Reviews

A Horribly Marvelous and Delicate Abyss: ‘The Complete Stories’ by Clarice Lispector

  New Directions’ The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson and edited by Benjamin Moser, is a splendorous achievement. For the first time in any language, readers can turn to a single volume for all the short stories by the twentieth-century Brazilian writer affectionately known by her unusual first name, that enigmatic woman born in a small village in the Ukraine in 1920 to Jewish parents who fled the country when she was barely a year old. This is the sixth New Directions book by Clarice to appear in less than four years under the helm of series editor Moser, who is also the author of Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector (Oxford University Press 2009). The other five are new translations of the novels Near to the Wild Heart, A Breath of Life, Água Viva, The Passion According to G.H. and The Hour of the Star. Each book has a different translator, which suits the multivalent spirit of Clarice’s strange and unsettling oeuvre. Clarice is a writer obsessed with language, how it moves and breathes, how far it can be pushed and pulled apart, how it breaks down. Her prose, in the stories and novels and newspaper columns, follows overarching themes: how language is used to create identity, what is at stake when a narrator narrates, the reality of fiction, how words can be used to establish and maintain power, the failure of language when humans (and occasionally animals) want to communicate, silence and the unspeakable. Much of her writing features women whose lives unfold in domestic spaces, women who navigate traditional feminine duties such as housework and caregiving alongside the perils and pleasures of love, motherhood, romance, sex, money, and the mysteries of the world beyond the front door. Men too populate Clarice's stories: Marcel Pretre, the French explorer in “The Smallest Woman in the World”; Artur, the high school student who finds himself increasingly misunderstood by his parents in “Beginnings of a Fortune”; the bigamist Xavier and his two live-in girlfriends livid about the prostitute he favors for dirty talk in “The Body”; and the beggar who receives a five hundred cruzeiro banknote from high society wife Carla de Sousa e Santos because she doesn’t have change in “Beauty and the Beast or the Big Wound.” There are husbands, boyfriends, brothers, and sons, men in all manner of professions and affective arrangements. Clarice never considered herself to be a woman writer or a writer of women’s literature. Language, muscular and mystical, is her supreme concern, and language is universal. “The Crime of the Mathematics Professor”: Clarice’s Debut in English The first translation of Clarice’s work in English appeared in December 1961. William L. Grossman and José Roberto Vasconcellos’ version of “The Crime of the Mathematics Professor” debuted in the Odyssey Review, published by the Latin American and European Literary Society. It was later included in Grossman’s anthology Modern Brazilian Short Stories, published by the University of California Press in 1967. The story follows a mathematics professor, the dog he abandons when he moves to a new city with his family, and the dog he kills “in tribute” to the abandoned dog. Despite the professor’s careful calculations, a kind of moral mathematics he seeks to deploy, he fails to redeem his crime (of abandonment, of desire to rid himself of his original dog, of killing) by solemnly burying the dead creature before him. As translated by Grossman and Vasconcellos, in the final paragraph he decides to unbury the dead dog: It looked unfamiliar with earth on its lashes and with its open, glazed eyes. Thus, the mathematics professor renewed his crime eternally. He looked to the sky and to the earth around him, asking them to witness what he had just done. Then he started down the hill toward the little city below. Here is Katrina Dodson’s version from New Directions’ Complete Stories, which she titles “The Crime of the Mathematics Teacher”: The dark dog at last appeared whole, unfamiliar with dirt in its eyelashes, its eyes open and glazed over. And thus the mathematics teacher renewed his crime forever. The man then looked around and to the heavens beseeching a witness to what he’d done. And as if that still weren’t enough, he started descending the slopes toward the bosom of his family. In Clarice’s original, the final sentence is: “E como se não bastasse ainda, começou a descer as escarpas em direção ao seio de sua familia.” Dodson’s version is word for word in tune with the original. Elizabeth Bishop’s Translations of “Three Stories by Clarice Lispector” Elizabeth Bishop published her “Three Stories by Clarice Lispector” — “The Smallest Woman in the World,” “A Hen,” and “Marmosets” — in the summer 1964 issue of The Kenyon Review. For years these translations were somewhat hidden gems. Bishop never included them in any of her books the way she did with her poetry translations. Readers can now find the trio of stories in two recent Bishop compilations: Library of America’s Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters (2008) and Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s Prose: Elizabeth Bishop (2011). The evocative triptych features three female creatures vying for agency, if not survival, in the face of human interaction: Little Flower, the smallest woman in the world, squares off against the French explorer Marcel Pretre who claims to have “discovered” her in the “depths of Equatorial Africa”; the Sunday hen is due to be killed for supper by the humans she lives with; and Lisette the marmoset is purchased by the narrator as a pet for her children one summer day in Copacabana. (For a sense of how Dodson handles her translations of these stories, it might suffice to say that she titles two of them differently: “A Chicken” and “Monkeys.”) Clarice and Bishop were neighbors during the time Bishop shared an apartment with Lota de Macedo Soares in Leme, Rio de Janeiro. Bishop first arrived in Brazil in late 1951, while a freshly separated Lispector moved back to Rio in 1959 alone with her two sons after 15 years of living abroad with her diplomat husband. In late 1962, Bishop gave Lispector a selection of nine of her own poems — “Questions of Travel,” “Manuelzinho,” “Electrical Storm,” “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” “Song for the Rainy Season,” “The Armadillo,” “Sandpiper,” “The Riverman,” and “A Norther—Key West” — along with the following hand-written note: “For Clarice Lispector, from her admiring translator, Elizabeth Bishop; Rio, November 22, 1962.” When I first fixed my eyes on this sheath of papers at the Clarice Lispector Archive at the Museu Casa de Rui Barbosa in Rio’s Botafogo neighborhood, years ago as a graduate student, my hands shook with excitement upon recognizing Bishop’s small, slightly slanted handwriting in the upper-right hand corner of the first typed page. Bishop’s translations of Clarice’s stories suggest overlapping thematic interests: questions of foreignness, the feminine, motherhood, language, identity, and the relationships between humans and animals. Questions of self-possession. In addition to this Clarice-as-rendered-by-Bishop prism, a kind of conversation between two great literary minds, the most important thing about the Bishop translations is the fact that their publication led to additional translations of Clarice’s work in English. Bishop considered taking on one of Clarice’s novels, but ultimately declined. In her May 26, 1963, letter to Robert Lowell, she wrote: “Knopf apparently is definitely interested in one of her novels. I’ve refused to do any of that kind of translating, however. It’s too boring & time-wasting.” The Apple in the Dark, the very un-boring novel translated by Gregory Rabassa and published by Knopf, appeared in 1967 and clocks in at well over 300 pages. That same year Bishop published an original trio of texts — the prose-poems “Giant Toad,” “Strayed Crab,” and “Giant Snail” — grouped under the title “Rainy Season; Sub-Tropics” in The Kenyon Review. Bishop’s Sub-Tropic trio offers a kind of lyrical response to her 1964 Clarice translations. Katrina Dodson’s Clarice: “A One-Woman Vaudeville Act” I have always been fascinated by the fact that Clarice might have been an English language writer. I say this because when her family fled the Ukraine in 1921, they first landed in a refugee hostel in Bucharest, and from there they waited to see whether their relatives in the United States or Brazil would sponsor them. When they heard from Clarice’s maternal aunt and her husband in Brazil, they were issued passports by the Russian consulate in Bucharest and traveled to Hamburg where they would board the Cuyabá, a homeward-bound Brazilian ship. The Lispectors crossed the Atlantic and arrived in the northeastern port town of Maceió, which, as described in Moser’s Why This World, had a dock “graced with its own replica of the Statue of Liberty.” But it was no Manhattan. And if the Lispectors had heard from Clarice’s mother’s half-siblings in the United States first? In my mind, this twist of fate heightens the stakes for Clarice’s English-language translators. Many have tried to render her into what might have been her mother tongue: Grossman and Vasconellos, Bishop, Rabassa, Alexis Levitin, Giovanni Pontiero, Earl Fitz and Elizabeth Lowe. And there is the new crop of translators recruited by Moser, including Dodson, Idra Novey, Stefan Tobler, Alison Entrekin, and Johnny Lorenz. In Clarice’s final work The Hour of the Star, a slim novel published in 1977 mere weeks before her untimely death of ovarian cancer at age 57, she dedicates “this thing here” to a number of composers including Schumann, Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Stravinsky, Debussy, Prokofiev, Carl Orff, Schoenberg, and “to the twelve-tone composers, to the strident cries of the electronic generation — to all those who reached the most alarmingly unsuspected regions within me, all those prophets of the present and who have foretold me to myself until in that instant I exploded into: I.” I have no doubt that “all those prophets” include her translators, past, present, and future. She goes on to describe the “I” she “exploded into” and to invoke — provoke — her translators and readers, critics and champions: “This I is all of you since I can’t stand being just me, I need others in order to get by, fool that I am.” Katrina Dodson, who recasts the Complete Stories into English with an energetic mastery that feels utterly contemporary while evoking the intoxicating dissonance of the original Portuguese prose, calls reading Clarice’s work “a disorienting experience” in her “Translator’s Note.” Dodson then candidly discusses her translation process: Translating Clarice has meant growing attuned to the ways her sly surrealism, which can veer into the absurdist or fantastical, is embedded in her style. The logic of a deceptively simple narrative or series of declarations becomes distorted or ends in non sequiturs. … The most dizzying feature in Clarice’s writing are the surprises on the level of the sentence. Certain combinations seem contradictory or disproportionate like “delicate abyss,” or “horribly marvelous.” The usual expression takes a detour, as when an elderly matriarch scornfully calls her offspring “flesh of my knee” instead of “flesh of my flesh.” A comma trips up the pace where it doesn’t seem to belong, like a hair she’s placed in your soup. … In keeping up with Clarice’s shifting registers and translating nearly four decades of work in two years’ time, I’ve often felt like a one-woman vaudeville act, shouting, laughing, crying, musing, singing, and tap-dancing my way breathlessly across the stage. I can attest that attempting to translate Clarice is no easy venture. I tried when I was a graduate student enrolled in the famed UCLA translation workshop with the late Michael Heim, indefatigable teacher, generous mentor, and formidable translator of Milan Kundera, Thomas Mann, Anton Chekhov, and Günter Grass, among others. He assigned us the task of finding an “impossible text” to translate, precisely so he could teach us how to make good choices as translators faced with worst-case scenarios. I settled on Clarice’s short story “Silence,” which I read as a statement on how to live and how to write. I figured that redeploying her “Silence” into English would help me better glean Clarice’s wisdom. Here is my scratchy version of the opening paragraph: It is so vast, the silence of the mountain evening. It is so uninhabited. A vain attempt is made not to hear it, to think quickly in order to disguise it.  Or to create an agenda, the fragile stitch that barely ties us to the suddenly improbable tomorrow. How to transcend that peace that watches us. Silence so big that hopelessness is ashamed. Mountains so tall that hopelessness is ashamed. Both ears prick up, the head leans, the entire body listens: not a sound. Not a cock crows. How to be within reach of silence’s profound meditation. Of that silence without memory of words. If it is death, how to reach you. And here is Dodson’s undoubtedly superior translation, where the connection between silence and death, and more specifically between the second-person narrator’s avoidance of silence and enchantment with death, is made much more clear while maintaining the edginess and multiple layers of the original: The silence of the night in the mountains is so vast. It is so desolate. You try in vain to work not to hear it, to think quickly to cover it up. Or to invent some plans, a fragile stitch that barely links us to the suddenly improbable day of tomorrow. How to surmount this peace that spies us. A silence so great that despair is ashamed. Mountains so high that despair is ashamed. The ears prick, the head tilts, the whole body listens: not a murmur. Not a rooster. How to come within reach of this deep meditation on the silence. On that silence without memory of words. If thou art death, how to reach thee. Dodson’s successful rendition of Clarice’s “Silence” and my long ago attempt both point to what Moser highlights in his “Introduction” to the Complete Stories: Clarice undid reflexive patterns in grammar. She often had to remind readers that her “foreign” speech was not the result of her European birth or an ignorance of Portuguese. One of the most highly educated women of her generation was no more ignorant of the standard Brazilian language than Schoenberg was of the diatonic scale, or Picasso of anatomy. In his “Translator’s Afterword” to The Hour of the Star, Moser says: “no matter how odd Clarice Lispector’s prose sounds in translation, it sounds just as unusual in the original.” He assures us, however, that “her books are not untranslatable.” He believes that Clarice’s translators must “resist the temptation to explain or rearrange her prose, which can only flatten it and remove from it that ‘foreign’ aura that is its hallmark, and its glory.” The hair in one’s soup, as Dodson sees it. Glittering.
Reviews

The Man Behind the Soapbox: On Barton Swaim’s ‘The Speechwriter’

Talk is cheap; speech is luxe. Speech is sheltered by sacred authorities, like the United States Constitution and Justice John G. Roberts. Speech comes with the sexy modifiers, like “hate” and “free.” You can never have too much of it, since as Louis Brandeis said, the remedy for bad speech “is more speech.” Speech -- for lack of a better word -- is good. Speechwriting is more ambivalent: speech filtered through the counterfeit instincts of American politics, through the undignified pressure of the news cycle, through the mind, throat, and ego of another human being. Psychologically, it’s a kind of Munchausen by proxy. Culturally, it’s glamorous and dishonest in the same way art forgery is. And like most things, most of it is neither good nor important. The Speechwriter, Barton Swaim’s new memoir, is a deeply humane study in both the romance and the dissonance. Swaim worked for a term for Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina, the one with the Argentine mistress. Swaim didn’t find out any sooner than anyone else -- he didn’t write Sanford’s public apology -- but The Speechwriter's heart is in the way it processes that humiliation. After all, for every politician who falls, a dozen staff fall in microcosm. After Sanford offered his aides a muddled “I’m sorry,” one rants, “If you do say anything, it should be more like, ‘Sorry I flushed all your work down the toilet, people. Sorry I made you all a joke. Sorry about your next job interview, the one where you’re going to be brought in as a curiosity and then laughed at.’” But the book, if a little melancholic and at times a little cruel, isn’t bitter. The Speechwriter is Swaim’s graceful way of resolving what four years of mediocre writing, written for a mediocre man, meant. “In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin,” his epigraph reads -- Proverbs 10:19. Swaim’s political career started with a very American impulse. Reading one of Sanford’s op-eds, it occurred to him: I can do better than that. He dashed off a cover letter that was “deferential but terse, and said something like ‘I don’t know that much about state politics, but I know how to write, and you need a writer.’” Sanford agreed. He was “very interested in this larger idea of a brand,” he said (Sanford, Swaim reports, could never resist referencing a “larger notion”). He wanted the slick stylings he saw in the work of other politicians, since -- it’s a truth widely acknowledged -- no one writes their own stuff. “Every speech he gives,” the governor muses about another big name, “every op-ed or whatever, sounds the same. Not the same, like boring the same. From the same source, consistent. I like that. It’s about consistency. You always know what you’re getting.” Sanford, you’ll notice, couldn’t word his way out of a paper bag. Still, the governor’s writings and remarks are the best parts of the book. Swaim has an uncanny instinct for writing poorly on purpose, an indispensable talent for any speechwriter. Reading Sanford’s old op-eds, Swaim says, “It worried me that I didn’t hear much of a voice. What I heard was more like a cough. Or the humming of a bad melody, with most of the notes sharp. One sentence stands out in my memory: ‘This is important not only because I think it ought to be a first order of business, but because it makes common sense.’” And no, this isn’t a training montage type of book where Swaim will push the governor to new rhetorical heights. “I wasn’t hired to come up with brilliant phrases,” he realizes. “I was hired to write what the governor would have written if he had had the time.” For what it’s worth, Swaim is plainly a gifted writer. His professional experience shows in a firm, easy command of language; with disciplined consistency, his sentences do what they’ve been ordered to do. There’s a smooth economy to his prose, which rarely staggers or overheats. If it isn’t always lyrical, it still has a lean charm that more writing should. Talent lends him credibility while he chips affectionately away at his profession’s ego. Speechwriting is culturally celebrated for both its influence and its secrecy. In an episode of The West Wing, Joshua Malina asks Rob Lowe, “You’ve ghosted for Senators, movie stars, I think the King of Belgium one time. Do you say anything?” Lowe answers, honorably, “Speechwriters don’t do that.” Because of omerta maybe. But here in reality, flattering profiles of speechwriters are a booming genre in political journalism: cf. “State of the Union Speechwriter for Obama Draws on Various Inspirations,” “Worldly at 35, and Shaping Obama’s Voice,” “Meet the ghost hunter and horror novelist who writes Sen. Rob Portman’s speeches,” “Meet Matthew Scully, Paul Ryan’s vegan speechwriter.” Swaim doesn’t deny the sex appeal. After Sanford delivers the first speech he’s written, he fantasizes, “I would soon be indispensable. I would study the questions faced by this great, graceful statesman, and I would suggest to him what he would say.” But the grace notes are mostly smothered by the indignities. “Sometimes he’d forget which products had been drafted for him and which he’d written himself,” Swaim says of the governor. Sanford had a ritual way of shooting down drafts, and “didn’t like to accept a document without first dismissing it as worthless. Provoking a fight with the staffers who’d written it was his way of figuring out whether or not it was what he wanted.” In short, he misused his staff casually, not that Swaim blamed him: “It was as if you were one of those pieces of cork placed in the mouths of wounded soldiers during an amputation. The soldier didn’t chew the cork because he hated it but because it was therapeutic to bite hard.” But to a gratifying extent, The Speechwriter isn’t interested in settling scores. Swaim clearly feels affection for Sanford and his fellow staff. The book’s care and sympathy, often, cuts deeper than its criticism. He extends the governor every credit, even after his decline and fall: “He was everything a politician should be -- a politician in the best sense of that word, if it has a best sense.” In other words, if writing for him was a long, deepening disappointment, that wasn’t Sanford’s personal failure. The book’s indictment is broader. “Why,” Swaim asks, “do we trust the men who make careers of persuading us of their goodness and greatness?” With soft despair, he resolves, “They may be lauded when they’re right and venerated when they’re dead, but they should never be trusted.” Where does that leave speechwriters? Fundamentally, speechwriters work to short-circuit the great safeguard of American democracy: our aversion to professional politicians. It would be a little ignoble if we didn’t invite exactly this kind of suasion. We want, desperately, to be convinced we’re wrong about our leaders, and it’s our democratic irrationality that we open ourselves up for persuasion every election cycle. Citizens stoke the national appetite for speech, and speechwriters ensure there’s enough to go around. That makes The Speechwriter urgent reading, for both its literary and civic merits. If you ask to be fooled, it teaches, don’t claim to be shocked, shocked when you invariably are.
Reviews

The Dark Background of the Bright Tapestry: On Shirley Jackson’s ‘Let Me Tell You’

Shirley Jackson’s house in North Bennington, Vt., unlike the nearby Robert Frost Stone House, has not been made into a museum. There isn’t even a sign that says that Shirley Jackson used to live there. It stands magisterially, with its four columns, up the knoll on Prospect Street. But if you stop to take a good look at it, you will realize that, despite its white grandeur, the overall impression it gives is one of inadequate upkeep -- it could do with a new coat of paint, and the roof is crumbling in some places. The dysfunctional family in Jamaica Kincaid’s novel See Now Then lives in “the Shirley Jackson house...in a small village in New England.” (Kincaid, too, is a resident of North Bennington). From a window of the house, the mother Mrs. Sweet in the novel “could look down on the roaring waters of the Paran River as it fell furiously and swiftly out of the lake...and looking up, she could see surrounding her, the mountains named Bald and Hale and Anthony, all part of the Green Mountain Range; and she could see the firehouse where she sometimes attended a civic gathering...” The new owners of the house seldom come out on the porch; I have walked past it many times but never seen anyone walking in the yard or sitting on the steps. It is not very surprising then that Kincaid chose this house for her novel; its anonymity only fuels its quiet power to command everything in its view. As you walk up the hill and see the house emerge slowly, you feel as if you had stumbled upon the axis of the whole village. Shirley Jackson was walking up the hill to the same house as she worked out in her mind what would become her most famous story. “The idea had come to me,” she writes in the “biography” of “The Lottery,” “while I was pushing my daughter up the hill in her stroller -- it was, as I say, a warm morning, and the hill was steep, and beside my daughter the stroller held the day’s groceries -- and perhaps the effort of that last fifty yards up the hill put an edge to the story.” Shirley Jackson left New York City and moved to North Bennington in the '40s when her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, accepted a teaching position in the literature department at Bennington College, which is only a short walk from Prospect Street. One question that would come up persistently in the deluge of fan- and hate-mail that Jackson received after the publication of “The Lottery” in The New Yorker in June 1948 was: “But where is this fictional village located, whose habitants participate in the cruel ritual described in the story?” In her delightful essay “How I Write” in Let Me Tell You, a new collection of Shirley Jackson’s unpublished and uncollected short stories, essays, and other writings, she writes: “For a while I tried telling them that I was just thinking of my neighbors, but no one would believe me. Incidentally, no one in our small town has ever heard of The New Yorker, much less read my story.” North Bennington is the setting for many of Shirley Jackson’s short stories and for her novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle, considered by many her finest (it was also her last) and Hangsaman, which is about a Bennington College student. Yet, Shirley Jackson never mentions the name of the place; it could be any small village in New England. It is this effacement of place that makes Shirley Jackson’s writing so astonishing. Nowhere in We Have Always Lived in the Castle does Shirley Jackson mention the name of the hostile village from which the Blackwood sisters are hiding away, but as soon as you start walking around North Bennington, you realize how she was deftly transforming the space around her with her abundant imagination. She explains this process in “How I Write:” I had been reading a book about choosing a victim for a sacrifice, and I was wondering who in our town would be a good choice for such a thing. Also I was wondering what would happen if they drew lots by family; would the Campbell boys, who haven’t spoken to each other in nearly twenty years, have to stand up together? And I was wondering what would happen about the Garcia boy, who had married a girl his parents couldn’t stand -- would she have to be admitted as a member of their family? I was so fascinated by the idea of the people I knew in such a situation, I thought that when I got home I might try writing it down and seeing what happened…Because I was interested in the method, I called the story “The Lottery”... In the fall of last year, Ruth Franklin, who is working on a new biography of Shirley Jackson to be published next year, contacted me for help with some local research. As I read through old issues of the Bennington Banner from 1957 preserved on microfilm, I stumbled on a trove of local gossip that the newspaper, unfortunately, no longer publishes: “Several local residents caught a glimpse of Mrs Roger W. Tubby Thursday afternoon as she, accompanied by her husband's sister and husband visiting from England, was on her way home to Saranac Lake.” In one of the issues, the newspaper reported how a Mr. Williams had been admitted to the hospital, but the next day it also published a correction saying that after being contacted by Mr. Williams, the newspaper had realized its sources had been faulty. Who knows what Mr. Williams’s secret afflictions were, or what life-altering effects the noteworthy visit of Mrs. Roger Tubby, wife of a former White House Press Secretary, had on the village? Either of these could easily be the premise for one of Shirley Jackson’s stories. Jackson had a penetrating eye for the absurd and the horrific in everyday lives, whether in New York City or in a quiet Vermont village. In the story “Paranoia” in Let Me Tell You, a New Yorker happily returning home from work, having remembered his wife’s birthday and carrying a box of candy for her, starts being chased relentlessly by the image of a man in a light hat. Even his home will not be able to shelter him from his pursuer. Let Me Tell You is divided into five sections -- unpublished and uncollected short fiction, reviews and essays about work and life, early short stories about the Second World War, humor and family remembrances, and essays on the craft of writing. Some of the short fiction in this collection -- like “Paranoia,” “The Man in the Woods,” and “The Lie” -- was previously published in magazines like The New Yorker, Tin House, and McSweeney’s. Much of it, however, is wholly new, such as “The Arabian Nights,” in which a girl insists on accompanying her parents and their friends to a nightclub the day after her 12th birthday, but the events following Clark Gable’s appearance at the club make her feel uneasy in the world of adults and want to take refuge in her childhood once again. The stories in Let Me Tell You are not Jackson’s most detailed, and sometimes they’re only one or two pages long, but as Ruth Franklin points out in her illuminating foreword, many of the stories that reappear in this collection were supposed to be part of a short-story collection that Jackson was trying to put together in the '40s. However, they weren’t included when she found an organizing principle for the collection and it took the form of The Lottery and Other Stories. Nobody was a more astute chronicler of the post-war crisis of the female mind in America than Jackson. In her novels The Bird’s Nest, Hangsaman and The Haunting of Hill House, the horrors that visit the female protagonists are psychological rather than supernatural. More opportunities were available to women after the war, but they were still shackled by domesticity and their lives continued to revolve around their husbands and children. Stanley Edgar Hyman’s career overshadowed that of Jackson in her lifetime, she was often dismissed as a mere faculty wife, and her neighbors suspected her of witchcraft (though it must be admitted that Jackson took an extraordinary interest in the paranormal). In the story “Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons,” the immaculate housewife Mrs. Spencer’s compulsion to keep everything in her household in order turns into mania, and then into loneliness when everybody in town, including her husband and children, desert her to attend a picnic at the less priggish Oberons’. In “The New Maid,” Mrs. Morgan remains untouched by the arrival of spring because she takes the train to work very early in the morning. Her husband is jealous that she has an important job. Jackson knew how difficult it was to manage a teeming household and a writing career at the same time, and the pieces about family life in the collection show Shirley skillfully turning her misadventures and imperfections as a homemaker into art. In “Questions I Wished I’d Never Asked,” Jackson’s innocent question, “Who left the hose out to freeze?” is met with confessions of other mischief going on in the house. These writings are of a piece with the hilarity and hysteria of her memoirs Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. Yet, enjoyable and amusing as these pieces are, there is sometimes an uneasiness about them, as if she were negotiating with the Angel in the House. They often come across as stoic concessions of someone who, as the heading of one of the sections in the book says, “would rather write than do anything else.” In “Here I Am, Washing Dishes Again,” she talks of entertaining herself by making up stories about her kitchen utensils while she washes them. The reader is jolted when after these droll pieces about her household she declares in “The Real Me,” “I am tired of writing dainty little biographical things that pretend that I am a trim little housewife in a Mother Hubbard stirring up appetizing messes over a wooden stove.” The most interesting pieces are the ones where her family life merges with her creativity and work. In “Private Showing,” she takes her children to a viewing of the film Lizzie, based on The Bird’s Nest, and they are delighted to go to “Mommy’s movie.” In “The Play’s the Thing,” Jackson writes a play at her children’s behest that they can stage, but they make the play their own, and in the end Jackson gives them the copyright. The piece on poltergeists in the house on Prospect Street makes for a truly spine-chilling moment in the volume, when the Hymans sit down to dinner and find a still-warm pumpkin pie on the table, prepared by one of the spirits in the house. Some of the finest pieces in this collection show a side of Shirley Jackson that the world does not readily associate with her -- that of a generous writer who is willing to share her process with her readers and give meticulous advice. “Garlic in Fiction” is one such gem where Jackson illustrates how to hold the reader’s attention with the use of a set of symbols: “what I’m calling images or symbols or garlic,” she writes, “is actually a kind of shorthand, or evocative coloring, to a story.” Jackson shares her experience of the haunting, subconscious, and often adventitious aspects of writing in “Memory and Delusion,” where she says, “I cannot find any patience for those people who believe that you start writing when you sit down at your desk and pick up your pen and finish writing when you put down your pen again. A writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees, always noticing.” Her essays on Samuel Richardson and Dr. Seuss have the effervescent quality of the literary criticism in Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader. This collection also reveals to us Shirley Jackson the illustrator; it’s dotted with her charming drawings of family life -- stick figures of herself, Stanley, and her children. A vanquished Stanley lies on the ground while Shirley, perched happily on a swing, says, “Push me again, dear -- it’s just like flying.” Let Me Tell You is a welcome addition to the reissues of Jackson’s novels, and its publication is a good opportunity to ask why there’s been a resurgence of scholarly and popular interest in her in the last few years. As Jackson’s centenary in 2016 approaches, it might be important to investigate whether we, constantly being watched on social media, bear any resemblance to the paranoid man in Jackson’s story. Is the pressure of “leaning in” really any different for women now than it was in post-war America? The answers may not come that easily, but in the meanwhile we can go on reading Shirley Jackson and marveling at her unique ability to turn happy and stable worlds on their head.
Reviews

A Literary Mixtape: On ‘New American Stories’

The first thing I did after I received a copy of New American Stories was compare its table of contents to that of its predecessor, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, published some 11 years earlier[i]. Unlike anthologies that cover a particular theme, region[ii], or narrow window of time, both New American Stories and The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories have been linked only by the fancy of their editor, Ben Marcus. Marcus is known for experimental work, but his taste ranges widely -- for example, Deborah Eisenberg appears in both editions, as does George Saunders. (In fact, a quarter of the stories in New American Stories are by authors who also were published in the previous Anchor edition.[iii]) The second thing I did after I received a copy of New American Stories was read “Standard Loneliness Package” by Charles Yu. Yu is one of those guys who I’d heard of through the book review sections of newspapers, whose books I’d always meant to pick up. I follow him on Twitter. Here is a real benefit provided by anthologies like NAS: the opportunity to read work by authors who are, to varying extents, new. And so, below are my favorite three stories from the collection, all by new-to-me authors. 1. Yu, who occupies a place somewhere between science fiction and literary fiction, does not disappoint. “Standard Loneliness Package” is about a futuristic call center where the wealthy can outsource their discomfort -- physical or otherwise. It’s a clever concept, but the magic here is in Yu’s application. The story starts off with a droll description of life at the firm, a workplace filled with familiar office banter and the know-it-all colleague in the cubicle next door. But as the main character continues to toil at his job, everyone’s displaced pain takes its toll on him. He returns home at the end of each day, shaken, and cries real tears at the funeral of someone else’s grandfather. He attends another funeral and recognizes, behind the eyes of the bereaved, his coworkers. At one point, about halfway through the story, he demonstrates the anguishing monotony of grief: I am in a hospital. My lungs burn. My heart aches. I’m on a bridge. My heart aches on a bridge. My heart aches on a cruise ship. My heart aches on an airplane, taking off at night. There is a love interest, and there is real world grief. And then, just as it seems like you’ve got a handle on the story, the ground shifts again in a weird and wonderful way. 2. And then there is “Paranoia,” a brilliant story by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, whose memoirish essays I’d read but whose fiction was entirely unfamiliar to me. Dean, the first-person narrator of “Paranoia,” is plagued with not only with paranoia but with also its twin: confusion. At the story’s outset, America is embarking on an unnamed war when “some line had been crossed, something said or done, something irrevocable on our said or on the enemy’s,” but the narrator is more concerned with the May heat as he rides a bus across town to visit his friend Roberto at the hospital. As he rides by “homes display[ing] the MIA and POW flags from some bygone wars, and every so often a window that said peace or no war or something to that effect,” he muses on how lucky Roberto is to have him. Dean regards Roberto as “a strange man in a strange land, hoping one day to magically transform into an American and have a real life.” As his bus moves into “the infamous Maple Tree Heights,” fear overcomes Dean. “Every week there was a report on the news of some unfortunate event, many involving white people who had lost their way.” He gets off the bus for his transfer and thinks of taking shelter at an American-flag draped Arby’s. But then fear takes root as “three black guys about my age came out of the restaurants with their roast-beef-sandwich bags and big boots and baseball caps.” His first thought is of the violence he’s sure lurks around every corner there: “I thought about running, but running implied terror. Or capitulation.” His fear is disrupted, somewhat, when he realizes that the group is comprised mostly of his old classmates. Dean bums a cigarette from one, which sets off what will become a series of quasi-financial transactions in the story -- the lending of money, the acquisition of electronics, and the commodification of humans as soldiers and prisoners. The story manages is funny and chilling and, somehow, a spot-on characterization of an entirely empty character. 3. And finally, there is Mathias Svalina. Who is this guy? A poet! And it makes sense, given the lyric, absurdist group of vignettes that make up his story, “Play.” The piece itself is not a story so much as it is a rule book for a dozen absurdist children’s games, with narratives folded in. I read most of “Play” aloud to my husband, and it will be difficult not to quote each section, in its entirety, here. “Drop the Handkerchief” imagines a complicated game that is part duck-duck-goose, part public shaming. A child is born It, and then chooses another child to join him. The other five children stand in a circle and “hold hands & refuse to allow either the It-child or the chosen child to stop running. These two continue running for the rest of their lives.” There is also a child born inside the circle. He, too, has a handkerchief, left for him by his estranged father, who “drives a bright blue car & can be seen working at the candle factory five nights a week.” In “Pop Goes the Weasel,” designed for four children “and an audience of voters,” a child is designated It. The It child walks into a crowd of thousands, shaking hands with all the men & kissing the cheeks of all the women & rubbing perfumed oils on the foreheads of all the babies. He must appear on TV & pretend like there is no camera in the room. Later, when the It child is assassinated, the other children write books about him or her. The games are united by motifs of masculinity and competition, with a decided emphasis on losing. They also often feature children engaging in pretend commerce, as with “Hide-&-Go-Seek” and “Everything Costs $20.” Of course, much of child’s play is actually about engaging in pretend commerce. This is another way Svalina’s piece succeeds -- the story, in its absurdity, still manages to tread in the familiar. Marcus recently said, in an interview with Flavorwire, that he does not want New American Stories to feel like a declaration of what is worthwhile as much as he wants it be experienced like a literary mixtape. But the book is, in fact, a reflection of what many American writers are thinking about today -- the limitations of late capitalism, the rush to quantify and app=ify every human need, the constant thrum of American interventions. Like the previous edition, here is a snapshot of our time, grim and funny and unreal. [i]. The new edition is published by Vintage; both Vintage and Anchor are imprints of Penguin Random House. [ii]. Even “American” is very loosely defined. Zadie Smith, for instance, is English, although she has made New York City her part-time home. [iii]. Lydia Davis, Anthony Doerr, Deborah Eisenberg, Mary Gaitskill, Sam Lipsyte, George Saunders, Christine Schutt, Wells Tower.
Reviews

A Field Guide to Silences: On Tracy K. Smith’s ‘Ordinary Light’

Drafted into teaching Sunday school, the whole congregation praying for her chastity, a younger Tracy K. Smith wrote “God is not that small” over and over, killing time (or something else) until class ended. A prayer asks; an invocation summons. This seems to have belonged to the second category of religious gesture: a ritual description, loosing God from the mean beliefs of prudes. Reproduced only once in her new memoir Ordinary Light, the words leave an impression of certainty armed by clarity. It also leaves ambiguous what Smith felt -- cool defiance? hot recrimination? -- while setting about this task, of inscribing a schoolhouse penance with rebel energies. God is not that small; emphasis hers. For all its elegance as a rejoinder, the sentence only draws a lower bound. Questions pour into the space left by negative definition: how large, then, is God? For that matter, what? Where does this presence fit into an adult life just starting to take shape? And God isn’t the only unknown: for x, substitute the soul, substitute death. At this point in her story, Smith has only the religion she’s grown out of -- a shelter built of prohibitions, watched by an omnipotent, father-shaped deity -- and the impulse to put pen to paper. Her searching stitches together the memories collected in Ordinary Light. It threads through the discrete, self-contained episodes of the first half -- she visits her grandmother in Alabama, hatches quail chicks, watches wide-eyed as a cousin traces “motherfuck” into the dust -- and binds them to the narrative of the second. As Smith leaves her Christian, Californian upbringing for university on the East Coast, her mother is diagnosed with cancer. Discovering literature, politics, sex, the college-aged Smith averts her eyes from the specter of impending tragedy; it swells; she and her siblings are called home for their goodbyes. “Sometimes,” Smith writes, “I tried to work it out in my head like a riddle: I am not a soul, but I possess one. When I die, I become what I possess.” The sneaky, oblique determinism of a logic game renders the form inadequate to loss -- but then, there’s poetry, the grace of which lies in its ability to hold difficult ideas in equipoise; it can keep a conundrum’s walls from collapsing. After her mother dies, she finds herself returning to Seamus Heaney’s “Clearances:” “I thought of walking round and round a space / Utterly empty, utterly a source.” She wonders aloud, “What did it mean to be both empty and a source? Was there something I housed or might one day house?” Smith teaches at Princeton; in these passages, she retraces her steps toward the center of the sonnet’s mysterious power, its resonance beyond reason. It’s a kind of reenactment for our benefit, and one of the book’s many gifts: she parses these lines such that we grow with her, as a reader. In those years, of course, she was also growing into the poet who would win a Pulitzer for Life on Mars, in part an elegy for her father, an engineer who worked for the air force, in 1980s Silicon Valley, and on the Hubble Telescope -- in an era when, as she describes it, “Technology was public.” From the central lyric dedicated to him, “The Speed of Belief,” the poems expand outward. They map their subjects -- outer space, God, current events -- as public, pop ideas, vintage postcards from the collective imagination. The opening poem, “The Weather in Space,” asks, “Is God being or pure force? The wind/ Or what commands it?” Later, “Cathedral Kitsch” gives the interrogative an ironic edge: “Does God love gold?/ Does He shine back/ at Himself from walls/ Like these, leafed/ In the earth’s softest wealth?” But the questions are no less real for being rhetorical. These poems say: leave the devil his details. God lives comfortably in line breaks and double-spacing, in enjambments, between if/ands, neither/nors -- even in, as “It & Co.” suggests, a failed shorthand: “How can It be anything but an idea,/ Something teetering on the spine/ Of the number i?” Smith concludes, “It is like some novels:/ Vast and unreadable.” Smith nominates Charlton Heston and Ziggy Stardust as emissaries of the beyond, and they descend, puckish and melancholy, as embodied spoofs of man’s need to view Creator as character. As it too becomes a meditation on the lapses in language, Ordinary Light takes up the other end of the telescope; its concerns are personal rather than public. Combing through her coming-of-age, Smith sorts the unexpressed from the inexpressible, the blank space on the page from the quiet across the dinner table. She assembles a field guide to silences and their keeping -- “an articulate variety of wordlessness” that avoids confrontation. The children sidestep topics that might expose political difference, and hide their romantic relationships and broken hearts. Their parents don’t admit to the seriousness of the disease. Craving reassurance, Smith never asks the most direct and difficult questions about how her mother feels. Only when she commits the reality to paper, writing “My mother is dying” in a letter petitioning the dean for permission to drop a literary theory course, does she accept it. It’s not surprising that Smith writes about how, after the funeral, she took shelter in those she calls her “necessary poets” -- but family and friends, her fellow bereaved, have a more immediate and urgent presence. Smith fights with her father, and confides in her sister, Jean; she walks with old friends, other motherless women, and together they try to articulate their hopes about heaven. We get only glimpses of these moments -- the exact exchanges either have been lost, or are deliberately obscured. Instead, she charts the wake left by the words. She seems most interested in talk: a genre without form or discipline, that can match the mess of grief. Through sentences slung and stuttered, forced to double back and revise, people give and receive solace. She admits: “I’d never spoken so freely or honestly with my mother.” That she never engaged with her mother about religion, never sounded out the dimensions of her changing faith together, is one of Smith’s enduring regrets. As with her read of the Heaney’s sonnet, each of her religious queries, taken alone, seems deceptively straightforward: “Is God each of the many different things we seek in the course of a life?” Smith asks. “Does God become an armament we leverage for the ones we love, the ones we have committed to nurture and protect?” These questions, when laid out in prose, have none of the irradiated rigor of the poems in Life on Mars. They give way to each other effortlessly; there’s always room for one more. Poetry might be depthless; prose’s gift, it turns out, lies in plentitude, in creating a sense of ampleness. With Ordinary Light, Smith has written a book that speaks into past silence, one in which language is more than careful; it’s a form of caretaking.
Reviews

An Antidote for Horror: On William Finnegan’s ‘Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life’

1. It took William Finnegan seven years to write the 1992 New Yorker profile of a San Francisco surfer that would later be called by one surf publication "possibly the greatest surf story ever." Why so long? "More urgent topics -- apartheid, war, calamities of different kinds -- kept claiming my attention," Finnegan explains in his new memoir Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. "These were serious matters, consuming as work, self-justifying as projects. Surfing was the opposite." And yet he's written Barbarian Days. The nearly 450-page tome, hefty as a handful of wet sand, chronicles Finnegan's lifelong -- one could say “consuming” -- passion for the tumultuous art of wave riding. It's true that in the two decades between his article and his book, Finnegan, a New Yorker staff writer, has again been absorbed in the serious work of a global correspondent. He’s the author of several books of reportage, including Cold New World, a book that reveals a growing American underclass. But Barbarian Days, like the article before it, shows that surfing, stereotypically the domain of slackers and stoners, can be taken seriously. Barbarian Days, in the tradition of the great adventure memoir, is not only an account of events, of waves caught and conquered -- it’s a reflection on fear, mortality, and the seductive pleasures that can be found at their very edge. So how does it compare to 1992’s acclaimed “Playing Doc’s Games?" It surfs circles around it. 2. "Doc's Games," which ran in two segments, is, in parts, a brief history of surfing; a thorough examination of San Francisco's underground surf scene in the 1980s; and a profile of Mark Renneker, a wild, wave-riding San Francisco physician whose enthusiasm for tackling treacherous swells approximates a death wish. Finnegan, who inserts himself into the piece as a faltering surf junkie, contrasts Renneker's gung-ho, no-fear attitude with his own growing reservations toward the sport. "I felt direly confused about surfing...and was trying to sort it out," Finnegan writes in the article. He later adds, "I was trying to figure out how to live with the disabling enchantment of surfing." The piece, while finely written, feels at times haphazardly organized. Finnegan's many topics -- from his relationship with surfing to Renneker's relationships with other surfers -- sometimes blur in a soupy, white water deluge of characters, personal musings, and ambling narrative arc. The two parts in the series are clumsily connected (part two begins as if it's a completely new story), jolting the reader in transition. Nonetheless, "Doc's Games" is notable for, among other things, its brutal surf descriptions that challenge the layman's impression of a blissful, Zen-like sport. Finnegan makes no qualms about his fears in confronting San Francisco's Ocean Beach, a famously violent surf spot that Renneker takes on with glee. Barbarian Days addresses many of these same subjects -- life-threatening waves, surf culture, his changing feelings about the sport, his friendships -- but, as a book-length memoir, it is a more ideal vessel for Finnegan's exploration of his own surf obsession. The author crafts a first-person narrative unrestricted by magazine space and journalistic convention. His personal account of a lifetime chasing waves, supplemented by an insider's knowledge of surf history and culture, is enough to carry the reader's interest through 10 lengthy chapters. Each chronological chapter features a place and Finnegan's account of living and surfing there. We begin with the author’s childhood in California and Hawaii, where he bonds with local boys over surfing despite his status as a haole (white) outsider. Then Finnegan, overcome by wanderlust, takes us on a Beat-like ramble through the world (Samoa, Indonesia, Australia, Fiji, and beyond) in search of wisdom and untrammeled surf spots. We land in his present middle age, a little older, a little wiser, but just as tethered to travel and the ocean. Along the way he drops out of college, experiments with drugs, goes back to college, avoids the Vietnam war, earns an MFA, becomes a teacher at an apartheid-era South African school, and reads and ponders tremendously -- all while anticipating (and sometimes narrowly escaping) the next big wave. The San Francisco chapter, though almost directly lifted from "Doc's Games," comes bearing the experiences of seven surf-filled chapters -- context (only summarized in the article) that gives substantial weight to Finnegan's new ambivalence toward the sport that drove so much of his life. At this point he's turned 30, is getting settled into a career in journalism, and is weary of the surf bum life. "[Surfing] contributed little to how I saw myself," he writes in Barbarian Days. "I was reluctant to think of it as part of my real life as an adult, which I was now busy trying to kick-start. Journalism was ferrying me into worlds that interested me far more than chasing waves." It's no spoiler that Finnegan didn't hang up his board once his journalism career took off. The final chapters, which weave surf anecdotes with reflections on an uneasy domesticity -- family, a home, steady work -- spotlight just how indispensable surfing is to the itinerant author. During a dicey reporting trip to El Salvador, where several reporters died covering an election day during a civil war, Finnegan retreats to a wave. "After I wrote and filed my story, I went surfing," he writes. "Surfing was an antidote, however mild, for the horror." Finnegan, drawing upon his lifelong journals, describes surf conditions with almost photographic detail: “It was midday, and the straight-overhead sun rendered the water invisible. It was as if we were suspended above the reef, floating on a cushion of nothing, unable to judge the depth unless we happened to kick a coral head. Approaching waves were like optical illusions.” His unadorned, but elegant, prose makes for entertaining reading. That said, his numerous tales of fearsome and deadly waves begin to feel, at a certain point, interchangeable. But the waves are only part of this lyrical, intellectual memoir. The author touches on love, on responsibility, on politics, individuality and morality, as well as on the lesser-known aspects of surfing: the toll it takes on the body, the weird lingo, the whacky community. Finnegan's world is as dazzling and deep as any ocean. It’s a pleasure to paddle into and makes for a hell of a ride.
Reviews

A World Is Hidden in the Things People Say: Linda Rosenkrantz’s ‘Talk’

Linda Rosenkrantz’s Talk -- somewhat unsurprisingly -- is about what we don’t say when we say things. Recently re-issued by NYRB Classics, Rosenkrantz’s Talk was a small sensation when it was first published in 1968. The book condensed a series of summer-long conversations between three late-20-somethings -- one modeled after Linda herself -- during one sweltering and sandy summer spent at the beach in East Hampton, N.Y. Thanks to a '60s script of psychedelics and psychoanalysis, Talk is characterized by introspective and scrupulous self-analysis. The three friends -- Emily, Vincent, and Marsha -- spend their 1965 summer discussing what most young people discuss: sex, relationships, and more sex. Much of the pleasure of Talk is the fact that though we readers feel we are reading a “script” -- inherently a type of contrived and falsified dialogue -- in fact we are reading the actual, although slightly altered, conversations of three friends over a Hamptons summer. In 1965, Rosenkrantz lugged her enormous tape recorder -- what she calls “the bulky monster” -- to the beach and recorded conversations. The end product was some 1,500 pages and a stable of some 25 characters. She condensed the tome of transcribed papers to a slim 250-page paperback and reduced the character count to three. Marsha -- modeled on the author -- is an aspiring writer; Emily is a young actress who recounts her struggles and triumphs; and Vincent is a gay painter who shares in Emily and Marsha’s candid conversations about S&M and masturbation. What made Talk such a sensation in the 1960s was that not only the salacious content, but the fact that it was a series of recorded conversations presented as a novel. In an era of New Journalism, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, Rosenkrantz’s book was a hybrid of sorts. Talk took its premise from theatre, but its politics from the likes of The Feminine Mystique and the recent legalization of the pill. It was a character study; a story of three under-represented and oppressed classes -- women, gay men, artists -- which were given an unobstructed avenue to see their conversations and experiences and stories shared. The voices of women and gay men were so often marginalized; Talk made them the focal point. But Rosenkrantz had a hard time convincing a publisher of the book’s literary and cultural merits. She shopped it around for over a year, sending out countless manuscripts to prospective publishers and collecting “a long trail of less colorful rejection letters,” as she recently wrote in The Paris Review. Many editors were shocked by the risqué and confessional content contained in the conversations. Rosenkrantz writes that one well-known editor rejected the proposal, calling the book “repellently raunchy.” In early 1968, Talk finally saw daylight. Publishing house Putnam -- as a means to avoid any type of legal consequences after publication -- presented the work as completely fiction. Rosenkrantz says that she was thrilled when the book was finally published but admits that she had been “completely complicit in the betrayal of the book’s mandate -- which was to present raw reality.” Talk, published as a work of fiction, would not carry the same cultural and literary currency had it been released under its original “mandate.” Then, as now, the intersection of truth and fiction is a complicated place. The quality of Rosenkrantz’s extracted conversations is both visceral and intimate. But equally there is a falseness that belies their sense of authenticity. Case in point: in one exchange, friends Marsha and Emily are discussing Emily’s recent “breakthrough” in her acting class. Emily was able to cry on cue in a monologue she performed from La Notte. (Emily is talking about performing a scene from a play; we are reading a “scene” from Talk.) In this particular monologue she describes, Emily was asked to weep after reading a letter her character receives. As a way to “embody” her character, Emily pretends the letter is from one of her own former lovers, Philippe. Emily imitates her own actions when she received a letter from him, as she performs the scene from La Notte for her class. The fact that Emily and Marsha are discussing a moment of acting -- ironically about a scene from La Notte where no words are spoken -- really serves to only point out their dialogue, their exchange, the fact that Emily and Marsha are talking, but also are not. It would appear that their conversation is based on a real exchange of ideas, in which Emily is talking about her efforts to show an “authentic” character in her acting class. Emily then goes on, telling Marsha that later at a party the following evening, a crush of hers named Michael Christy, appeared and her “hysterical feelings” for him were filtered from “damaged, love feelings about Phillippe.” The overwhelming irony underscoring this is that Emily’s rawness and realness on stage is truer than the performance she gave at the party. The exchange calls into question the whole idea of character and performances we all give in our daily lives, at work, at home. Rosenkrantz’s indulges in a clever paradox here: Emily is fake when she’s being real and is real when she’s being fake. Talk offers these wonderful -- if slightly meta -- interventions into the daily lives and (recorded) conversations of young creative people, as well as those from social and gender groups otherwise marginalized by the larger 1960s cultural milieu. This is what made Rosenkrantz’s book (not “novel”) so revolutionary and transgressive. It is recorded away from mainstream America and at the beach, a place so often for self-reflection and deeper, more intimate prying. It is also set in a hub of queer and non-heteronormative people and experiences and ideas, all of which are examined and told through the dialogue of Emily, Marsha, and Vincent. What adds to the more political dimensions of Talk is the sheer excess of dialogue Rosenkrantz presents. The fact that the entire book is a series of exchanges between two women -- and often their gay friend Vincent -- is deeply transgressive in the context of 1960s mainstream publishing. While the 1960s offered rare moments of feminist and queer representations, like Leslie Gore’s hit song “You Don’t Own Me” or CBS’s notorious “The Homosexuals” TV interviews, women and gay men were not often given space for individual and unmitigated self-expression. Talk is not just about giving women and gay men the space to be open and honest about their sexual and emotional lives, but acknowledging that this is a legitimate and real set of experiences. As a point of comparison, look at popular film representations of women at the time. These include Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), where the star of the film is undressed and then slaughtered 40 minutes into the narrative; Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), about a lonely call girl whose entire existence is mediated by a nameless cat, rich men, and a cantankerous and aggressive upstairs neighbor; and Barbarella (1968), in which we see Jane Fonda shoot alien men with beehive hair and low-cut skin suits. While these films suggest they are giving “air time” to more women and women’s issues, they only masked a more insidious silencing of women by a larger patriarchal world. Talk disengaged with and disturbed this. It said that women speak about sex, drugs, alcohol, S&M, masturbation, boys, adultery, abortion, the pill, vaginas, urination, underwear, penises, and periods. It vocalized an unfairly hidden world. Rosenkrantz’s title emphasized this simplicity; it is a book with “just” talking in it. But what was so important about Rosenkrantz’s intervention (recording these conversations) and then regurgitation of these discussion was that talk, as a literary device or indeed as a type of text endemic to the cultural and political sphere of the time, was not taken seriously. Rosenkrantz elevated it to argue that the discussions women -- and, to an extent, gay men -- have about sex and relationships and everything else are worthy of print and publication and politics. Although Rosenkrantz later made a name for herself -- ironically enough -- by producing popular baby name guides (Cool Names for Babies is one), Talk is an era-defining text. With its unvarnished “realism” and its celebration of marginalized groups, Talk argues that the everyday language of men and women is valuable, important, and worthy of a book.
Reviews

Dynamite Detroit Debut: On Angela Flournoy’s ‘The Turner House’

Last year I agreed to take on the impossible challenge of singling out the 10 best books about my hometown, Detroit. It was impossible because the Motor City, justly famous for its cars and its music, its muscle and its misery, has also inspired a rich literature -- fiction, poetry, history, biography, autobiography, reportage. Undaunted, I picked works by Elmore Leonard, Philip Levine, Loren D. Estleman, Anna Clark, Donald Goines, Mark Binelli, Nelson George, and others, with honorable mention to Thomas Sugrue, Joyce Carol Oates, Scott Martelle, and Ze’ev Chafets. I’m happy to report that there’s a new applicant for membership in this august club. She’s a young writer named Angela Flournoy, and her debut novel, The Turner House, belongs on the shelf with the very finest books about one of America’s most dynamic, tortured, and resilient cities. The novel’s title refers to the crumbling edifice on Detroit’s crumbling East Side where Francis and Viola Turner, transplants from Arkansas, raised their rumbustious brood of 13 in a state of scrappy but not unhappy near-poverty. It’s now 2008. Francis is dead, Viola is fading, and as a brutal recession bears down and the city skids toward the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, the Turner children are scrambling to figure out what to do about the empty family manse. It may be their “sedentary mascot” and their “coat of arms,” but it’s worth about one-10th of what’s owed on it. The debate about the house’s fate hangs over the novel because, like the city that shaped them, the Turner children are a squabbling, nurturing, demanding, forbidding, and complicated crew. This is Detroit. Nothing is simple. The novel opens on the night in 1958 when the first-born Turner child, 14-year-old Cha-Cha, does battle with a ghost -- a haint -- that tries to drag him out of his bedroom window. Though several of his siblings witness Cha-Cha tussling with the milky blue spirit, their father lays down the law: “Ain’t no haints in Detroit.” Years later, Cha-Cha is revisited by the haint while driving a truckload of Chryslers to Chicago, and the resulting accident changes his life. His employer sends him to a shrink named Alice Rothman, whose erotically charged therapy sessions will send ripples through Cha-Cha’s marriage and his relations with his mother and siblings. Cha-Cha’s obsession with finding out the truth about the haint will tear at the fabric of this tight-knit, combative family. Flournoy, according to the flap copy, is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and she was raised in southern California by a mother from Los Angeles and a father from Detroit. So the vividness of the writing here comes not through lived experience, but through the assimilation of stories told by a parent and other relatives. There are many sentences that nail a sense of place with a precision long-time Detroiters like Elmore Leonard or Donald Goines would have envied: “The last time Lelah saw Vernon, some eight years earlier, he’d been nodding off in the freezing rain on a curb in front of a twenty-four-hour Coney Island on Harper.” And: “The coffee made him jittery by the time work was over, and to help him relax he frequented a blind pig on Saint Antoine and Gratiot where for a nickel a day he rented a little locker to store his own hooch.” Here’s Troy Turner, a Detroit cop, discussing the endemic corruption in city government: “That’s what’s wrong with this city; it ain’t about the mayor. Too many people busy hoping shit will get better to actually figure out a way to make shit better.” And here’s Francis’s baptism when he arrives, alone, in the 1940s looking for work: “After a few thrilling binges of liquor and nightlife, Francis had learned that Detroit, with its overcrowded tenements and crooked bosses and exclusive restaurants downtown, was a lonely, backbreaking city.” There are cracklingly alive scenes inside pawn shops and factories, casinos and living rooms. Flournoy has a deft touch with the verbal and psychological sparring between spouses, siblings, and parents and children. My two favorite Turner siblings are Cha-Cha, the tortured eldest, and Lelah, the baby with a gambling problem. This is, in the best sense of the word, a domestic novel. One of Flournoy’s great achievements is that she doesn’t draw attention to the fact that virtually every one of her characters is black. This is just part of the novel’s oxygen and furniture, a Detroit given. Therein lies its quiet strength. But there are missteps. The constant cutting back and forth in time, between 2008 and the 1940s, becomes a distraction -- even though those early years, both in Detroit and Arkansas, are crucial to the story. Maybe the two eras could have been stitched together differently. This is not a plot-driven story, but at times the narrative sags. And while I’m no fan of overly tidy endings, I felt that the climactic family reunion was strangely cursory, and the story shuffled to its conclusion. None of that takes away from the fact that Angela Flournoy is an exciting new talent whose debut has enriched Detroit’s flowering literature. Read The Turner House, and I’m sure you’ll join me in waiting, eagerly, to see what its gifted author comes up with next.
Reviews

What Doesn’t Matter: On Milan Kundera’s ‘The Festival of Insignificance’

Milan Kundera begins his new novel, The Festival of Insignificance, with an unusual philosophical query -- why are belly buttons so sexy right now? Or, as Mr. Kundera writes in more erudite language, underscoring the absurdity of his question, “how to define the eroticism of a man (or an era) that sees female seductive power as centered in the middle of the body, in the navel?” This inquiry comes after Alain, the first character introduced, meditates on the meanings of erotic fixations of different eras: thighs, buttocks, and breasts. Finally, Alain concludes that while those three body parts are unique to each woman, all navels look the same. And thus, our era has lost a certain celebration of individuality. Directly after Kundera introduces this belly button query, he inserts a scene about another man torn between desire to attend a Marc Chagall show and repulsion at the thought of becoming “part of that endless queue” outside the museum, suffering from overcrowded galleries where “bodies and chatter would obscure the paintings.” Here, he exemplifies the tension between an individual and a group. Not only does a group prohibit this individual’s access to art, but also the individual’s enjoyment of art, should he enter the museum. Art and sexuality, once sacred and individual pleasures, have lost some of their potency and become banal elements of a mainstream popular culture. It’s a bleak assessment of contemporary life from an author with over 80 years of experience in the world. Yet, it’s Kundera writing it, not your grandfather, so it’s more poignant, surreal, and funny than the typical line of thought that begins something like, “In my day, milk cost less than a dollar and English professors could still get jobs.” In seven short, loosely-connected chapters, the author writes of the trials and tribulations of four aging male friends (Alain, Ramon, Charles, and Caliban) as they move among the Paris streets, attend a party, and share an extended joke about Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev. The novel most deeply explores the generational divide as it details Alain’s relationship with Madeleine, a young woman many years his junior: Even the dialogue between two lovers, if their birth dates are too far apart, is only the intertwining of two monologues, each holding for the other much that is not understood. That was why, for instance, he never knew if the reason Madeleine twisted the names of the past was that she had never heard of them or that she was parodying them on purpose, to make clear to everyone that she was not the least bit interested in anything that had happened before her own lifetime. The narrator suggests an unbridgeable gap between generations. How can a man (say, Kundera), who was at one time a member of the Communist Party, became partly involved in the Prague Spring, and is now living in exile, write something that will make any sense to a millennial (say, me), an American who was born after the fall of the Berlin Wall and now receives much of my news in 140 characters? It’s certainly a depressing thought for those of us who want to believe that some human experiences -- love, grief, joy, pain -- transcend generations. Yet, it’s also notable that Madeleine is either unaware of -- or isn’t interested in -- anything that happened before she was born, that the older man has chosen someone totally preoccupied with the present and future, who chooses to be ignorant. The affair becomes a way for Alain to both forget and escape the past, to dwell in conversations that amount only to insignificance. Another character, Caliban, meets a maid who develops an interest in him after learning that he speaks neither of the languages (French or Portuguese) in which she’s able to converse. He does, in fact, speak French, but he has told people that he only speaks Pakistani. The two speak to each other in their own languages without hope of ever being understood. When they do speak, it’s of trivialities, like the maid’s choice in lipstick colors. In a variation on the same theme, Kundera introduces a character named Quaquelique who seduces women by making banal remarks that demand “no intelligent response whatever.” He’s quite successful. It all seems like a cop out. There’s something cowardly about choosing a romantic partner with whom you’ll never have a meaningful conversation. Instead of devoting themselves to romantic relationships, these characters choose partners with whom they’re literally and figuratively speaking in a different language. It’s certainly a shift from the characters in Kundera’s most famous work, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, who seek love and immerse themselves in complex affairs. As a reader, it’s more difficult to invest in the new characters of The Festival of Insignificance and their partners when they are only interested in attachments that are ultimately insignificant. They don’t care, so it’s difficult for the reader to care. So, in this novel that suggests that art, sexuality, and love have all lost their power in the 21st century, is there any redemption at all? In a small line, the narrator explicitly reveals what he does value among the trivialities in our lives, our individual festivals of insignificance. “In my unbeliever’s dictionary, only one word is sacred: ‘friendship,’” he says. This line holds promise for an explanation of friendship, its merits, and the reasons why it trumps all other human relationships. The reader might expect Kundera, in his own masterful way, to raise questions about the nature of friendship and platonic love in the way he contemplates contemporary life and attitudes toward sexuality and art. Kundera doesn’t deliver. Instead of exploring what brought these men together and makes their relationship work, he focuses instead on those relationships that hold no significance. The readers hear the friends’ witty conversations and witness their rogue activities, but never much more. In its own twisted logic, the novel asserts that the insignificant is actually significant and worthy of its own narrative. But for the reader looking for four fully developed characters, a clear picture of what makes the bond between them so “sacred,” and some questioning of human interactions, it’s not fulfilling. It’s a shame. Kundera has written novels that raise complicated questions about political ideology and human interaction while engaging with fraught historical conflicts. Yet with this new installment, he seems to reject the more thoughtful approach and substitute it for this short work about what doesn’t matter. Sure, he ends with a lyrical appreciation of “the value of insignificance,” but it doesn’t satisfy. At the conclusion of the novel, Ramon gives a monologue in which he states, “Insignificance, my friend, is the essence of existence.” The way that Kundera structures the novel, it seems to call for some final, conclusive speech. Here it is! The narrator teases. You wanted a pearl of wisdom, and this is it! The narrator also mocks those readers looking for something more substantial. Another character outside of the core friend group, D’Ardelo, says nothing when Ramon makes this proclamation about insignificance. The narrator states, “Ramon understands that his hymn to insignificance has not succeeded in pleasing this man so attached to the gravity of grand truths.” Ramon disparages D’Ardelo for his earnestness. To appease him, Ramon tells him that he looked beautiful next to a woman at a party. At fewer than 150 pages, The Festival of Insignificance is a breezy read that just might prove to be insignificant within Kundera’s larger oeuvre. The book contains a multitude of ideas, some more satisfactorily detailed than others. The thing about belly buttons, though, is that they don’t all look the same. Just ask the piercer at your local tattoo parlor. And if you think they do, you just might not be looking hard enough. Alain’s conclusion is based on a fallacy, and his initial question, too, is based on a premise that isn’t quite believable -- I still have yet to meet a man, millennial or otherwise, who prefers belly buttons to buttocks, thighs, or breasts. Perhaps, after all, there is still hope for this era, for individual experience, and for lives of some significance.
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May It Not Rest in Peace: On Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s ‘Cré na Cille’

Among the many soothing stories we craft around death, most of us harbor a core belief that it will, at the very least, be peaceful. Even those with no residual belief in an afterlife can find some solace in the idea of an eternal quiet nothingness. No pain, no suffering, no obnoxious neighbors or megalomaniacal bank clerks. But what if it’s all a lie? What if, instead of peace or rest, what awaits us after death is a continuation of exactly the same petty dramas and sordid resentments? What if, after we’re lowered into our graves, we discover that all the other corpses in the cemetery are still chattering away in some kind of eternal bitchfest? These are the questions at the heart of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s modernist classic Cré na Cille. Originally published in Irish (sometimes called Gaelic) in 1949, it’s now available in English for the first time, translated by Alan Titley under the title The Dirty Dust. Often mentioned in the same breath as works of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, Ó Cadhain’s novel is, in some ways, even more radically experimental. For starters, all the characters are dead and speaking from inside their coffins, which are interred in a graveyard in Connemara, on Ireland’s west coast. The novel has no physical action or plot, but rather some 300 pages of cascading dialogue without narration, description, stage direction, or any indication of who’s speaking when. We begin with Catriona Paudeen, a bitter, foul-mouthed, recently deceased local woman, frantically wondering whether her family has provided her with an appropriate funeral and buried her in the well-to-do section of the cemetery. Within a few pages, she’s absorbed into a chorus of competing voices as she realizes she’s surrounded by her old neighbors, some friends but mostly enemies, “all rabbiting on exactly the same way as they did above the ground!” The conversation mostly circles around everyday grievances -- unpaid debts, unfaithful wives, contentious football games -- although political disputes occasionally crop up, mostly related to the Irish Civil War and the Second World War (certain corpses are so nationalistic that they eagerly ask new arrivals whether Adolf Hitler has successfully destroyed England yet). As Titley writes in his thoughtful introduction, the novel is “a listening-in to gossip and to backbiting and rumours and bitching and carping and moaning and obsessing about the most important, but more often the most trivial matters of life, which are often the same thing.” There are similarities between The Dirty Dust and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos, in which three sinners are condemned to spend eternity in a small room together, acting as one another’s torturers (“hell is other people”). However, while Sartre’s play is full of heavy-handed moral and religious overtones, The Dirty Dust is remarkable for its lack of philosophy or theology. The idea of retaining consciousness while the body decomposes seems dark to the point of hellishness, but the text itself is so mundane, irreverent, and raucously funny that the grisly context slides into insignificance. One might surmise that the characters are in purgatory, but since they’re too busy arguing to reflect on their existential state, the theory lacks a foothold. Essentially, this novel is all talk, and the historical and literary significance of the original lies in the richness of the spoken language, the warts-and-all reproduction of a dialect that, just 70 years later, has all but disappeared. Unfortunately, while Titley’s translation is sensitive and vibrant, it occasionally and inevitably feels stilted or overwrought. The narrow, uninspiring register of English curse words, for example, simply cannot capture the diversity of Irish language insults. Although Titley valiantly conjures terms like “sailor’s bicycle,” “shitehawk,” and “slut of the small spuds,” he also over-relies on shag, shit, bugger, bitch, and other less quotable English perennials. This danger -- that the effusive, flowing text of the author may, at times, be reduced to generic translates -- is fundamental to the translator’s work. However, as Gayatri Spivak argues in her essay “The Politics of Translation,” “to defer action until the production of the utopian translator, is impractical.” For decades, Irish language purists (we might also call them snobs) have rejected even the possibility of translating Cré na Cille, condemning it to irrelevance outside the walls of university libraries. Titley’s effort to translate the untranslatable, with full knowledge of its inevitable imperfections, is courageous and timely. For hundreds of years, Irish has been battling the hegemonic language next door and, despite a partial revival in the last century, it continues to decline. Connemara, the setting for The Dirty Dust, is a designated “Gaeltacht” region, where Irish remained the primary spoken language long after it fell out of everyday usage elsewhere. Despite government subsidies intended to protect their linguistic identity, a recent report suggests that within 10 years Irish will no longer be the primary language even in these small enclaves. Sad though this decline is, The Dirty Dust dispels any misplaced nostalgia for Connemara’s over-idealized past. The humor is very dark indeed, reflecting the reality that that Irish survived in these communities partly as a result of deprivation, isolation, and lack of opportunity. Accusations of theft, fraud, alcoholism, and violence rise above the chatter, before being quickly, desperately denied; ubiquitous nationalism, racism, and misogyny almost blend into the cacophony; and when the voices reflect on what they would have done with a little more time above ground, the overwhelming focus is on settling petty scores, chasing trifling debts, and suing neighbours over imaginary infractions. By the final pages, it’s clear that long before their deaths, the characters lived in a dark, narrow, airless world, where grinding poverty and religious conservatism gave rise to bitter hatreds between secretive, jealous, spiritually stale people. It’s no surprise, then, that the cemetery’s new arrivals report the departure of waves of young people for England and America. Since the 1840s, mass migration from the Gaeltacht areas has been central to the decline of the language. And who could blame those who left in search of opportunity and relative freedom? While we may regret the loss of the language -- and resent its suppression through force and economic coercion -- native speakers can’t be expected to make vast personal sacrifices for the sake of a vague notion of cultural heritage. What’s more, Ireland’s current austerity government shows no willingness to make the kind of investment that might draw younger populations back. All of this emphasises the significance of the translated edition. By exhuming Ó Cadhain’s zany chorus of cadavers, Titley has opened this masterpiece to the wider audience it so richly deserves. May it not rest in peace.