Sunday, June 30, 2013
In addition to being very interested in its subject matter, I recently read Jonathan Crary's 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep with increased determination after stumbling upon a book that is the exact opposite. As a bookseller, one of the joys of early morning shelving is skimming the books being put away, and as I do this, I tend to spend half the time making mental notes and the other half scoffing. Rarely has a book made me pause out of fear, but a few weeks ago, I saw a copy of Unconscious Branding by Douglas Van Praet. Of course, I'm committing the sin of judging a book by the cover, but I don't think I can be blamed for doing this. The cover image shows a woman with her eyes closed, possibly sleeping, with bar codes under both of her eyes. The subtitle is "How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing." Yes, technological advances are always developing and expanding; I'm not trying to come across like a cranky Luddite. But the idea of scientific advances for marketing/financial gain is terrifying to me. Without going into any discussion of the recent NSA revelations, everyone has at least a vague idea of how algorithms and unseen data mining are being used for the sake of marketing and commerce. The central theme of Crary's book shows that sleep is being considered a nuisance in the wake of nonstop capitalism. A human function and necessity that shouldn't even be questioned is being circumvented and chipped away in the name of filling every available moment with a chance to sell or add to the infinite collection of branding. This book, classified as philosophy in my bookstore, isn't an everyday screed against big capitalism and corporate dominance. It takes its title seriously, offering sobering examples of how sleep isn't taken into account in the dizzying world of global markets.
This book isn't presented from an angle of scaremongering, but with sober, detailed examples of the hypothesis. Military research studies of a species of bird are done to determine how to make humans (workers/soldiers) eliminate the bodily need for sleep. There are no timetables for when these developments could come to pass, nor does Crary claim it's right around the corner. His style is more focused on the fact that these kinds of researches are being done with the hope of them coming true. There's no scaremongering because it simply isn't needed; the examples alone do all the work.
"The sleeplessness research should be understood as one part of a quest for soldiers whose physical capabilities will more closely approximate the functionalities of non-human apparatuses and networks. There are massive ongoing efforts by the scientific-military complex to develop forms of 'augmented cognition' that will enhance many kinds of human-machine interaction. Simultaneously, the military is also funding many other areas of brain research, including the development of an anti-fear drug. There will be occasions when, for example, missile-armed drones cannot be used and death squads of sleep-resistant, fear-proofed commandos will be needed for missions of indefinite duration. As part of these endeavors, white-crowned sparrows have been removed from the seasonal rhythms of the Pacific coast environment to aid in the imposition of a machinic model of duration and efficiency onto the human body (Crary 3)."
Of course, times change. Humans engage in different activities, there are more opportunities to engage in various media outlets, and the digital revolution means that access to information and connection is always within one's reach. But before this century, sleep was an afterthought, except for people with sleeping problems. Now, there's the ever-nerve wracking idea that those precious hours are precious not for respite, regeneration, and cognitive means, but as a series of hours that could be engaged in some form of capitalist outlet. Crary mentions people waking up to check e-mail or the internet--I think everyone has done this out of habit, with a cell phone on the nightstand. But the idea of sleep as another social aspect, a part of our lives that can be broken down, into, or otherwise manipulated, is clarified.
"The huge portion of our lives that we spend asleep, freed from a morass of simulated needs, subsists as one of the great human affronts to the voraciousness of contemporary capitalism. Sleep is an uncompromising interruption of the theft of time from us by capitalism. Most of the seemingly irreducible necessities of human life--hunger, thirst, sexual desire, and recently the need for friendship--have been remade into commodified or financialized forms. Sleep poses the idea of a human need and interval of time that cannot be colonized and harnessed to a massive engine of profitability, and thus remains an incongruous anomaly and site of crisis in the global present (Crary 10-11)."
This keeps making me come back to my initial reaction to the Van Praet book--the woman on the cover could very well be sleeping, therefore adding a visual element to Crary's ideas. He doesn't write about physical means of harnessing data or statistics while we sleep, but there's an uneasy feeling that these capabilities are not too far away, along the same lines of the military studies on reducing the need for sleep. But the whole concept of 24/7, while tied with sleep, is a philosophical/cultural notion of itself, of a world and money never stopping, and therefore putting everyday citizens within its control. The notion of communal access to widespread information seems democratic at its core, but as Crary explains, this isn't the case. The powerful will want and get access to the information they need, even if its solely in the name of dollar signs. Because this is through digital means, it gives new meaning to the adage of "large, faceless corporations."
"For the vast majority of people, our perceptual and cognitive relationship to communication and information technology will continue to be estranged and disempowered because of the velocity at which new products emerge and at which arbitrary reconfigurations of entire systems take place. This intensified rhythm precludes the possibility of becoming familiar with any given arrangement. Certain cultural theorists insist that such conditions can easily be the basis for neutralizing power, but actual evidence supporting this view is non-existent (Crary 37)."
The above citation shows the strengths and weakness of Crary's writings. He can present complex ideas and make them logical without stooping or dumbing down the material, but many passages end in a similar thread. As a reader, I want evidence of "the actual evidence supporting this view." There are citations in the back of the book, but at times, there are so many ideas that almost demand concrete evidence. For me, it doesn't take away from his overall thesis, but these are the kinds of dead ends that critics can leap on and offer counterpoints to, potentially with statements like "evidence supporting this view does exist." This might be a weak example, but in today's age of intense, divisive opinions on where the world is going, it doesn't take much for a critic or someone desperate to shake a finger at someone's opinion to jump on this kind of wording. But Crary saves himself quite often by offering details explanations of other theorists and ideas that relate to the concept of 24/7 dominance.
"The everyday was the vague constellation of spaces and times outside what was organized and institutionalized around work, conformity, and consumerism. It was all the daily habits that were beneath notice, where one remained anonymous. Because it evaded capture and could not be made useful, it was seen by some to have a core of revolutionary potential. For Maurice Blanchot, its dangerous essence was that it was without event, and was both unconcealed and unperceived. In French, the adjective 'quotidienne' evokes more strikingly the ancient practice of marking and numbering the passing of the solar day, and it emphasizes the diurnal rhythms that were long a foundation of social existence. But what [other philosophers] also described in the 1950s was the intensifying occupation of everyday life by consumption, organized leisure, and spectacle. In this framework, the rebellions of the late 1960s were, at least in Europe and North America, waged in part around the idea of reclaiming the terrain of everyday life from institutionalization and specialization (Crary 70)."
As I mentioned before, he never lapses into personal opinions. He lets the ideas, whether his own or someone else's, flourish and stand on their own. 24/7 is a slim title that easily could have been doubled in size with meandering. What amazes me is how much information and how many ideas are packed into less than two hundred pages. This also leaves no space for an afterword or a summary of how people can stop or evade the 24/7 complex. Had he done this, it would have pushed the book into the pile of political and sociological books that cast blame or claim to have all the answers. By merely presenting how the world is changing and adapting, it's enough for readers to come to their own conclusions that some capitalist mindsets are scary and dangerous. Overall, we need to cling to the hours spent devoted to sleep--every other waking hour has been commercialized, and for the sake of what it means to be human, solitude and evasion of outside influences is imperative. There are other books that approach these same issues, but Crary outlines the ideas in ways even the most conscious citizens haven't realized. As technology grows, we need more reminders of our intangible natures, free from cash, exploitation, and data.
Crary, Jonathan. 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. Copyright 2013 by Jonathan Crary.
Tuesday, June 25, 2013
Even before the publication of his debut novel, it was hard to imagine what else writer Matt Bell was capable of doing. His short stories are diverse, often complex studies of religion, history, and interactions, freely moving themselves in and out of a variety of genres. 2012's Cataclysm Baby took this even further. It's a small novella packed with creepy, post-apocalyptic and/or historical stories by twenty-six fathers beset by mutated, demonic offspring. The recent release of In The House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods was preceded by a stunning array of praise, so much that anyone unfamiliar with Bell's work would likely lump it into the "over-hyped" category. Booksellers and writers took to social media after reading their advanced copies and called it the best novel of 2013. Publisher's Weekly featured the novel on a previous cover issue. And Soho Press, the publisher, took out a full-page ad in Harper's. As I wrote in my review of Cataclysm Baby, I almost wish that Bell would write a poor story or piece of fiction; as much as I support and admire him, I wouldn't be afraid to constructively criticize a piece of his that I found lacking. However, I recently finished In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, and my assessment is pretty much the same as everyone else: this is really one of the best books of 2013, and on top of that, it's one of the most original pieces of fiction in recent memory.
I say this as someone who doesn't read much fantasy/fabulist/magical realist fiction, but In The House Upon.... is a stunning, contemporary fable, and works along the same lines as shorter, classical fables: it tells so much with such basic information, and allows Bell the room to create a staggering array of possibilities. The story centers on a recently married couple: the wife is unable to birth a son (or any child), and the husband, a fisherman/hunter, grows increasingly angry and grave. The wife has magical powers through the strength of her songs, the ability to create and conjure anything except the child. There are miscarriages, false hopes, and disappointments. The husband begins to spend an increasing amount of time outside.
"My wife frowned but did not deny me, for in those days we refused each other nothing. She created and created, and when I could not abide any more of her objects--shapes meant for a once-expected childhood, now only mocking, robbed of any right utility--then I began to take more of my hours outside the house I had built, inhabiting instead the lake and the woods, whose strange failings could not be laid so squarely upon my deeds, nor the body of my wife (Bell 16-17)."
In the process, the husband becomes the host of a fingerling--a spirit/entity, representing a lost child, swimming throughout his body and speaking to him. In a sense, the fingerling represents his darker thoughts, his doubts, and the urges he seeks to repress:
"I circled round behind the house, and there I discovered the garden already unmade, its dank sod overturned, the many buried objects of baby raising now ripped anew from its earth so that they might be reinstalled in the house, each useful at last.
And then to have to look back at the house I had built, filled now with what I had not.
To have to listen to the fingerling say, I TOLD YOU SO, I TOLD YOU SO TOLD YOU SO.
To have to have him be right, and yet to not yet know what that meant (Bell 37)."
As time passes, the husband notices a large, menacing bear around the property, and the wife finally has a baby. However, the husband doesn't approve of the child and doesn't believe that it is truly his own offspring. He names the child "the foundling," and his interactions with him are either nonexistent or grim. This isn't just a case of absent or unwilling parenting--along with the voice of the fingerling, the husband finds himself in a complex, mystical game between his wife, the child, and increasingly, the bear. Bell's writing manages to go down two very different paths at once: it relies on what appears to be simplistic storytelling, the kind found in historical fables and fairy tales, but at the same time, like those tales, there is so much happening. The metaphors come slyly and forcefully. The father's narration is sometimes uncomfortable.
"For that foundling, our false son, my wife and I played at parenting together, and in those early years we learned him in the ways of our family, and also the first four of the elements, dirt and house and lake and woods: Cross-legged upon the fur-covered floor, we told him what we had been taught, that those four aspects were all we were--but then my wife said there was another, a fifth, and that this element was called mother, that it was her mothering that made the foundling, more so than any other. I thought this to be a lie but said nothing, kept silent my concern at her greedy deception--and then as I withdrew I came as well to discern elements previously unknown (Bell 41)."
The synopsis above and the cited passage could be viewed as spoilers by readers whom have read the novel. However, even while hinting at the looming outcomes, it says nothing while, in hindsight, saying much. These dynamics hold steady for several pages before stunning revelations and further plot developments arise, including a mysterious world both similar and different from the house upon the dirt to the father's communication with the bear and the ability to take other forms. Bell highlights these fantastical developments by playing with the novel's format. Some chapters are barely a page long, and others are broken up by stanzas and brief, staccato paragraphs. The mysteries and forms sometimes reminded me of a nineteenth-century novel written by experimental writer Blake Butler. I'm not alone in noting thematic similarities between Bell and other writers; Brooklyn-based writer Tobias Carroll said In The House... reminded him of Angela Carter and Cormac McCarthy. However, Bell isn't copying anyone else. It's unique writing that wonderfully evokes what has come before it.
"And in this room: The voice of the foundling as I had rarely heard it, as he talked to my wife when they were alone. A voice high and eloquent, curious and questioning, so different from the silence that blanked his wild face whenever I appeared.
And in this room: the number of times my wife hurt the foundling, even accidentally. A number so close to zero.
And in this room, the number of times the foundling touched me without fear, counted up and counted through, each enumeration instanced, made distinct. Here was the foundling, wiggling his tiny fingers in his crib.
Here him clutching my then-offered finger, here him putting that finger into his mouth, biting hard (Bell 118)."
There is really no tidy way to summarize this book, or to place it in any true time period. There are elements of history, but also no real references beside the house, the woods, or the lake, save for the mysterious place resembling them. At times, I found myself imagining the family as an isolated frontier settlement, but there are references to a watch and photographs. The novel doesn't need a definitive place or setting--again, like other fairy tales, the emphasis is on the immediate happenings, morals, and identities. Also, there are so many themes to consider that it sometimes becomes delightfully overwhelming--to name a few, Bell writes about family, marriage, parenting, masculinity, humanity's relationship to nature, and the consequences of assuming new forms and identities. The reader will also find him or herself amazed at some of the sentences. As Bell as consistently proved, his writing and imagery are beautiful and rife with layers. In this novel, there are so many unique paragraphs and sentences worth underlining and quoting. The passages I've shared in this review are for context, and I haven't even come close to highlighting my favorites:
"The days were thieves, and the happier ones the worst, their distractions allowing the hours to pass unnoticed, allowing the minutes to be snatched away without knowledge of their passing (Bell 57)."
And this passage below has been shared countless times via social media, with emphasis on its killer final line:
"That was the question I worried at, that I gnawed at like a bone, a cast-off rib too stubborn to share its marrow. And when at last that bone broke, what truth escaped its fracture, was by it remade: for even our bones had memories, and our memories bones (Bell 26)."
I very nearly didn't write this review, since so many other outlets and readers have shared much more eloquent assessments of the text. Also, having followed Bell on Twitter and Facebook, he's allowed people to share glimpses of the creative journey, from outlines to excerpts to last week's publication. But In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods truly is one of the best reading experiences I've had, and writers like Bell are showing glorious new avenues for the novel, a constantly eulogized format. If anything, I hope that someone stumbles upon this review and decides to pick up a copy. I've spent years writing about old and new literature, and this is one of the best works for someone to buy or check out on a whim and be vastly entertained by great fiction. As I mentioned in regard to Cataclysm Baby, there are so many books and writers worthy of being discovered and enjoyed by newer, bigger audiences. In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods is not only no exception, but a shining example of this.
Bell, Matt. In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. Copyright 2013 by Matt Bell.
Thursday, June 20, 2013
A few weeks ago, I reviewed Ramona Ausubel's A Guide To Being Born, and in the review, I had to offer an apology. Two years ago, I read and dismissed one of her stories, only to read it again and be enthralled. The change in my reading skills and styles always changes for the better as I get older, and I feel a strange disconnect between who I am now, and the kinds of books I read (and the quality of my critical readings) years ago. Of course, I'm being very harsh on myself--everyone goes through adjustments, changes in taste, and develops a better eye with more learning and much more reading. However, I'm still on my little self-critical soapbox. During the summer before my senior year in high school, one of the required books was Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood. I have some memories of reading it and coming to a seventeen year-old assessment that it was "weird." I've owned the book since then (part of an out-of-print trilogy of her work, including Everything That Rises Must Converge and The Violent Bear It Away, both of which are on my list). It's graced several bookshelves and book piles from Chicago to Seattle back to Chicago and in various apartments. However, it was only recently that I decided to give it another look, and I'm still amazed. O'Connor's strikingly modern prose, her scary, unrepeatable characters, and her intense looks at philosophy and religious fervor are just as fresh now as they were in 1952. Of course, I'm not even close to being the same reader at thirty that I was at seventeen. However, I'm shocked that I wasn't even remotely as hooked as I should have been. I can't imagine that anything I think about Wise Blood hasn't been thought or written countless times, but I want to do so anyway. In a way, this is a celebration of my growth, and a meaningful apology to a writer who died nineteen years before I was born.
Wise Blood follows the humorous and grotesque interactions of Hazel Motes, a World War II veteran determined to start an atheist movement of The Church Without Christ. His dark clothes and hat give people the assumption that he's an actual preacher, and he comes from a lineage of holy men ("His grandfather had been a circuit preacher, a waspish old man who had ridden over three counties with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger"). After shacking up with a prostitute, he meets the acquaintance of a crazed zookeeper named Enoch Emery. Enoch, despite his nonstop attempts, fails to forge any kind of friendship with Hazel, who keeps rebuffing him. The obsession is very likely a repressed attraction, and the two men's personalities bounce off each other. This is evident even in the most basic dialogues, and Enoch's fascination/obsession becomes more disturbing than Hazel's steely resolve to be left alone with his goals.
"'I'll look after him,' Enoch Emery said, pushing in by the policeman. 'He ain't been here but only two days. I'll look after him.'
'How long you been here?' the cop asked.
'I was born and raised here,' Enoch said. 'This is my ol' home town. I'll take care of him for you. Hey wait!' he yelled at Haze. 'Wait on me!' He pushed out of the crowd and caught up with him. 'I reckon I saved you that time,' he said.
'I'm obliged,' Haze said.
'It wasn't nothing,' Enoch said. 'Whyn't we go in Walgreen's and get us a soda? Ain't no night clubs open this early.'
'I don't like drug stores,' Haze said. 'Good-by.'
'That's all right,' Enoch said. 'I reckon I'll go along and keep you company for awhile (O'Connor 22-23)."
Enoch and Hazel meet Asa, a corrupt, blind preacher and his innocent daughter, Lily. As a reader will quickly assume, their public personas are lies--Asa isn't blind, and Lily is very sexually confident, leading to a series of sexual tensions and games between her and Hazel. Enoch, consumed with the idea of "wise blood" and being more noble than he really is, takes it upon himself to serve Hazel, and eventually his "church." All of these characters and their missions lead to a series of mishaps, some that are natural plot progressions, and some that seem to come from nowhere. Enoch, despite being a supporting character, drives the developments with his creepy obsession. He steals a mummy that he hopes will be an idol or prophet for Hazel's mission; this mummy eventually causes the biggest clash between Hazel and Lily. Hazel's preaching gains no attention or followers, until another corrupt preacher appears out of the blue, claiming to the crowds that Hazel has "saved" him.
"'Then I met this Prophet here,' he said, pointing at Haze on the nose of his car. 'That was two months ago, folks, that I heard how he was out to save me, how he was preaching the Church of Christ Without Christ, the church that was going to get a new jesus to help me bring my sweet nature into the open where ever'body could enjoy it. That was two months ago, friends, and now you wouldn't know me for the same man. I love ever'one of you people and I want you to listen to him and me and join our church, the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ, the new church with the new jesus, and then you'll all be helped like me!'
Haze leaned forward. 'This man is not true,' he said. 'I never saw him before tonight. I wasn't preaching this church two months ago and the name of it ain't the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ (O'Connor 77-78)!'"
I'm trying to tread carefully in my plot summaries--while the statute of limitations on spoilers has passed, each of the developments and characters are so ripe for analyzing and quoting that virtually every one is worthy of multiple essays on their symbolism and personalities. Also, a summary without context wouldn't hint to half of what truly happens. For example, the gorilla scene, which leads to Enoch's final, desperate acts, is one of the more unique scenes in literature, and is only truly appreciated and understood in the context of how Enoch gets to his current point. The scene is exactly what I described as "weird" in high school, and today, I'd describe it as "weird" in a positive way. It's suspenseful and absurd at the same time, as Enoch is driven to madness, not out of religious or anti-religious desperation, but out of an insult by a man in a gorilla suit.
"There were only two children in front of him by now. The first one shook hands and stepped aside. Enoch's heart was beating violently. The child in front of him finished and stepped aside and left him facing the ape, who took his hand with an automatic motion.
It was the first hand that had been extended to Enoch since he had come to the city. It was warm and soft.
For a second he only stood there, clasping it. Then he began to stammer. 'My name is Enoch Emery,' he mumbled. 'I attended the Rodemill Boys' Bible Academy. I work at the city zoo. I seen two of your pictures. I'm only eighteen year old but I already work for the city. My daddy made me com...' and his voice cracked.
The star leaned slightly forward and a change came in his eyes: an ugly pair of human ones moved closer and squinted at Enoch from behind the celluloid pair. 'You go to hell,' a surly voice inside the ape-suit said, low but distinctly, and the hand was jerked away.
Enoch's humiliation was so sharp and painful that he turned around three times before he realized which direction he wanted to go in. Then he ran off into the rain as fast as he could (O'Connor 92-93)."
In the end, Hazel opts for a drastic action that, despite its hinting at a serious mental illness, proves his conviction to his cause. It leads to him being subjected to yet another con, which then turns into a hazy, strangely genuine death, as he suffers for his personal shortcomings and sins. When the novel concludes, the reader is swamped with almost too much sensory and tangible information to process. A simple "What is the moral of this story?" is almost an insult to ask, since O'Connor leads us down so many paths. Religion and its negative effects is an overriding part of the narrative, and I can only imagine the backlash it received. In a way, the novel shows how any fundamentalism, from extreme religious belief to extreme distancing from religious beliefs, can have harmful outcomes for an individual, and therefore society at large. Corruption in various forms is so rampant that the reader becomes jaded, insofar as any emergence of a new, minor character toward the end immediately puts us him or her on alert, since a con or some form of violence is likely near. All of the characters have their own innate views of salvation, even if said salvation is some grotesque, surreal closure. Hazel is at odds with the world, and even the most basic actions exasperate him. Early in the book, the simple act of buying a cheap car puts him up against two strange characters selling the automobile.
"He bought the car for forty dollars and then he paid the man extra for five gallons of gasoline. The man had the boy go in the office and bring out a five-gallon can of gas to fill up the tank with. The boy came cursing and lugging the yellow gas can, bent over almost double. 'Give it here,' Haze said, 'I'll do it myself.' H was in a terrible hurry to get away in the car. The boy jerked the can away from him and straightened up. It was only half full but he held it over the tank until five gallons would have spilled out slowly. All the time he kept saying, 'Sweet Jesus, sweet Jesus, sweet Jesus.'
'Why don't he shut up?' Haze said suddenly. 'What's he keep talking like that for?'
'I don't never know what ails him,' the man said and shrugged (O'Connor 37)."
There are so many small subtexts as well, as Wise Blood truly demands multiple readings. While flipping through after my reading, I discovered this passage:
"Hawks kept his door bolted and whenever Haze knocked on it, which he did two or three times a day, the ex-evangelist sent his child out to him and bolted the door again behind her. It infuriated him to have Haze lurking in the house, thinking up some excuse to get in and look at his face; and he was often drunk and didn't want to be discovered that way.
Haze couldn't understand why the preacher didn't welcome him and act like a preacher should when he sees what he believes in a a lost soul (O'Connor 74)."
Haze rebuffs and dismisses every shred of Christianity and religion, yet feels confused when salvation isn't offered to him. Of course, Hawks is hiding a big secret, and Lily's presence in the sexual dynamic is a delicate balance in the power struggle between her father and Haze. Haze is new to sex, but not inexperienced; he knows that sleeping with Lily right away will give Hawks the upper hand, even though he knows he's a con man. In a way, Enoch is the least corrupt of the characters. He's very likely bipolar, he's alienating, yet tries to be pure in his own misguided way. Mrs. Flood, Haze's landlady at the end, schemes a plan to steal from him, yet ends up with her own form of peace and salvation. Long studies of even the most minor characters could take up several pages. Getting even a simple grasp on them is complicated.
However, with all these forms of symbolism and sociology, Wise Blood is a fantastically entertaining novel. Without resorting to stereotypes, it explores the Southern relationship to religion in a way that sociologists and historians could likely glean major parallels between sects and actual preachers and the way religion permeates the book as a whole. Corruption and dishonesty are expected from leaders, but O'Connor doesn't go for obvious examples or actions. Even from the start, the reader has an idea that unsavory ends are going to meet the characters, but the climaxes come in very unique ways. In the end, we have to wonder who is truly saved or at peace when the novel reaches its end. This very well may be one of my more scattered book pieces, but I kept thinking about so many of the nuances and imagery that O'Connor kept putting into the text. There is so much that I missed in my early reading years ago, and today, this has taken a place as one of my favorite novels ever. I'm very excited to read Everything That Rises Must Converge and The Violent Bear It Away. I have a tendency to state reading goals that don't always come to pass, but I'll be finishing this trilogy, hopefully by the end of the summer. I have no ideas or synopses of the other two books, but I'm eager to see what else O'Connor's works can do. Wise Blood 's imagery is going to stay with me for awhile, and the fact that this is a debut novel is even more astounding. I hope I've somewhat atoned for my high school transgression.
O'Connor, Flannery. Wise Blood. Copyright 1962 by Flannery O'Connor.
Friday, June 14, 2013
With occasional exceptions, it's a given that any author with a great track record and multiple novels will have at least one dud or misstep along the way. If this isn't the case, then the author will have a work or two that yields bitter hatred, even among his or her most devoted readers (for example, this seems to happen a lot with Philip Roth). With Colson Whitehead, I assumed Apex Hides the Hurt fell into the latter category. With the exception of Zone One, I've now read his entire fiction bibliography, and if possible, I hope to have all of his works read by the end of the year. Apex Hides the Hurt, published in 2006, never seems to get any attention, even among Whitehead's biggest fans and patrons. I never assumed it was bad, but rather I assumed it wasn't as good as the previous and subsequent novels. Last week, I went to check out my local library, something I had not done since moving to a new neighborhood at the end of April. The selection is small, but I found a copy of Apex and decided to see what it was all about. I'm now perplexed as to why this book isn't as lauded as The Intuitionist or Sag Harbor. Whitehead's works deal with racial and sociological issues blended with specific ideas: elevator repair, the folk tales of John Henry, and the autobiographical imagining of black residents of Sag Harbor in the 1980s. Apex uses marketing, small-town politics, and distinct personalities to explore the ideas of integrity, motives, and varying levels of identity. I loved the book, and I'm hoping that this essay will be a small addition in giving an unappreciated work some overdue attention.
The narrator is an unnamed nomenclature consultant with a legendary track record for giving new products imaginative, attention-grabbing names. This isn't just a knack, but rather an almost sixth sense, combined with hard work and an innate understanding of how a name can make or break a product. As it's described in the opening paragraph:
"He came up with the names. They were good times. He came up with the names and like any good parent he knocked them around to teach them life lessons. He bent the to see if they'd break, he dragged them behind cars by heavy metal chains, he exposed them to high temperatures for extended periods of time. Sometimes consonants broke off and left angry vowels on the laboratory tables. How else was he to know if they were ready for what the world had in store for them (Whitehead 3)?"
He walks with a pronounced limp and has recently left his company (these points are mentioned right away, but the full details are revealed as the novel progresses). He's asked to visit a small town called Winthrop to mediate their proposal to rename the area, and interacts with three people with three different ideas. Lucky Aberdeen, a wealthy software CEO who has returned to the area (along with the hope of reviving it as a tech community), wants the town branded as New Prospera, a revitalized, almost Utopian designation. Regina Goode, the black mayor, has her heart set on Freedom, which the consultant finds unimaginative until he learns more about the black founds of the town. And Albie Winthrop, the namesake of the barbed wire producers who came before him, thinks his family name should remain. With this set-up, one would expect a tale of intense battles and double-crosses. While Whitehead does pepper the text with the occasional revelation, the consultant engages in relatively tame conversations with these three key citizens. While staying at the Winthrop Hotel, he quickly acquires a couple of nemeses--a very insistent housekeeper and a gruff bartender. These interactions are played very humorously, rendering the actual conversations about the town name more meaningful and thoughtful. There are no small town stereotypes at play, but rather some careful observations about how coming from a long line of family members in such a place can have an effect on one's identity. The bartender is one of the best examples of this:
"The bartender ran his cloth across nonexistent stains on glasses, lipstick that had not remained and specks that had not lingered. A streak of gray started at his forehead and fanned out into his Afro in a curly wedge, an ancient and hardwired pattern, in his genes. He watched the man wipe glass, hold up glass to the light to consider his handiwork. The day the bartender discovered that white spray in the mirror, as he was about to perform the daily trimming of his muttonchops, he knew he had become his grandfather, that he was truly his father's son beyond what the surname said. It was hard not to notice that the bartender had some old-school muttonchops, real daguerreotype shit, something to aspire to (Whitehead 21)."
The titular Apex is a fictional bandage that comes in many different color tones to serve a diverse population, and remains the best name created by the consultant. His history of working with the brand manages to tie together all of the plot themes while remaining its own, original story. As he does in his other works, Whitehead includes some factual history (namely Johnson & Johnson's Band-Aid) that goes along with the fictional story. By creating a perfect name for a revolutionary medical aid, complex sociology and personal history come into play. The actual bandage serves as a key plot point, and the Apex brand makes an unassumed link to Winthrop's history, being founded by black settlers and quickly being overtaken by whites.
"The whiz kid said, You manufacture this thing and call it flesh. It belongs to another race. I have different ideas about what color flesh is, he told them. We come in colors. We come in many colors. And we want to see ourselves when we look down at ourselves, our arms and legs. Around the table the men listened, and soon afterward they got to work. Somebody give this guy a raise.
At Ogilvy and Myrtle they knew the neighborhoods, some block by block, and they knew the hues of the people who lived there. They knew the cities and the colors of their mayors. They knew the colors of clientele and zip codes and could ship boxes accordingly.
They devised thirty hues originally, later knocked them down to twenty after research determined a zone of comfort. It didn't have to be perfect, just not too insulting (Whitehead 88-89)."
Whitehead's writing is full of keen observations, and sometimes he doesn't need to carefully weave them into the text; they need to be out in the open. The consultant visits with Albie Winthrop, a divorced, troubled man seeking to maintain the town's original name. He's lost almost everything, and he wants to hold on to a remaining strip of dignity. The two men went to the same college, an elite institution that forms the basis of a perceived bond on Albie's part. The consultant observes as an aside:
"He had found, in his life, that it was always a good policy to flee when white people felt compelled to inform you about their black friend, or black acquaintance, or black person they saw on the street that morning. There were many reasons to flee, but in this case the pertinent one was that the reference was intended to signal growing camaraderie (Whitehead 80-81)."
When he finds out the original name of the town was supposed to be Freedom, he deplores the blandness and ties it into overused names in products. He later learns the true meaning of the name, but offers a quick, witty analysis.
"Freedom. He whistled. If he'd offered up Freedom in a meeting, he'd have been run out of town, his colleagues in full jibber behind him, waving torches. It was like something from the B-GON days, an artifact of the most pained and witless nomenclature. Roach B-GON, Rat B-GON. Hope B-GON. Freedom was so defiantly unimaginative as to approach a kind of moral weakness (Whitehead 83)."
Even using a fictional town as the basis of the story, Whitehead manages to explore issues and normally disregarded facets of the areas around us. As the town history is revealed, the consultant begins to appreciate it. This isn't any sappy, sentimental warming of an otherwise calculating businessman, but a touching look at roots. In its fictional setting, it almost forces the reader to imagine his or her neighborhood and the complex histories behind it.
"[The Mayor] didn't speak for the rest of the ride to the hotel, leaving his eyes to jump from sign to sign. Winthrop's Virginias and Oaks were well within character for someone hungering after the connotations of the eastern establishment, he decided. Want to import the coast to the prairie? You have to learn how to be just as dull, name by name. Whereas the black settlers had different marketing priorities. Hope crossed Liberty, past the intersection of Salvation. Better than naming the streets after what they knew before they came here. Take Kidnap to the end, make a left on Torture, keep on 'til you get to Lynch. Follow the lights 'til you get to Genocide and stop at the dead end (Whitehead 128)."
I did a quick skim of the Apex Hides the Hurt Wikipedia page, and some of the criticisms levied against it could be valid. Whitehead has some obvious metaphors (a narrator renowned for clever names has no name of his own), and the revelation about the actual Apex bandage can be seen coming roughly halfway through the novel. There are a couple potential romances presented to the consultant, but nothing materializes. However, as I'm wont to point out in other cases, nothing Whitehead does is gimmicky. He's not fishing for any "gotcha" or "ah ha" moments, but lets them progress naturally. And the biggest revelation never comes (this might be a bit of a spoiler, but it has to do with the final vote on the naming rights of the town). The book was published right before the explosion of social media, and even then, marketing was dominating every aspect of our lives, so much that the battle over a town's name seems almost quaint, especially today. At my bookstore, I recently saw a book about how neuroscience and brain studies can be used for effective marketing, and it scared me to no end. Whitehead is truly deserving of the title "cultural commentator," and he does this in his fiction in fantastic ways. He's not exploiting any trends, but rather uses contemporary climates that end up having timeless things to say about daily life and interactions. Maybe in due time this book will get more attention, but for now, if this truly is Whitehead's "lesser work," that only speaks volumes of his artistry. This would probably be hailed as a masterpiece by other novelists, even though I'd call it just a very, very good book. His other novels border on masterpieces. This is a work that's entertaining, provoking, and one of the most enjoyable reading experiences I've had lately.
Whitehead, Colson. Apex Hides the Hurt. Copyright 2006 by Colson Whitehead.
Saturday, June 8, 2013
Back in January, a long New York Times profile made the statement that George Saunders's Tenth of December was the best book of 2013, a welcome retort to the needless worrying over whether or not the short story was dead. I'm not at all comparing or ranking different artists, but another story collection has eclipsed the wonderful Saunders book, and it happened to be published in that same month. Saunders is almost unsettling in his talent, creating a wide array of creative scenarios that form a sort of Venn diagram of genres and fantastical plots. Susan Steinberg's Spectacle, published by Graywolf Press, is on an entirely different level. Like any good artist, she's unafraid to lead readers into some uncomfortable terrain, with emotional honesty sometimes bordering on brutal. She plays with punctuation and forms like a poet (as much as I hate to say this). I'm running dangerously close to messy superlatives, but Steinberg's work is the best story collection I've read this year. In her hands, the experimental prose is essential, not as a gimmick, but as a way to highlight a variety of topics. The women in her stories are fearless, even when they are afraid. The reader is sometimes put in an awkward position, but I was so grateful to have my expectations upended.
The narrators are nameless women, sharing stories of choices, family, sex, dating, and mistakes. None of them put on any airs or minimize their mistakes or the mistakes of the people with whom they interact. The opening story, "Superstar," begins with a stolen radio, then branches out into various interactions and notions of identity. This opener is like a lot of the pieces within Spectacle: Steinberg ends up going in so many different directions, but always remains grounded to her characters. Even when the reader is far away from where he or she started, there aren't any distractions, but only layers of complex lives.
"Animals would run to their dark holes filled with leaves.
I'm just saying.
Would I own you.
Do you think I would.
I'm just saying something.
I'm just saying I'm kind of a whore.
Which is not to say don't like me.
Because I'm also kind of sweet.
Which is just to say.
The world should no longer be about wanting and wanting the way it was when I was younger and dumber, drawing in my bed, drawing some asshole's name on my hand, and hearts.
But here we all are.
Meaning here I am wanting again.
The utter inconvenience of what I am.
The utter inconvenience of it all.
But I was just so fucking powerful that night.
I was in the backseat of my car that night.
I had a stolen stereo on my lap.
I was feeling like a superstar.
The kids up front were singing again (Steinberg 10)."
In 2011, Steinberg was interviewed by Christopher Higgs for HTML Giant, and in the very first question, she explained her views on experimental literature. One of her statements is a great introduction to "Underfed," the second story in Spectacle: "I’m finding that a lot of writing is categorized as experimental simply because it looks different on the page. Too often, this work, while embracing a certain textural playfulness, still reads as either conventional or self-indulgent. I think that truly experimental writing embraces innovation, a relationship of form to content, a consideration of the real possibilities of the text; it’s not just pyrotechnics, opacity, an attempt to shock, or a formulaic display of what certain writers and readers think experimental writing is supposed to seem. I wonder if it’s too simplistic to say that truly experimental writing has behind it a writer who wishes to conduct actual experiments."
"Underfed" is a story told through rapid-fire sentences, with the only punctuation being semicolons and colons dividing them. This makes the story visually jarring at first, and would likely be classified by most people as "experimental." However, it fits into Steinberg's assessments: it embraces innovation, and the point of the text is to tell a story, not to dazzle with unexpected punctuation. It forces the reader to pay close attention, and after awhile, the form is secondary to the story being told. Like the others, are are a wealth of thoughts and observations to take in.
"I said, I'm incapable of falling for you; I said, I'm incapable of falling in love; I'm a wreck, I said; I need another wreck, I said; It's my father, I said, of course; It's my mother, I said, of course; I turned down the radio; I said, Did you hear me; he kept on driving; I turned up the radio; I will wreck you, I said; I swear, I said; I was talking at the radio; I was talking at the heat vent; I was talking at my dirty knees; I'd hiked all day through mud; I was scraped all over, dirty all over; I wasn't adverse to dirt; I was adverse to something else: like the pressure of having to pretend I cared about a bird, a stone, a star: like the pressure of having to to be so fucking nice: like the pressure of having to be a certain type of guy when I was just a certain type of girl; (Steinberg 17)."
When Steinberg writes stories that come close to "standard narrative" (which is not to imply that the more experimental pieces are 'nonstandard'), there is still work to be done by the reader. Some of the actions are implied as possible lies or interpretations of the truth, and quite a few of the minor characters are just as flawed as the narrators. The reader has to decipher whether or not the stories being told are truthful, lies, or interpretations. The stories are vivid. "Supernova" is a dizzying mix of plane crash visions and a woman's icy relationship with her father. Her memories are hazy, and she even comes out and explains that some of the details might not be real. However, this doesn't detract from the story. The reader isn't let down, since it wasn't building to any concrete climax or revelation. We know the narrator is troubled, and her reflections have the atmosphere of truth-telling, even if the details are sketchy.
"This story is not about me. As it turns out, I'm just a detail. Like the sky. Like the snow. Like the car you think was real. Or the bus you think was real. Or the plane you think was real. Or the premonition that, you should know, was not.
It wasn't technically a crash. It was technically an explosion. It was technically a lot of things. Like the end of things. Not of everything. Not to everyone.
And I would hear its name each day for the rest of my life. Every day from that point on. Fucking stupid as that is.
I stared across the table at my father. I asked again whose fault it was. My father tried not to look at me. He said, Not mine. And I said, I know. I said, But whose. And he said, Not mine. He said, Not mine. He lifted up his empty glass. He threw the glass at the wall. The glass shattered. Dinner was over. The holiday over. It was snowing again. The roads were a mess. I put on my new coat. I walked to the door. Over my dead body, my father said. Murder, he said. The roads were a wreck. But I had new tires (Steinberg 46)."
I'm not sure if these cited passages are conveying just how complex these stories are, and not just in the forms and sentence structures. The family and personal relationships are fraught with double meanings, love and hate, and confusion. Also, Spectacle can be read as a brilliant example of feminist fiction. Steinberg's women are sometimes broken and seriously flawed, but they lash out at injustices and sleights. Even flawed, they're some of the strongest women in fiction. Even without names or stylistic similarities, I was constantly reminded of some of the female narrators in Lindsay Hunter's fiction. The overall message is that everyone's life has some form of complication, some more extreme than others, and what's important is how one deals with it. Steinberg goes back and forth between the present time and the past memories, and even in the most "casual" observations, the emotions are intensely tangible.
"When I asked if I could study abroad, my father said, Go.
He said, Get lost.
But I stood there thinking he'd change his mind.
Because I knew I couldn't go.
Because I couldn't leave my father.
I mean I couldn't leave him lying there.
He was more broken than you could ever be.
More messed up than you will ever be.
But there was a time he was all right.
I was a kid, and he took me on a trip.
He took me to the beach.
It was the only trip we ever took.
Days, I swam in the water.
My father sat on the sand.
And on our last day, we watched a sunset.
And my father looked out at the water.
And he said, What if all the earth's water were drained.
And at first I laughed.
But then I thought.
And then I thought (Steinberg 104-105)."
Like virtually everyone else who has read Spectacle, I'm now a Susan Steinberg follower. I can't wait to get my hands on her previous collections, and even if they happen to pale in comparison, they won't diminish my admiration and awe. For a writer to seamlessly blend such a variety of forms and never lose track of the basics of storytelling is hard to do, and carrying this on throughout an entire collection, with no throwaway or "lesser" pieces, is astounding. Again, this review simply doesn't do justice to Steinberg's emotions and imagery. Spectacle demands to be read and appreciated, and all I can do is hope that this steers someone toward her fiction. With all due respect to George Saunders and anyone else with a story collection published in 2013, this book does things that very few writers can match. As much as I fretted about needless superlatives in my introduction, I'm okay with coming across breathless and wide-eyed. While I've read a few amazing story collections this year, Spectacle dug up some emotions and feelings I didn't know I had.
Steinberg, Susan. Spectacle: Stories. Copyright 2013 by Susan Steinberg.
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