Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Ties That Bind: Louise Glück's "Ararat"



Louise Glück and Mary Oliver are two poets who have been on my reading list for quite some time. The works of Oliver are championed by many of my friends, so much that a copy of her collected poems was given as a gift during a birthday get-together I attended last year. The book was presented, explained, and passed around eagerly among the people there. I fully plan on reading some of her works in 2011, but Louise Glück was the poet who managed to break through first. Her bibliography and past appointment as the United States Poet Laureate were new to me until recently, yet her name has always managed to pop up in various readings, outside bibliographies, and the (admittedly, still) few poetic readings, both actual poetry and outside critiques, which I encounter. I finished reading Ararat several weeks ago, but found the collection to be a challenging one to approach. Had I read this collection years ago, I very well could have been hampered by my earlier struggles with poetic forms; that is, I could have mistaken it for a "typical" book of poems. However, I found Ararat to be a work that could challenge the usual poetic cliches. Glück focuses heavily on family strains, death, and unhappiness. Expected poetic themes? Yes, but they are composed in fashions almost shockingly exposed.

"My sister and I
never became allies,
never turned on our parents.
We had
other obsessions: for example,
we both felt there were
too many of us
to survive (Glück 48, excerpt from "Animals")"

One of my usual "hobby horses" in literary theory is the separation of an author from his or her text, the implicit understanding that, even with evidence to the contrary, a reader shouldn't assume that the words on the page are a true mirror of a writer's personal life. However, Ararat reads like a definite biographical sketch. Glück doesn't use proper names, but consistent references to her parents and her sisters abound. The beauty of the seemingly random citation above is in the fact that Glück manages to provide both intimate personal details ('never turned on our parents/We had other obsessions') that blend seamlessly with phrases that can be read as both personal as well as representations of larger issues. The amazing phrase ('we both felt there were/too many of us/to survive') can be viewed as a representation of the speaker's family life, or expanded to mirror the world at large.

"My mother's an expert in one thing:
sending people she loves into the other world.
The little ones, the babies--these
she rocks, whispering or singing quietly. I can't say
what she did for my father;
whatever it was, I'm sure it was right (Glück 28, excerpt from "Lullaby")"

Glück's poems are sometimes strictly familial, and almost always intentionally uncomfortable in their blunt evocations. "Lullaby" shares the recurring themes of a mother's unhappiness and loss (the loss of children, the unhappiness of a strained marriage), and while these issues may very well speak to people who have experienced the same, Glück renders it into a personal sketch. However, in my reading, her line breaks are crafted as to offer different takes on the given statements. The separation of "she rocks, whispering or singing quietly. I can't say" is broken off from the previous line about babies; these can be linked as a continuous line, but I couldn't help but view the stand-alone line as a wrenching image of the mother rocking, whispering, and singing by herself, a portrait of solitude and sadness. This reading may be off, but in any case, it immediately shifts to the mention of the father, and the idea of "what she did" is intentionally vague. Glück's ability to jump from one idea to the next, mixed with the possibility of a single line potentially meaning something altogether different is startling, in a good way.



Given the themes which speak to human and family nature, I couldn't help but wonder if I wasn't the right reader for the works in Ararat. While not explicit, I found a strong tone of the feminine point of view, as if the collection is meant to speak primarily to the struggles of women and, more specifically, sisters, mothers, and wives. Even with this in mind, Glück does have excellent way of occasionally upending male stereotypes. The passage that jumped out at me the most in this regard (and, separately, the stanza that I found to be one of her best overall) is found in the poem "Cousins."

"It's not that my son's inept, that he doesn't do things well.
I've watched him race: he's natural, effortless--
right from the first, he takes the lead.
And then he stops. It's as though he was born rejecting
the solitude of the victor (Glück 53)."

While these citations and interpretations are merely a few of many, this first reading of Louise Glück proved to be valuable. Granted, there are dozens of equally skilled poets whose works I'm still behind on, but the reading of Ararat began as a way to familiarize myself with an established poet, and ended with me being challenged, occasionally unnerved, and continually finding various interpretations of what appear to be straightforward lines and stanzas. The notion of "challenging poetic cliches" mentioned in the opening might seem misleading. I wouldn't classify Glück as an experimental poet, despite her occasional deceptive line break or double meanings. The true sign of her talent is in the poems themselves, in her ability to take the obvious and make it both personal and universal. Family strife and death have been themes of poetry and fiction since the beginning, yet ways of expressing them are continually changed and explored. In the future, I might have to be in the right mindset to resume further readings of Glück's work, and I'm curious to see how her other collections handle different potential themes.

Work Cited:
Glück, Louise. Ararat. Copyright 1990 by Louise Glück.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Pens and Swords: John McMillian's "Smoking Typewriters"



While I've been maintaining this blog for a couple of years, as well as keeping up as best I can with dozens of other blogs (whether independent or associated with larger newspapers or websites), I still hesitate to say that I'm part of a "blogosphere," nor do I claim to be the best insider source for literary reviews or happenings (far from it, in fact). However, for better or for worse, hundreds of other bloggers, the majority of them political, maintain conduits of information and opinions that make up a stunning change in media consumption that has been growing for the last decade or so. This is "alternative media" in a literal sense, but, like any groupings of publications (physical or digital), there are a few good sources and a lot of mediocre ones. Perhaps this era will be looked back upon with nostalgia or a better sense of its groundbreaking moments/sources, but as John McMillian's newest book shows, the beginning of the alternative media movement was, because of its time, truly revolutionary, since far-left writings and government critiques were viewed as genuinely subversive. As an earlier review of mine has shown, history books are flourishing, with multiple takes on every possible era, from every possible political point of view. The beauty of McMillian's Smoking Typewriters is, instead of recapping the already documented seeds of 1960s unrest, an excellent exploration of the era's reading materials and writings in correlation with its activism.

The roots of underground media, according to McMillian, begin with the communications of the New Left's activist group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The Port Huron Statement was the group's original manifesto, exploring the need for national activism, but as SDS grew, its mission and policies began to reflect the need for unrestrained dialogues between all members, with no censorship or masking, and those reflections can be seen as the start of the growth of the underground press. McMillian's explanations also provide a key understanding to any revolution, either journalistic or political: it's rare to have a movement that begins seemingly overnight. Beginnings can usually be traced back to smaller events or happenings.

"Although SDS began establishing a democratic print culture with the Port Huron Statement, the ethos they built around their printed communications did not become a pronounced force in the organization right away. Instead, it evolved gradually, over the course of several years, in an effort to retain the harmonious social relations that characterized SDS when it was founded (McMillian 17)."

The SDS began publishing the Discussion Bulletin, which became "an 'organ of intellectual exchange,' a 'dialogue,' a 'forum,' [and] a 'medium (24)." In addition to the sociological necessity for the new media, the advent of cheaper printing presses and mimeograph machines aided the development of low-cost, high volume newspaper and pamphlet production. In essence, besides hinting to the future of more open media, the underground press also provided an excellent glimpse of the eventual punk-DYI movement. This foundation and ideology led to the publication of several famous underground papers, from The Village Voice (which happened to come before the 1960s), The Berkeley Barb, and The Chicago Seed. McMillian's research and writings highlight the well-known papers, but also shed light on some of the lesser known writers and papers that thrived, even with the threat of harassment and physical harm for publishing subversive material. This happened both as a result of a writer inserting himself into a dangerous situation such as an antiwar rally, or simply by virtue of being in an office that was targeted by opposition citizens.

The best sections of Smoking Typewriters highlight the people behind the papers, names that even today tend to fly under the radar, even though they helped define the literary democracy of the times. Not only does McMillian provide excellent details of the writers' and editors' philosophies, their personal backgrounds are often just as compelling, and occasionally sobering, since the majority of them suffered from backlash and a wealth of emotional and mental problems. McMillian doesn't make immediate correlations between the stress of potential violence due to the publications and the occasional aftermath of psychological woes, but occasionally, the connection is impossible to ignore. One of the most sympathetic figures in Smoking Typewriters is journalist Allen Young, a writer who began as a beat reporter with the Washington Post, but ended up throwing himself into the Liberation News Service (LNS), opting to follow his own integrity rather than a potential safety net with a secure, mainstream news source. His story is an excellent example of the humanity behind the underground press, a far cry from the conservative belief that the people behind such material were evil and immoral.

"Though thrilled to be launching his career at the Post, where he was assigned the nighttime police beat, Young felt conflicted in several important ways. First, he resented the fact that he was trained 'to pay serious attention to a murder if the victim was white, and not to worry too much about it if the victim is black.' And while Young regarded the Post as a rather conservative paper, he was surprised to learn that the cops he worked with thought it was scandalously left-wing...another complication was that Young was secretly gay at the time, and as a result he regretted have to spend so much time in the newsroom and the police precinct; the first struck him as a 'boys club,' and the latter was a 'highly macho environment.' But probably his biggest frustration lay in the fact that as a working journalist, he was prohibited from taking an active role in the antiwar activity that was happening right before his eyes (McMillian 145)."




I was very impressed by McMillian's writing style. His introduction and tone present an obvious enthusiasm for his subject, and while he undoubtedly agrees with the legacy and importance of the underground press's beginnings, the book is a scholarly, historical account. He manages to provide the fantastic backgrounds of both the papers and the people, showcasing them as individual components as well as interlinked assets to each other. Given that the start of underground media coincides with some of the most famous political movements of the 1960s (the rise of feminism, the Black Power movement), McMillian deftly writes about the events without going overboard, given that the more famous happenings have already been documented before; rather, his focus is on the creators and the writings, some of which may not have had proper text documentation before. As I mentioned above, a good number of history books have an obvious political slant, both left and right. Smoking Typewriters is an unabashed homage to the New Left, but McMillian leaves his own opinions aside, and instead allows the actual history to do the reporting. I'm sure that it would be easy for a conservative author to provide his or her own critique of the tumult that was the 1960s, as well as a condemnation of the anti-establishment materials that were published. However, this is rare book that has no need for the author's own political commentaries, since the sociological and political aspects are the reason that this book exists. Smoking Typewriters was published earlier this year, and hopefully it will gain more attention as a wonderful historical text, even though, as the past few years have shown, commendable titles can sometimes get lost in the sheer number of political/historical books published every month.


Work Cited:
McMillian, John. Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise Of Alternative Media In America. Copyright 2011 by Oxford University Press, Inc.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Rash Conclusions



The New Yorker has always been a consistent source of essay topics for me, partly because, in between other books and readings, my subscription provides a weekly collection of fiction and current events, and more often than not, even just skimming a given issue is good for one or two brainstorms. I've also been introduced to a good handful of writers I otherwise wouldn't have been familiar with, thanks to the magazine's penchant for publishing fiction from voices both new and established. However, after nearly three years of reading their weekly stories, I've noticed a trend in the styles and themes. Sometimes, the stories are excerpts from upcoming novels, and the slices impressively stand alone as their own works. However, a much more irksome constant is the publication of stories that are obvious attempts to provoke or touch upon "controversial" issues. Of course, the notion of the uncomfortable has been a goal of fiction since the beginning; but in the weekly format, it's occasionally tiresome to read the same ideas. In The New Yorker's May 23rd issue, the story is "The Trusty," a piece by Ron Rash, an established novel and story writer based at Western Carolina University, where he works as a professor of Appalachian Cultural Studies. I don't like critiques that aren't constructive, nor do I like reading or writing pieces that are supremely negative. However, I was simply perplexed by my reading of "The Trusty," to the point that I cannot help but wonder whether I missed an important metaphor, or if Rash was simply having fun by creating a work that was so unabashedly old-fashioned.

A Depression-era chain gang prisoner named Sinkler is deemed by the guards to be a "trusty," a prisoner who is able to be freed to visit neighboring farms to request buckets of well water without attempting to escape. He travels to a farm owned by a middle aged farmer named Chet, with the house attended to by a wife named Lucy, who is half her husband's age. Sinkler takes an immediate liking to Lucy, at first sexual, but then with ideas of the both of them escaping their predicaments; Sinkler leaving his chain gang position, and Lucy leaving her loveless, sexless marriage. With each recurring visit, the two profess their mutual attraction and make a simple plain for their escape. As the story progresses, it becomes possible that the two have different motives, motives which may or may not prevent their journey away from the area.

The above synopsis is intentionally as simple as it can be, but does provide the bulk of the story without spoiling the ending. However, even basically, the summary evokes no fewer than two classic film plots, ranging from Cool Hand Luke to Double Indemnity, not to mention dozens of other cinematic and literary tropes. Rash balances old-fashioned dialogue that reads like a screenplay along detail sketches that manage to be sly and obvious at the same time.

"'What you want,' the woman said, not so much a question as a demand.
'Water,' Sinkler answered. 'We've got a chain gang working on the road.'
'I'd have reckoned you to bring water with you.'
'Not enough for ten men all day.'
The woman looked out at the field again. Her husband watched but did not unloop the rein from around his neck. The woman stepped onto the six nailed-together planks that looked more like a raft than a porch. Firewood was stacked on one side, and closer to the door an axe leaned between a shovel and a hoe. She let her eyes settle on the axe long enough to make sure he noticed it (Rash 69)."

The story makes mentions of Raleigh and Asheville, North Carolina, and Rash's use of his hometown areas, even in a historical setting, reminded me of Daniel Woodrell's use of the Ozarks as a fictional setting, as told to Jeff Ignatius of Culture Snob in a 2010 interview. Without making the mistake of mixing up two different authors and two different locales, I tried to re-read "The Trusty" with Ignatius' notes on Woodrell in my mind:

"And when you start reading, you might be struck that it’s been carved incredibly lean. While relatively plainspoken, the sentences are dense, with a mix of dialect from the Ozarks and artfully turned idioms that feel instantly right. One has to sip Woodrell’s language."




Sadly, I couldn't do it. "The Trusty" isn't a terrible story by any stretch, but I simply couldn't help but think that I was reading a romanticized version of a Depression-era piece of fiction. Again, Rash has a knack for detail, but even these details cannot save what turns out to be a fairly standard tale, albeit with an ending that manages to add a sense of postmodern ambiguity in a strictly "classic" story form. However, he does provide the occasional passage that packs humor, precise detail, and a desire in the reader to keep going, even if, for the most part, there's a general understanding of where the story will end up.

"Sinkler headed back down the road, thinking things out. By the time he set the sloshing buckets beside the prison truck, he'd figured a way to get Lucy Sorrels's' dress raised with more than just sweet talk. He'd tell her there was an extra set of truck keys in a guard's front desk and that he'd steal them, bring them with him, and wait until the guards were distracted to jump in and drive away. She'd know beforehand and be in the woods down the road. They'd go to Asheville and get the first train. It was a damn good story, one Sinkler himself might have believed if he didn't know that all the extra truck keys were locked inside a thousand-pound Mosler safe (Rash 71)."

Overall, I hesitate to immediately criticize a writer based on a lone story, especially since there's the off chance that I might be missing a key moral or metaphor. However, short stories by new writers (in the sense of being new to me) do offer a possible hint of what might be in store in other works. Does "The Trusty" make me want to research more of Rash's work? Possibly, but I cannot get past the simplicity of the overall tone. Is the deliberately old-fashioned story intentional? Does he write in the same consistent style? If I knew the story was meant to be a homage to older stories, it might work on a stronger level for me. Returning to my previous notion of New Yorker stories having a tendency to revel in attempted controversial plots, "The Trusty" is unusually tame by comparison. However, and this can be taken as a compliment or critique: it's one of the simplest pieces of storytelling that I've encountered in the magazine in quite some time. Maybe I'm just slightly jarred by its narrative, but like any piece of art or creativity, there might be a simpler explanation: not everything speaks to everyone. However, in contemporary fiction, attempts to infuse stories with older sentiments is a hit-or-miss act. "The Trusty" feels like a miss to me, but I am curious to see if Rash has any fiction set in the contemporary Carolinas. As a regional writer, I'm sure that his attention to detail would work well in a modern story as opposed to an older one. I don't like writing or reading reviews that are critical without any constructive reasons why, so I hope that this critique reflects not a shake of the finger towards Rash, but merely my not being completely captivated by his attempt to go back in time.

Work Cited:
Rash, Ron. "The Trusty." The New Yorker. May 23rd, 2011.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Swoon Over Miami: Karen Russell's "Swamplandia!"



Karen Russell's highly awaited debut novel came out in February, and even before then, I was one of many people counting down the days until its publication. I was in the middle of other projects at the time, so my reading of Swamplandia! was delayed longer than I wanted it to be. The Russell story that I cited in the linked post turned out to be an excerpt from the novel, and while the story admirably stands alone as its own piece, it also serves as an excellent microcosm of the entire work. Russell stated her desire to balance the literary with the playful, and in Swamplandia!, the balance is between the literary and a mix of other small genres, most notably a sort of American gothic and fantasy. While not without the occasional problem, the work is proof that Russell's short story gifts are not lost in longer explorations. However, it's not entirely impossible that certain readers would prefer her shorter works over the novel; that's not a critique, but rather an honest assessment.

In Florida, the Bigtree family (parents Hilola and Chief; children Ava, Kiwi, and Ossie; grandfather Sawtooth) runs an alligator park called Swamplandia!, highlighted by Hilola's skills as an alligator wrestler and diver. Her sudden death, not from a diving accident, but from cancer, not only wreaks havoc on the family emotionally, but leads to a sudden decline in tourists to the park, creating a dire financial situation. Ava, the youngest Bigtree, is determined to become a renowned alligator wrestler in her own right, but her goal is beset by her age and her trouble with trying to deal with her family's strife. Ossie, empowered by a spiritual handbook, begins communicating with the dead, falling for the spirit of a Depression-era dredgeman named Louis Thanksgiving. Chief leaves the family to travel to the mainland under the guise of securing finances and loans for the park's continuation. Kiwi, a self-proclaimed academic, ends up defecting to a rival amusement park, The World Of Darkness, attempting to make money to support Swamplandia! When Ossie "runs away" with Louis, Ava is left alone, eventually teaming up with a mysterious figure known as the Bird Man, and the two undertake a journey to the underworld in the hopes of rescuing Ossie in her destination to join into a spiritual marriage with Louis.

The opening descriptions of Hilola's alligator dives are wonderfully descriptive, and immediately reminded me of Binewski family in Katherine Dunn's Geek Love.

"The tourists moved sproingily from buttock to buttock in the stands, slapping at the ubiquitous mosquitoes, unsticking their khaki shorts and their printed department-store skirts from their sweating thighs. They shushed and crushed against and cursed at one another; couples curled their pale legs together like eels, beer spilled, and kids wept. At last, the Chief cued up the music. Trumpets tooted from our big, old-fashioned speakers, and the huge unseeing eye of the follow spot twisted through the palm fronds until it found Hilola. Just like that she ceased to be our mother. Fame settled on her like a film--'Hilola Bigtree, ladies and gentleman!' my dad shouted into the microphone. Her shoulder blades pinched back like wings before she dove (Russell 4)."


I was initially worried that Swamplandia! was going to be a repeat or homage to Dunn's 1989 work, but the beginning similarities quickly melted away. In Dunn's work, the Binewskis, when their intentional deformities are stripped away, are like any other dysfunctional family, with love, anger, and internal fights. Russell's Bigtrees are just a regular group who run a realistic amusement park, and, like virtually any literary family, their problems are genuine. Hilola's death breaks them apart just as much as her earlier presence, both as a mother and headliner, held them together. The majority of the chapters alternate between Ava's narration and third-person accounts of Kiwi's attempts to integrate himself with "mainlanders" in the other amusement park, and Russell's work of making the youngest Bigtree serve as the narrator is effective. The alternation between narrative voices is pretty standard, but the reader quickly realizes that Ava, for all of her youth and innocence, makes the perfect narrator. She desperately wants the best for her family, but her views are not childish or needlessly hopeful. Every other Bigtree has their own delusions and agendas, and while Ava is not completely exempt from this, she seems to have a subconscious understanding of why everyone else is doing what they're doing.

"Was [Ossie] crazy? She was crazy--I hardly needed to ask the question. It was 80 degrees in our room. I tugged at my hair with both hands and watched her performing hygiene in the mirror. My sister didn't look possessed--we were both wearing the same ankle socks and the striped pajamas that we wore to bed every night. Ossie had a green freckle of toothpaste on her upper lip, her hair was pulled into a high ponytail for sleep purposes, her cheeks were sunburned, she looked pretty dumb with her same big-eyed, ostrichy features, and all these outside things were so as-ever ordinary that I wanted to scream at her: You are faking, you are lying! There is no such thing as your dredgeman (Russell 93-94)."

Whether obvious or just hinted, Russell also crafts the novel as a contemporary and historical love letter to her home state of Florida. Nothing is needlessly romanticized, but there is obvious affection for the scenery, wildlife, and culture of the area. Her research is impeccable, but blends very well into the fictionalized details, creating a realistic background to the novel's characters and happenings. As Ava travels deep into the swamps with the Bird Man, the novel takes on a mystical, almost fantasy-like tone, but the details are never sacrificed. As the reader "travels" with the two unlikely partners, the trip to the underworld becomes a blend of the mystical and real sides of certain territories.

"These Seminoles, the 'real' Indians that Chief envied in a filial and loving way, were in fact the descendants of many displaced tribes from the Creek Confederacy. This swamp was not their ancestral home either, not by any stretch--they had been pushed further and further into the swamp by President Jackson's Tennessee boys and a company of scarecrows from Atlanta, a militia that was starved and half-crazed. We Bigtrees were an 'indigenous species' of swamp dweller, according to the Chief and our catalogs, but it turned out that every human in the Ten Thousand Islands was a recent arrival (Russell 191)."




The majority of the characters are revealed to have hidden agendas, some of which are saddening or shocking, but it's difficult to discuss these in-depth without providing major spoilers. Russell presents these revelations in some of the novel's best pages towards the end, blending the individual climaxes without making them obvious or part of any major differentiation in the plot. However, the novel's biggest problem is the very end: after roughly thirty pages of twists that lead to the conclusion, Swamplandia! ends on a sort of apathetic note. The ultimate destination of the Bigtrees is convincingly ambiguous, but it feels as if Russell was rushing to tie up the ending, rushing the final pages in a very standard telling. However, this critique is more of a compliment to the rest of the book: the details are painstaking and drawn out, and it's unnerving to have it end in such a quick fashion. Given Russell's amazing gift of storytelling, the ending is in no way a "mistake" on her part. Perhaps I'll eventually view it as a fitting conclusion, since the characters are mostly drawn out so well that she found it unnecessary to expand the ending to be a section that didn't need more expansion. The majority of my personal enjoyment of Russell's work still lies in her short stories, but for a debut novel, Swamplandia! is an excellent, unique work that contains her previous balance of the literary and the off-beat.

Work Cited:
Russell, Karen. Swamplandia! Copyright 2011 by Karen Russell.