Monday, February 9, 2015

The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald

At the end of his first year as a Junior Fellow, Fred thought it only right to tell his father that he was no longer a Christian, but in such a way to distress him as little as possible.  All this sounded more like 1857 than 1907.  He had heard family stories, distant echoes or reminiscences of giant battles from what seemed heroic days.  Two of his uncles had quarrelled over Strauss' Leben Jesu and struck each other and one of them had caught his head on the edge of the fender and broken his skull.  The other one, Uncle Philip, had been known for the rest of his life, though never in the family, as Slayer Family.  In his mother's family there were some who hadn't spoken to each other for many years, and there were women, once young, who had broken off their engagements because their betrothed had ceased to believe and who had bleached and withered into spectres of themselves behind church missionary society typewriters and the stalls of jumble sales.  Fred, who was kind-hearted toward the past as well as the present, felt that he ought not fall short, in the new century, of what had cost so dear.

The Gate of Angels is Fitzgerald's stab at a university comedy along the lines of Lucky JimThose novels feel British in a peculiar way, because college in the United States is so vastly different, with its own kind of pretensions and strange ritualisms, but without the musty weight of tradition and chauvinism that these novels tend to poke fun at.  The scattered jokes about the different colleges at Cambridge are lost on this American reader, though I suppose that the most important thing about St. Angelicus--a school Fitzgerald has made up--is that it is tiny.  The protagonist of the novel, Fred Fairly, is employed at the college as a lecturer, "assistant organist, assistant librarian, deputy steward, and assist deputy treasurer.  The words assistant, deputy, and so forth didn't mean that there was necessarily anyone above him to do the work, only that he must do it without being paid."  It also male-only, and as a condition of his employment, Fred has to agree never to marry.  You may guess for yourself how what kind of conflict that introduces to the novel for Fred.

Fred has decided that he is an atheist, and feels obligated to tell his father, a small-town rector.  His position is teaching science (I think some kind of theoretical physics).  Fitzgerald wrings a lot out of the epistemological overlap between science and faith.  Fred's mentor, Professor Flowerdew, rails against the theoretical study of the atom, a new study in 1907:

'There will be many apparent results, some useful, some spectacular, some, very possibly, unpelasant.  But since the whole basis of the present research is unsound, cracks will appear in the structure one by one.  The physicists will begin by constructing models of the atom, in fat there are some very nice ones in the Cavendish at the moment.  Then they'll find that the models won't do, because they would only work if atoms really existed, so they'll replace them by mathematical terms which can be stretched to fit.  As a result, they'll find that since they're dealing with what they can't observe, they can't measure it, and so we shall hear that all that can be said is that the position is probably this and the energy is probably that.  The energy will be beyond their comprehension, so they'll be driven to the theory that it comes and goes more or less at random.  Now their hypotheses will be at the beginning of collapse and they will have to pull out more and more bright notions to paper over the cracks and to cram into unsightly corners.  There will be elementary particles which are too strange to have anything but curious names, and ant-matter which ought to be there, but isn't.  By the end of the century they will have to admit that the laws they are supposed to have discovered seem to act in a profoundly disorderly way.  What is a disorderly law, Fairly?'

'It sounds like chaos,' said Fred.

I find this a pretty funny riff on scientific thinking.  Fitzgerald, writing in 1990, knows that this is exactly what has happened--the biggest problem in physics today is that our various models of the way things work seem to completely contradict each other.  (Though Flowerdew's reference to "anti-matter" tips the hand of the irony a little too far.)  But that doesn't invalidate the theoretical structures that Flowerdew wants to reject, and Fitzgerald asks us to apply that to other kinds of thinking and knowing, including the kind of religious tradition that Fred abandons.

At the beginning of the novel, Fred gets into a bicycle crash and falls in love with Daisy, who was riding the other book.  Fitzgerald gives Daisy the middle section, which details her career as a nurse.  Like many of Fitzgerald's heroines, Daisy is smart and tough, and lives somewhere near the edge of respectable society.  Is Fred and Daisy's meet-cute meant to suggest a kind of order that arises out of disorder (the bike crash), and even suggests some divine or otherworldly influence?  How about when, at the end of the novel, Daisy--having split from Fred after a formal inquest about the bike crash reveals that she was accompanied by another man--wanders into St. Angelicus, not knowing that Fred works and lies there, only to fortuitously rescue the college's blind old master?  The fellows at the college freak out at the presence of a woman, but Fitzgerald suggests that Daisy is able to puncture this insulated, pretentious, narrow-minded, and hyper-masculine space, and that such puncturing is exactly what it needs.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Color Master by Aimee Bender

"You can ruin anything if you focus at it."

"Men love to watch two women kiss, but how I love to watch two men. So clear in their focus. The amazing space created for me when there is nothing demanded or seen."

"...she steeps [her tea] with the kind of Zen patience that would make Buddhists sit up in envy and then breathe through their envy and then move past their envy."

"I put the anger in the dress the color of the sky. I put it in there so much I could hardly stand it - that she was about to die, that she would die unrecognized, that none of us would ever live up to her example, and that we were the only witnesses. That we were all so small after that. That everybody dies anyway."

I am madly in love with Aimee Bender and have been for a very long time. I use sentences from her work frequently with my students to discuss what makes a Perfect Sentence. 

Her most recent collection of 15 short stories which range from good to heartbreakingly perfect. The stories cover a huge range of topics, many different kinds of characters (although the Slightly Awkward Introverted Female appears quite often), and varying levels of magical realism. I think one of the most enjoyable aspects of reading an Aimee Bender story comes after the reader has experienced many many of her stories. Because I'm familiar with her work, I read it with a heightened sense of anticipation - she can and will do anything with her characters. When two men start making out in "On a Saturday Afternoon," I know that they can begin to devour each other, they can devolve into single cell organisms, or they could start to eat soap (plot points that have appeared in her other work). For people who don't enjoy magical realism, this would probably lead to high levels of frustration, but for me it leads to absolute delight. 

The story I would put in the Heartbreakingly Perfect category is "Tiger Mending." The story centers around two sisters who are brought to Malaysia so that one sister - a perfect seamstress - can mend tigers whose skin has been ripped apart. (The sister is the one above who is steeping her tea with perfect Zen). Like Sherman Alexie's "Indian Education," this story will become one that I figure out how to work into a variety of classes I teach just because I love it so much. 

Even the ones that are Just Good have extra special features. Although I put "Lemonade" in this category, I am impressed with Bender's ability to create a voice that is completely different from other 14 voices that are in this collection. ("I was a the Bev with Sylv and we were eating Chinese food takeout from Panda Express and I said about how the chicken chow mein would be a good street, like Chow Main? Like a Main Street in a food part of town? Get it?") 

I recommend Bender to almost everyone. Her writing is just so special, her stories so whimsical but with an intelligence that is not often associated with whimsy, and the way her characters are searching for something real which can't be lost seems to be relatable to almost everyone. 

I would categorize the stories in this collection as follows (without any kind of ranking within a category):

  • Heartbreakingly Perfect

Tiger Mending
On a Saturday Afternoon
Bad Return
The Color Master

  • Incredibly Good

A State of Variance
The Red Ribbon
The Doctor and the Rabbi
The Devourings

  • Just Good

The Fake Nazi
Origin Lessons

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

The boys sat without talking, breathing heavily, exhaling plumes of white breath.  Even now that they had stopped rowing, their breathing was synchronized, and for a brief, fragile moment it seemed to Joe as if all of them were part of a single thing, something alive with breath and spirit of its own.

So, unbeknownst to either of us, Randy and I were reading the same book at the same time (great minds, etc., etc.).  He also posted about The Boys in the Boat, and I gladly direct you to his review, which has a good synopsis of the story.

First off, this was a great book. Following so closely on the heels of Unbroken (both the book and the movie), it's hard not to compare the two, at least a little, as both feature American athletes at the 1936 Olympics (Louis Zamperini even makes a cameo).  But while Unbroken (the novel) was spectacular (and much broader in scope), I thought that Brown did a better job of capturing the events of those Olympics.  The Boys in the Boat was primarily about Joe Rantz and the University of Washington crew team, but Brown interspersed details of Leni Riefenstahl and Joseph Goebbels's propaganda machine in the preparations for the games, which I thought added a needed element.  It was so creepy to read about the preparations the Germans made for the Olympics, how they sanitized the burgeoning fascism and Antisemitism to put on a show for the rest of the world.  Knowing how Germany and the rest of Europe would so soon be torn apart added an extra layer of morbid drama to the events.

West of the stadium a vast, flat assembly area, the Maifeld, had been leveled and a great limestone bell tower was being erected.  The tower would stand just over 248 feet tall.  The great bell it would house would bear around its bottom edge an inscription sandwiched between two swastikas, "Ich rufe die Jugend der Welt!" ("I summon the youth of the world!")  And the youth would indeed come.  First for the Olympics and then for something else.  A little less than ten years in the future, in the last few desperate days of the Third Reich, scores of Hitler Youth - boys as young as ten or eleven - would crouch below the bell tower among blocks of fine Franconian limestone, the rubble of the buildings now being erected, shooting at advancing Russian boys, many of them not a great deal older than they.  And in those last few days, as Berlin burned around them, some of those German boys - those who cried or refused to shoot or tried to surrender - would be lined up against these limestone slabs by their officers and shot.

The 1936 games are fascinating to me (I'm still waiting for an amazing movie/book to be made about Jesse Owens. How has that not happened yet?), and Brown did a great job of capturing the pageantry and emotions.

This was also a great sports book.  Unlike Randy, I didn't know anything about rowing before I started reading it, but the passages about the intricacies of the sport were surprisingly fascinating.  Brown also did a good job of keeping the anticipation and drama ratcheted up throughout each racing scene.  I kind of figured Joe and the UW guys would make it to Berlin based on the cover, but I was still on the edge of my seat.  All in all a very interesting and exciting read that I highly recommend.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

To defeat an adversary who was your equal, maybe even your superior, it wasn't necessarily enough to just give your all from start to finish.  You had to master your opponent mentally.  When the critical moment in a close race was upon you, you had to know something he did not---that down in your core you still had something in reserve, something you had not yet shown, something that once revealed would make him doubt himself, make him falter just when it counted the most.  Like so much in life, crew was partly about confidence, partly about knowing your own heart.

Daniel James Brown's book describes the journey of the U.S. Olympic rowing eight that won gold in 1936.  Brown weaves an incredible, moving tale, juggling the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler, the California-Washington rivalry, the east coast and west coast rivalry, and, perhaps most importantly, the stories of the individual rowers themselves.

The frame story focuses on Joe Rantz, starting with his childhood.  Brown writes about how Rantz is abandoned by his family; how in response, Rantz learned to become self-sufficient; how Rantz joined the rowing team because he needed it to guarantee a campus job.  This self-sufficiency becomes a problem for Rantz because of the essence of rowing, which requires complete and utter dependence upon your crewmates, captured in this moment between the boat-builder-resident-philosopher, George Pocock, and Rantz:
Pocock pased and stepped back from the frame of the shell and put his hands on hips, carefully studying the work he had so far done.  He said for him the craft of building a boat was like a religion.  It wasn't enough to master the technical details of it.  You had to give yourself up to it; you had to surrender yourself absolutely to it.  When you were done and walked away from the boat, you had to feel that you had left a piece of yourself behind in it forever, a bit of your heart.  He turned to Joe.  "Rowing," he said, "is like that.  And a lot of life is like that too, the parts that really matter anyway.  Do you know what I mean, Joe?"  Joe, a bit nervous, not at all certain that he did, nodded tentatively, went back downstairs, and resumed his sit-ups, trying to work it out.
 Pocock makes numerous appearances throughout the book.  Each chapter starts with a quotation from Pocock, capturing the essence of rowing.  This is something that makes the book more pleasurable, but also something that makes the book special for rowers.  Pocock's quotations capture the truths of rowing in a way I have felt but never been able to put into words.  And it's not just Pocock's words.  Brown's writing also puts into words something I've always believed about rowing: that it is a uniquely special sport.  That it teaches cooperation and mutual-dependence in a way unlike other sports---that is, successful rowing requires cooperation of the purest form. Pocock puts it this way: "Where is the spiritual value of rowing? . . . The losing of self entirely to the cooperative effort of the crew as a whole."

Perhaps because these days we've been inundated with sports-underdog-political implication movies, one would think that another story, with only the sport to distinguish it, would fall flat.  This book does not.  Brown's interweaving narrative captures rowing while still carrying the symbolic importance of the boat's victory.  This is not a small feat, and Brown's writing deserves a lot of credit.

But then, so does the story.  It is a moving story of nine young men who come together to row.

Highly recommended, especially for anyone with rowing experience.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

With the aurora borealis flaming coldly overhead, or the stars leaping in the frost dance, and the land numb and frozen under its pall of snow, this song of the huskies might have been the defiance of life, only it was pitched in minor key, with long-drawn wailings and half-sobs, and was more the pleading of life, the articulate travail of existence.  It was an old song, old as the breed itself--one of the first songs of the younger world in a day when songs were sad.  It was invested with the woe of unnumbered generations, this plaint by which Buck was so strangely stirred.  When he moaned and sobbed, it was with the old pain of his wild fathers, and the fear and mystery of the cold and dark that was to them fear and mystery.  And that he should be stirred by it marked the completeness with which he harked back through the ages of fire and roof to the raw beginnings of life in the howling ages.

The Call of the Wild is a story about a dog.  That, with its brevity and simplicity, have made it into a children's book, but you might not want to read it to your children.  It seems overly hostile to the kind of socialization that young adult novels pretend not to favor but really enforce--ideas of finding yourself and your own place in the world.  The Call of the Wild is about finding a place outside of the world--the civilized one, at least--and pursuing isolation while communing with forces that are primeval and nearly vanished.

Buck the husky grows up in luxurious circumstances in California, but finds himself kidnapped and sold to gold rushers in Alaska who need sled dogs.  This, according to the prologue by Gary Paulsen, was a typical practice, because the demand was so high that dognappers thousands of miles away from gold country were needed to supply it.  Buck struggles at first, as you might expect, to his harsh new circumstances: sleeping in the snow, feuding with other, more hardened dogs, catching wild food, dealing with hunger.  But what Buck endures awakens an innate spirit buried within him by the pampering forces of civilization.  He becomes intensely competitive and bloodthirsty, and soon becomes the most accomplished, even renowned, sled dog in the Alaska territory.

London clearly has a deep and abiding regard for the rough-and-tumble gold rushers.  The most miserable thing that Buck endures is not the elements, but a pair of effete urban brothers who dream of making it rich but who have no idea of how to operate a sled team.  Ultimately, their foolishness does them in, and they fall--with ten dogs--under broken ice, because they have no understanding of, or relationship with, the harsh landscape that surrounds them.  Buck himself is the distillation of the pioneering spirit that London wants to praise: tough, headstrong, a little savage.

London describes Buck's progression as a kind of regression back through history, reaching back to the "raw beginnings of life in the howling ages."  The civilized present is juxtaposed against the caveman past, and found wanting.  The novel ends when Buck joins a pack of wolves, his long-ago ancestors, before eventually striking out on his own as if the image of the first dog that ever existed.  London allows himself to dip into a kind of mysticism that seems silly.  Can we take a published writer seriously when he extols the virtues of a time before printing, or writing, or even language?  But its appeal is still powerful, and offers a compelling vision in opposition to the anemic weariness of modern life.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Quentin said nothing. He kept his face, his whole body, perfectly still in his chair. He looked at a spot over Fogg's shoulder. He was giving nothing away. Certainly it was the simplest possible explanation for what had happened last night. Part of him, the part he trusted least, wanted to leap on this idea like a puppy on a ball. But in light of everything else that had ever happened to him, in his entire life, he checked himself. He'd spent too long disappointed by the world--he'd spent so many years pining for something like this, some proof that the real world wasn't the only world, and coping with the overwhelming evidence that it in fact was. He wasn't going to be suckered in just like that. It was like finding a clue that somebody you'd buried and mourned wasn't really dead after all.

While definitely entertaining, The Magicians is somewhat unoriginal and largely lacking in plot and character development. Normally, I find unoriginality to be a forgivable sin, especially when an author chooses to pay homage to great works, as Grossman did. However, combined with the latter transgressions, the work falls flat.

The trope of a dissatisfied teen finding a way out of his uninspired life into a magical world is a deserved classic. However, I find it difficult to believe that such a change would leave that character so static. Quentin, we are told rather than shown, does not change in a substantial way through four years at Brakebills or a year post-graduation. Watching Quentin retain his angsty demeanor despite these incredible life changes is frustrating at best and brought to mind another angst-ridden teen who wanders his way around New York. Even worse, the supporting characters were so flat that few of their actions made much sense beyond serving as people with whom Quentin could interact.

Where the book shone was in the description of actual events. Grossman embedded some details that captured the imagination and made the magical world of Brakebills (especially Brakebills South) come alive. Even the most mundane objects refuse to be familiar:
a silver statue of a bird that seemed to be twitching. “Poor little thing,” he said, petting it with his large hands. “Someone tried to change it into a real bird, but it got stuck in between. It thinks it’s alive, but it’s much too heavy to fly.” The metal bird cheeped feebly, a dry, clicking noise like an empty pistol. Fogg sighed and put it away in a drawer. “It’s always launching itself out of windows and landing in the hedges."
The gaps in plot development, however, leave one grasping for a thread to connect all of the events. Frequently I felt myself putting back on my teacher cap, entreating Grossman to show us rather than tell us that the students and staff had a hard time recovering from the intrusion of evil into their idyll or how the students drifted following graduation. Prior to these events there was no baseline for normal and little description of behavior afterward to indicate a major change. I would gladly have read a second volume in exchange for the missing details.

The most heavy-handed allusion (I'll use this term loosely) in the work is to C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. Had Grossman used this reference to show Quentin's values or inquisitiveness, it is one that could have been hugely successful. As it was, the repeated allusions simply made the eventual trip to Fillory inevitable. This adventure smacks of Quentin's last opportunity to mature, a mystery left to the sequel, which I still don't want to read.

Though I found the work to be lacking in literary merit, it is entertaining. The events Grossman focuses on are intriguing and the light treatment plot and character development receive make it easy to breeze through. I also have a strong suspicion that it would seem less contrived and obvious to someone who had explored fewer classic works, a suspicion largely confirmed by my sister who had not read Gulliver's Travels, Catcher in the Rye, or any of The Chronicles of Narnia. The passing nod to Harry Potter as Grossman takes his protagonist to a magical school provides an excellent point of departure.

P.S. I'm glad to find I'm not the only one who found this work lacking. Billy's only comment in 2010 was "fail," which I'll second.

P.P.S. My sister has indignantly informed me that she has read The Chronicles of Narnia. My mistake, sorry!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Ion by Plato

"The poets are nothing but the gods' interpreters, possessed each by whatever god it may be."

This very short dialogue of Plato's explores the difference between art (understood here as human skill or talent) and divine inspiration in poetry.

Socrates approaches a renowned reciter, Ion, who specializes in Homer. This specialty allows Socrates to question Ion about his ability, which he quickly acknowledges is limited to Homer, rather than applying to all poets equally. Using his famous questioning technique, Socrates is quickly able to lead the reciter to admit that one who is truly skilled and knowledgeable in the art of poetry would be able to assess the relative skill of poets and thus be able to speak on any poet, not just one.

Additionally, while Ion can recite passages from Homer that refer to chariot racing, fishing, and medicine, he admits that a driver, fisherman, and a doctor would be better able to speak to the truth of those passage than he. After having bragged about his own knowledge and skill, Ion is backed into a corner whereupon Socrates asks him to choose whether he is a liar and cheat or has been divinely inspired through Homer.

Had Ion been less sure of his own skill or been better able to discuss other poets, he would not have served Plato's purpose. Instead, he is nearly idiotic in all things save Homer. This allows Plato to make the point that all truly great poetry is divinely inspired and thus has the ability to inspire

          Such as there is in that stone which Euripedes called the Magnesian, but most people call it
          the Heracleian stone. This magnet attracts iron rings, and not only that, but puts the same 
          power into the iron rings, so that they can do the same as the stone does; they attract other 
          rings, so that sometimes there is a whole long string of these rings hanging together and all 
          depend for their power on that one stone. So the Muse not only inspires people herself, but 
          through these inspired ones others are inspired and dangle in a string.

When one considers Ions near idiocy (seriously, reading his "contribution" to the conversation is almost painful), this could lead to an interesting conversation on Platonic forms and their imperfect earthly copies, but as Plato saves that for another dialogue, it is more of a mental exercise that this short work almost asks for.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Paris Wife by Paula Mclain

"He had four wives altogether and many lovers as well. It was sometimes painful for me to think that to those who followed his life with interest, I was just the early wife, the Paris wife. But that was probably vanity, wanting to stand out in a long line of women."

I was introduced to this historical fiction novel from an episode of Books on the Nightstand where Mclain gives a short talk about her book. It intrigued me because she admits that she was not a fan of Hemingway - at the time I wasn't as well - but in her research she comes around: "Getting to know him in this other way, from Hadley's point of view, was a total revelation...that guy, that egomaniac misogynist I-hate-my-mother and drink too much, he didn't exist yet..." Mclain talks about Hemingway in a loving way that really intrigued me. I have definitely fallen in love a little bit myself. If you have only ever seen old bearded too much sunshine and liquor Hemingway, here is a treat for you: 
Who wouldn't want to call him Big Poppa?
After reading The Sun Also Rises, I finally picked up this book and fell instantly and immediately into the story. It is incredibly well researched, and I assume the major plot points are accurate, but it is told from the perspective of Hadley and thus we hear her thoughts and know her in a way that isn't possible - keeping the novel squarely in the category of fiction. 

It begins with a prologue where Hadley introduces her 'memoir.' Even the purest anti-Hemingwayian will know that he was a cheater who had a string of women, so it's no surprise when she says: 
"This isn't a detective story - not hardly. I don't want to say Keep watch for the girl who will come along and ruin everything, but she's coming anyway, set on her course..."
Nonetheless, this of course made me keep watch. Every time Hemingway flirted (which is often) and every time a female shows up (Gertrude Stein? Zelda Fitzgerald? Duff who Lady Brett Ashley is very much based on?) I wondered, "Will this be her?" Knowing that it's going to happen doesn't make it any less devastating when it does. 

The strength of the novel is that if every character's name were changed, it would still be a good read. It's a great story - timid 28-year-old girl meets exuberant and gorgeous boy. They fall madly in love, run off to Paris, hang out with beautiful brilliant people, get drunk, throw up together in chamber pots, and run off for the next adventure. Of course, all the brilliant people happen to be ones that you probably already know: Gertrude Stein, Alice, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald with little Scottie, Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, etc, etc. (which will probably remind you that this is a book rooted in real events with people who really are that interesting and rich and you're not - sorry).

The other issue that it handles well is the idea of being the Famous Artist's partner. Hadley spends a lot of time set off to the side with other partners while the Great Artists talk about Important Stuff. This can be frustrating for Hadley because she's intrigued by these people, but they're not really interested in her. She even self-reflects on how she didn't really understand what she was agreeing to do in this marriage: 
"Over and over I'd sworn I'd never stand in the way of his work...but more and more I understood that I didn't know what those promises really meant."
In one lovely moment, a friend who is critiquing their marriage says: 
'That's my beef with marriage. You suffer for his career. What do you get in the end?" 
"The satisfaction of knowing he couldn't do it without me."
And he couldn't. Although Hadley is completely absent from The Sun Also Rises (in spite of being there for most of the events which are loosely based on real events and definitely based on real people), the book is and always will bear her name in the dedication. 

I have no idea whether serious Hemingway fans would find this interesting or a bunch of fluffy drivel, but I enjoyed it enough that I am going to keep my Hemingway kick going. I feel like it is only fair to him if I read the other side of the story, so next up is A Moveable Feast. If I've got any space left in my heart for Poppa, it's on to A Farewell To Arms. 

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

She thought, An unborn child lives the life of a woman it might never know, hearing her laugh or cry, feeling the scare that makes her catch her breath, tighten her belly.  For months its whole life would be all dreams and no waking.  The steps in the road, the thought of the knife, then the dread sinks away for a while, and how is a child to know why?  She could only guess what it was that Doll was afraid of, or ashamed of, but she lived her fear and her shame with her, taking off through the woods with an apple thumping in her lunch bucket and Doll wearing a big straw hat she must have hoped would shade her face enough to hide it a little.  More than once Doll took her hand to hurry her along and wouldn't let her catch her breath and never told her why.  She always stayed back from the firelight even when the night was cold and even when there were no strangers there to see.  Doane and the others saw, of course, but Lila was the only one she ever really trusted to look into her face.  Well, child, Lila thought, I will see you weltering in your blood.  And mine.  Lonely, frightened, my own child.  If the wildness doesn't carry us both away.  And if it does.

Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and Home tell two sides--let's say faces, like a polygon--of a story about a pair of families in rural Iowa in the mid-20th century.  Gilead, a lyrical novel written as a series of letters from the aging Reverend John Ames to the child he knows he will leave behind, is a beautiful but muted reflection on death and the bittersweetness of leaving a life behind you.  Home, about the prodigal son Jack Boughton (son of Ames' best friend), is about trying to create or recover a home that has long been broken, but compared to Gilead, it felt to me relatively stale and saccharine.

Lila tells the story of Ames' wife, a formerly vagrant drifter who finds herself thrust together with the much older Ames, and who asks him to marry her on an impulse.  Soon, she is carrying the child who will become the son who is the recipient of the letters of Gilead.  It's not in the first perspective, but the strength of voice that was missing in Home returns here, modulating Robinson's perfect liturgical prose with Lila's earthier language and mannerisms.  Lila also reaches back to Robinson's first novel, Housekeeping, for a sense of wildness and danger that the two other novels, meditative and sedate, largely forego.

The narrative begins when Lila is a child, viciously neglected by her family.  She's stolen away by a boarder named Doll, and they live for years together with a small band of migrant workers who drift throughout the Midwest.  She learns to trust no one except for Doll; she learns how to use a knife for fishing, cleaning, self-defense.  Eventually, Doll is arrested for using her knife--how exactly, and to what extent is never clear, but it seems to be on some member of Lila's family who's come looking for her--and the two part ways forever.  This parting lingers in Lila's spirit; without Doll she seems both lost to the world and vice versa.

In Ames' home, the two pass the time talking about the Bible.  Lila is attracted to a passage from Ezekiel, when God talks about his rescuing the nation of Israel: "And when I passed by thee, and saw thee weltering in thy blood, I said unto thee, Though thou art in the blood, live; yea, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live."  She sees God's pity for Israel in Doll's pity for herself, a pity which she struggles to comprehend and honor.  She is smart, though uneducated, and challenges the staid Calvinist Ames in his views.  She chafes against thinking of Doll as unbaptized and lost:

Doll probably didn't know she had an immortal soul.  It was nothing she ever mentioned, if she ever thought about it.  She probably wouldn't even have known the words for it.  All those people out there walking the roads all those ears, hardly a one of them remembering the Sabbath.  Who would work when there was work to be done?  What use was there in calling a day by a certain name, or thinking of it as anything but the weather?  They knew what time of the year it was the timothy bloomed, when the birds were fledging.  They knew it was morning when the sun came up.  What more was there to know?  If Doll was going to be lost forever, Lila wanted to be right there with her, holding to the skirt of her dress.

Ames, and Robinson, come pretty close to answering this question with the idea of universal salvation.  Ames says,

If the Lord is more gracious than any of us can begin to imagine, and I'm sure He is, then your Doll and a whole lot of people are safe, and warm, and very happy.  And probably a little bit surprised.  If there is no Lord, then things are just the way they look to us.  Which is really much harder to accept.  I mean, it doesn't feel right.  There has to be more to it all, I believe.

Lila isn't a theological tract (and not half as close to one as Gilead), but rather an exploration of human uncertainty, and the valuable wisdom of instinct.  Lila's intelligence challenges Ames, and you get the sense that it challenges Robinson, as well, who carves a space for comfort for her characters without simple answers.  Though Lila seems to constantly have one foot out the door, called back by her life of wildness, she ultimately comes to recognize domestic tranquility as a kind of divine grace, a manifestation of the kind of pity that looks on a child weltering in its own blood and cares for it.  And then, with the birth of her son (who, as we know, will eventually be orphaned) she becomes a participant in that grace as well.

Lila is a staggeringly beautiful book.  I was disappointed that Home was such a bore, since Gilead strikes me as one of the best--maybe the best--novel of the 21st century.  But perhaps it was merely a sign that she's a human being.  Lila is almost as good, which is saying quite a lot.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Cheers to a good country song.
To another long work week gone.
And, yeah, I'm raising my glass to those saving our ass overseas.
-"Ain't Worth the Whiskey" by Cole Swindell

After a Fox News embedded reporter captures Billy Lynn's Bravo Squad heroically preventing an ambush, the soldiers are brought home to travel the country on a victory tour, speaking and doing meet and greets in malls, city halls, etc., culminating in an appearance at the halftime show of the Cowboys' game on Thanksgiving (set in about 2004-05). Billy, the book's protagonist who was particularly brave during the battle, is only 19 years old, and struggles to process the stresses of his newfound quasi-celebrity, his family's fear for his safety and general moderate dysfunction, and normal 19 year old stuff, like trying to get the number of the Cowboys' cheerleader who he makes out with after their press conference.  Meanwhile, Bravo Squad also has to deal with the movie producer trying to make their story into a movie and how much they might make from such a venture.

Even though I highlighted a number of passages in Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, I went with these Cole Swindell lyrics because they perfectly exemplify Fountain's thesis: that the way Americans think about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are detached from reality, and that the way we "support our troops" is by turns insensitive, ridiculous, depressing and hilarious.

Throughout the novel Billy encounters folks who want to "support the troops," by earnestly praising him or awkwardly thanking him or asking him questions that are at times stupid or personal or callous.  Many talk about "nina leven" and "terrRr," most say they're praying for him, some drop in something casually or vaguely racist, but none of them understand what he has gone through, is going through or will have to face when they go back to Iraq for eleven more months after the football game (and probably longer after that, if they survive).  One man tells Billy that seeing him shoot insurgents while tending to his dying friend was one of the proudest moments of his life, not stopping to think for a moment that it was the worst day of Billy's.  At one point during negotiations regarding funding the potential movie about Bravo's exploits, a rich guy, who never served, growls at Billy and his sergeant that he's the only reason that the movie has a chance of being made (not realizing that the only reason the movie has a chance of being made is because Bravo Squad killed people and suffered its own casualties).

No matter their age or station in life, Billy can't help but regard his fellow Americans as children.  They are bold and proud and certain in the way of clever children blessed with too much self-esteem, and no amount of lecturing will enlighten them as to the state of pure sin toward which war inclines.  He pities them, scorns them, loves them, hates them, these children.  These boys and girls. These toddlers, these infants.  Americans are children who must go somewhere else to grow up, and sometimes die.

Fountain argues that so much of what we consider "supporting the troops," like the line in Swindell's song, is really just to make ourselves feel good, that we're contributing something, for the five minutes that spend thinking about it, to events that we know nothing about.

I heard this book compared to Catch-22, and while it wasn't nearly as subtle or scathingly hilarious as that classic, it did highlight the absurdities of war in a very familiar way.  Overall I thought it was a good book that definitely made me re-evaluate how I "support the troops."  One thing I feel like I should note is that as far as I can tell, Fountain is not a veteran himself.  While many of his observations made sense to me, I am also not a veteran, so I wonder if those who did serve agree with his point of view.

Ben Fountain went to Carolina

There was lots more to talk about regarding the Bravos and masculinity, but again, I don't know if Fountain portrayed them thus because that's how he thinks young soldiers behave or if they actually behave that way (see above).  Also, I felt I had blathered on long enough.