Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Golden Apples by Eudora Welty

Again she thought of a pear--not the everyday gritty kind that hung on the tree in the backyard, but the fine kind sold on trains and at high prices, each pear with a paper cone wrapping it alone--beautiful, symmetrical, clean pears with thin skins, with snow-white flesh so juicy and tender that to eat one baptized the whole face, and so delicate that while you urgently ate the first half, the second half was already beginning to turn brown.  To all fruits, and especially to those fine pears, something happened--the process was so swift, you were never in time for them.  It's not the flowers that are fleeting, Nina thought, it's the fruits--it's the time when things are ready that they don't stay.

Eudora Welty is definitely a master of short fiction.  Her story "Why I Live at the P.O.," which is one of those stories you always see in collections of short stories, is like a hurricane trapped in a bottle: a comic masterpiece that might have been a novel like The Ponder Heart distilled into three or four explosive pages.  Her story "Where is the Voice Coming From?" is a different beast all together--a first-person imagining of the thought process of Medgar Evers' murderer, written even before Byron De La Beckwith was identified.  Those two stories are vastly different, but they each capture some critical voice of the American South--one we'd like to embrace and one we'd like banish, but each undeniably of its time and place.

The Golden Apples is a collection of stories about the South in a mythic, rather than comic or Gothic mode.  Its focus on a single mythical town, Morgana, Mississippi, puts it in a league with Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, or the more recent collection Olive Kitteridge.  In these stories, Welty captures another distinctly Southern voice, one which finds an affinity with Greek myth, as in the collection's title:

Was it so strange, the way things are flung out at us, like the apples of Atalanta perhaps, once we have begun a certain onrush?

Among the mythical figures of Morgana is King McLain, who abandons his wife Snowdie (so called because she is an albino) and his newborn twins, but who continues to float about the nearby towns and forests, to be spotted, every now and then, like a sasquatch.  The first story in the collection, "Shower of Gold," tells the story of King returning home, only to be surrounded at his own front door by his two twins, dressed in Halloween costumes and raising hell, and who have no idea who their father is.  King, of course, thinks better of coming home and runs away again.  At the end of the collection, in the story "The Wanderers"--in which which, like in The Optimist's Daughter, friends and family cast far and wide return for a funeral--King has returned, having shed his mythical qualities and proven, at the end of his life, to be a very normal old man.  In between, Welty provides a pair of stories that contrast the two lives of King's twins--the one who moved to San Francisco, and the one who stayed behind.

It seemed to me that The Golden Apples, unlike Delta Wedding or The Optimist's Daughter, struggles with its ensemble cast, perhaps burdened by the extra task of tracking the various characters over the course of many years.  The stories are checkered with numerous fascinating side characters--King, Snowdie, the quietly despairing piano teacher, Miss Eckhardt, and a mysterious Spanish guitarist.  But the young girls (later, young women) of Morgana who are typically the stories' protagonists and their emotional centers, are difficult to distinguish--something which Welty's frequent obscurism often exacerbates.  But Welty's sense of metaphor, and her careful observations about life, remain as terrific as ever:

Virgie never saw it differently, never doubted that all the opposites on earth were close together, love close to hate, living to dying; but of them all, hope and despair were the closest blood--unrecognizable one from the other sometimes, making moments double upon themselves, and in the doubling double again, amending but never taking back.
That's one of those things that seems undeniably true, but that I never could have put into words myself.  That's one of the most satisfying things about reading, and with Welty, it happens a lot.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

"I created OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world.  I didn't know how to connect with the people there.  I was afraid, for all of my life.  Right up until I knew it was ending.  That was when I realized, as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it's also the only place where you can find true happiness.  Because reality is real.  Do you understand?"

"Yes," I said.  "I think I do."

"Good," he said, giving me a wink.  "Don't make the same mistake I did.  Don't hide forever."

The premise is simple: genius creates an immersive virtual reality, makes a lot of money, then, when he dies, he puts his fortune up as the prize in a massive competition within the virtual world.

This book falls into a genre I've decided to start calling a book-movie.  That is, a book written with all the style cues of a movie, that will, inevitably be "adapted" into a movie after the book becomes a best seller.  See The Hunger Games, Harry Potter.  This is not a criticism of this genre, more of an acknowledgment.

Ready Player One reads like the inevitable movie it will become.  It's an engaging page turner, where the good guys are good guys and the bad guys are bad guys and everyone is just the right amount of witty and interesting---but not so witty or interesting that the audience feels threatened or inferior.  And, just when you think the bad guys are going to win, they don't; just when you think the good guy isn't going to get the girl, he is.  Etc.  I realize this sounds like I'm slamming the novel.  I'm not trying to, I genuinely enjoyed it and would recommend to anyone.

The book's also completely full of 80s references.

It's worth reading because of its palpable nerdy-cool-factor.  If you are at all into nerdy things, the novel reads like any nerdy fantasy you've wanted to happen to you.  At one point, the narrator becomes Ultraman, just after his friend, piloting an Gundam RX-78, helped to fight Mechagodzilla.  This was 100% as awesome as it sounds.  If you understood 1/3 of those references, you should probably read this book; if you understood 2/3, you definitely should read this book; if you caught all three references, reading this book is mandatory.

Recommended for a quick, fun read.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Who Do Our Heroes Belong to? Go Set a Watchman & The Meursault Investigation

It's the story of a crime, but the Arab isn't even killed in it---well, he is killed, but barely, delicately, with the fingertips as it were.  He's the second most important character in the book, but he has no name, no face, no words.
--The Meursault Investigation

She did not stand alone, but what stood behind her, the most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father.  She never questioned it, never thought about it, never even realized that before she made any decision of importance the reflex, "What would Atticus do?" passed through her unconscious; she never realized what made her dig in her feet and stand firm whenever she did was her father; that whatever was decent and of good report in her character was put there by her father; she did not know that she worshiped him.
--Go Set a Watchman

It was perhaps foolish to think our literary heroes would be immune to the profit-driven plot regurgitation that has become so common in Hollywood that it's cliche to comment on.  But, alas, Babylon!  Our Atticus has come back for a sequel.  The internet was unhappy.  Then it was seeing a silver lining.  The dust has settled, the publisher is rich, and we'll probably have to wait twenty years to see what the scholars have to say.


Just before reading Go Set a Watchman, I came across The Meursault Investigaton, a sequel of sorts to The Stranger (plug: my senior thesis was on Camus's four most important works, including The Stranger), told from the victim's brother's perspective.  The book is a wonderful, even if deeply critical, homage to The Stranger.  In it, the reader is presented with Meusault's murder from the point of view of colonialized Algeria.  Unsurprisingly, it is an unflattering portrait.

Enlightened crusader for justice?
Or patronizing racist?
Why bring this up and review these two books together?  Because rather than a review of each, I want to discuss something else: who do our heroes belong to?  Put differently: who has a right to re-write our heroes?

The most obvious answer is the hero's creator.  I would suggest that Go Set a Watchman is proof that this is the wrong answer.  Go Set a Watchman's Atticus is a racist and resistant to change.  He is inconsistent with To Kill a Mockingbird.  He also does not represent the same ideal he represented in To Kill a Mockingbird: where before he represented astute moral judgment, now he represents a morality to cast aside.

This is not to say that the moral of Go Set a Watchman is bad or wrong or a bad story; it is, however, a poorly executed one.  The inconsistencies with To Kill a Mockingbird coupled with the horrific narrative timing of Go Set a Watchman make this both a bad sequel and a bad novel.  Although acceptable in the academic context of a first draft, it is unpalatable as a fully fledged second novel or a fully fledged sequel (as promised by the guileful marketers).

Sisyphean hero of the absurd?
Or imperialist pig?
That Go Set a Watchman is Harper Lee's novel does not make it okay.  Must we accept this new Atticus merely because Lee wrote him this way?  Much in the same way we reject Jar Jar Binks, we may reject this Atticus.

And I think the reason we may reject this Atticus because it's not a good novel.  It doesn't fit.  It doesn't resonate.  It does not speak to us the way To Kill a Mockingbird does.

In contrast, The Meursault Investigation does work.  It is not a stand alone novel in the same way that sequels are not stand alone (I hesitate to call it a sequel though).  But it supplements what The Stranger has to offer by both playing with the themes of The Stranger and criticizing them. (to be fair, Meursault himself never makes an appearance in the novel, thus preventing the risk of inconsistent characters).  In this way, it is harder to reject

Seriously: fuck this guy.
So who do our heroes belong to?  Based on these two novels, I think our heroes belong to whoever can write them well---not necessarily their original creators.  That is: writing the character well is self-justifying and makes the appropriation acceptable.  Appropriating poorly, however, is unacceptable.  This distinction is important because I suspect Go Set a Watchman will not be the only marketing sensation based on a character we all love.  And, I think this leaves open the possibility of rewriting failed character appropriations (I'm looking at you, Star Wars Episodes I-III).  Treating characters as a kind of community property frees them from the tyranny of their creators and recognizes the fact that, when we love a character, that character can become bigger than his creator.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Grendel by John Gardner

The dragon tipped up his great tusked head, stretched his neck, sighed fire.  "Ah, Grendel!" he said.  He seemed that instant almost to rise to pity.  "You improve them, my boy!  Can't you see that yourself?  You stimulate them!  You make them think and scheme.  You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last.  You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves.  The exile, captivity, death they shrink from--the blunt facts of their mortality, their abandonment--that's what you make them recognize, embrace!  You are mankind, or man's condition: inseparable as the mountain-climber and the mountain.  If you withdraw, you'll instantly be replaced.  Brute existents, you know, are a dime a dozen.  No sentimental trash, then.  If man's the irrelevance that interests you, stick with him!  Scare him to glory!  It's all the same in the end, matter and motion, simple or complex.  No difference, finally.  Death, transfiguration.  Ashes to ashes and slime to slime, amen."

Something about epics like Beowulf doesn't seem coherent in the modern world.  We're no longer able to take our heroes without a grain of salt, and we're often more amenable to sympathize with our villains.  Think of every "We're not so different, you and I" speech given by a comic book bad guy, or the way that science fiction moves like to conclude with some variation of the idea that we were the monster all along.  In a way, Grendel is the version of Beowulf we want and deserve, one that looks through the eyes of the monster.

Gardner's Grendel is a vicious monster, but a self-aware one.  He has no interaction with anyone but his mute, inscrutable mother, and his brief interactions with humans emphasize his monstrousness.  He tells the reader that he is neither "proud nor ashamed" of being what he is, yet he calls himself a "[p]ointless, ridiculous monster crouched in the shadows, stinking of dead men, murdered children, martyred cows."  His isolation makes him an ideal observer: from the forest he watches King Hrothgar consolidate his power through violence and hollow ideas of honor and loyalty.  He sees the way the singer-storyteller of Hrothgar's meadhall fashions the truth into a kind of useful falsity:

What was he?  The man had changed the world, had torn up the past by its thick, gnarled roots and had transmuted it, and they, who knew the truth, remembered it his way--and so did I.

Beowulf tells us that Grendel's persecution of Hrothgar is predicate on his envy at hearing the songs of glory that are sung in the meadhall.  Grendel is true to that point, but the songs become a stand-in for a host of human creative activity: literature, religion, science.  Grendel, on the other hand, is an embodiment of Sartrean existentialism, a figure of complete nihilism intent on wrecking the pretensions of human civilization.  Gardner invents a scene in which Grendel--at the bottom of his cavern, or perhaps in a dream--is coached in existentialism by the rapacious dragon that makes up Beowulf's final episode.  These ideas aren't easy or comfortable for Grendel, but they manage to give him a sense of purpose in purposelessness, a kind of meaning predicated on meaninglessness.

All order, I've come to understand, is theoretical, unreal--a harmless, sensible, smiling mask men slide between the two great, dark realities, the self and the world--two snake-pits.  The watchful mind lies, cunning and swift, about the dark blood's lust, lies and lies and lies until, weary of talk, the watchman sleeps.  Then sudden and swift the enemy strikes from nowhere, the cavernous heart.  Violence is truth, as the crazy old peasant told Hrothulf.  But the old fool only half grasped what he said.  He had never conversed with a dragon.  And the stranger?

"The stranger" is Beowulf, who doesn't appear until the novel's very end.  Beowulf kills Grendel, as in the epic, by severing his arm, something which Grendel chalks up to mere accident.  But as he has Grendel pinned, he forces him to sing a song about the very wall he's shoved against.  Is it an indicator of the limits of Grendel's philosophy?  Or does it merely suggest that in the end, the "brute existent" of death and nothingness make civilization the only recourse?  What's cool about Grendel is that it takes one of the very oldest English texts and turns it into something very modern, which resonates with the philosophical problems that plagued the 20th century. 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem

The bombardment began a week later, at midnight.  The cannons, primed by veteran cannoneers, were aimed, muzzles raised, straight at the white star of the Emperor's empire, and they fired--not death-dealing, but life-giving missiles.  For Trurl had loaded the cannons with newborn babies, which rained down upon the enemy in gooing, cooing myriads and, growing quickly, crawled and drooled over everything; there were so many of them, that the air shook with their ear-splitting ma-ma's, da-da's, kee-kee's and waa's.  This infant inundation lasted until the economy began to collapse under the strain and the kingdom was faced with the dread specter of a depression, and still out of the sky came tots, tads, moppets and toddlers, all chubby and chuckling, their diapers fluttering.

Trurl and Klapaucius are constructors, robots who have studied the art of making machines.  They travel throughout the universe, selling their services to various feudal robot kings, and frequently try to one-up each other in their creations.  For example, Trurl boasts that he has created a machine which can produce anything in the world that begins with the letter "N," until Klapaucius challenges it to create "nothing," at which point it begins to deconstruct the entire universe.  Eventually--once Klapaucius apologizes to the machine--everything is put back to rights, but the machine can only replace the things it has disappeared which start with N, meaning never again will the universe have gruncheons, shupops, or thists.

Translating The Cyberiad from Polish must have been quite an undertaking, and Lem's translator Michael Kandel deserves recognition for somehow preserving the alliteration and wordplay that characterizes Lem's style.  The stories which make up The Cyberiad swing deftly from the language of Arthurian romance to mechanical and mathematical jargon:

Trurl and Klapaucius were former pupils of the great Cerberon of Umptor, who for forty-seven years in the School of Higher Neantical Nillity expounded the General Theory of Dragons.  Everyone knows that dragons don't exist.  But while this simplistic formulation may satisfy the layman, it does not suffice for the scientific mind... The brilliant Cerberon, attacking the problem analytically, discovered three distinct kinds of dragon: the mythical, the chimerical, and the purely hypothetical.  They were all, one might say, nonexistent, but each nonexisted in an entirely different way.  And then there were the imaginary dragons, and the a-, anti- and minus-dragons (colloquially termed nots, noughts, and oughtn'ts by the experts), the minuses being the most interesting on account of the well-known dracological paradox: when two minuses hypercontiguate (an operation in the algebra of dragons corresponding roughly to simple multiplication), the product is 0.6 dragon, a real nonplusser.

The Cyberiad is a great work of science fiction because it's so clearly conversant with the theory and practice of the hard sciences--their language, their intellectual and ethical challenges--but never relies on them or allows them to dampen the imaginative impulse.  It's easy to see a reflection of the absurdity of Philip K. Dick (whom Lem praised, but who in turn believed Lem to be a pseudonym of a composite of Soviet authors, amazingly).  It's also a clear precursor to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books, of which certain elements, like the Infinite Improbability Drive that powers space travel, are basically spelled out already by Lem.  All in all, The Cyberiad is funny and thoughtful--two qualities that science fiction has all too rarely.

Check out this Google Doodle inspired by The Cyberiad.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Second Coming by Walker Percy

The present-day unbeliever is crazy because he finds himself born into a world of endless wonders, having no notion how he got here, a world in which he eats, sleeps, shits, fucks, works, grows old, gets sick, and dies, and is quite content to have it so.  Not once in his entire life does it cross his mind to say to himself that his situation is preposterous, that an explanation is due to him and to demand such an explanation and to refuse to play out another act of the farce until an explanation is forthcoming.  No, he takes his comfort and ease, plays along with the game, watches TV, drinks his drink, laughs, curses politicians, and now and again to relieve the boredom and the farce (of which he is dimly aware) goes off to war to shoot other people--for all the world as if his prostate were not growing cancerous, his arteries turning to chalk, his brain cells dying off by the millions, as if the worms were not going to have him in no time at all.

I started Walker Percy's The Second Coming not knowing it was set in the North Carolina mountains in the vicinity of Asheville.  It was a happy accident, I thought, since I was going to Asheville in a couple weeks, and I have a well-professed fondness for reading books set in the places I'm traveling.  Then I fractured some bones in my foot in a freak karaoke accident and had to cancel the trip.  An accident, but not a happy one.

But that's okay, I'm not quite unraveling to the extent that Will Barrett, the protagonist of The Second Coming, is.  Will, who also appeared in Percy's The Last Gentleman (I didn't know this was a sequel when I started it) is a millionaire.  He plays a lot of golf.  But his game has gone to seed, and he's started to have fainting spells, and he's obsessively revisiting the moment in his youth when his father shot him--maybe accidentally?--on a hunting trip.  He's also convinced that all the Jews have left North Carolina, and that this is a sign of the End of Days.  Will isn't sure if he believes in God, but he decides to put the question to a test: he will hide out in a nearby cave without food for weeks, and if he survives or is saved, he will believe:

Who else but a madman could sit in a pod of rock under a thousand feet of mountain and feel better than he had felt in years, so good that he smiled again and snapped hsi fingers as if he had made a discovery?  I've got you both, he said aloud, God-seekers and suicides, I've got you all, God, Jews, Christians, unbelievers, Romans, Jutes, Angles, Saxons, Yankes, rebs, blacks, tigers.  At last at last at last.  It took me a lifetime, but I've got you by the short hairs now.  One of you has to cough it up.  There is no way I cannot find out.

Even if the worst comes to worst, he thought with a smile, to suicide, it will turn out well.  My suicide will represent progress in the history of suicide.  Unlike my father's, it will be done in good faith, logically, neatly, and unobtrusively, unobtrusive even to the Prudential Insurance Company.

Will's experiment throws him into the care of Allison, a much younger woman who has recently escaped from a nearby sanitarium.  She's living in a greenhouse, and spending her time scheming how to hoist an old stove through the windows.

When he landed on the floor of her greenhouse, knocking himself out, he was a problem to be solved, like moving the stove.  Problems are for solving.  Alone.  After the first shock of the crash, which caught her on her hands and knees cleaning the floor, her only thought had been to make some sense of it, of him, a man lying on her floor smeared head to toe with a whitish grease like a channel swimmer.  As her mind cast about for who or what he might be--new kind of runner?  masquerader from country-club party?  Halloween trick-or-treater?--she realized she did not yet know the new world well enough to know what to be scared of.  Maybe the man falling into her house was one of teh things that happened, albeit rarely, like a wood duck flying down the chimney.

The Second Coming follows the same basic pattern as The MoviegoerWill and Allie, like Binx and Kate, find each other as a revelation, mental illness finding comfort and support in mental illness.  Allie's mental illness, which manifests as a strange rhyming speech pattern that only Will can understand, is not the same thing as Kate's manic-depression, but it's a degree of difference and not of kind.  Will, like Binx, undergoes a kind of cosmic search that is ever only nebulously defined, and the answers come not in the form of a mystical revelation, but in the flesh-and-blood arms of another person.

But Percy is the kind of novelist who can write the same book without it seeming like the same book.  The Second Coming is rich in detail and subtlety, and Will and Allie are distinctly drawn enough to feel like characters in a new story rather than a rehash of the old.  And while The Second Coming never matches the excellence of The Moviegoer, it struck a special chord in me because of its insights about my home state, about which Willie says he "lived in the most Christian nation in the world, the U.S.A., in the most Christian part of that nation, the South, in the most Christian state in the South, North Carolina, in the most Christian town in North Carolina."  I doubt that's true (more Christian than Alabama or Mississippi?) but I liked the way the novel explores the search for God in a place which presupposes the search is already over.

In a certain way, I identify with Percy's novels more than any others, between the religious and metaphysical subject matter and the regional specificity of the South.  I'd like to read the predecessor to this novel, The Last Gentleman, about Will's youth as a Southerner living in New York, but I'm afraid it'll be too much like looking in a mirror.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

I've been worse than truant in my reviews this year--I plead the "two children 3 and under exemption--but Brittany requested a review of The Buried Giant, which both Chris and Randy read this year, and I'd hoped to review it anyway, as a fan of Ishiguro's other novels.

The Buried Giant is Ishiguro trying his hand at the genre of high fantasy. The plot is fairly simple--an older couple travel across a fantastical land to visit their son who lives a ways away. Along the way they encounter vengeful village people (not THOSE Village People), one of King Arthur's Knights, monks who are not what they seem and, tying them all together, an ancient dragon whose breath keeps the entire world in a state of forgetting.

It's not a state of total amnesia--people remember their names, some of their acquaintances, bits and pieces of their past--but in a way, it's worse. They live with the past constantly on the tip of their tongue, unable to recall it. They, and the reader, sense from the beginning that this isn't personal--and that there's reason to suspect that remembering might not lead to a happy ending.

Based on the other two Ishiguro books I've read, Never Let Me Go and Remains of the Day, this is all very much in Ishiguro's wheelhouse. Characters who can't quite remember, or contextualize, their lives, the questions of choice and agency, the gradual revelation of a world that looks normal but is revealed in turns to have some sinister underpinnings. Not that any of this is bad. These are complex, nearly bottomless themes, and Ishiguro has--and does at times here--explored them quite artfully. Here though, things don't really come together in a satisfactory way.

First, the good. There are some great setpieces here--I enjoyed the couple's harrowing journey across a fairy-haunted lake and their stay at a creepy monastary--and the medieval atmosphere occasionally works well--it's hard to imagine something like a monastery chase happening in modern times. Axl and Beatrice are strong characters, and their interactions, which form the emotional core of the book, work in spite of their sometimes stilted stylization.

Ultimately, though, I have to side with Usula K. LeGuin and Chris. There are just too many weak links in the story for it to hit as hard as Never Let Me Go or Remains. The fantasyland Ishiguro creates too often feels like it exists on a soundstage, with the cast too frequently lapsing into parodic dialog. Two of the main characters, the warrior Wistan and the elder Arthurian Gawain, never develop much beyond their archetypes, and the twists, which in Never Let Me Go and Remains are both surprising and enriching to the story being told, are, here, somewhat predictable and don't expand the themes of the story beyond what we already know.

I enjoyed The Buried Giant, but it is by far my least favorite Ishiguro. Pick up the other two books mentioned here first. I'm not sure this one is really necessary if you can remember those.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

Gone, and as painful now as the thought of a stillborn child.  Sentimental?  Of course.  Riddled with the Anglo-American mawkishness about home, quicksandy with assumptions about monogamy and Women's Highest Role, buttery with echoes of the household poets.  All that.  But I find that I don't mind her emotions and her sentiments.  Home is a notion that only the nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend.  What else would one plant in a wilderness or on a frontier?  What loss would hurt more?

I'm a big fan of Idaho.  It's full of some of the most fascinating things I've ever had the luck to see: the towering Bruneau Dunes, the bizarre lavascape of Craters of the Moon National Park, the grand Shoshone Falls overlooking the Snake River Gorge.  Boise--an underrated city.  The isolated buttes on the way east from Wyoming, like stranded ships.

When I was heading out on my road trip to Oregon earlier this month, I wanted a book that took place in one of the places we would be passing through, and this novel came up on a list of "books set in Idaho."  The joke was on me--much as it was last year when we only passed through Iowa for five minutes when I tried to read Marilynne Robinson's Home--because we were well out of Idaho before I got to the part of Angle of Repose that was set there.  (In fact, I was back in New York before the book arrived in Boise Canyon.)

But worse, the Idaho of Angle of Repose isn't the sublime West that I like, but a real wilderness which proves an inescapable burden for Susan Burling Ward, the book's protagonist and the wife of Oliver Ward, an engineer who spends most of his life trying to find a project equal to his grand ambitions.  He and Susan go from New York to New Almaden, CA to Leadville, CO to Michoacan, Mexico, up to Boise Canyon over the course of decades.  Boise seems to finally offer Oliver the chance to build something meaningful--a set of ditches and canals that will irrigate the canyon--but the experience of living on the Western frontier proves difficult for Susan, a genteel New Yorker who is uprooted from any sense of civilization or society, and who worries about how her children will grow up amidst the savagery of Western isolation.  Boise Canyon is where those pressures finally come to break Susan and Oliver's relationship, causing a break that never seems to mend.

Telling this story is Susan's grandson, Lyman Ward, a former college professor suffering from a crippling bone disease which has left him confined to a wheelchair, as well as the dissolution of his marriage.  Lyman is bitter and recalcitrant in his insistence on being independent as possible, and writing about his grandmother is also a kind of self-finding:

Right there, I might say to Rodman, who doesn't believe in time, notice something: I started to establish the present and the present moved on.  What I established is already buried under layers of tape.  Before I can say I am, I was.  Heraclitus and I, prophets of flux, know that the flux is composed of parts that imitate and repeat each other.  Am or was, I am cumulative, too.  I am everything I ever was, whatever you and Leah may think.  I am much of what my parents and especially my grandparents were--inherited stature, coloring, brains, bones (that part unfortunate), plus transmitted prejudices, culture, scruples, likings, moralities, and moral errors that I defend as if they were personal and not familial.

Angle of Repose is in many ways a very conservative text.  Lyman frames his attempt to recover the story of his grandmother Susan as an alternative to the hippy-dippy notions of his caretaker Shelly, who has bought into the 60's counterculture optimism of creating a new society by breaking from what is old.  The strangest temporal experience of Angle of Repose, in fact, is not its demand that we sympathize with the Victorian Susan, but rather treating hippie utopianism as a contemporary idea--it's the latter, not the former, that really seems antiquated.  But the novel is also deeply critical of the way we trivialize or infantilize the past, something which I agree with very much:

What a hangup about bare skin!  What a hypocritical refusal to acknowledge the facts of life!  The Victorians were a race without biology.

Horsefeathers.  Grandmother grew up on a f arm and lived much of her life on crude frontiers.  She knew the animal facts of life as few of us are likely to again.  Without embarrassment she accepted the animal functions of, say, buggy horses that would bring giggles and hooraws from emancipated moderns... Death and life were everyday matters to Grandmother.  The breeding of horses, mules, cattle, the smug and polygamous fornications of chickens, raised no eyebrows.  When animals died, the family had to deal with their bodies; when people died, the family's women laid them out.  In the 1880s you suffered animal pain to a degree no modern would submit to.  You bore your children, more likely than not, without anesthetic.

We have only switched prohibitions and hypocrisies with them. We blink pain and death, they blinked nudity and human sex, or rather, talk about sex. 

Angle of Repose is based, not very loosely, on the life of Mary Hollock Foote, whose family gave Stegner permission to use not only the story but excerpts from Foote's actual letters within the novel.  Stegner, like Ward, fills in much of the blanks with fiction, piecing together what can be pieced with the help of conjecture.  The effort is seamless, though the choice hasn't been without controversy.

I love the American West.  Whenever I go out there, I'm struck by the scale of its landscape, and its vast near-emptiness.  But Angle of Repose reminds me that, in the end, I'm only zooming through on an interstate, and that I'll never love it--or loathe it--as strongly as those who worked on the frontier to make it a habitable place.

The Case Against the Supreme Court by Erwin Chemerinsky

The Court has frequently failed, throughout American history, at its most important tasks, at its most important moments.  This is not easy for me to conclude or say.  Almost forty years ago, I decided to go to law school because I believed that law was the most powerful tool for social change and that the Supreme Court was the primary institution in society that existed to stop discrimination and to protect people's rights.  In a society filled with inequalities and injustices, the civil rights lawyers of the 1950s and '60s were the model for what I wanted to be.

I'm sympathetic to Young-Chemerinksy's view about the Supreme Court: I myself once bought into the myth of the Supreme Court as the main institution to fight injustice (past tense because not sure how I feel right now).  So, I understand Dean Chemerinsky's starting point: does the Supreme Court live up to our expectations of it?

Chemerinksy's unequivocal answer is no.  For all of the United States's history, the Supreme Court has, according to him, failed every major test.  Every time the Court was presented with a difficult case for which the Court should have fought injustice, the Court failed to.  Chemerinsky, thus, concludes that the Supreme Court is a failed institution.

He documents these failures in three major historical areas (protecting minorities, enforcing the Constitution during times of crisis, and property/states' rights), two contemporary areas (employers/employees/consumers and abuses of governmental power), and discusses counterpoints (What about the Warren Court?  Is the Roberts Court really that bad?), and offers some possible solutions.

I can summarize his argument succinctly: he disagrees with a lot of Supreme Court decisions.  The Warren Court did not do as much as it should have.  The Roberts Court is really that bad.  And, we need to term limit our justices and question their ideology during confirmation hearings.

I have only one major problem with Chemerinsky's argument.  His disagreement with major Court decisions does not acknowledge that his own view is subject to reasonable disagreement.  For example, he believes the Korematsu decision (Japanese internment camps) was wrong and that everyone can agree the decision is wrong.  Although, I also agree the decision was wrong, I think many people feel it was the right decision, both at the time of the decision and today.  During World War II, there was an intense fear of Japanese Americans---that we now know the fear to be unfounded, doesn't change that they thought the fear was founded---and so the Court allowed the internment of them.  This decision was based on a belief that the Court should not interfere with the executive branch during times of war.  No Court has since overruled the decision because this is still a widely held belief about the relationship between the Court and the executive branch.  Again, I disagree with the Korematsu decision; my point is only that it's subject to reasonable disagreement.

Dean Chemerinsky
So I feel that Chemerinsky does not give enough credit to the fact that the decisions he discusses are difficult, contain competing values, and include many tensions within the Constitution itself.  So, for his thesis to work (for me), it is not enough to say that the Court is wrong about some decisions; the decisions must be so wrong that no justice could have, in good faith, reached the decision.  However, (obviously), justices have, and I feel have done so in good faith.

Chemerinsky does not accuse the justices of bad faith.  However, he thinks they are simply applying their discretion to cases, which in turn is informed by their ideology.  Though I think this is accurate, in terms of concluding there is something wrong with the Court, his explanation is unsatisfying.  If justices are merely applying their ideology, then the only basis for criticizing their decisions must be based on a criticism of their ideology.  But ideology is itself subject to reasonable disagreement.  So it feels as though Chemerinsky is criticizing the Court for not following his ideology.  This, I feel, is less an issue with the Court as an institution and more an issue with each individual Justice.  I don't see this as a problem with the Court because disagreement over ideology is an inherent part of our political and justice systems.

Am I the only one who sees a
resemblance?
Chemerinksy offers two solutions of note: 18-year term limits and closer Senate scrutiny and more openness from judicial candidates during confirmation hearings.  I don't know how to feel about term limits.  I'll say this, though: I'm not sure what problem it is meant to serve other than ensuring the Supreme Court more closely reflects which party wins presidential elections.  Because I view life appointments as a way of guaranteeing independence, which I support, I am reluctant to say our justices should be term limited.  Nonetheless, I think closer scrutiny of judicial ideology would be desirable.  Of course people grow and change and develop over time.  Still, I think it is only fair for us to be able to hear what candidates for the Supreme Court believe their role in the Constitutional system will be.  I don't think it would require them to pre-decide cases; I think it would simply require everyone to be more honest about the judicial role and what considerations play into it.

There's a lot of meat to this book, and so I would tend to recommend it.  It reads more for non-lawyers (and honestly, for a lawyer, sometimes the explanations of basic constitutional concepts was...tedious; no fault to Chemerinsky because I understand he was writing for a broader audience). Still, though, I think many readers (whether lawyer or not) will find that the book feels like a series of disagreements with the Court's decisions.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

It does not matter that the "intentions" of individual educators were noble.  Forget about intentions.  What any institution, or its agents, "intend" for you is secondary.  Our world is physical....Very few Americans will directly proclaim that they are in favor of black people being left to the streets.  But a very large number of Americans will do all they can to preserve the Dream.  No one directly proclaimed that schools were designed to sanctify failure and destruction.  But a great number of educators spoke of "personal responsibility" in a country authored and sustained on criminal irresponsibility.  The point of this language of "intention" and "personal responsibility is a broad exoneration.  Mistakes were made.  Bodies were broken.  People were enslaved.  We meant well.  We tried our best.  "Good intention" is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.

Wow. Between the World and Me really has some mustard on it. I'll preface my review by saying that though this book is a vital addition to any understanding of race in America, it is pretty advanced.  If you gave this book to someone who thinks #alllivesmatter or that the Confederate flag isn't necessarily racist, much of it probably will go right over their head.  On the other hand, if you're a person who believes him or herself to be white and you have started learning and listening and reading about the experiences of black people in America, then this book is essential.

Coates writes Between the World and Me as an open letter to his teenage son as a way to try to guide him in his life as a black man in America.  Throughout the book Coates writes about his own experiences.  Coates describes his childhood and his overprotective parents, which he says is common among African-Americans, explaining it as a product of love and extreme fear (his dad's theory was, "Either I can beat him, or the police."), which is perfectly understandable given recent events.  Though he was restless and unmotivated during high school, he had an intellectual awakening at Howard University (the "Mecca"), where he reveled in being surrounded by so many vibrant, lively black students and devoured writings by black thinkers, especially Malcolm X.  He writes about the death of his acquaintance Prince Jones by a bullet from an overzealous undercover police officer in a (barely credible) case of mistaken identity.  Coates also describes how he changed after becoming a father.

Coates also surgically deconstructs race in America.  One of the most interesting points he makes is that race didn't create racism, racism created race; that what we think of as race is mutable and is really just a tool to oppress certain manufactured groups when convenient for the powerful.  Coates acknowledges that Americans did not invent this practice, that it has been going on for centuries, but he doesn't let us off that easily:

But this banality of violence can never excuse America, because America makes no claim to the banal.  America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization.  One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and the plead mortal error.  I propose to take our countrymen's claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.  This is difficult because there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not inquire too much.  And it is so easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and to ignore the great evil done in all of our names.  But you and I have never truly had that luxury.  I think you know.

As you can see, this is not a comfortable book to read, especially as a white man, but I think that makes it all the more important.  But it is also powerfully and wonderfully written, and at times has a poetry to it that makes it even more effective.  There are many other passages that I would love to quote, but I'll leave it at two.

I bought my copy of Between the World and Me at a local book shop so that I could also get a ticket to his upcoming lecture at the Carter Center.  I hope that he clarifies a couple of things: first, he writes often about the taking, assaulting, or breaking of black "bodies."  But often he uses the word in a way that you could easily interchange selves or lives.  So I wonder if there is some reason why he keeps focusing on "bodies" or if it's basically just a poetic choice.  Second, he often writes about the "Dream."  It seems like the Dream is basically a desire for an upper-middle class life in the suburbs, with the picket fence and two car garage, etc., (and only select and regulated interactions and proximity to black people.)  It seems like Coates sees the Dream is inextricably linked to systemic racism.  What I wonder is whether this desire is possible in a hypothetical society without racism or how the Dream fits into urban areas.  Other than the whole white flight part, most of the things that Coates argue constitute the dream seem pretty innocuous, but he seems to condemn it wholesale.

Of course, the answer may be that it doesn't matter, because, as Coates predicts at the end of the book, climate change, for which white supremacy has been one of the forces most responsible, will soon doom us all. It's kind of a bleak book (but definitely worth reading).