Thursday, May 31, 2018

A Family Odyssey

Sing, Unburied, Sing 


Sing, Unburied, Sing



"The memory is a living thing---it too is in transit. But during its moment, all that is remembered joins, and lives---the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead." - from One Writer's Beginnings, by Eudora Welty




This was my first foray into the literary world of Jesmyn Ward. Her first novel, Salvage the Bones, won the National Book Award. So I had high expectations for Sing, Unburied, Sing, her second novel. I was not disappointed. In this novel she demonstrates her skills as a unique American writer by bringing the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. Drawing on Welty, Morrison, and Faulkner---The Odyssey and the Old Testament, she provides an epochal story, a journey through Mississippi's past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle.

Ward succeeds in this by sharing the story of the members of an extended family that includes thirteen-year-old Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, who live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop. Added to these family members is the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she's high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie's children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

Ward's poetically lyrical writing style is present throughout the novel with the story told primarily from the point of view of Jojo and his mother Leonie. Meanwhile, the ghost of a youth who had been killed while escaping the Parchman Farm, who joins them on their visit there, and who can only be seen and heard by young Jojo, adds to the bleak story a poignancy that is almost breathtaking.

Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with some of the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward's distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a wonderful new contribution to the literature of the American South. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel by a relatively new author at the height of her powers.


Monday, May 28, 2018

Humor in the Silence



Waiting for Godot 
by Samuel Beckett




“We wait. We are bored. (He throws up his hand.) No, don't protest, we are bored to death, there's no denying it. Good. A diversion comes along and what do we do? We let it go to waste. Come, let's get to work! (He advances towards the heap, stops in his stride.) In an instant all will vanish and we'll be alone more, in the midst of nothingness!”   ― Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot



Waiting for Godot is set nowhere, but in a place that is somewhere we know not.  The set is spare: a tree, a rock, the backdrop and the foreground. At the end of each act night falls and a full moon appears. The setting is in reality the stage. It is a stage that characters inhabit, walk on and off, look to the distance where they see no more than the audience which is nothing.  Estragon and Vladimir spend two days waiting, waiting for Godot to come. He does not come but instead sends a small boy with a message that Mr. Godot will surely come tomorrow. In each act there is an interlude with a visit by two itinerants, Lucky and his boss Pozzo.

The production of Waiting for Godot by the Druid Theatre Company of Ireland that I saw last week was a revelation.  Having read and studied the play I knew what words to expect, but the actors, through their movement and reactions, brought out the humor that is one aspect of the essence of this great drama.  When they used the silences to bracket their words and demonstrated a camaraderie that was visceral and transcendent made this an exceptional afternoon of theater.

There is deep meaning in the happening of the words and actions of this play. It views thinking as a strange, ludicrous activity; the actors pass the time in activity - dancing, talking or saying nothing at all, exchanging hats and meditating on the nature of their boots.  The beauty and feeling that the actors display is difficult to put into words.  You may read the play as I have before and will likely again, but to see it on the stage provides a perspective that cannot be achieved by reading.  My afternoon was one where I could delight in the beauty of the magic of theater thanks to a handful of actors and one Samuel Beckett.


Thursday, May 24, 2018

Mad Love and Words

A Word Child 


A Word Child



“I have always attributed a great importance to eyes. How mysteriously expressive those damp orbs can be; the eyeball does not change and yet it is the window of the soul. And colour in eyes is, in its nature and inherence, quite unlike colour in any other substance. Mr Osmand had grey eyes, but his eyes were hard and speckled like Aberdeen granite, while Tommy’s were clear and empty like light smoke.”   ― Iris Murdoch, A Word Child





One of my favorites by by Ms. Murdoch, a great place to start if you've never read her fiction, very darkly funny, also about mad love. The ‘word child’ of the title is Hilary Burde, the narrator. Using one of her rare first person narratives, the book has an interesting structure, with each chapter headed by a day of the week. This is based on the order and routine Hilary has attempted to establish for his life by having certain things that he always does on certain days of the week and the novel follows him as this routine is gradually upended.

From childhood he escaped into his own world through a talent for languages, partly due to the inexpiable horror of having caused the death of another man's wife--an event which ended his promising Oxford career and sent him into a decade of self-flagellation. Gunnar, the wronged widower, reappears remarried but as paralyzed as Hilary by the events of twenty years ago. Through the agency of an unfathomable half-Indian servant, Gunnar's second wife begins an equivocal intrigue with Hilary on the pretext of getting Gunnar to come to terms with his feelings about Hilary and Anne's death. The moral imperatives of the developing situation are perceived in contradictory terms by Hilary and his small circle of confederates: a persistent, half-wanted mistress; a placid co-worker and his effusively solicitous wife; a rancorous homosexual friend; the beautiful and mysterious servant; his unpresentable but adored sister and her humbly devoted fiance. Murdoch gives us all the machinery, and then some, for a cause of conscience of the most perverse, contradictory, and surreal complexity--in a subjectively perceived, post-Christian universe where moral impasses obstinately continue to exist and to have consequences, but no canon law can help us predict them.

The result of the events is a resounding triumph. One can see themes develop and abound; the first person narrative keeps you riveted in spite of the limits of this point of view. Essentially it is a Gothic tale whose atmosphere concerns fall and redemption. The author's use of stylistic effects is outstanding. I enjoyed the neat, obvious, and effective structure of the book which kept the events within reasonable limits. Some may find Murdoch somewhat challenging, but but I relish the feeling that the in this case, as with her best novels, goods have been delivered.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Failed Fantasy

The Fifth Season 

The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth, #1)






“After all, a person is herself, and others. Relationships chisel the final shape of one's being. I am me, and you.”   ― N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season





Sometimes award winners are not the books that appeal to my reading tastes. This is one of those instances when the book does not live up to the hype that surrounds it. I am not sure where to start. I guess the best place is with the language used by the narrator; a language which told me that there were tremendous dramatic things happening in this world, but did not effectively demonstrate the drama. The story was a mystery hidden among the multiple characters that were not very realistic. Frankly, I never got used to the use of the second person narrative which begins on the first page with the narrator talking to the reader (you) and trying to bring you in to the story by saying things like "Let's start with the end of the world, why don't we." The protagonist is she and she has a son, but that will soon change, not that I cared after several hundred pages of fantastic mish-mash.

As opposed to what some reviews seem to suggest, there is nothing resembling science-fiction here - it is pure fantasy. In that fantasy I found nothing that compelled me to keep reading - most of the time I was baffled at what was happening and by the time I figured it out I did not care any more. There is a sort of heroism occurring here, but it was really only a not so cleverly masked instance of deus ex machina.

I seldom recommend alternative books to read, but in this case, if this particular topic is of interest to you, your time would be better spent on something like Never Let Me Go from Kazuo Ishiguro. As a final note, the book presents a very specific set of moral values, but you have to look through the lens of our current political debates to see it. As soon as our talking points change this impact too will be lost.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Do you Remember What Really Happened?

The Sense of an Ending 


The Sense of an Ending



“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.”   ― Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending





At the end of Part One of this short novel the narrator, Anthony (Tony) Webster, says "I survived. 'He survived to tell the tale' --that's what people say.". In this novel one learns to be skeptical about the tale that Tony tells about his life. Slowly, inexorably one begins to realize that events that Tony relates may not have happened quite the way he remembers. This makes the novel more interesting, and more frustrating, than it might otherwise have been.

This is a short novel; on that everyone seems to agree. Beyond that it is a compelling read that is written well, owing its brevity to the paucity of details about Tony and his life. Part One tells of his school years wherein he and his two pals, Colin and Alex, are augmented by the arrival of Adrian Finn. Adrian becomes an important part of the story and in Part Two his importance grows. However, in the preface to Tony's schooldays he warns the reader that he will share "a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes, to some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty. If I can't be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That's the best I can manage."(p 2)  Do these impressions provide any real sense of the reality of Tony's life? I will let other readers answer that for themselves.

Tony's story becomes a tale about memory, aging, time, and remorse. But the remorse is based on what Tony believes happened and that, unfortunately, is based on the story that he tells himself which has gaps that come back to haunt him. I hesitate to share many details of the plot for this is where the book is most interesting. It is so because of the unreliability of the narrator and the mysteries that ensue; mysteries that Tony pursues in part two only to be rebuffed by his first love and by his own blindness to the details and facts that his memory has somehow elided from his impressions.

For the reader this story can be comforting, for who has not forgotten the details of past events that once important have long ago faded into ineffable impressions? But it is also disturbing because you are carried along with Tony and only late in the book begin to discover his shortcomings as a truth-teller, or the difference between what may have really happened and the impressions to which he claims to be true. Tony alternatively claims to envy the "clarity" of the life of his friend Adrian while apologizing to his first love, Veronica, all the while oblivious to the reality which leads her to claim that "he just does not get it".  That idea pervades most of Part Two and leads the reader to question the sense of the ending of The Sense of An Ending.

In spite of the brevity of this novel, or perhaps because of it, the reader may appreciate the situations that suggest the vagaries of memory and the devilish disappointments that may result. Tony admits as much when he says:
"What had Old Joe Hunt answered when I knowingly claimed that history was the lies of the victors? 'As long as you remember that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated.' Do we remember that enough when it comes to our private lives?"(p 133)

Julian Barnes is the author of Flaubert's Parrot and other novels. He received the Mann Booker prize in 2011 for The Sense of An Ending.