Monday, December 21, 2009

Fantastic Mr Fox

There's a new movie out called Fantastic Mr Fox, based on the book by the same name, by Roald Dahl.  Dahl is one of my favorite writers for children:  I love Matilda and James and the Giant Peach especially.  There's also a great book of "fractured fairy tales" in verse, Revolting Rhymes, that I've practically memorized.

So when I heard that somebody had made a stop-motion animated version of Fantastic Mr. Fox, I had to go see it.  In the book, the fox lives under a tree, and he regularly robs three farmers of their chickens, ducks, and cider.  The farmers try to dig him out, and to escape, he and his family tunnel all the way under the farms and into the chicken houses, etc, where they get food for a huge underground feast with the other animals of the wood.  In my book, there are hilarious drawings by Quentin Blake, who has illustrated many of Dahl's books.  And Dahl's somewhat gross sense of humor are evident:  he describes things falling out of Farmer Bean's ears, such as flies and bits of gum.

The original story is in the tradition of so much English children's literature:  talking animals that wear clothes and live bourgeois lives in holes under trees, like in The Wind in the Willows or Winne the Pooh or the Beatrix Potter books; and marginalized "people" like the Borrowers who are invisible to the humans but rob them of small things that the people can easily spare, just to survive.  Why did English writers specialize in these sorts of stories?  Maybe because of the tradition of "fairy" stories:  the fairies, after all, were small, not-quite-human beings that lived on the edges of gardens, invisible to the powerful humans. Some say that the fairy folk were the original inhabitants of England before the Celts arrived.

 Wes Anderson, who made the film, has elaborated greatly on this tradition  and updated it.  All the twee elements of British children's fiction are retained: the precious miniature interiors and clothes, the bucolic countryside, the bourgois comforts of life in a hobbit or badger hole.  Anderson commissioned people to make tiny knitted caps for the puppets to wear, for example, and it's a  great pleasure to look at all these details.  Much work went into this movie, into the making of the sets and into the laborious process of stop-motion animation, where each tiny movement of a character is photographed, then the puppet is moved a little more and another photograph is taken, and so on. It's an old-fashioned way of making an animated movie.

But in addition to all this cuteness, there's a kind of darkness in the movie's set and  plot that's only hinted at in Dahl's book.  Anderson brings this dark element to the fore.  Dahl's farmers are obsessed, Ahab-like, with eliminating the fox; but in the movie they go beyond bulldozers and use explosives to oust the foxes from their hole. I'm sorry to say that it reminded me of our country's behavior at the beginning of the Iraq war, when we bombed civilians in Baghdad during Shock and Awe.  And the animals cowering in the hole are nothing if not  civilians in war time--mothers and children along with the fathers--banding together courageously to survive.

The farms in the movie are factory farms.  They are surrounded by concertina wire and guarded by armed guards. Bean surveys his realm through the use of video cameras, from an underground bunker.  The farms look more like prisons or concentration camps than like bucolic English countryside farms of Beatrix Potter's time.  And indeed, real livestock farms are very much like concentration camps these days.  And when the animals finally find a paradise full of food in the movie, it's the inside of a big box supermarket at night, where they drink juice out of boxes and eat fruit with stickers on them.  Mr Fox points out that the food may not seem like real food, but the animals are surviving, and that's the name of the game:  survival.  A sentiment that many Americans can relate to this winter as they push their buggies through the aisles of Costco or Walmart.

Indeed there's an existential theme that persists throughout the movie:  What is a fox?  Mr Fox asks this question aloud and points out that it is existential.  Can a fox be a fox if he never steals a chicken?  If he no longer acts like a wild animal?  He longs to BE a wild animal, rather than the bourgois, tamed fox journalist he has become in the movie.  All those old children's books implicitly asked the same question:  if animals are like people--wearing clothes and talking--are people like animals?  And often, in those books, the humans were much more cruel and bloodthirsty than the animals.  This is true in the movie as well.  Again, many  humans may have repressed the question that haunts Mr Fox:  is a thoroughly tamed and domesticated human, pushing a cart through Costco, still "wild" and therefore "free"?  What have we lost, in order to survive as modern humans?

Through all this seriousness, though, there's a lot of humor. The animals sometimes lapse into fierce fights, with growling and scratching, but they never say bad words:  whenever they're tempted, they substitute the word "cuss," as in "Are you cussing with me?"  or "That was one giant cluster cuss."  They also eat ferociously, with their hands, like real animals.  These sudden lapses into "animality" are funny, juxtaposed with all the gentility of their rooms and clothing.  Also, there's a very funny scene where a young fox is learning a game called Whack Bat, the rules of which are so arcane and elaborate that the explanation of how it works is a parody of every over-elaborate sport you've ever tried to learn.  (It also reminds you of the invented game quidditch in the Harry Potter stories.)

I also loved the music.  The first song you hear is that great song, "The Ballad of Davy Crockett."  Mr Fox is playing it on a little tape recorder attached to his belt, it turns out.  How quaint!  (Alongside all the other 19th century"quaintness" of the English children's book, but quaint in its evocation of the fifties, when Davy Crockett was all the rage, and of the seventies, when we listened to music on little tape players.)  Anderson said in an interview that the fox's tail (which he loses near the beginning of the book) reminded him of Davy Crockett's coonskin hat.  Also the soundtrack includes several Burl Ives songs from the fifties, songs I loved as a child, such as "Buckeye Jim," and "The Grey Goose."  The latter is a song about a hunt, so it's appropriate.  The little fox child is listening to the song in his room as he falls asleep.

About the loss of the tail:  in the book the tail gets shot off by the farmers, and Mr Fox retreats to his hole, where Mrs Fox "tenderly" licks its stump to stop the bleeding.  I suppose this was too erotic and animal-like for the movie, so in the movie  she just sews up the stump instead!  So, despite the daringness and contemporaneity of the movie, the book still has an edginess and naughtiness that the movie can only aspire to.  That's the thing about books.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Story Corps in Houston

The Story Corps mobile booth is in Houston for a month, until Dec 19.  Today I went with my Peruvian friend Vilma Burwick to the Story Corps booth to record an interview with her about her very interesting life.

Vilma was born in a remote village in the north of Peru.  She had a large family, and they were very close. She really did walk two hours to school every morning, and two hours back.  When she went to high school, it was three hours.  Her father really valued education, and he encouraged her to study.

When she finished high school, she went to Lima to go to the university there.  She worked to support herself while she was in the university, and she became a lab technician at a hospital.  But she wanted more opportunity, and she decided she wanted to move to the United States at some time, but she didn't know how she could make it happen.

Vilma cared for the children of a family that sometimes traveled to the United States for vacations.  On one of these trips, Vilma had a long layover in the Houston airport.  A mysterious man kept talking to her and flirting with her.  She was scared, but after a while she came to sort of like the man. When she got back to Peru, he had sent her a lot of emails!  They were in English, but she got a dictionary and translated them.  She wrote back to him, partly in Spanish, and he had a dictionary too, to figure out what her emails meant. Fifteen months after she met Keith Burwick in the Houston airport, she came to Houston and, reader, she married him.

Vilma had to learn English, so she watched American soap operas and read as much as she could in English. She started attending ESL classes at HCC, which is where I met her.  Now she's on her way to a four-year university, to study microbiology.  And she became an American citizen. She's an American success story.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Multiculturalism and Feminism

An interesting issue came up in the writing center the other day.  I was tutoring a Chinese woman who was writing an essay about motherhood, fatherhood, and marriage. She wrote that women have a "bounden duty" to have children because they have the right body parts.

Usually I don't argue with students when they say things that I don't agree with, but I couldn't let this one go by.  In part that was because I knew that her writing teacher would think this point of view odd; the teacher had assigned a lot of essays about gender issues and is presumably a feminist, although I don't know her and couldn't say that for sure.  Even if this were not the case, I thought it was my "bounden duty" to inform the student that this statement, presented as if it were self-evident and not defended at all, would strike most Americans as old-fashioned, if not downright offensive.  So I told her that in the US, we consider child-bearing a choice rather than a duty.

"A choice?"  she said, after a long silence. What a novel concept.

I was somewhat puzzled by her puzzlement, because I have met other young Chinese women students who are very career-oriented and don't want to be only housewives.  They don't seem to see child-bearing as a "duty," and I know that China has had a long-time policy of limiting births to one child per family.  The Maoist socialist revolution was ostensibly feminist also.

I asked the student if most people in China thought that women had a duty to have children. She said that they did.  Maybe she is from a different class or region than the women I had met before, who were graduate students at the University of Houston.

Anyway I posted a story about this on the email list for writing tutors at HCC, asking people what they do when a student writes something that is "politically incorrect" or possibly offensive to most Americans, especially when they don't seem to realize this is the case.  Almost always these un-PC statements are about the inferiority of women, or their proper place in society being firmly under the thumb of men.  Muslim and Hispanic male students, and some Asian men, are the usual offenders, but occasionally recent immigrants who are women express these un-feminist points of view, without defending them much, as if they are obviously true.

I was surprised that another tutor thought that it was inappropriate to some degree for me to argue with the Chinese student about her point of view. She said that some people think it is an honor to be pregnant, and that I was privileging the intellect over the body.  I wrote back that I thought being pregnant and giving birth were indeed very empowering, but that the body is not necessarily "honored" by pregnancy:  that in fact pregnancy changes the body in sometimes negative ways that can last the rest of a woman's life. (That's something that they don't tell young women.)  I also reiterated the familiar feminist point that honoring the body means giving its owner control over it, rather than assuming that its reproductive ability belongs to a husband, or a collective.  Women are not just baby-making machines, yo. 

I also said that when one becomes a mother, one is by no means giving up on the intellect:  being a good mother takes a lot of thought.

But there's another issue here: what are we to do with all these people moving to  our shores who bring with them pre-Enlightenment--ie medieval--ways of thinking?  Some European countries have had the policy of absolute tolerance of, say, Islamic fundamentalism, and the result is incidents like the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh.  Other countries like France have tried to assimilate Muslims by forbidding Muslim girls from wearing head scarves at school.  In the US, we haven't really decided what our policy is. Muslim girls can wear head scarves or even full body coverings to school (I've seen women on the Rice campus who are covered head to toe in black, to the point that you can't even see their eyes), and in most universities and colleges, faculty bend over backward to accommodate "multicultural" points of view, in order to be "post-colonial."   At the same time most academics would probably describe themselves as feminists, even while they argue that it's parochial for Westerners to tout Enlightenment values like freedom of thought and individualism! 

I just can't go there.  I am unashamed about valuing freedom of thought and individualism.  And I don't think that those values are at war with community well-being.  We don't have to choose between the individual and the community, especially when it comes to women's individualism:  development policy makers in the Third World know now that educating and empowering women is the single most important thing that an NGO can work on, to improve the overall well-being of a whole community.  (See Nicholas Kristof  and Sheryl WuDunn's new book Half the Sky.)

Also, if the Chinese people are so averse to individualism, why do they want to get rid of the firewall that their government has erected around their internet access?  How could Tiananmen Square have happened?  Some Western intellectuals seem to think that all political attitudes are created by one's society, and that they are all equally valid; but if that's the case, how does change ever happen?  How do people come to question what they've been taught?  I think that people know when things aren't right, and that individual thinking exposes oppression.  The freedom to talk about one's insights into oppression helps other individuals think more clearly about their situation, and that's how political change in the right direction of more freedom and equality happens.

So I will continue to encourage thinking and questioning of received opinion in the writing center.  I don't care if I'm not post-colonial enough.  I like the Enlightenment.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Why Not Play it Cool?

Here's a poem by Wendell Berry that recently appeared in The New Yorker.  It's written in couplets of iambic pentameter, and it's about global warming, I think.  

Can you write a good poem about global warming?  This poem doesn't shy away from being didactic. In fact, you could call it preachy. Usually that makes for a bad poem.  And I am having a hard time saying that this is a good poem, even though I agree with all its sentiments.  A couple of lines in it stick in my craw, for example:

 "Burning the world to live in it is wrong." 

 Why is this bad?  Well, any more, poems don't generally lecture to you and tell you what's wrong.  I guess they used to, though, but that ended sometime in the early twentieth century.

 So let's say this poem is a throw-back to ...Victorian poetry.  Is it good Victorian poetry?  I would say:  pretty good.  If we look at the line above again, there's more to it than first appears:  the image is of burning  a world in order to live in it.   How can you burn something and live in it at the same time.  You can't.  You could burn some of it to live in the rest of it, but that's not what it says:  it says we are burning the whole world in order to live in it.  Our house is burning down around us.  Point taken.

Some of the images  are really good:  "an antique dark-held luster."  That's oil and coal  presumably.  It's old--"antique," implying old-fashioned, even out-moded, but valuable--and it's "dark-held," in some fastnesses deep in the earth.  Maybe the earth tries to hold onto it, but we wrest it away from her.  And it has luster; it shines like gold, like money, which it can be exchanged for a lot of.

But the question remains:  is it ok to write a didactic poem?  In the sixties there were a lot of poem-like songs that were sort of didactic.  We called them "protest songs."  Is this a protest poem? 

A Speech to the Garden Club of America

(With thanks to Wes Jackson and in memory of Sir Albert Howard and Stan Rowe)

by Wendell Berry

Thank you. I’m glad to know we’re friends, of course;
There are so many outcomes that are worse.
But I must add I’m sorry for getting here
By a sustained explosion through the air,
Burning the world in fact to rise much higher
Than we should go. The world may end in fire
As prophesied—our world! We speak of it
As “fuel” while we burn it in our fit
Of temporary progress, digging up
An antique dark-held luster to corrupt
The present light with smokes and smudges, poison
To outlast time and shatter comprehension.
Burning the world to live in it is wrong,
As wrong as to make war to get along
And be at peace, to falsify the land
By sciences of greed, or by demand
For food that’s fast or cheap to falsify
The body’s health and pleasure—don’t ask why.
But why not play it cool? Why not survive
By Nature’s laws that still keep us alive?
Let us enlighten, then, our earthly burdens
By going back to school, this time in gardens
That burn no hotter than the summer day.
By birth and growth, ripeness, death and decay,
By goods that bind us to all living things,
Life of our life, the garden lives and sings.
The Wheel of Life, delight, the fact of wonder,
Contemporary light, work, sweat, and hunger
Bring food to table, food to cellar shelves.
A creature of the surface, like ourselves,
The garden lives by the immortal Wheel
That turns in place, year after year, to heal
It whole. Unlike our economic pyre
That draws from ancient rock a fossil fire,
An anti-life of radiance and fume
That burns as power and remains as doom,
The garden delves no deeper than its roots
And lifts no higher than its leaves and fruits.

Another mule and wagon on the Dixie Limited's track

Probably by now you've heard of Kathryn Stockett's widely acclaimed first novel, The Help.  A friend loaned it to me, and I started reading it somewhat skeptically, as I usually don't like "best-seller" chick lit.  But this book surprised me:  it was well-written and thoughtful, and it has a riveting plot that keeps the reader reading deep into the night.

There are already over a thousand reviews of this book on Amazon, and I haven't read very many of them, so I may be repeating what other people have said, but here goes.  The story is told in the first person voices of three characters:  Skeeter, the young white woman who co-writes a book about the lives of black maids in Jackson, MS, in the mid-1960s; Aibileen, a maid in Jackson who writes several of the most important chapters in the book; and Minny, another maid whose explosive narrative of her own experiences being a maid drives the plot of the book.  In the background are the terrible events of the early years of the Civil Rights movement:  bombings, shootings, assassination, and general terror, mixed with wild hope.

I was raised in the South, and my mother had a maid.  She was a constant quiet presence in my life from the time I was four, until I left for college.  She left after my sister graduated from college and got married, so that means she worked for my family from about 1959 to 1999, about forty years.  She was a very young woman, around eighteen years of age, when she first started coming a few days a week to our apartment at the VA hospital, and she was a little older than I am now when she finally left.

I remember wondering a lot what her life was like when she wasn't at our house.  I  never saw her house, or met anybody in her family. Sometimes I heard her husband's voice on the phone.  During the 1960s, I remember knowing on some level that there was a lot of tension between black and white people (I was 14 in 1968), and I wished I could know what she thought, but as Kathryn Stockett says in the epilogue to her book, it just didn't seem possible to ask.  Ms. Stockett wrote her book after spending years imagining how her beloved Demetrie would have answered that question.

This book may be as good an answer as white women ever get to the question:  what do the black women that work for our families think about us?  What are their lives like when they're not with us?  Some of the answer, of course, is not flattering to white folks and is uncomfortable to read about.  But Stockett also recognizes the closeness that sometimes develops between black and white women who spend hours together, looking after children together, and sharing the ups and downs of life over many decades; some of these relationships do last for forty years or more.  The closeness and affection and genuine caring are there, but the characters in the novel talk about the "line" that can't be crossed, and how frustrating that line is.

I have to say that despite all the changes of the last forty years, that line has not gone away. I feel it when I am with the caregivers that take care of my parents so devotedly, twenty-four hours a day.  I like to think that we are friends, and that there is genuine respect both ways.  But my life has been privileged in ways that they can scarcely even imagine.  Perhaps the greatest privilege was the opportunity to stay home with my own child, instead of having to leave him to care for other people's children.

The most heart-rending story in the book focuses on this very issue:  the separation of a black mother and daughter, when the mother can't possibly care for her daughter and decides to put her in an orphanage.  The main white character, Skeeter, only hears of her mother's maid's heartbreak at losing her daughter after Constantine, the maid, has died.  But the other maids tell Skeeter that one of the hardest aspects of their lives is having to leave their own children to make a living caring for the children of (mostly idle) white women.

The picture of small-town middle-class Southern white women's lives is dead-on. I was a child in the 1960s, but even then I could see the deadening boredom yet privilege of the endless rounds of bridge, country club lunches, and Junior League meetings.  Luckily, I escaped that, partly just by being born late enough that that life was no longer mandatory for middle-class white women by the time I grew up.  But I enjoyed the skewering that Stockett delivers to the complacent grande dames of the country clubs.

One amazing thing is the way in which Stockett manages to make something new grow out of the well-plowed ground of race relations in the South.  Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O'Connor are all hard acts to follow.  But the stories of Faulkner's families, black and white, inter-related by blood and history, start before the Civil War and end around the 1940s.  Faulkner didn't write about the 1960s.  Welty and O'Connor touched on the intimacy and distance of these black and white cousins trenchantly in the 1960s, but it was not the centerpiece of their oevres, as it was with Faulkner.  Since the 1950s and 1960s, many black writers have illuminated the lives of black people in slavery and afterwards, writers like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.  Recently, in the last forty years or so, it seems that it's been rare for a  writer entered into the imaginative and emotional life of both white and black people as thoroughly as Faulkner did, with an understanding that doesn't oversimplify the complexity of either race's experience.  Stockett has come close to Faulkner's high standard in that department.  It's a brave attempt. As Flannery O'Connor wrote, "The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do.  Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down."

She can't match his style, obviously, and there are no modernist breakthroughs here as there were in The Sound and the Fury or As I Lay Dying.  Stockett benefits from her reading of Faulkner:  she lets the characters speak for themselves, as Faulkner did in those two books.  It's not exactly stream-of-consciousness, and that's a good thing:  The Help is a much more accessible book than The Sound and the Fury, if a less rich one textually.  It's not the kind of book that scholars will be poring over for decades to come, but it's a damn good read.  Whereas many if not most readers are put off by the difficulty of Faulkner's voices, with their highly cryptic allusiveness to dreams and other voices--the "tale told by an idiot" in particular--readers are quickly drawn in by the warm and very real voices of Stockett's likeable characters.  Nobody likes Jason Compson.

At first Stockett's impersonation of the way black women talk sort of irritated me:  it seemed a bit fake and annoying.  But eventually the authenticity of the voices won me over. Some people really did talk like that; some still do.  Skeeter's voice is also believable, quirky, and funny.  Getting a character's voice right-- her  speech patterns and accent--without "dumbing down" her voice is tricky, and Stockett nails it.  She has obviously read her Huckleberry Finn, and her Alice Walker.  It's hard to get these characters' voices out of your head when you put the book down, and that's a good test of a voice's authenticity.

In the epilogue, Stockett goes into memoir mode and tells why she wrote the book:  in part it was in tribute to the black woman who raised her.  I kind of wondered why she didn't just write a memoir; why did she feel as if she needed to write a novel, when her own story and Demetrie's story was so compelling?  I think it might be because she wanted it to be about more than just herself and Demetrie.  She was able to populate her book with not just middle-class white women, but a memorable "white trash" woman too; not just with saintly black women but with at least one mean and bitter one.  This terrain of black and white women was treacherous:  she could have lapsed into caricature and stereotype and sentimentality, and at times she comes pretty close.  But in the end, the black women are not all saints and the white women are not all snotty, frigid, and lazy.

She says there is one line in The Help that sums up the meaning of the book:

"Wasn't that the point of the book?  For women to realize, We are just two people.  Not that much separates us.  Not nearly as much as I thought."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Houston: There's no there there.

Today I tutored a young woman who was supposed to be writing a "descriptive paragraph." One choice was to write about one's own neighborhood and describe it. Her paragraph described driving along a street on a cool, windy day, and seeing the bare trees and the big, beautiful houses.

The problem is, in Houston we don't have bare trees, really. And the number of cool, crisp days you can count on one hand. Some of the pecans and oaks lose their leaves for a few weeks in mid-winter, but the dominant species--the live oak--is never bare: it starts to put out tiny new yellowish leaves in February, and at that time, some of the older, brown leaves fall. But it's never completely bare.

Right now, although it is "fall," you would never know from looking at Houston or its trees: they are all green and leafed out. The oaks and pecans don't start losing leaves until December. And although it's the end of September, it was 96 degrees on Tuesday.

There are some big, beautiful houses in Houston, but those are not the houses that our students live in.

So I asked her if this descriptive paragraph was really about her neighborhood, and she said that it wasn't; that she had made it up. I thought so: usually when you read vague, insipid student writing, the student didn't obey the injunction to "write what you know."

I asked her, "So, where do you live?"

She answered, "What do you mean?"

I didn't know how to respond to this. After a few seconds I said, "Ok, so where did you wake up this morning?"

She said, "Oh, ok, I live over by the airport."

So then we had something to work with. I asked her about her commute home, what exit she got off at, what was at the exit, what did she see on Monroe Avenue on her way to her street, what she saw after she turned onto her street, whether she could hear the airplanes, and what her own yard and house looked like. The trouble was, all she could say was, "Houses. Trees." She didn't know what color the houses were or what kind of trees were in her own yard, or what kind of flowers grew in the little garden in the front yard.

This is just pitiful. This is worse than the unexamined life: this is the unseen life, the life that is thought by its subject to be so unworthy as to be not worth looking at, at all.

Or maybe it's just that the average Houstonian doesn't look at her city, for fear of what she might see. If you really do look at Houston, it's somewhat horrifying in its ugliness. Maybe it's a form of psychological self-protection to imagine fall in a New England college town, rather than have to face the fact that your dirty, hot, humid city has no seasons, and that what you see when you drive home is an adult bookstore.

It reminded me of what Gertrude Stein said when she visited her old hometown of Oakland, after having lived in Paris for years. She said, "There's no there there." The home she grew up in was gone, her synagogue was gone, her neighbors were gone. Everything that had once made it a place was gone.

That kind of alienation is endemic in Houston, where the built environment is so transitory, where perfectly good houses are torn down every day to make townhouses at a frenetic pace, and where place is rarely created at all, even temporarily. Everybody is here from somewhere else, some other "there," most often a village in the Third World. Or in my case, a village in Tennessee.

How can a writer even describe such a city? Houston has a gritty, concrete (literally) reality that should be easy to describe, but somehow many people can't. They can't tell you what they see on their commute, maybe because it doesn't mesh with their ideas of what they SHOULD see on their commute. They should see a street out of a movie or TV show.

Most movies seem to be set in a world where people live on leafy, prosperous streets that literally have white picket fences. A movie I saw recently, "Father of the Bride," is an example. The family is not presented as being especially affluent, but the house is big, covered with blooming roses, and sited on a street with other "big, beautiful houses." It seems to be in New England somewhere; the people wear sweaters, and leaves fall in a picturesque way. It snows.

Nothing like that happens in Houston. Leaves fall IN SPRING! Roses bloom IN WINTER! It never snows! Our lives and neighborhoods don't look like movie lives or TV lives. So, if we don't have fiction to guide us in writing about our lives, we sort of have to start from scratch, with what really is happening on the ground, even though it's not supposed to be happening.

Maybe that's actually a good thing. Somebody could probably make a list of great writing that comes from just such circumstances: the alienated subject in the nondescript city, where there is no there there. If you can think of writing like that--whether novel or memoir--let me know. One example might be a great story about Houston that I read in The New Yorker years ago by Antonya Nelson, "Eminent Domain." It described the placeless place and the ensuing anomie perfectly.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How bad is a comma splice really?

Today I tutored a guy in the writing center who had written a narrative about his childhood in the notorious East End of Houston. He was in a gang by the time he was ten, and he took a 9mm pistol to school in order to ward off the mean guys in a rival gang. They started harassing him on the way to school, and he took the gun out of his backpack and shot at them. They ran away and never bothered him again.

That's the great thing about guns, I suppose. Bad boys used to follow me home, too, and throw rocks at me. I suppose if I'd shot at them, they might have stopped.

(Amazingly, this kid never got apprehended for shooting at other kids. Rather, he got caught selling pot and spent several years in juvenile detention. When he got out, he was a new man. He got his GED in juvie, and now he's in community college. His friends, however, are still in gangs and dealing drugs.)

In light of these serious offenses, it seemed silly to carp about his comma splices. But that was what I was supposed to explain, so I did. I felt very silly though. "Shame on you for connecting two sentences with only a comma! You could have hurt somebody! To Huntsville with you!"

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Single mothers telling their story

Two young women came in to the writing center today back to back. Each had the assignment of writing a personal narrative. Both narratives began with the drama of reading a pregnancy test and finding out that it's positive.

One of these young women looked almost too young to be the mother of a one-year-old. The other had three children. One was married to the father of her child, and she had a lot of family support to go back to college. The other one was not married to the father, and he didn't help her at all with the expenses of daycare and formula and diapers. This woman had, despite her family responsibilities, managed to get a certificate in dental assisting, and was working for a dentist for a good wage, but she still could not pay her day care expenses and have any money left over.

Both had written well-structured, dramatic narratives with good telling details. Both appeared to be smart and hard-working. Both loved their children so much that they would do almost anything to make their children's lives better. Both seemed to have some support from their own families.

But both were being screwed by the low wages we have in America and by the lack of affordable, quality day care. And one of them was being seriously undone by the father's unwillingness to take responsibility for the lives he had created.

It's hard not to feel outraged when stories such as these come in the writing center, and they come in regularly. Some people might be tempted to say something like, "Well, come on, they knew that sex creates babies." And the young women themselves did not let themselves off easy: both stated in their writing that they understood their own complicity in their hard lives. But young people are wired to want to have sex. There's nothing we can do about that. Why not prepare them a little better? Why not tell these young Catholics that the Pope is wrong about birth control being a sin? Why not point out that the Church is not going to help them raise their babies or pay for their day care?

One of the women said that most of the teenaged mothers that she knows just stay home with their babies and don't work or go to school. So apparently it is somewhat normal for Hispanic teenagers to get pregnant. I heard a young Hispanic mother on NPR, in fact, say that it was pretty normal. An article this summer in the Dallas Morning News said that a CDC study "found that Hispanic teens aged 15-19 are much more likely to become pregnant (132.8 births per 1,000 females) compared to their black (128 per 1,000) and white (45.2 per 1,000) peers." The teen birth rate is rising again after years of improvement.

It may be normal in some communities to be a teenage mother, but as these young mothers know better than anyone, it is very, very hard. The fierce determination of these young women to do the best thing for their children--to get educated to work at a higher level--is inspiring. But imagine what that drive and determination could have accomplished if they had had some help earlier with birth control; if they had not been brainwashed by the Catholic Church; if the fathers of their babies weren't so feckless; if wages for high school graduates were higher; and if our society believed it was in the common interest of everyone for young mothers to have more support and help with daycare.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

the vorpal blade went snicker-snack

Stanley Fish has been writing a series of articles in the New York Times about the teaching of writing. The third one appeared yesterday, and it's worth reading.

He makes several good points. First, we should stop moaning about how poorly prepared college students are, and how their high schools failed them (which they did), and get on with the job of getting them up to speed. Second, yes, it's true that a lot of reading makes people into good writers, but good luck persuading eighteen year olds to do a lot of reading. And, while theoretically everybody is entitled to write in their own dialect, it's not the best way to get ahead in the world: you have to learn standard English, as a second language if necessary.

Fish's main point is that college students today need a lot of help understanding something very basic: what a sentence is. We may think that we writing teachers should be teaching researching skills, or complex argument skills, or organization skills in writing. But a great many students have a lot of trouble with the basic unit of writing: the sentence. (Ok, the word is a more basic unit, but most students know what a word is.) I have found it to be true that the most common errors in student writing revolve around the problem of not knowing what a complete sentence is: this misunderstanding underlies the sentence fragment, the run-on sentence, the comma splice, etc.

How does Fish remedy this misunderstanding? He has some great ideas. He writes a sentence like "Jane likes cake" on the white board, and challenges students to elaborate this simple sentence into a Proustian one of a hundred words, explaining how they did it and why it's still one sentence. He gives them the famous Lewis Carroll nonsense poem "Jabberwocky" and has them replace the nonsense words with "real" words, explaining how they know, for example, what you could write instead of "Oh frabjous day!" (Unfortunately anything you might write instead would be worse.)

I was amazed by his final assignment: he divides his class into groups and tells them to invent a language! With a lexicon, and a grammar. Wow. Budding Tolkiens must love this class. Then they have to present this language to the rest of the class and explain how to translate its messages into English. Presumably they use the Roman alphabet? Or not?

Sometimes he writes a boring sentence on the white board--"The first year of college is full of many challenges"-- and then the students add to this sentence in a kind of linguistic Exquisite Corpse game, but where you can see what everybody else did.

Fish provides some useful links to other teachers' books and methods. I recognized one: They Say/I Say, which is about the scholarly debate that we're trying to get students to join. Only problem is, there are some things about this debate that are kind of stupid, such as the requirement that we start our papers with propositions like, "Everybody that has ever written about Faulkner and environmentalism up to this point has been wrong. I'm the one with the goods."

I'm sure Fish's methods work great with students who have a basic command of English. But in many community colleges, we are teaching students who are not only unsure about what a sentence is; they are unsure about what a lot of English words mean. I wonder if ESL students could do that Jabberwocky exercise. To them, everything sounds like, "the vorpal blade went snicker snack!"

Harold Bloom on spectacle vs. text

Wow, no sooner did I diss the overabundance of spectacle and the dearth of good text in country music, than I read this editorial in the New York Times by Harold Bloom, who writes,

"More than ever in this time of economic troubles and societal change, entering upon an undergraduate education should be a voyage away from visual overstimulation into deep, sustained reading of what is most worth absorbing and understanding: the books that survive all ideological fashions."

I'm not totally against ideological fashions, but I know what he means. He lists Some Great Books: "Homer, Plato, the Bible, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Milton." What I am against is visual overstimulation, via those glowing rectangles that seem to be everywhere. Real pictures, not so much. Over-indulge all you want in black and white silver gelatin photographs in particular.

The death of the country music author, circa 1971

Last night I watched a DVD of the Johnny Cash show, which ran on ABC from 1969 to 1971. By that time, I was not watching much TV; I stopped in the summer of 1968, because the police riot at the Chicago convention scared me so much. But I think I might have watched a few episodes of the Johnny Cash show. It was a big deal for Nashville; it was filmed at the Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of country music, and the home of the Grand Ole Opry. Johnny Cash envisioned the show as a way of bringing together musicians from many genres: country music, jazz and blues, folk, and rock. Last night I saw Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Louis Armstrong, Linda Ronstadt, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Tammy Wynette, James Taylor, Neil Young, and Credence Clearwater Revival.

It was amazing to see some of these powerful singers and songwriters when they were very young, at the beginning of their careers. But the most striking thing about the Johnny Cash Show was the fact that it looked completely different from the way TV music shows look now. When singers perform on television now, they dance, gyrate, throw their hands in the air, grab their crotches, etc. But in the late sixties and early seventies, they stood ramrod straight and barely moved as they sang. Some of the folk rockers made expressive faces--James Taylor closed his eyes to sing--but the country music people looked like deer caught in the headlights. Tammy did not move at all the whole time she sang "Stand By Your Man." When she was talking to Cash, she looked down at the ground, afraid to look into the camera. George Jones looked more like a possum than ever, about to play dead. Marty Robbins sort of tried to move around a bit, but he had trouble. Only the Man in Black seemed truly comfortable in front of the TV cameras.

I have seen these people perform since, and they are passionate, powerful performers in person. Why were they so damped down? It was as if somebody had turned down the volume on everything: the voice, the body, the passion. Suddenly it occurred to me that country music people were not used to being on television! They were comfortable on the stage of the Ryman when it was full of Shriners and middle-aged people on vacation in Music City, and on the stages of county fairs and small-town auditoriums around the country; but the lights and cameras of television, even on that familiar stage, made them very nervous.

These performances were interspersed with recent interviews with Kris Kristofferson and Hank Williams, Jr, about the show and its effects on country music especially. Somebody, I think Kristofferson, said that there wasn't much music on TV in the late sixties, and there was almost no country music at all on television. It was a huge thing for country music, to be broadcast on a network TV station into the homes of people all over the country. It was so huge that it scared the shit out of them, and their fear showed.

Still, the performances were great, although wooden by today's standards. What made them great? The songs. The song lyrics were really, really great back then. Think of "Sunday Morning Coming Down":

Well I woke up Sunday morning,
With no way to hold my head that didn't hurt.
And the beer I had for breakfast wasn't bad,
So I had one more for dessert.
Then I fumbled through my closet for my clothes,
And found my cleanest dirty shirt.
An' I shaved my face and combed my hair,
An' stumbled down the stairs to meet the day.

I'd smoked my brain the night before,
On cigarettes and songs I'd been pickin'.
But I lit my first and watched a small kid,
Cussin' at a can that he was kicking.
Then I crossed the empty street,
'n caught the Sunday smell of someone fryin' chicken.
And it took me back to somethin',
That I'd lost somehow, somewhere along the way.

On the Sunday morning sidewalk,
Wishing, Lord, that I was stoned.
'Cos there's something in a Sunday,
Makes a body feel alone.
And there's nothin' short of dyin',
Half as lonesome as the sound,
On the sleepin' city sidewalks:
Sunday mornin' comin' down.

In the park I saw a daddy,
With a laughin' little girl who he was swingin'.
And I stopped beside a Sunday school,
And listened to the song they were singin'.
Then I headed back for home,
And somewhere far away a lonely bell was ringin'.
And it echoed through the canyons,
Like the disappearing dreams of yesterday.

On the Sunday morning sidewalk,
Wishing, Lord, that I was stoned.
'Cos there's something in a Sunday,
Makes a body feel alone.
And there's nothin' short of dyin',
Half as lonesome as the sound,
On the sleepin' city sidewalks:
Sunday mornin' comin' down."

The imagery in this song is so vivid. The persona wakes up dirty and drunk, and probably under the influence of some other substances than just beer. His kitchen has no food; he has to have a beer for breakfast. There's nobody taking care of this man, cooking him eggs and bacon, or cleaning his clothes; he's alone, and he doesn't take care of himself. He lives in a gritty walk-up downtown somewhere. All around him are signs of normal family life: children playing, somebody frying chicken, people singing in a church. These are things that he has lost "somehow," but like anybody hung over, he can't remember exactly how he lost the normal comforts of family life. The listener is left to imagine the events that caused this kind of wreckage and loneliness, and it's not too hard to imagine them. But the persona's understanding of his loss seems like a small ray of hope, that he might yet pull himself out of this lonely, dissipated life.

Johnny Cash sang this song on the show, and apparently the fact that he actually sang, "Wishing, Lord, that I was stoned," was an amazing TV moment, because the network execs wanted him to change the lyrics to something less gritty.

Kris Kristofferson himself sang, "Lovin' Her Was Easier Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again," another poem set to music:

I have seen the morning burning golden on the mountains in the skies.
Achin' with the feelin' of the freedom of an eagle when she flies.
Turnin' on the world the way she smiled upon my soul as I lay dying.
Healin' as the colours in the sunshine and the shadows of her eyes.

Wakin' in the mornin' to the feelin' of her fingers on my skin.
Wipin' out the traces of the people and the places that I've been.
Teachin' me that yesterday was something that I never thought of trying.
Talkin' of tomorrow and the money, love and time we had to spend.

Lovin' her was easier than anything I'll ever do again.

Comin' close together with a feelin' that I've never known before, in my time.
She ain't ashamed to be a woman, or afraid to be a friend.
I don't know the answer to the easy way she opened every door in my mind.
But dreamin' was as easy as believin' it was never gonna end.

And lovin' her was easier than anything I'll ever do again.

Again, this is better than average love song writing. In the first stanza there's some ambiguity about whether it's the speaker or the sun that's aching, turning, and healing; so the sun's movement becomes a metaphor for changes in the speaker, under the influence of this warming, golden woman, who herself, if she is the sun, is also aching, turning, and healing.

The next stanza repeats the series of verbs ending in "-ing" or rather "-in'": waking, wiping, teaching, talking. You also have some alliteration going on in the repeated w's and t's. And this wonderful phrase, "Teaching me that yesterday was something that I never thought of trying." What could that mean? Many things: that the past wasn't as bad as he thought; that things could have been different if he'd done things differently; that memory itself is possible and good. And that these yesterdays, rather than being just a blight on memory, are the seeds for better "tomorrows," of money, love, and time. Kristofferson seems to be making an oblique allusion to another famous love poem, "To His Coy Mistress," which also wonders about how much love and time there is to spend; but whereas the poet Marvell was urging his mistress that there was not much time left for love, in this poem it's the lady that's telling the poet how it is, and her view is that there is plenty of time in the future for love (and money). Rather than scarcity, she preaches abundance, like the sun that gives off limitless energy to everything that can soak it up.

Of course at the end of the song there's a sense of tragic loss, of this abundance and ease. Country music used to be tragic. It used to be about loss, mainly. This is hard to remember when you listen to the radio now. At some point in the seventies, the decision was made by people on Music Row to make country music more appealing to more upscale, younger, and more urban listeners, and country music lost its roots in Great Depression hardship, poverty, and loss. The Johnny Cash Show was canceled for the same reason by ABC in 1971 during the "rural purge," when they canceled everything that had a tree in it, as somebody quipped: Mayberry, the Beverly Hillbillies, Hee Haw, and the Johnny Cash Show. Again, they were trying to appeal to younger, more urban, more hip audiences.

The Johnny Cash Show stood at the cusp of a new era in music entertainment. In the future, music would be more spectacle and less meaning, as Baudrillard would say. Less text, more dancing, color, and lights. It would be about the simulation of reality, not the actual gritty reality of the Great Depression that people of Johnny Cash's age could remember. No more songs like Merle Haggard's about working class resentment and anger: "I'm tired of this dirty old sidewalk...You can keep your retirement and your so-called social security...Think I'll walk off my steady job today." Instead, the country music of the radio morphed into the country music of CMT, a world of fast-cut, surrealistic editing, elaborate costumes and sets, lip synching, and "stars" who look more like models than like hard-scrabble survivors of rural working class life.

As "wooden" as George Jones was on the TV set, he still looked like a possum, which is something that you could never say about Tim McGraw.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Are Flannery O'Connor's stories good?

I read a review early in the summer of a new biography about Flannery O'Connor, a writer I first encountered in a literature class in college almost 35 years ago. She is a Southern woman writer, and a rural person, and therefore I am interested in her, because I am a Southern rural woman, although not much of a writer. I was excited when I found the new biography in our local library (although it was filed wrong, under "F.") I also wanted to acquaint myself again with Flannery O'Connor, because I admired so much the short story, "Idols," that Tim Gautreaux published in The New Yorker. The story was based on a couple of O'Connor's characters, Julian in "Everything That Rises," and Parker in "Parker's Back."

I got about half way through the biography, called Flannery, and got rather bored. O'Connor had in fact predicted that a biography of her would be boring; she wrote, “As for biographies, there won’t be any biographies of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.” Well, she was sort of right. It was interesting reading about her early education at a local women's college, and her subsequent trip to various writer's workshops and colonies, and her friendships with other intellectuals, but once she got sick with lupus, she had to go home to her farm and live with her mother, and her life pretty much was spent between the house and the chicken yard.

So, I decided that instead of reading the entire biography, I would read her collection of short stories, also in our library. It's a rather thick tome with a lot of stories in it, dated from the forties through the mid-sixties. But again, I couldn't quite finish it. I wondered why.

It's not that the stories aren't beautifully written, in terms of the prose style and the dialogue. O'Connor is a wonderful describer of people. Sometimes she makes you laugh out loud in recognition; for example, a woman character "was about the size of a cedar fence post." The characters themselves have wonderfully real Southern voices and are themselves great observers of other people. A young man describes a middle-aged woman thus: "She had theseyer brown glasses and her hair was so thin it looked like ham gravy trickling over her skull." One can imagine O'Connor silently making these observations about the people around her, chuckling to herself, and writing them down in her notebook as quickly as possible. She is a meaner Jane Austen.

Sometimes the descriptions of the landscape take your breath away:

"A cloud, the exact color of the boy's hat and shaped like a turnip, had descended over the sun....The turnip continued to descend. After a few minutes there was a guffawing peal of thunder from behind and fantastic raindrops, like tin-can tops, crashed over the rear of Mr. Shiftlet's car."

Who else would describe a cloud as a big turnip? Or thunder as "guffawing"? Or rain as tin-can tops? This is the world of the rural South, where fantastic natural beauty coexists with all our junk, like turnips, tin cans, old cars, and a guffawing God behind the clouds.

And this brings me to the real problem I have with these stories: that guffawing God figure, who is there at the end of every story to kill somebody or burn them up or drown them or shoot them. It may seem as if another character performs the execution, but it's really God acting behind the scenes. O'Connor was a devout Catholic. Apparently she didn't believe in showing this directly in her stories. But her God is like the Wizard of Oz, behind a curtain, pulling the levers.

This is the a formula to the stories: there is a complacent, somewhat stupid middle-class rural white person, usually a woman. Sometimes this woman lives with one or two children, but there is never a husband or father around; he is always dead or gone. Usually the child is defective in some way: one daughter has a wooden leg; another is retarded; or the child may simply be precocious, or an intellectual (a handicap in its own way in the rural South). Into this rural, land-owning but barely scraping by (usually racist) woman's life comes some kind of a Misfit. In one story he is actually called the Misfit. The Misfit may be a crazy tenant farmer, an immigrant (the Displaced Person), a babysitter, or a con artist. This person, the reader quickly realizes, is going to destroy the main character, or at least seriously disrupt her orderly little scene. And the reader is always right. Often there is a violent death at the end of the story. There is basically no denouement or "falling action"; after the death or disaster, the story ends.

During the action leading to the climactic violent event, the Misfit character challenges the main character's complacency. The Misfit will often be more ignorant, more backwoods, than the middle-class main character. He is a kind of noble savage, full of cryptic remarks such as, "Jesus thrown everything off balance." He, or his wife, is often what we would call now a Pentecostal Protestant Christian, given to a very emotional, personal kind of spirituality, in stark contrast to the main character's more staid, denominational church-going. O'Connor writes of one of these nominally Christian women, "She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true." In the fifties and early sixties, these rural Pentecostal evangelicals were truly marginal folks, not the mainstream suburbanites that they are now. They handled snakes and spoke in tongues and got baptized in muddy rivers.

The main character feels superior, more worldly and educated, than this invader who will upset her world. But in the end, it seems, O'Connor sides with the ignorant and the violent, who cause a rupture, even a death, in the complacent Christian's life. It is the emotional, primitive Pentecostalism that carries the day with her, it seems.

This is where O'Connor loses me. How is violence redemptive? If the grandmother ends up shot and dead at the end of "A Good Man is Hard to Find," what good is the "learning" that the murderer/misfit imposes on her? The Misfit says, famously, "She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." I suppose that means that her soul was lost in the minutiae of her petty, safe bourgeois life. Well, sometimes that does happen.

I guess you can only believe in the redemptive power of violence if you believe in an after-life, where you get to think about the circumstances of your violent death and why it happened to you. But even if you grant O'Connor that, it seems excessive to kill off a child at the end of "A View of the Woods." The murder is particularly brutal: the child's grandfather bangs her head against a rock. It's hard to see how the child "learns" anything from this. Or the grandfather for that matter.

After about ten or fifteen stories like this, the reader begins to dread the ending so much that she stops reading. It seems as if O'Connor is deliberately horrifying and terrifying the reader, almost as if she is writing a B-grade horror movie rather than a literary short story. The violence often seems like a cheap trick, to make the story more dramatic. Violence sells!

But in real life, it doesn't take a murder or a house fire to make a person change or learn something about herself, fortunately. But it may be harder to write a story where the main character changes as a result of, say, a peaceful, chance encounter with a stranger. I admit that when I try to write a story, I try to think of something "dramatic" for the climax. Maybe I should read more John Cheever or John Updike, to find out how Yankees structure their stories. As I recall in those stories, usually nobody gets gored by a bull. Maybe somebody gets drunk or has a brief affair. A woman might say something cutting to a man. That's about as bad as it gets.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Five Houses Down, by Christian Wiman

This poem from a New Yorker of about a month ago made a huge impression on me. I think it's because it describes my neighbor's house almost perfectly. I looked up Christian Wiman. He's the editor of Poetry, a journal of (guess what) poetry, and he was born in West Texas. I guess that explains why his neighbor's yard looked so much like my neighbor's yard: Texas is where people from Tennessee go when they can longer get along with their neighbors. Poetry magazine has a very good website, where you can read more entertaining poems. The poems there are not the inscrutable poems they made you read in high school and college. They make sense, but not in a prose way. If all English teachers would use Poetry or even The New Yorker (which sometimes publishes inscrutable poems) to teach literature rather than anthologies and textbooks, I think students would like reading and writing better.

Five Houses Down
by Christian Wiman June 29, 2009

I loved his ten demented chickens
and the hell-eyed dog, the mailbox
shaped like a huge green gun.
I loved the eyesore opulence
of his five partial cars, the wonder-cluttered porch
with its oilspill plumage, tools
cauled in oil, the dark
clockwork of disassembled engines
christened Sweet Baby and benedicted Old Bitch;
and down the steps into the yard the explosion
of mismatched parts and black scraps
amid which, like a bad sapper cloaked
in luck, he would look up stunned,
patting the gut that slopped out of his undershirt
and saying, Son,
you lookin’ to make some scratch?
All afternoon we’d pile the flatbed high
with stacks of Exxon floormats
mysteriously stencilled with his name,
rain-rotted sheetrock or miles
of misfitted pipes, coil after coil
of rusted fencewire that stained for days
every crease of me, rollicking it all
to the dump where, while he called
every ragman and ravened junkdog by name,
he catpicked the avalanche of trash
and fished some always fixable thing
up from the depths. Something
about his endless aimless work
was not work, my father said.
Somehow his barklike earthquake curses
were not curses, for he could goddam
a slipped wrench and shitfuck a stuck latch,
but one bad word from me
made his whole being
twang like a nail mis-struck. Aint no call for that,
son, no call at all. Slipknot, whatknot, knot
from which no man escapes—
prestoed back to plain old rope;
whipsnake, blacksnake, deep in the wormdirt
worms like the clutch of mud:
I wanted to live forever
five houses down
in the womanless rooms a woman
sometimes seemed to move through, leaving him
twisting a hand-stitched dishtowel
or idly wiping the volcanic dust.
It seemed like heaven to me:
beans and weenies from paper plates,
black-fingered tinkerings on the back stoop
as the sun set, on an upturned fruitcrate
a little jamjar of rye like ancient light,
from which, once, I took a single, secret sip,
my eyes tearing and my throat on fire.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Tim Gautreaux and Flannery O'Connor

The June 22 issue of The New Yorker had a story in it by Tim Gautreaux, a Louisiana writer. The story was called "Idols," and it was about a man named Julian who had inherited a big house in Mississippi. I thought this sounded vaguely familiar, especially the character's name. The fact that the story ends in a conflagration made me think of Flannery O'Connor, who loved to end her stories with a big fire, and also of Faulkner, who burns down houses and barns in his stories too. I imagined that Tim Gautreaux, a Southerner, took as his mentors both O'Connor and Faulkner, as many Southern writers do.

Later I found out that the connection between Gautreaux's story and O'Connor was more direct: the Julian character in "Idols" is in fact the Julian in "Everything That Rises Must Converge." The latter story was first published in 1961. Julian has just finished junior college, so he's about 20 years old. In "Idols," which appears to be set in the present, Julian is in his sixties, an aging typewriter repairman. This fact is poignant, because in "Everything That Rises," he is selling typewriters as a temporary job until he "gets on his feet," as his mother says. Apparently, he never got beyond that.

In "Everything That Rises," Julian is both attracted to his aristocratic heritage, in the form of the old house he saw once, and repelled by his mother's constant invoking of her aristocratic forebears. He and his mother have fallen on hard times, and they live in a run-down neighborhood in a city, perhaps Memphis. Furthermore, black people are "rising," and the buses are recently integrated. Julian's mother both resents and patronizes black people, and she gets her comeuppance in a big way at the end of the story.

In "Idols," black people are absent. Class antagonisms have taken the place of racial conflict. Julian is now patronizing a poor white man, whom he hopes to help by employing the man, Obie, to fix up the old mansion which he has finally inherited. But it turns out that Obie is the one in control, as he is far more skillful and competent than Julian. Obie has his own goal: to rid himself of the tattoos that cover his entire body, including one of a Byzantine image of Christ on his back. The alert reader will recognize this Obie as O.E. Parker, from O'Connor's story "Parker's Back." Obie's wife calls the tattoos "idols," and won't take him back until he has them removed by a doctor, a painful process. By the end of the story, Obie's "idols" are gone, although they were once the things that gave meaning to his life.

Guess what. By the end of the story, Julian's "idol" is gone too, at least most of it. The big house is flooded, and the outbuildings are burned. Julian is bankrupt and can't restore his house, its plaster fallen in the flooding, its electricity ancient, its heating system nonexistent.

At first this story seems like a little moral parable: don't attach too much importance to yourself and your possessions, because they are mere idols that separate you from the real God, or other people, or something. But it's not that simple: one of Obie's "idols" IS God, or an image of God, on his back. His wife hated it because, like the late Byzantine Christians (the iconoclasts), she thought that images of God were idolatrous: "He don't look....He's a spirit. No man shall see his face." Parker's getting rid of this image is a little piece of iconoclasm, analogous to the work of zealots in the early medieval period who insisted on erasing images of Christ from Byzantine churches and who smashed wooden icons.

Maybe the point is that Julian's house was a similar image of his "importance," as he puts it, just as it was for his mother. Julian despised his mother's snobbery, her constant allusions to her family's lost aristocratic past. She kept saying, "I know who I am." Who she is, she thinks, is a Godhigh, a descendant of a prosperous landowner and slave-owner. Despite Julian's rejection of this identity in his youth, he has thoroughly embraced it by his late sixties, as Gautreaux imagines him. He thinks he knows who he is--the owner of a beautifully restored antebellum mansion, and by extension an aristocrat himself--just as Obie thinks that he knows what God looks like. But the mansion, and the name Godhigh, are no more representations of what Julian really is than the image of God on Parker's back is a representation of the real God. Parker doesn't know what God looks like, and Julian doesn't really know who he is.

I wonder if Gautreaux embraces O'Connor's relentlessly Christian view of the world. Somehow I doubt it. He is good at Southern voices, as she was; he seems to like a semi-apocalyptic ending to his stories, as she did. But "Idols" is less of a parable than O'Connor's stories, which nevertheless always manage to just barely avoid being so much parables that they cease to be art. Still, she came a little too close for comfort sometimes.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Tea Obreht, The Tiger's Wife

Run, don't walk, to the newsstand and buy the June 8 & 15 copy of The New Yorker, the summer fiction issue. The "debut fiction" is a very impressive debut indeed by a very young person, born in 1985, Tea Obreht. She was born in Yugoslavia.

"The Tiger's Wife" is a kind of oral history/folk tale that recalls the short stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, in that it is set in a rural village in Eastern Europe. The narrator "heard" the story from various sources, mostly her grandfather, but there are events in the story that the grandfather didn't know, says the narrator. It's never exactly clear where the story is happening. And it's not clear what parts of it are "true." In that respect, it also reminds the reader of magical realism, as in the stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, where nothing is really certain, and some pretty incredible things happen.

On the other hand, the setting of the story in time is very specific: April of 1941, when German bombs were falling on "the city." A tiger, who is not exactly in a zoo but behind some kind of bars, escapes because of the bombing and wanders through the city (Belgrade?) and out into the country, to the village where the narrator's grandfather lives with his grandmother. He is a boy of nine when the events in the story happen.

Evidently this story is part of a longer novel, to be published in 2010. I tried to pre-order it through Amazon, but it is not available as yet.

The illustration for the New Yorker story is also pretty great: it's by an Italian graphic artist named Lorenzo Mattotti. It looks like it was done with colored pencil or pastels.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Heart of Dryness, by James Workman

This is a long and very detailed account of how a band of Kalahari Bushmen defied their government--the government of Botswana--and won the right to continue living in their desert home. The author, an American, spent seven years in Botswana, and he made many visits into the Kalahari to visit with and interview this extended family, headed by an elderly woman. She is a central figure in the narrative.

I thought that this book would tell more specifically about how the Bushmen survive in such a dry climate. But really, it's mostly about the legal wranglings in the courts of Botswana about whether the Bushmen should be allowed to continue living in the Kalahari. The government felt that their presence interfered with tourism, for some reason, and also with diamond mining, although it's never clear why the Kalahari was not big enough for all three--wildlife for tourists, diamond mines, and Bushmen--to coexist together.

Eventually it came down to a struggle over the right to water, because the government, which had been providing water for Bushmen inside the game preserve, cut that water off. The Bushmen began trucking water in, but that too was prohibited. There was an international outcry over the apparent attempt at genocide directed at the Bushmen. In the end the Bushmen were successful at getting the right to truck water in, and many of them returned to the preserve.

The small band of die-hards continued to live in the Kalahari throughout the water cut-off, finding water as they always had traditionally, by foraging for moist food and game. I thought it was interesting that in the desert, food is water, and water is food.

Workman extends the "lessons" of this Botswana story to the rest of the world and to the future, but there his argument seems a bit weak. First, it's not clear what the lesson is: don't leave your land, no matter what? Find ways to survive without piped-in water? Second, even if the lessons were clear, it's not obvious that this particular situation will be very much like future water shortages in other parts of the world. We had a bad drought in the Southeastern US two summers ago, but the tap water continued flowing. We didn't even have any rationing. In desert cities of the West, sometimes water is rationed, but I doubt that any municipalities in the US will just cut off water to people living in a desert. I could be wrong.

One useful lesson I gleaned from the book was: separate urine and feces when handling human waste. The Bushmen do that: they use the urine for tanning hides, and feces are buried in sand, where they dry up. That makes sense and could be applied in the States when water gets really short and the ten gallon flush comes to be seen as the luxury it really is.

Monday, May 18, 2009

J. G. Ballard story

I read an amazing story in The New Yorker the other day: "The Autobiography of J.G.B." by J.G. Ballard. It's a very short story, only one page. In it, the narrator wakes up to find himself alone in an otherwise intact modern world. One would think he might panic or be upset, but in fact he's rather happy, and at the end, "B was ready to begin his true work."

The protagonist, like Ballard himself, lives in a suburb of London. He finds plenty of food in the shops. He takes a motor boat to France; it is also empty of humans. His only companions are birds. It reminds one a bit of The World Without Us, a recent book by Alan Weisman, which is nonfiction, and imagines how the Earth would change if humans suddenly disappeared. Except in this case, there is one remaining witness to the newly empty world.

So, what is this "true work" that the lone surviving human can now begin? The work of writing perhaps? It is a solitary kind of work.

I think the pleasure of this story comes from the fact that it acknowledges, somewhat covertly, the fact that sometimes we fantasize about an absence of other people, about being entirely alone, not subject to the demands of anyone. Artists especially sometimes have this guilty fantasy. "L'enfer, c'est les autres," as Sartre put it. Imagine how much time you'd have to work on what you really want to do! But of course this idea raises the question: for whom are you doing it? Can you write without readers?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Persuasion, by Jane Austen

I started reading this novel years ago, when I was reading all of Jane Austen, and I didn't finish it. It was too tense and agonizing. The suspense was almost painful: here is this young woman in her late twenties, still in love with a man she rejected because of family pressure eight years ago, and he comes back into her life. At first he seems cold and distant, but then she begins to think that maybe he still loves her too. But in this society, the woman can't speak first. She can't simply say to him, "I still love you, and I'm sorry I didn't accept your proposal eight years ago. I was given bad advice by my family." No, she has to wait for him to put aside his pride and ask if maybe she's changed her mind about him. She's on pins and needles the whole time, and there are terrible humiliations, and she's treated very badly by her family, but in the end it all works out.

Still, it's so painful to think that women once lived like this: utterly dependent on marriage for survival; dreading being an old maid; prevented from doing any kind of real work at all; prisoners of a rigid class system; and silenced by rigid gender role conventions.

Review of Becoming Jane Austen

This is an accessible biography of Jane Austen for the general reader. The author also includes a lot of genealogical information, maybe more than one needs, about Jane's parents, grandparents, cousins, etc. In addition there's the story of Jane's own romance with Tom Lefroy, which is the centerpiece of the movie Becoming Jane. The movie has some incidents in it that are not in this book; for example, in the movie, Jane elopes with Tom and then changes her mind and goes home. Apparently that didn't really happen. In reality, she waited for him for three years while he was in law school and he didn't come back to marry her.

Jane had two more marriage proposals, one of which she briefly accepted before changing her mind. Apparently at some point she decided she did not really want to be married at all, and she devoted herself seriously to the craft of being a writer. This was, however, some time after she had already published Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice, both of which were written when she was quite young.

After finding out from this book that Jane wrote Mansfield Park and Persuasion later in life, as an "older" and more experienced woman, I was inspired to read them again. They are a bit darker than her earlier works. That used to put me off, but now I understand that they are this way because of her greater understanding of the often tragic situation of women in her time. She was apparently particularly upset at the way her brothers repeatedly impregnated their poor wives, so that the women gave birth every 18 months or so, and then finally died of exhaustion. One gets the impression that she was rather glad she never married.

Another interesting thing I learned from this book was that Jane Austen hated cities and could only work well on her writing in the country. I know the feeling. Learning this about her made me feel better about the fact that I think I work better at my projects in the quiet and isolation of the country. I had always thought that was something weird about me.

Review of The Other Side of Paradise

I belong to the Amazon Vine program. They send you a free book in exchange for you writing a review of the book. This is the review I wrote of the above book.

I picked this book because of the wonderful cover photograph. But the writing itself did not disappoint. I was somewhat skeptical at first, because it's a memoir written in the first person present, and I am a little tired of that. Frank McCourt used the first person present to great effect in Angela's Ashes, but not everybody is Frank McCourt. It takes a good writer to pull off this tense and person, and Staceyann Chin, although a young writer, is a very good writer.

Like Frank McCourt, she had a terrible childhood. Again, this has become something of a commonplace, sadly, in memoirs. But a terrible childhood does not a great memoir make. Sure, an impoverished, brutal childhood arouses our bourgeois voyeurism, but it takes more than shock value to make a great book. It takes great writing.

Ms.Chin's writing is not show-offy and her style is not elaborate or self-consciously arty. It's just exact: you can see and hear her characters and places. The patois of Jamaica gets into your mind and you want to hear these characters talk some more in their beautiful, expressive dialect.

The story can get a little wearing in its relentless grimness. Basically, all the adults in young Stacyanne's life fail to take proper adult responsibility for her and her brother: her mother abandons them, her father won't acknowledge that he is her father, her aunt beats her, and her male cousins try to rape her. Only her grandmother is a steadfast, reliable adult in her life, but when she is too old to work and must go to live with one of her sons, Stacyanne and her brother are pretty much on their own.

Stacyanne realized early on that her ticket out of the back side of Paradise was academic achievement, and she studied hard and with a vengeance. She was admitted to a prestigious girls' high school and then to a university. But eventually, because of her sexual orientation, she had to leave Jamaica. She went to New York, where she lives, writes, and performs today.

So the story has a happy ending and could be an inspiration to any young person struggling with an unhappy home life and unloving adults, especially if that young person is gay.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Go Down, Moses and Games of Property

My Peruvian friend Vilma got her American citizenship last week. I wanted to give her a book to celebrate, a very American book. What would be the most American book in the world? I thought of Go Down, Moses, my favorite book by Faulkner. It has everybody in it: Native Americans, African Americans and Hillbilly Americans.

I started re-reading it, and I realized that it’s also really, really confusing. (I ended up giving Vilma Huckleberry Finn instead.) It opens with Faulkner’s weird stream of consciousness style and a lot of omitted punctuation; then suddenly a fox is running through a kitchen with two old men and a bunch of dogs chasing it, and somebody named Tomey’s Turl has “broke out again.”

Oh yes, Tomey’s Turl: the son and grandson of old Carothers McCaslin, the patriarch of the McCaslin family. I thought I sort of remembered. Didn’t his grandmother drown herself when she discovered that the father of her own child, Tomey, had impregnated Tomey? I re-read all of Go Down, Moses, and indeed that is revealed near the end.

Go Down, Moses
is a much more complicated book than I realized when I read it for the first time about eight years ago. I had to re-read the first story, “Was,” three times before I figured out what was going on in the card game. It seems that Tomey’s Turl, despite being a slave, has managed to engineer all the events in the book, so that he can marry Tennie, his sweetheart who lives on a neighboring plantation. He seems powerless, and he hardly speaks at all, but he controls and out-wits his owners and half-brothers, Uncle Buck and Uncle Buddy. To do this, he makes an alliance with a white woman, Sophonsiba, who also has matrimony in mind: she wants Uncle Buck to marry her. And eventually he does, in part because of the events that occur because of Tomey’s Turl’s “escape.”

The farcical “hunt” for Tomey’s Turl, and his pursuit of Tennie, and Sophonsiba’s pursuit of Buck, are all mirrored at the end of the book in the more solemnly told story of the pursuit of the bear, Old Ben, which ends in death for the bear and the fierce dog, Lion. In fact the theme of caging, escape, and pursuit recur throughout the several stories that make up Go Down, Moses. It suddenly occurred to me that other critics might have noticed this. I went to the library at the University of Houston, and found about ten books just about Go Down, Moses. The one that spoke most immediately to my interest in Tomey’s Turl and the pursuit theme is Games of Property, by Thadious Davis.

Games of Property is a dense, thoroughly researched exposition of antebellum property law, especially as it applied to the ownership of slaves. It turns out that property case law even began with a case about who owned a fox! Davis says that Faulkner was probably aware of this case, as he had lawyer friends. At any rate, she then shows how people found ways to find some freedom within the restrictive, cage-like laws of the slavery system, and that this realm of freedom was often a game: a card game, a hunt, even a dice game. The hunt for Tomey’s Turl was a game that he and Buck and Buddy had played many times before, and it was a kind of ritual. Buck even gave Tomey’s Turl a head start so that the chase would be more fun. At the end of the story, it seems that Tomey’s Turl may be manipulating the cards in a poker game so that Tennie will go home with him and Uncle Buck.

This complicated game playing goes on between the white and black people and between men and women throughout the novel. Relatively powerless people, black and female, use whatever power they can find to manipulate the white males who seem to hold all the power. Sometimes, as in “Was,” these games are successful. Davis says that games are arenas that are slightly outside the normal social order of law, but never entirely outside it. Law itself is a way of regulating the "game" of capitalism and property that is the constant backdrop to all human relations. But within that constricted, legally bound social space, even women and enslaved people find some freedom to enact their wills on the world.

There is a lot more to Go Down, Moses than the game/property theme: there are the themes about environmental destruction and the responsibility that a person has for the misdeeds of his ancestors. But both of these are related to the idea of property and games: land as property, the hunt on the land as a game, and the attempt to outwit personal karma as a kind of cosmic game.

Once I wrapped up a book for a child’s birthday, and when I presented it to him, and he opened it, he said, “Thanks, but I already have a book.” I laughed and said, “It’s ok to have more than one book.” But sometimes I think that Go Down, Moses is the only book I really need. I could read it over and over again and keep finding new things in it.


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Review of Vanessa and Virginia

Photograph of Julia Duckworth Stephens, mother of Virginia and Vanessa

I got this book from the Amazon vine program, which sends free books to people to review. Sometimes the books are really great, but more often they are bad, or only so-so. This fell into the so-so category.

The author's idea was to write a memoir from the point of view of Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf's sister. She was a painter, and they were very close as children and later as fellow artists. Vanessa married, and then had several affairs with men, producing a number of children. Virginia married but never had children. She was much more successful as a writer than Vanessa was as a painter.

This idea--of imagining Vanessa's voice-- was good because we know a lot about what Virginia thought, as she wrote so much, but we know less about Vanessa's inner life, which the author imagines, based on several biographies of the sisters. The problem is, the voice that she gives Vanessa is not very credible. She sounds entirely too contemporary. Vanessa, for example, would not use the word "parenting" for example, as nobody did before about 1980.

The plot revolves a great deal around Vanessa's torments about her lover Duncan Grant, who was bisexual, and who ended up dumping her for a man. In this book the author imagines that Vanessa attempted suicide over this. I don't know if there is any historical evidence for this. WE know of course that Virginia successfully killed herself.

But the interesting aspects of the plot and the author's ability to evoke the setting of a late 19th century upper-class English childhood do not make up for the lack of a convincing narrator's voice. I realized, reading this, how important this often over-looked quality of first-person fiction is: one thinks of successful first-person narrators, like Huckleberry Finn or David Copperfield. Maybe those voices succeeded because the writer knew the character's place and time so well, as it was his own. In a way, Susan Sellers is writing historical fiction, and making a Bloomsbury character talk convincingly is almost as hard as making a medieval person talk convincingly! That time was long ago and far away, it turns out.

The other problem is that Sellers assumes that the reader knows a lot about Bloomsbury, almost as much as she does. She does not explain who Lytton, Carrington, Vita, and Ottoline are. I think she wrote this novel for Bloomsbury fans who will recognize the characters as old friends from their readings of other books about Bloomsbury. I am not particularly a Bloomsbury fan. I love Virginia Woolf's novels, but the whole cast of decadent, somewhat pretentious, privileged upper-class intellectuals does not appeal to me very much.

REading this reminded me of the day that I visited Sissinghurst Castle in 1994. WE took a cab from town to the garden, which was the creation of Vita Sackville-West and her husband. Vita was one of Virginia's lovers. There had recently been a PBS television series about Vita's affair with another woman, Violet. When the cab driver picked us up, he asked us if we were going there because of "the scandal." We asked, "What scandal?" Apparently a lot of Americans were drawn to the garden because of the titillation factor. We were in fact wanting to look at the flowers. I thought it was funny that a hundred years later, this affair was still "a scandal."