Reviews

An Aneurism of Axe Murders: On ‘The Man from the Train’

Between 1898 and 1912, a madman was loose in America. Dozens of families across the country were murdered in their beds, bludgeoned with the blunt side of an axe. Some of their houses were set on fire. The bodies of many victims—if they were prepubescent girls—were posed after death, and there was evidence that the killer masturbated at the crime scene. The most notorious of these murders, the June 1912 slaughter of the Moore family and their house guests in Villisca, Iowa, shocked the nation and remains a staple of lurid Midwest folklore. The case was never solved. The Man From the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery, by noted baseball statistician Bill James and his daughter Rachel McCarthy James, offers an explanation not only for the Villisca murders, but for scores of other cross-country killings that spooked America at the turn of the century. The Jameses have an advantage that contemporary reporters and investigators did not: namely, access to newspaper archives, digital maps, and spreadsheets. Based on deep-dive analysis, they argue—elegantly and persuasively—that these seemingly haphazard murders were connected, and that one man is to blame. If that’s true, and if we attribute all of these slayings to him, we’re talking about the worst serial killer in U.S. history, responsible for more than 100 deaths. That body count dwarfs those of our heretofore most industrious bogeymen Gary Ridgway, Ted Bundy, and John Wayne Gacy. It’s a seismic allegation, and the Jameses acknowledge that readers are right to be skeptical. After all, how did a killer this prolific evade capture for so long? And more unbelieveable, how did subsequent generations of crime buffs fail to connect the dots on these killings? The Villisca murders alone have been dissected in at least two books, a documentary, several podcasts, an infinite heap of Reddit threads, and a widely panned horror movie. Yet, the case is as cold as ashes. One reason that the crimes remained disconnected a century ago was that information was disconnected. There was no FBI, no federal crime databases, and most investigations were left to small-town police or private detectives, some of whom were either amateurs or actual con men on the make for a quick buck. As the Jameses note, it was an era when cops relied on psychics and bloodhounds to unearth leads. Forensic science as we know it didn’t exist. Fingerprint records were still in their infancy. Crime scenes became mob scenes as neighbors and rubberneckers gathered to gawk and inadvertently taint evidence. Then there’s the matter of publicity. “Many people either never read the newspaper or skipped disinterestedly over stories about out-of-town murders,” the Jameses write. “Some people were illiterate. Farmers spent long days in the fields, particularly in midsummer, and went irregularly into town. Not everybody got the news.” In this kind of vacuum, crowdsourcing information or witnesses was like asking someone for directions to a town they’d never heard of. The third and most important reason that the crimes went unsolved, however, also explains the name of the book. The killer targeted houses that were a stone’s throw from railroad tracks. As the Jameses tell it, he rode the rails, roving from one murder to another, as anonymous and footloose as the hobos who still traveled by boxcar. He got work where he could, logging wood in some isolated camp for a few months before moving on to his next kill. His bloodlust took him as far afield as Florida, Washington state, Maine, Texas, Kansas, and points in between. But how do we know that these far-flung murders are related? The Jameses list 33 unique “signatures” that define the killer’s methodology and that recur with startling frequency at numerous crime scenes. Among them: victims’ proximity to railroad tracks, death by the blunt side of an axe, the killing of an entire family at once, the posing of bodies for erotic stimulation, blankets pulled over victims’ heads (perhaps to minimize blood spatter), covering windows and mirrors with cloth, doors locked or jammed shut, lamps without their chimneys left to light the crime scene—the list goes on. While any of these characteristics, or even a handful of them, might be observed at different crime scenes, it’s unlikely that they’d be observed at multiple crime scenes over several years and not be the handiwork of a single killer. And to their credit, the Jameses aren’t overeager to convince you that they’ve cracked the case. “I am not here to argue with you, and you can believe what you want to believe,” they write. Although the Jameses speculate that the killer began murdering people in 1898 and continued over the next decade (whereupon he either died, was imprisoned, or emigrated), they pinpoint 1911 and 1912 as “an aneurism” for axe murders. There were approximately 248 familicides in the U.S. between 1890 and 1920, an average of about eight families murdered per year. In general, entire families aren’t often killed together, and when they are there’s usually a suspect and a motive. By 1911, though, “axe murders start appearing like dandelions.” Besides the eponymous man from the train, an unrelated axe murderer simultaneously terrorized New Orleans (recounted in Miriam C. Davis’s excellent The Axeman of New Orleans: The True Story), and a string of family murders rattled Acadia Parish, La. A creole woman named Clementine Barnabet confessed to the latter crimes, relating a gothic tale of voodoo, human sacrifice, and backwoods religion. The Jameses doubt that Barnabet actually killed anybody. It seems that the authorities may have agreed, since she was released from prison in 1923, only 10 years into her life sentence, never to be heard from again. The idea that axe murders somehow represented America’s id during a period of runaway modernization is one of the book’s many fascinating theses. “There are trends and fashions in crimes as much as in any other area,” the Jameses write. They cite the gunfighters of the 1870s, the train robbers of the 1880s, the celebrity gangsters of the 1930s, and the political assassinations of the 1960s. To that list we can add the airplane hijackings that were a hallmark of the 1970s, the rightwing extremists of the 1990s, the suicide bombings of the 2000s, the terrorism that is ubiquitous still, and our current national moment of white male rage. A similar point is made in Monica Hesse’s American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, which tells the story of a troubled couple who burned down dozens of abandoned buildings on Virginia’s Eastern Shore in 2012/13. “America fretted about its rural parts,” Hesse writes, itemizing the region’s economic backslide, “and the arsons were an ideal criminal metaphor for 2012.” Likewise, at the dawn of the 20th century, axe murder was a visceral rebuke to a period of technological disruption, including the spread of automobiles, airplanes, telephones, and electricity. Of course, it’s easy to overstate the symbolism here. Axes were a common household tool back then, left visible and easily filched in a woodpile near a family’s house or barn. It was a weapon of convenience rather than connotation. Still, you can’t help but read these murders as a parable of alienation. The lone drifter stalking the country by train, itself a mode of transport from a bygone era, to literally smash apart families with an instrument that evoked America’s timbered frontier. The murders suggest a melange of sexual frustration, dislocation, nostalgia, and anomie. It was one of the last criminal sagas in our national history to exploit the idea of America as a wilderness unspoiled by modernity, a country where you could still get away with murder. Indeed, “murder leaves the idea of murder hanging in the air,” the Jameses write, and in certain places it can also leave the residue of racism. The killer haunted the Deep South at a time when lynch mobs and vigilante justice were waning but still possible. “When a terrible crime occurred, people immediately assumed that black people had done it,” and local newspapers were often quick to parrot that notion. At least seven men were lynched for the killer’s crimes, and The Man From the Train records their names and suggests that they were innocent. The most unexpected (almost breathtaking, really) moment of the book comes 400 pages in when the Jameses tell us the name of this mysterious killer. The disclosure attests to the heroic nature of archival research. Chasing a reference from a 1901 Boston Globe article, Rachel McCarthy James used Google Books to browse an obscure 1904 history of the Worcester, Mass., police department, and there, in a brief note about the 1898 murder of the Newton family, was the name of a suspect who was last seen boarding the 1 a.m. train. “Not a trace of him has been found since,” the note added. The Jameses have found more than a trace of this vanished killer, and The Man From the Train is a riveting, evocative feat of reportage and historical sleuthing. It’s a true crime thriller, but it’s also an audacious whodunit in which the mystery is both who the killer was and how the authors managed to excavate his identity more than a century later. It’s also, finally, a testament to the forgotten casualties of history, those unlucky victims who were murdered and buried without justice, and blameless people who were accused of the crimes.. The book serves as an epitaph for them. Ghosts are written into its pages.
Reviews

Hell Doesn’t Discriminate: On ‘Spoils’ by Brian Van Reet

Everyone knows war is hell, but those in war have their own versions of hell to tell. Spoils, the debut novel from Brian Van Reet, weaves together three narratives of three combatants in the Iraq War to show with profound depth and power just how complicated hell can be. Unfortunately, the novel doesn’t really address many of the controversies leading up to the war, such as the Bush administration’s false claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction or the false claim/implication that Hussein was allied with Al Qaeda and thus somehow involved in the 9/11 plot. In fact, Van Reet doesn’t much acknowledge at all that the war was essentially a unilateral invasion of a sovereign nation based on false pretenses. But still, his purpose is to craft a narrative of the war on the ground as it happened, to capture its vicissitudes and the moral crises they beget. And that he does remarkably well. Cassandra Wigheard, a 19 year-old American gunner, is a strong-minded and strong-willed soldier with an acute sense of purpose complicated by the cruel ambiguity of the war. Like her mythological Trojan namesake, she is a prophet of calamity. Her narrative—the only one in the third person—emits a palpable heat that at times is almost unbearable in its rapid, deliberative intensity, as if it were a rendered frenetically under the unremitting glare (and clarity) of the Iraqi sun. It succeeds in connecting the unsentimental reality of grinding warfare with the tragic hubris of military aggression, whether the theatre of war be Troy or Baghdad. The wariness and infirmity Cassandra sees pervading the local population is a surreal realm of suffering and deprivation, and it’s not clear to her how or if the war effort will ultimately turn these long-suffering people’s lives around. You get the sense she has deep-seated doubts, but she’s also there, there’s no way out, and there’s a war on. She’s duty-bound, whether she believes in the mission or not. The insurgent Abu Al-Hool is a sharp contrast to Cassandra. His narrative is a morose, reflective account of the mind of a committed jihadist whose ideas have changed as he’s aged. Whereas Cassandra’s deliberation is razor-sharp and urgent, Al-Hool is melancholy and conflicted. He’s a veteran of the wars against the Russians in Afghanistan and Chechnya, but now he sees jihadism as having been perverted by unscrupulous, murderous actors. “The war on the ground is secondary to the greater jihad: the more difficult, inner struggle,” he reflects. Al-Hool is the soul of what has in effect become a soulless movement. He thinks the atrocities of 9/11 were a terrible mistake and that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are corrupted and misguided. Of all things, however, what truly haunts Al-Hool is the loss of his son, Hassan, to the war in Chechnya. Al-Hool’s narrative wearily reveals the prevailing nihilism of jihadist movements like ISIS and Al Qaeda, but it also dwells on something more familiar to all of us: the tension between loyalty to a cause and loyalty to family. Al-Hool left his own privileged life and family in Egypt to join the fight in Afghanistan, and his son did the same in Chechnya. The difference was that his son died and he didn’t, which forces him to come to terms with the reality of violent struggle itself, and whether it’s worth it at all. The third narrative is that of Sleed, a young U.S. service member lacking the compelling interest to the reader of Cassandra and Al-Hool. He experiences the killing of civilians, the ruin of Saddam Hussein’s palace grounds and their reclamation as the Green Zone, and, finally, the 2004 battles in Fallujah, some of the most fiercely contested of the entire war. At times Sleed’s narrative can feel tacked on, superfluous even, but it serves a significant purpose in the scheme of the novel. Through him, readers get the unvarnished perspective of a soldier with seemingly no preconceptions, strong values, or clear objectives. He’s just there, in essence, so his experience distills with clarity the fraught nature of the conflict, its moral dubiousness. It’s as if Sleed is just reporting about the war, but what he reports is as harrowing as it is hollowing. Yet the moment his narrative ends, you easily forget him. Cassandra’s narrative, on the other hand, reasserts itself powerfully throughout the novel, but war isn’t her only focus. She presents an unsparing view of the epidemic of sexual violence and harassment in the U.S. military. Before the war, she’s stationed in Kuwait, where she endures myriad misogynistic and homophobic slurs: “Goddamn men,” she thinks. As time goes on, her despair in the face of toxic masculinity deepens and she wishes she’d been “born a part of their little club. Not a wish to change gender, exactly, but that she’d been given an easier birthright to power.” Her anger peaks after the rape and beating of Sgt. Williams, a former bunkmate of hers. The perpetrator is never apprehended. When Cassandra hears some of male service members whispering about Williams, “the cruel innocence in how they talk about it” reminds her of the way “children sometimes torture each other.” She estimates it takes 48 hours for “untended men to descend to the level of beasts.” A Defense Department report from 2015 estimated 20,300 service members were victims of sexual assault in 2014 alone. The report also found 22 percent of active-duty women and seven percent of active-duty men reported being the victims of at least some form of sexual harassment. Rape and sexual violence are used all over the world by military aggressors against their enemies, and that of course is vile. Yet, casualties of war are rarely considered as victims of sexual violence perpetrated by their fellow soldiers. Van Reet exposes this damningly well through Cassandra’s unflinching account this heinous state of affairs. And sexual predators in the U.S. military are not the only examples of abject vileness in the novel. The morally bankrupt and ruthless Dr. Walid—nominal leader of the insurgent faction seeking conflict with the Americans—imperils everyone involved with him through his toxic ideology. Cassandra—for the better part of the novel a prisoner of Walid’s—awaits her fate. Al-Hool, disillusioned with Dr. Walid, betrays the latter’s location to American authorities and a battle between the insurgents and the Americans ensues. Separately, Al-Hool tries to reclaim a sense of purpose by entering the field of battle for the final time, without Walid and his minions—this time in Fallujah. “I’ve lived past my time,” he says, “and put this off much too long—long enough to know the hardest fight is the fight against your own anger. Compared with that, this will be easy. This I’ll do without anger. I’ll do it with something like longing in my heart.” But Cassandra comes to see the predicament of war in less certain terms than Al-Hool does. The dichotomy of soldier and enemy has long since collapsed by novel’s end. Unlike many ideologues with the comfort of a civilian life in government, those tasked with carrying out war may not end up seeing its reality in ideological terms. Cassandra shows repeatedly throughout the novel she’s a survivor, that she has guts. But let’s not get carried away. Ernest Hemingway once dismissed the notion of having “guts” in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald in Paris in 1926 when he wrote “guts never made any money for anybody except violin string manufacturers.” And surely Cassandra doesn’t think in terms of money, and she never loses her courageous resolve. But by the end of the novel, the only thought to “guts” she pays, maybe wisely, is how to not have them spilled in battle. War often becomes about survival; the rest is noise and silence. Cassandra knows how constricting, cruel, and empty the theatre of war can be. She knows war is hell, and that hell doesn’t discriminate.
Reviews

Three Authors in Search of Melville

When, back in the 1930s, novelist Jean Giono set about working on the first French translation of Moby-Dick, he and his collaborator Lucien Jacques were mulling over approaches to the project when their ideal methodology suddenly appeared before them like a revelation. “The matter was settled,” Giono explains, “when we realized that Melville himself was handing us the principles that would guide our work. ‘There are some enterprises,’ he says, ‘in which a careful disorderliness is the true method.’” This statement of purpose both matched their own sensibility and fit the character of Melville’s text; from there on out, the work was all smooth sailing. “Everything seemed to be settled in advance,” Giono recounts, “and there was nothing left to do but let things take their course.” This careful disorderliness which Giono and Jacques found in Moby-Dick is, as has been often remarked, one of the book’s central features. In his 1947 study of Melville, Call Me Ishmael, Charles Olson explains that Moby-Dick “was two books written between February, 1850 and August, 1851. The first book did not contain Ahab. It may not, except incidentally, have contained Moby-Dick.” Olson’s point is that between an early, nearly completed version of the book and the final volume, Melville, fueled by his intensive reading of Shakespeare, was given the tools to rewrite the work entirely, now replete with “madness, villainy, and evil.” But the multiplicity of Moby-Dick goes well beyond the initial voyage-of-a-whaler framework coupled with the Ahab story. What makes the book so perpetually thrilling is as much the hybrid nature of the work, a “disorderliness” that takes in disquisitions on the finer points of whaling, dramatic monologues, and polyphonic collages of voices, as it is the mad captain’s metaphysical quest. This methodical messiness, though, is not only the guiding principle of Moby-Dick and of Giono and Jacques’s translation of that novel. It is also the springboard for any number of works that take Melville’s life and writing as their subject. In both critical studies like Olson’s and more imaginative works of fiction, writers who have made it their business to struggle with Melville’s legacy have often taken hybridity as their method. It’s as if the example of Moby-Dick has freed them from the constraints of a simple monolithic approach, whether that be a linear narrative or a straightforward work of criticism. One of the first of these odd reckonings with Melville remains among the oddest. After Giono and Jacques completed their translation of Moby-Dick, their publisher asked Giono to contribute a preface. Instead, he ended up writing a new book altogether, Melville: A Novel, a fictional account of the author’s life which was issued as a separate volume (and is now being reprinted in a new English translation by New York Review Books). In this short work, originally published in 1941, Giono follows a largely ahistorical Melville as he takes a trip to London to deliver his latest book, White-Jacket, to his publisher. Left with two weeks to kill in the dreary English capital, Melville instead departs for the countryside, where he is constantly hounded by an angel that appears to him and goads him on to write a real book, which is to say Moby-Dick. Melville is helped along in this goal by the appearance of a beautiful woman, the completely fabricated Adelina White, with whom he shares a mail-coach and carries on a chaste affair. As they ride through the countryside, Melville puts into words the landscapes they pass for Adelina’s benefit, and through his poetic voice, makes nature immediate for his companion in a way it hasn’t been before. This is some romantic stuff to be sure, and Giono goes all in on the power of the poet (Melville) to transform reality: “He made her come to life, no longer as a woman sitting beside a man on the top deck of the Bristol Mail, but as an absolute ruler of the weathers: he had made her come alive in her own domain.” This exalted view of Melville’s poetic mission is one that Giono emphasizes throughout the work, both in lyrical narrative passages like the woodland jaunt and in more reflective moments in which Melville’s angel appears as a stand-in in for the author’s own conflicted feelings about his literary mission. But what makes Giono’s book such an enjoyable read is the wide range of other modes that he employs and which grant the work a richness and scope that pay ample tribute to the book it references. Among the memorable passages are humorous set pieces (as when Melville goes to a second-hand shop to outfit himself for his country outing), odd surreal details (a crown of thorns that the young writer puts on and that leaves a tiny part of his head perpetually soft and sticky), and interpolated bits of literary criticism. Giono adopts this last mode in particular to wax poetic on the American literary project. “[Melville is] an American democrat,” he writes. “He’s part of that democracy whose praises Whitman will sing later on, starting with the second poem in his Leaves of Grass.” Easy enough for a French writer (especially one with a romantic turn of mind) to be enamored of American democracy and the literature it produces. Sometimes, though, it takes a native to bring a more critical eye to the proceedings. In Call Me Ishmael, his study, Olson takes up the challenge. Rather than conflating Melville and Whitman as Giono does, he pointedly differentiates the two. “Whitman we have called our greatest voice because he gave us hope,” he writes. “Melville is the truer man. He lived intensely his people’s wrong, their guilt.” In fact, Olson’s critical study is filled throughout with reflections on Melville’s conflicted take on the American project. Alongside the positive example of the Pequod, that democratic microcosm of the country, Olson shows us, sit the brute economic facts of the voyage as well as the understanding that the men’s mission is to overtake and destroy nature. In presenting his reading of Melville’s life and work, Olson organizes his chapters into neat thematic sections, but he then complicates this orderliness by drawing on any number of outside texts and prose styles. Alternating intensive critical analysis with anecdote and interpolation, switching up academic prose with neat poetical formulation, Olson achieves a carefully controlled disorderliness that enriches our understanding of his subject. If part of Olson’s project is to analyze Ahab’s monomaniacal quest to conquer space, then Olson, like Melville before him, counters with a polyphonic range of voices and approaches that shows up that quest for the narrow gesture that it is. For all their hybrid gestures, though, Giono’s book is essentially a novel, while Olson’s work is clearly a critical study. It took the work of another writer, the American Paul Metcalf, to strike a middle ground between the two genres. In his 1965 book, Genoa, Metcalf, who was Melville’s great grandson, makes his ancestor’s words the very engine of the narrative. Largely plotless, the book follows Michael Mills, non-practicing doctor, as he holes up in his attic while his wife is off at work, obsessively poring over the collected works of Melville, as well as writings about Christopher Columbus and anatomy textbooks. Ever since, as a child, he and his brother, Carl, discovered an old copy of Typee while playing in a haunted house, he’s been obsessed by the writer, and his mind is trained to dial up an appropriate quotation from Melville for every situation he encounters. Michael’s mind, in fact, is where most of the action takes place in Genoa, and Metcalf makes us privy to the workings of that consciousness as we follow along with him in his attic. Michael’s critical musings, which often range intertextually between all his various sources, are both enlightening and dangerously obsessive. In one passage, Michael will expertly compare Columbus and Melville, outlining the ways in which both the explorer’s decision to go west instead of to Africa and Melville’s decision to send Ahab east instead of on the customary westward voyage “did more violence, perhaps, than all the wars that followed” simply by their geographic dislocations. But then the obsessiveness will take over and he’ll mash all his texts together in a way that seems more maddening than instructive, as when he compares Ahab’s quest for the whale with not only Columbus’s quest for land but with a sperm’s journey towards the egg. Hovering over everything that Michael does is the memory of his brother. Carl, whose story takes over the narrative in the book’s second half, lived an adventurous life, which culminated first in his being the victim of war crimes in China and his kidnapping and murdering a child back stateside, a crime which led to his execution. By the time we learn the details of Carl’s life, though, Metcalf has fully instructed us in the bloody history of the United States, dating back to the introduction of Europeans to the western hemisphere and carrying on through America’s new manifest destiny of nautical imperialism. Thus, when Michael narrates his brother’s murderous pursuits, we’ve already been given a larger context in which to understand them. If at first the connection between all these threads is simply implied, Michael eventually makes them explicit. “Perhaps like Ishmael on board the Pequod,” he muses, “[Carl] was hunting back toward the beginnings of things; and, like the voyage of the Pequod—or of any of the various caravels of Columbus that stuck fierce weather returning from the Indies—perhaps Carl’s eastward voyage, his voyage ‘home’, was disastrous.” Presiding over these musings, though, is a critical figure and authorial stand-in who cuts a more-or-less ridiculous figure. A doctor who refuses to practice, a man hobbled by a troublesome club-foot, Michael neglects his household duties to pore uselessly over his texts. He is powerless to maintain order in his own home as his kids run amok while he hides in the attic. If Olson represents the stable, authoritative critic, then Michael Mills is a far more doubtful one, highly intelligent and knowledgeable about his material, but cursed by an immoderate mind that makes his conclusions less than trustworthy. As do Giono and Olson, Metcalf allows his narrator’s fevered brain plenty of space in which to operate, but, by making him an essentially absurd individual, Metcalf pointedly undercuts his authority. If Michael’s occasionally stirring insights mark Genoa as a valuable work of criticism, then the framing of those insights as coming from a highly dubious character make it just as much an expert work of fiction. So too with Melville: A Novel, which combines a personalized reading of its subject’s oeuvre with an imaginative account of his life, even if here the author’s concerns tip far more towards the fanciful. Image: Wikimedia
Reviews

Karl Ove Knausgaard Shows You What Makes Life Worth Living

“I have tried and I have capitulated. My capitulation is the books I have published,” writes Karl Ove Knausgaard, who has 3,600 pages of capitulation behind him in the My Struggle series alone. That capitulation, he writes in his new work, Autumn, was to his inability to describe in satisfying terms the “pull” that the colors red and green exert upon him. We move past this odd admission. Red and green reappear throughout Autumn, as does the season itself, but the point of this spare collection of essays addressed to his unborn daughter is not to finally be able to talk about color, exactly. What is most interesting to this reader about Autumn, and possibly most interesting to Knausgaard himself, is how the acts of seeing and distilling might work together. Here, the writer is considering the sights and objects that staff his current life, not his past. Here, no 40-page reminiscences of the time young Karl Ove almost had a worthwhile New Year’s Eve. No endless narrative rivers swelling with ache and boredom. Instead, Knausgaard attempts a feat of concision with Autumn—the first of a “seasonal” series—by corralling those things that he wants to precisely regard, and that he wants his daughter to one day regard for herself. Three letters directly addressed to his child tether the true substance of the work—60 meditations on topics such as beekeeping, petrol, war, vomit, Vincent van Gogh, chewing gum, and, of course, eyes, an ongoing topic of interest for this author since the first book of My Struggle. Autumn feels like a gift in the hand. An early essay titled “Frames” contains a key to understanding this latest endeavor. As most of the essays in the collection do, “Frames” starts with a simple description of the title subject—so simple, in fact, that it can infuriate as easily as it can endear (during a spat [about Knausgaard?], someone once cruelly parroted Knausgaard, knowing it would enrage me: “I felt the snow. The snow was cold.”): Frames form the edges of a picture and mark the boundary between what is in the picture and what is not. In the My Struggle series, we encountered this type of plain, expository language all the time. It worked to string moments of sorrow, hubris, and mundanity together. It worked to collapse distance, to give these moments the same weight they might have in their actual occurrence. And it wasn’t the only type of language; Knausgaard also went on beautiful, lyrical flights—he had the space. But here, in Autumn, the writer is not working to churn out 20 pages a day, but rather, two or three. One ostensible reason for the overt simplicity of language in Autumn is the book’s own framing device, the way it repeatedly addresses the writer’s unborn daughter as it introduces the material stuff of Knausgaard’s existence. Indeed, several of these essays read in their first few lines like entries in a kind of “A Is for Apple” book. (On apples, in fact the first entry in Autumn, Knausgaard writes that he enjoys them for the lack of work, the lack of secret that they hold, unlike oranges, which you have to peel. There was an unforgettable scene in My Struggle when Karl Ove’s father forced him to consume apples until he vomited. That goes untouched here.) But often, and thankfully, Knausgaard moves from identifying things and toward what is “beyond the picture.” From “Frames:” For to be human is to categorize, subdivide, identify and define, to limit and to frame…It is true of our reality, what we call the world, which we subdivide into objects, groups of objects, phenomena and groups of phenomena, which we conceive of in how they differ from other objects and phenomena. Urges to break free from the frame, writes Knausgaard, are just a “longing for authenticity, for the real…or in other words, a life, an existence, a world unframed.” An essay on badgers doesn’t really go anywhere new (“What is the badger really like?”). But there are essays whose edges blur, whose final images Knausgaard allows to glow. There are essays where he scratches lightly at the past as his mind moves over it, rather than worrying at it endlessly; he is not asking us to “live his life with him,” as Zadie Smith characterized the My Struggle project, but rather to enjoy the endlessness of the everyday, the associations, past or present, that the visual can provoke. An essay on beekeeping shimmers in its last words, for beekeeping, writes Knausgaard, involves a “slow, peculiar dance which shows human beings at their most subservient and perhaps also at their most beautiful.” Throughout Autumn, Knausgaard returns to the idea of the frame and these whittled meditations on gum, on adders, on twilight begin to accrete and, surprisingly, to feel rather urgent. His daughter gestates. Knausgaard writes an essay most days. A fever allows “horizontal liasons with the objects surrounding it” and also a “vertical axis, cutting down into the past.” A car allows a space in which, as landscape hurtles by, Knausgaard’s children can say anything to him. The fixation on boundaries swells. He wonders as always how he might transmit a totality of experience to a reader. How he might transmit his own answer to “what makes life worth living” to his daughter. These are old questions. Similar ones frustrated the writer James Agee, who built a monster of an answer with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, cataloguing the belongings of Alabama sharecroppers in an attempt at totality, at erasing the frame for richer readers. Leslie Jamison has beautifully categorized that book as an act of empathy. With Autumn, Knausgaard might have contemporaries in Brian Blanchfield (Proxies) and Mary Ruefle (My Private Property), who both straddle poetry and essay and who both favor brief mental excursions from the tangible to the less-so, often trekking into emotionally unexpected territory. The title essay of Ruefle’s collection succeeds in no small part because of the visible research and erudition, but also because of the deftness of her associations, the rapidity with which she is “transcribing the book of my head as I write.” She assumes control of her observations, moving from shrunken head to head-as-book to Belgian colonialism to mother to youth and afterlife, with many things in between. Ruefle’s associative leaps are wider than Knausgaard’s, and weirder, too. They are transfixing. But Knausgaard, meanwhile, is transfixed. In Autumn, he reminds me most of Michel de Montaigne, endlessly cited as the father of the essai, the attempt (a word that makes room for probable failure). For Montaigne, too, holing up in his ancestral estate, regarded the everyday in quick but well-considered meditations like “On Thumbs,” “On Liars,” and “On Drunkenness,” although he expounded, too, on less immediate subjects, which often made for better titles: “Our Feelings Reach Out Beyond Us,” “We Taste Nothing Pure.” He let his mind roam through pastures, up against fences, through the barbed wire. He regarded himself. The best essays in Autumn move towards ideas beyond the frame of the observed quotidian. In “Loneliness,” Knausgaard considers his father, whose rage and alcoholism often gave My Struggle a nearly unbearable emotional weight. He moves in the space of a few sentences from his father’s diary to a shattering rumination: If everything that stirs between people made a sound, it would be like a chorus, a great murmur of voices would rise from even the faintest glimmer in the eyes. Surely he too must have felt this? Perhaps more powerfully than I do? For he started drinking, and drinking muffles this chorus and makes it possible to be with other people without hearing it. For the sentence he ended that diary with, I never could have written. He wrote, ‘In brief, what I have just now so clumsily tried to express is that I have always been a lonely man.’ Or, the thought strikes me now with horror, maybe it was the other way round? Maybe he simply didn’t hear this chorus, didn’t know it existed and therefore didn’t become bound by it, but remained forever standing on the outside, observing how all the others were bound by something he didn’t understand? Later, Knausgaard will write on faces that “whatever is human is changeable, is mobile, is unfathomable.” He doesn’t write here to understand, but to associate—to get close to truths larger than himself. Paradoxically, Knausgaard regards his own face, he realizes he looks “almost exactly” like his father. All of this said, to me, after a few dips in and out of Autumn—and dipping is what you are likely to do with this book, for the short essays can start to feel cast from a single mold of definition, then rumination, then final poetic image—I wondered about the younger version of myself that loved My Struggle, that lived by and with My Struggle, toting it through public places, Karl Ove’s wild eyes burning from the cover and frightening strangers who glanced. It seemed to me at the time that the series slowed people down, reminded us through the force of memory dredged and resurrected and set in real time that what composed reality were the small items. Autumn seems to try to enforce the point that Knausgaard’s previous “capitulation” worked so hard, and so engrossingly, to prove. Is Autumn necessary? Not really. Is it new? Not entirely. But, capitulation or not, it glows.
Reviews

Closer to Truth: On Nicole Krauss’s ‘Forest Dark’

When, “midway upon the journey of our life/[He] found [himself] within a forest dark,” Dante Alighieri went epic, envisioning a descent into hell, a spiritual purgation and eventual transcendence. When the two central characters in Forest Dark, Nicole Krauss’s first novel in seven years suffer their own life crises, they head to Israel, search for meaning and for immanence, and wind up in the desert. Like the poem from which it borrows its title, Forest Dark is also epic, though in its own way: quiet, eerie, touchingly inchoate. It is an epic of loneliness, a testimony of and to longing that remains unfulfilled. The novel is bifurcated, telling, in alternating chapters, the stories of Jules Epstein—not so long ago a high-powered and wealthy law firm partner, of late a retired philanthropist looking for the right cause—and Nicole, a successful novelist plagued by writer’s block and a silently failing marriage. (It is perhaps in poor taste, but impossibly tempting, to observe that Nicole’s situation evokes Krauss’s own, given her well-documented divorce from Jonathan Safran Foer, who published his post-divorce novel Here I Am last year. It also seems important to note that, whereas Foer dealt with his hurt feelings by imagining the destruction of Israel in his book, Krauss deals in altogether more human and humane troubles.) Krauss’s great innovation is that the two strands never explicitly intersect, instead running parallel, provocatively echoing each other through places and objects and ideas without ever meeting. Both Jules and Nicole spend stretches of time at the Tel Aviv Hilton, the Brutalist “rectangle on stilts that dominates the Tel Aviv Coast.” (A series of increasing close-ups of the hotel appear early in the novel.) Nicole means to write a book about the hotel (or else set at the hotel or else inspired by the hotel), a place that holds “a kind of mystical aura” for her, the place from which she imagines she might be dreaming the entirety of her daily life. But the book refuses to be written, and so Nicole takes off from her Brooklyn home, leaves behind the husband who disappoints her and to whom she is a disappointment, leaves behind the two young sons who otherwise keep her tethered, in the hopes that, in Israel, at the Hilton, she will be able to focus and finally write. Jules, for his part, intends to use the Hilton as headquarters, a base from which to award the remains of his fortune (the $2 million left over after a giving spree that has alarmed his lawyer and alienated his son) to some worthy institution or another in honor of his parents’ memory. Neither remains at the Hilton, attention caught by quixotic projects, presented by fateful encounters. For Jules, the thread begins back in New York, when, at an event for “some fifty people representing the American Jewish leadership” to confer—which is to say, have a three-course meal—with the president of the Palestinian Authority, he meets Rabbi Menachem Klausner. His last name, Klausner informs a reluctant-to-engage Epstein, marks him as one with lineage that can be traced back to the dynastic line of King David. Once in Israel, Jules reconnects with the rabbi, spending a night at Gilgul, Klausner’s retreat in Safed, the mystical desert center for Kabbalah studies. There he meets a beautiful woman, the rabbi’s daughter, Yael, who impresses him more than the rabbi’s disquisitions on the finite and the infinite.  Yael, it turns out, is working on a film about the life of David, “the most complex, fully wrought, and fascinating character in the whole Bible.” (That Jules’s first view of Yael—she’s emerging from a bath—replicates David’s initial vision of Bathsheba is an effective coincidence.) And suddenly, Jules is “new again to everything—new to the blazing white light off the waves, to the crying of the muezzin at dawn, new to the loss of appetite, to the body lightening, to a release from order, to the departing shore of the rational, new again to miracles, to poetry.” Nicole, for her part, becomes involved with Eliezer Friedman, possibly a former Mossad agent, possibly a retired professor of literature, certainly a man who relates a nearly impossible-to-believe story about Franz Kafka. Friedman claims to have access to the works hoarded, in a cat-infested apartment, by Eva Hoffe, daughter of Max Brod’s lover Esther, inheritor of Brod’s estate, jealous possessor of a priceless trove of Kafka’s manuscripts.  In the least outlandish of his proposals, Friedman suggests that Nicole prepare an ending to an unfinished Kafka play, which is scheduled to be made into a film. How all of this turns out is not really the point. Krauss has always been a writer interested in the hidden, spiritual dimension of things, and her work concerns itself with the mystical, the metaphysical, the mysterious. The secret inner life of people, places, and objects preoccupies her far more than the directly observable. In her last novel, Great House, a writing desk served as a totem, imbuing the lives of the individuals who posses it at various moments with the possibility of grace and tempting them with damnation. In Forest Dark, she goes even more abstract, working less towards a climax than an epiphany. The novel starts out with a great deal of texture, with meticulously arranged details; it presents, initially, as a keenly observed and reported chronicle of two accomplished but unfulfilled lives. But as it progresses, and especially as it nears the end, it abandons any pretense of interest in connecting threads and cause-and-effect payoffs. This could be annoying, perhaps, but Krauss’s great, fearless gift is to work a motif until its essence reverberates throughout. Thinking about an improbable story Friedman relates, Nicole compares the tale to the conventional, accepted one and finds that “the one Friedman had drawn struck me as having the more beautiful shape—more complex, but also more subtle, and so closer to truth. In light of it, the familiar story now seemed clumsy, overblown, and steeped in cliché.” And so too of Forest Dark: it is beautiful and complex but subtle and so closer to truth. It is perhaps not particularly believable, but it is elegant and shimmering, a slant of light shining long enough to make us wonder.
Reviews

Making Myths in the Space Between the Lines

1. What shape does hell take? In Norse mythology she—the goddess Hel—is a girl with a face half beautiful, half rotted away. Brave warriors had a place in Valhalla, whereas Hel's domain is for those who did not die honorably in battle. Greek mythology does not allow for such clear-cut distinctions. Death sends you to Hades: you are down, unless by some act of godly intervention your fragments are thrown skywards to settle as a constellation, not quite a god nor solely a symbol. But what if hell could be contained within a frame—constructed on an axis of text and image? That question of containment, of framing and fragmentation shapes the genre-defying form of Orpheus & Eurydice: A Graphic-Poetic Exploration (OE), by the artist Tom de Freston and his partner the poet Kiran Millwood Hargrave. Published as part of Bloomsbury’s Beyond Criticism series, the book is a both a study of mythic narrative structures and an act of mythmaking in its own right: de Freston’s images follow Orpheus down to Hades while Millwood Hargrave’s words give voice and agency to Eurydice. Essays by academics and cultural critics are interwoven with the narrative, and just as there is no such thing as a self-contained myth disconnected from a wider network of stories, so the book is just one part of an ongoing collaborative project. OE is an exercise in world-building, using film, performances, and exhibitions to test the dimensions of the myth: the myth of the man, the musician, who entered the underworld to rescue his wife from the clutches of death. I'm stuck on the cliché, "clutches of death." Transmitting a myth quickly will do that to language—make it portable, acritical, squeezed into conventional structures. Who's to say this is a myth of a man, his song, his rescue mission? By letting the story divide and multiply into frames and fragments, the book permits the myth its slipperiness; indeed, in the opening pages of the book, the narrative seems to have slipped from its template entirely. We see a man, a painter, willing his wife back from the dead as he daubs her image across a triptych. We will know him as Orpheus, a self-indulgent slob dressed only in a pair of grubby white briefs. The woman on the canvas is Eurydice, she wears the dress she died in. And then she too, slips—her body falling until she is no longer contained by the painting which, wiped of its image, becomes a threshold to the underworld. Orpheus enters because he has read Eurydice's poetry, which tells of a man who looks back and loses his wife forever. He sets out to remake the myth and rewrite his wife, rescuing himself in the process—and yet it seems the story is doomed from the start. A misplaced minotaur is appointed as Orpheus’s guide, a botched version of Dante’s Virgil, falling into frame in a manner reminiscent of a powerpoint presentation. Together they'll follow the thread, down to catch a wife, a wife in free-fall through a grid of graphics. De Freston's images are loud: there will be scenes of screaming beasts, crashing canvases, bodies bound in kaleidoscopic contortions. Yes, Orpheus can sing—one wailing o which extends wordlessly across several spreads—but he is unable to listen, unable to exit his self-centered orbit. His story is told in soundless freeze-frame; it is Eurydice who speaks, who utters her own images of "welling mud," "parcelled buds," "tongue through teeth." Handwritten on notepaper in a sotto voce script, Millwood Hargrave’s poems are placed unobtrusively between pages—and yet they are less like pressed flowers than gaping mouths, blooming wounds. Her language is the traumatic meeting between body and spirit, the temporal and eternal, lust and loss, a language that voices Eurydice’s ambivalence as Orpheus stumbles in the dark towards her. She knows that "an e is not just a broken o," and when o aligns with e she will not come quietly. 2. This is a radical retelling, but its radicalism is not a matter of "reinterpretation." It is true that we are inclined to read Orpheus more sympathetically—his role as lover and musician is enough to prove his virtue, and his actions appear to meet the criteria for the archetypal tragic hero: he risks all in an act of superhuman bravery, and loses the one he loves in a moment of human fallibility. However, for a story to be reinterpreted it must first be fixed, and it is the essence of myth to be shifting and contradictory. To set out to create a new version of a myth would be to misunderstand the nature of the medium—reinterpretation is inherent in the telling itself. In Plato’s Symposium, for instance, Orpheus is said to be a coward who, rather than resolving to die for love, chose to save his skin and enter Hades alive. Indeed, Orpheus’s eventual end—torn limb from limb by the frenzied female followers of Dionysus—does seem ill-suited to a hero. When his fragments were eventually gathered by the muses it is worth noting that it was his lyre, not his body, that made it to the status of a constellation, and it is this ambiguity between heroism and ignominy, pure art and bodily abjection, which has made Orpheus such a fertile subject for writers and artists. The preface to OE places the book as one part of a mythic evolution, referencing Rainer Maria Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus (1922), Jean Cocteau's Orphée (1950), Anaïs Mitchell's album Hadestown (2010) and David Almond's young adult novel, A Song for Ella Grey (2015). The writer Ann Wroe anatomized Orpheus’s shape-shifting form in her award-winning "biography" Orpheus: The Song of Life (2012), and has contributed an essay for OE in which she turns her attention to Eurydice. Looking back to the original meaning of Eurydice's name ("wisdom" or "wide ruling"), Wroe asks not what OE makes new, but what it retrieves. “This meaning of Eurydice, dark germinating wisdom, has long been lost,” she writes. “But we see glimpses of it here." And so, to retell is never truly to make new—we are bound to an eternal return, a recurring backwards glance. The radicalism of OE, I would argue, is a result of placing those remembrances of the darker parts of the myth within a structure that retains volatility, that stays unstable. The reader is thereby granted not only an alternative reading of the myth but an alternative means of constructing narrative and making sense of what we see. In short, an alternative approach to reading. 3. Existing in the shadowy space between art and literature, text and image, graphic narratives are drawn towards those dark corners, to the parts of a story usually left unseen. There is something inherently subversive about the form, due partly to its detachment from genre, partly to the potential for dissonance between text and image. This dissonance lends itself to humor—I’m thinking of the cats that appear in Regina Doman and Sean Lam’s graphic biography Habemus Papam! Pope Benedict XVI (2012), and the phallic intrusions in Piero’s graphics for Introducing Roland Barthes (2006). Even when posing as "illustration," as demonstrated in Maira Kalman’s graphics for The Elements of Style, Illustrated (2005), the temptation to “read into” the text can prove too hard to resist. [caption id="attachment_97636" align="aligncenter" width="570"] "He noticed a large stain right in the center of the rug." From The Elements of Style, Illustrated by Maira Kalman.[/caption] Whether or not we refer to graphic narratives as comics, the form has always contained elements of darkness. In their "wordless novels" of the early 20th century, artists Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward made darkness both a matter of style and content; their heavily inked woodblock prints do not shy away from scenes we might rather not see, whether a public lynching, police brutality, or a gigantic man pissing on a city. Graphic narratives are unique in their ability to combine dark humor and unflinching representations of trauma, and yet it took until 1992, when Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986) won the Pulitzer Prize, for this quality to be taken seriously. Since then, the form has been appreciated as a powerful means of addressing political upheaval and human suffering: Joe Sacco's Palestine (1993, 1996) paved the way for the practice of graphic journalism, and important recent publications have included Threads: from the Refugee Crisis (2017) by Kate Evans and Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq (2016) by Sarah Glidden. In his reports of his experiences in Bosnia and the Middle East, Sacco does not pose as an authority or an all-seeing eye. Instead, he enters his narratives as a character, a diminutive nerd in blank Goggle glasses. Likewise, the graphic narrative’s style of “truth-telling” is less about revelation than disorientation: it makes darkness visible and disrupts conventional patterns of interpretation. As the narrative progresses across the page, time is represented spatially—the trouble is that space is liable to becomes unstable. In OE, the underworld is an atemporal zone with no fixed spatial footholds. The grid offers no protection against falling out of frame, and images transform—without warning—from line drawings, to digital renderings, to photographs—photographs that, with their deep chiaroscuro, appear to take on the quality of sculpture. That restless attitude to medium and representation is a symptom of the form’s entrenched self-referentiality; whether or not a graphic narrative is evidently “experimental,” it is always a comment on the way information is communicated and consumed. As readers fill in the gaps between frames and reconcile text and image, they, we, become complicit in the manufacture of meaning; the extent to which we are made aware of this process depends on the degree of disruption to the narrative flow. We are equally complicit when sequentially connecting the words of a line of text, or organizing the the simultaneously presented elements of an image. However, by combining these two processes, graphic narratives make the act of reading manifest. They reveal it on the surface of the page. In Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening (2015), the first doctoral dissertation to be produced “entirely in comic book form,” that self-referentiality reaches its apotheosis. As the end product of his PhD at Teachers College, the book is a radical assault on academic conventions, seeking to actively deconstruct “boxed-in” thinking with an argument that leads the reader down, diagonally, across the gutter of the page and into empty space. By allowing “the visual to provide expression where words fail,” Sousanis argues, we free ourselves from linear thought processes, creating a networked, “multidimensional” mode of thinking by combining simultaneous and sequential patterns of interpretation. “Lacking access to ‘as it is’,” he writes, in a text box surrounded by crowds of eyes, “we make do with ‘as it appears.'” Making do, in this case, is less about making the best of a bad situation than taking advantage of space between appearance and reality, and seeing what we can make it do—seeing what we will read between the lines. It took time before graphic narratives were deemed worthy of critical attention. Now, Unflattening and OE prove that the form is a mode of critical enquiry in its own right; a recognition that, in turn, makes way for a more nuanced understanding of “creative criticism.” Such criticism does more than just aspire to artistry, throwing in a few metaphors or enacting its subject matter. Instead, it weans the reader off a reliance on the text, converting them from the role of receiver to that of critical thinker: someone who is aware of their own process of reading, whether of an image, a text, or the world around them. Good philosophy has always worked in this way, pushing beyond the literal meaning of the text to force the reader to address the question on their own terms. However, what might be achieved in philosophy through complex literary techniques—I’m thinking, for instance, of Søren Kierkegaard’s use of pseudonyms—comes naturally to graphic narratives. By definition, the form works beyond the level of the text, making us readers of our own act of reading. What we read into the reading, however, depends on the world we have entered. Whereas Unflattening is a utopian world of sense-making, synthesis, and empathy, OE is less interested in synthesis than the act of ripping. In Plato's Phaedo, to live is to be torn asunder by the opposing forces of time and eternity. OE places us on either side of the rupture, and tells us to look down. The rip, the split, the tear, become an aesthetic, a subject, and a mode of thought: this is a world where making meaning is as much about rupture as it is about connectivity, where even the idealized act of "collaboration" is a type of compromise, a separation from oneself. After all, what sense is there to be made of a world where bodies break, are forgotten, exploited, and where love can tear you in two—three—four —or fragments too small to see? In this world, the “o,” the perfect whole and empty hole, is something to be feared: it is all Orpheus has left when he exits, in one piece, from the underworld, doomed to a life of singular solitude—that is, until he is torn into multiple pieces by the maenads. Perhaps, to submit to the ripping is the most honest way to live: to enter the rupture and look death in the eye. What we see is a living hell. What we see is the world we live in.
Reviews

Publishing a Novel, as Explained to Aliens

If you’ve ever wondered how a novel gets made, from the first glimmerings in the author’s imagination to what readers say about it in their book clubs, Clayton Childress’s Under the Cover is the book for you. Childress, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, has performed a remarkable feat of investigative reporting, interviewing dozens of writers, editors, and readers, and even embedding himself for a time as an intern at an indie publishing house, to follow the tortuous path of Cornelia Nixon’s 2009 historical novel Jarrettsville from inspiration to publication and beyond. Unfortunately, because Childress is a social scientist and Under the Cover is part of the Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology series, readers have to drill through layers of academic framing and insider jargon to find the nuggets Childress has mined from his years of research. This is a shame because, whatever his gifts as a sociologist, Childress is a first-rate shoe-leather reporter. He begins by getting inside Nixon’s head, tracing the origins of Jarrettsville back to a family story about a Maryland ancestor, Martha Jane Cairns, who fell in love with a Union soldier shortly after the Civil War, became pregnant with his child, and then, after he left her, shot him dead in broad daylight as he marched in a parade. In these early sections, Childress occasionally gets sidetracked by his academic training, as when he suggests that “in Nixon’s writing group, recompense operates largely within an economy of time and artistic attention, a gift exchange of sorts,” as if trading story drafts were a lit-world equivalent of the exchange of shell necklaces among Trobriand Islanders. But he does a superb job of showing how Nixon’s decade-long struggle to write and publish Jarrettsville transformed a raw family story into a published book. Nixon spent five long years researching and writing a draft of the novel, then called Martha’s Version, which she sent to 22 publishing houses, all of which rejected it. Childress, ever the social scientist, breaks out the positive and negative comments in Nixon’s rejection letters into a handy bar chart showing that while editors liked Nixon’s treatment of the time period and the issue of race, they felt the plot was too slow and the major characters needed work. Anyone who has ever sent out a novel for publication has created their own mental version of Childress’s soul-crushing little bar chart, and like Nixon, has pored over it looking for the signal in the noise of conflicting editorial feedback. To her credit, Nixon figured out what was wrong and overhauled the book, adding a long section from the perspective of Martha Cairns’s doomed lover. Or, as Childress puts it: “Nixon took the editors’ explanations from the field of production, and first alone and then with guidance from her social circle used them to redraft Martha’s Version into Jarrettsville.” Much of Under the Cover is written in this curiously anthropological tone, as if Childress were explaining how to eat a bowl of cereal to a race of aliens who had never seen a spoon. What is even more curious, though, is that, amid all the jargon, Childress nails the great secret of publishing, which is that it is a business fueled by special brand of infectious enthusiasm. (This might be the place to mention that Childress quotes, at some length, from a Millions piece of mine, "'A Right Fit': Navigating the World of Literary Agents".) In his chapters on Counterpoint Press, where Childress worked as an intern while it was publishing Jarrettsville, he documents how Nixon’s book passed from her agent, to her editor, to her publisher’s sales force, to buyers at major bookstores, rising and falling in value as each person in the chain fell in love with the book or didn’t. Of course, each of these people are busy professionals who can’t possibly read every page of every book that crosses their desks, so much of the time they were falling in love, or not falling in love, with the idea of Nixon’s novel. Since each person in the chain was being paid to hype a full slate of books to the next person in line, any sign of unfeigned enthusiasm—a kind comment by a proofreader, a review of half the book from a sales rep—rippled through the system, carrying the book along in its wake. In the case of Jarrettsville, the book rode this tide of readerly goodwill straight onto the high-traffic front tables at Borders, the now-shuttered bookstore chain, where it foundered, in large part due to a single bad review in The New York Times. Childress gets this deeply human element of publishing exactly right, so it’s disheartening to see it explained in sentences like this one: While most sociologists, following the theory of Bourdieu, bifurcate the literary field into artistically and commercially driven poles, it is at the organizational level within the field of production in which art and commerce are harmonized as a requisite feature of being in the business of promoting and selling books. Translated into plain English, Childress is saying that despite what people think, publishing isn’t a war between art and commerce, but a business that thrives by blending these two things. This is a core insight of his book, and he’s right, but he’s buried his point in a sentence that seems almost scientifically designed to be impenetrable to non-specialist readers. First, there’s that single-name reference to Bourdieu, tossed in without context as if the late French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu were a cultural phenomenon like Madonna or Beyoncé, so instantly recognizable that you only need the one name to know who he is and be fully up on his theories. And if you weren’t scared off by the mononymic French dude, the rest of the sentence will stop you cold, with its weakly focused main clause (“it is at…”), awkwardly placed introductory prepositional phrases (“at the organizational level within the field of production”), passive voice (“are harmonized”), insular terms of art (“the field of production”), and ornate Latinate phrases (“bifurcate,” “requisite”). I've been teaching writing at the university level for more than 20 years and I can assure you no one writes like that naturally. You have to train people to write sentences like this, and when they regress and start making sense again, you have to ensure that their livelihoods depend on being consistently incomprehensible outside a narrow set of like-minded colleagues. Therein, to my mind, lies a small, perhaps unavoidable tragedy of how knowledge is produced and promulgated in our society. Childress was able to do such a fine job researching American publishing in part because he was heavily subsidized, first as a doctoral student at the state-supported University of California at Santa Barbara, and later as a junior professor at a research university partially funded by (Canadian) tax dollars. When he began Under the Cover, Childress explains in an afterword, he was a grad student looking for a subject, and now, many years later, he is a tenured professor at the University of Toronto, no doubt thanks in large part to the publication of Under the Cover. So the deal worked out well for Childress, and it has worked out well for cultural sociologists and their students, who now have a new text to study in their classes. But for other readers who might be interested in the subject matter of Childress’s book, particularly writers and people considering a career in publishing, it’s more of a mixed bag. On the one hand, Childress has given us a deeply reported insider’s look at how the sausage gets made in contemporary publishing. On the other hand, he has built such high walls of academic verbiage and doctrinal framing around his work that only a few hardy souls outside his area of specialty will ever succeed in climbing them.
Reviews

Blackness in Bedlam: On Toni Morrison’s ‘The Origin of Others’

1. I had the pleasure of starting this essay when my life was falling apart, which is the best time, I think, to return to the author who taught you who you are. My first experience with Toni Morrison was by accident: My sisters and I played the DVD of Beloved at our aunt’s house, thinking it to be something different from what it was because Oprah Winfrey was in it. Back then, I was busy searching for normal in the likes of Junie B. Jones or Abby Hayes; only now do I see that the lives of these white girls fashioned a fantasia, when really my world was our world was Toni’s world: sick, sad, and keeping on regardless. One of the first grown-up novels I read was The Bluest Eye. It was the summer before university, and I found an old copy at a thrift store and stayed up until 4 a.m. chugging through Pecola Breedlove’s heartbreaking elegy. Four years later—a few weeks ago—I bought Jazz, Love, and Song of Solomon, after checking out God Help the Child at the local library. I’ve since finished Song of Solomon and God Help the Child; Jazz is proving to be a labor of love. Toni Morrison writes prose the way Dizzy Gillespie carried a tune or Ernie Barnes paints a life. They create art that imbues with heat those who let it in. Still, Barnes’s heat emanates from the hot and heavy space between lovers; Gillespie’s within the boiling blood of dancers in Village Vanguard. Morrison derives hers from tension. Morrison’s new book of essays, The Origin of Others, shows that the sick, sad world in which her novels are set is an old one—one that she yearns to lean out of, one we’re falling right back into instead. The Origin of Others is, at once, a critique, memoir, and writer’s notebook; the Nobel Prize-winning author explicates the observations and inspirations behind some of her most prized novels. The book draws from her Norton Lectures, in which she discusses race, borders, history, and other literary heavyweights such as Flannery O’Connor and Ernest Hemingway. Readers could consider this book a companion to her Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, if they want a pellucid look at the racial minefield throughout American literature. Morrison spans the essays asking what it is to Other others, to mark the color line between them and us. What I found in this discourse was a generational rift between Morrison and us. Who is “us”? Ta-Nehisi Coates opens Origin with a foreword that claims it “impossible to read [Morrison’s] thoughts on belonging, on who fits under the umbrella of society and who does not, without considering our current moment.” He is correct in that the book envokes our collective, Trump-era anguish with almost clairvoyant clarity, but he seems to overlook how zeitgeist is geared towards winning the right to exist as Others in peace. Miles Davis once said that “sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.” In that vein, Chloe Ardelia Wofford, born February 18, 1931, became Toni Morrison with time. While the name itself was a gradual invention—she was nicknamed “Toni” in college and picked up “Morrison” when she married—the Morrison we read today was conceived in the lifelong Othering either described or hinted at in The Origin of Others; her first essay, “Romancing Slavery,” opens with a representative scene. In the early 1930s, when Morrison and her sister “still played on the floor,” her great-grandmother Millicent MacTeer visited the family and provided her with a brief lesson about race and power: Her visit to Ohio had been long anticipated because she was regarded as the wise, unquestionable, majestic head of our family. The majesty was clear when something I had never witnessed before happened as she entered a room: without urging, all the males stood up. Finally, after a round of visits with other relatives, she entered our living room, tall, straight-backed, leaning on a cane she obviously did not need, and greeted my mother. Then, staring at my sister and me, playing or simply sitting on the floor, she frowned, pointed her cane at us, and said, "These children have been tampered with."…My great-grandmother was tar black, and my mother knew precisely what she meant: we, her children, and therefore our immediate family, were sullied, not pure. This scene sets the tone for the rest of the book. She remarks on how she first considered the phrase “tampered with” exotic, until her mother rejected the assertion. “[I]t became clear that ‘tampered with’ meant lesser,” she writes, “if not completely Other.” And thus, lit the spark of apprehension that grew as I continued the book. The second essay, “Being or Becoming the Stranger,” provides us with an astute analysis as of the ways we draw the boundaries between one another. “Culture, physical traits, religion were and are among all precursors of strategies for ascendance and power,” Morrison explains. She opens the argument by analyzing Flannery O’Connor’s “Artificial Nigger,” in which a poor white man with delusions of grandeur teaches his nephew how to view black folk as lesser. She recounts the characters’ journey to Atlanta, and how Mr. Head teaches his nephew to read color. There’s one scene that stuck out, while on the train, where the two spot a large well-to-do light-skinned man who prompts the nephew to say, “You said they were black…You never said they were tan…” Morrison highlights this scene to illustrate the fluidity of racial identity, how loosely we define blackness. This scenario either posits that race always trumped class or that race cannot be confined by color or, likely, both, an argument that can lend itself to colorblindness had one taken it at face value. Today, race and class have become entangled like a ratking: dozens of outcomes fighting for recognition but none quite standing out on its own. It is true that you can be an NBA superstar who’s still likened to a gorilla, or a footballer still manhandled by the police, but it also remains true that wealth provides enough mobility within the American social stratosphere to feed one’s delusions that they don’t have to care about blackness or, at the very least, are no longer affected by the racism us working folk are. Wealthy black folks don’t have to put up with Mr. Head’s chauvinism on the train when they can book a private plane for themselves, their non-black partners, and their pretty mixed children in the achromatic utopias often afforded to them. Simply put, they don’t have to care about our problems, and they know it. Morrison then wraps up Mr. Head’s racial anxiety, that way she does so well: “Without the glue of racial superiority there seems to be no possibility of forgiveness or re-union. When, finally, they enter an all-white neighborhood, their fear of not belonging, of becoming, themselves, the stranger, destabilizes them.” This latter portion seems not to have aged at all, especially following a read of Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s profile of Dylann Roof; as blackness expands, white resentment remains static, transfixed in its original state until catalyzed by violence. The book continues like this, wherein there are prescient analyses of the cultural moment followed by claims bordering on diminutive, as though Morrison has grown tired of discussing race—which would be reasonable—and yearns for the Obama-era headway that we millennials have grown accustomed to. This is especially apparent in “The Color Fetish,” the third essay, where Morrison briefly touches upon how dark skin is utilized as imagery for anything from menace to hopelessness to sexual depravity. She highlights a few popular examples, such as how in To Have and Have Not (The Tradesman’s Return), Hemingway must point out that an otherwise-named black character, Wesley, is constantly referred to as “the nigger” to “pinpoint the narrator’s compassion for a black man” and render the white protagonist sympathetic. Any keen cultural consumer will recall a similar trope used in Deadpool (2016) and Baby Driver (2017). We haven’t changed that much. However, while she references “color-ism” once or twice, she entirely defangs and de-genders the issue, glossing over the preference for light-skinned characters—especially women—throughout American literary history, as well as the way this colorism has also been used by ostensibly black texts to alienate light-skinned protagonists from their dark-skinned antagonists, furthering Charles Chesnutt’s tradition of writing blacks with proximity to whiteness as more human. (Ann Petry’s The Street, Justin Simien’s Dear White People and—while I hesitate to list this as such—Jean Rhys’s polemical Wide Sargasso Sea come to mind.) 2. It is entirely possible that after 40-odd years of ruminating on blackness, racism, and womanhood, Morrison has become fatigued. We’re sitting in an era where 20-something bloggers need monastic practices of self-care just to keep up with the news. A philosophy major I know recently posted a diatribe against critical theory on Facebook, noting that he’d read 50 books a year for four years only to find that the Black conundrum, the why, only expanded the deeper you went, as if he were searching for the center of the universe. Oppression is exhausting and Morrison ends The Bluest Eye’s prologue by admitting this: “There is really nothing more to say—except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.” Every day, black folks are forced to parse how we’re seen, how we’re not, and how we’re to rectify these regular affronts in hopes to, one day, untie the Gordian knot that is our existence in a world designed away from us. The world Toni Morrison grew up in and immortalized in her fiction was diseased. It’s a world of fathers drunk on hate, seeking love in innocence and turning it to rot; a world of little colored girls trapped in mahogany palaces, sewing roses out of red velvet for parties they’ll never go to. It’s a world rife with ghosts of bygone traumas manifesting in cruelty. Throughout her career, she took that world and turned it into doleful prose to try to make the pain a little more beautiful. This was likely why I returned to her like a ghost back to her grave: She presented us with Negresses who were mobilizing forces in their own lives. But it wasn’t empowering; in fact, it could be incapacitating, seeing your suffering in the mirror. There was a part in “Being or Becoming the Stranger” that shed a little light on my experience with Beloved. Morrison recalls the time she met an “outrageously dressed fisherwoman” outside of her home. They chat for a few minutes and decide to chat again at some indistinct point in the future. But once the fisherwoman is gone, she never returns, and nary a soul knew she even existed, prompting minor heartache for Morrison: I immediately sentimentalized and appropriated her. Fantasized her as my personal shaman. I owned her or wanted to (and I suspect she glimpsed it). I had forgotten the power of embedded images and stylish language to seduce, reveal, control. Forgot too their capacity to help us pursue the human project—which is to remain human and to block the dehumanization and estrangement of others. I recall now why we ever thought Beloved was a family-friendly film: We had projected onto Oprah a benignity she’d likely wanted to escape from. Oprah, a woman whose success was often extrapolated from the Mammy archetype. We had fallen victim to the way the world perceived her: supplement to whiteness. 3. Black American history has been unforgiving. From chattel slavery to Reconstruction to Jim Crow to our current neoliberal dystopia—black art has always been produced as ripostes to the black condition of a given era. For poor black folk, those who can’t cull hundreds of dollars for passports that’d go largely unused anyway, their horizons extend to what’s right before them. Hopeful blacktivists open bookstores to shrink that sea of dissonance between poor folk and the diaspora, but America’s anti-intellectualism too often prevails. Morrison resists. Her prose is poetic in its simplicity and as lush with imagery as a hilltop forest. She makes a conscious effort to keep her books accessible to help black booksellers push cachet literature to the masses. “I thought to myself,” she writes, “what if I published a book good enough, attractive enough to demand black people’s attention?” She’s since reached that goal and then some, I think, but the fatigue still wins sometimes. She explains how, for example, Paradise was written as “a reverse dystopia—a deepening of the definition of ‘black’ and a search for its purity as defiance against the eugenics of ‘white’ purity…” In “The Color Fetish,” she also details how God Help the Child displayed color as “both a curse and a blessing, a hammer and a golden ring,” how the beauty in Bride’s sable skin and silky hair was not enough to make her “a sympathetic human being.” And her acclaimed short story, “Recititaf," could be declared a colorblind masterwork—in fact, it was. This time last year, a white classmate construed the story’s meaning to be that the race of the characters didn’t matter. The real meaning? It may have gotten lost in the process of writing it: I first tried this technique of racial erasure in a short story…It began as a screenplay that I was asked to write for two actresses—one black, one white. But since in the writing I didn’t know which actress would play which part, I eliminated color altogether, using social class as the marker…Later I converted the material into a short story—which, by the way, does exactly the opposite of my plan (the characters are divided by race, but all racial codes have been deliberately removed). Instead of relating to plot and character development, most readers insist on searching for what I have refused them. At the end of the day, Morrison loves her people, as discussed in that famous New York Times Magazine interview with Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah back in 2015: What I’m interested in is writing without the gaze, without the white gaze...In so many earlier books by African-American writers, particularly the men, I felt that they were not writing to me. But what interested me was the African-American experience throughout whichever time I spoke of. It was always about African-American culture and people—good, bad, indifferent, whatever—but that was, for me, the universe. And yet she appears resistant to carry on this discourse, likely because for a moment there it did feel like we were out of the woods. Imagine spending 40 years writing the brutal mores of race hatred only for it to make a comeback—immediately following the first black presidency, at that. Toni Morrison’s world—the world of Beloved and Song of Solomon, Jazz and The Bluest Eye—is an old world she yearns to abandon forever. The Origin of Others glosses over so many things that at this point should be non-factors. But alas, here we are on the bend of time’s spiral, mirroring the same shit in new clothes, all in the twilight of her life. It is not Morrison’s job to bear new burdens like colorism or misogynoir or, ironically, Nazism; it’s up to us to pick them up and smash them against the concrete, just  to let her breathe.
Reviews

Rare Consolation: Reading a Memoir of Addiction

This month, my family celebrated a milestone we long believed we wouldn’t reach: the 40th birthday of my older sister. We were gathered for our annual summer vacation at the Jersey Shore, a boisterous, humid week spent crowded together in a rental house, breaded with sand, mixing rosé spritzers and grilling steaks. I’ve learned not to expect to relax, exactly. Seven days under one roof with family—including the five small children now among us—can feel by turns like a profound gift and a penance. It’s less "reset" and more "deep dive"—into our issues, our values, our shared history. At least this year no one was in diapers. For the birthday, we bought lobsters and a sheet cake, and hung dollar-store streamers over the dining-room table while the kids jumped on the couch to Rihanna, batting around yellow smiley-face balloons and snapping glow sticks to make them luminescent. Starting when I was 13, my sister’s heroin addiction infused our lives with pain, confusion, terror, exasperation, and guilt. I spent high school sleeplessly mastering the art of codependency—a somewhat natural inclination for a middle child—absorbing my divorcing parents’ anxieties, keeping my sister’s secrets, and self-destructing in small, private ways that wouldn’t bother anyone, nursing all the while a growing set of bitter resentments. I felt as if the entire house—a giant repository of my mother’s tears—was resting on my shoulders, like one of those really big fish tanks. If I’d shifted too much beneath it, it would’ve shattered. So I didn’t. For over a decade, the family navigated the periods of hope and operatic despair that characterize life with an opiate addict. (It’s a pattern I would play out again—surprise—in romantic relationships with men.) But then, miraculously, my sister became one of the few to climb out. I spent part of our week “down the shore” reading Mayhem: A Memoir, Sigrid Rausing’s quiet, meditative new book about her brother’s drug addiction and its impact on their family. Oblivious to traffic, I stood at the kitchen island in the mornings, underlining and starring passages on almost every page. Owing to the many similarities between our lives and the profound (and rare) consolation I find in reading about addiction from the perspective of family members, I was often short of breath with feelings of identification, recognition, validation. I nodded and sometimes cried. I wanted to invite the author over for tea. Like me, Rausing is the middle of three children. Also like me, she was trained as a cultural anthropologist and her primary preoccupation was the passing fantasy of Soviet socialism. (I read her first book, History, Memory, and Identity in Post-Soviet Estonia, in a graduate seminar. In Mayhem she writes of her research site, “The state of Estonia mirrored my own internal state: there was little or no welfare and no viable security forces.”) We are both now editors. She also grew up, as I did, feeling her kinship to her siblings like a visceral charge coursing through her blood. “The three of us were made from the same basic ingredients,” she writes. It was “as though mixing my mother with my father could make only this one combination, more or less, of height, of green eyes, of brown hair.” As a result, like me, she spent a great deal of energy chasing the elusive answer to the riddle of her brother’s addiction. Those exercises in futility form the bulk of the book—riveting reading for me, though perhaps not for all readers. Unlike me, Rausing, the owner and publisher of Granta, is heiress to a multi-billion-dollar beverage-packaging fortune, and spent her idyllic childhood summers not on the coast of New Jersey, but among a cluster of family homes in the Swedish countryside. Her descriptions of those summers capture nostalgia for a strapping, athletic youth spent swimming, crabbing, and doing gymnastics in Marimekko T-shirts and shorts. They also deftly evoke the subtle sadness of wealth and the pale, modest glamour of 1970s Scandinavia. Meandering through the past and the present, Rausing tells the story of her brother Hans Kristian Rausing’s addiction to heroin and cocaine, and his ultimately disastrous relationship with his first wife, Eva Kemeny, an American socialite he met in a rehab center when they were both in their 20s. The couple married in 1992 and had four children before relapsing together in 2000 with a New Year’s Eve glass of champagne—a small, innocent gesture that can send addicts’ lives careening out of control. They were active philanthropists and steadfast contributors to addiction- and recovery-related causes. In 2007, amid concern that they were unfit parents and following an excruciating court hearing, Sigrid and her husband, film producer Eric Abraham, were granted custody of their four children. It was a major life change for all. Everything that had been “a bit ad hoc” with one child suddenly required precision. “Five children,” Rausing writes, “make a little school, a herd, a flock, a group.” Hans and Eva were devastated and angry at the loss of their children, but remained unable to achieve enough stability or sobriety to make a good-faith effort to get them back, at least according to this account. In May 2012, Eva Rausing died of a heart attack with the foil and wire wool used to smoke crack in her hand and cocaine flooding her system. Hans was there at the moment of her death but, unable to cope with the reality of the situation—and, to be blunt, almost certainly on a crack run himself—he laid her body on their bed and covered it with clothing and other household objects, and sealed off the room with tarps and duct tape. When Hans was pulled over two months later, police tracked the smoking crack pipe to the couple’s five-story London mansion, where the 48-year-old Eva’s decomposed body was found. She was identified by the serial number on her pacemaker. Hans was charged with obstruction of a proper burial, but the twin privileges of whiteness and wealth and the (surely not unrelated) goodwill of the judge kept him from serving time. Rausing has clearly written Mayhem to wrest this gruesome story back from the British tabloid media, who have already mercilessly picked it apart. But she does far more. In this slim, stoic memoir—epigrammatic and laced with literary and scholarly references—Rausing thoughtfully, painstakingly, works a deep groove into the stubborn surface of certain bedeviling questions: “How do you write about addiction?” “Who can help the addict?” Is addiction a genetic predisposition, a personality bent, a “form of possession,” a “culture of rebellion?” Why does the language of 12-step recovery so often feel inadequate to describe the anguish wrought by the illness, or to soothe? From the wreckage of her brother’s illness, she forges a new self, one she doesn’t always like—particularly as she’s fretting over the children, afraid they’ll become addicts (another thing we have in common). Against a massive, varied literature of addiction that sidelines family members’ experience, even as it drives home the notion that addiction is a “family disease,” Rausing edges gently, gingerly toward a theory of us, not just them. “I suspect that the state of not being an addict is actually as scientifically interesting as the state of being an addict,” she writes. It’s one of the most radical lines in the book. In a recent New York Times piece on Mayhem titled “A Wealthy Family’s Battle with Drugs Laid Bare, But to What End?” Dan Bilefsky explores the stakes of Rausing’s memoir, asking whether she’s “defiled the sacred rule of the 12-step universe,” where addiction is supposed to remain anonymous. It’s an inane question, given how public the Rausings’ trials, figurative and literal, have been. He also discusses the reaction of Eva’s family—her father, a former PepsiCo executive, tried to stop the publication of the book, and has recently called it a “cold, hollow and unsympathetic depiction of our beloved daughter, Eva.” He has said that he believes she would be alive if the Rausings had not taken her children from her. Bilefsky seems bored, if occasionally moved, by Sigrid Rausing’s struggle. “She fantasizes about kidnapping and saving her brother,” he writes. “She never does.” To me, these are the words of someone not in the immediate reach of this monstrous disease. If so, lucky for him, but it will be the case for fewer and fewer people as the opiate epidemic creeps insidiously into more homes. The urge to save our loved ones, and the inability to do so: this reckoning will define more and more lives. Bilefsky’s piece is brief and not wholly ungenerous, but it reminded me of the ways that addiction remains surrounded by a powerful mystique. We are more willing to take at face value and more likely to relish the first-hand accounts written by addicts and alcoholics themselves—they contain more drama, more highs, and addicts are notorious for what Rausing calls their “narrative knack”—and less inclined to want to listen to the nervous recollections of the fatigued family left behind to clean up the messes, to raise the children. The pain of the codependent is often minimized, marginalized, and importantly, feminized. At my family’s birthday dinner, I lifted my glass to make a toast and we all began to cry. I told my sister I was grateful for her, proud of her for saving her own life, excited for her next chapter. We toasted my parents, too, for their unending caring and patience. “Well, you know what they say,” my father joked, wiping tears, “the first 40 years are the hardest.” Not tough love, just love—this has been the ethos of our family, and it’s the thing to which my sister most often credits her recovery. As memoirist and recovery guru Tracey Helton Mitchell wrote of her mother in the New York Times last year, “When I was finally ready to stop drugs, she didn’t have to ‘accept’ me back. She had never quit being a guiding force in my life.” After dinner, we went downstairs into the cellar made of breakaway walls that are the requirement of post-Hurricane Sandy architecture, where the kids sat my sister beneath an open beach umbrella, crowned her queen, and performed a play. Then, accompanied by my little sister on acoustic guitar, my five-year-old nephew sang “Hallelujah,” which he’d prepared specially for the evening, his voice heading cracklingly falsetto-ward as he reached each verse’s tender crescendo. I tried not to sniffle too loudly into the iPhone video I was recording. At the end, the children encircled my sister in the dark bunker of a basement as she made a wish and blew out her candles, and we hooted and cheered. I thought of Robert, the handsome, wild-eyed fiancé she lost to an overdose many years ago, and all the birthday candles he hadn’t blown out. That tragedy spun our lives into chaos and darkness but, like the Rausings, it was both our loss and not our loss. After all, we were spared. We got to keep our girl. In that fact alone, there is tremendous guilt and a twisted grief that is still unspooling. Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah. Each year that my family preserves in amber moments like these is one year farther out from the worst. And yet, addiction is always menacing, always right there. In many ways, Rausing’s haunting memoir is doing the only thing we can in the face of such a threat: gather our memories like specimens in a lab and work with them in various combinations, trying to stave off the disease, trying to figure something out. The passage of time shifts us in relation to events. But, as Rausing writes, “time does almost nothing on its own. You need to think it all out.” In 2014, following the publication of her second book, Rausing told the Guardian, “Addiction is a very mysterious existential condition and up close it is very hard to understand.” Striving to build an archive that might help us better grasp that mystery, or simply to live more serenely beside it, is not a thing we ought to fault her for. For some of us, it’s the only kind of vigil we can keep.
Reviews

Buzzing Bits of Memory: On Omar Robert Hamilton’s ‘The City Always Wins’

“All good novelists have bad memories.” —Graham Greene 1. Omar Robert Hamilton’s debut novel, The City Always Wins, capturing Cairo in the convulsions of the revolution, brought back a bad memory of Srinagar. In the summer of 2010, one still, sickly hot evening in the capital city of Kashmir, I found myself in the working-class neighborhood of Batamalyun. The modestly built house of bricks formed the dead-end of the dust street. I went inside and found Fayaz Rah, the 39-year-old fruit vendor who I wanted to interview. A solidly-built man, he sat cross-legged in the sitting room, his back pressed to the wall. “At eight,” he said, “one does not understand what protests during a curfew could mean.” Two weeks ago, on the afternoon of August 2, his eight-year-old son, Sameer, had left the house to play with his friends. In a back alley, Indian paramilitaries, angry that since 2008 Kashmiris had been protesting and hurling stones and slogans of aazadi, independence, at them, caught Sameer and beat him with bamboo sticks. Inside, Fayaz continued to narrate the story. Outside, the night began to fall. His quiet voice floated in the long, darkened room. I became restless and fidgety. I wanted the roof to fall down; and I wanted the walls to crumble. I wanted him to stumble or stop altogether, because in my mind I was already stumbling and failing to write the essay I so badly wanted to write. “He had bought a candy…,” the father cried. “I’d not know. But when the ambulance [van] brought Sameer home and I held his dead body in my arms, I found the candy in his mouth. It was half-broken and stuck between his upper teeth.” 2. The City Always Wins follows Khalil, an American-born young man of Palestinian origin. A lover of revolution and jazz, he, and a group of lefty friends, tirelessly film videos and record interviews of the revolution to upload a website called Chaos. Hamilton, a film maker by profession, arrests readers with auditory and visual details of the city flooded with democratic rage against Hosni Mubarak’s protracted presidency. But the novel is not just an intimate act of witness to the outpourings of the people protesting in Tahrir Square and the military brutalities and massacres that followed; the novel’s strength lies rather in the moments that unfold within the quiet of houses rather than the roar of the street, for instance, when Khalil, accompanying a French documentary crew talks to the father whose son has been killed. Abu Bassem’s dignity is somehow unbearable. He doesn’t cry or curse or swear vendetta. But he is not defeated. Khalil feels somehow animal in contrast to the older man, his stillness, that he must be enraged for him, that he must do the crying, the stumbling. During the interview, the French director, a technology-laden neo-Orientalist, gets impatient and irritated while Khalil and Abu Bassem speak in Arabic, leaving him out of the conversation. Kahlil feels “suddenly, burningly foreign, a tour operator cashing in on other people’s misery, a cheap Virgil to guide foreigners through the city’s labyrinth of martyrdom.” Journalism and reportage are arguably more suited to the act of witnessing, while fiction is a place for quieter recollection and contemplation of the self and what has become of it through said witnessing. Throughout the book, Hamilton’s voice has two distinct and somewhat conflicting tendencies. One is the desire to be a direct witness to the revolution, to report the street without the façade and filter of characters. The other is to analyze the act of witnessing by measuring the impact it has had on the lives of the characters and the decisions they make. With its quickly shifting points of view, its staccato vignettes and serrated phrases soaring into lament and lyricism, City reads best in those sections where the intensity of witnessing is informed by the mood brought about by the psychological transformation: the opening passage, for instance, wherein Khalil’s girlfriend, Mariam, grapples with the bodies remorselessly "crushed under tanks" during the march to Maspero. The urgent rendering of sensual details hits one like the miasma of death hanging in the morgue. She stopped counting the dead an hour ago. These corridors are so compressed with bodies and rage and grief that something, surely, is going to explode. Everywhere are the cries of a new loss, a shouted question, a panicked face, a weeping phone call…Blocks of ice are melting between the bodies of the fallen, vapors whispering off the flesh of the silenced. Hamilton has channeled the effusive energy of the revolution to create a narrative of stunning fragments.  But because the desire to be a witness outweighs the desire to put the witness to a novelistic examination, the fragments hardly coalesce to constitute a novel. The joy lies in reading the vignettes individually, lucent and often phantasmagorical, which fail to string together to make a seamless sustained narrative in which one could follow Khalil’s physical and psychological journey through the potentially hurting landscape of the city. The result is that Khalil, though unhinged, dispossessed and selflessly utopian, is not realized to the full arc of his rage. With the rise of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to power, the energies of the revolution are frustrated. But as the need to replace Morsi becomes clearer and Cairo begins to cheer for Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Khalil feels lost and misdirected. After breaking up with Mariam and witnessing the death of a close friend, he returns to New York. Hamilton recreates chunks of Khalil’s beleaguered consciousness with the fidelity of an impressionist, and one’s knowledge of Khalil at the end is almost the same as it was at the beginning. Between him and the reader are the smoke-blurred, blood-spattered streets of Cairo longing for liberation, the city itself the most vocal of all the characters. Khalil’s voice is interchangeable with the voice of other characters. It is the authorial voice that dominates and diminishes him. At times, the dialogue is too dramatic to be credible. Novels make certain demands as to how to properly employ memory. To fictionalize a bad memory like the one recounted at the beginning of this essay, mere impressionistic rendering of how the boy was bludgeoned to death will not do. One must put to the novelistic scrutiny the complex churning within the self (of the father) the killing set in motion and find ways to trace the transformation over a period of years in the language of gestures, human, silent and concrete. One must dwell in the darkness of the sitting room that’ll haunt the narrator, his horror and shame untold, as he walks the roads of the city on which Sameer once walked and played. The artist, unable to tolerate reality, forgets long and forgets strong. The mind with its uncanny mechanisms, buries the bad memory under consciousness, until a familiar color or caress, a smell or a tone calls it all back again, unwarranted, and in the febrile beehive of imagination, the bright buzzing bits of memory curl into the shape of the novel. Hamilton does not forget enough what he has witnessed recently and literally. It is the memory itself that is so visceral and brutal and excessive that, in its ethereal rendering, he succeeds to shock and harangue, creating a vivid illusion of fiction.