François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, The Theory of the Grain of Sand

The Theory of the Grain of SandThe Theory of the Grain of Sand by Benoît Peeters and François Schuiten

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Theory of the Grain of Sand (2016; originally published in 2007-2008 in France) is the 13th entry in Franco-Belgian collaborators Schuiten and Peeters’s series of graphic novels, Les Cités obscures. It is the first I’ve read, so there is much that is still, appropriately, obscure to me. Even so, this book impressed me as a thoughtful, subtle, charming narrative, with stunning art in a mode that may be unfamiliar to newer American comics readers used to the more cartoonish style favored by “literary” graphic novelists like Ware, Satrapi, Clowes, Bechdel, or Drnaso.

As the Calvino-esque title of the series implies, The Obscure Cities offers a kind of catalogue of distinct and quasi-fantastical urban spaces that are nonetheless refractions of this-worldly realities. As Wikipedia summarizes, “In this fictional world, humans live in independent city-states, each of which has developed a distinct civilization, each characterized by a distinctive architectural style.”

The architectural emphasis suits artist François Schuiten’s graphic approach: a style of remarkable grace and precision, not only in building design and backgrounds, but even in figure drawing, a beautifully rendered ink-swept romantic realism so evocative of the old cities that the march of  universally leveling commerce are removing from the world. On this theme, Wikipedia elaborates: “An important motif is the process of what [Schuiten] calls Bruxellisation, the destruction of this historic Brussels in favor of anonymous, low-quality modernist office and business buildings.” Lovers of the urban romanticism, whether in its utopian or dystopian guises, that characterizes certain older European literature from Balzac and Baudelaire to Woolf and Benjamin will admire this book.

The Theory of the Grain of Sand tells the story of Brüsel, a fantastical city much like Brussels, that undergoes an escalating series of strange events: rocks, each weighing exactly the same, begin appearing in an old man’s apartment; a single mother’s apartment is slowly filling with sand; a chef weighs less and less each day until he levitates into the air.

These odd happenings coincide with the appearance in the city of a warrior from the Bugti, a desert people, who attempts to sell a religious artifact captured from the chief of his tribe’s rivals, the Moktar. His prospective buyer is a woman who lives in the Horta House, an Art Nouveau marvel, and she too is drawn, this time by guilt rather than happenstance, into the mysterious plot.

Mary von Rathen, apparently a recurring character in the series, comes to the city to investigate. With the help of the afflicted citizens (and the man who runs the Gallery of Distant Worlds), she helps to solve the mystery while warning that not everything can be explained. The conclusion involves a journey out of Brüsel and into the desert, there to replace the Moktars’ plundered artifact and end the chaos.

While the above summary makes the book sound a mystery or adventure, even a colonial adventure, the pace is leisured, like a stroll through a walkable urban core of Old Europe, and the tone, characterized mostly by gentle and precise dialogue, is droll, even when the city is literally being crushed under the weight of sand and stone.

Thematically, Schuiten and Peeters implicitly criticize imperial blowback for destroying the irreplaceable aesthetic of the European city: the wars fought between Bugti and Moktar in the desert are revealed to have been escalated and goaded by arms trading from Brüsel, so that the metropole’s own partial destruction via magic from the periphery is logical and even just.

Moreover, the book’s writer, Benoît Peeters, is also the biographer of deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida, so we can expect that a point is also being made about the permeability of all boundaries. The damage wrought in the city by sand and stone even inspires a spirit of collectivity and produces some changes in the citizens’ lives that are not all bad. Inside and outside interpenetrate, like speech and writing, like self and other.

But Peeters leaves behind his deconstructionist commitment to inherent alterity when his narrative sets out from his fanciful Europe for the frontier. At the graphic novel’s denouement, the replacement of the Moktar’s stolen artifact in the center of a desert citadel restores peace. Not all centers are as arbitrary as Derrida famously suggested, apparently. In a more cynical mood, we might accuse Peeters of upholding a typical patronizing postcolonial penitence that is not so different from the colonialism it purports to supplant: deconstruction for me, stasis for you. An enliveningly dangerous supplement for the citizen is the immobile totality of the natural order for the native.

Let’s saunter over the quaint cobbles to a happier subject, then: Schuiten’s extraordinary artwork, which I have already mentioned. It is very different from what we see these days in the most acclaimed graphic novels. Literary aspiration or even just the aspiration toward a mainstream audience in the Anglophone graphic novel has come to be associated with a cartoonish style relying heavily on abstraction and, often, cuteness.

peeters

We can trace this fact to a number of influences: the roots of the non-superhero American comics tradition in the great comic strips like Krazy Kat, Pogo, and Peanuts; the increasing importance of manga, a national aesthetic often reduced in loving stereotype to a cutesy style; the hyper-canonization, especially by those outside the superhero tradition, of Jack Kirby as almost the only artist in that mode worth discussing; the belief, derived from Scott McCloud’s theories, that an iconic style of facial and figure drawing enables reader identification; and the desire to appeal both to non-comics-reading audiences who are familiar with cartoons and to critics who have absorbed the art world’s century-long loathing of mimesis.

A style aiming at precision, a gift for realism, however heightened or stylized, becomes associated merely with the superhero slums. The idolators of Kirby barely ever even mention Wally Wood or John Buscema or Neal Adams; the stylistic effect of sad economic necessity, the need to churn out pages in a hurry, is unjustly elevated to the dignity of an aesthetic principle; and work that looks like it was produced by Charles Schulz on quaaludes is up for literary prizes in England.

Another factor at work in the demotion of styles like Schuiten’s is the belief that detailed art slows the reader down. But what is wrong with that? Comics is not cinema or animation, not meant to be read like a flipbook. The whole advantage of comics over cinema is that it provides a visual narrative whose pace is controlled by each audience member rather than passing at a fixed rate. Artists or even writers who make us linger by favoring the high style are not betraying the medium but exploiting one of its greatest potentials. My point is not that only work like Schuiten’s should be celebrated, but that such work deserves higher esteem in general than it usually ever receives from serious critics. Even in crude economic terms, you might think that a fast-paced style would sell better, but, as I see it, artists who give us more to look at are offering better value for our money.

In The Theory of the Grain of Sand, Schuiten creates a city and citizens so detailed and solid I felt like an authentic flâneur, and Peeters’s script gave me much to think about as I meandered over the stone flags. The book’s titular theory, by the way, holds that one grain of sand, one tiny detail, added or subtracted, is enough to change everything: a daring proposition for a book so rich with details as to resemble the vast and rolling desert where it comes to its climax.

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Louise Erdrich, The Plague of Doves

The Plague of DovesThe Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Plague of Doves was acclaimed by many as Louise Erdrich’s masterpiece when it was published a decade ago. It is easy to see the appeal: the novel is a collage of voices narrating a set of big scenes, from the eponymous plague onward, that only gradually disclose themselves as parts of a complex historical narrative never quite presented in full. At the center of the novel is a gruesome event that occurred in 1911 in the fictional town of Pluto, North Dakota: an unknown gunman murdered all but the youngest child of the Lochren family, and, in reprisal, the white town elders of Pluto lynched the four Native Americans who discovered the crime scene even though they were clearly innocent.

Most of the novel is set around the 1960s, during the childhood and young adulthood of Evelina Harp, who narrates several of the novel’s sections. A studious and inquisitive girl of mixed white and Ojibwe heritage, she begins, around the age of 11, to piece together the events of the lynching, of which her beloved grandfather is the sole survivor. The main thread of the whole novel is Evelina’s slow discovery that almost everyone she cares about is not only connected to the lynching, but was somehow even morally complicit or culpable in it—not excluding her Native American grandfather. “Nothing that happens, nothing, is not connected here by blood,” observes one character, and another says, “I think of how history works itself out in the living.” This brooding sense of historical determinism would be oppressive—and potentially troubling: a racialist mystification—if the characters were not so ironic about it, so determined to escape, even if only in their religious, sexual, or artistic raptures (and the author is no less ironic: a startling allusion near the novel’s climax to The Crying of Lot 49 signals an allegiance to a postmodern poetics of uncertainty rather than the iron laws of a racial fate).

But The Plague of Doves is not a detective story: the narrative of discovery is mingled with a variety of other elements, including Evelina’s cultural and literary ambitions, her experiments with drugs, and her questioning of her apparent bisexuality; Evelina’s story is also notable for a portrayal of Catholicism that emphasizes that religion’s erotic mingling of flesh and spirit, even as Evelina and her grandfather take pleasure in satirizing the hypocritical puritanism of the priests. All of this is handled with delicacy and drollery as Evelina narrates from the distance of age, both validating her youthful ecstasies and putting their more otherworldly aspects in perspective:

I do not read Anaïs Nin—she cannot possibly help me now. I am past all that and, anyway, she helped me get into trouble by providing the paradigm of a life I was always too backwards, or provincial, or Catholic, or reservation- or family-bound to absorb and pull off.

Evelina is in her literary yearning but unpretentious wit a character who seems much like her author, and probably not too dissimilar from her audience. That her author did in the end pull it off—that is, become a literary success, a star and arbiter of culture—only adds to the satisfying irony.

This polyphonic novel does have several other narrators, though. Next in prominence to Evelina is Antone Bazil Coutts, a tribal judge who recounts, as a freestanding man-vs.-nature novella, his white grandfather’s adventurous participation in the founding of Pluto (this section takes aim at the greed of expansionists and developers and their neglect of nature’s sacral dimension), as well as his own role in the travails of several characters whose own lives are the working out of the 1911 lynching’s dismal heritage, particularly members of the Peace family (these episodes including a farcical crime tale about a kidnapping scheme and a heartwarming if not mawkish story about the reformation of a juvenile delinquent).

Coutts is an almost archetypally humane legal authority, his judgments informed by a multicultural mix of Indian politics and Greco-Roman philosophy (this to contrast the Catholic ecstasies and their answering anti-clerical humor in Evelina’s narrative), and his portrayal would risk falling into Atticus Finch sentimentalism were his sexuality, like every character’s, not given its due. He is courting Evelina’s aunt when we meet him, but an affair with a much older white woman in his past may prove the key to the novel’s central mystery: who was the guilty party in the massacre for which the Indians were falsely blamed?

The men were lynched, we learn, on a farm owned by the Wolde family, and the novel’s central narrative—told in the voice of the family’s daughter, Marn Wolde—heightens the novel’s themes of religious fanaticism and culture clash. In Marn’s story, Billy Peace—another scion of one of the lynched Indians, who was earlier involved in the kidnapping plot narrated by Coutts—returns from his time in the army as an itinerant preacher and spirit Marn away from her family farm to be his bride. When husband and wife return to the farm, Billy claims it for the small congregation of what has become an abusive cult held together solely by his outsize personality. This narrative is remarkable both for Marn’s consistent ambivalence toward Billy, even at his worst, and the lengths she goes to escape from his thrall. Erdrich’s magical realism, usually checked by the irony that comes with a story told from multiple self-interested and self-aggrandizing perspectives, here becomes truly larger than life, as when Billy is struck by lightning:

He is a mound, black and tattered, on all fours. A snuffling creature of darkness burnt blind. We watch as he rises, gathers himself up slowly, pushes down on his thighs with huge hands. Finally, he stands upright. I grab my mother’s fingers, shocked limp. Billy is alive, bigger than before, swollen with unearthly power. We step away from the window. He bawls into the sky, shaking his head back and forth as the clouds open. Harsh silver curtains of water close across the scene. We turn away from the window.

“Mom,” I say, “we’ve got to stop him.”

“No one’s ever going to stop him,” she answers.

But The Plague of Doves was never all that tethered to social realism anyway, even though its social observations are acute: it does begin with the titular quasi-Biblical plague, which symbolically removes any guarantee of peace from the narrative. Nature, religion, and sex all prove to be sources of unreal rapture in the novel; they are also forces destructive and indifferent to human happiness.

In fact, as with certain other female authors, so with Erdrich: were her books published under a male pseudonym, they would probably be reviled as sexist trash and tossed in the same historical dustbin where some would like to throw Roth and Bellow. Erdrich writes about sex with an almost total lack of moralism. She carefully charts every mixed and confused emotion, every mitigating and damning ethical circumstance, that constitute the whole complexity of eros, a complexity not captured by the political and juridical language currently favored. Judge Coutts observes:

But of course the entire reservation is rife with conflicting passions. We can’t seem to keep our hands off one another, it is true, and every attempt to foil our lists through law and religious dictums seems bound instead to excite transgression.

Sex is where nature erupts into culture and alters it, Erdrich seems to claim; it is therefore salvific insofar as it promises change and difference (Coutts selects for his tombstone the motto, “The universe is transformation“), even though change implies destruction as well as creation. Erdrich’s amoralism or aestheticism of desire is best expressed in The Plague of Doves through the character of Billy Peace: his sexual charisma is depicted as nearly supernatural from his early adulthood forward, so that a woman he kidnaps (Neve Harp) and his long-tormented wife (Marn Wolde), as well as many of the members of his cult, willingly submit to him sexually and seem to hold him throughout their lives as an erotic standard:

He held my wrists behind my back and forced me down onto the carpet. Then he bent over me and gently, fast and slow, helplessly, without end or beginning, he went in and out until I grew bored, until I wanted to sleep, until I moaned, until I cried out again, until I wanted nothing else, until I wanted hum the way I had the very first time, that first dry summer.

And Billy, though he becomes from one perspective the novel’s greatest villain, is also the scion of the lynched Cuthbert Peace; therefore his imperial religiosity, which engulfs the white family’s farm on whose land the lynching occurred, may be read as a kind of belated vengeance upon the white community, which Marn as narrator almost grasps:

The end of our land bumps smack up to the reservation boundary. This was reservation, Billy says, and should be again. This was my family’s land, Indian land. Will be again. He says it flat out with a lack of emotion that disturbs me. Something’s there. Something different underneath.

In this moment—as in the novel at large—there is no resolution to the dilemmas of race and gender, history and religion. Erdrich presents no answers and asks few answerable questions: rather, she provides a set of almost unfathomably complex circumstances, often presented at first as a series of comic set pieces or jokes.

Making a fourth with nature, religion, and sex is art. While the novel is named for a symbol blending nature and religion, its most insistent motif is that of music. Violin music plays in its mysterious prologue, and two different violins pass with all the fatedness of heritage throughout the novel. In fact, music is a place where cultures may meet and enrich rather than destroy each other:

He treated this instrument with the reverence we accord our drums, which are considered living beings and require from us food, water, shelter, and love.

Erdrich shows art to be as cruel as nature, religion, and sex, as heedless of morality and society:

That I must play was more important to me than my father’s pain. […] It was a question of survival, after all. If I had not found the music, I would have died of the silence.

But like nature, religion, and sex, art is necessary if we are ever to be liberated, even momentarily, from the killing inertia of the quotidian and its historical determinations:

The music was more than music—at least what we are used to hearing. The music was feeling itself. The sound connected instantly with something deep and joyous. Those powerful moments of true knowledge that we have to paper over with daily life. The music tapped the back of our terrors, too. Things we’d lived through and didn’t want to ever repeat. Shredded imaginings, unadmitted longings, fear and also surprisingly pleasures. No, we can’t live at that pitch. But every so often something shatters like ice and we are in the river of our existence. We are aware.

In this way, Erdrich justifies her own literary style: The Plague of Doves, in the grandeur of its incident and its impressive variety of genres (comic realism, adventure story, crime drama, suspense thriller, tall tale, coming-of-age story, and more) does tend to “live at that pitch” more than most ostensibly realistic novels, but its use of humor and its reminder of the very real history of its region and its country give it a solid ground from which to launch its flights of fancy.

As some less positive reviews note, Erdrich probably does put too much heterogenous material into one book, and the novel sometimes seems to drift away from its intended focus (the lynching) toward the rather less historically significant and politically correct topics of ecstasy and desire—as if Erdrich’s Romantic inclinations were struggling against her sense that her audience expects an edifying “social justice” story from her. But because I share Evelina’s (and Erdrich’s) Catholic and provincial upbringing, I am always ready to forgive sins of ambition and excess.

The Plague of Doves ends with a Macondo-like intimation of Pluto’s slow death (“All who celebrate shall be ghosts”): all human effort, good and ill, male and female, Native and white, will be devoured by time and nature, and will probably deserve it too. In the meantime, a concert—a symphony: a work of many parts with a resounding crescendo.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

David Treuer, The Translation of Dr. Apelles

The Translation of Dr. ApellesThe Translation of Dr. Apelles by David Treuer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Translation of Dr. Apelles (2006) interleaves two stories: a semi-fantastical romance between two Indian youths apparently set in the nineteenth century, and a piece of sad semi-realism about a translator of Native American languages living a life of quiet desperation in a cold nameless modern city. At first, we are given to believe that the romance is an “authentic” Indian tale that the translator has found in an archive and is translating for us, even as his own life begins to echo the events of the old story. The clues mount, however, that Treuer is not telling a straightforward tale with a neat division between translation and commentary (the influence of Pale Fire is palpable).

For one thing, his translator-hero is named Apelles, after the painter whose picture of Alexander the Great’s mistress Campaspe was so lifelike that Alexander kept the portrait and gifted the living woman to Apelles, thus proving that art can both substitute for and change life. Similarly, the woman who will become Apelles’s lover in Treuer’s fiction is named what else but Campaspe. Apelles and Campaspe work in a somewhat science fictional archive for unread books, a tightly-controlled maximum-security prison for all those stories that will go unheard, a dystopian/utopian institution—probably borrowed from Saramago’s Registry of All the Names—that threatens Apelles with the threat that his own story will never be told or read. Moreover, Treuer’s narrative voice is itself never straightforward: it is a mobile, shifting, parodic one, now “doing” Hemingway, now the eighteenth-century novel, and now venturing upon philosophy.

Finally, as we read on, we eventually come to understand that Apelles’s narrative is actually the novel we have been reading about him, effectively his “translation” of his own life into literature, while the Indian romance is only a slightly re-ethnicized variation on the ancient Greek pastoral romance Daphnis and Chloe: the two books—Apelle’s manuscript and the old Greek novel—coupled and produced this novel when, at this novel’s climax, they were confused and interleaved in the archive.

What can all this recursive Nabokovian metafiction mean? First of all, by elaborately retelling Daphnis and Chloe as if it were an enchanting magical-realist Native American historical novel, Treuer is, if I may use the vernacular, calling bullshit on the idea that anyone can ever encounter cultural authenticity in a work of fiction, which is the product of the individual imagination interacting with literary tradition and not the product of collective racial essences. Individual imagination is important because without it we would all, but especially those who have been and are stereotyped, be unable to articulate our singular experiences of the world and sensibilities in perceiving and expressing them:

What language could he use for himself that had not become part of those stories about his people, the sad ones and the funny ones and the ones about the ways and days of the past. What could he say that would exist on its own, that represented only him and his life?

Treuer is moreover accusing a largely white or at least non-Indian readership and publishing industry of wishing to consign Native Americans to the genre of the pastoral, seeing them as forever wed to some simplistically redemptive idea of nature that is itself traditionally European. In this connection, Apelles reflects on what he sees as cultural pandering by other Indian writers: “The writers are only too glad to tell anecdotes or give the audience small cultural pearls.”

Above all, Treuer rejects the idea of culture as a past that imprisons the present, the Faulknerian Gothic mode (“the past is not even past”) that even more than pastoral has overwhelmingly influenced American writing about race in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, at least since Beloved (whose author mentored Treuer at Princeton). No, Treuer seems to say, an imaginative writer’s relationship to the past may be a voluntary and creative one, and if it is a Gothic one, well, that too is the free exercise of the aesthetic imagination: “So it wasn’t that his past haunts him. He haunts his past.”

But Treuer’s argument, like his Möbius strip of a novel, goes the other way too, as a vindication of any and all modes of fiction-making, so long as you do not confuse them with life: Dr. Apelles‘s use of Longus is a reminder that the novel is an older and more diverse form than we tend to realize when we imagine it is the product solely of the Protestant middle classes in the eighteenth century. Daphnis and Chloe comes out of the cross-cultural ferment of late antiquity in the eastern Mediterranean, a period denounced as decadently effeminate by Nietzsche, who scorned “Alexandrian man” as a mere proto-postmodern librarian rather than an originator of culture—something that Treuer, with his ambiguous archive of forgotten books, must have been aware of.

The Translation of Dr. Apelles is on the whole an ingenious and intricately written philosophical fiction that I recommend. I could criticize it, of course. Like all novels with obviously set structures—this one alternates predictably from the romantic story to the realistic one—it begins to feel confining, and Treuer’s philosophizing becomes extravagantly explicit in the end. And like all fictions composed to illustrate ideas, the novel sometimes feels more clever than wise, more mechanical than alive, as its allegory develops; this flaw contradicts Treuer’s seemingly Nabokovian doctrine that fiction must be a matter of living detail rather than ideology. Treuer overcompensates for having over-intellectualized his book with a few direct authorial statements that seem to line up with a very ’00s-era New Sincerity; these are sentimental rather than affecting because they are insufficiently anchored to a narrative Treuer expects us, by the end, to believe in:

…the imagination can produce more than illusion…it does not matter whether the illusion is true or not because the imagination can create both pleasure and happiness, too. someday.

The novel’s flaws are negligible, though, because they do not really detract from its main interest, which is Treuer’s compelling argument and his admirably and amusingly various styles of developing it in narrative, as if conducting a master class in the possibilities of contemporary American prose.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Toni Morrison, Paradise

ParadiseParadise by Toni Morrison

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Paradise was not well received upon its publication in 1997—influential critics like Michiko Kakutani, James Wood, and Zoë Heller disparaged it, and even Oprah’s audience, instructed to read it for the talk show host’s book club, demurred, prompting Oprah to call Morrison to offer the viewers encouragement. One of the studio audience members protested that, confused by the novel’s multiple perspectives and non-linear chronology, she was lost on page 19; Oprah asked Morrison what the poor woman was to do; and Morrison’s reply—which I have never forgotten—was, “Read page 20.” Unsurpassable advice! Profiling Morrison in 2012, Boris Kachka summarizes the case against Paradise:

Both Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Don DeLillo’s Underworld came out in 1997, the year Paradise did. Both addressed historical eras and themes, as Morrison does, but both spoke directly to contemporary anxieties in a way that Paradise did not. Roth and DeLillo were nostalgic for an old American consensus and alarmed at its disintegration, and both used voices resonant with modern paranoia and neurosis. In contrast, Morrison still seemed to be in cross-racial dialogue with the same long-dead ­Modernists on whom she’d written her thesis in the fifties.

This is both right and wrong: Morrison does reject any nostalgia for postwar consensus (whether or not Roth and DeLillo express this nostalgia is another matter), but in so doing she very much speaks to “contemporary anxieties”; the problem is simply that many readers did not like either what she said or how she said it. They are entitled to their opinions about the “what,” but once you have allowed such opinions to cloud your view of the “how”—for example, none of the above critics show any awareness that Paradise is often supposed to be funny—then you have lost critical control.

Let’s get the “what” out of the way right now: Paradise bears an epigraph from a gnostic gospel narrated by a female deity, and it concludes with the theophany of a black madonna. Searching for a term to describe its apparent ideology, I could come up with nothing more neutral than “New Age.” It is a novel that, parodying the Bible, at least entertains the notion that our religious sensibilities must expand to include female divinity. While this view would undoubtedly not interest Philip Roth much, it, along with other dissident religious approaches harking back to gnostic and pagan cults, was undoubtedly reflected in much late-twentieth-century Anglo-American culture. Such views are embarrassing to the liberal intelligentsia because said intelligentsia legitimates itself by its appeal to secular knowledge and often materialist or at least spiritually orthodox intellectual methods, and not without reason. This religious reflex, I believe, and not simply snobbism or sexism, accounts for the critical cringe Nick Salvato writes about with respect to Tori Amos, some of whose songs (see “Marys of the Sea,” for instance) could furnish a soundtrack to Paradise.

But I did write above that Paradise “entertains” its religious thesis rather than straightforwardly promoting it. As Boris Kachka notes, Morrison remains faithful to modernism. If modernist writers from Eliot to Woolf shared one thing in common, it was a commitment to putting forth their spiritual intuitions in obsessively fragmented and recursive literary forms, to remind readers to take no single narrative on faith, especially not narratives about faith. This brings us back to Oprah’s audience and their problem with Paradise: the novel has no single viewpoint, no clear chronology, no central character, and no reliable perspective. The most basic facts of the narrative remain in doubt by its conclusion. Even the miraculous resurrections with which it seems to end could be explained by a mixture of lucky escape and hallucination. Condemning religious orthodoxy and political ethno-nationalism for their shared demand of unthinking assent, Morrison leaves her readers free to differ with her suggestion that they worship the goddess.

“They shoot the white girl first,” the novel famously begins. Its opening chapter is really its penultimate one, narrating the story’s climax: in July 1976, nine leading male citizens of the all-black town of Ruby, OK, murder five women who are living in a former convent near the town. This first chapter is maddeningly indirect, as none of the men or women is named; moreover, we see through the men’s POV so that the perspective is unreliable from the start (“They are nine, over twice the number of the women” they are seeking, the second paragraph begins; but, as Ron David long ago pointed out, nine is not “over twice” five; these little word problems occur throughout the text, making it impossible to read passively). The opposite of a mystery novel—though something of a mystery play—Paradise tells us who committed the murder in the first chapter and then spends the rest of the book seeking an explanation.

The next eight chapters, each bearing a woman’s name, tell the story of how four women on the run assembled in the late 1960s and early 1970s in an embezzler’s mansion that became a Catholic convent and Indian boarding school before falling into disuse. In the stories of these women—Mavis, Gigi, Seneca, and Pallas—Morrison enumerates the threats faced by the poor, the young, or the female, such as poverty, state violence, domestic violence, and sexual predation from the “mundane” (Mavis’s marital rape at the hands of her husband) to the more outlandish (the Eyes Wide Shut scenario to which Seneca is subjected by a wealthy woman named Norma Keene Fox). Animal imagery abounds in the women’s stories, from aforementioned predator “Keene Fox” to the name of Mavis’s mother (Birdie Goodroe), as does classical and mythical allusion (Pallas, Seneca), to signal that this novel asks to be read skeptically as a work of exaggeration, as fable and myth rather than strict social realism.

In fact, Morrison parodies realism with aplomb in the Mavis chapter, throwing brand names and other “dirty realist” paraphernalia onto the page with witty abandon—this to trick us into thinking that Mavis is “the white girl” of the first sentence by writing about her in the literary idiom associated with the white lower class. Realism too, Morrison here tells us, is a fable, one whose moral we might distrust. As in her oft-misunderstood statement about Bill Clinton as the first black president, Morrison is making the point that “tropes of blackness” are often simply tropes of poverty, the latter fact deliberately obscured by the powers-that-be to divide the poor.

Those eight chapters also interleave the women’s stories with the story of the founding of Ruby, “the one all-black town worth the pain.” Summarizing this straightforwardly is no easy feat since the narrative comes piecemeal and from partial perspectives. The basic story is this: a group of very dark-skinned black people who had lived near Louisiana since the mid-eighteenth-century found themselves, at the end of Reconstruction, dismissed or oppressed not only by whites but also by lighter-skinned blacks. This led them to found their own town called Haven in 1890 in Oklahoma, when many all-black towns were created due to the federal government’s encouragement of homesteading. When Haven fell into poverty and disrepair in the mid-twentieth-century, the grandchildren of Haven’s founders set out again and founded a new town called Ruby.

In the 1960s and ’70s, however, Ruby is torn by the social conflicts tearing apart the rest of the country—between men and women, old and young, conservative and radical. These conflicts center on the town’s symbolic center, a brick oven that bears the words “the furrow of his brow.” The contending ideological forces in the town differ over how this message is the be completed: “Beware the Furrow of His Brow,” as the conservative town elders insist, or, in the preferred message of the young radicals, echoing the gnosticism that Morrison evokes with her epigraph, “Be the Furrow of His Brow”? Or even, as one of the town’s female citizens thinks, “Be the Furrow of Her Brow.” Eventually, the town elders come to see the convent women as the source of their troubles—”not a convent but a coven”—and go on a witch hunt.

Just before they are hunted down, the women consolidate themselves into a quasi-religious order. The old woman Consolata, who was kidnapped from a Rio slum by the nuns and who has lived in the convent ever since, becomes the “new revised Reverend Mother” for a kind of mystery cult wherein the women shave their heads and heal themselves with “loud dreaming” and artistic expression. These scenes provoked a not entirely unpersuasive objection from Zoë Heller in the London Review of Books (“the narrative itself dissolves into Adrienne Rich-ish poetry”), but just as Morrison is unsparing in her portrayal of the racism and colorism that led the men of Ruby to their extremes of intolerance, so her tongue never quite leaves her cheek in her depiction of this New Age religion, which makes the women too otherworldly to function: “Gradually they lost the days.” Warned by a female citizen of Ruby that they are about to be attacked, the women “yawned and smiled,” a small detail but a crucial one: Morrison, who once rather hair-raisingly wrote that it is “wildly irresponsible” not to inquire about women’s complicity in their own rape or abuse, places supreme importance on personal autonomy and the material means of self-reliance. In the last glimpse we get of the convent women, after they have either come back from the dead or are appearing as ghosts to their loved ones, they are on the road and they are armed.

“Come back from the dead”: yes, however hedged by modernist technique, Paradise entertains a spiritual notion. It does not entirely dismiss Christianity; Ruby’s newest clergyman, Rev. Misner, is sympathetic to the young radicals in the town and muses with eloquence and authority on liberation theology:

See? The execution of this one solitary black man propped up on these two intersecting lines to which he was attached in a parody of human embrace, fastened to two big sticks that were so convenient, so recognizable, so embedded in consciousness as consciousness, being both ordinary and sublime. See? His woolly head alternately rising on his neck and falling toward his chest, the glow of his midnight skin dimmed by dust, streaked by gall, fouled by spit and urine, gone pewter in the hot, dry wind and, finally, as the sun dimmed in shame, as his flesh matched the odd lessening of afternoon light as though it were evening, always sudden in that climate, swallowing him and the other death row felons, and the silhouette of this original sign merged with a false night sky. See how this official murder out of hundreds marked the difference; moved the relationship between God and man from CEO and supplicant to one on one? The cross he held was abstract; the absent body was real, but both combined to pull humans from backstage to the spotlight, from muttering in the wings to the principal role in the story of their lives.

All the same, the definition and defense of female divinity comes into view as the novel’s theme. To the men of Ruby, the women they hunt are “[b]odacious black Eves, unredeemed by Mary.” But Consolata tells us that “Eve is Mary’s mother,” and the novel ends, very beautifully, with Consolata in the arms of black madonna, presumably like that worshipped in her native Brazil:

In ocean hush a woman black as firewood is singing. Next to her is a younger woman whose head rests on the singing woman’s lap. Ruined fingers troll the tea brown hair. All the colors of seashells—wheat, roses, pearl—fuse in the younger woman’s face. Her emerald eyes adore the black face framed in cerulean blue. Around them on the beach, sea trash gleams. Discarded bottle caps sparkle near a broken sandal. A small dead radio plays the quiet surf.

There is nothing to beat this solace which is what Piedade’s song is about, although the words evoke memories neither one has ever had: of reaching age in the company of the other; of speech shared and divided bread smoking from the fire; the unambivalent bliss of going home to be at home—the ease of coming back to love begun.

When the ocean heaves sending rhythms of water ashore, Piedade looks to see what has come. Another ship, perhaps, but different, heading to port, crew and passengers, lost and saved, atremble, for they have been disconsolate for some time. Now they will rest before shouldering the endless work they were created to do down here in paradise.

In other words, don’t divide Eve from Mary, whore from madonna, but adopt a holistic spiritual view capable of embracing flesh and spirit, capable of leading us away from domination based on or justified by difference.

Do not miss, as the early critics did, the ending’s emphasis on “endless work” (nor the admission that “down here” is all the paradise we’re likely to get). What is the “endless work”? The work of interpretation. Midway through the novel, Ruby’s resident writer Patricia, who has been assembling a genealogy, discovers that the men of the town have been maintaining their racial purity through incest in a parody of white racism (“They think they have outfoxed the whiteman when in fact they imitate him”). Upon finding this out, she burns her family trees—this to suggest that any attempt at purification is to be rejected as an arbitrary imposition. Ruby’s elderly midwife, Lone, takes a view of God that is more in keeping with the novel’s narrative mode:

Playing blind was to avoid the language God spoke in. He did not thunder instructions or whisper messages into ears. Oh no. He was a liberating God. A teacher who taught you how to learn, to see for yourself. His signs were clear, abundantly so, if you stopped steeping in vanity’s sour juice and paid attention to His world.

Read the clues, try to assemble the narrative, but accept in advance your defeat even as you press forward in trying to understand. I accept—there is so much more to say about Paradise. About characters and their names (“His grandfather had named his twins Deacon and Steward for a reason”), about twins and doubles. I have merely alluded to Morrison’s parody of the Biblical Exodus and its American re-creation by the Puritan settlers, and I have not even mentioned how the novel emphasizes that both Ruby and the convent exist only because the land was cleared by the state of its prior Native American inhabitants. I have not mentioned the novel’s love of nature, its endless invention, its food (the hot peppers that grow only at the convent).

Nor have I mentioned Paradise‘s flaws: it really is too short and feels thinner than it should as a result, with poetic prose often doing duty for narrative and characterization (James Wood was not wrong in this complaint). A novel of this spiritual and political ambition should be as long as The Brothers Karamazov, and I am convinced that Morrison would not bore us at that length.

Well, every narrative is flawed, including that of Paradise, as Paradise itself tells us. Even so, after twenty years we can say that its first critics judged it too hastily or too ideologically. It sits on the shelf without embarrassment next to the most ambitious fictions of its time. Don’t take my word for it. Read it and “see for yourself.”

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

N. J. Campbell, Found Audio

Found AudioFound Audio by N.J. Campbell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Who is the Biblioteca Nacional de Investigación de Buenos Aires?”

I can tell you without in any way spoiling N. J. Campbell’s Found Audio that this is the novel’s final sentence. It is an odd question on two grounds. First, there is no such institution, as far as I can discern—the official name of Argentina’s national library would appear to be La Biblioteca Nacional de la República Argentina. Second, “who” is the wrong part of speech: who—that is, what person—could possibly be a research library? But let me not belabor the obvious. The national research library of Argentina is, for the purposes of world literature and its writers and readers, obviously the erstwhile Argentine National Library director himself, Jorge Luis Borges. He is the patron saint of this new novel by debut novelist Campbell. As in Borges’s work, so in Campbell’s, we are in the realm of sublime and oneiric infinities, but mediated ones, ones possibly impossible but for the mass media age, and even then, or now.

I heard of this novel from The Book Chemist and could not resist the implicit promise of a novel that might be a less annoying or pretentious House of Leaves and a more literary or less trashy Night Film. I enjoy narratives that locate primordial fear within the mass communications technologies that were supposed to banish the night forever; they create a frisson of metaphysical disquiet that is authentic to my, or our, experience of everyday life in the way that other venerable horror personae and tropes are not. A demon crawling out of a screen is much more frightening to Internet-addicted city-dwellers or suburbanites than a demon crawling out of a forest. Still, such narratives generally seem better suited to cinema, from The Ring to Lake Mungo, than to literature. Prose fiction, as in Danielewski’s cult classic, often has to strain too hard to create the effects of haunted media when its authors do not learn the lesson of Borges (or Poe or Lovecraft) to keep fear-and-fabulism brief.[1] Found Audio‘s publisher, Two Dollar Radio, acknowledges the novel’s cinematic roots in this slightly mortifying image[2]:

Which is my cue for a plot summary: Found Audio casts itself as a found manuscript narrative. In a foreword and afterword, N. J. Campbell himself tells us that he received this manuscript when working as a reader for a small press; publishing it under his own name as fiction, however, he assures us it is authentic. What is in the manuscript? It is the record and transcript of sound historian Amrapali Anna Singh of the University of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, who found herself in a receipt of a strange set of audio tapes that originated in the aforementioned Argentine national research library. The tapes are the recorded narrative of a nameless travel journalist who explains his long quest for “the city of dreams,” an authentic experience of otherworldly extremity-in-place. His quest begins almost by accident with a hallucinatory tour through the swamps of Louisiana with a snake hunter, then leads him to a walled city in China, a village in South Africa, a possible mirage in the Gobi desert, and a chess game in Istanbul. He both does and does not find what he’s looking for—his experiences are mysterious, even supernatural ones, but also possibly dreams or hallucinations. In the midst of his narrative, he also reflects poignantly on the loss of his life’s great love, a woman named Bianca, who left him for a colleague of his—and not just any colleague, but the one who sets the narrator off on these doomed adventures. While the narrator is telling his tale, he is often interrupted by noises and voices—as the sound historian Singh informs us in her footnotes—that do not seem likely to belong to one place, time, or group of people. Are the narrator’s experiences real? And to what weird tribunal is he reporting them? Moreover, why does everyone who seeks to publicize the tapes go missing?

Found Audio is a literary novel rather than a genre one: by that I mean pragmatically that it is more interested in mood, theme, and psychology than plot. Thus it is no surprise that the questions above—and their philosophical implications—turn out to be much more important than the answers. As its media motif of analog recording in our digital age should suggest, Campbell’s novel is about nostalgia, about yearning for a time when the mysterious could still be imagined as a place in the world. The novel informs us three times that “hysteresis” is the name for a certain distortion that magnetic recording is prey to. There is no etymological relation between “hysteresis” and the return of the repressed itself, “hysteria,” but the punning poetic imagination does not know this. The narrator’s drive to experience the mystery, to go on the outward journey that is the inward journey that is yet again the outward journey, the voyage to and through the oneiric utopia, marks him as the novel’s hero, along with Singh and Campbell, who also refuse to give up on the transmission of the tapes. But the city of dreams remains elusive, and the novel is perhaps also mocking the desire to locate it outside the self—especially when the self is, in the persons both of the novel’s narrator and its author, a white American, and its outside, as depicted in the book’s far-flung settings, is the African-American or African or Chinese or Turkish “other.” (Some readers will almost certainly not find such satire evident or overt enough and will therefore, I assume, provide more of a postcolonial dressing-down of Found Audio‘s colonial tropes than I have.)

As to an aesthetic evaluation of the novel: Campbell has said in interviews that he wanted to experiment with a voiced narrative, hence the recording of the protagonist. Voice, however, can cover a multitude of sins. While the narrative is mostly convincing in its conversational tone, Campbell’s pursuit of speakerly verisimilitude does drain the novel of a certain descriptive vitality. For a tale of such exotic locales and supernal goings-on, there is little evocation of place beyond bare notation, vague metaphors (“His silence carried a weight in its midst”), and even cliché (“dead of night,” “like a dog with a bone,” “all bets are off,” etc.). There is also the occasional distracting solecism, as when both “tenents” and “tenants” are given in place of “tenets” in the space of a single page, for example, or “forth” for “fourth.” Self-parody, like verisimilitude, can furnish fine excuses, but when the sound historian Singh writes that the audio tapes’ narrative is “cliché, undeveloped, and hackneyed,” or when Campbell in his own afterword calls the foregoing story “undeveloped, inconsistent, and insufficiently detailed,” the reader may admire the knowingness without quite forgiving the prose. Though Borges is the novel’s overt sponsor, with his pioneering of the modern writer’s journey through media and language to the infinite heart of mystery, Campbell might have followed Borges in the construction of a more “literary” narrative persona—or perhaps, befitting the narrator’s adventuresome spirit, a more literarily tough-guy one, like those of Hemingway or McCarthy. Otherwise, the novel’s language is sometimes just too slack to induce the unease or vertigo Found Audio is so often striving for.

Nevertheless, the premise is intriguing, the narrative addictively readable, and the themes relevant and ultimately moving. The novel is even informative. One of Campbell’s jokes, I take it, is that his fiction’s mundane locales—such as the University of Dutch Harbor and the Biblioteca Nacional de Investigación de Buenos Aires—are wholly invented, while its Walled Cities and Bayou mysteries are based on solid research. And some scenes are as eerie and memorable as anything in this literary tradition:

Now it’s extremely unnerving when a blind man narrows his eyes at you. If it had been in some other direction, if it had felt like he had been looking to the left or right of me—even by an inch—I would have felt something less than primal fear, but he just stood there with his empty eyes leveled at my eyes. He stared at me for maybe three or four seconds and then he walked out in front of his stand, bent down, and picked up a handful of dry earth. Then he stood up and stared right at me again and held out his other, empty, hand. I thought he was gesturing for me to give him my hand and I guessed correctly, because as I gave it to him, he held the earth over my palm and let it slip through his fingers. Before a single grain of sand touched my palm, it had scattered in the wind.

A fascinating and promising first novel; I look forward to the second.
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[1] Staging the return of the repressed at length via printed text—which is to say in literature—tends to work better in a comic rather than horrific mode, from Cervantes to Sterne to Joyce to Nabokov. Insofar as both comedy and horror are the unconscious’s disordered revenge upon the ego’s rational designs, we can still see a kinship between both modes of meta-media narrative.

[2] Saturated in advertising as we are, we naturally think of books, possibly including our own, in such marketing terms; when I first started writing Portraits and Ashes back in 2013, I joked that it was “Lena Dunham meets José Saramago” (forgive me: Lena still seemed relevant then)—but I don’t know if I would actually want it advertised that way!

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo

Pedro PáramoPedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It sometimes seems as if great novels—where “great” implies success at the historico-political task of summing an epoch or capturing a society in fiction—almost have to be long. You know the list: Bleak House, War and Peace, Middlemarch, The Magic Mountain, Underworld, etc. But I am also interested in a certain type of shorter novel, often even straddling the novella/novel boundary*, that has the perhaps peculiar ambition of taking up the job of the big-canvas Balzacian or Dickensian novel (and behind it, the epic) in a much smaller space. These novels often address themselves to generational time-scales, vast territories, communal experiences, or transpersonal institutions; formally, they often incorporate multiple perspectives and conflicting voices. While you might think that the shorter or short novel would mainly concern very particular moral problems or psychological experiences (and many examples come to mind, more examples than of the kind of book I am discussing, as in the short novels of James or Mansfield or Bellow, for instance), the short or shorter novel I am thinking of manifestly exhibits the world-describing or world-making power of bigger books with the additional ambition of compressing this power within a small compass: Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Melville’s Billy Budd, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Toomer’s Cane, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Morrison’s Sula, Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. Sometimes these brief texts are even the fictional treatments of their historical subjects (American Puritanism for Hawthorne, modernist London for Woolf), yet they will fit in the back pocket as similarly epochal novels like Lost Illusions or Ulysses will not.

Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo is such a novel. My little old Grove Press paperback, translated by Lysander Kemp, is 123 pages, and that is with fairly wide line spacing, but the book’s historical reputation is as the great Mexican novel. Rulfo’s first novel, published in 1955, is a deliriously fragmented tale, surreal and supernatural, about what befell the village of Comala in the early twentieth century.

It begins with seeming straightforwardness, as a narrator named Juan Preciado ventures to Comola at the behest of his dead mother because it is where his father, the eponymous Pedro Páramo, lives. But it soon becomes clear to Juan that Comala is a town empty but for ghosts of its prior residents, who take turns taking him in on his voyage, and from whose testimony he pieces together the scarifying story of his father’s life (though not before, midway through the novel, joining the dead himself). Pedro Páramo was a ruthless, expansive landowner, cheating and murdering his way to control of his territory, dominating the women he desires, and even manipulating the Mexican Revolution to his own advantage; the center of his life, however, is his obsession from childhood with a woman named Susana. The last third of the book, as the vital Pedro Páramo’s story comes to dominate over that of his now-dead son, narrates the land baron’s attempt to recover Susana and her own erotic madness.

Carmen Boullosa, writing in The Nation in 2006, summarizes the many meanings that have been attributed to this classic (which, she notes, every Mexican inevitably reads in school):

It has been said to represent, embody, allegorize or illuminate: the times of Porfirio Díaz’s dictatorship, the social context of the Revolution, patriarchal rancher culture and the repression of women, the poetic qualities of rural speech, Mexico’s relationship with death, the lingering influence on Mexicans of Aztec cosmology, Mexican deruralization and the ghost towns it created, Mexican culture, Mexican history, Mexican modernity, universal myths and archetypes. All of these interpretations are right, except those asserting that they alone are right. For me, the novel is about the Novel: the wonders of storytelling, the power of the literary word that spins so fast it never lets the reader catch it.

While I am admittedly inexpert on the specifics of Mexican history, I obviously appreciate Boullosa’s point about “the Novel”; for me, though, Pedro Páramo is about the difficulties and paradoxes of belatedness: the sense that, though the past was brutal, at least it was alive, while the present feels like a gray colloquy of ghosts. This is just where “the Novel” comes in. As I have said before, art might be our only substitute for the life we no longer can or want to live, the man we no longer can or want to be. In reading about Pedro Páramo, we do not have to be him. The son of the absent father, Juan Preciado, in that sense, is the reader’s surrogate. (And the author’s surrogate? Perhaps the chorus of women who tell so much of the story—a feminist essay that I am sure has been written already.)

My book’s back cover refers to Faulkner, and Boullosa, in cataloguing the notoriously cagey Rulfo’s artistic exaggerations, notes that he claimed never to have read Faulkner. This is not convincing, and anyway there is no shame in influence. Faulkner with his modernist hinterland gothic taught us all to look with relativizing multiple perspectives on absolutist monomaniacs, to elegize monstrous tragic heroes we are relieved not to have to live with even as we are perversely sad they are gone, and to communicate in worldly or cosmopolitan literary form the particularities and hauntings of our local experience (whether the locality is in our villages or in our heads). Speaking of influence, Rulfo’s novel has also been said to have been a forerunner of magical realism; its own magic is somewhat traditional, that of the ghost story, not the more baroque inventions of a García Márquez, but the impact on One Hundred Years of Solitude is evident. Recurring to my first paragraph above, note, though, Rulfo’s almost novella-length tale as compared to García Márquez’s vast saga.

Anyway, I recommend Pedro Páramo most highly, from the beautifully surreal details that begin on the first page—

They say a road goes up or down depending on whether you’re coming or going. If you’re going away it’s uphill, but it’s downhill if you’re coming back.

—to the comic, poignant voices that ring through the empty town, those that belong in a horror movie—

“The village is full of echoes. Perhaps they got trapped in the hollows of the walls, or under the stones. When you walk in the street, you can hear other footsteps, and rustling noises, and laughter. Old laughter, as if it were tired of laughing by now. And voices worn out with use. You can hear all this. I think someday these sounds will die away.”

—and those more intimate and tender—

“Illusions are bad. It was an illusion that made me live longer than I should have. That’s how I paid for trying to find my son, who was only another illusion. I never had a son. Now that I’m dead I’ve had time to think everything over, and I understand. God didn’t even give me any home to keep him in. Just a long, weary life, always searching wherever I went, looking sideways, looking behind people, always suspecting they’d hidden my child. And it was all the fault of my bad dream.”

—to the moments of lyrical description that seem to arrest time in evoking its passage—

The wind blew during all those days, the wind that brought the rain. The rain had gone now, but the wind stayed on. The corn-shoots dried off in the fields and lay down to protect themselves from the wind. It was bearable enough in the daytime, although it shook the vines and rattled the tiles on the roof, but at night it moaned and moaned. The clouds drifted like great, silent pavilions over the earth.

A great twentieth-century novel, and not a bit less great because you can read it in a day.
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* Isn’t it odd that we insist on the novella/novel distinction, but no distinctions among texts considered long enough to be novels? Why is there a qualitative difference embedded in our language between a 30,000-word fiction and a 70,000-word one, but not between a 90,000-word fiction and a 1,000,000-word one?

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

 

Toni Morrison, Sula

SulaSula by Toni Morrison

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sula is an anarchic novel and a conservative one. Toni Morrison, because she is a sort of multicultural figurehead, passes herself off as (and tends to be received as) some kind of left-liberal; and her later fiction—notably Paradise and A Mercy, both of which tend to de-emphasize race/culture in favor of gender and class, respectively—approaches such a universalist politics. But her writing at its most intense is in the Romantic and modernist traditions of pitting an almost mythicized collective or communal culture against a technological and material progress that extirpates tradition and blunts intense experience. There is no reason why she should not belong to such a broad and rebelliously conservative school of aesthetics, one that encompasses figures as diverse in time, place, and sensibility as Wordsworth and Tanizaki; but in the U.S., when conservatives want to conserve a culture other than that of white people, they tend to be interpreted, understandably, as belonging to the political left. On the other hand, Morrison’s taste for anarchy renders Sula something other than merely nostalgic or nationalistic or reactionary.

Sula‘s two themes, the anarchic and the conservative, run on parallel tracks: the novel is the story of a neighborhood and also a lament over the waning, during the postwar economic boom and the push for integration, of black people’s unique cultural expression and tolerance for eccentricity; and it is also the story of its eponymous heroine, Sula Peace, and her destructive and self-destructive behavior toward her family and toward her best friend, the more “normal” young woman, Nel.

While Morrison hardly denies that racist exclusion—including, crushingly, economic exclusion—structures and necessitates the African-American cultural inventiveness she celebrates, she nevertheless sees its passing as a loss. There is even a slight suggestion in Sula that oppression makes communities and individuals interesting—that the merely happy and prosperous are contemptible. One sees what Morrison means, or at least I do, but as a politics this is either null (aestheticism, best left to fiction or poetry) or dangerous (fascism, a call to collective sacrifice and struggle against decadent, impure, effete others—white people, yes, but it has always seemed to me that the pejorative use of the racial epithet “white” often attracts the prejudicial associations that attach to “gay” and “Jewish” as well).

Sula is largely set between World Wars I and II in The Bottom, a black neighborhood in the Ohio town of Medallion. The town dates back to when a slave-owner tricked a freed slave into accepting, as recompense for work performed, hard-to-farm hill-land because, the master assured him, it was “the bottom of heaven.” The novel begins with a prologue, which Morrison disowns as making too many concessions to the befuddled white reader in her 2004 preface, that introduces and eulogizes the town:

In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom. One road, shaded by beeches, oaks, maples and chestnuts, connected it to the valley. The beeches are gone now, and so are the pear trees where children sat and yelled down through the blossoms to passersby. Generous funds have been allotted to level the stripped and faded buildings that clutter the road from Medallion up to the golf course. They are going to raze the Time and a Half Pool Hall, where feet in long tan shoes once pointed down from chair rungs. A steel ball will knock to dust Irene’s Palace of Cosmetology, where women used to lean their heads back on sink trays and doze while Irene lathered Nu Nile into their hair. Men in khaki work clothes will pry loose the slats of Reba’s Grill, where the owner cooked in her hat because she couldn’t remember the ingredients without it.

Morrison’s strengths abound in this paragraph: the symbolism of a brilliant writer thoroughly educated in the good/bad old days of New Criticism and psychoanalysis (our heroines, one poisonous and one able to be consumed by the community, will correspond precisely to nightshade and blackberry, as Morisson herself points out in her essay, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken”); the fabulism (“there was once” setting the folkloric tone); the angry irony and satire (in those “[g]enerous funds” and that presumably exclusive golf course); and the praise, not simply of organic community as such—which would, as I noted, be mere fascism, to which Morrison descends in the less guarded moments of her early work—but of idiosyncrasy and particularity (“feet in long tan shoes,” “where the owner cooked in her hat”).

The town-as-character is the focus of Morrison’s conservative praise. When the shell-shocked veteran Shadrack comes home to the town from the Great War, he does not kill himself, like Woolf’s alienated urban Septimus (upon whom, among other things, Morrison wrote her master’s thesis in the 1950s). Instead, he institutes National Suicide Day, a day on which he rings a bell and carries a hangman’s noose through the town to invite the people to die and to remind them of death. Later, Morrison’s essayistic narrator informs us that the town does not seek to destroy evil but to recognize its necessity:

In their world, aberrations were as much as part of nature as grace. It was not for them to expel or annihilate it. They would no more run Sula out of town than they would kill the robins that brought her back, for in their secret awareness of Him, He was not the God of three faces they sang about. They knew quite well that He had four, and that the fourth explained Sula. They had lived with various forms of evil all their days, and it wasn’t that they believed God would take care of them. It was rather that they knew God had a brother and that brother hadn’t spared God’s son, so why should he spare them?

Note that Morrison seems to scare even herself here: she retracts the major heresy of this passage’s fifth sentence—in which the Devil is literally part and parcel of God, as much as Christ and the Holy Spirit—to commit the smaller heresy of saying that the Devil is God’s brother at the end of the paragraph.

At the novel’s conclusion, however, the town loses its anti-hero, Sula, who dies young, seemingly of boredom, after having “sung all the songs there are.” She was the evil against which the town had defined itself, and so, on National Suicide Day, the town does in fact commit suicide en masse in the process of destroying a bridge that the government had excluded black men from building by hiring whites, even recently-arrived immigrant whites. (This novel’s palpable resentment of the dominant culture’s economic preference for immigrants over African-Americans, and immigrants’ concomitant adoption of anti-black racism, may provide a warning about how the present-day Democratic Party coalition may be broken up by a canny manipulator—but let me desist, before this review, or indeed Sula itself, is sent as a memorandum to the Trump campaign.)

The novel’s epilogue is set in 1965, a year presented as regressive rather than progressive, a year in which Morrison portrays black people as losing themselves in idiotic materialism as American culture at large opts for a bright and grandiose technocracy that kills the specificity and communal character of experience:

Things were so much better in 1965. Or so it seemed. […] The young ones kept talking about the community, but they left the hills to the poor, the old, the stubborn—and the rich white folks. Maybe it hadn’t been a community, but it had been a place. Now there weren’t any places left, just separate houses with separate televisions and separate telephones and less and less dropping by.

If this sort of volkishness annoys you, then Sula, with its “evil conjure woman” bearing High John the Conquerer and (note that Morrison, who invented the next phrase, seems to think it’s funny too) “the Nine Herbs from Cincinnati” and its wise grandmothers who can read dreams, will indeed annoy you. But Morrison’s tone is sufficiently ironic to prevent an outright romance with “discredited knowledges”—Morrison both believes and she does not believe, a common enough condition for fiction writers, and she is above insulting her ancestors, which she regards as a symptom of white deracination and dehumanization (“White people didn’t fret about putting their old ones away”), like Crusoe alone on his island or Faust selling his soul for knowledge.

Sula is not all nostalgic, though—it is, as I said, also anarchic, a slim Nietzschean treatise, a counter-biblical book (The Book of Sula), on the necessity of self-creation and a totally amoral approach to life. The heroine is our anarchist. As Sula says when her grandmother tells her to have children, “I don’t want to make anybody else. I want to make myself.” In the middle of the novel, after Sula has cut off her own fingertip to scare away ill-intentioned white boys, after she has carelessly killed a child named Chicken Little, after she has watched with cool fascination as her mother caught fire and burned to death, and after she has caused her best friend’s marriage to break up, the narrator observes:

As willing to feel pain as to give pain, to feel pleasure as to give pleasure, hers was an experimental life–ever since her mother’s remarks [that she loved Sula but did not like her] sent her flying up those stairs, ever since her one major feeling of responsibility had been exorcised on the bank of a river with a closed place in the middle [where she drowned Chicken Little]. The first experience taught her there was no other that you could count on; the second that there was no self to count on either. She had no center, no speck around which to grow.

But the novel offers us an option for anarchy besides countenancing murderous or cruel behavior—a rather venerable alternative called art:

In a way, her strangeness, her naiveté, her craving for the other half of her equation was the consequence of an idle imagination. Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings, had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like an artist with no art form, she became dangerous.

Because aesthetic Sula’s evil—and she is evil, as you can see from my list of transgressions above—provides the town with a negative standard of comparison, she improves the town. She makes the women more attentive as mothers and the children better behaved and the men more appreciative of what they have. The novel’s thesis is that “culture” (conservatism) needs a little “art” (anarchy) on which to sharpen its blade: war, said Heraclitus, is the mother of all, and Blake moreover told us, in a proverb of Hell no less, that opposition is true friendship. When Sula’s ex-best-friend Nel realizes at the end what she has lost with the loss of Sula, it is the loss, I think, of excitement and vitality and interest in life, of the nearness of sex and death that alone inspire what orderliness we may aspire to.

Is anyone in the literary mainstream today writing novels this ideologically or morally daring? We may need fewer paeans to empathy and more defenses of evil. Sula makes a marvelously offensive prophecy on her deathbed about when she will be loved; perhaps contemporary novelists might model their future stories upon its ruthlessly amoral vision:

“After all the old women have lain with the teen-agers; when all the young girls have slept with their old drunken uncles; after all the black men fuck all the white ones; when all the white women kiss all the black ones; when the guards have raped all the jailbirds and after all the whores make love to their grannies; after all the faggots get their mothers’ trim; when Lindbergh sleeps with Bessie Smith and Norma Shearer makes it with Stepin Fetchit; after all the dogs have fucked all the cats and every weathervane on every barn flies off the roof to mount the hogs…then there’ll be a little love left over for me.”

I love the brevity of this novel, really a novella. Anyone else would have bored us with 800 pages, given that this is a family saga, a bildungsroman, and the epic of a whole community all in one, which covers half a century. But Morrison weighs her words; she alternates between rich description and explanation (she’ll tell rather than show if she pleases) and passages of coruscating dialogue (modeled on the stichomythia of Greek tragedy—Morrison, recall, was a classics major). Some of it is thinly realized, but I think that is a risk worth taking: folk tales are short, too, but everyone remembers them.

I love the humor of this novel—does anyone ever observe that Morrison is funny? But the whole novel, with its Chicken Little and its National Suicide Day and its violent family named Peace, is sly and droll: she knows she writes narratives of old-time excess in an exsanguinated world, and her tongue is never totally out of her cheek. I love this novel’s audacity, its inventiveness—its two immolations, its one quasi-inadvertent child murder, its collective suicide. (What can I say?—I think exciting things should happen in fiction.) I love its at times hair-raising frankness, which would not be acceptable at all in today’s literary community, as when Sula makes a little speech, which I will not quote so as to spare readers’ sensitivities, wherein she mentions, en passant, what she believes to be white women’s desire to be violated by black men. Shocked? Offended? Yes, she means to offend: she means to remind us of the necessity of evil—a concept that is at least worth contemplating, anyway, since evil does not seem to be going anywhere. Is there some occasional sentimental overwriting? There usually is in Morrison—

Then they left their pews. For with some emotions one has to stand. They spoke, for they were full and needed to say. They swayed, for the rivulets of grief or ecstasy must be rocked.

But there is more of the following—sublime event, precise description: what makes fiction what it is.

She rolled up to the window and it was then she saw Hannah burning. The flames from the yard fire were licking the blue cotton dress, making her dance. Eva knew there was time for nothing in this world other than the time it took to get there and cover her daughter’s body with her own. She lifted her heavy frame up on her good leg, and with fists and arms smashed the windowpane. Using her stump as a support on the window sill, her good leg as a lever, she threw herself out of the window. Cut and bleeding she clawed the air trying to aim her body toward the flaming, dancing figure. She missed and came crashing down some twelve feet from Hannah’s smoke. Stunned but still conscious, Eva dragged herself toward her firstborn, but Hannah, her senses lost, went flying out of the yard gesturing and bobbing like a sprung jack-in-the-box.

Mr. and Mrs. Suggs, who had set up their canning apparatus in their front yard, saw her running, dancing toward them. They whispered, “Jesus, Jesus,” and together hoisted up their tub of water in which tight red tomatoes floated and threw it on the smoke-and-flame-bound woman. The water did put out the flames, but it also made steam, which seared to sealing all that was left of the beautiful Hannah Peace. She lay there on the wooden sidewalk planks, twitching lightly among the smashed tomatoes, her face a mask of agony so intense that for years the people who gathered ’round would shake their heads at the recollection of it.

___________________

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Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

The Wind-Up Bird ChronicleThe Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Murakami is a polarizing figure; I like polarizing figures, because the lack of consensus about their merits deprives my adolescent contrarianism, which resists all consensus indiscriminately, of its fuel, and, in consequence, I have to make up my mind freely. To my free mind, Murakami is a writer of extraordinary gifts and terrible limitations.

I certainly enjoyed this novel. Murakami can be a mesmerizing storyteller. “Can be” because this particular novel has three distinct modes, one of which is not at all successful. It begins as a wryly oneiric domestic drama in which the protagonist, Toru Okada, starts to experience strange events and to meet strange people after his cat goes missing. I found the novel’s first quarter or so, in this gently Kafkan idiom, wholly seductive and genuinely unpredictable, because it is guided not by generic rules but by authorial sensibility. The novel’s second mode narrates incidences from the Second World War through the eyes of several of Okada’s interlocutors. In these sections, Murakami writes with a traditional kind of novelistic clarity and authority, owing more to the realist and historical commitments of, say, Tolstoy than to magical realism; there are harrowing set-pieces in these sections (the skinning of Yamamoto, the execution of the Chinese deserters in baseball uniforms, the slaughter of the zoo animals) that I doubt I will forget.

The novel’s disastrous third mode, however, features an indistinctly narrated mystical battle between the protagonist and his brother-in-law, an evil politician who is holding the hero’s wife captive and who is also poised to hypnotize Japan into some return to the era of imperialism. This fantasy-novel stuff is both morally simplistic and dramatically unconvincing—the hero apparently has to kill the politician in his dream-life, which will have the effect of slaying him in reality. If this is a metaphor for “killing the fascist in oneself,” as Foucault or somebody once said, Murakami does not make this clear; the end of the novel reads more like a duller version of A Nightmare on Elm Street than like any kind of serious novel about a person’s inner struggle with his or her own authoritarian and violent tendencies, as in, say, Coetzee’s or Ishiguro’s fiction. (Now I know, by the way, where David Mitchell gets his vices.) As I neared the end of the novel, I was hoping for a very different sort of ending, one where the protagonist realizes that he himself is the villain. But the externalization of absolute evil in the figure of the hero’s brother-in-law is the kind of genre-fiction trope that explains why some people still hold genre fiction in low regard.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is very much a novel of its time: the mid-1990s. It has an end-of-history faith in the power of storytelling to commemorate and redeem, to remake the self and the world. The best parts of the novel resist this tendency by insisting on loneliness and isolation and fate and pain, as well as on how these terrible necessities may be resisted through small gestures and careful artifices. The worst parts indulge in the exasperating garrulity and quirkiness that mar so many other global fictions of the period, from Rushdie to Wallace to Gaiman, as if storytelling, even storytelling without purpose or relevance to human reality, were a virtue in itself. This would be so much better if it were a shorter novel, or, even better, two shorter novels: a work of domestic surrealism and a work of wartime tragedy. But fantasies of good vs. evil and their psychic battle over the body of a prostrate woman/nation can surely be left on the adolescent bookshelf.

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