Octavia E. Butler, Kindred

KindredKindred by Octavia E. Butler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This 1979 classic novel of time travel and slavery could not be published today.

Imagine it, imagine Octavia Butler temporally jumped to the present and trying to put out Kindred in the current media climate. Assume, because it’s so good, that the novel even finds an agent and a publisher. Then a science fiction press, banking on an excited reception for this relevant, suspenseful, original, and provocative narrative, releases advanced copies to online reviewers. Perhaps the publisher advertises the novel’s plot teasingly, but a bit vaguely: “A modern African-American woman involuntarily travels back in time to the early 19th century, where she has to live among her enslaved ancestors.”

But the advanced readers begin to leak the novel’s true premise on Goodreads and Twitter. Kindred is really about a modern African-American woman forced to travel back in time to save the life of the white man who enslaved her ancestors. What’s more, she also has to ensure that he rapes one of those ancestors over and over again, because if she doesn’t, she herself will not in the course of time be born from the lineage founded by that assault.

The heroine, furthermore, is married in the narrative present to a white man, and is clearly and avowedly motivated by an obscure attraction, at once maternal and sororal, to the white rapist and slave-owner who will become her distant grandfather. Their fatal dance is the novel’s emotional core, even as the other black characters, all enslaved on the man’s plantation, accuse her of collaboration with white power, an accusation she often finds difficult to deny.

The reaction would be swift and shocking. Before anyone but a handful of self-appointed guardians of literary safety had even read the manuscript, Butler would find herself accused of promoting “tropes”—the acquiescent slave, the violated woman who secretly desires her abuse, etc.—whose mere presence in a work, no matter how ironized or contextualized or ramified, have the power to “harm” the audience through some unspecified mechanism formerly known only to fundamentalist preachers in the Satanic-Panic 1980s.

To attempt to defend Butler would necessarily be to perpetuate this tropological harm. To attempt to remind her attackers that their attitude toward the arts is not socially just, as it descends directly from the ideologies legitimating Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, to say nothing of Winthrop’s Boston; to attempt to inform them that their censorious quest is also not resistant to white-male authority (as they will claim it is) since its premises come more or less straight from several grand old men of the European canon, such as Plato, Rousseau, Hegel, and Tolstoy—all of this would take too long for Twitter.

Considering these obstacles, most influential writers and critics would only privately express their discontent as they do nothing to defend their beleaguered colleague in public, while a few bestselling authors and celebrities will even opportunistically amplify the inevitable hashtag campaign: #kancelkindred.

A cringing, scraping, self-humiliating apology, a promise to “listen better” and “do better,” would be demanded of the author. Her publisher, convinced that 20 self-selected tribunes of the oppressed on social media represent some massive groundswell or any genuine constituency at all, would indeed and inevitably #cancel publication of this great novel. Its author, now construed as a sad victim of internalized racism and sexism and certainly not a responsible purveyor of true and positive representations to the polis, would be sent back to clerical work or manual labor.

And the world of literature would be the poorer, because Kindred is as superb as it is disturbing. Butler’s science-fictional rewriting of the classic slave narrative from the viewpoint of a contemporary black woman allows her to question every bit of received wisdom we have on the topics of progress and modernity, of race, gender, and class.

The plot, alluded to above, is as follows. A California writer named Dana has just moved to a new house with her husband Kevin, a white man who is also a writer, albeit older and more established. One day, Dana finds herself mysteriously transported back to the early 19th century to save a drowning white boy, Rufus Weylin. Over the course of about a month in the summer of 1976, Dana—sometimes accompanied by Kevin—is summoned back five times to save Rufus’s life. While with each trip she is only gone from the present for seconds, minutes, or hours, she spends months at a time over a two-decade period in the early 19th century.

Gradually, she grows accustomed to the life-rhythms of the Weylin plantation and begins to grapple with the quotidian ethical complexities of slavery, its way of corrupting everyone it touches, from Rufus Weylin himself, a white man of some moral promise who debases himself as a rapist and human trafficker because his society enables him to do so, to the more privileged among the enslaved, who themselves uphold the system, often by harshly ruling over those lower than themselves in the hierarchy.

Butler deglamorizes the past, giving us not a splendid plantation, not moonlight and magnolias, but a squalid semi-mansion run by whites who are themselves barely literate. As we might expect of a writer devoted to science fiction, she emphasizes the past’s material and technological deprivation, its bodily reek and lethally primitive medicine.

Critics who read the time-travel trope through Toni Morrison’s Gothic lens of slavery haunting the present (as in Beloved) might think Kindred argues that life has changed little between the antebellum period and now. And the novel does make such thematic gestures, most notably through its frequent doublings of Dana’s present-day white husband, Kevin, with the slaveholding white male characters in the past setting, as if to suggest that certain psychosexual patterns of attraction and repulsion between white men and black women were perennial and inevitable:

I scrambled away, kicking [the slave patroller], clawing the hands that reached out for me, trying to bite, lunging up toward his eyes. I could do it now. I could do anything.


I froze. My name? No patroller would know that.

“Dana, look at me for Godsake!”

Kevin! It was Kevin’s voice! I stared upward, managed to focus on him clearly at last. I was at home. I was lying on my own bed, bloody and dirty, but safe. Safe!

Kevin lay half on top of me, holding me, smearing himself with my blood and his own. I could see where I had scratched his face—so near the eye.

“Kevin, I’m sorry!”

“Are you all right now?”

“Yes. I thought. . . I thought you were the patroller.” (Butler’s ellipses)

Butler’s numerology also references the Faulknerian theme of the past’s not being past. Dana’s penultimate trip to the 1800s, which she thinks will be her last, ends on June 18—on the eve, that is, of Juneteenth. But this emancipation proves to be short-lived when she is called back a final time on July 4, 1976, not only Independence Day, but the U.S. Bicentennial. These dates emphasize the fragility, impermanence, and incompleteness of African-American freedom when considered in the light of slavery’s legacy.

But Butler’s focus is psychosexual more than it is political. It is about the dynamics of libidinal push and pull that ensue with the proximity of free white men and enslaved black women. (Black men and white women play little role in the novel: the former suffer nobly on the sidelines of the action, while the latter are portrayed as one-dimensionally, if bathetically, villainous.) Kindred hints that only partnership and collaboration between black women and white men can save the nation, despite the many pitfalls of their relation:

“But stay close to me. You got here because you were holding me. I’m afraid that may be the only way you can get home.”

Butler deals little with the economics of enslavement, and is if anything anxious to emphasize the distance between contemporary capitalist arrangements and slavery, a message I assume she derives from Douglass and Jacobs’s 19th-century narratives, both of which argue for the moral and practical superiority of wage labor:

I was working out of a casual labor agency—we regulars called it a slave market. Actually, it was just the opposite of slavery. The people who ran it couldn’t have cared less whether or not you showed up to do the work they offered. They always had more job hunters than jobs anyway.

If Dana’s and Kevin’s recourse to low-level, low-wage labor to support their writing careers is sometimes enervating, it is at least a choice they make, a practice of freedom that may be circumscribed by economic necessity but is at least not forced upon them as chattel. Both the white man and the black woman are subjected to it equally, even if Butler hints at prevailing racial and sexual inequalities in Kevin’s greater success as a writer.

Butler’s interest is less in freedom, in triumphant individualism, than in survival. Among the classic science-fiction texts she revises is Robert A. Heinlein’s “‘—All You Zombies—,'” a time-travel paradox tale whose protagonist is his own father and mother. While Heinlein suggests the loneliness and solipsism of such white self-making, Butler adds the moral twist that a black person descended from the enslaved who wished to be the true author of her own life would have to ratify what was done to her ancestors.

Butler was famously inspired to write the book upon hearing a black student say that he would have violently rebelled had he been enslaved. In Butler’s view, this is misguided, not only because—as The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go also insist—the vast majority of people are not heroic revolutionaries, but also because the mere act of survival under any system of oppression is morally compromising. Dana’s reflection on Sarah, an enslaved who has carved out a space of freedom and authority on Weylin’s plantation and who finds many abolitionist ideas incomprehensible, makes this point:

She had done the safe thing—had accepted a life of slavery because she was afraid. She was the kind of woman who might have been called “mammy” in some other household. She was the kind of woman who would be held in contempt during the militant nineteen sixties. […] I looked down on her myself for a while. Moral superiority. Here was someone even less courageous than I was. That comforted me somehow.

Dana can hardly afford moral superiority, however. As she understands early in the novel, Rufus is her distant ancestor, and her mission is not only to save his life, but to ensure that he sexually coerces Alice, an enslaved woman with whom he is obsessed. If he does not do so, then, in a time-travel paradox, Dana will not have been born and will thus cease to exist.

We can detect Butler’s overall philosophy in the fact that Dana never seriously considers sacrificing her own existence so as not to participate in such a moral atrocity. Apparently, we are all driven by a ruthless will to persist, at anyone’s expense. Dana’s awareness of this potential within herself makes her, as well as her husband, “kindred” to the men who survived on the stolen labor of her ancestors—she, no less than whites, is heir to the crime.

The novel bleakly intimates that we all exist, insofar as we do exist, by consuming the lives of other people. Kindred, then, can be added to my little canon of tragic-nihilistic American novels that find in the brutal inequalities of race, gender, class, and sexuality not occasions for moral regeneration à la Harriet Beecher Stowe or James Baldwin or the Twitterati, but rather evidence of evil’s omnipresence and redemption’s absence: Quicksand, Nightwood, Sula, Corregidora.

Finally, Kindred may subtract the putative glamor of the past, but its very filth and danger become a perverse attraction, as Dana reflects:

I felt as though I were losing my place here in my own time. Rufus’s time was a sharper, stronger reality. The work was harder, the smells and tastes were stronger, the danger was greater, the pain was worse . . . Rufus’s time demanded things of me that had never been demanded before, and it could easily kill me if I did not meet its demands. That was a stark, powerful reality that the gentle conveniences and luxuries of this house, of now, could not touch. (Butler’s ellipses)

If inequality persists it in the present, it often does so impersonally, through the practices of institutions for which no one person can be held responsible. In the antebellum south, on the other hand, the forces that victimize Dana require her to rise to their occasion and even provide a physical target for her wrath or revenge. Such a nostalgia for a past that was more brutal but more alive is, I believe, the hidden motivation for the troubling phenomenon of the hate-crime hoax, lately in the news: like Dana, the hoaxers may wish that the real hate to which they feel themselves subject could be a nameable actor in their own lives rather than an effect of abstract social and political arrangements.

I began this review with an imagined illegitimate complaint about Kindred: that its ruthlessness and amorality of vision would render it unfit for the politically-conscious reader. I want to end with a legitimate criticism of the novel I’ve encountered. I have known some readers, usually academics, who picked up Kindred because they heard it discussed in the context of literary science fiction or great novels about slavery; and they put it down disappointed not by its themes but by its style. They thought Butler would be a writer like Ursula K. Le Guin or Toni Morrison, but she has nothing akin to their dense literariness, their investment in style and psyche. She wrote books for mass-market genre publication; in consequence, her prose is expertly engineered for clarity and suspense, while her characters exist to carry out the plot rather than being case studies in modernist depth psychology.

While I disagree with the poptimist argument that literary fiction’s stylization is just a pretentious status signifier—for reasons best explained by the Victor Shklovsky passage quoted in my review of Milkman—I will nevertheless defend Butler’s superficial simplicity of composition. By carefully rendering language transparent rather than opaque, she compels our attention to the novel’s animating dilemma. As in Dostoevsky or, closer to home, Philip K. Dick, the novel becomes an experiment in philosophy rather than an art object.

Admittedly, as a partisan of literary fiction, I would have preferred fewer conversations about the whys and wherefores of time travel; it’s not as if the Samsas dwell at any length on the pragmatics of Gregor’s metamorphosis. But when popular fiction is written with the emotional intensity and theoretical verve of Butler’s—and she is certainly better than Dick, in my view—it is as valid a way to write a novel as is Morrison’s or Le Guin’s comparative aestheticism.

In sum, all you should #cancel are your immediate plans to read anything but this most viscerally dispiriting and intelligently alarming of novels.


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Jason Lutes, Berlin

BerlinBerlin by Jason Lutes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For readers and writers of contemporary fiction, history can play the role that myth once did. Just as Sophocles’s audience relished the dramatic irony created by their foreknowledge of Oedipus’s fate, we can read about the everyday lives of Berliners in the Weimar Republic with poignant dread over what we—but not they—know to be their grim destiny. And like the theatergoers of antiquity, we gather around the more-than-twice-told tales less to be merely entertained than to reaffirm our communal convictions, pledge again our piety to our gods. Or else why tell the familiar tale yet again?

So it is with Jason Lutes’s titanic graphic novel Berlin, over 20 years in the making, a book about the private lives of Berliners, some fictional and some historical, in the last days of Weimar. Again we watch a republic with an independent civil society collapse into warring factions of extremists, the worst of whom will seize the state and take total command of the citizens; again we see pluralism in all its manifestations—artistic, religious, and sexual—fall before the fists and guns of absolutism. The Jews and the queers are persecuted all over again, and again the liberal intellectual, with the exquisite pangs of his involuted conscience, is helpless to arrest the destruction of liberalism.

The particulars of Lutes’s story are perhaps less important than these archetypes that it mobilizes, but in any case Berlin charts four years in the lives of middle-aged journalist Kurt Severing and a young aspiring artist named Marthe Müller. While the two are lovers off and on, we follow their separate paths through the collapsing city. Kurt is a mostly unaffiliated leftist and pacifist skeptical about communist sectarianism and violence and hopeful that words can change the world:

I imagine the daily output of the entire newspaper district. It makes me think of drowning, but I want to be able to see it another way. Instead: human history as a great river, finding its course along the lowest points in the landscape, and each page as a stone. Tossed in without purpose, just to see the splash, thousands of them might raise the water level until it escapes the confines of the riverbed. The water spreads out, the force of the river diminishes; before long, a marsh. But if each stone is placed carefully and with purpose, perhaps something can be built. Not to dam the current, but to divert its course. Berlin was built on a marsh. I hope it will add up to more than a pile of stones.

The travails of his journalistic colleagues index the decline of civil freedom in Germany; he himself increasingly withdraws from reality, since the time for words has come and gone and the political situation will be decided by force alone. What roll does a pacifist writer have to play in such a scenario?

Marthe meanwhile enters and then leaves art school and has an intermittent affair not only with Kurt but with her queer colleague Anne. Anna introduces her to Berlin’s famous sexual demimonde, as made famous by Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, and through her eyes we behold the fascist crackdown on the Weimar Republic’s notable sexual libertarianism.

Meanwhile, we are treated to debates about the artistic avant-gardes of the period, from Expressionism to New Objectivity, even as the narrative overall, and the precise drawings through which we receive it, sides with Marthe’s preference for realism over conceptualism and observation over theory. (I tend to think that behind this motif we can perceive the longstanding feud between comics creators and the art world, between the penurious devotees of painstaking panel-craft and the Lichensteins of the world who would appropriate their work for the museum walls and in the process reap all the spiritual and tangible rewards of the vaunted “artist.”)

Subplots abound: Lutes claims influence not only from the expected Döblin and Isherwood, but also from Wim Wender’s choral film, Wings of Desire, which flits in and out of the inner lives of Berliners with empathetic abandon as it discloses the sorrows and glories of the city after its postwar division. Berlin shows us a well-to-do Jewish family divided between the understandably conservative impulses of the father and equally understandable rebelliousness of the son; and it shows us a poor family divided by ideology, as mother and father, brother and sister, square off against one another as Nazis and communists. A band of touring African-American musicians adds the jazz to this Jazz-Age tale, though we might wonder whether their status as comic relief and their slightly unrealistic heist capers don’t reinforce a stereotype rather than adding depth.

In any case, Wim Wenders had his magical-realist angels overseeing the city and his Homeric bard wandering the Potsdamer Platz, while Lutes’s book, eschewing magic, is labelled “HISTORY” on the back cover.

Lutes has also cited Tintin creator Hergé as an influence: unsurprisingly, then, he communicates his complex narrative in a shadow-modified clear-line drawing style, even a cursory glance at which suggests precision and neatness, order and refinement. His storytelling is also clean, with panels in irregular but immediately legible grids and an alternation between establishing shots of Berlin sites and closer portrayals of his characters’ dramas. There are no explosive or delirious layouts or disorienting compositions—they would be too reminiscent of superhero or manga sensationalism, too little to the purpose of convincingly capturing history.

berlinLutes at his most daring fades out his images as his viewpoint character dies, or truncates the image as another viewpoint character is suddenly killed; he also has a tendency to resort to Hitchcockian angles in moments of crisis. There are a handful of other fascinating visual conceits, but they aren’t followed up or deployed consistently. (My favorite occurs when Lutes replaces the typewriter-clacking sound effect with words themselves, hovering in typeface over a street whose residents are mostly writers.) Otherwise, Berlin has a deliberately meticulous and minimalist style that does not call attention to itself at the expense of the subject matter.

And with that observation, we come to a possible problem: such an abandonment of style is very un-Weimar. I was startled (not in a good way) when Lutes recreates some images by George Grosz; it reminded me that there are no images so arresting in Lutes’s own style. Never mind Grosz: where is Wenders’s visual lyricism or Döblin’s spates and torrents of vernacular language? Where is the passion of the Expressionist and proto-graphic-novelist Frans Masereel, alluded to early in Berlin and then never revisited?

Lutes is closer to Isherwood’s “I am a camera” style, but then the Tintin-esque cartoonishness of his character-drawing is not exactly documentary either. There is a mismatch here between style and substance, between form and content, and it makes me question the critical claims that Berlin is “a watershed achievement” (to quote the back cover blurb).

This misfit of art and idea afflicts the story as well. Just as Lutes’s drawing style can’t accommodate Weimar’s modernist extremes, his narrative can’t make up its mind about political extremism. Communism is depicted with a mix of wariness and patronizing fondness, and while Levering’s anguished liberalism is challenged, it is still the dominant note of the novel. I am hardly saying that Lutes should embrace communism—I grant his ideological premise of a lament over extremism as such, even if it portrays the far right as much worse than the far left. But like his protagonist, Lutes never commits even to this and seems to have it both ways, giving us communists as heroes and villains, cynical manipulators and admirable freedom fighters, in different moments of the narrative, which creates a sense of authorial aloofness, even condescension.

The sexual politics of Berlin are much the same. Marthe at first embraces and then rejects queerness, and it is hard to know whether or not we should assent to her abandonment of her queer lover, Anna. By the way, Anna herself is portrayed earlier in the novel as a butch lesbian and later as a transgender man; like Alison Bechdel’s remark that had she grown up 30 years later she might have understood herself as trans rather than gay, this suggests our own cultural shift in sexual thinking from the late 20th to the early 21st centuries. And I wonder if that is not a more interesting story to tell, one with less ready answers, than yet another liberal iteration of World War II mythology. Lutes for his part might well want to tell it; he states in a recent interview:

When you’re somebody who writes, or in the case of comics, writes and draws, the experiences of people, if I just wrote about my own experience it would just be another straight white guy’s experience and that, frankly, is the last thing I want to read anymore. I’m much more interested in the experiences of people other than my kind of person. […] But I’m not going to just write stories from my perspective because that’s a boring perspective.

This is supposed to be a broad-minded, enlightened attitude coming from a straight white man. But it is not. It’s the attitude of an aesthetic and intellectual tourist, enervated by postmodern living and in quest of other people’s greater presumed vitality. It is a hardly updated ideology of the noble savage, and there’s nothing persuasive or admirable about it.

Above all, though, Lutes’s attitude is a flawed one not from an ethical or political perspective but from an aesthetic one. There is no short cut to telling an interesting story. Queer artists, female artists, artists of color do not simply tell interesting stories by virtue of their identity, and it’s an insult to the great storytellers among them to suggest that they do. People who tell interesting stories, whatever their identities, do so because they are masters of their craft and because they are impassioned—not bored—artists.

You’re not boring because you’re straight, white, and male; you’re boring because you’re boring. And your book is often boring because you apply a staid style to subject matter that you presume is inherently interesting without always remembering to prove or earn its interest on the page.

So I find myself again in the uncomfortable position of dissenting from the press’s and academia’s consensus about what constitutes great comics. I see in Berlin—aside from its undeniable craft, polish, and good intentions—the creeping middlebrowization of an art form that gave us, for the better part of a century, and often on the same page, only garbage and grace.


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Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard

The LeopardThe Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Guiseppe di Lampedusa’s 1958 historical novel is best known for a line of dialogue that encapsulates its magnificent political cynicism: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” The line is spoken by Tancredi, an impoverished young aristocrat who joins the radical republican Garibaldi in his uprising against the Bourbon kings who ruled Sicily in the lead-up to the unification of Italy. But the novel is more concerned with the political aspect of Tancredi’s love life than with that of his battles: he marries Angelica, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy bourgeois family, thus wedding the economically declining aristocracy to the rising middle classes. This union obviates the revolutionary energies of the nineteenth century (represented by Garibaldi’s heroic liberalism) and carries on the rule of traditional elites under the cover of a new class: changing everything to keep everything the same. As another midcentury bard famously put it about a decade after the publication of The Leopard: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

The Leopard‘s political nihilism is embodied in the novel’s thick atmosphere of decadence and ironized nostalgia as it portrays its main character—not the rising youth Tancredi, but his aging uncle, Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, who is not literally the last of his aristocratic line, but who is the last avatar and exemplar of the true aristocratic spirit. (He is, via analogy to his family’s coat of arms, the titular leopard.) A wise and reserved patriarch, a distinguished astronomer in his spare time, Don Fabrizio stands for a way of life destined to be washed away by the waves of modernity breaking over even the hinterland of southern Italy: capitalism, nationalism, liberalism. Exponents of these ideologies may conserve power in the hands of elites, but the elites who manipulate them lack the graces and the traditions of the Salinas and their way of life. The novel opens with the Salinas at prayer, yet over their heads are frescoes featuring the Greco-Roman gods; Don Fabrizio is the heir to thousands of years of tradition, the beauty of which will be destroyed without the world’s actually becoming much more free or equal, despite advertisements to the contrary.

Lampedusa was himself the descendant of an aristocratic line, and The Leopard—his only novel, written in his 50s just before his death and not published in his lifetime—is based on his own family. This explains his nostalgia, which is severely qualified by irony (his knowledge, and Fabrizio’s, that the demise of the aristocracy was both inevitable and in a certain sense deserved) and by his decadence (his depiction of Sicilian life itself as arid, putrid, and stagnant, a condition due far more to natural than to political conditions—this is no doubt the basis of the novel’s bad repute among Marxist critics).

Perhaps The Leopard ought to be regarded as a postcolonial novel, fully as much as, say, Season of Migration to the North: it shares with other postcolonial novels an ambivalent perspective from forcibly modernized territory, a perspective that allows for both the benefits of the modern and their costs, especially when imposed coercively, as they usually are. Perhaps it is good that the modern world no longer has any place for such patriarchs as the Prince, living in splendid ceremony on the labors of others and dominating the women around him. Yet a whole way of life, an entire channel for the exploration of human potential, disappears with him, and this makes him a great subject for fiction.

(Aside: some reviewers have chided this novel for being sexist or misogynist; it is, but Lampedusa’s purpose is to capture in its entirety a world that is gone—one that was undeniably patriarchal, which Lampedusa never denies or excuses. I prefer this novel’s total commitment to its subject, however leavened by irony, to the merely snide progressive sarcasm of a Ragtime.)

At one point in the novel, a visitor from the north of Italy comes to offer Don Fabrizio a seat in the new Senate. The visitor is horrified by the supposed barbarism of the south—a stereotype Don Fabrizio amuses himself by playing up—and, as he leaves Sicily, he reflects that Sicilian society is a squalid totality, irrespective of its internal divisions:

And he found himself pitying this Prince without hopes as much as the children without shoes, the malaria-ridden women, the guilty victims whose names reaches his office every morning; all were equal, at bottom, all were comrades in misfortune segregated in the same well.

Just before this, Don Fabrizio had made a long speech to his visitor confirming this impression, chiding would-be modernizers for wanting “to canalize Sicily into the flow of universal history.”

The novel’s narrative mode is superficially old-fashioned; I saw a review that called The Leopard “the last nineteenth century novel.” Lampedusa uses an expansive omniscient third-person voice whose high perspective allows him a gentle irony at the expense of his more limited characters; it recalls the great realist and historical novelists, such as Scott, Balzac, Tolstoy, and Lampedusa’s own favorite, Stendhal. Such a narrative mode was almost invented (by Scott) to pay ironic tribute to ways of life vanquished by progress, and Lampedusa’s adoption of it—and the Prince’s suitedness to it, in his broad-minded wisdom—suggest that The Leopard overall does not fully endorse the Prince’s insistence that Sicily cannot change. But we should not neglect how Lampedusa revises this nineteenth-century progressive omniscience by adding to it a characteristically relativizing twentieth-century gesture: tearing a hole in the narrative fabric to allow a glimpse not only of the distant past (the gods on the ceiling, the immemorial Sicilian landscape), but also and more daringly of the far future. Recall that passage in Mrs. Dalloway that describes what will be known of the V.I.P. in the motorcar when “London is a grass-grown path,” an apocalyptic irruption of the future that García Márquez claimed as an influence on One Hundred Years of Solitude, which, like The Leopard, describes the stasis of a colonized society through a structure at once recursive and forward-thrusting, thus dynamically static. Lampedusa is not the innovator García Márquez was, but his muted use of the technique throughout the novel makes it something more than conservative in style:

From the ceiling the gods, reclining on gilded couches, gazed down smiling as inexorable as a summer sky. They thought themselves eternal; but a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was to prove the contrary in 1943.

Between the nineteenth century realist-historical novel and the twentieth-century postmodern postcolonial novel, a beautiful book between The Charterhouse of Parma and One Hundred Years of Solitude—that is The Leopard.

To conclude on the note of its beauty, The Leopard can be read for its stately, sportive, and sensuous prose alone. Lampedusa’s is a static, decadent portraiture that sometimes leaves behind the currents of the realist novel entirely and reminds one of Huysmans or Pater. There is, for instance, a long central passage where Tancredi and Angelica explore all the hidden recesses of the Salina estate at Donnafugata as their sexual relationship develops, until they penetrate to the very core, a secret chamber where the remains of a Sadean chamber of eighteenth-century sadomasochism seems to explain something of the family’s own decay:

So the pair of them spent those days in dreamy wanderings, in the discovery of hells redeemed by love, of forgotten paradises profaned by love itself.

The novel is persistent in its symbolism of death, creating a mood of decaying matter and vanishing power on every page. This miasma of death is both what threatens Don Fabrizio and what will redeem him. The novel, as suggested above, is radically anti-political. It implicitly argues that social change is illusory and power indivisible; it shows family as an economic encumbrance and sex and love as sensual distractions. Only the Don’s immersion in nature, whether hunting with his plain-spoken steward or working at his astronomical observations, is worthwhile, even though an immersion in nature is only an anticipation of death itself:

“The real problem is how to go on living this life of the spirit in its most sublimated moments, those moments that are most like death.”

Change/sameness, realism/postmodernism, tradition/modernity, love/death: these are the contradictions between which the massive hero, and his grand novel, are stretched to create the tension, the vibration, the motion within stasis, of great art.


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Charles Johnson, Middle Passage

Middle PassageMiddle Passage by Charles Johnson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Middle Passage begins with an audacious sentence, “Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women,” which announces its audacious conceit: published just four years after Beloved‘s solemn Freudian-Faulknerian modernism arrogated slavery to the poetics of trauma and the incommunicable, Johnson’s novel recasts the slave narrative in the style of the fictional forms that Europeans were writing at the time of slavery. Middle Passage is a picaresque, a maritime romance, an allegory, a mock-epic, and a conte philosophique; high-spirited and satirical, it calls not upon Freud and Faulkner but upon Voltaire and Swift (and Melville and Twain). This should not be as surprising as those of us reared on Morrison and her somber exegetes might find it: don’t Equiano and Douglass represent themselves in their narratives less as mutely traumatized analysands than as heroes of reason and democracy, boldly seeking freedom?

Johnson, like his forebears in Enlightenment skepticism and Romantic irony, is what we, with our limited grasp of literary history, would call a postmodern metafictionist: he both tells a historical tale and consistently alerts the reader to the tale’s fictionality and historicity. He seduces the reader with all manner of adventure, from shipwreck to marriage plot, even as he comments on his literary precursors.

Here is the tale: the year is 1830 and Rutherford Calhoun is a young manumitted slave from Illinois whose conscience-stricken master educated him mightily, teaching him about “Neoplatonism, the evils of nominalism, the genius of Aquinas, and the work of such seers as Jakob Böhme,” so as to make him “a Negro preacher, perhaps even a black saint.” But Calhoun—shaped by a rivalry with his pious brother—wants no part of sainthood and flees upon being freed to the humid pleasures of New Orleans (“a great whore of a city in her glory”) to support himself as a petty thief. He eventually becomes caught up in a relationship with a respectable woman who threatens to “sivilize” him (I quote Huckleberry Finn—the boyish opposition to female society is the same in both novels, though not ultimately valorized in Johnson’s) and goes to extraordinary lengths to get him the altar—to wit, she has him threatened by the Creole gangster Papa Zeringue. So Calhoun takes to to the sea, stowing away on the semi-ironically named Republic, an illegal slaver under the command of Captain Falcon—a man who represents the best and worst of America, its endless willful individualist determination that respects no traditions and its consequent neglect of or violence toward other persons who would get in the way of the expansive self. (Falcon is both Ahab and Emerson—Calhoun observes that he has titled a set of written exercises “Self-Reliance.”) Falcon’s mission is to enslave for his investors the fictional Allmuseri people, “a whole tribe…of devil-worshipping, spell-casting wizards,” in one character’s description—they are an pre-modern/post-modern anti-civilization of exemplary non-essentialists, half-Buddhist, half-pre-Socratic, an “Ur-people” who have traveled the world bringing their wisdom to Mexico and India, but now subject to the merely material power of the dualistic white man and his brute mechanical anti-magic. But Falcon is not only after the people; he is also after their god, a frightening all-deity unlike monotheism’s benign father, a divinity that encompasses or perhaps is the whole universe. Eventually, the Allmuseri are captured and then they rebel in turn, commandeering the Republic and inverting its moral universe as they attempt to return to Africa. The second half of the novel narrates how Calhoun survives these calamities at sea and what he learns from the moral quandaries they raise.

As noted above, Middle Passage wears any number of influences on its sleeve, but its presiding author-deities are Melville and Ellison. Like them, Johnson gives his narrator a distinctively American style that delights in the mix of registers, “blending the languages of house and field, street and seminary.” Moby-Dick is present in Johnson’s speech-making mad captain with his metaphysical quarry (the whale for Ahab, the Allmuseri god for Falcon). But, if I were given to writing in glib blurb-speak, I might say that Middle Passage crosses Benito Cereno with Invisible Man. Johnson takes Ellison’s polytropic narrator and puts him on a nineteenth-century slaver, there to reflect on his Americanism, his relation to Africa, his inheritance of European thought, and his responsibilities (if any) to his fellow men and women, whether white or black. The animating dilemma, as in Melville’s novella, comes from a slave revolt at sea—Johnson introduces rebellious slaves named Atufal and Babo and has another character allude to “how some writers such as Amasa Delano have slandered black rebels in their tales” to make sure we are thinking of Benito Cereno. Whereas Melville critically scrutinized the white man’s ideology of race in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, Johnson turns a similarly critical eye on what he sees as limitations in black American thought at the end of the twentieth century. Like Ellison, he concludes, against various radical traditions, that the African-American’s home is America:

If this weird, upside-down caricature of a country called America, if this land of refugees and former indentured servants, religious heretics and half-breeds, whoresons and fugitives—this cauldron of mongrels from all points on the compass—was all I could rightly call home, then aye: I was of it. […] Do I sound like a patriot? Brother, I put it to you: What Negro, in his heart (if he’s not a hypocrite), is not?

Through his characters, Johnson gently mocks Afrocentrism and related reductive forms of identitarian rebellion, while being quite clear about the horrifying circumstances that made and make them seem reasonable or necessary. The Allmuseri, Calhoun observes, have been changed by their experiences—thus, there is no possibility of their recovering a pure, unspoiled essence—and they have moreover made themselves over in the image of their oppressors in the course of their revolution, seeking power and purity and so denying the world’s Heraclitean flux. They thus betray the best of their own worldview, which is incarnated in their language: “Nouns or static substances hardly existed in their vocabulary at all.” Their revolt has turned them into nouns.

In the novel’s complicated ethical and political argument, the individual must be affirmed precisely because he is created and constituted by others. Because the ego is an illusion (Johnson, by the bye, is a Buddhist) and the self a composite, it is all the more valuable in its variety, through which the elemental unity streams (Johnson, by the bye, wrote an introduction to a collection of Emerson, wherein he praises the Transcendentalist almost unstintingly). Any ideology that would try to freeze that variety, whether in the name of domination or resistance, is a sin against the world-spirit.

Johnson does allows that western philosophy’s dualism has made certain achievements and discoveries possible that rigorously monistic societies could probably not have attained: as Captain Falcon says,

“The Allmuseri god is everything, so the very knowing situation we mortals rely on—a separation between knower and known—never rises in its experience. You might say empirical knowledge is on man’s side, not God’s.”

But Falcon elsewhere in the novel explains to Calhoun the logical terminus of the separation between knower and known (Johnson, by the bye, has a Ph.D. in philosophy):

“Conflict,” says he, “is what it means to be conscious. Dualism is a bloody structure of the mind. Subject and object, perceiver and perceived, self and other—these ancient twins are built into the mind like the steam-piece of a merchantman. We cannot think without them, sir. And what, pray, kin such a thing mean? Only this, Mr. Calhoun: They are signs of a transcendental Fault, a deep crack in consciousness itself. Mind was made for murder. Slavery, if you think this through, forcing yourself not to flinch, is the social correlate of a deeper, ontic wound.”*

Calhoun’s narrative challenges Falcon’s view: the novel itself (not only this one, but the very form) is therapy for philosophy, having more in common with the Allmuseri’s all-embracing worldview. The novel undoes the distinctions dualistic philosophy makes—between high and low style, between Africa and America, between past and present**—and allows Rutherford Calhoun to stop merely reacting and instead become a free man in free relations with others, wide as “countless seas of suffering.”

Middle Passage is, overall, a fantastic fictional invention, a blessedly bizarre book that, I concede, does not always work—the mixed style is sometimes a little too precious, and the dialogue often verges on pirate-speak; Johnson lets Calhoun’s narrative voice essay and assert about matters that really ought to be dramatized; the Allmuseri never come alive but exist mostly as a concept; and the preponderantly happy ending feels ever-so-slightly inadequate to its antecedent events. Middle Passage‘s ideas are more vivid than its emotions, its concepts than its characters; it is the best novel written by a philosopher that I can imagine, but it is a novel written by a philosopher. Nevertheless, its dense brevity, its rich style, its unpredictable plot, its wild shifts of tone, its complex intellectual excursions, and its dissident politics all make it well worth reading—not least because of its potential to unsettle some of the aesthetic and political orthodoxies of today.

*Shades of Judge Holden—I suspect that Johnson read Blood Meridian sometime during the composition of Middle Passage, though the debt of both novels to Melville is perhaps large enough to explain the similarities.

**Hence Calhoun’s thoroughly and amusingly anachronistic vocabulary, which has annoyed so many Goodreads and Amazon reviewers; from his use of words like “cute” and “cultural” in their contemporary—not nineteenth-century—senses to his rather post-Heideggerean philosophical commentaries, Calhoun tells a tale of 1830 in prose that could only have been written in 1990. And why the hell not?—it was written in 1990, which I take to be Johnson’s point: text cannot be separated from context, and the past only comes to us through our conceptual filters, language above all.

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E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime

RagtimeRagtime by E.L. Doctorow

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

(There is always the danger that when an author’s death prompts you to try their work for the first time, you will find yourself less impressed than you’d hoped and end up having to speak ill of the recently departed. So it is here, sadly.)

The style of Ragtime is its triumph and its downfall. No writer can read this prose and not envy it. Largely simple sentences predominate; they are set down one after the other with little connective tissue, not even the Biblical “and” that characterizes American modernist prose via Hemingway. In this mode of pure and direct narrative, anything at all can find its place in the sequence: there is nothing Ragtime can’t describe, nowhere it can’t go. Brief quotation cannot really duplicate the hypnotic “just one more sentence” effect of Doctorow’s prose, which allows him to create an immense historical panorama (Houdini! Freud! Egypt! Tenements! Anarchists! Mexico!) in impressively few pages.

But the style has nothing to do with the novel’s 1902-1918 time period; Dreiser and Wharton and London did not write this way.* It is, as Jameson famously observed, a postmodern invention, a style that could only have been concocted in the 1970s. Its simplicity is saturated with irony, as if to say, “History isn’t really this simple, but what can I do?” And this irony lays an “only joking” ambiance over the whole novel that renders most scenes into farce, however lyrical otherwise, as in the famous quasi-sexual encounter between anarchist Emma Goldman and socialite Evelyn Nesbit, interrupted by one of Doctorow’s invented characters:

Goldman rubbed the oil into her skin until her body found its own natural rosy white being and began to stir with self-perception. Turn over, Goldman commanded. Evelyn’s hair was now undone and lay on the pillow about her face. Her eyes were closed and her lips stretched in an involuntary smile as Goldman massaged her breasts, her stomach, her legs. Yes, even this, Emma Goldman said, briskly passing her hand over the mons. You must have the courage to live. The bedside lamp seemed to dim for a moment. Evelyn put her own hands on her breast and her palms rotated the nipples. Her hands swam down along her flanks. She rubbed her hips. Her feet pointed like a dancer’s and her toes curled. Her pelvis rose from the bed as if seeking something in the air. Goldman was now at the bureau, capping her bottled emollient, her back to Evelyn as the younger woman began to ripple on the bed like a wave on the sea. At this moment a hoarse unearthly cry issued from the walls, the closet door flew open and Mother’s Younger Brother fell into the room, his face twisted in a paroxysm of saintly mortification. He was clutching in his hands, as if trying to choke it, a rampant penis which, scornful of his intentions, whipped him about the floor, launching to his cries of ecstasy or despair, great filamented spurts of jism that traced the air like bullets and then settled slowly over Evelyn in her bed like falling ticker tape.

Even the marvelous long sentence that ends this passage, perhaps a pastiche of period style, is ultimately a joke with ticker tape as a punchline (imagine an orgasm represented on film, in a parody of euphemism, by a cutaway to a parade with a blaring marching band in a comedy). As Ragtime goes on, one wonders why it has to end at all, why subsequent or even antecedent periods could not be conjured equally well in this manner.

Ragtime traces the fortunes of three families, one WASP, one Jewish immigrant, and one black. The WASP family is presented with relentless sarcasm, their names simply given as Mother, Father, Grandfather, etc. to mock their arrogant assumption of their own normativity. The immigrant Jewish family eventually finds itself upwardly mobile. Its father, Tateh, is the “winner,” more or less, of the novel, after the WASP patriarch has been dispatched and Tateh marries Mother; a pioneer of the movies, Tateh, at the book’s conclusion, makes films of his blended family with Mother. Their three children (WASP, Jewish, and black) form a multicultural community that the novel both celebrates as utopian vision (a rebuke to the complacent assurance on the second page: “There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants.”) and mocks as image-commodity enclosing and obviating the radical energies the middle of the narrative has recorded (labor strikes, racial conflicts, burgeoning anarchism and socialism, the Mexican revolution).

The main event of the novel’s second half, the Michael Kohlhaas homage in which the insulted black musician Coalhouse Walker stages a revolt against white America, is too unsubtle and anachronistic to be compelling. Walker himself is a cipher, hardly characterized, and the interesting reflections of his cohort on effective militancy transparently belong to the 1960s not the 1910s. Doctorow’s efforts to track Kleist prove misleading; I thought the irony of Martin Luther’s attempt to stop Kohlhaas is that Kohlhaas’s absolute sense of his rights is in a way the product of Luther’s own revolt. The intervention of the conservative Booker T. Washington in Ragtime can have no such significance—again, were this set in the 1960s, Doctorow could have brought Luther’s namesake, Martin Luther King, onstage to much greater effect. The whole episode, supposedly the novel’s emotional and political center, eventually seems flippant, just as the style itself does—it is insulting to still find weakly sarcastic sentences such as “After-the-swim was soon established by Father as the time for amour” on the 289th page, not that such cheap shots as “There was a lot of sexual fainting” on the second page impressed me much. Why even write a historical novel with this attitude of complacent self-assurance? By the end, I felt that Doctorow was more the peer of Jon Stewart than of Roth, Morrison, or DeLillo.

*I suppose it will be objected that the style is meant to imitate the titular music. But the connections between prose and music are too attenuated to prevent a strictly literary analysis of strictly literary effects.

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Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant

The Buried GiantThe Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the few living Anglophone writers I’d bet the proverbial farm on. If literature in this language is still being read in 200 years, they’ll be reading him. His fiction has that quality that I’ve never been able to define properly, a quality I find in Virgil and Dante, Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, Joyce and Woolf: his novels feel both constructed and alive, somewhere between objects and landscapes, and they solicit the most abstract forms of intellectual scrutiny even as they provoke the most intimate emotions.* Maybe this is only my private test of “canonicity,” but most works, including my own, fall short of this standard—they are either too of the world (mimetic social realism) or too out of it (most genre fiction and the avant-garde) to matter to me as much as Ishiguro’s novels do, novels that are worlds within our, or my, world.

Christine Smallwood begins her Harper’s review of The Buried Giant—the best I’ve read so far (not online, alas)—this way:

Why does nobody talk about Kazuo Ishiguro? Never in my life has someone recommended an Ishiguro novel to me, and I am a person to whom people frequently recommend novels. Fashion recycles the past, but literary taste, for the new and the newly reissued, has a brutally short memory: Roberto Bolaño, Robert Walser, Renata Adler, Chris Kraus, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Elena Ferrante—the wheels spin on. Still, faddism alone doesn’t explain the silence around Ishiguro. When you tell a fellow admirer that you are a recent convert, as I am, you often get something like a shrug, as if you have just suggested that The Great Gatsby is a ripper of a yarn. Others back away slowly, admitting grudging respect but no enthusiasm.

I wondered as I read this what Smallwood meant by “nobody.” Ishiguro is a bestselling author, so he has a wide audience among common readers; on the other hand, as I can attest, he is also increasingly popular in literary academia, widely assigned in undergraduate courses and a frequent subject of scholarship. “Nobody” seems to mean, then, that he has no great following among the arbiters of literary fashion—the para-academic institutions of the little magazines and their subcultures and scenesters, online and off-. Most of the hip writers tend to allow their readers to bathe in the last light of revolutionary romanticism, whereas Ishiguro bars this possibility. His novels allow us to imagine something like a life after Progress, after Prometheus. Since this position is hard to map according to the received ideological coordinates of contemporary literature, Ishiguro has to content himself with the regard of present-minded common readers and historically perspicacious scholars, while all the sad young literary men and women waste their days fighting the last century’s wars.

Anyway, enough preamble. The Buried Giant—masterpiece or misfire? It is too uneven to count as a masterpiece, I think, but too wonderfully strange to be a misfire. Ostensibly a historical fantasy set in post-Arthurian Britain, a world of dragons, ogres, pixies, and wars between Celt and Saxon, the novel’s setting—and its almost pageant-like set-pieces, at once horrifying, funny, and sad—nevertheless more nearly resemble the Britain of King Lear than anything I have ever encountered in orthodox fantasy fiction or film (not that I am a connoisseur of the genre, admittedly). The novel begins when an old Briton couple, Axl and Beatrice, sets out on a journey through Saxon territory to find their lost son. They are quickly waylaid by the contested country’s dire political situation, in which the uneasy peace between Saxon and Briton depends on the fragile and fantastic means of a dragon, Querig, whose breath suspends human memory. Memory is dangerous because it would restore to the warring populations their knowledge of what they have done to each other and begin again the cycle of violence; on the other hand, memory is necessary to personal identity and relationships, as Axl and Beatrice, who cannot remember much of their marriage, often complain as they join the quest to slay Querig. On their journey, Axl and Beatrice pass through a fractious Saxon town and a secret-filled abbey, encountering the Saxon warrior Wistan and his protégé, young Edwin, along with the character who is perhaps the novel’s grandest invention—Sir Gawain, portrayed here as a senescent but charismatically powerful figure, half legendary knight and half doddering old genocidaire. The narrative loses force in the middle, becoming too preoccupied with some of the silly side adventures it narrates—a scene where pixies attack was impossible for me to picture as anything but bad CGI, for instance. But its extraordinary conclusion, as affecting as anything in Ishiguro or pretty much any other writer, redeems all.

The critics have not, to my mind, given readers a sufficient sense of The Buried Giant‘s vital strangeness. Ursula K. Le Guin complains that Ishiguro has, due to snobbish neglect of genre-fantasy rules, not done proper “world-building.” With a worryingly philistine insensitivity to the novel’s peculiar affect, she writes, “A fantastic setting requires vivid and specific description; while characters may lose touch with their reality, the storyteller can’t.” One might as well complain that Beckett, not having read his Heinlein and Asimov, fails to detail the post-apocalyptic calamity that has befallen the world in Endgame. The world of The Buried Giant is as finished as it needs to be for a setting that is more than half metaphor, a setting that eventually comes to seem a metaphor for metaphor itself.

James Wood wants to read the novel as allegory and objects that the allegory is unfinished: for what in our world is represented by the omnipresent memory-obliterating dragon’s breath that afflicts the novel’s world? Aside from the fact that an answer readily comes to mind—mass media—I doubt The Buried Giant is nearly as allegorical as Wood thinks, if allegory indicates a one-to-one correspondence between each element of the text and its subtext. Ishiguro is not usually so literal; I think his metaphors are deliberately suggestive and open-ended, the better to linger in the mind.**

Mark O’Connell argues in a laudatory review that the novel embodies Benjamin’s famous dictum about civilization and barbarism, as if it were something like early Coetzee but with more special effects. While this is not wholly wrong, Ishiguro hardly suggests that knowledge of the violence underlying all political orders could ameliorate that violence; nothing is more alien to Ishiguro’s sensibility than Benjamin’s messianism. In fact, The Buried Giant never quite settles the question of whether or not the memory-depriving mist is a good or bad thing; the novel does not dismiss the classic conservative argument that peace and order are better than knowledge. In this, The Buried Giant strongly resembles The Unconsoled, also set in time and place of recent mass historical violence—Central Europe at the end of the 20th century—and featuring a protagonist whose name, Ryder, has chivalric implications. A novel set in the anxiety dreams of its pianist hero, who comes to Central Europe to play a concert he never gets to perform, The Unconsoled contains a vein of satire that mocks all attempts to mobilize the arts in behalf of any collective political project, whether left, right, or in-between (Ryder’s hosts tellingly want a lecture, not music). Ryder only achieves one successful musical performance, and it takes place in an isolated cabin, where it is overheard by one other person. That is the truth of art, The Unconsoled implies, and the truth of our lives. Needless to say, such nihilistic aesthetics do not square with O’Connell’s postcolonial cultural politics.

Finally, Tim Martin calls the novel “affectless,” as if its style were some mere mistake on Ishiguro’s part. But read this paragraph of description, which comically runs a fussy bureaucratic rhetoric up against a setting customarily described in tones of high archaism:

Once inside it, you would not have thought this longhouse so different from the sort of rustic canteen many of you will have experienced in one institution or another. There were rows of long tables and benches, and towards one end, a kitchen and a serving area. Its main difference from a modern facility wool have been the dominating presence of hay: there was hay above one’s head, and beneath one’s feet, and though not by design, all over the surface of the tables, blown around by the gusts that regularly swept through the place. On a morning such as this, as our traveller sat down to breakfast, the sun breaking through the porthole-like windows would have revealed the air itself to be filled with drifting specks of hay.

Nobody writes this way by accident (e.g., “serving area”), so what is Ishiguro trying to do?

At first, as Smallwood points out in her review, The Buried Giant appears to be Ishiguro’s first novel written in the third person; chapters alternate among the perspectives of various characters and, in truth, this is the novel’s greatest weakness. Unused to this form of narration, Ishiguro sometimes stoops to mere convention, beginning chapters with cloying suspense in medias res and indulging in flashbacks in free indirect discourse. You can read this kind of thing in almost any other novel, literary or genre, and I was eventually bored by it; the chapters devoted to the Saxon boy, Edwin, especially fall flat. Ishiguro is usually brilliant at evoking children from the outside, from what adults can’t help but regard as their strange exterior; but Edwin’s inner monologue is not compelling enough to have so many pages devoted to it.

Much better are the long scenes in almost play-like dialogue, wherein the characters make absurdly deferential and polite speeches to one another in high-sounding language. Such a style is not unique to this novel in Ishiguro’s oeuvre—Ishiguro’s characters are always trying, periphrastically, to maintain their dignity in calamitous situations—but it takes on new tones of tragicomedy in the novel’s thin, blasted, and legendary setting. It is wonderfully startling to hear Sir Gawain sound like a melancholy fool out of Chekhov as he converses with his mortal enemy, Sir Wistan, just before they fight to the death:

“I’ll confess, Master Wistan, my hope’s that even now Querig’s breath will rob you of the memory of why you walk beside me. I await eagerly your asking where it is I lead you! Yet I see from both your eye and step you forget little.”

Wistan smiled. “I believe, sir, it’s this very gift to withstand strange spells won me this errand from my king. For in the fens, we’ve never know a creature quite like this Querig, yet have known others with wonderful powers, and it was soon noticed how little I was swayed, even as my comrades swooned and wandered in dreams. I fancy this was my king’s only reason to choose me, for almost all my comrades at home are better warriors than this one walks beside you now.”

“Impossible to believe, Master Wistan! Both report and observation tell of your extraordinary qualities.”

[Spoiler warning.] The novel’s final chapter is narrated in the first person, from the perspective of a mysterious boatman, probably the Charon of mythology. When we understand this, we remember the several first person digressions the narrator has made throughout the novel; then we come to understand that this ferryman, this wanderer between the shores of life and death, has been telling us the story all along. Does he have a story about each of his passengers? And isn’t it appropriate that he veer between a diffident and polite bureaucratic rhetoric and an observer’s posture, like that of a play’s spectator? (Martin censures the novel’s “weird lurches between lassitude and melodrama,” but I think they catch something true to experience.) As a watcher from the edge of life, who has no doubt seen it all, why should he need a grander or more overbearing or more consistent or more lyrical style? Maybe he is the secret narrator of all Ishiguro’s novels. Maybe he is the secret narrator of all novels.

*I should say here that I like Ishiguro enough to ration the pleasure: I still have not read A Pale View of Hills or When We Were Orphans.

**Or to invite the reader to research. The dragon’s name, Querig, appears to allude to Quérigut, a commune in an area in southern France that was particularly devastated in the Albigensian Crusade. I take it that Ishiguro, who portrays the Arthurian Britons as genocidal aggressors, deploys this allusion to suggest that it is the Arthurian knights and their culture, as evoked on the U.S. edition’s cover by an image of the Holy Grail and as materialized in the civilization of the doomed Cathars, who will eventually be wiped from the map of Europe. In this way, Ishiguro defeats any attempt we might make to view his novel through a simple good vs. evil or oppressor vs. victim lens. With this reference to the Cathars, Ishiguro too manages to situate his novels’ own unworldliness and quasi-nihilism in a longer tradition. James Wood misses the significance of the dragon’s name, even though I found it with a minute’s detective work on Google. So much for “official” criticism’s obvious superiority to what you find on blogs.

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