Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Savage Satire

The Sellout 


The Sellout

“The wretched of the Earth, he calls us. People too poor to afford cable and too stupid to know that they aren’t missing anything.”   ― Paul Beatty, The Sellout




The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, is an African-American novel of satire on race relations in the United States. The story is told by an unnamed, black narrator who is coming before the Supreme Court on charges of slave holding and re-instituting segregation. The narrator recounts to the Supreme Court the events that brought him to the present time.

Born in the "agrarian ghetto" of Dickens - on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles - the narrator resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: "I'd die in the same bedroom I'd grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that have been there since '68 quake." Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father's pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family's financial woes. But when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that's left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.

Fueled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town's most famous resident - the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins - he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.

After a while the novel began, for this reader, to become extremely tiresome to the point of utter splenetic prose. What plot there was lacked sufficient direction and a sense of purpose. This resulted from repetition of a few basic themes established very early on. At times it even felt like it had degenerated into a series of loosely connected rants and personal grievances in the form of chapters. It became a very trying read.

The writing began with a certain authority; it was compelling and convincing, however as the narrative progressed it did not pick up any momentum but lingered on similar ideas and stayed very stationary. Some of the comic moments seemed forced as the narrator repeated themes over and again. The Sellout won The Man Booker Prize in 2016 and despite my acherontic experience reading the book I can see why. It is a very timely piece, addressing many of the problems blacks face in a country that has supposedly moved on from its original sin of slavery. Segregation has ended, racism is officially at an all-time low, but the issues remain. 

That’s more-or-less the story, but for this reader the best aspect of The Sellout is Beatty’s language, sentence-by-sentence, even word-by-word, instead of the plot. There are literally hundreds of puns, non-sequiturs, and squeaky analogies, sometimes literally piled up on top of one another: “These are the times that fry one’s souls.” “Forty acres and a fool.”  In spite of that, the satirical style in which it was told offset much of what the book attempted to do. The satire in this novel is savage and the black idiom is difficult to follow for someone unfamiliar with it. I can only recommend this novel to those readers who are ready for a difficult reading experience that may or may not be worth the trip. It was not for me.


Friday, February 08, 2019

Poetic Telos and Cartharsis

Poetics 


Poetics






"The most important element is the construction of the plot. Tragedy is a representation not of persons but of action and life, and happiness and unhappiness consist in action."  (1450a, 15ff) 





"What is poetry, how many kinds of it are there, and what are their specific effects?" These are questions that Aristotle’s Poetics, one of his most influential books, attempts to answer. While it has been an important aspect outside philosophical circles it is doubtful that it can be fully appreciated outside Aristotle’s philosophical system as a whole.

A theme common to all Aristotle’s philosophy is the claim that nothing can be understood apart from its end or purpose (telos). This is certainly true for the Poetics which seeks to discover the end or purpose of all the poetic arts, and especially of tragic drama. Aristotle argues that generally, the goal of poetry is to provide pleasure of a particular kind. For comparison the Metaphysics begins, “All men desire to know by nature,” and the Nicomachean Ethics repeatedly says that the satisfaction of natural desires is the greatest source of lasting pleasure. The Poetics combines these two approaches with the idea of imitation. All people by nature enjoy a good imitation (that is, a picture or drama) because they enjoy learning, and imitations help them to learn.

Of particular interest to Aristotle is the pleasure derived from tragic drama, namely, the kind of pleasure that comes from the purging or cleansing (catharsis) of the emotions of fear and pity. Though the emotions of fear and pity are not to be completely eliminated, excessive amounts of these emotions are not characteristic of a flourishing individual. Vicariously experiencing fear and pity in a good tragedy cleanses the soul of ill humors.

Though there are many elements of a good tragedy, the most important, according to Aristotle, is the plot. The centrality of plot once again follows from central doctrines of the Metaphysics and the Nichomachean Ethics. In the former, Aristotle argues that all knowledge is knowledge of universals; in the latter, he states that it is through their own proper activity that humans discover fulfillment.

For a plot to work, it must be both complete and coherent. That means that it must constitute a whole with a beginning, middle, and end, and that the sequence of events must exhibit some sort of necessity. A good dramatic plot is unlike history. History has no beginning, middle, and end, and thus it lacks completeness. Furthermore, it lacks coherence because many events in history happen by accident. In a good dramatic plot, however, everything happens for a reason. This difference makes tragedy philosophically more interesting than history. Tragedy focuses on universal causes and effects and thus provides a kind of knowledge that history, which largely comprises accidental happenings, cannot.

While literary styles have changed over the centuries, the observations of Aristotle still contain value both for writers and readers today.


Wednesday, January 30, 2019

A Trip to Escape Love

Less 


Less





“Where is the real Less? Less the young man terrified of love? The dead-serious Less of twenty-five years ago? Well, he has not packed him at all. After all these years, Less doesn’t even know where he’s stored.”   ― Andrew Sean Greer, Less






Less, by Andrew Sean Greer, is a funny and engaging picaresque novel. Told by an omniscient narrator and portrayed through a well-structured plot, the humor is sometimes over-the-top, at least for this reader, and the story fascinates with the world of a not quite mainstream writer.

The novel opens when Arthur Less finds Freddy, his much younger, part-time lover of the past nine years—the one Less keeps warning not to become too attached to him—telling Less he’s met somebody else. When the wedding invitation arrives Less, a mediocre but earnest author, opens his desk drawer and fishes his hand through a sea of likewise mediocre professional invitations. If he accepts them all he would have the ingredients for a trip around the world and be out of town for the wedding and his dreaded fiftieth birthday, too. Less thinks, “What could possibly go wrong?”

So begins Greer’s sometimes hilarious ode to travel. From Less’s “Thumbelina bottle of red wine” to the “prison blanket, prison pillow” to which he clings, to his years-long battle to be refunded his VAT, Less is every person who wants to see the world but not deal with the struggle to get there. He’s also every person who’s armored himself against heartache by avoiding serious commitments.

Arthur Less has, for the past decade and a half, remained a bachelor. This came after a long period of living with an older poet, Robert Brownburn, that consumed his life till he suddenly found himself approaching middle age. Now he faced a second stage of life and  swore he would not give it to anyone; he would enjoy it. He would enjoy it alone. But: how to live alone and yet not be alone? His strategy was to “renounce love completely.” He had lovers but did not grow close. Hence his treatment of Freddy. And his impulse to flee.

Following this wonderfully funny-sad introduction, the picaresque stage takes over and we visit several countries with Arthur. The structure of the novel mirrors his round-the-world trip. Each chapter reveals a new country, new obstacles, and a new cast of characters. Less drags along his emotional baggage from place to place, and any random event can trigger a memory from his past with Robert or Freddy or from his childhood; he is never alone. In theory, all this backstory could slow down the plot, but he continually enters new situations. Each of them are fraught with worries and humorous moments like his stop in Germany where he teaches a course he delightfully calls "Read Like a Vampire, Write Like Frankenstein". This is based on "his own notion that writers read other works in order to take their best parts." With this as his set-up the humor is upped by his own less-than-expert knowledge of German which leads his students (behind his back) to label him "Peter Pan" due to his puerile exposition of the language. In this episode as all others, while he may sometimes be uncomfortable, he always survives to continue to another country.

While he doesn't intend as much the journey becomes an inadvertent quest for the meaning of love in his life. At a party in Paris, Less feels like the only single fifty-year-old with no prospects in sight. While sitting at a bar in Morocco on the eve of his birthday, Less’s female friend, also recently dumped, ponders whether love is “walking the fucking dog so the other one can sleep in” or if “it’s this earth-shattering thing. . . . Something I’ve never felt. Have you?” Less can’t answer. Much later while talking to Robert on the phone, he remembers his former partner’s deep longing for him and wonders if he’ll ever be loved that way again. Less finally asks the question he’s been trying to evade: “Am I too old to meet someone?” It is in moments like this, surprising moments of tenderness, when Less’s armor crumbles that he’s forced to face his ache inside.

Greer satirizes much of the writing life, from the agent who tells Less his novel is “too wistful. Too poignant,” to a ceremony for an obscure award, to a writing conference, to discuss not Less’s own books but the work of his long-ago lover, the genius poet Robert Brownburn. Greer reaches beyond satire to give glimpses into the character’s writing process -- moments where he describes the interior act of writing and the working of a creative mind. The humor in the novel's picaresque sections seems subdued compared to the opening sections, and sometimes seems to be merely tired farcical episodes, but the novel as a whole is more than entertaining, With Arthur's meditations on love and its loss it raises serious issues for the reader. The result justifies, in my opinion, the prize-winning status of this contemporary novel.



Monday, January 14, 2019

Novel as a Journal

Any Human Heart 


Any Human Heart




“Those were the years when I was truly happy. Knowing that is both a blessing and a curse. It's good to acknowledge that you found true happiness in your life - in that sense your life has not been wasted. But to admit that you will never be happy like that again is hard.”   ― William Boyd, Any Human Heart






William Boyd' s novel is presented in the form of journal entries; thus the subtitle, "The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart". The "journals" which the author has created, complete with footnotes and an index of all the people whom Logan meets (including Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, and countless others), brilliantly evoke a past era - or rather eras; for the journals span Logan Mountstuart's life from 1923, when he was a precocious schoolboy, through his early success as a biographer and novelist, his marriages, a war spent in Military Intelligence under Ian Fleming, life as an art dealer in New York, and poverty in London in his old age, until his death in France on October 5, 1991. The breadth of the story reminded me of Boyd's earlier novel, The New Confessions, which took the form of the autobiography of John James Todd, chronicling his uncanny and exhilarating life as one of the most unappreciated geniuses of the twentieth century

Much of the technical brilliance of this book results from the shifts in Logan's style as he, and the times through which he lives, ever so subtly evolve. Because of this it is sometimes difficult to appreciate Boyd's art as one ought, for one finds oneself almost reading the journals as genuine. The most dazzling vignettes, perhaps, are those of the self-regarding diaries of the young writers and aesthetes of the Twenties and Thirties, where Cyril Connolly (who appears as a character) is a likely influence. But if the early sections are the closest to parody, they are never mere caricature.

Boyd manages a rather touching, as well as extremely funny, portrait of a pretentious, arrogant, clever 17-year-old ("wrote a Spenserian ode on loss of faith"), who writes with flourishes of self-conscious pomposity ("we regained the purlieus of school without further incident"), is striving for superiority ("the Xmas tree is surely the saddest and most vulgar object invented by mankind"), yet does not know how to go about kissing his cousin Lucy, or deal with the discovery that his father does not have long to live.

Almost every section of the journals is nearly as good: Logan's moment with his baby son: "Lionel has croup. He seems a sickly baby. I sat him on my knee the other day and he stared at me with a baleful, sullen, and unknowing eye." is reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh. But the novel is not a simple criticism of many diarists of the period. Logan is capable of real and generous feeling, as well as of self-regarding depression; though to reveal the circumstances in which he finds (and loses) his truest love, as he moves from early critical acclaim to poverty and obscurity, would spoil an immensely readable story.

One remembers that this is a novel, indeed, by the way it holds your interest - which is quite a feat, because Boyd has also skillfully mimicked the "artless" and random qualities of the typical diary. As Logan remarks in his opening preamble, one should not expect coherence from journals: they merely "entrap that collection of selves that forms us"; unshaped by retrospection, their reality is "riotous and disorganized." Boyd's novel deliberately appears sprawling and inclusive; but it reads like a distillation of a real journal. He displays an unobtrusive artistry that transforms the potentially confusing "disorganized" diary-form into a novel which demonstrates the confusions and randomness of human life.


Sunday, January 13, 2019

Two Women, Centuries Apart

The Weight of Ink 


The Weight of Ink




“Nowhere in the known world, it seemed to her, could she live as she'd been created: at once a creature of body and of mind. It was a precept so universal as to seem a law of nature: one aspect of a woman's existence must dominate the other. And a woman like Ester must choose, always, between desires: between fealty to her own self, or to the lives she might bring forth and nurture.”   ― Rachel Kadish, The Weight of Ink




Two stories, centuries apart, are told in this engaging historical romance. The stories are linked by documents created in the seventeenth century, hidden away in a British country house, and ultimately discovered in the twenty-first century. In many ways a book about books, The Weight of Ink surprises with delights that are gradually revealed.

Part of the story's charm is in the variety of its milieus and sensibilities. Following two female protagonists of both centuries—Ester Velasquez and Helen Watt, respectively—we also witness the goings-on of a venerable and drafty house of a rabbi in 1660s London, and glimpse the modern life of a young American academic, Aaron Levy, with heartrending troubles of his own. Perhaps most pivotally, we see an English girl’s time volunteering abroad on a kibbutz in Israel in the years after the war of independence. In spite of a gulf of over 300 years, these characters depend on each other each for their own reasons, any of which can provide parallels in the present day.

The images of these different times and places, brought to life at once through painstaking detail and accessible prose, are startlingly clear, even cinematic. Supporting roles, too, are far from dull. Much more than mere foils, even minor characters are fascinating in their own right. The Rabbi and others around Ester are fascinating -- Rivka, a servant and survivor of Polish pogroms, is not simply loyal, but also intrigues with a timeless intellect and will. The men in Ester Velasquez’s and Helen Watts’ lives wholly determine the courses of their universes. Indeed, perhaps too much for comfort, but believable nevertheless.

The book includes explorations into philosophy as Ester corresponds with Spinoza and others. Ester focuses on the pursuit of philosophy, including its relationship with both her mind and heart as can be seen in this passage:

“How wrong she'd been, to believe a mind could reign over anything. For it did not reign even over itself...and despite all the arguments of all the philosophers, Ester now saw that thought proved nothing. Had Descartes, near his own death, come at last to see his folly? The mind was only an apparatus within the mechanism of the body - and it took little more than a fever to jostle a cog, so that the gear of thought could no longer turn. Philosophy could be severed from life. Blood overmastered ink. And every thin breath she drew told her which ruled her.” 

There are also interesting historical details of the Spanish Inquisition that led the Jewish toward flight into Holland; this suggested to this reader a certain irony when those same Jews ostracized Spinoza for his heretical pantheistic views. The issue of what it is to be Jewish and to enter interfaith relationships in multiple time periods are integral to each of these stories. Is there merit to keeping within the tribe? Are there, regardless of time, place, or commitment, bridges that those who would willingly enter the Jewish community from the outside can never truly cross? Crucially, what does it mean to choose survival over martyrdom? These questions play out in the characters’ personal lives concurrently with Ester’s philosophical forays into the nature of God.

The author's prose is elegant and she takes her time to slowly build the two different narratives until the suspense in both centuries keeps the reader turning the pages. All of the stories yield mysteries and personal travails that made this a deeply moving novel.


Monday, January 07, 2019

Notes on a Former Moon

The Rings of Saturn 


The Rings of Saturn




“Perhaps we all lose our sense of reality to the precise degree to which we are engrossed in our own work, and perhaps that is why we see in the increasing complexity of our mental constructs a means for greater understanding, even while intuitively we know that we shall never be able to fathom the imponderables that govern our course through life.”   ― W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn




The novel as walking tour, but it is more than that being a voyage of the imagination into both the presence and history of one's own interior spaces. Inspired by writers from Thomas Brown to Conrad and Borges, Sebald narrates a journey outward through Eastern England and inward into his mind. The book brings Rousseau's Reveries of a Solitary Walker to my mind - part reminiscence, part meditation, as Rousseau seeks to come to terms with his isolation and find happiness in solitude and nature. Sebald also ventures into themes of nature and isolation, but even more important is the theme of desolation and the quest itself.

The book consists of ten chapters that seem to document a meandering journey, yet really provide a wide variety of thoughts, references, and experiences that all are connected with the major themes of desolation, interiority, and nature. The beginning reminded me of Dante as the author sets off on a journey into the countryside of Suffolk. He feels a joyous sense of freedom while he is traversing the countryside, even as he feels a disabling sense of horror when he encounters past events of destruction there with his own focus on "traces of destruction" so intense that he finds himself in hospital. There he looks out on the world from a small window and finds it difficult to judge reality from illusion; he thinks of himself as Gregor Samsa, the young man in Kafka’s story Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis, 1936).

Images of dust, sand, ashes, fog, and mist pervade The Rings of Saturn. The ashes contained in the burial urn are much like the particles of sand on a beach or the dust particles that ring Saturn; they are particles of matter that remain after some form of destruction or transformation of organic matter. One of the epigraphs to the novel recalls that the rings of Saturn consist of ice crystals and meteorite particles that are fragments of a former moon that was destroyed. The narrator concludes that human civilization, from its earliest times, is little more than a strange luminescence whose waning and fading no one can predict.

His journey is not only physical but mental as he shares his thoughts about the author Thomas Browne whose work was inspirational for him. More connections of this kind are described and even though they seem unrelated, upon reflection there are connections between disparate authors and divergent moments from history. These moments range from the Renaissance to Bergen Belsen to the cause of the Irish Nationalist Roger Casement. The connections are curiously frequent as when the author Joseph Conrad meets Casement early in his career. References from the art of Durer and Rembrandt are cited to demonstrate the desolation that exists in a reality that we know through the artistic genius of men like these.

Using a beautiful prose style the novel presents the borders between illusion and reality, fact and fiction, and dreams and life as porous and permeable. The novel does not contain a specific plot that can be followed from beginning to end. Much like Joyce’s Ulysses or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), The Rings of Saturn records the narrator’s thoughts in stream-of-consciousness-like fashion as he moves from one topic to another, with various images or events sending him into associative reveries. The result is mesmerizing.