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.