Thursday, May 24, 2018

Review: Autonomous

Autonomous Autonomous by Annalee Newitz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This one has almost all the ingredients to be a provocative sci-fi contemplation of the nature of being human. It’s just missing the most essential one.

The heart of this novel is that very question, what does it mean to be human, and it addresses it from two directions. On the one hand, our protagonist, a woman known usually as Jack, is a kind of Robin Hood of the 22nd Century pharmaceutical world. She steals from the wealthy corporations so she can give back to the poor.

In so doing, she’s alert to the degree to which such drugs protect and define us as humans. There are drugs that can break our will, making us reveal secrets we’d otherwise never share. There are drugs that protect us against diseases which allow us to grow fully in physical and emotional terms. It is, in short, a world where we have substantial external control about the ways in which we emerge as human – it’s a chemical humanity.

On the other hand, some of our central characters are ’bots that creep toward becoming entirely human. Paladin and Med (short for Medea) may be robots, but they are hoping for ‘autonomous’ status – status as citizens of the world even though they are built instead of born. They are machines that, in those central cases, show more humanity that the people they’re indenture to.

Newitz asks all those questions in the context of a thriller – will Paladin and his master, Elias, be able to stop Jack from proving nefarious conduct by one of phara-giants. We get a back-and-forth perspective, with one chapter from Jack’s angle and the next from Elias’s.

As I say, it’s almost there. The central problem is that Newitz never quite develops her characters. Jack and Elias remain types moreso than people. Newitz does some intriguing sexual positioning for each – Jack is unremarkably bisexual and Elias falls in love with his robot Paladin, sometimes crossing the line on human-robot interaction – but such material seems appended to their work as Robin Hood scientist and international special agent. They’re data that add to what each character is doing, but they don’t culminate in making the characters feel alive.

That’s a problem in any literature, but it’s especially a problem in a story about what it means to be human. There’s a lot of interesting stuff swirling here, but, in the end, it’s hard to take seriously the answer of what it means to be human from a work that can’t seem to give us any characters who feel genuinely human and genuinely alive.

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Monday, May 21, 2018

Review: High Life

High Life High Life by Matthew Stokoe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book comes just short of being a depraved masterpiece.

Emphasis on the depraved.

Emphatic emphasis.

This book opens with Jack discovering the body of his wife, intact-looking from a distance but with all its internal organs surgically removed. Oh and, yeah, somebody has masturbated into the empty chest cavity.

After that, it starts to get disturbing.

This is a book that flaunts its sense of the wildest, kinkiest, most depraved acts I can imagine. Most go well beyond what I can imagine. There’s necrophilia, incest, double penetration, felching (I didn’t know what felching was, and now I’m sorry I do), snuff shows, and hardcore fecephilia. There’s a woman at the center of this who, given her great wealth, makes a hobby of performing unnecessary surgery, declaring at one point that removing a person’s kidney is a violation even more titillating than rape.

With both a SPOILER and a TRIGGER warning, that brings me to what may be the most disturbing sentence in the history of literature. “Cutting ‘donors’ open to use their kidneys to wank off with kind of fucked the philanthropic story she’d used to sucker my acceptance of her extracurricular medical activities – the organs wouldn’t be much use to anyone after being stuffed up her…” (and cut scene).

All of that pushes the boundaries of bad taste, and I take pride in having expansive such boundaries. Quite simply, most people should stay away from this. It’s so shocking and potentially offensive that it will turn off the vast majority. That is, if you have any sense this will trouble you, listen to that sense and do not read it.

All that said, though, this is more than just a shock-fest. In fact, it has two significant and intriguing philosophies animating it, and it is genuinely a work of literature, one that uses its adrenaline rush to have us confront real issues of our moment.

The first is that Jack’s deeper infection is his sense that nothing matters other than our media. He watches Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt, and he thinks their lives matter while his does not. He’s sharp enough to see they have no more substance than he does, but it’s not substance he’s after. It’s pure ethereality. Life becomes meaningful to him when you’re on TV or in the movies or, to a lesser extent, on billboards.

That vast emptiness hovers over the whole novel, and Stokoe is explicit about what it means. Given his sensibility, Jack has no purpose in life except to aim for public notice. When we step back, that’s a horrifyingly amoral premise; at its ultimate extension – as in Jack’s case – it makes it possible to accept the most brutal, uncaring possibilities of life. It’s a caste system crueler than the most naked capitalism: the more famous get to prey upon the less famous, whether through indenture or prostitution. If you can get on screen, you can get away with anything.

The second philosophical notion is subtler. As I read this, Stokoe implies it and then applies it inconsistently. Still, there’s a perpetual sense that the body itself is somehow innocent. Individuals can be brutalized, humiliated, or perpetrate humiliation, but there’s an implicit forgiveness – or, more modestly, an implicit re-set button. Someone can sell his or her body on the strip one night and then possess a kind of innocence the next.

There’s an old Lenny Bruce observation – not so much funny as philosophical – that there is nothing you can do to the human body that will make it dirty. Toilets can become dirty, he says, but never other humans. With most people regarding Bruce as nothing more than a provocateur, and with even many of his supporters claiming he’s merely finding new avenues for being funny, the impact of that philosophy gets blunted. Still, I think there’s something profoundly moral, maybe even religious in the claim, and I think Stokoe echoes it more intriguingly than anyone I know.

On the one hand, those two concepts speak to each other intriguingly. One speaks to an end of morality as we know it; it raises the notion of a purely visual culture without context. The other offers a glimmer of redemption. We live in our bodies, and there’s a fundamental decency and value to that possibility. There’s commodity value, but it’s also something more, something in the possibility each separate day has to offer.

On the other, those two concepts collide, fascinatingly, in Bella’s perverse sexuality. In its milder form, she gets off by conducting her illegal surgeries in limited fashion. She takes just a kidney, pays her “donors” $30k, and lets them return to the world. That raises the powerful question – powerful within the range of philosophies governing the novel – whether she has changed them. They are restored to the same possibilities as before, heightened even in that they now have money that can buy them a higher profile. (One donor buys a distinctive Egyptian-themed bar and becomes a ‘somebody’ as a consequence of selling his kidney.) They are also, however, different bodies. Even if they function the same (and, SPOILER, Jack’s one-time friend Rex cannot, which costs him his life) they bear a shocking scar. They’ve lost something they can’t name. They’ve been violated in a way that future success – future fame or future money – cannot cover over.

At that level, and at that point, I really do think this is a masterpiece. There’s something horrifying and perhaps titillating in all that, but there’s also something original and brave: in a world whose amorality is spun from exaggerations of our contemporary excesses, what are the limits of what one person can do to another. That’s an old question asked in new terminology, and I think it’s what the best literature sets out to do.

All that said, I think Stokoe blinks at the end. I think, SPOILER, it diminishes the philosophical interrogation to have Ryan – the wonderfully amoral and corrupt cop who’s been forcing much of the investigation Jack’s pursuing into his wife Karen’s murder – turn out to be Karen’s father. When he enters, he seems the embodiment of this new potential morality. He’ll abuse anyone, even his own daughter, sexually, but he seems genuinely offended by the surgical nature of Karen’s murder. He seems happy to exercise his perversion, to humiliate one after another of the people he comes across, but he seems to draw the line at preserving the human body.

For me, the novel takes a step backward when Ryan gloatingly takes Jack to a club where they perform public snuff shows. (The victim is jack-hammered in a kind of symbolic fucking.) It’s brutal, but so is the rest of the novel. It rings wrong in that scene, though, to have Ryan so unmoved by death and disfigurement. If, instead of being motivated by the coincidence of his being Karen’s father, he were motivated by an adherence to an odd code – to a code that views the body as somehow valuable in a world that values nothing else – I think this would be more consistent with the premises it supplies early on.

That’s all that keeps me from declaring this extraordinary. It ends with an amoral turn, one that becomes predictable as the hardboiled generic conventions slowly define Bella as a femme fatale, but one that’s still satisfying after all we’ve seen. (SPOILER: OK, I’ll spill. As Jack descends into the amorality that his involvement with Bella begins, he develops a taste for necrophilia. That can be revolting, but it’s an extreme test case for the concept of whether it’s possible to violate the living body. In the very end, then, when Bella seems to take him back under her wing since he’s the only one alive who knows the nature or her surgical perversions, he kills her in an attempt to save a comparative innocent. As she’s dying, well, I leave the rest to your imagination.)

Again, THIS IS NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART. Stay far away from this unless you want to be horrified. If you do go in for the horror, though, don’t forget to listen for its insistent and at times movingly radical conversation about the fundamental value of a human life.

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Friday, May 18, 2018

Review: The Celebrant

The Celebrant The Celebrant by Eric Rolfe Greenberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In some ways, the most intriguing part of this novel is its title. Like “alienist,” celebrant is a word that once upon a time meant a combination of concepts that have since been refined and separated. Someone who was a celebrant was part fan, part artistic admirer of a performer, and part residual believer in some religious ritual.

In that way, this novel sets out to explore the entwined and sometimes conflicting dimensions in which a young man comes to appreciate the baseball world of pre-World War I, a time during which the great Christy Matthewson emerged as the first of the all-time legends of the game. Jake admires Matthewson so much that he refuses multiple opportunities to meet him, choosing instead to design a commemorative ring as part of his work with his family’s rapidly growing jewelry firm. He is, in that regard, a fan, someone taking pleasure at a distance from a man slowly being deified by a game that’s attracting more and more attention from the American public.

At the same time, Jake and his family are Jews, first-generation immigrants who – while growing in wealth – still experience anti-Semitism. (It’s mild, but the most clear-cut example of it, harassment at the hands of a couple of players, rankles Jake for years.) He’s still occasionally an observant Jew, and he seems confident his children will embrace the identity as well, but part of what he finds in baseball is the opportunity to embrace an American faith. He is, therefore, a ‘celebrant’ in the sense that he wants to bring out what he sees as the deep-seated purity of the game. He won’t take money for the ring, for instance, wanting to keep his admiration pure.

When you cross that insight with Greenberg’s own celebrant-like appreciation for the first era in which professional baseball became the nation’s real pastime, there are a lot of things to find interesting in the novel. The history is tight and clever; as a one-time committed adolescent baseball historian myself, I know a lot of these stories, and I’m impressed to see them from fresh angles. We get “Merkle’s Boner” in real-time, before it’s frozen into clear-cut history. We get the Black Sox scandal as it slowly unfolds, before Shoeless Joe Jackson gets cast as a tragic figure for the century that follows. And, above all, we get the apotheosis of Matthewson, the first of the first players elected to the Hall of Fame, while he is still a human and not yet an eternal.

In such a light, this book is exactly the sort I’ve been looking for in the class my friend Will and I are preparing about the intersection of fandom and faith. Maddeningly, though, it falls short. As rich as it is in history and concept, it misses out on the real drama of creating characters who shape a larger narrative. It not only makes present the lost moment of the turn of the last century, but it also embraces that period’s literary technology. This is a novel dominated by old-school Realism; it owes its style and form more to William Dean Howells than to the generations of innovators who’ve come since.

If Jake is the character who embodies the central intellectual conflict of the novel, he does so as a mostly empty body. There’s no clear personal impetus, no explanation for why he in particular feels as he does. He’s the family artist – with no backstory on how he came to be so – and that casts him in a role separate from his siblings.

In contrast, Eli, comes to represent the serpent-like power of gambling in the face of baseball. He loves the game less for itself than for the prospect of using it to discover secret sources of income, to make it a joyful way to compete without paying the price of becoming an athlete himself. Eli is alive and energetic; he’s clearly Jake’s favorite brother, and he is the salesman primarily responsible for building the family business.

From the other side, we have brother Arthur, who has no affection at all for baseball but recognizes ways of using it to help with their corporate growth. He represents a different serpent, not the original one that devastated baseball with the Black Sox scandal but rather the one that threatens it now, the one that sees it as nothing more than a commercial opportunity, one where profits have to be maximized without respect to the joy that inspired the game in the first place.

Both brothers provide useful intellectual contrast to Jake’s quiet, religious-like appreciation of the game, but neither does so from the perspective of a fully formed character. Each is a stock figure, defined expressly for the purpose of offering that contrast rather than as a character who finds his way to such opposition. All three are brothers, for instance, yet there’s no explanation for how they turn out so differently.

(SPOILER: In one of the closing scenes of the novel, with Matthewson slowly dying from the gas he inhaled during World War I, Matthewson explicitly compares himself to a dying Christ and holds Jake to a difficult purity of faith, one that means the end of Eli’s hopes and, in effect, costs Eli his life. Just in case that point isn’t clear, the novel’s final words – as Jake reflects on what it meant to see his hero, possibly his savior, wither and die – are “Eli, Eli,” the same words the dying Christ speaks on the cross.)

It’s frustrating to find a book dealing with such compelling topics that does so with so heavy-handed an approach. I know there are many who admire this as one of the really fine baseball books of the last quarter century, but I’m afraid I don’t see it. It is a remarkable act of baseball historical fiction, and it poses a series of thoughtful questions about the nature of fandom. But at that other level – the level of taking material and finding fully formed characters who seem genuinely to live – I don’t find it all that compelling a novel.

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Saturday, May 12, 2018

Review: Silence

Silence Silence by Shūsaku Endō
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I confess, I’d probably have given up on this one if not for Martin Scorsese’s introduction. On the one hand, he gave me a frame for reading this, for which I am grateful, and for the other he invited me to think about what there is in the complicated, understated text that would appeal to him as an artist.

On the surface, I was excited about this. Its plot is more or less parallel to Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, one of the most moving novels I have ever read and a deep personal favorite. Also, I have enjoyed a number of powerful Japanese works in recent years – Tale of the Heike was a great reading experience – so I figured the combination was sure-fire.

I am open to the central drama here. Our protagonist, a Portuguese Jesuit priest named Rodrigues, determines to go to Japan to follow up on the apostasy of his mentor, a philosopher-missionary who’s renounced his faith in the face of Japan’s crack-down on Christianity. The Power and the Glory tells more or less the same story, celebrating the experience of a lone priest trying to serve the people in a country where the government has forbidden Catholicism. There, though, Greene makes his tired little Whiskey Priest into a hero, into a man too-weak on his own to carry out the mission but who becomes Christ-like in his faith. Even though he remains nameless, he discovers a love for ugly and deformed of his world, a love great enough that he willingly sacrifices himself.

This story is as subtly different from The Power and the Glory as Goodfellas is from The Godfather, though. Goodfellas depends upon The Godfather – I mean, it opens with “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” It can’t function without a prior story defining the gangster and, in that case, nothing defines the figure better than The Godfather. (That may not be the case within the movie; the fictional Henry Hill is speaking before the release of The Godfather film. It is, I insist, the case with audience expectations, though. We know what Hill means because we’ve seen The Godfather before we’ve seen Goodfellas.)

Part of Scorsese’s brilliance in Goodfellas is that, knowing that gangster/Mafia myth, he both deconstructs and celebrates it. Goodfellas lacks the fundamental beauty of The Godfather. It’s a deliberately choppier film, one that shows us betrayals of “omerta” without anything like the purportedly ethical condemnation that comes with betraying the same code in The Godfather. Hill finds the gangster life is not as deeply elegant and – in it counter-culture way – consistently ethical as he imagined. What he does find, though, is a lifestyle that makes him feel alive. In the end, then, he mourns what he’s lost as much as he finds relief at surviving it.

I can’t say that Silence depends upon knowing The Power and the Glory, but I also can’t separate my own reading of the two – and I suspect I’m not alone, but I think it does depend on knowing that missionary work understood itself as reenacting Christ’s sacrifice. Silence comes a quarter century later – and a quick Wikipedia glance tells me that Endo has been called the Graham Greene of Japan – so I know I’m not alone.

In any case, Rodrigues goes to Japan fully expecting martyrdom. He is certain the Japanese will eventually capture and torture him, and he knows he will endure into a kind of mythology. He will reenact the Christ story, bringing holy grace to the Christians who remain in the land. It’s beautiful and powerful, but the Japanese know the story too. When they do capture him, they refuse to grant him martyrdom. Instead, they cunningly set him up in comfort and then make him listen to the torments of the Christians they’re torturing to get him to apostatize. Those Christians have already renounced Christ themselves, but the Japanese don’t care. They tell the priest such ordinary Christians are only branches on the tree; he’s the root, and it’s only his apostasy that matters.

It’s a brutal torture, and it works, compelling Rodrigues to agree to step on a picture of the Virgin Mary as a sign of his lost faith. His failure marks the failure of the Church’s campaign in Japan, and the number of Christians slowly ebbs. He finds he is not reenacting the story he thought he was. He is as far from Francis Xavier as Henry Hill is from Michael Corleone.

In the end, though, there is a kind of Scorsesian twist in the way Rodrigues, in his despair, nevertheless hears the voice of God. The “Silence” of the title refers to the silence of God, to the fact that God seems absent in the face of suffering. Rodrigues has failed in everything he thought he might accomplish, but he is not entirely in despair. He realizes he has saved the poor Christians who were suffering on his behalf, and he understands that it was in part his pride that brought him to Japan in the first place. He is humbled and disappointed, but he feels the presence of God more fully than at any other time in his life. Like an aging Henry Hill, who’s lost it all as well, he doesn’t regret what he’s done. He’s failed to uphold the power of the faith he thought he represented; he’s inadvertently discovered a deeper, less elegant version of faith in its place.

All that said, I still don’t quite love the novel. Like Goodfellas, it experiments with ruptured form. There, Scorsese famously brings in voice-overs and uses rough cuts to keep us from falling into the gorgeous movie myth that Coppola gave us in The Godfather. It took me a while to appreciate what Scorsese was doing – I’m more drawn to the elegance of The Power and the Glory and The Godfather – but I have come slowly to admire the ways that his ‘uglying up’ the filming process accomplishes an important break with the source material, a break that lets him move forward.

After one reading, though, I find myself frustrated with much of Endo’s assault on conventional narrative. Early on, we get a number of Rodrigues’s letters in which he discusses his faith and lays out the history. It’s fine with me that we hear him speak – and it’s crucial to the novel that we get a sense of his faith in its naïve form – but it’s a little blunt, even a little tedious at times. Such confessional letters don’t strike me as the most efficient form for communicating the faith that will eventually be challenged. I don’t find that much that’s distinctive in his teaching. Just as an example, couldn’t there have been something to give a sense of the distinctiveness of the thought of the mentor he’s seeking?

Then, oddly, the story switches to third-person and later to glimpses of him from the diaries and reports of various Japanese officials. It feels like an inefficient way to get across the denouement of our story. I respect the pulling-away-of-the-camera in the moment – Greene does it with heartbreaking beauty in the [SPOILER] scene just after the priest has been shot – but here, again, it seems ham-handedly done.

It's possible there’s a problem with the translation, that the audiobook reader was off (why get a British man to read a Japanese novel about Portuguese Jesuits for a presumptively American-centered audience?), and that I’m missing something by not being a Catholic. But this is the reading I had.

In any event, I admire the ambition of this, and I think I see it as a powerful response to Greene’s memorable novel. In itself, I enjoyed it less than I hoped, and its effect is less to make me dwell of it than to go back, for at least the twentieth time, to think about all that Greene accomplished himself.

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Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Review: New People

New People New People by Danzy Senna
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I hadn’t heard of Danzy until I wound up seated next to her right before she went up to give a reading. Sitting next to her, I loved her voice, not just her speaking tone (which is great, and I’d love to hear her do an audiobook of one of her works) but her candor. She was hysterical as she made fun of her children in a way that made it clear how much she loves them.

Then she got up and read most of a chapter from this book, and I heard the same voice, the same capacity for humor in the service of something serious.

It helped me a lot in reading this to have Danzy’s explanation that she wanted to find a way to write about a potentially representative heroine – Maria is a mixed-race woman who sometimes refers to herself as mulatto and who generally embraces her African-American identity – who’s ultimately not very likeable. Maria may be charming on the surface, but she’s really a mean-spirited selfish woman, someone who uses others casually for her own ends.

I don’t have to give much of a spoiler to reveal how unpleasant Maria can be. In the opening chapters, she essentially ruins the life of a mostly white boyfriend from her Stanford college days. Greg Is in love with her, and with him she has a version of the have-it-all dream. He’s tall, handsome, accepting of her, and they have great sex. She’s angry, though, at herself more than at him, for being with a white man, so she pulls the plug on the relationship. There’s nothing wrong with calling it quits, of course, but with her it’s scorched earth. She won’t tell him the issue; she takes a grey area and insists it’s only black or white. (And, yeah, I use that metaphor carefully.) She won’t even acknowledge that they were a couple. He’s so devastated that he “dies” in the sense that – and here’s one glimpse at Danzy’s terrific sense of humor – he reinvents himself as “Goya” and, claiming license from a Chilean grandmother he never met, embraces his “Latino” identity.

We see something similar in the awful prank she pulls on Khalil. Irritated that she’s helped him acknowledge his Blackness – that she’s succeeded in pulling him out of his floaty, frat-boy life – she leaves a racist message on his answering machine. In doing so, she creates a campus furor, with everyone but her reacting as you’d hope in properly expressing horror over the incident. She not only gets off scot-free, but she succeeds in furthering her plan to “rescue” Khalil from his care-free hipster tendencies.

As funny as almost all of this is, it’s also disturbing. Danzy talked about her frustration with the happy-ending impulse in literature, and she warned that she’s not interested in waving a wand and resolving her characters’ problems. At bottom, Maria dislikes herself. She lives in a strange historical moment, an instant in which – as a consequence of many factors – her being a mulatta puts her in a desirable position. She’s Black, and that gives her claim to the history of violence and segregation African-Americans have experienced, but she’s also light-skinned enough to be distinguished from, for example, her own dark-skinned adoptive mother. (Who, as the book makes clear, intended to adopt a darker-skinned child.)

As a consequence, Maria has the personal good fortune to be the recipient of a portion of white guilt. She is just Black enough to be representative, but she is also white enough to benefit from white privilege. She’s often mistaken for white – or at least Jewish – and she’s beautiful in a way that’s reminiscent of the exotic without appearing altogether other. (I want to be sure to clarify that last point – much of what makes this so powerful is that it doesn’t presume a White gaze. This isn’t an argument with how Whites see Blacks or Mulattos – as she uses the term. Instead, it’s all from the perspective of Maria. She doesn’t presume whiteness; as a White reader, I get to overhear this, but it’s not a story told directly for me.) In other words, Maria has a shot at what her mother calls “it all.”

In the middle of all that, though, Maria can’t accept her good fortune. I suppose it’s to her credit that she feels it’s unearned, but that fundamental self-dislike seems to be what drives her profound, for lack of a better word, mean-ness. [SPOILER] Instead of learning from her cruelty to Greg/Goya, she follows the same pattern as she loses interest in the almost-too-perfect Khalil. As their wedding nears, she grows increasingly intrigued by their mutual friend, “the poet,” a darker-skinned guy who’s appropriately friendly to her but nothing more.

In the slapstick heart of the novel, she finds herself accidentally conscripted into caring for the infant daughter of the poet’s next-door neighbor. It’s a great scene (and Danzy knows it). The privileged neighbor has read her as a dependent Latina maid. The baby seems an obligation she didn’t ask for but recognizes. And the poet, who’s next door going about his daily affairs, represents a purity of identity that she yearns for. He’s unambiguously Black; she’s no longer quite certain about herself.

[SPOILER] The scene is so good that Danzy reprises it in the final pages. She returns to the neighbor’s apartment, uses the shared fire escape to go into the poet’s room, and finds herself trapped underneath his bed as he makes love to her future sister-in-law. It’s excruciating, both for being so uncomfortable and so funny. More than that, though, it’s representative of her ultimate inability to come to terms with her rich and varied history.

The fact of her hiding under the bed recalls the way an older woman survived the Jonestown massacre – a subject Maria is writing about for her dissertation. That woman hid beneath a bed to avoid Jim Jones’s death squads, and she emerged to a changed world. As Maria sees in her scholarship, that woman and her peers fled to Jonestown in part to escape racism, in answer to Jones’s claims of a post-racial utopian future. The weight of the massacre has fallen largely on African-Americans, though, and the surviving woman is left with a sense she cannot articulate of her own foolishness in thinking she can wish the historical weight of race away.

Maria, as she lies under the bed, realizes she cannot reach her personal utopia. She cannot both claim the status of racist victim and then live a life without the discomforts of race. She comes so close to having it all that everyone thinks she does. We already know that hiding under a bed means, after the excruciating moment is over, that she’ll survive. We already know as well that it’s a survival that teaches nothing new, that reminds us that the legacy of racism endures, that it’s foolish to think it’s possible to escape the weight of a history that presses her into the floor leaving her just enough room to breathe and stay alive to the next challenge.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Review: First Person

First Person First Person by Richard Flanagan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve figured out this much about Richard Flanagan on the basis of this one and The Narrow Road to the Deep North: first, he’s drawn to complicated narratives that focus on intense experiences – there a group of Australian prisoners of war building a railroad for the Japanese, and here a young writer attempting the confessional memoir of an inveterate con-man and liar – that he concludes with a rapid decades later what-eventually-happened-to wrap-up.

Second, he can write like few people in the world. Give me another novel or two to be certain, but he may be my new candidate (after Philip Roth) for the Nobel Prize. Yeah. He’s that good, a world-class writer who’s both accessible and deeply ethical in his insistence on probing his characters in all their dimensions.

The premise here alone is enough to get me singing its praises. We have a young writer protagonist who senses the potential of his own voice but can’t find it. He’s writing as a Tasmanian, as an Aussie equivalent of someone from North Dakota or maybe even my own small-town Ohio world. He doesn’t have the connections or the benefit of a mentor, but he knows he sees the world in a distinct way. He’s lived his adolescence Aussie hard, going on daredevil outdoor adventures with his best friend and future muscle for our con-man/gangster, and now he’s determined to finish his novel with the patient support of his pregnant wife. He’s prepared to put all their lives on hold to find that voice, and we get the impression it might be inside him. There’s no guarantee he’s the next Roth or Updike or name your own late 1970s or early 1980s literary giant, but the odds seem a little better for him than for most.

Then comes the golden handcuffs offer to write the memoirs of Siegfried, a self-reinventing swindler, gangster, international con-man, and possible sleeper CIA asset. It’s $10,000 for six weeks of work. He wants to say no – his old friend warns him against it – but he finally gives into what feels like the inevitable.

The catch is that Siegfried simply refuses to tell his story. His reticence means no book, which means no money, which means financial disaster, so Kif has to begin to fill in the blanks. The story of this man becomes increasingly his own story.

That’s brilliant on a narrative level, but Flanagan does even more, turning the writing project into a harrowing self-examination. Kif discovers his own selfishness, his own distance from the people he loves. He discovers that, while he hasn’t committed the same crimes as Siegfried, he has some of the same yawning moral void, the potential for the same sociopathology.

Part of the brilliance here is the subtlety of Flanagan’s unveiling. Kif comes slowly to mistrust himself, then eventually to find his literary voice muted, and finally to sell out from the literary ambition that motivated him. [SPOILER] As the end reveals, he even gives up on the family that has motivated him, giving into the selfishness that his acquaintance with Siegfried made all too clear.

There’s even more, though. [BIGGER SPOILER] We eventually discover that Kif is an unreliable narrator. He’s withheld from us perhaps the climactic detail of his time with Siegfried – he has, as he effectively confesses, killed Siegfried. It’s supposedly at Siegfried’s request, but we have only Kif’s word for it. Flanagan never tells us, but he peels back enough of the blinders to reveal the ugly likelihood: since Siegfried has refused to sign a crucial waiver, Kif’s killing him has meant the $10,000.

In place of a confession, though, we get a quieter kind of self-recrimination. Kif has gone on to a high-profile and lucrative career as a TV writer, finally as an impresario of reality TV. He is, in other words, showing us a “real world” that’s as sanitized and manipulated as the memoir he wrote for Siegfried.

Again, though, Flanagan’s ultimate mastery here comes in the way he only suggests such darkness. It’s possible Kif isn’t as guilty as he seems. It’s possible that his contamination from Siegfried is merely from proximity rather than his own unspoken guilt. Even if that’s the truth we’re supposed to take from this narrative, though, there’s a dull horror in knowing that our once ambitious and largely innocent Kif has lived a more or less comfortable life in the shadow of such potential amorality. He’s lost his voice and he’s lost his decency and he’s abandoned his young family, but he’s found all the trappings he thinks he wanted.

This one is brand new. Look for it to get a Man-Booker nomination, and don’t be surprised if it wins.

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Review: The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.

The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. by Robert Coover
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve read this one before, long ago, and re-read it now with a purpose: to see if it’s a good fit for a class a friend and I are preparing on fandom and faith. This one certainly has both. Our protagonist – whose name may be a play on Yahweh – invents a fantasy baseball game and populates it not just with statistics but also personalities. When a character emerges as a great new hope for him, but is then killed through an unlikely and unlucky roll of the dice, he eventually reimagines him as a quasi-Christ figure, a necessary sacrifice for the league to continue. And since the league increasingly becomes his life, since he increasingly loses touch with reality, it’s a sacrifice to give his own life continued meaning.

Even a capsule summary like that gives a sense of the potential poignancy and black comedy that sit side by side. Henry craves connection and he craves meaning, but the modern world denies him. As an accountant, he’s drawn to the power of probability, of the capacity for numbers to give a skeleton of meaning. He needs more, though, and that’s where the stories and characters of his imagined world are born.

This is a classic of its time. That’s evident in part by the way it foreshadows a condition we see fairly often in the 21st Century. Most of us know someone caught up in – if not altogether lost in – an imagined online community. Most of us see some of that impulse in ourselves, whether through Facebook, fantasy sports, or just idly web-surfing.

In such a light, this novel takes on perhaps a new power than when it was written. It lets us see this contemporary phenomenon as it looked to someone with the capacity to imagine it before we could really experience it. In that way, I admire it maybe more than I did when I read it a quarter century ago, when it was already established as one of the works of the early 1970s with a chance at enduring.

At the same time, this is uncomfortably in love with its concept at a technical, narrative level. It’s not so much that it’s hard to read as it slips from fantasy to reality without warning, but rather that it isn’t that joyful a reading experience. Henry has a sense of these characters, and that sense comes to define him, but there isn’t quite enough meat in the stories of the Association itself. That is, much of what fascinates Henry is actually pretty tedious – and I say that as a fan of baseball and baseball literature.

I love the concept here; this is a high and memorable imaginative achievement. As I re-read it, though, I can’t imagine sharing it with students; I imagine most would be thrown by the method and bored by the details of the imagined world.

I wish this were a short story instead, and I imagine in such form that it would be as powerful as it is in novel form with the benefit of allowing Henry to emerge more fully from his imagined universe. As it is, this remains haunting and hysterical. Some of its writing technology hasn’t aged well, but there’s no mistaking it still as anything but an inspired look at madness, fandom, and the weight of religious faith.

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