs her in the application of the game’s lessons to real life, even as he celebrates every victory with pentecostal zeal: “He jumped and shuffled across the floor like the Holy Ghost had slithered up his pant leg.” The girl’s losses quickly reach triple digits, but she nevertheless manages to figure out those life lessons, even some that her father has yet to realize. Another story, “Confirmation,” follows thirteen-year-old Bobby in the weeks leading up to the sacrament which will (as he understands it) usher him into adulthood. He isn’t devout so much as curious, with questions regarding Jesus’s whiteness (“Damn negroes want to make everybody black,” opines his mother) and the true sinfulness of his masturbatory habits. His pastor and parents are unwilling to offer him many answers, though that doesn’t save him from having to make a Christ-like sacrifice for the sake of his sober father. These stories, told from the viewpoint of children, are among the strongest in an uneven collection. The pieces that deal more directly with the mythology of Cross River generally do so to their own structural detriment. Stories like “Everyone Lives in a Flood Zone” and “Razor Bumps” are derailed by their interest in esoteric local lore or power structures. In the latter, an amusing piece about a barber who has lost his ability to cut hair is subsumed by a subplot about a rapper, who relates to the rest of the story only in that he’s currently being blamed for the death of a police officer that the barber once knew. The text of the story features recurring excerpts from an interview with that rapper which, while echoing some of Juba’s ideas about Cross River’s exceptionalism, do nothing to elucidate the central mystery of the story. By the time a conclusion is reached, the plot has moved so far away from its principle tension that it elicits no emotion from the reader. Similarly, the final story, “Three Insurrections,” forces a rather opaque Cross River-centric framing device over what is otherwise a story about a Trinidadian immigrant’s experience with the King assassination riots in Washington, D.C. Its Cross River material -- which involves a mysterious book, a prophecy, and some unlikely family migration patterns -- is the story’s weakest aspect, distracting from an otherwise compelling rumination on racial resentment and political violence. Scott is an impressive ventriloquist, adopting a number of disparate narrative voices over the course of the book. He offers many brilliant lines (“I’ve never been one to watch weather reports. It’s more honorable to take the weather as it comes”), and writes about race, fatherhood, lust, and envy with estimable candor. Perhaps he is stuck, like nearly every artist, between what he knows how to do and what he hasn’t yet mastered. He knows how to write a small, realistic, domestic story. Neither chess nor the sacrament of confirmation are terribly fresh metaphors in 2016, but he can work them into narratives that satisfy. And yet his prose feels most alive when he’s pursuing those images and plot twists tied to the minutia of his created world, even if their thematic importance to the story at hand remains cloudy. What does it mean to rewrite the Bible in slang? And how does that redress the sting of police profiling? An answer is there, perhaps, though it has yet to find its fullest articulation. The world of Cross River feels larger than one book, and Scott may intend for Insurrections to be the first volume in a long investigation of that city. For now, the collection feels like a miscellany of early works grafted imperfectly onto a rigid frame. (Which is fine. Many debut collections are made this way.) Scott’s imaginative capacity is prodigious, and his fictional world feels vast and riotous with potential, but Insurrections is ultimately less successful, perhaps, than the rebellion from which it takes its name.