Reviews

The Equality of Shame: On ‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’ by John Boyne

At this year’s BookExpo, surrounded by stacks of galleys (most of which I tried to haul from the Jacob Javitz Center in Manhattan on two different train rides to the South Bronx in an effort to claim the world’s nerdiest #FirstWorldProblems award) I was introduced to the Irish novelist John Boyne by a woman who saw me staring at the pink and red tome with a puzzled look on my face. It was a doozy of a galley, thick and intimidating. I wasn’t sure I could stand to bring one more book home. Still, I find epic novels sexy. All I ever need is an enabler. “You really need to pick that one up,” she said, as if my internal voice had gone external. “It’s the best book you’ll read all year.” I’m a trained librarian, a proud bookworm who prefers Goodreads to all other social media, and a writer. Reader, I could not resist. I was raised Catholic and my frame of reference for all things Ireland is the Catholic Church. I wanted to read Boyne, who has written 10 novels for adults and five for young readers (his international bestseller, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, is his best-known work), due to a combination of my interest in this very long book as my chosen summer read, the perspective of an Irish writer on the old Catholic mores of Dublin and the country at large, and because I was intrigued by this stranger’s passion. Though The Heart’s Invisible Furies is new to the U.S., it was published in the U.K. and elsewhere in 2016. Inspired by Ireland’s Equal Rights Marriage Referendum, Boyne utilizes the story of Cyril Avery to represent how his country managed to change dramatically over a short span of time. The book begins when Cyril’s birth mother, Catherine Goggin, is cast out of her hometown of Goleen, Ireland, as a teenage mother in 1945. She is publicly shamed by the town priest for being pregnant so young, which provides the context for how conservative Ireland was in those days. Banished, she makes her way to Dublin where she befriends Sean MacIntyre, who takes pity on the young, visibly pregnant woman and invites her to live with him and his roommate, Jack Smoot. It doesn’t take Goggin long to realize that the two men are secretly lovers, foreshadowing the way same-sex love is obscured then revealed to sometimes fatal consequences over the course of the novel. Cyril is adopted by two well-to-do Irish citizens when he is young: an arrogant government worker, Charles, and his reluctantly renowned wife, Maude, a chain-smoking female chauvinist author. (To give you a sense of their personalities, they name Cyril after their beloved spaniel.) They incessantly remind him that he should call them his “adoptive parents,” and think of his time in their home as more of an “eighteen-year tenancy” because he’s not really family. They insist he call them by their first names instead of mother and father. Cyril has a secret: He is in love with his best friend, Julian Woodbead. Cyril describes himself, and Julian, thus: But for all that we had, for all the luxury to which we were accustomed, we were both denied love, and this deficiency would be scorched into our future lives like an ill-considered tattoo inscribed on the buttocks after a drunken night out, leading each of us inevitably toward isolation and disaster. Descriptive phrases such as this fill every page of this novel. It is difficult to find flaws in the writing, the characterization, or the plot. There are two major achievements in the book: With intricate narrative precision, The Heart’s Invisible Furies cuts to the heart of what family is, how it is chosen, and how it endures. And it is charming and funny, even as it dives down from the precipice of endearing humor into the very specific ironies and cruelties of real life. When Cyril talks to Julian about sex, for example, his childlike reaction to sex is both hilarious and descriptive: “...he took great delight in describing in detail actions that to me seemed not just unpleasant and unsanitary, but possibly criminal.” If there is one thing that could strike a reader as implausible, it is that for large swaths of this nearly 600-page novel, Cyril is not even the slightest bit curious about the identity of his birth mother. Adopted children may experience this as ringing true, but I found this lack of interest odd, even for a wonderfully quirky protagonist and narrator. But we have a period of 60 years, up until 2015, for his life to unfold—and that it does, in a careful, exquisite way. Over that span of time, Cyril is also understandably distracted by life: there are kidnappings; fatal beatings; harrowing nights of lust and sentimental triumphs; grimacing, lethal pimps and petite, lovely boys whose spirits are nearly crushed by the heft of sex trafficking. When he finds the love of his life again, more than halfway through the novel, he describes him in foreboding terms: “His cheeks were sunken, as were his eyes, and a dark oval of purple-red sent a hideous bruise along his chin and down his neckline. A line came in my mind, something that Hannah Arendt had once said about the poet Auden: that life had manifested the heart’s invisible furies on his face.” Boyne writes of the shame others make of homosexuality, bound by the arbitrary rules of the Catholic Church, in a homophobic society that does not improve so much as transform from blatant institutionally accepted bias to individually expressed prejudice. He explores how shame is equally meted out against unwed teenage mothers like Goggin and closeted gay men like Cyril -- the deep sadness, angst, and resilience that life’s changes can require of us. His characters are cinematically rendered, with a deft, decadent wit that will make you laugh aloud at least once. Searing heartbreak; loneliness; a quest for internal and external redemption, solace, and contentment are all there in The Heart’s Invisible Furies. Cyril finds love, and after a number of sad departures from his old friends and lives, finds himself out in New York City, visiting with young men dying from AIDS when his misfortune strikes again. It sets him on a course back to Ireland where life continues—as it is wont to do—to surprise and open him up further to himself. On nearly every page there is some witticism that Boyne offers Cyril—usually in reaction to his sexuality or as others react and he informs them after they’ve embarrassed themselves that he is, indeed, “one of the queers.” Mrs. Goggin returns to us as a force to be reckoned with in a tea room that Cyril visits over the years, and Boyne instills in us the hope, longing, and yearning of a little boy who wants to belong to someone. The Heart’s Invisible Furies is as much a multicultural epic of Ireland’s social transformation as Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing is an exploration the intricate tentacles of slavery over time and into the modern era. Boyne’s author bio suggested that of the many books Boyne has written this was his most ambitious. It is the most affecting, beautiful, and memorable novel I have read in some time, transporting me into worlds as dreadful as some are delightful. Turns out that lovely anonymous woman at BEA was 100 percent correct.
Reviews

Behind the Masks of Jean Lorrain’s ‘Monsieur de Bougrelon’

As eras accrue and each literary movement gives way to the next, canon space (which remains fixed) becomes survival of the fittest. Ludwig Tieck, William Congreve, and Francisco de Quevedo were household names in their day, but are now anthology also-rans of their respective movements. So who gets to be heard from among those morbid aesthetes known as The Decadents? Charles Baudelaire features most prominently as the movement’s inaugural figure. And Arthur Rimbaud, certainly, though he is more sui generis than representative. Oscar Wilde abides, but as a pithy epigrammatist. If Rachilde survives, it will likely be under an alternative rubric (her Monsieur Vénus is a proto-feminist, gender-fluid masterpiece). Dyed-in-the-wool Decadents like Joris-Karl Huysmans, Théophile Gautier, Octave Mirbeau, Auguste Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, and Jean Lorrain are in all likelihood battling it out for one or zero paragraphs in literary history. (Huysmans being the favorite grandson of Edgar Allan Poe at present, and enjoying a boost from an extended cameo in Michel Houellebecq’s Submission.) This battle is waged, for the most part, in academe, but occasionally an intrepid publisher will root around among the dead and resurrect a neglected figure. Spurl Editions is a case in point with their recent translation of Lorrain’s Monsieur de Bougrelon (originally published in French in 1897). Not quite forgotten (but en route), Jean Lorrain was an impeccable stylist and savage critic of other writers (he fought a half-hearted duel with Marcel Proust and was challenged/sued by other fin de siècle notables). His exquisite (if precious) prose rivals the man who almost shot him, but contemporary readers may surfeit of his elaborate characterizations and attention to ornament. Sumptuously translated by Eva Richter, Monsieur de Bougrelon is delivered with characteristic flourishes and yet its bejeweled chest eventually opens to reveal the beating heart of a Decadent ethos. The title character’s affectations, faded glory, and tales of yore regale two Parisian tourists (our narrators) in Amsterdam, who’d thus far been bored stiff by Baedeker attractions. Bougrelon appears to them apparition-like, an absurd, pathetic dandy who seems at best deluded—though his delusions prove carefully crafted—at worst insane. Yet his antics and anecdotes are a welcome alternative to the overviewed "sights" of Amsterdam. (The book is based on just such a lackluster trip to Amsterdam taken by Lorrain and Octave Uzanne.) Much of the novel is driven by Bougrelon’s tales (Lorrain’s m.o. being told tales) which revolve around his former friend (and lover?) Monsieur Edgard de Mortimer. This framing device creates an interesting set of pairs meant to mirror and play off of one other: Bougrelon/Mortimer, Narrator/Companion, Lorrain/Uzanne. Bougrelon extols Mortimer’s beauty (“vermilion lips,” etc.) and compares him to Antinous and Patroclus, rendering his account of the pair’s exploits with women a thinly veiled projection of their love for each other. The most salient feature of Mortimer is his being dead, and thus a product of romanticized memory. He is a legend in Bougrelon’s mind, to whom the past is fundamentally superior to the present, as is artifice to reality: [A]ren’t all portraits ghosts? Therein lies the nostalgic, aesthetic soul of the fin de siècle. With his flamboyant costuming, elaborate décor and rhapsodic reminiscences, Lorrain is not applying lipstick to the pig of reality, but trying to elevate artifice and anachronism to a way of being in the world. Obsessed with Truth, his literary forerunners (epitomized by Zola’s Naturalism) endeavored to strip away the manners, prejudices, and pretense of life; Lorrain and his cohorts prefer to take refuge therein. I am an idea in an era that has no more of them. More style than substance (at face value), Monsieur de Bougrelon is steeped in the superficial—an oxymoronic epitaph for its author and the Decadents in general. To Lorrain/Bougrelon (though the title character is a caricature of Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, his sentiment is Lorrain’s) the cadaverous human face needs to be made up or masked, and the banality of life confabulated into wild pageants of unreality. To that end, Bougrelon/Lorrain drapes Baroque tapestries over a void, but the dreadful nothingness behind the curtain is continually intimated, poised to engulf the artifice. The author’s outward aim is merely an inversion of the grimace behind the mask, the ennui behind the acts. Many Decadents revel in a rejection of the real, but for Lorrain it is flight, not pilgrimage, that drives his figures to the outlands of a reality they can never quite escape. Openly gay (effectively, though he never came out), Lorrain eschewed the hetero-mask of so many authors (e.g,. Proust, whom he’d outed in print) and this renders his preoccupation with artifice, presentation, and masks, in particular, paradoxical. His masks are not meant to conceal or replace what lies beneath, but rather to present themselves as masks. In a story from his Nightmares of an Ether-Drinker (Snuggly Books, Tr. 2016), figures are unmasked to reveal nothing, not even a face, beneath. It is artifice for artifice’s sake and yet the gorgeous, intricately ornate milieu is not a paradise on earth, but an indicator of its own non-existence and the hell which underlies it. A similar ambivalence attends Lorrain’s occult tales, as he never quite bought in to the mysticism his fellow Decadents took so seriously. His spectral presences are representatives of reality, and not some mysterious beyond. The ghosts, grotesque monsters, and filthy animals are the human beings who walk the city streets. They are not transmogrified, merely revealed in their true aspect. Readers who can appreciate the rich prose and unsettling psychoanalyses will nevertheless encounter the formidable obstacle of Monsieur de Bourgrelon’s unabashed racism. Though of its time, Lorrain’s racist zoomorphism is a barrier. Bourgrelon’s telling of a simian “Negro” servant murdering a white woman is appalling, and not to be forgiven by a relativist footnote (though it should be said that none of Lorrain's characters escape his savage zoomorphism.)  So the original question remains, why should Monsieur de Bougrelon survive the cull of literary history? What distinguishes it among Decadents, renders it relatable, and/or speaks to the human condition? A case could be made for Monsieur de Bougrelon being both indicative of an ethos and simultaneously striking a tone that most Decadents bypass en route to the logical extremes of melodrama and sado-masochism. It grows tender where most tales of the time (including Lorrain’s own) remain ruthless, and while each Decadent offering is infected with melancholia, few allow the sadness of anachronism and human futility to wash over their protagonists as does Lorrain with Bougrelon. As we advanced, slowly and contemplatively, along those display cases that were like sarcophagi, an infinite sadness, a tender compassion, penetrated us, wearying and soothing at once…we drifted from here to there, beyond the century, no longer in a museum but in a sickroom, almost afraid of waking the souls that were in the rags laid out before our eyes. His “imaginary pleasures” and that companionable stroll through the “boudoir of the dead” are monuments to sorrow, not sadism. More Quixote than Huysmans’s des Esseintes, Monsieur de Bougrelon is a comic figure made tragic by self-awareness. When his mask is finally, definitively ripped off (“in a cabaret where sailors danced”), it reveals not a grotesque, disfigured face, but rather the "rueful countenance" of a bygone era.
Reviews

The Poetry of Subversion: On ‘Shakespeare in Swahililand’

On September 5, 1607, the British trade ship Dragon found itself off the coast of Sierra Leone, and Capt. William Keeling and his Portuguese interpreter were entertained by the sailors staging what is supposedly the earliest recorded production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We are informed that the play was presented to keep the crew from “idleness and unlawful games, or sleep.” While the existence of the so-called “bad quartos” assures us that Hamlet’s premiere was on the stage of the Globe in Southwark, England, the earliest specific dated mention of the play being staged was aboard the warped wooden planks of this worn vessel (though some have convincingly doubted the veracity of Keeling’s diary). If the accounts are to be believed, at the outset of what would be a three-year voyage to round the Cape of Good Hope in search of Indonesian spices, the seamen working on behalf of the East India Company performed the play “and in the afternoone… went altogether ashore, to see if… [they] could shoot an elephant.” Shakespeare was still alive when this production of the Danish play first premiered, his celebrated sonnets to be printed two years after that evening aboard the Dragon and a year before the ship would once again find itself in the port of London. Fully eight more plays were to be written by the Bard after this extemporaneous staging of his most famous play in view of those white-sand beaches of the gold and ivory coasts—and in view of the slaving castles, which the English had operated for a generation already. Tellingly, one of those eight plays yet to be written was The Tempest, Shakespeare’s prescient allegory of colonialism, a tale of “A brave vessel, /Who had, no doubt, some noble creatures in her;” if the records are to be believed, the noble creature in the Dragon was Shakespeare’s words. Prospero is an appropriate corollary to the crew, being as they were only the first in a long line of travelers who brought Shakespeare along on their trips to Africa, both in pamphlet and pig-skin bound volume, including characters as varied as the Victorian adventurer and translator of the Kama Sutra Richard Burton, the infamous self-promoter Henry Morton Stanley in search of Dr. Livingstone, Teddy Roosevelt on a post-presidential safari, the Danish coffee magnate and writer Karen Blixen, and the communist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara holed up in the Cuban embassy at Dar es Salaam reading from the folio. Yet it is the Dragon as origin myth that provides the most arresting image. Hamlet, as it were, has many African origins; if the Dragon’s seafaring production was the first we have official record of, than the first “talkie” film version of Shakespeare found its genesis in 1935 Mombasa, where Indians brought by the British to build eastern Africa’s network of rails had their Urdu production Khoon ka Khoon pressed to celluloid. Both anecdotes are recounted in Cambridge professor and Shakespeare scholar Edward Wilson-Lee’s fascinating Shakespeare in Swahililand: In Search of a Global Poet. Reflecting on how “the earliest recorded production of Hamlet was a command performance for a Portuguese-speaking native of the West African coast” is part of his project to move a bit closer to that “Holy Grail of Shakespeare studies: an understanding of Shakespeare’s universal appeal” while remaining painfully aware of the fact that “that very universalism [has been]…used as a tool to exclude [some] from the bounds of the human.” Raised in Nairobi by American conservationists, Wilson-Lee is aware of the ways in which Shakespeare was often handmaid to the subjugation of people by English colonialists, who used the playwright as evidence of British superiority, while at the same time acknowledging the complicated ways Shakespeare was used by people across Africa in their own striving for national self-determination. There are, of course, unmistakable political implications for a white Oxbridge African such as Wilson-Lee writing about Shakespeare’s reception across Africa. Readers may be uncomfortable at Wilson-Lee’s recounting of a colonial childhood of wild monkeys in the yard and mango for breakfast, but the author doesn’t shy away from acknowledging his privilege, freely admitting to luxuries such as travelling throughout East Africa by rail, where “white-gloved stewards turned down starched sheets," visits to Kenya’s air-conditioned shopping malls constructed in imitation of American suburban convenience, and G&T’s at the Aero Club of East Africa. This privilege is most damningly on display in his reflections on the nature of white guilt at his family’s employment of black domestic laborers, a theme he sees in Shakespeare’s “obsession with master-servant relations.” Wilson-Lee’s is an odd hodgepodge of a book—part memoir, part travelogue, part historical account, part literary criticism. And yet despite its chimerical nature, it is an effective book, combining as it does an adept theoretical orientation, an admirable facility with the Explication de texte of Shakespeare’s language, and a humanism that is sometimes lacking in the most arid of literary theory. Too often, conservative “defenders” of Shakespeare against some imagined threat to the canon obscure the very real ways in which both Shakespeare in particular and English literature in general were used to erase the lives and culture of people in colonized lands, as a type of soft artillery. But Wilson-Lee isn’t wrong when he says that it’s hard not to feel that Shakespeare “almost alone among writers, defies such cynicism.” He conjectures that though Shakespeare’s genius may simply be “some grand collective delusion, a truism rather than a truth,” he can’t help but find that “every time, the dawning freshness of a turn of phrase, a short exchange or an orchestrated speech makes dull the cleverness which wrote these impressions off as nostalgic.” In what is one of the book’s most poignantly beautiful scenes, Wilson-Lee describes listening to two surviving records of that Urdu production of Hamlet preserved at the British Library (the film itself being lost to posterity), explaining that the music of that production was pressed neither on vinyl nor wax cylinder, but rather “on discs made from shellac, crushed beetle-shell.” And so he could hear “the same sounds that would have rung out of the ramshackle theatres onto the Mombasa streets, the love songs of Hindustani Shakespeare, preserved in the carcasses of beetles which had once footled around the forests of Bengal.” Shakespeare in Swahililand functions both as a historical account of the role that the Bard has played in east Africa, as well as the author’s own travelogue through the historically Swahili-speaking parts of the continent, including Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, with stops outside of Swahililand in Ethiopia and South Sudan, noting that “one of the first books printed in Swahili was a Shakespearean one” in the form of a translation of Charles and Mary Lamb’s sanitized Victorian bestseller Tales from Shakespeare. His historical account moves from Shakespeare’s own day through 2012 when the South Sudanese delegation to the Cultural Olympiad staged a Juba Arabic performance of Cymbeline for London’s Globe Theater. Shakespeare in Swahililand is replete with fascinating anecdotes about the poet’s reception, while never losing sight of the complexities of that reception. These include descriptions of Roosevelt in the bush reading the Collected Works by gas lamp; Blixen arguing with her servant Farah about The Merchant of Venice, the latter interpreting Shylock as the unequivocal hero of the play; Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere’s scholarly Swahili translation of Julius Caesar, a performance of that same play with the title role being filled by Uganda’s future president Apollo Milton Obote in a 1948 version staged at Makerere University; and the brilliant performance of one of that university’s first Muslim female students, Assiah Jabir, in the role of Volumna in Coriolanus. There are even shades of our current controversy over the Central Park Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, as a similar imbroglio occurred in Ethiopia in 1952 when the Roman tyrant reminded audiences of Emperor Haile Selassie. Wilson-Lee’s story isn’t an uncomplicated one of people across Africa simply taking to the essential core of the Bard; the playwright was enlisted as a subject for Indians to “pass exams for the Colonial Service,” and after Britain’s empire collapsed, theaters were funded by the CIA front the Congress for Cultural Freedom to further American corporate interest, ensuring “the continuation of capitalism,” with unprofitable east African theaters “regularly subsidized by the American oil company Caltex.” And yet for all of the imperial usages of Shakespeare, a subversive core endures, as he becomes something that can be made distinctly and confidently “African.” It’s a conclusion which neither reduces Shakespeare to Immutable Platonic Genius, nor to to colonial handmaiden viewed as great only because a bunch of genocidal Englishmen forced people to say so at the point of a bayonet. Rather, Shakespeare becomes a multivocal, contradictory, expansive author, one for whom the inconsistencies become precisely the point. This is a “universalism born not of a shared and distinct experience but of mutual contemplation of something so vast and varied as to accommodate every point of view.” And so we have an Indian version of Twelfth Night titled Bhul Bhuliyan, which recasts the opening Illyrian shipwreck as a tragic railroad bridge collapse, with Wilson-Lee reminding us that few “members of the Mombasa audience would not have known or been related to at least one of the 2,498 men who died during the construction of the line which ran from the coast to Lake Victoria.” Or we have Nelson Mandela, imprisoned on Robben Island reading and rereading the plays to keep his sanity and his spirit intact. Or the linguist Alice Werner who in 1913, while studying Bantu, had The Story of the Flesh and the Thigh told to her as an indigenous tale, realizing later that it drew its narrative from Edward Steere’s Swahili version of The Merchant of Venice. The most famous challenge to the supposed universalism of Shakespeare is in anthropologist Laura Bohannan’s 1966 classic Natural History article “Shakespeare in the Bush.” She recounts how she is asked to tell a story by a gathering of Tiv tribal elders in the highlands of Nigeria, and so she ultimately chooses Hamlet. The elders supposedly reacted with incomprehension at the strange tale: all Tiv know that ghosts are not real, no Tiv would ever scold his mother as Hamlet does, and Ophelia could not have drowned herself because only a witch can do that. As Bohannan records, the elders said “We believe you when you say your marriage customs are different, or your clothes and weapons. But people are the same everywhere; therefore, there are always witches and it is we, the elders, who know how witches work”—a telling if ironic inversion of the normalcies of western triumphalist universalism. And yet, while Bohannan’s anecdote was meant to demonstrate the fallacy of literary universalism, Wilson-Lee would argue that it only proves that universalism is innately complicated. Witness Hamlet looking for his father’s ghost on Mughal battlefields, or the Marathi translation of Romeo and Juliet inventing an entire backstory for Romeo’s first lover Rosalind (she marries Tybalt and is responsible for losing Friar Lawrence’s message about Juliet’s sleeping potion). Such revisions are as if “watching someone you love in costume, newly beautiful but still the same.” As Wilson-Lee takes pains to explain, despite Shakespeare’s original role in colonialism, African liberation proponents “and other political agitators became adepts at using the colonials’ cultural totems against them,” just like “Caliban cursing Prospero in his own language.”  Yet Caliban need not only curse, for the subaltern may speak, and sing too. As a result, across Shakespeare in Swahililand we discover that Wilson-Lee’s African Shakespeare is both colonizer and colonized, Prospero and Caliban, invading Roman of Cymbeline and resisting Celt of that same play, for “everyone can, to an extent, find their own Shakespeare.” This then, is the other side of appropriation, the sublime poetry of subversion.
Reviews

A Pattern of Freedom: On Can Xue’s ‘Frontier’

If in The Last Lover, Can Xue’s Best Translated Book Award-winning novel from 2014, characters seem to be wandering in and out of each other’s dreams, in Frontier, the author’s latest work to be published in English, experience has almost become detached from bodies entirely. It floats as if through the air of Pebble Town, a settlement of uncertain size on an unspecified, but presumably northern, Chinese border, attaching itself by turns to the town’s various human and animal inhabitants. Several unrelated characters share a memory of “standing on the ocean floor,” while others recognize their fathers or lovers in the form of geckoes and wagtails; mysterious shadows in one woman’s house are said to belong both to “invisible people” and to wolves. Just as the human effortlessly fades into the non-human, so do the boundaries between inner and outer life, between life and death themselves, lose their solidness. When one character is shocked by the beauty of a woman’s red skirt among a herd of sheep uttering “sorrowful cries,” Can Xue writes, “It was wondrous,” and indeed, all of Frontier is. One of the best-known experimental writers in China, Can Xue (the pseudonym of Deng Xiaohua) has found increasing success in the West for her strange but luminous work. Frontier, originally written in 2008 and now published in Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping’s translation, is perhaps the best and most beautiful of her novels yet to reach English readers. Plot never dominates Can Xue’s work; rather, her novels build upon images and affects that repeat, vary, and recombine, giving rise to patterns at once original and tinglingly familiar. While readers approaching Frontier as a cipher to be decoded are therefore likely to grow frustrated, those who allow themselves to be immersed in it as in music or painting will begin to perceive the novel’s complex harmonies. Something of Frontier’s lush and perilous landscape may resonate particularly with American readers, who will sense in it a counterpart to their own mythology of a sublime internal frontier. “Where there is desire,” Can Xue wrote in The Last Lover, “there is a wilderness.” Frontier develops the equivalence even further, until Pebble Town’s magical terrain is just as much the manifestation of its inhabitants’ desires as it is the backdrop for them. Whether it is the vastness of the Gobi Desert (which Pebble Town is said to border) or the floating garden that sometimes appears miraculously in midair, the landscape of the frontier, as one character observes, exerts “tremendous pressure on people.” A man named Lee, who, gazing at the “scenery outside,” feels his heart, “long covered with dust, bubble over with joy,” has the following conversation with his wife: “Nothing you see here is actually what it appears to be.” Grace raised her left eyebrow, as if thinking of something. “Do you think this is like our ailments?” she asked him. “Do you mean the thing inside us and the thing outside us are the same thing?” Lee was perplexed. “Lee, Lee, we’ve finally broken out!” The ecstasy at this apparent unity of interior and exterior life implies that a threshold far beyond the geographical has been crossed. Pebble Town is repeatedly described as a utopia, but it may also be something like a utopian purgatory. Hardly anyone does much of anything—most of the town’s residents are employed by the enigmatic Design Institute, though no one ever works—yet they are all caught up in barely-articulable processes of metamorphosis, as if straining to break into another type of existence of which Pebble Town is the premonition. Moreover, some of them have a whiff of death about them: one man is told outright that he smells “a little” like a “dead person,” and another, plagued by dreams of being chased, blurts out, “The dead are struggling for territory against the living people.” The Design Institute itself is said to look like “a giant grave,” and its director’s adopted relative Ying, who wanders the grounds of the Institute like a “timekeeper,” recalls a god of death, counting down everyone’s seconds. For all its supernatural suggestions, however, Pebble Town also belongs undeniably to contemporary China. There are allusions to a surveillance state (“Everyone’s movements are tracked!”) and an ominous reference to “execution reform.” A young man named Marco, whose identity is one of the least stable in the book (“in a split second he became a different person”), was adopted by a Dutch family as a child and later sent back. He longs to return to Holland (which Pebble Town also supposedly borders), and undertakes a dangerous journey across a river and through a desert attempting to reach his idealized Western past. Liujin, a woman characterized as a true “daughter of the frontier,” was born in Pebble Town because her parents fled “Smoke City” for the “clean” borderlands, “where no air pollution existed;” Liujin and her father, listening “to birds singing outside the window,” in or near the Gobi Desert, feel they are in a “utopia.” While Frontier is much more than a wistful social fantasy, this sense of injustice—surveillance and oppression, exploitative adoption practices, the destruction of the natural world—courses beneath the book’s brilliant landscapes like the mysterious waters said to flow under Pebble Town itself. There are books that seem to expand ever outward, so that upon finishing them, readers see the world anew through the author’s eyes. Others expand inward, leaving behind a glow to be carried for days like a secret. Frontier’s “bright, shining,” shapeshifting town, “a paradise for vagrants,” lovers, and wolves, offers, like poetry, what Can Xue says each of her characters already possesses: “a pattern of freedom.”
Reviews

Where Randomness and Madness Reign

Detective fiction and theory have a surprising history, one that I sometimes use to rationalize my childhood love of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. And I’m not alone: T.S. Eliot, Vladimir Nabokov, and G.K. Chesterton were obsessed with popular mysteries. We like whodunits, Bertolt Brecht thought, because our lives are filled with structural problems and social contradictions that aren’t caused by single agents. Crime-solving sleuths, people like Sherlock Holmes and Nancy Drew, help us put back into place a system that no longer functions: it’s only in detective fiction that we start with a bunch of evidence, follow it rationally to a conclusion, and, in the end, apprehend a villain. Reading detectives, the thinking goes, helps us do what we can’t normally: piece together fragments, forming something coherent out of the madness. Or at least, traditionally. Enter, then, Laurent Binet’s newest novel, The 7th Function of Language, a madcap sharply irreverent French theory mash-up that’s part mystery and part satire, by the Prix Goncourt winning author of HHhH. The new book turns Roland Barthes’s accidental death in 1980 into a murder investigation set against French intellectual life. With a cast of characters that includes Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Julia Kristeva with guest appearances by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Umberto Eco, and John Searle, it’s no surprise Binet’s book is way more dizzying than most detective stories. What is shocking, though, is how it manages to respect the theories and mock the theorists all at once. The question that prompts the book is simple: who killed Roland Barthes and why? On the case is Bayard, a grumpy inspector who’s more than a bit impatient with the posturing of French intellectuals (who can blame him?). Simon Herzog, his sidekick, shares more than initials with Sherlock Holmes; he’s a young semiology instructor brought on to help decode and interpret the case’s signs. Together, they navigate a blindingly bizarre and often raucous set of worlds: picture a chase scene through a gay sauna with Foucault, Bulgarian secret agents with possible ties to Kristeva, drug-riddled parties after the infamous Derrida-Searle debate, and even a Logos Club competition, which is the kind of intellectual fight club that Plato wishes he would have invented. What the troublesome twosome learn along the way is that Barthes, just before he died, was working on the so-called (fictional) seventh function of language: the ability—first introduced by linguist Roman Jakobson—of language to persuade, convince, and seduce. In the novel, French intellectuals and politicians like socialist president François Mitterrand and his one-time opponent Valéry Giscard d'Estaing are all after the function for themselves. But all of this —deciphering the mysteries of the seventh function and figuring out who killed Barthes—isn’t why you keep reading. Sure, mystery propels the book forward, though we’re certainly not going to get the clean resolutions Brecht thinks we want: The Seventh Function revels in a world where randomness and madness reign. What really drives the book is Binet’s irreverence—Philippe Sollers is a loudmouth dandy, Foucault masturbates to a Mick Jagger poster, Umberto Eco gets urinated on by a stranger in a Bologna bar. All of this might lead you to think of Binet as a writer of long-form libel. But Binet’s cheek is grounded in a serious familiarity with and respect for the theories, if not the personalities, he uses to populate his book (a lot of the anecdotes are non-fictional, and he provides in-depth treatment of the philosophies at hand.) I bookmarked a page with titles of talks from a Cornell conference;  Searle’s giving one called “Fake or feint: performing the F words in fictional works,” while Spivak lectures on “Should the subaltern sometimes shut up?” For all its lightness and raucous humor, The 7th Function can sometimes feel a little heavy handed, especially when it comes to the blurring of fiction and nonfiction.“ Life is not a novel,” the book begins, and a few hundred pages later after I’d started to ignore the self-aware interruptions of the narrator, the semiologist-sidekick Simon Herzog himself starts suspecting he’s in a novel, one by “an author unafraid of tackling cliches.” Maybe Herzog’s paranoia and distrust are the result of reading too much philosophy. I couldn’t help but feel, though, that the narrator was wearing brass knuckles spelling out “postmodern” and trying, repeatedly, to punch me in the face. In spite of this, what’s most shocking is that Binet’s novel works, although perhaps more to draw attention to our mad, mad world than to help reconcile us to it as Brecht hoped—for that, we might need more than the fictional seventh function of language.
Reviews

The Church of Reformed Libertines

In meme parlance: life comes at you fast. Perhaps that sentiment is so retweeted and relatable because it always feels true. Time is elastic, defiant of the order we pretend to impose, the past simultaneously whispering in our ear and calling long-distance, a continent away. Joan Didion wrote that we are “well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” I have ghosts that visit every time I taste tequila or enter a room with faux-wood paneling, whose reappearances often coincide with tales of bad sex or bad choices or a sort of drunken, desperate ambition I often see in women between 18 and 25 with artistic temperaments. It’s uncanny to slip as thoroughly into a character as I did with Jaracaranda Leven in Eve Babitz’s Sex and Rage, published in 1979 and reissued this summer by Counterpoint Press. The novel follows a young Angeleno, progeny of the Hollywood relatively-elite, as she fumbles with varying degrees of elegance through relationships and self-discovery, art-making and rent-paying. It is the story, really, of one’s 20s, or at least the kind I’ve had, wherein the clashes of reality and desire can lead to spectacular and terrifying confrontations with the chasm that divides them. It would be foolish to ignore the differences—her West Coast upbringing vs. my North Carolina one, where I was more prone to encounter a screened porch than a screenwriter; her inherent ease with boys and men, which I feigned (poorly) until I could hide in my room with a notebook to exorcise my insecurities. We share more superficial things in common, though: an interest in books, a dicey relationship with alcohol, a scramble throughout our 20s to find meaning and fulfillment in unconventional, often fruitless ways. By the time I finished the online synopsis, I was already sniffing out the novel like a bloodhound, eager to meet a character that felt so particular but could be a stand-in for many young and reckless women like me, members of the Church of Reformed Libertines. I picked up the novel just when I’d reached an odd détente with the city of San Francisco, about 390 miles north of Jacaranda’s native bars and surf breaks. I’d resigned myself to spending 46 percent of my take-home pay to live in an apartment two hours by train and bus from work in academic publishing. I’d effortfully carved out a niche of people who didn’t ask to meet for $15 cocktails, who read Clarice Lispector, and occasionally fed me at our Dungeons & Dragons games. I had the perilous sense that I had built a life for myself, but that it could shift with the next mass exodus of good friends, the price of the incumbent repairs on the car with the failing brakes. Unwilling to work in tech, tired of being hamstrung by the intermittent medical bill, I applied for a few gigs in a place I’d rejected for its West Coast opposite: New York. Sex & Rage’s Jacaranda, reckoning with her alcoholism, exudes a similar reticence when faced with a voyage east. Recently launched from “the barge,” a cluster of high-rolling partiers who slept with, shit-talked, and enabled one another, she writes, “There seemed no place to go, after fourteen [gin, lemon, and egg-white] White Ladies, but into a spin that fell out of the sky, a smashed victim of impending gravity.” I thought of a particular summer, a night with cocaine and a blood ritual and the bruises I accrued by morning, outward tattoos that weren’t so different from the smashed way I felt inside, writing down my sins in the wood-paneled room. “She was lucky,” Babitz writes. “...because most of the girls they used for local color died before they were thirty.” A fateful encounter with an East Coast literary agent named Janet Wilton accelerates Jacaranda’s writing career from piecemeal freelance work to a book deal, and she’s faced with potential that’s almost as terrifying as its wanton, boozy opposite. Babitz structures the novel such that its bulk occurs on Jacaranda’s sun-drenched home turf, in which she’s imagining the numerous ways her departure could end in tragedy. Live in coastal California long enough (about three years, personally) and it imprints on you—its languor and the subtlety of its seasons, the tendency towards liberality and the fringes. Even if Jacaranda and I spent most of our nights in bed with wine and cats, often both, I feel I know her enough to say that she, like me, felt she belonged on that furthest edge. What would a “Goodbye to All That” look like in reverse? Probably a long toke in Dolores or Griffith Park, and then a “meh” when someone asked what you thought of all that hustle & bustle, the concrete and steel. Maybe something more stringent. “She began feeling an even finer-tuned rage against material East Coast diamondy objects,” Babitz writes, and as soon as I read it, I thought about the visceral nausea I felt on a visit to Times Square. This is a façade, though, especially in a place that contains multitudes. There are wide swaths of the western-most state that would rather ship out the homeless than care for them; rent is cheaper in Brooklyn than it is in San Francisco, and I have the anecdotal evidence to prove it. Who are we not to allow ourselves success, even if there is a part of us that bucks the conventional way, the one that would bring us less grief? “Up until this point,” Babitz writes, “it didn’t seem as though she was debauched at all, but the truth was that while she believed in being a washed-up piece of driftwood on the shore, she also believed in bold adventuresses, cigarettes, and suffered from one too many of anything.” The novel’s most interesting section takes place when Jacaranda boards the plane, when she goes from spinning her wheels in a rut to launching herself forward, full speed. Babitz’s prose mirrors her new sobriety, both clear-eyed and frenzied. When she runs into Max, a beloved member of the barge with whom her romantic involvement was both vague and intense, Jacaranda has a revelation. “And once again [she] felt the aching waves roll over her from wanting what she couldn’t have. She couldn’t afford Max,” Babitz writes. “That much truth cost too much.” She doesn’t fall for the city like she fell for Max—she admires its glitter and lets herself feel simultaneously exhausted and enamored. She acknowledges its faults and sees its winsomeness, her affair with Manhattan an ember in contrast to roman candles like Max, like Colman or Gilbert or Etienne or Shelby before him. Jacaranda and I were and are privileged white women with the bailouts and resources to fuck up many times between the achievements that buoyed us from year to year. Self-destruction can seem sexy until you’ve sobered up and seen how much easier it is to lay low—pay your rent on time, spend less on ibuprofen, allow yourself the simple pleasure of being good and thorough at your work. I think Jacaranda learned that, by the end of Sex and Rage, when she boards the plane back to L.A., having proven to herself that she could take a leap of faith, bet on her own will. I’m sitting in the July heat in Crown Heights, a black cat who’s the analogue of Jacaranda’s beloved Emilio splayed on the wood floor, with no return ticket to the place I thought suited me best. Finding your fictional parallel can be uncanny, but it can also be a reflection that brings your blemishes and beauty into a different relief. The future isn’t clear, it stands on shaky, sober legs, but here is the money I did not spend on rent. I’m placing my bets.
Reviews

Returning to Walden

You only need to wade a few steps into Henry David Thoreau's Walden before tripping over these words: “It is hard to have a southern overseer; it is worse to have a northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.” For an author like Thoreau, an active and outspoken abolitionist, the insensitive aphorism seems like a profound contradiction of his character. In A Fugitive in Walden Woods, author Norman Lock imagines an appropriate response to such a statement, delivered by the novel’s narrator, Samuel: “It is much, much worse, Henry, to be driven by a vicious brute whom law and custom have given charge over one’s life than by an inner demon.” Lock’s premise is clever: In the summer of 1845, just as Thoreau embarks on his experiment in simplicity on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Walden property, the Virginia slave Samuel Long cuts off his own hand, slips his manacle and -- as the law of the day held -- steals himself away from his master. He is conducted north via the Underground Railroad to Concord, Massachusetts, where Emerson sets him up in a second cabin in Walden Woods and tasks him with keeping tabs on the hermit-philosopher down the way. During the year he spends in Concord, Samuel finds himself amid a community of famous intellectuals and abolitionists -- Emerson, Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and William Lloyd Garrison. The community is sympathetic to Samuel's struggle, but the contrast between their extreme privilege and Samuel’s hardship often strains their attempts at genuine human connection. The novel comes as the next installment in Lock’s series of American Novels, each of which engages with seminal nineteenth-century American authors and ideas. In each volume the first-person narrator functions as a kind refractive lens, bending and blending together a generation of texts and ideas within a single mind, and yielding a spectrum of impressions on the development of American culture and identity. But the book does more than parrot various ideological positions. A Fugitive in Walden Woods bursts with intellectual energy, with moral urgency, and with human feeling. Lock’s characters are not reducible to their ideas, but rather animated and complicated by them. In this way the novel achieves the alchemy of good fiction through which philosophy takes on all the flaws and ennoblements of real, embodied life. As fascinating as it can be to watch the philosophical debates unfold, it’s often an even greater pleasure to witness Samuel yawn while these giants of the American canon pontificate at each other. Their talk is often compared to the buzzing of insects, and once to “a play without an interlude." Emerson idealizes the soul, Thoreau nature, Hawthorne bemoans sin, but Samuel finds none of these compelling. For Samuel, abstract musing on Nature or Reality is a luxury that can distract from the actual substance (and struggle) of nature and reality. Over and over, the text returns to this question: What function do philosophy and literature serve in the material world, where people suffer constantly and nature endures indifferently? Though Samuel’s critiques of these writers are many, the novel is far from a transcendentalist takedown. In fact, the narrator calls his work a “eulogy” for Thoreau, who died early from tuberculosis. His tribute is not a counter-Walden but a necessary companion piece, meant to both honor and challenge an old friend. Henry’s frank wisdom and his earnest, observant care for the gifts of the wild world are not missed, but rather contextualized within a restless man attempting to craft from ideas a physical life, a brilliant aphorist whose rhetorical fervor sometimes leads him into self-contradiction. Samuel, too, is full of contradiction. He does not yet know “how to be,” especially in relation to these men. Part of him values their support and respect; he knows their attitudes are not mere performances. Later in his life, it will be these men who settle Samuel’s absurd self-theft debt with his former master, and thereby legally free him. But, still in Walden Woods, Samuel is beholden to the protection and esteem of well-meaning white men; his fugitive status permits no illusion of independence. What is he to make of self-reliance? He often feels reduced to “the object of other people’s goodness,” his story nothing but a powerful “tool” for the abolitionist cause. So another part of him wants resistance, revolt, it wants broken glass and righteous blood, and wants it now; he can’t suffer the thought of writers carrying out life -- theirs, his -- on scraps of paper, essays or stories or laws. That he should thank these men is preposterous. “I insist,” he writes, "that I am in debt to no one for restoring what ought to have been mine since birth…What is this impertinence but the self-reliance that Emerson espouses and Thoreau practiced in his lifetime. Like them, I wish to be reliant on no one but myself.” The novel draws a sharp distinction between Henry’s and Samuel’s search for self-reliance in Walden Woods -- a vast difference in privilege, trauma, and future prospects divides them. However, amid their disparate experiences, Samuel recognizes in Thoreau a kindred question: How am I to be, for myself and for others? In order to stand by the broad democratic implications of an experiment like Walden -- the self-reliance and self-sufficiency of each individual -- mustn’t he eventually compromise his own aloof simplicity and enter into the complications of human community for the sake of those whose individual rights are denied? “His self-reliance was partly self-delusion, as it must be for any mortal,” Samuel writes of Henry. This is true not only because Thoreau himself received ample support from his community (he was, after all, living on Emerson’s land), but also because the practice of pure self-reliance is a contradiction in a society that privileges only some with freedom. Ultimately, when Thoreau’s character truly does right in the novel’s dramatic final moments, it’s not by anything he writes or says, but by his willingness to “violate his principles” to help preserve Samuel’s freedom. A reader would be right to be wary of Lock’s narrator -- the author is a white man inventing and taking on the voice of a former slave. I hesitate to pass any definitive judgment on this kind of narrative presumption (a word which Lock himself uses to describe his relationship to the narrator), fraught as it is with a whole history of appropriation and exploitation. A reader may, in fact, be justified in rejecting Lock’s narrator and his premise out-of-hand. For my part, I can only affirm fiction as a space where both writer and reader seek honest communion with the lives of others, and say that, as I see it, Lock’s portrayal of Samuel seems as empathetic and complex as one must expect from a writer who knowingly attempts to cross such a gulf of experience. Throughout the book Lock pays frequent homage to true accounts of slavery and escape by writers like Frederick Douglass, Henry Bibb, Solomon Northup, and Moses Roper, lifting up these accounts rather than trying to overwrite them with his own invention. The novel makes no attempt to compete with such narratives. Instead, it works to interrogate an intellectual tradition that was developing during the same period in a privileged Northern enclave by placing in conversation with those writers a person whose experience is drastically different from their own, and who could pose a worthy challenge to some of their deeply held notions of Nature and God and Soul and self-reliance. There are occasional moments when the narrator’s voice falters, when the author leans away from the specificity of Samuel’s experience toward the dubious suggestion of some archetypal Slave Narrative in which, as Samuel claims at one point, “the particulars might be different, but the sorrows were the same.” Doubtless, there is much Samuel rightly identifies with in the stories of other former slaves, but in equating one’s experience to the others, the author plays into precisely the erasure of individual identity from which his character is attempting to recover. Samuel’s life, his memory, and his pain are his own, and the narrative is strongest when Lock pays mind to these particulars. The narrative leap is clearly not one Lock takes lightly, nor does he try to make himself disappear beneath Samuel’s guise. In subtle metafictional moments, the novel foregrounds these issues of empathy and appropriation, consistently calling the reader’s attention back to Lock's role as author. An epigraph by Thoreau, from Walden, opens the subject: “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else I knew as well.” There’s an implicit irony to such a quote, given that it precedes a piece of profoundly other-focused fiction -- and indeed, the novel critiques the idea by demonstrating how literary navel-gazing can gloss over the suffering of others. Several times later on in the novel, Samuel himself claims to speak for the men in his story, and gives his own defense for the presumption: None can know another’s mind. Nonetheless, we do speak and write of others as if we have known them well. What can Melville have known of Ahab, or Edgar Poe of Usher, or Hawthorne of Dimmesdale? And yet they have written of them in the belief that we possess a common soul. So it is that I have found within me courage to speak of and for various persons met during my stay in Walden Woods as though I had sounded to the bottom of them. Thoreau’s aphorism is right, of course: there is nobody we know so well as ourselves. But as Samuel indicates, Thoreau is wrong too: we may never truly know each other, but without the willingness to take those first steps of imagination and empathy toward the lives of others, Walden is nothing but a place to hide.
Reviews

The World-Spanning Humanism of Mohsin Hamid

1. Mohsin Hamid’s new novel Exit West begins in an unnamed city fractured by political violence. There, two young people come together as everything around them is breaking apart. Nadia is a cultural rebel who wears a full black robe, “so men don’t fuck with [her]” as she traverses the city on her motorcycle. Saeed is a devoted son who wears “studiously maintained stubble” and passes quiet evenings on the balcony, gazing out at the city rather than immersing himself in it. Before these patient lovers make the exit promised by the novel’s title, and compelled by the tightening grip of civil war, Nadia ventures beyond the city through her phone, which she rides into and over the world, watching “bombs falling, women exercising, men copulating, waves tugging at the sand like the rasping licks of so many mortal, temporary, vanishing tongues.” Registering both brutality and beauty, the planetary sight that Nadia simulates here mirrors that aspired to by Hamid’s powerful book. The novel traces Nadia and Saeed’s journey from their home city to the island of Mykonos, to London, and finally to the hills of California -- a route of escape if not liberation enabled by a series of magical doors, portals that highlight through omission the unrepresentable terror of the passages in between. Progress through them -- which is “both like dying and like being born” -- is attained not just by the novel’s protagonists but by several people its panoramic vision only ephemerally registers: a man with “dark skin and dark, wooly hair” struggles out of a closet door in Sydney; two Filipina women emerge from a disused door at the rear of a bar in Tokyo; a young woman slips out of a black door in a Tijuana cantina; a Tamil family wanders out of an interior service door below a cluster of “blond-and-glass” luxury towers in Dubai. “The whole planet,” in the near future inhabited by the novel, “was on the move.” Hamid is interested in the conditions of that movement and in its disparate effects. Exit West evinces the stark divisions of wealth and security that provoke migration, the myriad walls that inhibit it, and the nativism to which it gives rise. But the basic fact of movement, if a cause and consequence of profound violence, also signals, in the novel, the more hopeful potentialities of planetary interconnection. This dialectical sensibility is in keeping with Hamid’s broader oeuvre. Centering on Pakistan and its entanglement in global histories of imperialism and capitalism, his fiction and essays -- from the novel Moth Smoke, to the recent collection of dispatches Discontent and Its Civilizations -- have explored the relationship between here and there, self and other, in a way that holds in tension difference and sameness, contradiction and affiliation. Exit West elaborates this conceptual focus -- tracing the fissures in human community and global space, and reflecting on the possibility of their transcendence. 2. The “dramatic monologue” that comprises Hamid’s second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is staged at an outdoor café in a busy Lahore marketplace. It is delivered by Changez -- a young Pakistani university lecturer and possible militant, who formerly held an elite position at an eminent Manhattan financial firm -- to a silent and ambiguously motivated American listener. Over a long and increasingly tense meal, Changez instructs his companion in the historical relationship between Pakistan and the United States. He details the continuities between the long history of the British empire in South Asia and the more recent expression of U.S. power in the region under the sign of a “War on Terror.” And he impresses as well the intimate connections, in the current conjuncture, between perpetual war and pervasive neoliberal depredation. Changez’s didactic address, though, is met by his mute guest not with affirmation but with the implied threat of assassination. Whatever its pedagogical impact on the reader, the novel dramatizes empathic failure and the persistence -- in the consciousness of the west -- of geographic and historical blindness. Continuing the project of redressing this myopia, Hamid’s third novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, illuminates the unevenly borne human and ecological costs of capitalist “development.” Appropriating the form of a self-help book, and joining it to the more traditional apparatus of the bildungsroman, the novel is narrated in the second person. “You” begin the story as a child in a poor South Asian village and end it on your hospital death bed, having accumulated -- and then lost -- a personal fortune via the purification and commoditization of municipal water. The use of the second person conflates the consumer of the tale and its anonymous hero. But the novel’s periodic shifts in perspective work to refuse any easy sense of identification between reader and protagonist. For the bulk of the narrative, as when you and your family are conveyed by an overcrowded bus “from rural remoteness to urban centrality,” we regard the world through your eyes. In certain moments, though, as when you are stooped in grief at your brother’s funeral, we observe you from above, through the lens of a drone -- that essential technology of occupation that not only sees but also delimits and even negates the lives of those below. The unmanned aerial vehicles that hover above the action in How to Get Filthy Rich, surveying and surveilling the world, are ever-present too in Exit West. “Unseen but never far from people’s minds,” they act as a metaphor for the totalizing but often invisible powers that govern us. Like capital or the state, the drone sees but cannot be seen; it is everywhere and nowhere; it generalizes vulnerability but is itself seemingly invulnerable; the “security” it avows obscures the insecurity it produces. When the Tamil family takes their first tentative steps into the Dubai sunlight, they are captured by a “small quadcopter drone hovering fifty meters above,” which alerts security officers to their presence. As the efficient trajectory of the “uniformed men” intersects with their own, the family are “intercepted and led away, apparently bewildered, or overawed, for they held hands and did not resist or scatter or run.” Passing through one door and then another, alighting in Greece and then England, Nadia and Saeed escape the twinned fates of detention and deportation. But they continue to be tracked by the same “flying robots” that patrolled the city of their birth. As the ubiquity of the drone reveals, the line that marks the boundary between the rich countries—who “were building walls and fences and strengthening their borders” -- and the poor ones is redrawn within the societies of the former. On Mykonos, Nadia and Saeed occupy the periphery of one of the migrant camps, which itself lies beyond the outskirts of the island’s old town -- a popular tourist attraction that the migrants are discouraged, through the implied threat of police reprisal, from visiting. In London, a combination of government forces and private legions launch a campaign to “reclaim Britain for Britain,” to mend the “black holes in the fabric of the Nation.” Confined to one such black hole, the migrant zone of once-posh Chelsea and Kensington, Nadia and Saeed again feel their world shrinking. Surrounded by “soldiers and armored vehicles,” they are monitored from above by helicopter, drone, and surveillance balloon. When the government cuts the electricity in migrant-occupied neighborhoods, the existence of two Londons -- one dark and one light -- is clarified. Nadia and Saeed have escaped one civil war, but there is, they increasingly come to appreciate, no exit from the civil war that is also a world war -- the essential antagonism between the possessed and the dispossessed, the rights-bearing citizen and the rightless denizen. Nadia wonders “whether she and Saeed had done anything by moving, whether the faces and buildings had changed but the basic reality of their predicament had not.” The enduring precariousness of the migrants’ lives, though, does not preclude the genesis of new social forms. The camps on Mykonos are inhabited by people “falling within a band of brown that ranged from dark chocolate to milky tea,” who speak “in a cacophony that was the languages of the world.” In this context, “everyone was foreign, and so, in a sense, no one was.” This emergent understanding of difference as sameness is deepened, for Nadia especially, in London. There, she and Saeed find themselves resident in a sprawling house -- evidently absent its lawful owners but convivially occupied by Nigerians, Somalis, and others “from as far west as Guatemala and as far east as Indonesia.” The house’s council meetings, while dull, represent “something new in her mind, the birth of something new” -- the idea of a polity founded on the exigencies of mutual survival, wherein difference is the source of the universal rather than its violent corollary. 3. In our own time—of emboldened ethno-nationalisms—the political realization of this demotic cosmopolitanism often feels very far away. But the nativist responds to the migrant with such violence because they see their own insecurity, whether actual or latent, reflected in the presence of those who have already lost so much. And the possibility thus exists that fear will give way to solidaristic recognition. This alternative route is hinted, in Exit West, by the evolving confrontation between dark London and light. As the weeks pass, the “natives and their forces stepped back from the brink”: Perhaps they had grasped that the doors could not be closed, and new doors would continue to open, and they had understood that the denial of coexistence would have required one party to cease to exist, and the extinguishing party too would have been transformed in the process. The enlightened refusal of outright genocide, however, does not preface a radical transformation of London’s social and economic geography. The migrants are not welcomed to light London but corralled in the formerly protected greenbelt around the city, which has been opened up to the construction of new urban settlements and named the “London Halo.” Resident in a worker camp, circled by a security fence, Nadia and Saeed trade their labor -- clearing land, assembling prefabricated dwellings -- for “a home on forty square meters and a connection to all the utilities of modernity.” This “forty meters and a pipe” is an obvious evocation of the “forty acres and a mule” promised (but never granted) to the formerly enslaved in the closing stages of the U.S. Civil War. It summons, in other words, another deferred emancipation -- an extant history that Nadia and Saeed learn more about when they pass through one final door and arrive on the west coast of North America, in the new city of Marin, where they fashion a shanty in the vacant hills above town. As the fog descends and lifts, Nadia and Saeed drift apart, surely but not violently, and toward new companions. Saeed is drawn to the daughter of a local preacher, a woman descended “from the human beings who had been brought from Africa to this continent centuries ago as slaves.” Of that history, Saeed comes to understand that “society had been shaped in reaction to it, and unspeakable violence had occurred in relation to it, and yet it endured, fertile, a stratum of soil that perhaps made possible all future transplanted soils.” The link Saeed feels to this particular narrative of dislocation, of loss and struggle, is derived in part from a newfound spiritual devotion. In prayer, Saeed “touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss united humanity, every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness.” In such instances -- as when Hamid writes that “we are all migrants through time” -- the political contradictions Exit West has so vividly rendered are dissolved by the revelation of transcendental humanness. The universality the novel more urgently invokes, though, is grounded in the contingent and contested terrain of social life. Our contemporary moment is marked by a crisis of futurity -- a collective inability to imagine any alternative to the supposed “end of history,” the eternal neoliberal present. But by the final pages of Exit West, in the wake of an apocalypse that “was not apocalyptic,” this malaise is yielding to “plausible desirable futures...unimaginable previously, but imaginable now.” These other worlds are made audible, in Marin, by the flourishing of new musical ensembles -- “humans with humans, humans with electronics, dark skin with light with gleaming metal with matte plastic” -- and given a concrete political shape by nascent regional assemblies, experimental democratic formations that exist in opposition to “those other entities for which some humans were not human enough to exercise suffrage.” The polyglot soundscape of the migrant camps on Mykonos is “what one might hear if they were a communications satellite” -- a planetary perspective that recalls the one Nadia first realizes virtually on her phone, and that Exit West itself claims. Orbiting earth, Hamid’s novel maps the divides that structure the current global order. But it also charts one necessary future, the advent of what Aimé Césaire called a “humanism made to the measure of the world.”
Reviews

Redactions to Reveal: Poetry in an Age of Censorship

The censorship of artists is not a new practice, but it feels lately like events and structures are realigning the boundaries of personal expression. As regimes around the world attempt to control or discredit the way they are portrayed in the media, artists still struggle to slowly peel back the dark spaces when words fail to rise to the surface. John Gosslee’s Out of Context is a collection of 70 poems chosen from his earlier redaction project, in which 333 poems by well-known poets were beautifully printed on parchment paper before -- without pausing to think or go back to correct his markings -- Gosslee set out to rework them. This project explored the manipulation of the written word; ultimately, the 70 poems selected for Out of Context speak to the toll erasure takes on any given artist. Likewise, the collection highlights how an artist can feel empowered to seek a world of new meaning and relevance, while creating a space between personal expression and quiet reflection for a reader to reside in. Out of Context arrives at a particularly complicated moment. Many of the challenges we are facing today are related to the influence and reach of the internet, and revolve around the interpretation and repurposing of language, “alternate facts” and all. Gosslee seems to have been emboldened by this moment -- his redactions are a brisk yet carefully constructed reawakening of meaning, using work from poetic icons such as Marie Howe, Terrance Hayes, Sharon Olds, and Sandra Cisneros. In fortifying his message along the framework of those that came before him, Gosslee doesn't so much as obstruct their words from being viewed, but forges new, deeply personal narratives to challenge his audience. Like some of the pioneers of the practice, Gosslee shows a deft hand at selecting the path his own poem will tread, with some redactions seemingly walking that fine line between chaos and conscious creation. And while the charm of redactive poetry at times relies on the audience being somewhat familiar with what was originally on the page, it is best to approach Gosslee’s intimate interactions with the source material as newly harvested truth. While “Out of Context” provides the names and titles of the original poems, his voice erupts out of every page; the thick black markings not coming to represent censorship, but a celebration of poetic freedom expressed through the redactor’s eye. For instance, in “What I Mean When I Say Forever,” reclaimed lines like: messy mathematics overlooking remainders-- the interplay of seasons   spread the petals at their feet. I may even add a bit of wind to the ordinaries of day, if she'll remain express the beautiful interplay of quantified emotions and language. Gosslee also proves that there is some humor to be found in his redactions. For example, in “Fun Mentals,”(built out of the skeleton of Rae Armantrout’s “Fundamentals”) the poem is reshaped into an exploration of size and emotional relatability. Why is it to be large is terrific, but to be small is thinkable? Redaction poetry is as much a visual experience as it is an emotional appeal through words. Most of the arrangements -- such as “An Venture” -- are particularly stunning when viewed from a physical remove. The deliberate change from partial scratches to thick blackening and then back to a combination of the two reveals that Gosslee is mirroring the conflicted range of emotions carried throughout the piece. In other poems, the markings are heavier, more subdued, speaking to a kind of resignation. Gosslee’s poems seem to ask “How can we be seen when there is so much set in place to obstruct truth?” In communion with this question, there are moments in Out of Context wherein Gosslee reveals a passive relationship to the original text. Choosing instead to work within the adage “less is more,” Gosslee reshapes two lipogram poems by Cathy Park Hong, “Ballad in O” and “Ballad in I” by stripping the stanzas down and leaving them bare. These redactions bind the reader’s focus to Hong’s use of assonance and not on the surrounding adornments of narrative and setting. The book is a meditation on building from the past; Gosslee allows us to question whether context matters when words are passed between bodies. The project can be seen as a practice in poetic indulgence; a celebration of both the tactile and visual senses; or a selfless orientation among poetic voices. When Gosslee converses with the past, as he does in the beautifully crafted “Turn Your Work of Art,” the reader is witness to a unity between the voices in the collection. The lines: art in danger of wanting permission to reach Before you die seem to turn the collection inward. Gosslee’s conversation -- though one-sided -- also measures art, not as a single point to reach, but as sustained note in time. The idea of using published poems by other poets as a framework is challenging, and some may call into question Gosslee’s intentions when creating Out of Context. The act of blacking out the words of another artist’s work and, as a result, changing the meaning of the piece, is a dangerous balancing act, one of which Gosslee seems well aware. In a conversation with the L.A. Review of Books, Gosslee acknowledges the “violent” nature of his redactions, as well as his own privilege and power to execute them. “It was very important to me to cite each of the original authors and the original work as the title of each piece to invite readers to explore the original,” Gosslee tells LARB. Not only is it problematic, some would say, for an artist to strike out another artist's’ words just to supplant them with their own, but a more complicated (and weighted) issue arises when his practice viewed as a white man retooling the work of poets from marginalized groups, re-working without being invited so to do. Gosslee seems cognizant, if unapologetic, of his work in relation to what was on the page before; beyond the opening pages of Out of Context are a small collection of Gosslee’s thoughts on the matter. In one, he writes: The history of redactions is ancient and often inspects ideas of censorship, thought-control, and, in literature, the appropriation of non-poetic text into poetry. I wondered, what if the hand didn’t move over the newspaper like Austin Kleon’s Newspaper Blackouts...What if living poet’s works were the subjects? What Gosslee asks of his reader throughout Out of Context is not to absolve him of these questions of authenticity but instead use them as a lens to parse each page. In this way, it becomes obvious that the change occurring is not merely that of the words on the page, but of Gosslee himself. What tethers the works together, through space and time, is his authentic reaction to the process of reading and rebuilding. Of a poem Gosslee drew from Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel, he writes When I redacted a portion of Gabriel by Edward Hirsch, I cried. The love of a father for his son was so moving that I couldn’t help it. I thought about how I might feel in Hirsch’s place if I knew about the redaction of such a personally meaningful text. I thought about how I’d feel as a reader if I only knew about the redaction 50 years after Hirsch, and that helped me hold to the goal of the project… It’s worth questioning the implication of authorship and erasure in his work; the “goal” Gosslee alludes to in the interview is as layered as some of the various poems he has chosen in this collection. Is it an invocation or reintroduction of past voices? Is it a more political stance, that which declares the impossibility of truly silencing the artist? Or is this more of an act to draw attention -- a declaration that Gosslee sees himself as able to stand toe-to-toe with the poets which have moved him over his lifetime? These are questions to carry through the collection. Out of Context should be experienced on its artistic merit. Yet it’s the project’s emphasis on gaining through loss, as well as its brazenness in committing what might be perceived as poetic transgression -- that reminds us how artists lead the way in pushing the boundaries of expression, in times when the written and spoken word seems particularly challenged.
Reviews

Do Sex Dolls Dream of Electric Sheep? On Alissa Nutting’s ‘Made for Love’

  Not long after the nine-page sex scene between a dolphin and a man who resembles Jesus, it clicks: Alissa Nutting's Made for Love is all about power. Obviously, there's nature's power over man, as in the case of the porpoise initiating coitus, but the dynamic works the other way, too. Behold Byron, Gogol Industries's wunderkind founder, wholly focused on prolonging our lifespans, making physical existence frictionless, and obliterating the line between human and artificial intelligence. Byron wields power over the world. See also Herbert, the 76-year-old widower who recently purchased a lifelike sex doll for companionship. Herbert wields power over loneliness, and the natural arc of his love life. Stuck between both is Hazel, Herbert's daughter, who's just run out on her loveless marriage with Byron, seeking refuge in the trailer park where her father lives. Presently, Hazel is powerless. It becomes clear over the course of Nutting's second novel that technology can and does warp the established order of these power relationships. With Gogol's boundless capabilities, everything is permitted. Diseases can be cured, brains can be hacked, and the pain of spousal loss can be mitigated. This has brought Byron enormous personal wealth, and with limitless resources, estranged wives can be tracked down no matter how far they run. But let's get back to the dolphin. On a beach one day, we find Jasper, a conman who finesses women out of their money by faking relationships with them. He's out for a swim when, suddenly, a dolphin attacks. Quickly, it's apparent that this dolphin is interested in Jasper's body, but not for consumption. The two wrestle, and ultimately Jasper escapes with only small abrasions and a minor bite mark, yet forever after he's sexually attracted to dolphins. (Don't you hate it when that happens?) Immediately, this poses a problem for the conman. No longer is Jasper able to seduce human women; instead, he fantasizes about the whistles, groans, and creaking door squeaks of bottlenose beauties. Jasper's solution to this problem is logical: he abandons his trade, and in order to spend more time with his paramours, he trains as a dolphin handler at a SeaWorld-like amusement park, saving up money for an expensive neurological procedure offered by Gogol Industries. Using brain implantation and experimental technologies, Gogol scientists promise to fix Jasper's ailment. He'll remain attracted to the aquatic mammals, of course, but now when he's intimate with a human woman, his mind will trick him into believing she's actually a dolphin. Problem solved! Isn't it just like modern technology to treat the symptoms instead of the cause? To reorient the world in such a way that it accommodates quirks and defects – however harmful or unhealthy – instead of encouraging people to solve their own problems, or organize to solve society's? Although Made for Love takes place in the not-too-distant future, it's easy to find parallels right now. Attracted to animals? Jasper's found an experimental neurological procedure for that. Too lazy to walk outside to get lunch? There's an app for that. Too busy working to do something as fundamentally human as eat a meal? There's a porridge-like gruel for that. Cut off from the places you need to go because of dilapidated, unreliable, or altogether nonexistent public transportation? There's a fleet of underpaid indentured servants here to help. Too constipated from being over-prescribed opioids? There's another medication for that. We've never been more "connected," but we've also never been more miserable. We've never been more prosperous, but we've rarely been so unequal. The powerful have never been more so, but instead of real solutions to all problems they've developed profitable band-aids for some. The "move fast and break things" ethos presupposes that things aren't structurally broken already. Why fix anything when you can profit off dysfunction? While great power brings great responsibility, nothing seriously compels the powerful to act responsibly. Nutting is the perfect writer to examine this absurdity, and what she's done in Made for Love is remarkable. Let's just put it out there: go read this book. In twenty-three chapters, which advance in a page-turner style reminiscent of another Florida powerhouse named Carl Hiaasen, Nutting covers a lot of ground: technology's promises, limitations, and the enduring – though often forgotten – allure of natural life and love. And although her writing shares superficial similarities with Hiaasen's, Nutting is consistently funnier, and she has a more careful eye for literary flourishes. For every punchline, Nutting also renders her characters' most intricate neuroses in vivid, memorable detail. While some characters speak in dialogue that could work for both authors – "If you want, we can wrap ourselves up in mosquito netting while we have sex" – Nutting sets herself apart by getting way darker than Hiaasen ever would. There's a scene in which Hazel's mother effectively cancels Christmas one year because she believes they've watched the spirit of a deceased friend dissipate out of a meatloaf. At her best, Nutting's humor would fit in one of America's great comedic masterpieces, King of the Hill: the way Herbert's eyes tear up joyously when he says "I drink for the both of us" after his daughter jokingly asks if the sex doll imbibes; how the manager of a fleabag restaurant tells a down-on-her-luck Hazel: I can pay you cash but I'll pay you a lot less. It's nothing personal. I'm running a business. If you're that desperate it would be irresponsible of me, from an economic standpoint, not to take advantage. It's impressive that a man attracted to dolphins isn't even the book's main character, nor is he a distraction. This is Nutting's second novel in which she's brought readers uncomfortably close to topics they rarely examine seriously, and after Tampa and now Made for Love, she's officially made a career out of writing books impossible to explain to coworkers and parents. It's a credit to Nutting's dexterity that she can examine something as large and unwieldy as technology's influence over our lives while also plotting a relatable story about falling out of love in one place, and looking for it in another. Because who hasn't fantasized about ditching their devices and returning to a more natural existence? After Hazel runs out on Byron, she ponders the same weary thought we all think after too much time in front of our screens. Little things like physical keys made Hazel feel as if she were going back in time, which she realized was exactly what she wanted to do. Get away from the futureworld she'd lived in with Byron, away even from the technological present. From now on she wanted no part of what Byron and his cohorts liked to call the Bionic Revolution, though they frequently slipped--was it a slip?--and said Byronic. The more she could live a strictly manual and basic life, the more distant she'd be from him, and that was a hopeful thought: there was a way to feel like she was reclaiming herself. Essentially, this is a thought shared by some subjects in Emily Witt's Future Sex, an investigation of the Silicon Valley, modern romance, and the ways the two awkwardly interact. It makes for an incredibly interesting companion to Made for Love, and it's even got an essay on sex dolls, but the most telling parallel comes later on, when Witt joins a group of young Google and Facebook employees who attend Burning Man each year in search of an "autonomous zone" in which they're safe to exercise their hedonistic and sexual fantasies, unbridled from traditional societal constraints. Reflecting on how these festival attendees will probably not bring the values they exhibit at Burning Man back to the "real world," Witt writes: If I had to predict a future, it would be that Burning Man would last only as long as we did, the last generation that lived some part of life without the Internet, who were trying to adjust our reality to our technology. Younger people, I hoped, would not need autonomous zones. Their lives would be free of timidity. They would do their new drugs and have their new sex. They wouldn't think of themselves as women or men. They would meld their bodies seamlessly with their machines, without our embarrassment, without our notions of authenticity. This is the future Byron and Jasper want, optimistically rendered. Yet it's also the future Hazel fears, for she's witnessed its limitations and drawbacks. For men like Byron and Jasper, technology brings convenience, and bends reality to meet their needs. (Even Hazel's father, Herbert, benefits from this dynamic when he satisfies himself with advancements in sex doll technology.) All the while, Hazel's left out. For her, technology is an imposition, a threat. When it feels like everybody on earth is using technology to pursue their deepest desires, who's allowed to opt out?