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The Drowned World, J. G. Ballard (1962)

the-drowned-world-book-coverI’m thinking I might just read science fiction for the next four years. There are a lot of iconic writers I’ve never read, or read only a bit of (Butler, Delaney, Dick, Heinlein, Le Guin, et al.), and I confess I wouldn’t mind thinking about society and culture at one remove for a while, instead of right up close in the moment. Sort of like putting on a pair of psychological sunglasses, maybe.

I did read this novel before, a long time ago, but went back to read it again after recommending it to a student working on a story which takes place in a world where the seas have risen to the point that people are living underwater.

Much has been made of Ballard’s prescience; I’ll skip all that and make a few notes regarding the book on its own terms. I like it less than I remembered liking it. Probably when I first read it — in college, maybe? — I was mostly focused on its hypnotic thanatos. This time I got hung up on its repetitiveness (no synonym of “miasma” goes unused), and also the flat characters, in particular the one female character and the “Negro” characters, who are so flat they barely register. It does certainly, though, set in motion some interesting trains of thought. Not so much about human-made climate change and the perils of overdevelopment — there is none of that — but rather about the archetypal fiction of the cool, scientific, organized, rational North vs. the hot, irrational, chaotic South. It’s fun to think that a global catastrophe drowning the planet under 60 feet of water would naturally cause the British to deploy scientific research stations, and that the researchers would drink sherry in their off hours.

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The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov (1951-1953)

foundation-trilogy-by-isaac-asimovThis semester I’m teaching a class called “The Uses of History,” where students read works of literature that in some way are informed by specific historical events, and produce such texts themselves. (The secret of the class is that there aren’t any works of literature that aren’t informed by specific historical events. This secret generally becomes an open secret around week two or three, if all goes according to plan.)

When I teach this class, I find I think surprisingly often of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. I first came across the Foundation Trilogy when I was, I think, in junior high or maybe high school, and I found it the same way I found most everything I read before I left home from college, by picking through my father’s inexhaustible book shelves. Most of those books came from a book distribution warehouse where my father worked summers as a college student. Unsold books were sent back to the warehouse and their covers were torn off so they couldn’t be resold. I’ve never really understood how the system was supposed to work, but I guess the basic idea was that it was easier and more economical to render the books unsellable than it was to ship them back to wherever they’d come from. So most of my father’s library consisted of coverless classic paperbacks, from Augustine to Xenophon. But I remember that the Asimov had a cover. My dad must have paid for that one.

When I think of The Foundation Trilogy, it’s usually because of the narrative and thematic significance of a single character, known as “the Mule.” In the novels, a great galactic empire comprising thousands of worlds and billions of people is slowly collapsing. A team of talented social scientists known as “psycho-historians,” led by a man named Hari Seldon, can see this end coming, and can mathematically predict that millennia of bedlam, ignorance, and despair will follow it. Through unfathomably sophisticated sociological calculations, they devise a plan – the Seldon Plan – which will limit this dark age to a mere handful of centuries, after which a fresh civilization – the Second Empire – will rise. Asimov’s is an Enlightened technocratic fantasy of the purest type. The Seldon Plan represents the idea that science and rationality can – will! must!– solve the problems of chaos and pain. The drama of the novels resides in the unfolding of the Seldon Plan, and the frequent threats to its success. The greatest of these threats is the appearance of the Mule.

The Mule doesn’t look like much. When we first meet him, he’s presented as a disfigured and simpering clown. But he has a slight mutation which enables him to subtly bend the mental processes of others, and this capability permits him to conquer worlds, amass a great deal of power, and build casinos. (OK, the “build casinos” part was a joke, but it should be noted that the Mule chooses Kalgan, a vacationer’s planet with a strong resemblance to Atlantic City, as his capital.) Now to be sure, a petty warlord taking over a few planets is generally no big deal; such contingencies are well within the capacious and complex calculations of the Seldon Plan. But the psycho-historians soon come to realize, to their horror, that the Plan has not factored in the kind of mutant disruption the Mule represents. His appearance was wholly unpredictable and unpredicted, and the entire Plan is thus at risk of unraveling.

We humans have a compulsive habit of trying to impose narrative coherence on sequences of historical events, but such rationalizations, as the historiographer Hayden White has argued with such eloquence, are untrustworthy at best, and dangerously seductive at worst. They are inevitably influenced by (or even determined by) underlying ideological or moral assumptions and values, and are engineered to reassure us that the progress of history is orderly and tends toward coherence. It’s common, for example, for people to say that the Allies defeated the Axis powers in World War II because in the end, good must triumph over evil. Or that the Roman Empire fell because its people became lazy, decadent, and complacent. Those are satisfying stories. But history isn’t a story. The Mule represents for me, and reminds me, that any narrativization of history (or rationalization, or Seldonization, if you like), is always imminently and immanently subject to a jolt of the unpredictable, irrational, or perverse. This is such an important reminder that the character of the Mule has become a rather important totem for me, despite the fact that I haven’t read these books since I was a kid.

Last month I decided to finally re-read the novels, and I’m glad to report that The Foundation Trilogy has held up wonderfully both as an entertainment and as a fertile ground for historiographical musings. I highly recommend it. Remember, though, that it is itself a story, not a history. Don’t let the fate Asimov assigns the Mule lead you into intellectual temptation. The good guys aren’t necessarily fated to win. The most intelligent and rational choices don’t always prevail. Against all reason, people are very frequently willing, even eager, to act against all reason. “The fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.” Adorno and Horkheimer. My favorite Modernist catch-22. The better we get at rationalism, the better we get at madness.

On election night, Wendy had a bunch of women over to the house to watch the returns. Several of them brought their daughters. Someone made cookies with Hillary Clinton’s campaign logo embossed in frosting on them. The scene in the living room was noisy and chaotic, and I went upstairs to read the last few chapters of The Foundation Trilogy in my room, thinking I’d come down around the time polls closed in the Midwest, to share the champagne and – I was really looking forward to this, more than I’d even admitted to myself – to watch those mothers be with their daughters and those daughters be with their mothers. Instead, the Mule. I’m only surprised that I was surprised.

 

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Where I Was From, Joan Didion (2003)

Subject: Author Joan Didion with her Corvette. 1971 Photographer- Julian Wasser Time Inc Not Owned Merlin-1381191
One way of describing Didion’s genius (there are many) is to note that she always permits, even invites the subjects she endeavors to report on to report on her as well. Didion knew growing up that she was from an old California family; as she got older she realized there is no such thing. In Where I Was From, she explores the cultural, social, and economic histories of the state with her characteristic mix of brilliant synthetic summary and piercing detail, and gradually begins to incorporate her personal experience, seeking to understand not just a set of historical phenomena, but her own identity as well. It is thrilling.

There are so many moments and passages I could single out for their clarity of thought and elegance of expression, but as a would-be writer myself, I’ve got to call out Didion’s perfect and insane decision to devote a chapter of this book to a critical analysis of her first published novel, Run, River (1963), which Didion wrote about her home and family in California while she was homesick living in New York as a young woman. First, who does that? Second, her critique is remarkably clear-eyed and unsparing, considering her close connection to her topic. But more, the move is a dramatization of the fact that while we may tell ourselves stories in order to live (to quote Didion herself), the stories of ourselves we tell ourselves ain’t always quite correct. As a result, it’s sometimes necessary to look back at those stories and, if not revise them, have a look at why they made sense at the time, and how their usefulness has failed to endure. This is a great insight on Didion’s part, and it dovetails beautifully with her thinking about California. Is there any other place in the world where the actual and the imagined are so indistinguishable? Maybe one moral of this book is that we are each sort of Californias unto ourselves.

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My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (2011)

img_2419I just started reading the second of Ferrante’s four “Neapolitan Novels,” so I should say a few words about this first one before my memories of it fade. All the NYRB types freaked out so hard about these books that I figured I’d give them a whirl, and I enjoyed this first one very much, though I guess I don’t see quite what all the fuss is about. Well, I take that back, I think that the rationale for the fuss is that there’s so little fussiness in Ferrante’s style. We have here an exceedingly rare thing, a contemporary novel with a near-religious respect for realism and simplicity, without a formalist or stylistic flourish in sight. There’s a moment, about two-thirds through, where the narrator Elena is talking about the prose style of a letter from her friend Lila, and she goes on, quite movingly, about Lila’s pellucid prose, and then you suddenly realize that its Elena’s own pellucid prose that you’re reading, or rather Ferrante’s, and that right there is really the most engaging drama of this text, the drama of experience clearly expressed. Nothing particularly fascinating happens to either of the two main characters Elena and Lila. They’re bright aspirational girls bound by socio-economic situation designed to keep them stupid and stationary. Promises of escape come in many forms — industriousness, education, marriage, sin, social climbing — but the implicit message of Ferrante’s simple and elegant style is that being able to see, understand, and express your situation and your self clearly is probably at once the most viable and most powerful means of transcendence available. Sure, I’ll buy that, and so I bought the next three volumes and I look forward to them.

I’m getting ready to teach my “Uses of History” class this fall, where we read literary works which incorporate or respond to historical events, so that’s on my mind as I read anything and everything these days, and I’ll say I’m a little disappointed by Ferrante’s superficial engagement the historical circumstances of her characters. We get some small allusions and references, but surely the political and economic confusion and energy of postwar Italy could seep into the narrative a bit more.

There’s a nice big rabbit hole of reality v. representation to go down with these books, if you’re into that sort of thing, thanks to the fact that the author writes under the pseudonym Elena Ferrante and has not made her (or, unlikely but possible, his) identity known. So you have a budding writer (Elena Greco) for a narrator, and the author (Elena Ferrante) is herself a character, and one of the main dramas of the story is that Elena Greco deeply suspects that her friend Lila, who’s abandoned her education in favor of marriage, is actually the better writer. Is this an autobiographical novel or an entirely fictional one? We don’t know. So who is the titular brilliant friend? The author’s friend Elena Ferrante, the persona in which she writes brilliantly? The author’s “friend,” her brilliant character and perhaps avatar Elena Greco? Lila, Elena Greco’s brilliant friend of whom she is so jealous? In a lovely twist, we find out late in this book that the phrase originates with Lila to describe her Elena. Fun to think about — I’ll be interested to see how these dynamics play out in the other books.

 

Edit 7/28/16: Having surveyed the entirety of this large canvas, I come away not thrilled or delighted or amazed, but mighty satisfied and faintly suspicious. I’ll explain. Mighty satisfied because it’s a great story, lucidly told, with ample subtle psychological insights and a pleasingly comprehensive and rich sense of a great many characters’ lives. A little suspicious because I still can’t quite tell if there’s more to it than that. You could very nearly head off into a reading where you stipulate that Lila never existed except as a projection of Lenu’s anxieties (about her intellect, her past, her family, her choices), and then find yourself bound to acknowledge that wait, Lenu doesn’t exist either, she’s a character in a book, and then . . . I get about that far, and I don’t know that it’s worth pursuing, or right to pursue, but somehow I feel there may be a there there, in this novel about a novelist. Luckily it’s not my job to say anything smart here; if it were I’d be anxious myself. What I can dumbly testify is that I was wholly engaged through all 1500 odd pages of this series and wish it hadn’t ended.

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Be Safe I Love You, Cara Hoffman (2014)

18143785I stumbled across this and it sounded in theory like something I’d be very interested in: a novel about a soldier coming back from Iraq with undiagnosed PTSD (a subject I’ve been researching and reading about for years now as I struggle with my own work on a similar subject), and even better, the solider is a woman (as is the author, obviously), and that’s a demographic that’s badly underrepresented in literature. In my “Uses of History” class, during the unit on war’s continuing effects on returned soldiers, I always teach Sigrid Nunez’s great For Rouenna; it’s one of the very few novels I know of that takes up the lingering effects of war on  women who’ve served. Even more, reviews of Hoffman’s novel promised that she also incorporated the realities of class in Be Safe I Love You; the returned soldier, Lauren Clay, enlisted out of a sense of economic responsibility to her family. This too is an aspect too often missing from contemporary war literature and film. I’ve looked at a lot of novels, stories, plays, journalism, documentary films, and fictional films about soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan; not many focus on veterans’ economic realities.

So this was ticking a lot of boxes for me before I even started it, and I was anxious I’d be disappointed because I tend toward disappointment. The novel begins slowly, and drags a bit as Hoffman somewhat methodically gets all her characters and settings into position for the first 150 pages or so, but the second half of the book really pays off. Lauren Clay is the most reliable and self-sufficient person in town, and everyone — her family and friends — has come to rely on her and take her steadiness for granted. When the damage done to her in war begins to seep through her facade of competency, it’s terrifying for those who love her, and you feel it too.

Deceptively simple book. Hoffmans wears her politics and knowledge very lightly. The Joan of Arc oilfield. The ghost dog Sebastian. Lots of small touches.

I find the marketing for this book interesting. The intertwined hands on the cover, and the treacly title . . . what’s that about?

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The Loser, Thomas Bernhard (1983)

tumblr_mjhy1h8PM71qbrvi3o1_500I am not usually given to artist-groupie activities. I spent a year in Paris and felt no need to seek out Baudelaire’s grave; I took the tour of Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst and found it nearly as boring as church. But when I went to Vienna some years ago, I did visit the Bräunerhof cafe frequented by Thomas Bernhard, and I did sit there for an hour with a coffee and Linzer torte, thinking about him, and about the European culture that made him possible and disgusted him for having done so. There was a time when I would have called him my favorite writer.

I read The Loser once before, a long time ago, but all the recent news from Europe made me curious to look back into him, or through him. I can’t quite say why. He functioned for me, in my yoot, as an emblem of  of a type of European-ness, unfathomably cultured and decadently cynical, or the other way around, which I both envied and deplored. (Like almost all young people, I was ignorant of history and scattershot in my education; only years later would I discover Robert Musil, and realize that Bernhard hadn’t come from nowhere, as I’d imagined.) Since I last read The Loser, the Berlin Wall has fallen, the Eurozone came into being, and a Moroccan-born Muslim was appointed mayor of Rotterdam. My imaginary Europe has changed. The experiment was to re-read The Loser while thinking about Syria.

It was either a useless experiment or one whose value has yet to reveal itself. Bernhard’s masochistic attack on mediocrity (his own, and everyone else’s) is even more relentless and tuneless than I remembered. I once found the relentlessness exciting and the tunelessness edifying; this month the book’s seemed to me absurd and dull. I can feel that it’s too soon to be writing this note, that my thoughts haven’t jelled, but I’m doing it anyway, because I want to be done with it.

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My Struggle: Book 1, Karl Ove Knausgaard (2009)

my struggle“How important can it be that I suffer and think? My presence in this world will disturb a few tranquil lives and will unsettle the unconscious and pleasant naiveté of others. Although I feel that my tragedy is the greatest in history—greater than the fall of empires—I am nevertheless aware of my total insignificance. I am absolutely persuaded that I am nothing in this universe; yet I feel that mine is the only real existence.” — E. M. Cioran, On the Heights of Despair

I was wary about this enormous Knausgaard thing when everyone started talking about it, as I’m always wary when everyone starts talking about something, but then I read this article, which I thought was really beautifully written, and I thought, yes, I need to give the book a try. I’m giving up after about 250 pages, which means I’ve read only 7% or so of Min Kamp‘s total tonnage. I’ve read the reviews about the book’s genius lying in its relentless commitment to evacuating artifice from the recounting of experience; I am called upon to appreciate its indifference to being appreciated. This seems to me a rather monumental example of the imitative fallacy, and I don’t think I’ll need to read 3,600 pages of it in order to understand that, any more than I need to take an hour to admire the brush strokes on a Warhol soup can canvas. Like Kenneth Goldsmith’s Daythe Knaussgard book makes me feel like if I were actually to read it, I’d be some kind of sucker. Goldsmith professed his intention to “cleanse myself of all creativity” through the writing of Day; Knausgaard ends the six-volume My Struggle  with a similar sentiment: “I am happy because I am no longer an author.”

Was he ever? If My Struggle is not just a conceptual work to be regarded rather than actually read, if it really is a novel written by an author to be read and experienced as art, then it is awful. I’m reminded of the ways that Boyhood bored and annoyed me. Like Cioran says, every ordinary human’s struggle seems imponderably significant to herself or himself. That’s natural enough. But to assert that struggle is relevant to others is adolescent narcissism, nothing more. I here expose myself to the charge that no life is ordinary, that we all of us contain inexhaustible galaxies of thoughts, sensations, ambitions, impressions, emotions, opinions, disappointments, passions. Fair enough, and a lovely thought.  I suppose it follows then that being trapped with any random human in an elevator for a month would be an inexhaustibly fascinating experience. Enjoy that. I’ll take the stairs.

And finally: There is something very male about both this book and its reception. It seems to me undeniable that My Struggle‘s success would have been impossible if it were not drawing on the mythic notion of the heroic male novelist. In other words, if a woman had tried to do something like this, no one would have paid a lick of attention to it, or if they did, they would be much quicker to call it what it is: monumentally narcissistic and dull.

 

 

 

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Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, Sally Mann (2015)

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I’ve been ambivalent about Sally Mann’s work for a long time — to put it kindly — and probably wouldn’t have read this if Wendy hadn’t gotten it for me for Christmas, but I’m really glad she did because I really enjoyed it. This is not to say that I’m any more enthusiastic about the work than I was, though. In fact, I’m probably less interested in the art than I was before, which was not much, but I’m a lot more interested in the artist.

I never had trouble with Mann for the reasons others did; the idea that she’s a child pornographer is ludicrous. I always thought she was more of a class pornographer, race pornographer, and history pornographer. The feral children eating homegrown food from roughhewn bowls and playing in the mud by the river seem to argue for the beauty and purity of an Appalachian noble savage existence, but always reminded me that those must be some pretty rich white kids to be getting their picture took with an 8×10 view camera, and that a lot of Appalachian kids are running around with no clothes not because of their parents’ theories on parenting but because they don’t have any fucking clothes.

Mann marches right into The Help territory in her memoir when it comes to her point of view on her race privilege:

“Down here, you can’t throw a dead cat without hitting an older, well-off white person raised by a black woman, and every damn one of them will earnestly insist that a reciprocal and equal form of love was exchanged between them … Cat-whacked and earnest, I am one of those who insist that such a relationship existed for me. I loved Gee-Gee the way other people love their parents, and no matter how many historical demons stalked that relationship, I know that Gee-Gee loved me back.”

It’s interesting, I think, how her diction gets all gee-whiz vernacular and her syntax turns baroque here; it’s almost like she’s trying to not quite say what she’s saying. Further, almost funny, certainly sad, is Mann’s description of her current project, which consists of hiring black men as models and then taking their pictures. Such a project seems unlikely to cause Mann or anyone else to learn much new about power dynamics between blacks and whites. Now, if she paid black photographers to take her picture, that I might be interested in.

Then there’s history. I’m sorry, I know this is an insane thing to say, but anyone that makes a picture of anything with wet-plate collodion process, especially south of the Mason Dixon line, is playing on the viewer’s deep, semi- or unconscious attraction to nostalgia and historical amnesia. Any contemporary collodion photograph, in addition to whatever else it is saying, also says, “Don’t you long for the old days, when things were simpler and everyone knew their place?” Everything that Eggleston did to prove that the South exists in Kodachrome color, and contains automobiles and swimming pools and freeways, can be undone or at least undermined by a single sepia Mann landscape of a mournful live oak in its misty shrouds of Spanish moss.

So I don’t seem to be such a Mann fan; why did I enjoy the book? I had no idea what a character she is! And it’s a lot of fun finding out. I’m almost sure I’d find her immensely irritating close up — she’s self-absorbed, histrionic, and touchy, the kind of person who would cause you pain and find a way to make it your fault rather than hers — but she’s fascinating to observe from a distance. Smart as hell, full of feeling, with deep gusto for a good story, and such a huge and powerful sense of ambition that I can’t help but feel awed by it. No matter how you feel about the pictures, you’ll find this an irresistibly weird and engaging memoir.

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Just Kids, Patti Smith (2010)

8b1087fc_9780060936228_custom-a17e6811a0d8658b75998dc86873b2a4b060d9f2-s6-c30-1.xxxlarge_2xPatti Smith offers a self-portrait of the artist as a young woman, and the story of her famous friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, with appealing simplicity and humility. It’s always been what’s vexed and excited people about her, I think–the contrast between the primal wildness and impiety of Smith’s art and the sober, earnest, humble artist behind it. And then of course Mapplethorpe, whose work was so violently and willfully misunderstood and misrepresented that it may never recover and be seen for what it actually is.

Smith’s prose style is almost naive in its simplicity; she reports on the mad rituals of the 70’s downtown tribe without a trace of sensationalism. Not that the book’s a dispassionate ethnography, though–there’s not much reflection or analysis at all. It sounds more like Smith was a stranger in that strange land, just trying to survive and do her art. It mattered to Robert to see and be seen. To put it mildly. But not Smith; she was happy to have a job at a bookstore, a donut for breakfast, and paper to write or draw on.

If the book’s account and tone are to be trusted, it seems pretty bizarre that these two kids managed to accomplish what they did. It helped, of course, that they had no student loans and monthly rent bills in the low three digits. These days, a jejune poète maudit wanna-be with no money, no degree, no connections, no safety net, and vague artistic goals would last about ten minutes in New York before she was forced to move back to Jersey. Five.

It’s a lovely, sweet book, but weird too. I sometimes got a little frustrated with Smith’s decorousness and discretion, her refusal (or inability) to convey, or even much acknowledge, the enormously chaotic character of the historical moment she’s writing about. But that’s also what makes the story so sweet. It’s not a cultural history of 70’s NYC. It’s just kids.

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C. D. Wright (1949-2016)

There’s no contemporary poet I’ve read as deeply or written about as much as much as C. D. Wright, who died this week, unexpectedly, at her home in Rhode Island. I admired her so much, for so many reasons. Most of all I admired her faith. She had as much faith in poetry as I’ve always wanted to have but have never quite been able to muster.

Deepstep Come Shining and One Big Self are the major works for me. Partially, no doubt, because those were the ones I came across first, and at a time when my sense of what poetry was, and what it’s for, was changing rapidly. I remember reading Deepstep for the first time and just laughing out loud at the audacity of it. You can just riff like that, just drive around and say what you see, love what you say, say what you love, and see what you say? My deeply internalized belief in poetry as first and foremost a form of rhetoric dissolved in the acids and syrups of those lines, which seemed genial and occult at the same time.

And then One Big Self. Here was the same technique — notice, speak, circle back, connect, repeat — but deployed in public rather than private, in a real prison occupied by others rather than the self-occupied imagination of the poet. I didn’t think you could do that. I’m actually still not sure you can, or should. (See elsewhere in today’s Times for an analogy.) But she just did it. That’s the faith I’m talking about. Doing it anyway, not because you trust yourself, but because you trust poetry.

I’ll never trust it as much as she did, but she helped me begin to persuade myself that believing in the stuff didn’t necessarily make me a sucker. I’ve never been the same, and I’ll always be grateful.