Jul 092015
 

 

It was in Iowa City where I first met Ray Carver. He was then teaching at the Writer’s Workshop. I don’t recall what I was doing there, maybe being interviewed for the kind of job Ray had: you teach one semester or two, and then someone takes your place. (In fact I did that a few years later.) Or maybe I was just passing through to see my friends Marvin Bell and Jack Leggett. Speak memory?

Somehow, some place, for some reason, Ray asked if I’d drive him to the Iowa City airport. Sure. By this time I’d read a number his stories in Esquire (not knowing then about the controversial cuts that had been made by Gordon Lish, the fiction editor there). In those days Ray was drinking. He drank on the way to the airport, offering me a pull. Thanks, but no thanks. Keep the bottle for me, he said as he got out of the car. Sure.

In the car I talked; Ray did not. Or at least not much. I told him what I thought about his fiction, especially Fat, using the two terms that in those days were applied to his work: “K Mart Fiction” and “Minimalist Fiction,” what Granta called “dirty realists”—that’s those Brits for you. Reading his stories, I said, he had taught me a few things. You don’t need much teaching, he said, and tried the bottle on me a second time. I’ll put it on your desk in EPB, I said. Thanks, he said.

I also asked where he was going. It was probably a Wednesday afternoon. You could teach either a Monday-Wednesday schedule at the workshop or a Tuesday-Thursday schedule. Ray had apparently picked Monday-Wednesday. But now that I think about it, he might have made special arrangements to teach Monday-Tuesday for reasons that I would learn later had to do with his flight that day.

Chicago, he said.  Chicago? He said nothing more.

Frank Martin uncrosses his arms and takes a puff on the cigar. He lets the smoke carry out of his mouth. Then he raises his chin toward the hill and says, “Jack London used to have a big place on the other side of this valley. Right over there behind that green hill you’re looking at. But alcohol killed him. Let that be a lesson to you. He was a better man than any of us. But he couldn’t handle the stuff, either.” Frank Martin looks at what’s left of his cigar. It’s gone out. He tosses it into the bucket. “You guys want to read something while you’re here, read that book of his, The Call of the Wild. You know the one I’m talking about? We have it inside if you want to read something. It’s about this animal that’s half dog and half wolf. End of sermon,” he says, and then hitches his pants up and tugs his sweater down. ‘I’m going inside,” he says. “See you at lunch.”

This passage is from Ray Carver’s story “Where I’m Calling From.” I will explain later.

The next time Ray Carver—in fact the next two times—came into my life were through his editors, one being Michel Curtis, the fiction editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and the aforementioned Gordon Lish of Esquire. In what order is also now lost to my apparently speechless memory.

At Washington College where I once taught we would bring in poets and writers for the students, but I thought a good literary editor might helpful as well. That had been my case when I was a student and the University of Arkansas MFA program brought to campus Ted Soloratoff of New American Review. In was in this spirit that I had invited Mike Curtis, fiction editor of the Atlantic.

In advance of his arrival, he sent me a copy of the magazine in which Ray’s new story, “Cathedral,” had been published. It was not at all like the Ray Carver stories I had read in Esquire: It was long, very long, and there was nothing K-Mart about it. But there was something else: it rambled as a matter of design. Not shamble, because there was nothing awkward or clumsy about its pace. If Carver’s Esquire stories were tight in their telling, this one was loose. But in its fashion, beautifully telling.

At lunch that day with Curtis and students I thanked him for the Atlantic and said how much I enjoyed “Cathedral,” but that it was long for a Carver story. It is neither long, nor short, Mike said, it is the right length for the story. His answer seemed blunt, as if there were reasons behind it I did not understand. Which was true.

We then talked about length (as opposed to brevity) in short fiction, with Melville being part of the conversation, along with Katherine Anne Porter and J.D. Salinger. But I kept thinking how quickly Curtis had made his point about Carver. I refrained from asking about the absence of the K Mart stores in “Cathedral,” much less “dirty realism.”

It was a few years later (or earlier?) that also in the spirit of bringing an editor to campus that I invited Gordon Lish, the fiction editor of Esquire. The students at Washington College had a literary house for themselves where they would give readings, host visiting writers, hold a salon among themselves, publish literary magazines and, using a warren of rooms, write novels and stories and poems and plays. All through the house were framed posters of those literary folk who had stopped by: Edward Albee, Gwendolyn Brooks, William Stafford, Allen Ginsberg, Toni Morrison, Joseph Brodsky, John Barth , Katherine Ann Porter, Anthony Burgess, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Richard Wilbur, John Ashbery, Diane Wakoski, and more. The Washington Post called their house the Carnegie Hall of Literary Readings. They put it on a T-shirt.

It was the custom of the literary students who inhabited the house to decide if the visitors were worthy or not. If not, the poster would be hung upside down. Very few were, but apparently they thought Gordon’s visit (consisting of conferences, classes, and a public lecture) was so poor they turned his poster to the wall. Done.

Well, not quite done. Some of the students pointed out that while Lish was of little or no help to them with their writing, through him, Ray Carver had been. Not that I knew this until I was told later that everywhere Gordon went on our campus (to a student reception for him; in classes; in the conferences he had with students over their work), he brought up Ray Carver: What a fine writer Carver was and that one way to develop as a writer was to read with a writer’s eye authors you admire. Ray Carver, Gordon Lish had asserted, will teach you by what he has written. Type out passages you like from his stories, Gordon told them, and he will teach you more than your creative writing teacher (that would have been me).

After some debate, and after the students began reading Carver, a new vote was taken and Gordon got turned around. Still upside down, but at least no longer a blank on the wall.

What those students learned from Ray Carver was probably what I had learned: his restraint in describing or delineating a character and in this way giving the character a chance of his own; his candor about the grim faults of those he had created; his half open-ended endings, as if a door is left ajar. I owe him.

The second time I met Ray was with Jack Barth at a bar in Baltimore to get something to eat before Ray was to give a reading at Johns Hopkins that evening. Ray was not drinking, Jack said by way of introduction. I nodded; Ray nodded back. I wondered if he had remembered me from Iowa City. I didn’t mention it; nor did he. We talked books and writers. I mentioned Ray’s use of Jack London in “Where I’m Calling From.” He told me had learned a lot from London, but not about drinking. That he had learned on his own.

In the pause among us, I asked Barth how he learned to be a writer. I was a failure at being a jazz musician, he said. And you? he asked me. In fact it was from Jack London, I said. How so, asked Ray?

I read “To Build A Fire” for a university course in American Literature and when I went to class the professor explained that the story was a Man-Against-Nature story. He explained that for fifty minutes. There are Man-Against-Man, Man-Against-Society, and Man-Against-Nature stories. The next class the professor explained that sometimes nature wins, sometimes man wins…and so on…for another fifty minutes.

Ray said he’d heard that lecture as well.

Somewhere in haze of those hundred minutes, I said, I found myself thinking how much I liked the writing in the story. The language of it. Shouldn’t that count for something in an English class? Not that I knew then what could be said about the language. But when I went back to my dorm room and read the story again the writing seemed splendid in ways I could not name so that in order (I now suppose) to understand what I admired, I propped the book up beside the portable Royal type writer my mother had given me before I went away to school and typed out the first long paragraph which I then memorized:

Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little-traveled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland. It was a steep bank, and he paused for breath at the top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch. It was nine o’clock. There was no sun nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun….

Before I could finish, Ray took over:

This fact did not worry the man. He was used to the lack of sun. It had been days since he had seen the sun, and he knew that a few more days must pass before that cheerful orb, due south, would just peep above the sky-line and dip immediately from view.

He had been there before.

It was later, and it was either Jack Leggett or Connie Brothers at the Iowa Writers Workshop, who told me that Ray had been flying back and forth between a college teaching job in California only to fly back later in the week to take up his position at Iowa. Not that anybody knew the story at the time. Or maybe they did.

—Robert Day

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Robert Day

Robert Day is a frequent NC contributor. His most recent book is Where I Am Now, a collection of short fiction published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press. Booklist wrote: “Day’s smart and lovely writing effortlessly animates his characters, hinting at their secrets and coyly dangling a glimpse of rich and story-filled lives in front of his readers.” And Publisher’s Weekly observed: “Day’s prose feels fresh and compelling making for warmly appealing stories.”

Jul 012015
 

Pierre JorisPierre Joris

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IN THE BEGINNING WERE THE WORDS. And the words were double from the word go: the cool black on white words in the book, & the loud, fast & hot words on the radio. To begin with the word on the radio let me cold, while the word on the page was what asked me to light up my nights with a flashlight under the covers. This happened, age 5: I remember the room – it was dark & thus I do not remember what was in it except for the bed in which I lay with covers drawn up, trying to read. Later on, in daylight, this room became or had become a living room, & I sat on the daybed & I watched the green eye of Nordmende, the box from which the hot words came. But first the cool ones, black on white, a book grabbed from my parents’ shelves maybe because it also had drawings in it, ink drawings in a multitude of lines that made up faces, scenes, thin, scraggly ink lines, like very square handwriting writing a picture, “modern” in a fifties sense (& this was 1951). The book I took I could read the title of: The Idiot. I am sure I could not read the name of the author: Feodor Dostoiwski. But I wanted to read & read I did or just looked at the first page of print & eventually taught myself the letters with whose help I don’t remember. Parents too busy running a small hospital called St. Pierre’s, my name, my patron saint as I was to inherit it later, be, like father, a surgeon in the capital. But I had already started on the road downhill or elsewhere: lying on the bed reading The Idiot, teaching myself to read. And I did manage a few sentences, a paragraph, half a page, maybe, before my parents discovered me & took this precocity as a good sign & hired a retired school teacher to teach me to read a year before I could officially go to grade school.

I read laboriously no doubt, and in secret to begin with, this book I remember only physically: a white hardcover with black print & black ink drawings. The Idiot. Chapter One, paragraph one – so this are the first sentences I deciphered, the first silent written language that traversed me:

Towards the end of November, during a thaw, at nine oclock in the morning, a train on the Warsaw and Petersburg railway was approaching the latter city at full speed. The morning was so damp and misty that it was only with great difficulty that the day succeeded in breaking; and it was impossible to distinguish anything more than a few yards away from the carriage windows.

Some of the passengers by this particular train were returning from abroad; but the third-class carriages were the best filled, chiefly with insignificant persons of various occupations and degrees, picked up at the different stations nearer town. All of them seemed weary, and most of them had sleepy eyes and a shivering expression, while their complexions generally appeared to have taken on the color of the fog outside.

But these were not the words I read – the book I had with me under the covers was in German, was a translation, i.e. something I would spend the rest of my life getting in & out of.

START OVER:

Is there life before reading? I am not certain — & grow less certain as time passes, as I grow old & memory, like nostalgia, isn’t what it used to be. So if you ask me what it was like to be a child, I will have a hard time answering — and not just because I do not remember it as being the best time of my life. Not that I wouldn’t be interested in finding out for myself. But how to be a historian of one’s own past, if istorin — the Greek word for history — means for the one historian I trust (because I love to read him) to find out for oneself. How can I go there from now? Maybe I can write myself there, i.e. activate dreaming and reading and come back forward?

And thus the earliest state of childhood — supposedly paradisiacal, even if, or maybe exactly because, forgotten — I cannot help but associate with non-reading, so that “prelapsarian” always rhymes with preliterate in my mind. Where was I? Rue Glesener, in the southern quartier de la gare of Luxembourg (the capital city of the eponymous country). When was I? Not yet, not yet. I lack photos of that time, cannot see myself, and the google map doesn’t get me closer than 200 meters for an inch. The street was maybe 300 meters long, that much I can make out; it started from the Avenue de la Liberté and ended in the rue Adolphe Fischer.

We lived — but this I was shown later, it is not my memory, just something I was told — we lived for awhile in the last house on the North side of the street, the one giving onto the large open space used by civil engineering company Karp-Kneip as depot for its construction materials and as parking lot for its caterpillar tractors, steam rollers, and asphalt laying and paving machines. I must have looked down on that machinery from an upstairs window, or tried to get glimpses through slits in the wooden barrier surrounding the site. But I do not remember the specific occasion of doing this, or, better, all I remember is the shared fondness of children and grown men to peek with mouths agape through any available opening into construction sites where big machinery moves about.

The only thing I do remember from that house — because in the next house we lived in I already remembered it and its location in a room I furthermore remember every detail of, especially the daybed in the corner upon which I taught myself to read — the only thing I do remember from that first house is a large Mahogany radio set with built-in record-player on top and box to keep the old shellacked 78s and later the first “long-playing” 33-rpm records at the bottom. A Nordmende, I think, but who knows, it could just as well have been a Phillips, Telefunken, Grundig or Saba. Sleek, elegant, probably taller than I was the year my father bought it. It stayed that size, I kept growing. I like to think that for some time we saw eye to eye — for what has remained with me always was the magic green eye that, cat-like, would widen or narrow its pupil in relation to how good the signal was. I would press my blue eye to its green & with one hand play with the tuning button to make the eye twitch.

But I would have my hand gently slapped for playing with the tuning button because father didn’t like me to un-tune the one station he listened to — long-wave Radio Luxembourg. Not much stays with me beyond the fascination of the green eye, except for two auditory memories, though these must be from the second house. The first of these is the opening soundtrack and half-screamed title of the 12:50 p.m. radio-drama: Ça va bouillir, Zappy Max! Although French was always an available language, I don’t remember anything of the story lines, except for Zappy Max’s breathless voice, and the fact that the weird nasty bad guy was called “le tonneau” — the barrel. What made the show for me were the incredible variety of noises, screams, screeches & other sound-effects that pushed whatever story line there was ahead at breakneck speed.

What has stayed with me more essentially was something else: a sequence of sound I couldn’t make sense of but were the most seductive, the most wondrous and mysterious language-sounds I had ever heard. And that inscribed itself immediately and forever in my brain. This sound sequence would come over the radio in the program my father listened to after Zappy Max, the one o’clock news. Later on I translated the music the vocables made into semantic meaning: it turned out to be a name, much in the news at that time: Krim Bel Kacem. I can still hear it in the singing French inflections of the news announcer – returning, repeated, over and over: Krim Bel Kacem Krim Bel Kacem Krim Bel Kacem.

With no semantic referent to attach to the sound sequence, I was utterly seduced by its sheer musicality, from the repetition of which I drew an immense pleasure I recall to this day: first, the initial hard, nearly explosive consonantal rub of “r” after “k” followed by the elongated high vowel sound of the “i” and down into the calm “m” — a peaceful “om” after the crime-evoking sounds of the first three letters. Then the high bell-sound of “bel” a clear peel, short but echoing loudly and in its very clarity hiding or making me forget the reference to the obvious (but misplaced) French semantic meaning. This was followed by the alliteration of the “k” sound, though this time with the variation of the “a” vowel replacing the “are” of krim, a descent in pitch from the “e” of “bel,” but a widening of the scope of sound, a deepening into that initial and initiating sound of human language, the long “a” that can carry pain, pleasure, surprise, exhilaration and so on. After the “c” planes down and alleviates the harshness of the two initial “k”s, the sequence finishes on a second alliteration, that of the final “m,” easily drawn out to bring it even closer to the calmness of the seed syllable “om.”

Maybe father did tell me that it was a name, no matter, I don’t remember if he did, and if he did do so, I must have forgotten instantly, or else willfully worked on forgetting, as I do remember that “Krim Bel Kacem” was my favorite word sequence for that marvelous childhood play consisting in repeating a sequence of words without pause or interruption until any semantic meaning is rubbed out and all that’s left is the pure jouissance of a sound that now arises from the very chora of language.

Now you may say that the foregoing answers my initial question: clearly, there is life before reading, and it is the life of sound….But how do I know? Much of the time listening to Radio Luxembourg in that room with the green eye gleaming were spent on the daybed at the other end of the room with … a book in my hand. The first such book was a tome grabbed from my parents’ shelves maybe because it also had drawings. I could read the title: The Idiot. I am sure I could not read the name of the author: Fyodor Dostoyevsky. But I wanted to read & I read or looked at the first page of print & taught myself the letters, with whose help I don’t remember. A year later I was put immediately into second grade, given that I could read — & just as immediately proceeded to exchange the Dostoyevsky for the first fifteen issues of “Akim,” the Tarzan wanna-be character created in 1950 by the script-writer Roberto Renzi, with artwork by Augusto Pedrazza in the handy Piccolo strip-series. They were the perfect size to read in school under the desk, or on the daybed out of the parents’ sight and under the protection of the cool, unphased green eye of the Nordmende, while “Krim Bel Kacem Krim Bel Kacem Krim Bel Kacem” would eventually echo through the other words, “Akim, Akim, Akim” and I would make up new names for new heroes I dreamed I would later write about or draw strips for or put on the radio and I could already here the announcer in Zappy’s voice breathlessly screaming: “Ça va bouillir, Kim Akrim Bel Kacem.”

 

—Pierre Joris

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Pierre Joris has published some 50 books of poems, essays & translations, most recently Barzakh: Poems 2000-2012 (Black Widow Press 2014), Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan (FSG 2014) & A Voice Full of Cities: The Collected Essays of Robert Kelly (coedited with Peter Cockelbergh, Contra Mundum Press 2014). Previous books include Meditations on the Stations of Mansur al-Hallaj (poems) from Chax Press and The University of California Book of North African Literature (volume 4 in the Poems for the Millennium series), coedited with Habib Tengour. Exile is My Trade: A Habib Tengour Reader edited, introduced and translated by Joris (Black Widow Press), & Cartographies of the In-between: The Poetry & Poetics of Pierre Joris, edited by Peter Cockelbergh came out in 2012. When not nomadizing, he lives in Sorrentinostan, a.k.a. Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with his wife, multimedia performance artist and writer Nicole Peyrafitte.

 

Jun 052015
 

New Mexico landscape

Pants

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THE CAR IS SILENT until we’ve left Saranac Lake and are headed towards Tupper, and then the road begins to wind and curve, to climb and descend, and we’re thrust into deep, swampy Adirondack forest. It’s a freezing day in January, and Pants, the cat, begins to fidget. She growls, a low, guttural sound that matches the car’s grumbling engine. I sing to her, and her tail swats at the mesh walls of her carrier. Finally, she turns away from me to face the passenger-side door. Through the mesh, I can see that her ears are pricked.

Pants, I say, and she yowls.

My father recommended this curving route through Blue Mountain Lake and Indian Lake, towns built on the shores of those bodies of water, white buildings with red roofs, Adirondack mountains in backyards. Those are the last of the High Peaks, my father had said, and then there’s nothing til you hit the Rockies.

I am bound for New Mexico: I have two friends there and a teaching job. My father thinks New Mexico is the least American of all of the states, and from the moment I told him about the job offer in Santa Fe, he rooted for it. He proposed to my mother at Taos, on a day when it was snowing. I don’t know much about my father’s cross-country trips, just that he took them periodically through and after college, crashing in cheap hotels and in tents and checking the maps for the routes with the most mountains. Once, as we were driving under a bridge on the Colorado interstate, my father said, I slept here once.

There are trees still around us, but soon there will be none; that’s when I’ll have to start trusting him.

Soon, I say to Pants, we won’t recognize this country at all.

McCahill3

We spend our first night in Rochester, which is farther west than I’ve ever driven from home. In the morning it feels so strange to get in the car for a second day and go farther. The landscape flattens, the spaces between houses lengthens, the road empties. We reach the Great Lakes and there is water to the right, to the north, long stretches of it that reveal themselves through breaks in the lines of trees. There’s nothing between the Adirondacks and New Mexico, my father had said, but he hadn’t mentioned that there’d be these. I’ve never seen the Great Lakes until now; we drive alongside water for miles and miles, wind whipping across the road and smacking the car.

Through Pennsylvania we drive; we sleep in Illinois. We sleep in Missouri. By Oklahoma, I’m starting to worry, for how blank and brown the landscape is, and how windswept Tulsa. Is this how New Mexico will be?

When I cross the border, though, I know I needn’t have worried. Everything instantly changes color. The wind stops its howling, blocked by the distant ranges. The land is red and green and brown and gold and studded with dark green shrubs. All that lines the road are occasional wire fences, occasional grazing cows, and the beautiful, sprawling land. The shift from northern Texas into New Mexico is miraculous.

Look, I say to Pants, but she’s gone to sleep.

The sun warms the car and we drive west, farther and farther from our old home and closer and closer to our new one. In the distance, I see snow on peaks. I’ve never driven this empty road before, but somehow, it feels familiar.

road to nm

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Desert Nights

In Santa Fe, they call the speed bumps, ‘speed humps.’ I hear equal parts Spanish and English in the grocery store, at the gas station, in the library. The terra cotta walls of the homes match the color of the earth, and the riverbed that runs alongside our street has formed itself of clay, of wind-blown sage, of crumbling stones and of the mountains that rise up in the distance. My roommate’s dog gets prickers in her paws and limps; a man stops us to tell me that they’re called goat-heads, those thorns.

You aren’t from here, are you? he says, when I ask him a second time what the prickers are called. We talk for ten minutes; the rain begins. He seems not to notice. I learn that the rain is rare but these types of conversations are not; in the shops, at the school, on the street, people talk. People slow down and wave me across the street; people smile.

Meanwhile, the rain gusts and wanes and then turns to snow. The air smells of piñon and smoke. People decorate their yards not with grass and flowers but with gray and white stones, with antlers bleached silver and with driftwood worn smooth. I hike in the woods; I peer into the windows of shops, decorated with chili-pepper lights, and glance at the paintings inside.

Winter

Just before darkness falls here, the sky turns violet, and in the early hours of morning the mountains glow pink. I wake in the night and look out my window; the sky is brittle, the moon a round and shimmering orb, the stars icy dots far above us. Pants purrs from the window, making peeping sounds at the tiny, hopping birds I cannot see.

Here we are, three thousand miles and six days from home. And so it begins, our new life: we’ve traded water for sky and tall trees for grass.

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Dark Rooms

It’s hot in the classroom on the first day of my teaching job. Every seat is taken. I unpack my things, write my name on the board, announce that this is English 109, and I am the adjunct instructor. My new students suggest Red or Green? as a get-to-know-you question, and I’m the only one who doesn’t know what that means.

Be careful, they warn me when they learn I’ve come from the east coast. Start with green.

For their first essay, my students must write about a challenge they’ve overcome. From that very first set of papers, I learn that some of my students go home after class to hoards of children, who clamor over them. One has a mother who is silent all the time, and one has a father who hates fat people. One has an uncle who takes her into a dark room from time to time and closes the door. One has a father who burns her writing; one has a memory of a bad-smelling room, a winter afternoon, the first time he said good-bye.

sf nm

One woman writes that she can still remember being locked in a closet as a child with a bucket and a dish of water on the floor. One man, who can’t be more than 22, has been to jail already twice. He has two daughters and a wife, and he teaches me what the word recidivism means.

When they read their stories aloud, their voices sometimes tremble. Sometimes people weep. We close the classroom door but take inside with us our families, our lovers, our road trips, our childhoods crumpled by domineering mothers, by a life without a father, by a sideways glance that almost killed us and by the gleam of a bottle, half-full. We remember hard times, but there is much beauty as well. Sometimes, words pour over us and bring us somewhere else, far from this room, this desert college, this date and time.

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Arroyos

In New Mexico, Pants discovers the outdoors. A Boston cat before, she now routinely squirts out the screen door before I have time to stop her. She darts to the smooth cement patio and rolls there with urgency; her tail thickens and the strip of fur along her back raises to a ridge. I can hear her purring throatily as she jumps the stone fence, skitters up the cedar tree, races down the stairs to the cellar door. She sniffs everything: the air, the trees, the stones, and I chase her out of the yard and into the desert, up and down the rolling hills and along the sandy arroyo.

Pants2

While I’m out, I sometimes imagine Pants lying pressed against the window, a screen the only barrier between her and a world she is dying to learn. I imagine her slipping out and my chasing her, farther and farther each time until eventually I chase her right out of sight. Is letting her leave a sign of love? Must I trust that she’ll return, and that between the trees and on the dirt is where she most wants to go?
I go over to pet her. We’ll have to find out a better system, I tell her, and she gazes out at the birds on the stone fence, then up at me.

It’s only a matter of time, her green eyes say, and I wonder where she sends herself when her eyes are closed. Are her dreams a river of scents and gusts of wind?

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American Roads

I learned to drive in Boston, sharp turns and quick blinkers and the pedal constantly pressed against the metal. In New Mexico, I learn that yes, some people actually are out on leisurely Sunday drives, despite it not necessarily being Sunday. People drive slowly, and they don’t use their signals. It’s not unusual to share the road with a trucker, an immigrant boy in his grandfather’s ancient Ford, a tractor going thirty miles under the speed limit, a couple of horses galloping alongside the road. A pickup pulling a trailer, a horse’s head sticking out the window, its main fluttering in the breeze.

another road

The oldest cars you’ll see in America can be found here in New Mexico, because our environment is just right for them—no salt, hardly any rain, and no moisture. Dry. High. Only the sun can hurt your car, peeling the paint over the course of months and years, bleaching your roof and hood bright white. Gas is the cheapest in the nation, I am told.

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Windows

Winter rolls into spring, and the sky is a seamless blue. The air grows warm but never muggy, and even in the nighttime everything smells of baked pine. Stars fill up the sky. I walk down empty roads. At nighttime, coyotes come eerily close, their cries like human wails, frightening and familiar both. Pants watches them in the darkness; out my apartment windows, there’s always someone to watch. Birds live in a nest in the rafters, and beetles creep over the brick floor.

Backyard

The seasons pass, and I feel my world broaden a little more each day—a new friend, a new trail to ski, a new view of distant Albuquerque. A new town, nestled in the hills, where the residents paint their houses teal and salmon and sell expensive turquoise and painted bones.

At the community college, I learn to start my lessons late. Only half the class is ever there when I arrive, and missing ten or a dozen students, I discover, is normal. This is the New Mexico way, I quickly realize. You ease into things here.

And so I start my lessons at ten minutes to nine. Students trickle in, people arriving as late as ten o’clock, and not even sheepish. They are a laid back group—sometimes too laid back when it comes to staying awake in class, turning in essays on time, avoiding words like u and thru and nowofdays. Trying not to write dessert when what they’re really describing is the desert in which they live. People look out the windows a lot; I learn not to scold but to ignore.

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Fires

The semester ends, and the campus empties. The smell of fires from the Jemez Mountains thickens the air. Fire season, people say to each other in the grocery store, shrugging their shoulders, peering out the windows. The smoke smells sweet and strange.

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Open Doors

On the fourth of July, I wake up and the door is open and Pants is gone. She never goes out at night; the coyotes are rampant, now that we’re in a drought. There’s no food, no water, and so they come scavenging in our yards.

I run out into the darkness, barefoot, not even feeling the goat-heads. I am shivering; my heart is pounding. She doesn’t come, and she doesn’t come. For an hour I stumble, calling her name. In the morning, she still doesn’t come. I walk weeping through the neighborhood, pasting up signs and knocking on the doors of complete strangers, who are kind and take my number and give me a drink of water. They tell me they’ll call if they see anything, and no one is cruel enough to mention the brazen coyotes that sing every night.

Months pass, and still I don’t give up hope. I wait for someone to find her in a garage. I walk the neighborhood, softly calling her name. Only when winter comes do I finally stop looking; when the first snow of the season falls, I go outside and kneel in the brown grass and close my eyes. There is no stone for her, nothing to bury that she left behind. I pray that she’s found her place between the trees and coyotes, the hawks, the velvet nights, the sun and moon. I listen hard, but only the wind comes.

A hundred times I will think of the open door, the wind and the darkness beyond, the chattering night and the sliver of moon. I’ll imagine cooling jewels of fireworks. I will think again and again of that night, when something wild came and took her away.

door

American Roads

Where I live, the days are long and clay-colored. By March, waves of heat blow in through the windows. Spring Break comes and goes, and my students start to fidget. People wear flip flops to school. Young women bare their bellies and guys their muscled arms, wound in tattoos. Trees begin to bud. We taste summer early here.

Now, I live on the plains with a long-haired man; we find pot shards in the garden every year. The mesa in the distance is long and red. There are trailers out here and old burial mounds, tiny adobe churches with bells mounted to the roofs. A peacock screams in the morning, and at dusk, coyotes come.

mesa

I have another cat, calico like Pants was, but this one came with a nipped ear and a strong desire never to go outside. She skitters away from open doors, content to purr and blink and flick her tail at the window. She also came with a name: Mora, after a northern New Mexico town. Pants is dust and sage now, dust and sage and piñon and wind.

The desert has taught me to pray for rain. I search the sky for clouds, and when the drops finally fall, I can smell water before it hits the ground. The scent creeps in through adobe walls. I can hear it on the roof. I stop what I am doing and listen and breathe, because I have learned what it means to wait for water.

This desert is at turns bitter and wild, sweet and enchanted. Tonight, the sky is the color of a cactus bloom. My father doesn’t blame me for never wanting to leave: he comes to visit; we ski at Taos; we hike in the canyons. He sees what this place has done to me: I am a teacher now, and in the summers I am a writer and a farmer. Money matters to me less than it did before. Pot shards line the windowsill, and the cat eats cobwebs on the stairs.

Flowers

Kate McCahill

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Kateportrait

Kate McCahill’s essays have been featured in Best Women’s Travel Writing and Best Travel Writing (Travelers’ Tales), The Lowestoft Chronicle, Wellesley Magazine, Numéro Cinq, and elsewhere. Born in Lake Placid, New York, McCahill now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is a member of the English faculty at the Santa Fe Community College. Read more at www.katemccahill.com.

May 092015
 

Early Autobiographical Work, age 5Early autobiographical work

Leona age 9Nine years old

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The pop machine

MY FATHER OPERATED a garage in the small prairie town of Bredenbury, Saskatchewan, pop. 500 or so, located just off the Yellowhead Highway 30 miles west of the Manitoba border. The garage was low and squarish, with a huge sign mounted high on the front that read ‘Hi-Way Service,’ navy blue letters against white. I don’t know how much that sign set my father back, but I know it was too fancy by half for a small-town shop in the sixties. A year or two after the sign went up, the new highway went in, skirting the town entirely. The unlucky Hi-Way Service now fronted on a low-traffic graveled street little different from any other street in town. Over time, the blue letters weathered to a colour close to purple.

Inside the garage, over to one side, was a pop machine built like a chest freezer. Sometimes, not often, on a hot day I would slip into the garage, into dimness after sunlight. The clank of a tool hitting a workbench, the pffft of an air hose, the earthy smell of oil. I would make for the pop machine, use all my muscle to push open the lid, and peer over the side at the rows of glass bottles. They hung in their separate metal tracks, NuGrape, Orange Crush, Seven-Up, Club Soda, Coca-Cola, suspended by their bulbous little chins, their lower parts immersed in a bath of ice-cold water. I could reach way, way over, feet lifting off the floor, and plunge my hot hand into the cold bath. Once in a long while, or maybe once, period, my father found a dime and slipped it into the coin slot, and I slid a bottle of NuGrape along its track and out past the metal guard. Ten cents bought one release of the guard and the satisfying slap as the metal fell back into place after the bottle came out. An opener was mounted on the front of the machine, a pry mechanism, and below it a cap-catcher shaped like a tiny pregnant belly. I held the bottle, sliding-wet from its cold bath, and my father gripped it further up, along its tapered neck, and helped me lever off the cap. It fell, clink, against the other caps inside the little belly. I have never lost my appreciation for the earth-sweet smells of gas and oil. I wasn’t really even supposed to be in the garage.

Hi-Way Service before the SignHi-Way Service before the sign

 

The pasture

I was a town kid, but Nickel’s pasture was my little bit of wild. I could get there by walking: across a gravel street, across the corner of a neighbour’s triangular lot, across a ditch. Not there yet: across the gravel road that used to be called a highway, across another ditch, and finally along a lane. I liked to sit in the pasture at the bottom of a little draw, low enough that I couldn’t see a single house or car or shed. The pasture was rimmed by scrubby bush: chokecherries, saskatoons, spindly poplars. Down in the draw I was in the Wild West, a place I knew from TV, in all its black-and-whiteness. Kicking around the house we had an Indian-princess hairpiece—a pair of braids made from three pairs of old nylon stockings. Bobby-pinned into my hair, the braids hung on either side of my white and pink and freckled face and draped onto my shoulders. I don’t recall if I was wearing the braids on the day I’m thinking about now, the day I was frightened by my own heartbeat. Crouched in the draw, summer warm on my hair, sun frying my freckled nose, I listened to the silence of that small world. And then I heard a beat, relentless, rhythmic. Indian drums! From the stand of poplars over there! I froze for a moment; then I ran home fast, listening as the drumbeat sped with me, inside my chest.

Years later, my sister and I and the girl from across the street put the pasture to another use. Hanging from a nail on our kitchen wall was a tin matchbox holder, and in it was a box of Eddy’s Redbirds. The tips of the matches were banded blue and red and white, the colours of the Union Jack. We’d grab them by the handful, couldn’t stop ourselves from licking them to taste the naughty taste. We’d make off with them to light our little fires. In the pasture we pulled together small, dense stooks of dry grass, lit them, and watched as they went poof, and flared and died. One day the flare didn’t die. We high-tailed it away and waited for a grown-up to notice the grass fire. Eventually, a grown-up did. The volunteer fire department came out in force to quell the flames, and we were either not found out or were silently excused without a fuss.

The _Little Kids_ (Leona on the left)The Little Kids (Leona on the left)

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The nuisance grounds

Small-town Saskatchewan kids were free-range kids in the sixties. We could walk along a country road to what we called the nuisance grounds, about a half a mile from town. On one excursion, we three girls found skin magazines, and we ripped out pictures of partially naked women and folded them into our pockets. Were we ten or so? In the heat of summer days, among the reek of rotting left-behinds, we found other memorable junk—one day the remains of the combination mailboxes the post office had disposed of after the conversion to keyed boxes. The old boxes had metal fronts, about five inches wide and four inches high, each with two concentric dials on the front that reminded us of the safes we saw on “Get Smart.” These metal doors were still attached by hinges to wooden drawers, and the drawers slid in and out of what remained of the wooden framing that housed them when they were still in use. Some of the frames were open at the top, and we could see inside the guts of the mechanisms well enough to figure out the combinations by watching closely as we turned the dials. Every kid needs a place to store her secrets. We had a wagon with us (of course), and we each took home a mailbox or two. We memorized the combinations, closed the open tops with nailed-on boards, and hid the dirty pictures inside.

Water lines

 

The Red Thing

We four sisters shared a bedroom. Two sets of bunk beds. I assume that The Red Thing, which stood at the foot of one of the beds, began as a display stand that came to the Hi-Way Service in the course of business, and once the product it displayed was sold out—oil, antifreeze, wiper blades?—my mother or my father carried it half a block to the house so it could be put to a new use. It was made of heavy-gauge wire, say three-eighths of an inch in diameter, and the wire was coated with a red material, silicon or plastic or some such. It had two or three shelves, and the back and sides were an open grid of wire. Into and onto this rig we piled books, teen magazines, comics, puzzles, paper dolls.

—Where’s my Nancy Drew?

—It’s on The Red Thing.

The Secret of the Old Clock, Donna Parker, The Curly Tops Snowed In (my first-ever hard-cover book, which my mother brought home from a magical place in Regina called The Book Exchange), Heidi, Treasure Island, Little Women, Call of the Wild. The bottom shelf was low to the floor, and the broom wouldn’t fit underneath; you’d have had to move the entire rig to sweep there, and so when I sat in front of it to sort through the sliding stack of Archie comics and colouring books I could see the dust curls underneath. We weren’t much for housekeeping anyway. Words were the thing.

We discovered The Red Thing was sturdy enough, and freighted with enough printed matter, that it could counterbalance the weight of a child hanging upside-down off the front of it, feet up top, hands grasping the sides halfway down. Every kid needs a members-only club, and every club needs a pledge. I remember one of my sisters, face blossoming red, hair dangling inches from the dust bunnies, reciting “I will hang upside-down, I will hang upside-down, I will hang upside-down for my club, the upside-down club.” I can recall no function of the upside-down club other than hanging upside-down.

One evening—I think I was about nine—I heard my three sisters laughing in the bedroom, and I walked in and grouched at them, because what could be funny when my mother had just told me we were about to lose the house, and we’d all be out in the snow with our furniture by Christmas? Snow falling on the bunk beds and The Red Thing, I supposed. And on all the books, the ones on The Red Thing and the others, hundreds of them ranged on shelf after shelf in the living room, the ones I had to stand on the back of the sofa to reach.

I don’t know how my mother succeeded, ultimately, in saving the title to the house. A lot of yelling went on, those years, and we girls managed sometimes to tune out the specifics. I do think it must’ve been my mother who saved the title. My father was smart in his way, a small-time genius as an inventor, mechanic and electrician, but he had no head for business or law, and he was so good at avoiding the tough questions that he knew how to leave mail unopened for years if he didn’t like the address on the upper left corner of the envelope. Long after my parents died, going through old files, I came across a sheaf of papers that had to do with the house, the garage, the courts: eight letters from the sheriff, seventeen from various creditors, fifteen notices to do with unpaid taxes, and three to do with court proceedings. A note in my mother’s handwriting attests that a letter from one creditor remained unopened for seven years; it was old enough that the mailbox the postmistress would have sorted it into would have been opened by combination rather than key. Through the years when all that was going on, I would sometimes sit in front of The Red Thing and open my copy of Heidi and bring it to my nose and sniff the pages. The smell of ink and binding glue and pressed paper would call up a feeling that I want to describe as friendship. I still do this with books; I still am surprised by that same feeling, whether or not I know beforehand that it’s what I’m looking for.

SistersWeavingSisters weaving

 

The garden

In the early years, we grew vegetables in the vegetable garden. One summer my next-older sister and I—we were the “little kids” and the two oldest were the “big kids”—were paid 88 cents each for a couple of days of hand-pulling portulaca and pigweed free of the stubborn clay. Why 88 cents? Because the general store was advertising an 88-cent sale and as part of this special occasion they’d brought in toys, a rare addition to their stock. When my sister and I walked into the store clutching our coins we learned that most of the toys were in fact priced at $1.88 or $2.88. We did each come home with something cheap and plastic and unmemorable, I’m sure we did, and I’ll bet we loved these things for as many days as we would have loved the more expensive bits of plastic. But weeding—we hated it. The garden became a wonderland only after my parents lost interest in using it to grow vegetables. In the area where a different family might have planted potatoes and beans and corn, my sister and I dug an enormous hole, an underground fort. Evenings, I would scratch my scalp and have my fingernails come away full of grit, a satisfying feeling, evidence of a day well spent. We dragged old boards from here and there and laid them across the top of the hole, and we crouched inside amid shadows and candlelight. The smell of a candle burning inside dirt walls gave me a thrill I felt low in my tummy. A finger in the flame, how long can you hold it there? Or drip some wax into the palm of your hand and feel the bite. The small rituals of our club of two in our safe little hideaway, built too small for grown-ups. We were the bosses down there. We owned the place.

Sisters in the Garden (Leona on the left)

 —Leona Theis

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Leona2014 #2

Leona Theis writes novels, short stories, memoir and personal essays. She is the author of Sightlines, a collection of linked stories set in small-town Saskatchewan, and the novel The Art of Salvage. She is at work on two other novels and a collection of essays. Her essays have appeared in or are about to appear in Brick Magazine, Prairie Fire, The New Quarterly and enRoute. She lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

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Apr 302015
 

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When members of Jimmy’s family told Jim McQuade, Director of Schuyler Hill Funeral Home, that, at Jimmy’s request, we were having neither priest nor funeral mass, he warned us that we might have trouble getting Jimmy into St. Raymond’s Cemetery. He proved prophetic. Growing up, Jimmy and I had been thrown out of a couple of Bronx taverns, but getting barred from the graveyard was a new experience. In lieu of a priest, I had been invited by Jimmy’s family to give a eulogy. “That would be fine,” said Jim McQuade, as we sat at a table; I could “just briefly sum up Jimmy’s life.” We laughed because, more than anyone I’ve ever known, Jimmy’s life was not one to be glibly summed up. Everyone thought they knew Jimmy; but they knew only aspects of the whole, complicated man. His life, rich and multifaceted, fell into many different, apparently incompatible phases. Yet there was an underlying integrity, in both senses of that word.

Jimmy had been a hell-raiser and legendary fist-fighter growing up; then a father who raised one son early, and later two young children single-handedly when their mother, Sharon, died young. Professionally, he was chief consulting engineer for the Bronx from 1980, and was in charge of the capital budget program, overseeing money allocated for such construction programs as the Grand Concourse rehabilitation and the parks improvements from Hunts Point to Riverdale. “But he was a lot more than that to me,” said former Borough President Fernando Ferrer. “He was indispensable.” As the go-to person for district leader Michael Benedetto, Jimmy handled housing and zoning issues; in addition, demonstrating Assemblyman Benedetto’s description of him as a “tremendously giving person” who quietly helped many people, Jimmy, each year, did the income taxes, gratis, of more than a hundred seniors who couldn’t figure out the forms or afford to pay a professional.

After retiring in 1995, Jimmy stayed on for almost two decades with the borough president’s office as a part-time consultant. In these years, he also taught physics at Bronx Community College. As engineer and architect, Jimmy created—pro bono—the building now housing the Chippewa Democratic Club, of which he was treasurer for more than 40 years. Still vital, energetic, and physically powerful, Jimmy was, in 2005, diagnosed in a late stage of a particularly horrible form of incurable cancer.  It was in valiantly battling multiple myeloma for ten years (which must be the world’s record) that we all saw Jimmy’s stamina and real courage. So, is there any key that helps explain so varied a life? Not really, but let me make a tentative triple-suggestion that will seem strange to those who didn’t know the “whole” Jimmy: strength, stars—and pigeons.

The pigeons, a group shot.

From the time he was a kid, Jimmy had a coop, and flew pigeons.  Later, residing in Locust Point, he had a flock that numbered almost two hundred. Jimmy and his sons David and Alex lived very near the Throgs Neck Bridge, its under-structure a favorite nesting place for peregrine falcons and hawks. Jimmy flew his pigeons every day and loved how they out-maneuvered the predators, making undulations and quick turns in the air, so that it was almost impossible for a falcon or hawk to kill one. (When many were killed, including Jimmy’s pair of beloved black homers, it was not by a hawk, nor by the family of feral cats Jimmy fed daily, but by a raccoon who got into the cages.)  Once, a frustrated brown hawk pursued some pigeons right into those cages. Jimmy’s first instinct was rage, but he quickly appreciated the magnificence of the hawk and he knew that it, too, had its part to play in the natural order. So he kept it for a day or two, admiring, studying, and photographing it.

As for strength: When we were growing up, Jimmy was himself a hawk, a warrior who never lost a fight even against much larger opponents. I’ll give just two examples, but they represent many stories of Jimmy’s almost mythical prowess as a fighter. My neighborhood, Alden Park, had (laughably enough) a so-called private beach, consisting of a pier and about 50 yards of water. Once, when we were sixteen or so, Jimmy came over to hang out with me. We went down for a swim. An older guy, a blond and brawny 6-foot, 220-pound wire-lather, informed Jimmy, who weighed about 145 at the time, that this was a private beach and that he wasn’t welcome. Jimmy started to leave. But the Big Man couldn’t leave well enough alone: “And don’t come back, you little guinea.” About ten seconds later, Jimmy did leave; but they had to carry the wire-lather home. Jimmy, 75 lbs. lighter and 3 inches shorter, had cut him down with a half-dozen lightning-fast punches that left the would-be hero and actual bigot sprawled and bleeding on the pier.

This is a photo I took myself about 60 years ago circa 1956. Jimmy is standing with two of the girls in our crowd Diane Schleininger and Janet Gartner

On another occasion, a year or so later, Jimmy faced down even bigger odds. In a nocturnal raid, we had snuck into a pool and concession called Bronx Beach and stolen 17 cases of beer. Having “borrowed” a rowboat, we transported our booty to a small cabin cruiser moored off a waterfront stretch called Big Oak. The plan was to return early the following morning and move our goods to a safe location. Unfortunately, when we arrived shortly after dawn the boat was gone. We discovered that the owner and his friends (who must have thought they’d died and gone to heaven) had left for Oyster Bay on the north shore of Long Island to fish and camp out. A few days later word reached us that they were back and were having a grand time in what was then an orchard that sloped down to our own Bay, not really a “bay” since it opens onto the Long Island Sound. When Jimmy and I arrived and peered through the foliage we saw eight guys and their girlfriends listening to music and enjoying “our” beer. This was a moral outrage, a violation of the code of honor among thieves. We jumped the fence and Jimmy walked right up to the biggest guy, the fellow who owned the boat we’d used for temporary storage. “The party’s over,” Jimmy announced, ordering the leader to pack up the beer, put it in one of their cars (we were carless) and take it to where we wanted it. Even with their girlfriends present as witnesses of their humiliation, he and the others complied. Even at odds of 8-2, they were afraid to tangle with Jimmy.

Back then, he seemed all strength and speed. The first time we ever saw a set of weights, Jimmy, 14 years old and weighing about 140, military-pressed 20 pounds or so above his body-weight, astonishing the older guys who owned the barbell.  He ran the 100 and 220 at Cardinal Hayes, winning at both distances; and once, at a Rice Stadium meet where I was running the 440 for St. Helena’s, Jimmy was asked to substitute for an injured shot-putter. I watched amused as Jimmy, a complete novice at the event, outdistanced the competitors, but was disqualified on all three shots, one of which was so off it actually grazed someone in the audience.

But under all that physical power there were other, deeper qualities. Jimmy had a formidable brain, and dreams. When he and I weren’t getting into trouble, we often sat on the sea-wall, gazing at the opening to Long Island Sound off City Island, looking out at the beautiful green lantern of Stepping Stone Lighthouse, and up to that greater lighthouse, the stars above our heads. In time, Jimmy would know almost everything there was to know about the birth and death of stars, as well as about black holes, special and general relativity, and quantum mechanics. Back then we would discuss “escape velocity,” the speed a rocket would have to attain to break earth’s gravitational pull: 7 miles a second. And this was long before John F. Kennedy pledged to send a manned rocket to the moon and back.

Jimmy and Alex2Jimmy and Alex

Earlier this week, when Alex invited me to look through his father’s books, I was re-reminded of the range of Jimmy’s interests.  There were books on the Bible, and on Jesus alongside volumes on the universe, on string theory and quantum mechanics; several books on Einstein; on history and philosophy; novels, poetry, books of literary criticism (not all, but most by me, since Jimmy was as proud of me as I was of him). From the time he was a boy, Jimmy was what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called an “Inquiring Spirit,” especially when it came to questioning, from the perspective of science (physics and evolutionary biology) the religion in which we had both been raised and long believed. In later years, he was particularly fond of two passages I’d cited in my book on Emerson. In his essay “Intellect,” Emerson posed a choice between “Truth and Repose.” He who simply accepts the comfortable “creed” he has inherited will find rest,

but he shuts the door to truth. He in whom the love of truth predominates will keep aloof from all moorings, and afloat. He will abstain from dogmatism, and recognize all the opposite negations, between which, as a wall, his being is swung. He submits to the inconvenience of suspense and imperfect opinion, but he is a candidate for truth, as the other is not, and respects the highest law of his being.

This passage had a momentous impact on the lives of both Emily Dickinson and Emerson’s greatest disciple, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, both of whom were raised in deeply religious families. Nietzsche, the son and grandson of Protestant ministers, echoed Emerson’s thought, and choice, in a youthful letter to his sister. Should we, the twenty-year-old Nietzsche asked rhetorically,

arrive at that view of God, world, and reconciliation which makes us feel most comfortable?….Do we after all seek rest, peace, and pleasure in our inquiries? No, only truth….Faith does not offer the least support of objective truth. Here the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire.

Restless (as his sister Barbara told us) from the time he was a colicky baby, Jimmy never, ever sought “repose,” either in his life or in his intellectual inquiries. I should have added that his library included, along (of course) with studies of pigeons, books on aviation. When, after he got out of the Marines, Jimmy was living with his wife Beth and their baby, Jimmy Jr., in a trailer in Moonachie, N.J., he was working full-time and studying for his engineering degree. Yet he somehow found time to learn to fly a plane!  Why?  Well, pigeons fly, don’t they?

Jimmy in the Marines.Jimmy (right) in the Marines

Armed with his engineering degree, Jimmy eventually rose through the ranks of the New York City Highway Department and other positions to become chief engineer of the Bronx, working, as I said, out of the Borough President’s office. Whatever lunacy and law-breaking we engaged in growing up, once Jimmy was in a position of power, he proved incorruptible. As many told me at one of his retirement parties, Jimmy’s word was his bond. His agreement over the phone could be, literally, taken to the bank. Many projects in the Bronx are the visible results of Jimmy’s efforts.  As boys looking up at the stars, we talked about escape velocity; but Jimmy, unlike the rest of our crowd, never wanted to escape from the Bronx. Instead, he wanted to stay and improve it. And he did. As current Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., remarked in his tribute: “James Cerasoli gained the respect and admiration of all through his tireless work in the Bronx. His signature is imprinted on numerous maps; his work and his memory will live forever.”

Jimmy with David as a baby

That most endearing of Jimmy’s qualities—his intense and lifelong love of animals—bore enduring fruit in improvements to the Bronx Zoo.  In charge of the capital budget, Jimmy made sure the Zoo got its share and more of the borough funds. Our close-knit crowd of two dozen, which has kept in touch for six decades, always loved the Zoo as kids; for us it was an oasis, a Magic Kingdom. When Jimmy and I, with my own family, visited it as adults, Jimmy was treated like a king by those who appreciated his support. Why was the Zoo such a priority?  Of course, it was the borough’s main tourist attraction. But for Jimmy, it was personal. The bank robber Willie Sutton was once asked why he robbed banks. His answer was as famous as Willie himself: “that’s where they keep the money.” For Jimmy, the Zoo was where they keep the animals and, if they had to be in confinement, he wanted to do what he could to insure that they were kept in state-of-the-art comfort and able to enjoy maximum freedom. The big cats are no longer in cages.

Jimmy among the deer at Catskill Game Park.At the Catskill Game Farm

The one photograph his sons submitted for Jimmy’s newspaper obituary shows him, a quarter-century ago and looking much younger than his 52 years, feeding deer at the Catskill Game Farm (closed, sadly, in 2006). As his son David rightly said, the photo exemplifies Jimmy’s love of animals. I think that love of animals, especially his doting on his pigeons, even helps explain Jimmy’s liberal politics; he always championed the underdog rather than the predatory and powerful. His pigeon-skills certainly honed the qualities that made this tough athlete and undefeatable street-fighter a loving and nurturing caregiver when he was left with two young boys to raise on his own. He had learned whatever he needed to master in order to care for his pigeons; now he learned whatever he needed to know to take care of his boys—even learning to cook, and to cook well.

Jimmy’s final decade was incredibly difficult, but he fought this terrible and terminal disease with the same courage and skill that he’d once displayed in fist-fights. (He studied multiple myeloma, and soon knew as much about it as his doctors). In this battle, however, he had the support and love of a close-knit family: his sisters Barbara, Arlene and Pinky, his brothers Hank and John and his young sons David and Alex.  For years every Friday was set aside by Hank and John for lunch with Jimmy at a restaurant of John’s choosing.  When I was visiting from upstate, I was invited to join them.

Jimmy Jr. and his wife and three children lived far out on Long Island, but for Jimmy’s 75th birthday, the whole family got together, and again I was invited. Ironically, Alex, who had been at his father’s side virtually every day since he’d been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, had to be in Florida. But it was good that the rest of us were there, since, just a year later, young Jimmy suddenly died of a heart attack. This was, in many ways, the last twist of the knife. I came down for the first of two wakes, right here at Schuyler Hill. But Jimmy (burdened with an oxygen tank that embarrassed him and which he relegated to Jim McQuade’s office rather than draw attention to himself) had to endure a second wake and funeral out on Long Island.  When I came over to the house the next day, and asked the stupid but inevitable question as to how it had gone, he said, “Pat, I felt feelings I didn’t know I had.” Alex told me that that was the beginning of the end for Jimmy; that much of the fight—and it had been a long and brave fight—went out of him.  David, Hank, and John agreed, and I sensed it myself, though Jimmy tried to maintain a stoic front. I can’t talk here about David’s and Alex’s own relationship to their father because I will be reduced to uncontrollable tears—as Alex was at Jimmy’s deathbed while David, my godson, tried to hold it together.

Jimmy with his three sons.

Terrible as that death was, it was peaceful, and Jimmy, who we think was able to hear us, was surrounded by those who loved him—no small thing.  It seemed to me at the time, and even more so today, that it was particularly appropriate that when his time came, he died in a hospital named for his intellectual hero, Albert Einstein.  The last long conversation I had in Jimmy’s kitchen (I’ll tell you in a moment about our last phone conversation), we talked about Walter Isaacson’s book on Einstein.  I knew why Einstein had (one of his few errors) rejected quantum mechanics; but Jimmy actually understood quantum mechanics! Though Einstein acknowledged that it explained much, he could never bring himself to accept quantum theory because it was random and Einstein was committed to strictly determined mathematical laws of nature. As he famously said, quantum theory “says a lot, but it does not really bring us any closer to the secrets of the old one [der Alte]. I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not play dice with the Universe.”

 That kind of God-talk led many—especially in his adopted country, America, where he was much beloved and had become a pop-culture icon—to conclude that Einstein believed in a personal God, one who cares about us, is accessible to prayer, and promises (for good or ill) an eternal Afterlife. Einstein did not believe in such a deity. In a letter written to a little girl in the sixth grade who wanted to know, “Do scientists pray?” Einstein, endearingly, took her question seriously. He responded that scientists are not likely to be inclined, in a world where “everything that takes place is determined by laws of nature,” to believe “that events could be influenced by prayers to a supernatural being.” Nevertheless, he continued,

Everyone who is seriously interested in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe—a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.

His God, Einstein told the New York Times, was “Spinoza’s God,” a divinity inseparable from Nature itself—though he was also convinced, like that sublime and “god-intoxicated” yet “atheistic” 17th-century Jewish philosopher, that no matter how we try to “penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature,” we find that, “beyond all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything we can comprehend, is,” said Einstein, “my religion.” That “humble admiration” and “deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.” Introduced to the philosophy of Spinoza by his friend Coleridge, William Wordsworth, in “Tintern Abbey,” captured that “presence” (the essence of Spinoza’s pantheism) in deliberately vague but deeply moving lines:

MMMMAnd I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

In 1930, Einstein concluded his credo, “What I Believe,” by defining what he actually meant in calling himself “religious”:

The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead….To sense that behind everything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly; this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.

In that sense, and that sense only, Jimmy, an inquiring spirit in the mode of Spinoza and Einstein, was a devoutly religious man—to the very end of his life and beginning from the time when, as kids, he and I gazed out on the water on moonlit or starry nights and then up to the stars themselves. When we were rummaging through Jimmy’s books, Alex showed me something his father had inscribed on the library wall, and which Alex intends to carve out and save: “My improbable God: before Infinity, there is God; after Infinity, there is God.” If that’s not good enough to get into the “religious” cemetery, to hell with them.

Jimmy facing reality at the kitchen table he was practically chained to in the final years2Jimmy facing reality at the kitchen table he was practically chained to in the final years.

I’ll end with that last phone call, and with the final lines of a Wallace Stevens poem, both of which involve deer and, of course, pigeons.  I phoned Jimmy one day while I was looking out the window at my back yard.  Out on the lawn were three deer, a few squirrels, two mourning doves and two pigeons. “How are they interacting?” Jimmy asked, the old enthusiasm still there despite the pain. “Harmoniously,” I said.  But the peaceable kingdom was interrupted.  There’s a 100-foot spruce in my yard and a huge female goshawk (bigger than the males of the species) often nests there. She swooped down. The deer were unnerved, the squirrels scampered to safety, and the mourning doves ducked into the hedge. But the pigeons took off with the hawk in fierce pursuit. I was disturbed, but Jimmy assured me, “don’t worry, she’ll never get them.”  He was right.

This scene prompted me to quote to him over the phone the final lines of Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” a poem centered on a woman who does not go to church that morning, but instead seeks her religion in nature.  She finds herself in what the poet calls in the final stanza “an old chaos of the Sun, unsponsored”: a beautiful but perishable universe in which we must all die. This is our mortal condition; what are our consolations? Jimmy loved the ending of the poem, finding in it, along with the appreciation of deer and birds, a beautiful and brave death-image, an image that applies, as my friend Barron Boyd recently remarked, to Jimmy’s characteristically courageous acceptance of his own impending descent:

Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness,
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

Jimmy, who seemed unconquerable, is gone. But nothing can erase, as Borough President Diaz noted, Jimmy’s permanent “signature imprinted” on the Bronx. That “will live forever,” as will the memories that will be preserved—until our own deaths—in the hearts of family and friends who loved and valued this remarkable and many-sided man. And I will think of my brother-in-spirit as inextinguishable in a more profound sense. When, without that funeral mass, we were denied permission for burial in the Catholic cemetery, we decided to have Jimmy cremated. Back in 1957, when he was 19, Jimmy shared with me a now famous essay in which four astrophysicists argued that the iron in our blood, the calcium in our bones, the oxygen we breathe, are the remnants, the ashes, of stars that died in supernova-explosions billions of years ago. When, this summer, we scatter Jimmy’s ashes in Long Island Sound, it will be into water we now know derived in part from a titanic gas cloud older even than our solar system. Out on Hank’s boat, we will be returning Jimmy to the world of nature he loved, and to the cosmos that fascinated him, stardust back to stardust.

Pat Keane/ April 10, 2015

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Afterword: For David and Alex

I returned to Syracuse in time on April 11 to make, I thought, a Curlew Theatre play about W. B. Yeats, for which I’d written an introduction and which was scheduled to be performed at Le Moyne College at 7pm. I didn’t know that while I was in New York City for Jimmy’s death and wake, the time had been changed to 4pm. It was good that I didn’t know, because something rather wonderful happened in my walk over to the college—as I told Kate Costello-Sullivan, Le Moyne’s Dean of Arts & Sciences, in the following email, which I’m now sharing with you.

Dear Kate,

Unaware that the play had already been performed, I left for the college at 6:50. I was walking due west on Salt Springs, thus directly into the setting sun. As I came over the rise in the road, I suddenly found myself looking at 7 or 8 deer: they were just standing there, stopped in the midst of crossing from the college side. I heard two cars coming fast, maybe 100-150 feet behind me. Between the brightness of the sun and the fact that the deer were just over the rise, neither driver could see what was ahead. I jumped out in the middle of the street and started waving. One driver slammed on his brakes, the other swerved onto a lawn alongside the road. The little herd of deer took off. The drivers understood.

When I got to the college, the doors were locked. I tried another possible venue, and that’s when I saw a poster, with the time, 4:00, and featuring a line excerpted from one of Yeats’s finest poems: “Man is in love and loves what vanishes.” I’d felt pretty good about the deer episode right off. But as I started walking back, it dawned on me that if I hadn’t been precisely where I was at precisely that moment, one or both of those cars would have plowed into the deer.

My friend Jimmy had been cremated that morning. As I’d emphasized in my eulogy, along with being a legendary fist-fighter when we were growing up, Jimmy was, among other things, a deep and lifelong lover of animals. Later, as Borough Engineer of the Bronx, in charge of the capital budget, Jimmy was responsible for many improvements in the Bronx Zoo. He hated the idea of animals in captivity; but if they were to be confined, he was determined to insure that they were comfortable and enjoyed maximum freedom. And they do.

Jimmy kept and flew pigeons from the time he was in grade-school; and on his last visit up to see me, he loved seeing the deer in my back yard. I ended my eulogy with the final lines of Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” beginning, “Deer walk upon our mountains,” and ending with pigeons, at evening, making “Ambiguous undulations as they sink/ Downward to darkness, on extended wings.”

I don’t believe in miracles, but I’d been despondent walking over to see the play—a play that, as it happened, had already been performed. Thus, I had no reason to be on that road at 6:50. You apologized, Kate, for not getting my phone call in time to stop me. I’m obviously delighted that you didn’t. Walking back to my house, the more I thought about having “saved” the deer, the more elated I became. I remembered that little Robert Frost poem, “Dust of Snow”:

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

That’s what happened to me yesterday. The reminder that we still live “in nature,” with creatures other than ourselves, altered without erasing my sadness at the death of a friend I loved and admired, got in trouble with, and discussed literature and science and religion with, for two-thirds of a century. But last night, going to bed still thinking about those deer, I slept for almost 11 hours—more than the preceding five nights combined. Being on that road at 6:50 was a gift, and it comforts me, even as I’m writing these words, to think, intuitively rather than rationally, that it was a last gift from Jimmy, still watching out for the animals.

—Pat

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Pat Keane and Jimmy.

Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College and a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).

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Apr 072015
 

Agri Ismaïl

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Premise: Four men sit around a giant bottle of vodka, picking at various unappetising appetisers as waiters hurry to bring them an assortment of mixers and pour clumsy blends of vodka and juice. The men raise a toast, welcoming each other, and talk of work, politics, war. One of the men tells the story of when, in 1996, he had saved up and bought his very first portable cassette player after toiling away at the reception desk of a local hotel for months. He describes the specifications of the lost device (auto reverse! 20radio station memory!) with affection between modest sips of his drink. He recounts how when the city was taken, he was sure that his house would be looted due to his political affiliations, so he considered whom among his friends and family members was least enmeshed in the political situation before driving it to his young cousin, sure that his house would be spared. The man starts giggling then, before he has even told the funny part: of course, in the end, the cousins house was the only one in his family to be looted. All the men laugh in recognition. They drink to all that was taken, all that was lost.

§

IMAGINE THAT THIS STORY has roused whatever part of you that is interested in narratives, for whatever reason, and that you are about to undertake the increasingly non-trivial process of deciding what form said narrative is to take.

Imagine, furthermore, that you are a Kurd, that the event takes place in Sulaymaniyah, a Kurdish city in Northern Iraq and that the men in the above scenario are all Kurds speaking in a Sorani dialect. The first conclusion presents itself as evident: this should be a narrative in Kurdish.

At first, this seems satisfactory. It pleases the dreadfully lazy part of you to know that minimal effort will be needed to achieve an acceptable level of verisimilitude (dialogue will admittedly need to be polished somewhat to achieve a certain degree of artificiality in order to pass for realism, but can otherwise be reproduced more or less verbatim).

Also, to write in a minor language is to a certain extent its own reward. It is not just about reaching an audience (which for Kurdish literature is minuscule, even if you were to disregard the fact that Kurds use two completely different alphabets; it is also, perhaps even foremost, about preserving and enriching said language. The thought that something you write can, fairly easily, have such lasting power feeds your ego tremendously. You imagine cyborgs in the future attempting a comprehensive account of the extinct human race by reverse-engineering our technology to be able to read today’s hard drives and noting that there was such as a thing as Kurdish literature. This will, you imagine, please the cyborgs.

You think back on the Kurdish novel, a feeble object that has barely been allowed to breathe, kept alive by authors like Sherzad Hassan, Bakhtyar Ali and the dearly departed Mehmet Uzun, in spite of overwhelming evidence that literature is pointless in a society that wants to emulate the capitalist wonderlands of our most generic cities (to echo Rem Koolhaas), our Singapores and Dubais and Heathrow Terminal 5s, while simultaneously fighting off the medieval LARP currently en vogue. A tricky juxtaposition, that. But it has always been thus, literature has never had it easy here: texts were uniformly banned for being written in a language that several governments tried their utmost to eradicate during the 19th and 20th centuries. A novel cannot be written, after all, if the language to write it in does not exist. When novels appeared at all, it was often small editions printed by clandestine presses, an arrestable offence for author and publisher alike. That we then define 1929’s The Kurdish Shepherd by Erebê Şemo, 1961’s Peshmerga by Rehîmî Qazî and 1972’s Jani Gal by Ibrahim Ahmad as some of the first Kurdish novels merely attests to the fortune of these manuscripts to have survived. Indeed, there are no extant copies of the first edition of The Kurdish Shepherd, which was originally published in the Soviet Union and heavily censored. That it has survived is only due to a 1947 Beirut reprint. Similarly, Ahmad’s Jani Gal had to be rewritten twice from memory after the original manuscripts were burned or lost, and it wasn’t until a French translation appeared courtesy of L’Harmattan that the text appeared in its complete state, including geographical locations and the overt references to the regime that had been previously excised. It is indicative of the subjugated state of Kurdish writing that one of the very first Kurdish novels ever to be written appeared in its entirety not in Kurdish, but in French, as late as 1994.

The remains of the Kurdish novel are, then, mere shadows, flickers of what once was. To think of what exists as a comprehensive picture of Kurdish literature is akin to thinking Sappho’s fragments represent her complete work.

You fortunately no longer have to worry about censorship, about having to burn your only manuscript in the garden before Baathist police get to it, about having to hide a printing press in your bedroom. Even the Turkish government, which for decades insisted the Kurdish language did not exist (and, in a wonderful display of incoherent logic, that this thing that did not exist should, because it did not exist, be banned) has begun to begrudgingly tolerate texts written in Kurdish.

And yet, there are other obstacles. Such as the invisibility of your work by merely writing in a non-Latin script, where it will be hidden to all but those who can conjure the signs to summon it. You often labour under the belief that everything can be found online, yet forget that in order for this to be even slightly true, you must master alphabets that mean nothing to you, alphabets that your computer is reluctant to write in. The non-Latin text is sealed off, unsearchable by the Latin index, hidden behind the limits of written language. You think of the character in Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia who is only known by a non-standard, unpronounceable, symbol (which you cannot reproduce in this text other than as a screenshot: 

and therefore would never be able search for it). You suspect it is not a coincidence that throughout Negarestani’s novel this character is missing.

Another obstacle: Microsoft Word on the Macintosh Operating System cannot use Arabic fonts (let alone Kurdish ones). You could of course use another word processor (e.g. Apple’s own Pages) but the fonts remain often incompatible with other word processors and so e-mailing a file in Kurdish, more often than not, will result in something like this:

☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐.

Now this is perhaps impressive in a formalist kind of way, a uniform representation of thought and language and whatnot, but you doubt that you can convince an audience that what they have before them is the Great Kurdish Novel (to take a silly term from the Americans, because lord knows they’ve taken their fair share from us) when all they are looking at are a series of Unicode squares. The computer was not designed, after all, with non-Western languages in mind, nor was any of the software (though you envy the Chinese who you imagine, by virtue of their logographic writing system, would be able to write entire short stories on Twitter in 140 characters — if China had not banned access to Twitter, that is). The electronic age is upon us and that age was coded using a specific writing system. You would be insane to think this does not matter.

Also, and you’re ashamed to have to mention this but even though Kurdish is your native language you don’t really master it: you are a child of exile with the exile’s unnatural feel for language; you frequently mis-use words and your handwriting is all haunted-house seance scribbles of the dead trying to communicate with the living in crude approximations of letters. You are far more comfortable with English, even though you have no tie to that language other than the fact every book you read and every movie you see is in English. You have not read more than a handful of Kurdish novels because as already mentioned, Kurdish novels are hard to come by. You should, of course, practice your mother tongue; you suspect that you could become a half-decent writer if only you put as much effort into reading and writing in Kurdish as you have done in English but this is a multi-year project, akin to reading Proust. And you have yet to read Proust.

At this point you start doubting yourself: if writing in Kurdish means more effort than writing in English why not just write in English? You also begin suspecting that the above premise may not be interesting to a Kurdish audience as everyone has had their house looted at some point. Everyone has lost a family member to genocide or internecine warfare. For you, the exiled one whose portraits would invariably reek of privilege and Eurocentric notions, to comment on the Kurdish situation to a Kurdish audience can easily become patronising and in bad taste. What can a foreigner possibly have to teach people about themselves? You may instead want to shine a light outwards, towards readers unfamiliar with Kurdish history, and this requires another language. “Texts must experience the condition of exile.” said Emily Apter, and which better way to exile a text than to force it into a language which is not its own?

So you choose English, because, yes, “the Anglicized subject is at once bullied and seduced into accepting the corporal burden of English,” to cite Susie O’Brien & Imre Szeman.

This should be a narrative in Kurdish. The narrative must be written in English.

Though this is the right choice (you hope), problems arise immediately, as they tend to for immigrants pretending to be something they are not. You are suddenly tempted to add explanations for your audience that you would refrain from adding if you were writing about a people to themselves.

For instance:

1. The men would have to be defined as Kurdish, as you suspect merely writing “men” would conjure a group of white people to the reader.

2. A Kurdish reader would understand that the choice of vodka, rather than the traditional arrak, indicates that these men are rather affluent or at the very least cosmopolitan (mostly this cosmopolitism is derived from a life in exile, from refugee camps, from being a foreigner where fluid thoughts have had to be rendered as malformed syllables and broken grammar and have been mistaken for stupidity), so when you lose this element you may well be tempted to linger on other details, the brand of vodka, the logos on their polo shirts, in order to convey the same thing in a much cruder manner.

3. You will have to explain what happened in 1996, a reference that would be evident to Kurdish readers but an obscure historical footnote for everyone else. Also you’ll want to briefly touch on the sanctions, embargoes and the overall financial situation that made the purchase of a cassette player in 1996 – when even CDs were beginning to be replaced by MiniDiscs and Mp3s – something that required significant capital.

Your text is now overwritten, heavy with exposition, and you haven’t even dealt with the question of language.

The dialogue will be laboured, tortured into resembling Kurdish. Perhaps you will try to mirror the cadence of a Kurdish speaker; perhaps you will keep the expressions intact, all the “may I be sacrificed in your honour”-style sentences that seem so clunky when translated. You could also use the trick that all those world lit novels of the 1990s used: sprinkle English dialogue with some non-English words for added authenticity. You try, you try, you fail, you delete.

(All fiction is based on artifice, but for some reason writing non-English dialogue in English often seems like an artifice too far. If only there was some form of literary subtitle, you think. [1])

You also worry, as all translators are wont to do, about the weight of words. You are reminded how for centuries, the French have been misunderstanding Nietzsche because the French “sujet” does not contain the “critique of the effects of subjective submission” that the German “Subjekt” does (cf. Emily Apter’s Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslability and Barbara Cassin’s Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles). The Kurdish word for looting, تالان, best transliterated as “talan”, has an inherent weight to it from its frequent use in Kurdish society under various dictatorships and processes of ethnic cleansing that is immediately lost in translation, as the English “looting” has since long lost its primal association to times of war (and is mainly used in times of riots, as a byproduct of temporary capitalist collapse).

What you are left with, then, is a text that panders to its audience in its need to hold the reader’s hand through a history with which she is not familiar, a text infused with exoticism, a narrative forced into a form that is inherently Western, with all the issues that arise when, to cite Franco Moretti, “Western form meets [non-Western] reality”. These texts, as selected by Western publishers, often seem to include an outmoded paean to humanism, as though to comfort a bourgeois reading culture, to ensure that the narrative that we are all the same is heard. Fredric Jameson, in his otherwise unspectacular essay “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism (wherein he actually states that “Nothing is to be gained by passing over in silence the radical difference of non-canonical texts. The third-world novel will not offer the satisfactions of Proust or Joyce.”) provides a rare insight when he notes that “Indeed our want of sympathy for these often unmodern third-world texts is itself frequently but a disguise for some deeper fear of the affluent about the way people actually live in other parts of the world”. This is echoed by a much-debated editorial in N+1 wherein the editors argue that “Global Lit tends to accept as given the tastes of an international middlebrow audience” and that “the bestselling Kite Runner, by the Afghan-born Khaled Hosseini, made some Americans feel better, and others worse, about our war over there”.

Above all, perhaps, it rankles to use English because of the ravages that the British Empire wrought on Kurds and the possibility of Kurdish statehood. If Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is accurate in his assertion that “African authors should be clear about the fact that when they write in English they are contributing to the expansion of, and dependence on, the English language.”, then to write in English is a betrayal.

This should be a narrative in Kurdish. The narrative must be written in English.

***

international capitalism is a system that is simultaneously one and unequal: with a core and a periphery (and a semiperiphery) that are bound together in a relationship of growing inequality.i.e. the destiny of a culture [] is intersected and altered by another culture (from the core) that completely ignores it’”

(Franco Moretti, Conjectures on World Literature”)

Most novels that you read today seem like relics, as though modernism never happened at all, Flaubertian narratives in which characters hold the latest consumer technology to make you, the reader, realise that it is meant to take place in the now. But it does not feel like any reality you experience on a daily basis, it feels literary: as though what we consider realism is merely what authors convinced readers reality looked like a hundred and fifty years ago, static narratives that embrace the provincial when finance and politics are now global. The very conventions of the realist novel, so daring when they were perfected by Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, have now trapped narratives in an individualistic, humanistic world order. After all, how to describe the light-speed flow of capital, the corporations with human rights but without human obligations, the drones killing the anonymous in a form that is structured around individual agency, about self-realisation and a human perception of time? The novel is doomed to fail. If contemporary capitalism and consumer culture are a part of contemporary fiction, it is often as a mere gloss, rather than the actual spine of the constructed reality. Similarly, the challenges of globalisation are reduced to facile exotifications, the non-Western reality forced into a Western form. The novel was not designed, after all, with non-Western cultures in mind.

What you want is the literary future imagined by Bhanu Kapil — an author who has managed to dismantle all the problems listed here with aplomb — namely “a literature that is not made from literature.” The heroine of her novel Incubation: A Space for Monsters is half girl, half machine/cyborg, her identity and culture shifts along with the text, as essential a creation as any archetype. You are heartened by Julius’s dérive in Teju Cole’s Open City where the character maps out a New York of immigrants and asylum seekers before he transforms the 20th century urban dérive into an international one, by travelling to Belgium, to Nigeria. You embrace the aforementioned Cyclonopedia, a dense but fragile text that can barely even carry the categorisation of novel, with its fake translator’s notes (e.g. “The linguistic structure of the original Farsi text is highly inconsistent, to the extent that one assumes it to have been written by more than one author.”) making the reader realise just how many truths a narrative can contain.

We heed the warning in the aforementioned N+1 essay that “Global Literature can’t help but reflect global capitalism, in its triumph, inequalities, and deformations,” but why should literature not instead revel in these deformations? You realise that English literature always has been “an unsteady amalgam of [the] voices of the vanquished, along with the voices of the dominant English regions” (to cite Stephen Greenblatt) and if you are to dissent from Lorde and try to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, you could do worse than making English your own Latin, a tool for a vulgar novel. Let there be allusions that remain unexplained, let there be dialogue that is not naturalistic, let there be disregard for the master’s rules, let the work contain the fractured realities as we see them today.

—Agri Ismaïl

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Agri Ismaïl is an Iraq- and Sweden-based writer whose work has appeared in the White Review, 3:AM Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Al Jazeera, and the Swedish journal Glänta among other places. He can be found on Twitter.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Yes, of course there is the footnote which has a long literary history: remember how War & Peace began with a long chunk of French dialogue, which Tolstoy then translated (badly, one might add) into Russian in the footnotes. But this does not seem like a very good option: if none of your readers understand the dialogue in the original language, in effect you’re just asking them to do more work. You suspect your readers would hate you after one or two pages of this.
Mar 062015
 

tunnelweb

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AT 9:00 AM ON A SUNNY MORNING, while your teenage son sleeps, make plans with your husband to visit the city of Briançon and the stronghold of Mont-Dauphin. Just over the Italian border in France, these are World UNESCO sites where the military engineer, Sébastien Le Prestre Vauban (1633-1707), designed forts and walls for the Sun King, Louis XIV.

Wake your son. Don’t tell him about the history trip ahead. You know he’s always hated history—facts have always proved slippery, elusive, dull. Instead, tell him you want to take him to France for a crêpe. When he hops out of bed without a complaint, hand him an espresso. While he’s in the shower, charge your camera batteries. Pack chocolate.

Smile when your husband says, surprised, “That was easy.”

At 10:30 am, let your son sit in the front seat next to you while you drive west. Hand him your camera. Direct him to take pictures of the road slicing through granite and slate. Remind him of Hannibal the Carthaginian and his elephants, of the Romans who fought the Gauls, of the Duke of Savoy who fought the Sun King. Tell him that armies have always climbed through the Alps first one way, then the other, shifting boundaries first one way, then the other.

Inhale when he nods.

RoadBrianconweb

Pull into a scenic lookout when he says “Stop.” Climb out and gaze at the rock scantily clad with snow while he takes pictures.

Agree when he says, “This road is tough, but without the asphalt and tunnels it was tougher.”

GatewayCityViewBrianconweb

Where Italian and then French flags blow, at the top of the pass at the Col du Montgenèvre, say to your husband and son, “Bienvenus en France, mes chers.” Then, since you’ve forgotten your son’s ID, panic when you see gendarmes at the booth ahead scrutinizing arriving traffic. Look at the police straight on though, and smile when they wave you through.

Agree when your husband says, “Borders are porous these days.”

buildingcliffbriancon

fortandrooftops

At 11:30, stop at the old walled city of Briançon that Vauban fortified after the Duke of Savoy pillaged the surrounding countryside in 1692. Park your car. Wind down steep streets to the main square. Buy a guidebook in a bookstore. Find a café. Order crêpes and pommes frites. Point to the fort on the crest looming above. Say, “Those rocks are a reminder of the past.”

TunnelBrianconChurchTowersweb

Agree when your son says, between mouthfuls of buttery food, “These mountains are tough, but the men were tougher.”

BoySoldiersMoatBrianconweb

At 2:30 suggest getting ice cream down the road. Drive south for thirty minutes, alongside the Écrins National Park. Admire the winsome villages with spiky churches and red geraniums. At picturesque Eygliers turn left. Note that your son’s breath catches at the sight of Mont-Dauphin, Vauban’s citadel that crowns the Millaures plateau which means ‘at the cross of the winds’ in Occitan.

Ask what he’s thinking.

Nod when he says, “Those towers above are a cliff full of mystery.”

ViewMontDauphinBridgeweb

Together climb over grass-clad ramparts. Cross the bridge that fords the empty moat. Explain how Vauban began building this citadel in 1693 but that it came to a halt with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 when the border was pushed elsewhere. Listen when your son reads aloud from the guidebook: “No actual battle ever took place here.” Shake your head when he adds, “too bad these walls went to waste.”

Buy ice cream. Lick the drips.

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Circle clockwise. Photograph the church that was never completed. Photograph the remaining wing of the Arsenal where guns and ammunition were kept. Listen when your son reports, “the flanking wing was destroyed in World War II when Italians flew over and bombed it.” Agree when he adds, “So this place saw some action after all but it was only one brief blaze.”

Visit the cemetery. Look at the rusting crosses and dates. See how they’re relatively recent.

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Photograph the main street where officers once lived. Together imagine how they waited for war that never materialized. Tighten your scarf around your neck again and again when the wind—the incessant wind—blows through. Notice how some places are boarded up and others are for sale.

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Nod when your son observes, “This has always been a ghost town even when the soldiers were here.”

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At 7:00 pm, climb in the car, head back down the hill, turn right onto the highway. Drive north along the Écrins National Park toward Briançon and the Alps. Honk at a camper hogging the road. Swerve left when a stream of bicyclists in black nylon and silver helmets encroach on your lane.

Agree when your son, who is now in the back seat, says, “Look, these are today’s road warriors.”

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Ask your son his impressions of his day in France. When he says he liked the crêpe and the ice cream, sigh, but say “Good, I’m glad.” When he says, “I know it was a ruse to get me to come,” deny it. But smile broadly when he says, “The best part was walking where the armies had been. We should do this more often. Can I see the guidebook again?”

Don’t remind him you’ve always done it. Don’t list the museums and sites you’ve gone to together.

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Shake your head when your husband says, “That was easy.”

Then hand over the book, pull out the chocolate you packed, and share it.

  —Natalia Sarkissian

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Natalia Sarkissian

Natalia Sarkissian has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has been an editor and contributor at Numéro Cinq since 2010. Natalia divides her time between Italy and the United States.

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Feb 102015
 

Syd2The Author with his Grandson Arthur

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Thank You Note

……Newbury Burial Ground, 2014

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My wife says we’ll be eternally close to Tink and Polly, old-time Vermonters, that vanishing stock, and best of neighbors. To me, she seems like some madwoman, talking about how we should stipulate a bench instead of a headstone to stand at this grave she bought yesterday, when I was out of town. A bench, she explains, will enable our children and grandchildren to sit, have picnics, enjoy the scenery. As they take in the panorama, she adds, they can think of us, and in this setting their thoughts will necessarily be happy ones.

Now I’ll admit she’s always been uncannily good at knowing what our children, and now their children, may need or want, but I’m skeptical of this rosy vision of hers. Our kids aren’t as needy as many I’ve known in any case. Even when they were small, they often proved delightfully resourceful.

The two youngest daughters dreamed up sisters for their games: Sharlee was the bright one, Sally the drunken fool. They had Bunnum the rabbit too, and the younger girl often took on the role of Moodyhawk, an odd, mean character who claimed to rule the world. She came, as I recall, from Guam.

An older brother conceived and played the part of a dog named Ruffy. He would school his father or his mother, or often both at once, in their lines of dialogue with Ruffy, often scolding us for faulty inflection or body language. “Not like that!” he’d snap. (When he became a teenager, his grief at the death of his real dog, a sweet Labrador bitch called Plum, would keep him home from school one day.)

The eldest daughter, at four years old, reported, lisping the plural, that she’d found two slugs on a pumpkin. There was gusto, even mirth, in her description of how the orange of the mollusks and the orange of the fruit “didn’t go together.” She was visibly disappointed when she led me out to the garden; she couldn’t find the slugs themselves, merely the pale paths they had left on descending and heading who knew where?

The firstborn child was obsessed with Jeeps, and in bumbling, nightly drawing lessons, I guided his hand with my own in our cold old kitchen. He’d whistle between his teeth in concentration, his breaths turning to small clouds in that frigid space, no matter the ancient Round Oak woodstove glowed red in the corner. Draft after draft after draft. He wanted perfection. Who doesn’t long for that?

Standing on my grave, I start mourning, because I’ll lose these moments and others accrued over so many years. In short, my own vision is far less cheery than my wife’s. Is this a matter of gender? I’ll never know. I can’t speak for motherhood. But can anyone have been a father and conjured such random memories without some inward weeping?

Now, from the plot she’s just bought, my wife sweeps an arm at the view again: looming above all else, there’s our favorite mountain to eastward, purple with May but still holding snow at the summit. An eagle appears before it as if the woman had willed it there, the bird’s reflection complete in the river’s languid oxbow. Sun-spangled, it skims the treeline along the near shore. My love claps hands in witness, eyes joyous.

Meanwhile, and as always for no palpable reason, my mind makes its oblique jumps. I suddenly think of a check I left this morning for a woman who comes now and then to clean house. She bore a child in her teens, and might have gone on to harm, misery, or dependence; but her boyfriend stood by her, married her, helped her to raise that daughter. I admire that woman greatly: her industry, her constantly upbeat mood, whatever a given day’s circumstances and despite her rheumatoid arthritis.

I scribbled a thank you note to her along with the payment. Typically broody, I think just now how the note resembles so much I’ve put my hand to: a note is no more than a note, and still it’s one more thing that will disappear for good.

Those children’s children: how could I ever have known how much I’d love them? You see, it’s not the abstraction death that daunts me; it’s the leaving behind of all the beloved, particular creatures with whom I’ve walked the earth that will cover my ashes, and all the places on earth that have proved so dear to us. And yet my wife –without saying a word– reminds me that an apter feeling might be gratitude. I have had so much to lose in the first place.

I should study that. Maybe the bench is a fine idea after all.

 

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River, Stars, and Blessed Failure

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I pause in my drive back home from a reading, unknotting my legs and back, which have stiffened while I’ve sat at the wheel. It’s a joy to behold the moon as it breaches the mountain, though I feel even slighter than one of the beads of froth down there in the rapids, which are winking back at more stars than I’ve ever seen in New England. How can there be so many? They rob my breath and speech.

I could almost read my poems out loud again by that moon and those stars. But I’m not in the least inclined to do that. I’m banishing words for the moment, as if by strange instinct – not just my own words, but all. I find it more than peaceful out here to articulate nothing, to feel myself on the farthest edge of conscious thought.

Over the river’s crackle, I catch the lyrical calling of a coyote, and from it can imagine ones nearer to home, their sopranos mixed with the altos of owls and the lilting descant of a freshet. I picture my wife in our house. Perhaps she pauses by a certain window just now, the big one through which at this time of year we watch the deer glide in to browse our night-black lawn. Against that darkness, their bodies show ashen, ghostly, elegant.

Our children are all grown and gone. And yet in this moment their distance feels slight. No longer are we at the exact center of a family constellation, but even so –or is it therefore?– we still know this thing we crudely call joy.

Of course, as one who always longs for the freshest and rarest expression of feeling he can muster, I might easily wince at so paltry and common a noun as that – joy indeed! if I didn’t find this a time, precisely, for rhetorical failure, no words quite apt for what shimmers out there above any one person’s construals of meaning.

—Sydney Lea

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Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont and a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. His tenth collection of poems, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is now available from Four Way Books, his collaborative book with Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives (some of the essays appeared first on NC), has now been issued in e-book format by Autumn House Press, and Skyhorse Publishing has published A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. Other recent publications include Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems (Wipf & Stock) and A Hundred Himalayas (U. of Michigan), a sampling from his critical work over four decades.

The essays published here will appear in a collection forthcoming this spring by Green Writers Press.

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Feb 092015
 

Dao Strom

Herewith an enchanting multimedia (song, image & text) memoir, a piece about childhood, from Vietnam-born singer, songwriter, and author.  The memoir is excerpted from Strom’s forthcoming book We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People and the accompanying album East/West.

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The song (as well as the excerpt/essay) both belong to the same larger project, due to be released/published Summer 2015 by Jaded Ibis Productions — I’m calling it a hybrid book/music project (hard to find a good term for it).

The book is called We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People and the accompanying album is called East/West. The song “Two Rivers” comes from the “West” segment of the album. Inspired initially by a Wallace Stegner story of the same title, the song draws a picture of the meeting point between two rivers and a child’s memories of landscape. I think the song and the photo-autobiography traverse the same thematic and emotional terrain, that of negotiating the space between two streams/landscapes.

The catalog description reads:

More than a book, We Were Meant to be a Gentle People  is a song-cycle working in concert with prose fragments and imagery. The author seeks to articulate two concepts of “geographies” — East and West — and the mythos associated with each, through the lens of a writer/musician of the Vietnamese diaspora. Strom combines multiple mediums of “voice” with an investigation of the intersection between personal and collective histories to elucidates the transition between cultures.

—Dao Strom

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Click to play Dao Strom’s recording of “Two Rivers.”

“Two Rivers” was recorded/produced by Hershel Yatovitz (www.hershelyatovitz.com).

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Dao Strom is a writer and musician based in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of two books of fiction, Grass Roof, Tin Roof and The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys. She has a forthcoming book/music project, We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People (Jaded Ibis, 2015). The New Yorker praised Dao’s last book,The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys, as being “quietly beautiful…hip without being ironic.” She has been the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, a James Michener Fellowship, and the Nelson Algren Award, among other recognitions. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop. She was born in Vietnam and grew up in the Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California.

www.theseaandthemother.com
www.facebook.com/theseaandthemother
www.daostrom.com
twitter: @daostrom

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Feb 082015
 

Lawrence Sutin

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I hate this question because it admits of many answers that each have some sense, if not certainty, to offer.

There are persons who feel that it’s morbid to think about it, a hindrance to engagement with life. There are persons who feel the exact opposite—there always are, on any question, and we as a species could do better at seeing this as a sign of hope rather than a signal for war—and pointedly face their fear of mortality, become devoted to risky behaviors from climbing mountains to snorting coke because you’re going to die anyway, deal with it by using the fear for what it’s good for, fuel. There are persons who have had their dearly loved ones die and their answer is that there’s no hope of their ever thinking about anything else. Others see death as cosmic drama—the gateway to eternal salvation, damnation or reincarnation. Others look forward to death because they’re convinced it’s lights- out oblivion, a blissful rest from life. Still others say that we’re all dead already and just don’t know it, the afterlife is here and now and you can call it heaven, hell, the bardo, the liminal, the astral, the timeless dream in which the universe become us and us it. A sizable subgroup avoids thinking of their own deaths but relishes thinking of the deaths of those they hate.

All of these views are thoughts I’ve had, but none of them quite answer the question I’ve posed with its focus on when. No one would seriously hold that any person who has come of age could manage never to think about death, so we all would agree that we have to think about it sometimes. To what standard shall we set our mental clocks so that we might devote ourselves efficiently to the task? But what do I mean by efficient and what has it to do with when? I mean by efficient that sort of thinking—and I include feeling as a particularly wrenching sort of thinking—that enables us to live well with the knowledge of death. Now, as just what so enables us is intertwined with our time of life, we return to when as the crucial point. When? For how long and how often? And should it ever stop?

By seeing the complexity of the question I am trying to spare myself the problem of answering it. The complexity itself is the answer, I could say. As few of us know when we are going to die and those few—the terminal and the condemned—who do know are likely to think of death without wondering if they’ve found the proper time, that leaves the feckless majority of us not knowing or wishing to know when we will die and not knowing when we should start or stop thinking about it.

But I think that many of us think about it incessantly without knowing we do, if not unconsciously than implicitly, and always with a mind to how we should spend the time we have, a sack of coins that seems never to empty when we are not thinking of death. Joy and boredom both make time burgeon. So we choose certain jobs, certain loves, even certain sorrows, because given the time we have we naturally choose what we can’t escape.

I recently visited my daughter Sarah in Seattle, where she is living with her fiancé–they are both in their early twenties–and wondering where their lives might best lead. When she goes about her day she sometimes has to drive over Lake Union upon the venerable, girded and cantilevered Aurora Bridge—six tight lanes of two-way traffic with no central barriers to take the brunt if a driver happens to wander into the opposite flow.   One spacy swerve in any of the lanes of the Aurora Bridge—on which if you head south will lead you to the Pacific Highway and ultimately all the way to Mexico—when traffic is moderate or heavy which is every day and cars would crush each other one by one for hundreds of yards. I should add that, since its construction in 1932, it has been a favored site for suicides—over 230, second amongst U. S. bridges only to the Golden Gate in San Francisco.

But the old Aurora Bridge with its rattling compression can make you think about death even if you hope to stay alive. That’s the effect it has on my daughter Sarah, who would avoid the Aurora if she could, but given the algae-like spread of the Seattle streets the lost time she put into avoidance would haunt her as the silly cost of fearing to think about death. Sarah does not want to be driven by fear and so she drives the Aurora and does her time thinking.

I have gone along with her on this ride—it’s just the two of us—expressly to watch her and talk with her as she makes the crossing. She’s material to keep my hand moving over this page you now read. She has my brown curly hair only lots more of it. She also has my penchant for anxiety and I would not have wished that for her. I ask how this bridge-drive is impacting her and she says she has to concentrate on her driving to keep her nerves from setting her on fire.

Does she think there is life after death? She does not. What she wants when she is dying is to be able to say that there is nothing left to be done, her design projects completed, her loved ones protected. But she acknowledges the paradox that, were someone she loved dying, a solace to her would be if they would ask her to do something yet unfinished for them. That would take her out of missing them for the time it took to do it.

Suicide?   She doesn’t want to commit it. I breathe again. But in her young crowd the question of preferred method comes up now and then—it’s their way of thinking of death, I’m guessing, with the fantasy of control over their own demise without yet having undergone the agony that makes you yearn for an end—and she felt she needed to come up with an answer. Helium seemed to be easy as such things went. All the while Sarah’s face is serious, her espresso eyes fixed and galactic, the mask of a goddess of life and of death who has no choice but to dwell and rule in both realms.

How afraid are you of death? How often do you think of it when you’re not on this goddamned bridge? Finally I put these questions point-blank and she senses my fear along with hers. She says she tries not to think about it but she does, not a lot, but it never goes far away, she doesn’t think it does for most people.

We have crossed the Aurora Bridge and I am now far more unsettled than Sarah because, at my bidding, my daughter has talked about death to me and I feel I have spurred her to show fear that I wanted to see for the tawdry sake of answering the question of when. But I don’t want Sarah to have any fear of death, none. I want her to be free from every mental crevasse I have fallen into, death’s certainty being an especially deep one. I also don’t want to lie to her when she reads this by hiding the fact that I often imagine happily a future world in which she is vibrant and I am gone. I meditate to accept impermanence but I pray that Sarah’s death will come after I’m gone. I would love it if we could see each other in the afterdeath realm or reincarnate as puppies in the same litter, but I suspect what will ensue is a chain of genetics that will dance through descendants as it has through us. And all of them will think about death and none of them solely when they chose.

So the answer to when might as well be never once you’ve thought about it hard. How else to avoid crossing lanes by recalling we’re tiny sacs of life knocking about without and within, a car or a heart valve could veer and kill us. Our souls would have no idea if they were staying or going as death happened, they would have expected us to have thought about that but we haven’t, not clearly, nothing we have ever thought about seems to answer to this death we will find ourselves dying when there is still a great deal to do and our loved ones need us, loved ones always do. Think of them and not death while you can.

—Lawrence Sutin

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Lawrence Sutin is the author of a novel, When to Go Into the Water (Sarabande 2009), two memoirs, A Postcard Memoir (Graywolf 2000) and Jack and Rochelle: A Holocaust Story of Love and Resistance (Graywolf), two biographies–of Philip K. Dick and Aleister Crowley, and a historical work on the coming of Buddhism to the West.  In addition, his erasure books can be seen at Lawrencesutin.com.  He teaches in the creative writing programs of Hamline University and the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Feb 072015
 

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In comments made aboard the papal plane en route to the Philippines in early January, Pope Francis spoke about the Paris terror attacks. According to the AP, he defended “free speech as not only a fundamental human right but a duty to speak one’s mind for the sake of the common good,” and he condemned the murderous attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Such horrific violence “in God’s name,” far from being justified, was an “aberration” of religion. In fact, he said, “to kill in the name of God is an absurdity.” Perhaps; but we also know that, absurd or not, killing in the name of God accounts for many of the more irrational streams of blood staining what Hegel famously called the “slaughter-bench” of history.

Francis is aware of the paradox. His very insistence that when it comes to religion “there are limits to free expression,” anticipates his overt conclusion that a “reaction of some sort” to the Muhammad cartoons was “to be expected.” If not inevitable, a response was hardly unlikely. Most Muslims consider any representation of Muhammad, even the most benign, image-worshiping and therefore blasphemous. And radicalized Islamists, a small but virulent minority of Muslims, have demonstrated a willingness to resort to violence when they feel their Prophet has been offended. The pope was not speaking ex cathedra, not pronouncing authoritatively on faith and morals. Still, he was talking about “faith,” insisting that it must never be ridiculed. “You cannot,” he declared, “insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” Though these “Shalt Nots” go too far for some, many will be inclined to agree with the pope. In a gentler world I would myself. But this is decidedly not that world.

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This seems counter-intuitive. Surely in the post-9/11 world, a world in which the blood-dimmed tide of theological passion has been loosed, it would make all the more sense not to intensify those passions. One strand of the Enlightenment interprets free speech as universal tolerance, including the acceptance of everyone’s right to practice his or her own religion on its own terms, with its own codes and beliefs. But another strand of the Enlightenment—reflecting the same reaction to the preceding century or more of religious conflict, obscurantism, and superstition—is radically secular, and therefore more likely to be dismissive than tolerant of religion in general, especially those creeds whose adherents cling to what seem to secularists atavistic mores—which is to say, counter-Enlightenment values.

That’s our Enlightenment, of course: European and then transatlantic. But, as everybody knows or else should know, Islam had its own sustained enlightenment. During that 500-year period, a unique Islamic culture flourished, while, simultaneously, Muslim scholars became the saviors and conduits of much of Greek philosophy, literature, and science: a rich deposit that eventually resulted in the European Renaissance. The Islamic Golden Age, beginning in the Abbasid caliphate of the great Harun-al-Rashid (789-809) and stretching beyond the 13th century, occurred during a half-millennium when Europe was mired in what, at least in comparison with contemporaneous Muslim culture, actually were the fabled “Dark Ages.” Benjamin Disraeli once squelched in Parliament an Irish MP who had alluded to the Prime Minister’s Jewish heritage by reminding the unfortunate Celt that while “the honorable gentleman’s ancestors were living in caves and painting their bodies blue, mine were high priests in the Temple of Solomon.” Disraeli’s contrast might be applied, mutatis mutandis, to the contrast between European and Muslim civilization between, say, the 8th and the 12th centuries.

But that Golden Age of Islam is long past, replaced by a post-colonial world of vast petro-wealth for the few and abject poverty for the many. The current Muslim Middle East is beset by fundamentalist versions of Islam, protracted violence, widespread illiteracy, lack of opportunity, and the growing sense of parents that neither they, nor their children nor their grandchildren, are likely to develop the skills required to function in a modern global economy. Their region is multiply afflicted by authoritarian despotism in the oil-rich states; sectarian strife between Sunni and Shia; tribal and civil chaos; and the rise of ever-more zealous and brutal jihadists, with ISIS in particular now trying to slaughter and terrorize its way to a grotesquely distorted version of the long-lost Abbasid caliphate.

Western secularists understand, may even admire, Muslim rejection of our often sordid materialistic culture. But from the perspective of enlightened reason, fatwas and jihad are another matter. Bans on images of the Prophet can fall into the same dubious category. Such prohibitions, even if they seem excessive, are understandable to most Western observers. This likely majority would include believers, who, having their own religious faith, have no wish to insult an article of Muslim faith. It would also include secularists committed to the thread of Enlightenment thought that stresses tolerance and a respect for the beliefs of others, even those we may consider idiosyncratic.

There are, however, secular defenders of free speech for whom these prohibitions regarding images of the Prophet become intolerable when reinforced by the threat of violence. That is the camp in which I find myself, awkwardly caught on the horns of a dilemma. How can those of us defending freedom of expression in the name of secular values avoid falling into a binary opposition pitting “us” against “them? Yet what are we to do if our response to Islamist terrorism is to insist, in this matter of banned images, that our secular faith in freedom of thought and expression requires us to insult the religious beliefs not only of Islamist fanatics but of virtually all Muslims? There is no easy answer, and perhaps no middle ground, for those of us who might wish, in the name of amity and mutual respect, to honor such a ban, but resist being bullied into it by the threat of violence and death if we do not.

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Pope Francis, though adamant in condemning violence in the name of religion, advocates tolerance and respect for the “faith of others,” both as an intrinsic value and because he is the world leader of a faith he also wishes to see respected by others. One reason his recent comments received such worldwide attention is that, quite aside from being, for Catholics, the Vicar of Christ, this charismatic pope has quickly become a popular celebrity in the secular world. As such, it might be argued, his observations to intimates on a plane should be taken as just another instance of the unscripted utterances that have charmed those who share this remarkably informal pope’s vision of a less pompous pontificate—though these same spontaneous observations unnerve the Vatican Curia and send church officials scurrying to preempt any potential fallout. Forget it. Given Francis’ immense personal appeal and his spiritual prestige as pope, his comments cannot be reduced, as they were the day after by a Vatican PR spokesman, to merely “casual remarks.” His utterances all carry significant weight.

The troubling aspect of his remarks on the plane—for those who were troubled—had to do not only with those “cannots” regarding religion, but with the immediate political context in which they were pronounced. I applaud his effort to bring together rather than divide. But to condemn, as Francis did on this occasion, “insults” or “fun” directed at “faith” suggests—in the context of the politically and religiously motivated slaughter of cartoonists who did not share that reticence—a partial misreading of events, and of the issues at stake. Some, even admirers of this pope, of whom I am one, have been disturbed by what struck us as a less than full-throated condemnation of religiously-inspired violence, even if the killings in Paris represent, as they do, an “aberration of religion,” in this case, of Islam.

In his remarks on the plane, the pope—reaching out, as always, to what he calls “the peripheries”—was advocating tolerance and mutual respect rather than engaging in a debate about freedom of speech. The complicating factor, as recently noted by Timothy Garton Ash—Isaiah Berlin Fellow at Oxford and leader of the Oxford-based Free Speech Debate project—is that in our contemporary world, a world where writers and cartoonists can be murdered for engaging in religious satire, “the argument for ‘respect’ is so uncomfortably intertwined with fear of the assassin’s veto.” But there may be safety in anonymity. Writing on January 22, Ash proposed, as a way of “Defying the Assassin’s Veto” (New York Review of Books, February 19, 2015), the establishment of a “safe haven”: a website “specifically dedicated to republishing and making accessible to the widest readership offensive images that are of genuine news interest, but which, for a variety of reasons, many journals, online platforms, and broadcasters would hesitate to publish on their own.”

Fully aware of the “no-holds-barred French genre of caricature as practiced by Charlie Hebdo,” Ash does not expect widespread endorsement of the often grossly outrageous satirical attacks the magazine has long launched against a wide spectrum of religious and political figures. Nor does he glibly charge with “cowardice” those editors around the world who, dealing with genuinely difficult choices, elected not to republish the Charlie Muhammad cartoons. But he does applaud Nick Cohen’s refreshingly frank observation, made during a panel discussion at The Guardian (which did not reprint the original cartoons though it did publish, a week later, Charlie Hebdo’s memorial cover, depicting a weeping Muhammad saying “all is forgiven”). Cohen said: “If you are frightened, at least have the guts to say that. The most effective form of censorship is one that nobody admits exists.” As if in response, the Financial Times columnist Robert Shrimsley wrote the following day, “I am not Charlie, I am not brave enough.”

“I am not Charlie” prose quickly became, as Ash remarks, a “subgenre.” In his January 9 NY Times column, “Why I Am Not Charlie Hebdo,” conservative commentator David Brooks made several characteristically sensible points; but not, it seems to me, when it came to what he thought the “motivation” behind the French people’s “lionizing” of Charlie Hebdo. The mass response in Paris and elsewhere had to do, not so much with approval of the offending cartoons; nor even with approval of Charlie Hebdo’s laudable exposure (one of the traditional targets of satire in Rabelais, Molière and Voltaire) of the use and abuse of religion by hypocrites and fanatics. The marchers were “motivated” by a felt need to defend freedom of expression, to champion liberté, rightly seen as under direct assault by the forces of ignorance, religious bigotry, and militant fanaticism.

The perspective of the pope, as of David Brooks, seems to be shared by most media outlets, which had, until recently, refused to reproduce the “inflammatory” cartoons for the general public. True; free speech is not unlimited. There are considerations of sensitivity, respect for the feelings or beliefs of others. And there is the question of public safety: one mustn’t, to cite the usual cliché, shout “fire” in a crowded theater. In addition, especially in the U. S., many—left, right and center—are quite willing to sacrifice freedom of expression when it comes to voices they disagree with, ranging from speech codes on campuses and college committees disinviting controversial speakers, to attempts to ban flag-burning. And, to cite an example mingling outrage, bias, politics, and self-censorship, there is about as much chance of hearing a favorable word about Israeli policy in the UN General Assembly as there is of hearing a disparaging one in the U. S. Congress.

The crucial question posed by the onboard remarks of Pope Francis has to do with his specific defense of religion set in the specific context of a contemporary world threatened, not by Islam, but by radicalized Islamists ardent to participate—as organized terrorists, as affiliates of al Qaeda and its various offshoots, or as lone wolves—in some form of jihad. Religion’s defense of itself against freedom of speech is nothing new, as attested to by the pitiless but pious burning of “heretics” at the stake; the cherum (ritual of expulsion) pronounced against the noble Spinoza, cursed, damned and driven from his synagogue; the imprisonment of writers and thinkers charged with “blasphemy.” The old lethality resurfaced dramatically in 1989. In the year the Soviet Empire collapsed (fittingly, the 200th anniversary of the start of the French Revolution), Ayatollah Khomeini issued his notorious fatwa against Salman Rushdie for the irreverent (but brilliant and very funny) chapter on Muhammad’s wives in his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses.

Though they joined in deploring the death-sentence against the author, the Vatican of John Paul II, the archbishop of New York (John Cardinal O’Connor), the archbishop of Canterbury, and the principal Sephardic rabbi of Israel also united in taking a stand against “blasphemy.” Pope Francis, not given to dogmatic pronouncements, did not use the word “blasphemy.” But, like Francis now, all these leaders insisted in 1989 that “there is a limit to free expression” when it comes to religion. I may seem to be having it both ways: acknowledging that Francis did not refer to “blasphemy” and at the same time making him guilty by association with those who have employed this term. Not quite.

But the pope does seem to me guilty of mixing messages and muddying the waters by using the occasion of the murderous attacks on Charlie Hebdo to inform us all that we must always be respectful, and “never make fun” of anyone’s “faith,” at the very moment he is also telling us (listen up, ye cartoonists and satirists!) that we and they have to “expect” retaliation of some sort when we violate that taboo. The pope was speaking off-the-cuff and with the best intentions. Nevertheless, this is a taboo he shares, in however benign a form, with most orthodox Muslims and, alas, with Islamist terrorists. In a more formal imprimatur of the “casual” assertion of Francis that “you cannot insult” or “make fun of the faith of others,” there has been a recent joint declaration by leading imams and the Vatican strongly urging the media to “treat religions with respect.”

That may seem reasonable and civilized, but in our particular historical-political context, such respect, normally to be encouraged and embraced, presents a threat to both reason and civilization. Conscious of the secular challenge to Christianity as well as to Islam, but fully realizing that a robust defense of freedom of expression (in practice rather than mere theory) virtually requires secularists to risk insulting Muslims, Pope Francis insists that religion must invariably be treated with respect. Like Timothy Garton Ash, I attribute the self-censorship seen in most media around the world less to a decent respect for the faith of others than to fear of violent retaliation. Despite the polarization it simultaneously reflects and intensifies, my own position, succinctly stated, comes down to this: a conviction that it’s precisely the threat of terrorism that makes it incumbent on the West to refuse to sacrifice its deepest value, freedom, to uncritically “respecting” religion—especially when the particular religion in question seeks to blackmail the rest of the world into “respecting” (under some “only-to-be-expected” threat of death) its own ban on images of the Prophet. That prohibition derives, by the way, not from the Qur’an, but from the Hadith, posthumous tales of Muhammad’s life. Ironically enough, Muslim scholars often cite a passage in the Hebrew Bible in which Abraham (whose father, Terah, was a manufacturer of idols) declares the worship of “images” a manifest “error.” The further irony is that the Islamic ban, intended to discourage the worship of idols, has turned the prohibited images, these absent presences, into another and potentially lethal form of idolatry.

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Current Muslim resentment and, in its most toxic form, Islamist terrorism, have been fueled by Western colonialism and, more recently, by U. S. military intervention in the Middle East. The colonialist legacy has been, for the most part, unambiguously negative, culturally and politically. In economic terms, the victims of colonialism had imposed upon them an imported labor market management model that encouraged a race to the bottom in pursuit of comparative advantage in cheap labor. Through conquest, and with the strokes of various pens, Western colonialism created states that were less “nations” than multi-cultural entities, subject to authoritarian despots in varying degrees initially subservient to Western interests: kings and shahs and presidents-for-life propped up by the oil-thirsty West, and who, even when they asserted their independence, tended to brutally oppress their own people. In several Middle Eastern states, people ripe for revolution rose up in the exhilarating but tragically short-lived Arab Spring. That revolution, like so many others (notably including the great French Revolution itself), consumed its own idealistic children, and what emerged, or re-emerged, was military dictatorship, Islamic extremism, and another wave of emigration from North Africa and the Middle East to Europe. And some of those immigrants, especially but not only in France, became a fifth column: poor, unassimilated, embittered, and therefore susceptible to the siren call to jihad. From their ranks came the killers who lashed out at the “blasphemous” cartoonists in Paris.

In a Le Moyne College open discussion of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, four faculty presenters explored “issues behind and exposed by the murders,” murders “no one could accept.” As the organizer, history professor Bruce Erickson, rightly insisted: “we do not defend the terrorists, or justify the murderers, or reject the Enlightenment, if we ask questions about how to integrate the multi-cultural world and nations that we created through colonialism.” Though most Muslim immigrants to the United States have assimilated well, many living in France and other Western European countries have not, some choosing to self-segregate. Though the “no-go zones,” alleged Muslim enclaves governing themselves under Sharia law, turned out to be a myth, subsequently recanted by its perpetuators at Fox News, this hardly diminishes the problem, nor does it sever the connection between the colonialist past and the terrorist present. The French failure to integrate the children and grandchildren of immigrants generated just the sort of recruits who became the murderers who attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo.

As an explanation of Islamic radicalism, these recent colonial developments, though crucial, may be more symptomatic than causal. The deep roots of jihad (whether interpreted as internal struggle or as external battle against the infidel) are to be found in the “sword-passages” of the Qur’an; and the historical expansion of Islamic extremism came with the transformation of large elements of a once relatively open and intellectually dynamic faith, the Islam of the Golden Age, into puritanical sects—primarily but not exclusively Wahhabism. That, of course, is the narrow-minded brand of Islam (a main source as well of much of the treatment of women and gays deplored in the West) globally disseminated through madrassas funded primarily by our “moderate” friend and supposed ally in the region, oil-rich Saudi Arabia.

To trace Islamic radicalization exclusively to Western provocations would be to “infantilize” Muslims, to hold them utterly blameless for their own actions. In saying that past European colonialism and more recent U.S. intervention have “fueled” Muslim resentment, my point (to flesh out the metaphor) is that these Western phenomena have fed, fanned, and intensified the flames of radicalization and reactionary terrorism. Hardly a complete explanation, let alone an excuse, for Islamist extremism, the impact of this history seems incontrovertible. I have already referred to the cumulative, corrosive legacy of the old colonialism; but here are examples of obvious Islamic reaction to Western provocations.

The original Muslim Brotherhood was reacting to colonialist secularization in Egypt. The Iranian theocracy established in 1979 by the Ayatollah Khomeini sealed the revolution against the secularist Shah, installed in 1953, after the coup against the legitimately-elected Mossadegh government: a coup engineered by petroleum-protecting British Intelligence, and orchestrated with a reluctant but still complicit American CIA. Osama bin Laden founded al Qaeda in reaction to the presence of U. S. troops in “holy” Arabia in preparation for the first (for many of us, the “justifiable”) Gulf War. And over the past decade and a half thousands of jihadists have specifically attributed their radicalization to U.S actions, whether in actual conflict and the carrying out of drone strikes, or in response to the pointless atrocities of Abu Ghraib and to the more systematic employment of torture in CIA “black sites.” The al Qaeda terrorist attacks of 9/11 preceded the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but came after our first Gulf War. And jihadism intensified and metastasized in the wake of our duplicitous, inept, and counterproductive 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld has proven to be prophetic. In one of his myriad “snowflake” memos, the then Secretary of Defense feared that we “might generate more terrorists than we could kill.”

Given the role of the West in, not creating, but certainly exacerbating, Islamic extremism, it is worth noting that the ban on images of the Prophet intensified during the early period of European colonization when Muslims were most anxious to differentiate their religion from “image-worshiping” Christianity. The prohibition is particularly stressed by Saudi Wahhabism and Iran’s clerical theocracy. Because of the impact of these most puritanical forms of Islam, what is for most Muslims anti-iconic “respect” becomes, for many of us in the West, an idiosyncratic, irrational, regressive, and intolerant shibboleth regarding “images of the Prophet.” And yet it is a ban we are to “respect,” not on the moral grounds of sensitivity to the beliefs of others, but under compulsion: the “assassin’s veto,” the clear and present danger of retribution, including fatwa and death.

Many, probably most, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus wish to be respectful of the beliefs of others and tolerant of difference. When the stakes are as high as they are now, however, this misplaced “tolerance” gives at least the appearance of justifying ignorance and barbarism by labeling religion’s satirists disrespectful, for some, blasphemous. With the advent of contemporary Islamist extremism, the old tensions between the religious and the secular and between freedom and limitation of expression have taken on a new urgency, becoming, literally, matters of life and death. Making fun of faith can put you in the grave.

The pope’s point about predictable retaliation, given the history of the past few decades, is non-controversial. But instead of stating the obvious, that some sort of reaction was “to be expected,” he ought to have questioned how things have come to this pass. Such a discussion would have included the background (Western colonialism), but should also have made it clear that, whatever the oppressive historical circumstances in which it evolved and to which it is reacting, Islamist extremism in its current militant form deserves to be criticized, and needs to be resisted. However flawed the West may be, civilization is preferable to barbarism.

Of course, resisting religious extremism can produce, as unthinking backlash, its own form of religious extremism. To shift from the charge that criticism of religion is “blasphemous,” consider the following manifestation of religious fanaticism, this time Christian, from a Fox News radio host and Fox News TV “contributor.” In recently attacking critics of the box-office blockbuster American Sniper, dramatizing the 160-kill exploits of sharpshooter Chris Kyle in Iraq, Todd Starnes announced that “Jesus would love” the film and would personally thank snipers for dispatching “godless” Muslims to the “lake of fire.”[1]

Far from invoking Jesus to justify violence against Muslims, Pope Francis called for “respect” toward Islam, and, indeed, all religions. In defending religion, theirs and others, from criticism, some Christian and Jewish leaders have invoked the specter of “blasphemy.” To his credit, as earlier mentioned, Francis did not employ that incendiary term, and he was right to refrain. Rather than join them in leveling the charge, we should leave such labeling to the thoughtless defenders of their particular faith, to God-and-country jingoists and to Islamist fanatics.

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It’s not necessary to applaud the often scurrilous Charlie Hebdo cartoons in order to defend the cartoonists’ freedom of expression. Unlike American satire (aside from two of its greatest practitioners, Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken), French satire has a long history of being anti-religious and anti-clerical, as well as being offensive—savagely and equally—across the board, skewering every sacred cow in sight. French satire, like the French state itself, is fiercely secular, as is most of post-World War II Western Europe. This is precisely why the previous pope, the conservative Benedict XVI, was so determined to re-Christianize Western Europe. And this is why the French people and their leaders came out in such numbers in the immediate aftermath of the lethal assault on Charlie Hebdo. Aside from expressing outrage against these particular religiously-inspired murders and this specific assault on free speech, the French marchers were defending their twin, and notably secular, heritages: the Enlightenment and the Revolution—at least the Idea of the Revolution, stain-free, the bloody guillotines of the Jacobin Terror conveniently repressed.

But despite the heartening response in the streets of Paris and elsewhere, rallying in support of Charlie Hebdo (like many others, I wondered where President Obama was, or at least Biden or Kerry), the Islamists have already won to the extent that almost everybody else in the world was, at least initially, too “terrified” to even reproduce the Charlie Muhammad cartoons—just as they were too afraid of violent retaliation to reproduce the famous “Danish cartoons” in 2005. And thereby hangs a cautionary tale about the threat of lethal violence. Though many Danish papers republished the Charlie Hebdo images, they were, significantly, not reproduced in Jyllands-Posten, where the original “Danish cartoons” had appeared. Citing the paper’s “unique position,” and concerned for employees’ safety, the paper’s foreign editor, Flemmings Rose—hardly a coward, indeed, the very man who had commissioned those Muhammad cartoons a decade earlier—candidly admitted to the BBC: “We caved in,” adding that “Violence works,” and that “sometimes the sword is mightier than the pen.” One understands his caution, and the dangerous alternative. But there is an even greater danger in surrendering the pen to the sword. Islamists, whose preferred method of terrifying infidels and recruiting fresh jihadists is the publicly exhibited decapitation of prisoners (or, most recently, burning them alive), may, paradoxically, have made it necessary to be religiously offensive in order to defend the Western concept of freedom, now faced with a challenge as theocratic as it is political.

Not showing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, or labeling them offensive, insulting, or, worse yet, “blasphemous,” is no longer simply a matter of “good taste” or “respect for others.” In the context of a growing threat by Islamist extremists—ranging from self-appointed jihadists to organized armed forces aiming to establish by the sword a new Islamic caliphate—such normally laudable sensitivity becomes, instead, a caving-in to intimidation by fanatics. The momentarily most ruthless of them (ISIS or ISIL) is determined, in God’s name (Allahu akbar!), not only to forcibly install an “Islamic State” in the heart of the Middle East, but to repeal the Enlightenment and the modern world.

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5

One can make nuanced arguments against both the Enlightenment and modernity, but NOT when the alternatives are irrationality, atavism, and—for unbelieving secularists—superstition. In the end, in the view of skeptics, the leaders of organized religions, Francis included, are in the business of defending their vested interests, their own particular accumulations of doctrine, tradition, and (for agnostics and atheists) “superstition.” But believers who are not fanatics have a particular responsibility to be unequivocal in condemning religious fanaticism.

No one in the world is better positioned to do so than this deservedly popular pope. The emphases and values that dominate his papacy were forged in the 1970s. When, in 1973, Jorge Bergogli became Provincial Superior of the Jesuit order in Argentina, he distanced himself from a Catholic hierarchy that had acquiesced in the brutal repression by the military junta; intensified his compassionate and Jesuit commitment to the poor; and, while avoiding direct confrontation of the military regime, struggled (in the words of Eamon Duffy, Emeritus Professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge) “to reconcile the demands of justice and compassion for those suffering atrocity with the need to preserve the order’s institutions and mission and to save Jesuit lives” (the later accusation that he betrayed politically radical Jesuits to the junta is baseless slander). As cardinal, he exercised the same wise leadership and again stressed compassionate concern for the poor.[2]

As pope, taking his name from Francis of Assisi (a notably humble saint cherished for his protective love of the earth and of animals, and for his ministry to the poor), the former provincial and cardinal has, true to both his Jesuit heritage and to the spirit of his chosen name, continued his own focus on the poor and wretched of the earth. In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, on the joy and true meaning of the gospel, he pointedly denounced, to the annoyance of many conservatives, the “economics of exclusion.” He has also emphasized the dangers to the environment presented by global climate change, and even speculated that there might be a place in heaven for animals: a charming thought of which the original Francis might approve, but which doctrinally-concerned Vatican spokesmen felt the need to quickly walk back. In his first Holy Week as pope, Francis performed the solemn Maundy Thursday foot-washing ceremony not, as usual, in the Lateran Basilica but in an institution housing young offenders. He washed and kissed the feet of a dozen prisoners, one of them (though this was, traditionally, a males-only ritual) a Muslim woman, a gesture that, as Eamon Duffy notes, “predictably scandalized the liturgists and canon lawyers.”

As practiced by this pope, the imitatio Christi, following the example of Jesus, differs from the emphasis of sin-obsessed Augustine, and even from the focus on the interior life and withdrawal from the world of Thomas à Kempis in his 15th-century devotional book Imitatio Christi. This Francis follows his namesake, stressing the path of Jesus, born in a manger, preaching to the poor, practicing humility. Unlike his two immediate predecessors, who tended to treat opposition as “dissent,” Francis has been humble and conciliar in conducting meetings, encouraging a frank expression of views. In opening the Synod on the Family in October 2014, he told the bishops that, in discussing what were certain to be controversial issues, no one should be silent or conceal his true opinion, “perhaps believing that the Pope might think something else.” During the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, deviation from the official line had courted reprimand, even removal. Thus, as Eamon Duffy emphasizes: “For a pope to encourage fearless public outspokenness among the bishops was a startling novelty.” [3]

Given that attitude, one might have expected, if not quite “encouragement,” at least greater “respect” for the “fearless public outspokenness” exhibited by the massacred Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. At the very least, the pope, a remarkably empathetic man pastorally sensitive to suffering, might have displayed greater tact by mourning the dead a bit longer, before admonishing us, with the bodies not yet buried, to always “respect” religion and never “make fun of the faith of others.”

But here, the admirable Francis fell short. At least as viewed from the perspective of a secularist committed to virtually uninhibited freedom of expression—not least when it comes to religion. But that is not the only perspective, and not—as is hardly necessary to add—one shared by Francis. As pope, he is necessarily a man to double business bound, at once a condemner of violence and a defender of religion—any religion, since, in his view, none deserves to be insulted. That includes, of course, his own religion. Just as he had protected the Argentinian Jesuits in his care in the 1970s, so it is his duty now, though a reformer critical of some of its salient shortcomings, to protect the church as a whole.

On that papal plane, in responding to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and to the retaliatory murders that followed, Francis was talking common sense, decency, civility, and mutual respect. That’s all to the good. In a chaotic world of already inflamed religious-political passions, his intention was obviously to condemn the murders in Paris without adding fuel to the fire. But his equanimity was not altogether disinterested. In asserting his own ban—“You cannot make fun of the faith of others”—the pope was also defending the Company Store: the Roman Catholic branch of a global theological enterprise. In that sense, and to that extent, he was aligning himself, not with the massacred humorists, but with their murderers: fanatics who had killed the cartoonists precisely for “making fun” of the fanatics’ own distorted version of Islam.

Like politics, theology can make strange bedfellows. But far more than this momentary convergence of interests would be required to bridge the moral abyss stretching between Pope Francis and murderers. That would be especially true of murderers who violate his own deeply-held conviction that “to kill in the name of God is an absurdity. ” For him, what happened in Paris was the commission of a supposedly religious act that is, in fact, an “aberration” of the religion and of most of the teachings of the Prophet in whose name they claim to act.

Acknowledgment

Though I learned from the previously-mentioned Le Moyne open forum on the roots of, and responses to, the Charlie Ebdo murders, this essay was originally generated by a casual but serious email exchange with three friends, all Le Moyne graduates: Scott, Jack, and Markus. Some reservations of the latter about the initial draft were incorporated in the revised version. My thanks: to Jack in general, and, on this particular occasion, to Scott, for sending along the AP item that started us off. I’m particularly grateful to Markus, for critically reading the first draft and helping to sharpen and clarify my thoughts, not all of which he will endorse. The same is true of Bruce Erickson, the organizer of the Le Moyne forum, who, along with the four faculty presenters, enriched my understanding. Bruce also responded to my penultimate draft, thoughtfully, graciously, and productively challenging my position.

—Patrick J. Keane

January/ February 2015

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Patrick J Keane smaller

Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. I have two problems with the well-made American Sniper, one political, one cinematic. Once we are in Iraq, we see Chris Kyle skillfully picking off targets, all of whom, he is certain, are “terrorists” and (as described in his book) “savages.” They were enemies, and in killing 160 of them, Chris Kyle saved the lives of countless American troops; he is a “hero.” Yet many of those he killed do not fit into either of Chris’s categories. But back up: how do we get to Iraq? That political quandary is solved by cinematic legerdemain. In an early domestic scene, Chris and his wife are watching on TV the collapse of the smoldering Twin Towers. A sudden cut, and we are instantly transported to combat, not in Afghanistan, but in Iraq! The effect, intentional or not on Clint Eastwood’s part, is to “fuel” (there’s that verb again) or, rather, refuel, the myth (peddled above all by Dick Cheney) that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved in 9/11 and was also harboring al Qaeda. In short, the invasion of Iraq, whatever our fears about WMD, is still being sold to a gullible or manipulated public as justified retaliation for 9/11. If it’s good enough for a hero like Chris, it should be good enough for us.
  2. Duffy, “Who is the Pope?” New York Review of Books (February 19, 2015), p. 12.
  3. The most celebrated demotion by Francis has been that of Raymond Cardinal Burke, removed as head of the church’s supreme court, the Apostolic Signatura. A conservative American traditionalist and harsh critic of the “confusing” doctrinal views of the new pope, Burke had been especially “outspoken” at the Synod on the Family, and had certainly violated protocol in describing the church under Francis as “a ship without a rudder.” But he may have been sent off to a largely ceremonial post in Malta at least as much for a sartorial extravagance utterly alien to the humble spirit of this papacy. Though it was long out of favor, even before the advent of Francis, Burke habitually sported the capa magna, a twenty-foot-long train of scarlet watered silk.
Jan 112015
 

IMG_0002Michael and Kate


PART I (June 2014)

Two years ago I wrote an essay on returning to reading following the death of my wife. She was forty-four. We’d been married four years and nine months. She had breast cancer for twenty-one months. She left me with two kids (eight and eleven) and an ex-husband to negotiate. More accurately, she left her ex-husband with two kids and a second husband and step-parent to negotiate.

I intended to follow up my essay a year later with another on reading through grief, but I couldn’t manage it. The flow of grief left me unsettled to the extent that I never felt secure enough to speak. Never felt grounded, is what I mean. How could I write an essay on anything when every time I tried to put my thoughts together they shifted? Also, I had wanted to write how, one year later, I had “read through” grief, and about how I was now on the other side looking back. Except I wasn’t on the other side. Not only did I feel nowhere near the other side, I felt increasingly in ever deeper, ever more tumultuous water. For eighteen months, I felt concussed. And when those symptoms relieved, I felt something worse.

The grieved get used to people asking, “How’s it going? Better?” Things are supposed to get better. We have clichés for that. Time heals all wounds. We all know about the stages of grief. Denial. Anger. Sadness. Acceptance. As a grieved person, you are granted a certain leeway to be crazy. Emotionally overloaded. Out there. Behaving irrationally, unpredictably, outside the norm. And then you are supposed to “get over” all of that. You are supposed to acknowledge that folks have “allowed” you this period of disrupted expectations. You are supposed to be grateful how everyone has been “there for you,” which they have been, on the whole, even if it really seems that all anyone has really done is try to wait you out. Wait for you to declare, “I’m back.”

Early on I decided I was never going back. In my wife’s final months, I read The Five Ways We Grieve by Susan A. Berger and I’d absorbed the message that grief was transformative. You may respond to it in any number of ways, but you will not remain unchanged. After my wife died, I read Healing Through the Dark Emotions by Miriam Greenspan, a book recommended to me by one of my wife’s friends who’d lost her only son at age four to cancer. The transformation message was reprised there and to it was added a second: feel your feelings. Do not fear the darkness. Open your heart and mind and let the grief process carry you on its current. Healing will come in stages, and you will experience unexpected gifts.

I did experience unexpected gifts. Many involved suffering a rainbow of unremitting pain. All the better to teach you resiliency, my dear. Off in the distance a witch cackles. Ah haha. That I can write this now shows that I am released from this spell, which as I said was concussion-like. After my wife died, I chose to read Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Woolf was my wife’s favorite author, and Mrs. Dalloway was her favorite book. I’d never read it, and I chose it to honour her. Waiting for Godot called to me. I felt I was caught in an absurd, Beckettian situation. I had spent so many hours sitting in hospital waiting rooms with my wife (waiting! rooms), so many months waiting for the disease to progress or not, so many weeks, then days, then suddenly minutes at the end, waiting for death. I felt I had confronted the void, and I felt I needed Beckett. Woolf, too. (And I did.) But what next?

Michael

I once made a list of the ten to twelve books I read that first year. It’s still around the house somewhere, but I’m not going to search for it. There were as many books, likely more, I started and set aside. I fell into no rhythm, felt no progression, struggled against despair. I believed in prescribing myself books. I felt I could self-medicate with literature and get through my hard times, but while some books clicked, in general I felt myself slipping downward. Of course, downward is a literary journey, too, but I decided against attempting Dante. Early on I tried Hamlet, a tale of grief and madness, and I thought it fantastic. I read it about the same period of time after my wife’s death as the period of time between the death of Hamlet’s father and the re-marriage of his mother. Too soon! Holy smokes! I also re-read T.S. Eliot’s essay on Hamlet and thought (again) that he was full of it. The capture of Hamlet by chaos and his urgent need for sense, pattern and meaning gripped me as perfectly sensible. Order had been overthrown, and what was it now?

In my own life, I had lost my role as husband and my role as a step-father became severely ambiguous. The children continue to spend time with me, but half what they spent before. The three of us were the ones closest to their mother, and we have a bond that has been forged in fire and is unbreakable, and my separation from them terrified me. If we can make it through seven more years, and get the youngest one out of high school, then we will have achieved something remarkable. It once seemed barely plausible. Now it seems more likely.

Levi

I decided to read Primo Levi. I started with The Periodic Table. I loved it. I wanted to stay with him forever. I thought, “This is what you do when you confront the void. You turn it into something like this.” Years earlier I had read Philip Roth’s interview with Levi. That was my only previous exposure to him. One of my wife’s friends had also told us a story about professional advice she’d received to help her deal with a toxic work environment. The advice was: read Holocaust literature. The premise was: it will make your toxic work environment seem less severe. At least that was her interpretation. I said, “Maybe it means your work is comparable to a concentration camp.” Except, of course, no mass murder. I had both interpretations in my mind when I started reading Levi. I had found the cancer period Beckettian, and the death administration equally so. Again and again I was confronted with the absurdities of our bureaucratic modernism. Trying to deal with my wife’s estate, I tried to process a cheque through the bank, but they wouldn’t do it. I complained to customer service, and got a lecture on the phone from a woman who explained to me that bank policy trumped the law. “We need to protect our customers,” she said. I explained to her that her customer was dead, and I was her husband and executor and that I WAS THE ONE who was responsible for protecting her, and the she was in fact thwarting her customer’s interests. No dice. I lost. I had to find another way of cashing the cheque.

Now that, it’s clear, isn’t a concentration type problem. No. Never. But the gift of Levi is his incredible ability to classify behaviours and identify sub-strata of groups within groups. Even in this darkest of dark environments, the concentration camp, the lager, Levi shows how meaning can be made and maintained, and how victims can create victims. As he notes, the survivors survived because often they were the ones who were able to find an advantage. An extra bowl of soup. An extra piece of bread. Avoiding beatings. Levi himself survived because of his chemistry training. He was put to work in a lab, and even then barely made it out alive. The Periodic Table is framed around chemistry. Each chapter is named after an element. It tells the story of his early life, his chemistry training, the rising anti-Jewish restrictions in Italy, his budding romances, his radicalization, capture and transport to the camp. The camp itself, and later liberation, his return to professional chemistry, and his interactions with Germans, both through his work at a paint factory and through his writings. What a profound life. What a profound contribution to humanity.

After reading The Periodic Table, I read The Drowned and the Saved, which I also found moving, but not as brilliant as The Periodic Table. I started to read Survival in Auschwitz, but put it down after a couple of dozen pages. My interest had shifted. I felt that Levi had given me as much as I could get from him at that time. I reflected on the horrible bureaucracy of the camps, the savage efficiency they implemented, and the homicidal logic they represented. Going through the healthcare system with my wife, we had often remarked, “You’re just a number.” When sit in the waiting (!) room, anticipating your five minutes with the world class specialist, lining up your questions, and wondering what koan he’s going to drop on you for the next week or three until you see him again, you remind yourself that he doesn’t know you. He doesn’t know your life, your ambitions, your dreams, or anything more about you than the list of numbers he sees on your chart, your blood work results, your hormone levels, your this and that and you don’t even know what because they won’t tell you. In the camps, though, you literally were a number, and it was tattooed on your arm, and the purpose of the camp was to kill you, while the purpose of the hospital is to save you. Except for many, they don’t. For my wife, they didn’t. After her mastectomy, back in her hospital room, she said, “I wonder where my breast is now,” and I said, “I know where it is. It’s in the lab.” Because that’s where the doctor had said it would be, to analyze the cells, and include the results in their database and research project. They had asked her permission to do this, of course, but that didn’t make her any less a statistic and a research subject. Catch-22. As a patient you want the benefit of that research, but as a patient you also want your doctor to see you as a human being. Sometimes this happened, and other times, not so much.

For eighteen months I felt concussed, but when that lifted, I felt worse. What was going on? Emotionally over-whelmed. Exhausted. I had survived the cancer period with the help of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety pills, sedatives, blood pressure meds, extra strength Tylenol, beer, wine, gin of increasing proportions. Little by little, I let go of those. The anti-depressants first, then the blood pressure meds. The need for Tylenol diminished. I cut the sedative dose in half. I tried to cut back on the drinking. I kept the anti-anxiety pills in reserve. I went to grief counselling. “Remember you have a body,” the counsellor said. You can’t think your way out of this. Like Miriam Greenspan said, feel your feelings. I wrote a blog throughout this period. I tried to chart my changing emotions. I felt I was getting better. I’m not sure I was getting better, only changing. I couldn’t convince myself that my wife was gone. I knew she was dead, but she felt present. I cried daily, often in sharp painful jags. They were just about the only thing that offered any relief.

What was going on? I had absorbed a blow so powerful, the bruise was taking months and months to work its way out. My head was a cloudy mess. I couldn’t anticipate a future. I tried to write new fiction, but I couldn’t. I could barely read, and often I couldn’t. Television struck me as trivial and dull. The news attracted me not at all. In her final months, my wife had spent a lot of time playing Scrabble on the ipad. I couldn’t even open that application, but I sat most evenings and weekends (when the kids weren’t here) plugging away at various online strategy games. And then I downloaded Candy Crush Saga. The distance between The Periodic Table and Candy Crush Saga, I’m here to tell you, isn’t as vast as it first seems. The attraction, in fact, was similar. At least in my case. Each both excited and calmed my mind, took the random and chaotic and led it into patterns, filled up the time on the clock. Time heals all wounds, the cliché says. Not so, but wounds do need time to heal. Some lots of time, months, even years. As I am relieved from one wound, I seem to confront yet another and then another. Through the cancer period, we looked only forward, never back, and it was a horrible time that we filled with much joy (because we were alive and together and it was our mission), and at first I thought my wound was her death, but after eighteen months I realized that it was also the way she had died. Just the other day, while I was at work in the office, I found myself asking: “Dear God, Why? If you had wanted to take her, why didn’t you just take her? Why did she need to suffer so first?” Thinking like this, makes me think the comparison to the concentration camps isn’t so misplaced. Except one is an act of God, and the other an act of Man.

In March 2014, I felt violent palpitations remembering her mastectomy surgery in March 2011. The memories came upon me suddenly, unexpectedly. I tried to puzzle out why. I had violent images of her scar and “drainage tubes” and her pain and struggle to overcome the loss of muscle under her arm also removed. At the time, we had remained calm, focused, constructive, forward-looking. In 2012, we hadn’t been looking back. Things for her we so much worse. In 2013, I had only been thinking about 2012, her last months, the process of her dying. In 2014, my memory took me back to 2011. I felt ill. I took a couple of days off work. I felt violently shaken with disbelief that they had cut her breast off. Oh my fucking God! What savagery is that!? And we had just let it happen. We had been glad that it happened. We had praised the good work of the surgeon. What a clean, beautiful scar line! All of this seemed impossible to me now. No way. How horrible all of that was. How abnormal. How perverse. What knots we tied ourselves in to make it all seem permissible. No. It was brutal and horrible and a lasting terror. And then, as quickly as they had come, those dark feelings lifted.

I read three J.G. Ballard novels in the first year after my wife died, and one more in the second. First three: Concrete Island, The Day of Creation, Super-Cannes. The forth: Millennium People. I had read Cocaine Nights previously, and some of his short stories. I had a sense that Ballard would be good to read, and he was. Why?

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PART II (Nov 2014)

It is now over four months since I wrote the first part of this essay, and I have not written a word towards answering that one word question. Life intervened, and also writing the first part of this essay exhausted me. Reading it recently, I was surprised by the anger it contains. I remembered it as “cool” and “dispassionate,” but it is nothing of the sort. I had written about my wife, Kate, without naming her, a distancing strategy. Coming to terms with grief requires a distancing strategy. It is a distancing strategy. Letting go of the past. Trying to get up some momentum for the future.

In September I attended a three-day “Camp Widow” conference in Toronto. Organized by Soaring Spirits International, a California-based grief support organization, this event brought together 120 widowed individuals (110 women, 10 men) and offered a variety of workshops, seminars and peer support opportunities. I wasn’t sure I would like it. I wasn’t sure I would get anything out of it. But I did like it, and I did get a renewed sense of vigor and momentum out of it. Primarily, it helped me realign my heart and my head, accept that I am a widower now, and a widower forever, and understand, perhaps for the first time, that moving on does not require letting go.

I mean, I knew that. I was living that. But this is where the peer support was so important. In my life, I have no peers. I know no one my age who has lost a spouse. People my age tell me things like, “Divorce is like a death.” And they tell me how horrible it was to lose a parent. These events are horrible, and painful, but these people are not my peers. I go to work day after day and try to be a productive person, but my sense of belonging in my life is shattered. Everyone wants me to get “back to normal,” but there is no normal to go back to. If I have a new normal, it will be something I need to build out of the shattered remains of my former life. “Camp Widow” made that crystal clear.

J.G. Ballard was a widower. His wife died in 1964, suddenly from pneumonia, leaving him to raise three children. Of course, he had also spent part of his childhood in a prisoner of war camp in Shanghai. His novels chart the shattered remains of the (post-)modern world. Life after the catastrophe. If Levi was life within (and after) the catastrophe, Ballard is also charting “after the end.” I felt at home in these novels, which are more often read as pre-apocalyptic visions, but I think that’s a misreading. One paraphrase I read in a book on grief noted Heidegger said it was best to live as if the end had already come. This is exactly how I felt after Kate died. Where was I? How could she suddenly be gone? How could we be separated? That wasn’t supposed to happen. What was this place, without her? It wasn’t the world I had known. It was a place “after the end.” I felt pain, but I also felt free in a way I had never felt before. I could do anything, anything at all, and yet all I wanted to do was nothing. Just sit in front of a fire in the woods and poke at it with a stick.

I told these thoughts to a friend, and he told me about Walter Benjamin and his Angel of History:

A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

I believe I had said to my friend that Kate’s death had freed me into a land of infinite choice, and yet I felt powerless. The world rumbled on, and I watched it in horror, wondering why it was full of shit. Violence. Madness. Degradation of such variety it was impossible to keep up. None of this was necessary, and yet none of it could be stopped. I seemed to have a front row seat and an awareness heightened beyond anything I had ever experienced. Propelled backwards into the future, we go. Fuck ya.

Ballard

Concrete Island (1973) is a retelling of Robinson Crusoe, except the island is a traffic island lost in a sea of traffic lanes and overpasses. It’s a slim book, and if I wasn’t specifically interested in Ballard I don’t think I would have picked it up, but it gripped me. A middle-aged man on his way home from a rendez vous with his mistress goes over the barrier in his fancy car, rolls down a hill and is trapped in an odd parallel universe, which is within reality and also outside of it. He discovers the island has other denizens, a self-supporting ecosystem, and no way to escape. His expectations of life are fundamentally and suddenly altered, and he must adjust, or die. I identified with that.

The Day of Creation (1987) is also an “after the end” novel. The action takes place in Central Africa, a parched and desert-like place. An Englishman, Doctor Mallory, goes on a Heart of Darkness-type quest after a mysterious river is suddenly sprung free from the earth. In a chaotic world, ruled by paramilitaries, bureaucrats and a freelance television crew, Mallory brakes free and leads all and sundry upriver, seeking its source. There’s some high adventure in this one, but also lots about a world under stress from capitalism, militarism, technological expansion and, let’s just say it, men. The mystery of the natural world is set against all of this. The power of women and girls, too. The new great river. The land mass of the African continent. A wild, post-pubescent, silent girl, who enters carrying a gun, and is equally terrifying and heartbreaking. The novel quickly reveals the foolhardiness of those who think they “know” anything about anything. Propelled backwards into the future, we go. Fuck ya.

Super-Cannes (2000) takes us into a world of ultra-capitalism and a different kind of desert, a kind of intentional community, though it is built for Forbes 500 companies, not 1960s back of the landers. It is also a post-catastrophe novel, in this case a murder rampage which had disturbed the perfectly controlled, micro-managed village just before the arrival of the protagonists, a husband and wife. She is the new doctor (replacing the doctor turned mass murderer), and her husband is the narrator, who has a lot of free time to investigate the goings on of his new surroundings. The genre explored here is whodunit? Or more precisely, whydunit? The plot thickens and thickens, as our hero is introduced to the reigning psychiatrist, who explains the theory and practice of the super village. It is designed to take care of its residents’ every need, so that they can be as productive as possible, and rake in the dough for the multinationals who are paying all of the bills. Taking care of everyone’s needs leads to an unexpected result. Folks are bored. All work and no play, it turns out, isn’t healthy, and the dark side of the soul needs to be exercised. So the folks organize under-the-cover-of-darkness vandalism brigades. Plus much more. I didn’t identify with the plot here, not in a “post-grief” way. But the undercurrent of swirling chaos felt very real. It made me think of the cancer period. It made me think of the dark truths hidden by systems.

Millennium People (2003) continues down this path. The action is set in contemporary England. A bomb has gone off at Heathrow, in the arrivals luggage area. The protagonist is a senior psychologist and his ex-wife is among those killed by the bomb. Through his job, he becomes involved in the investigation, but he begins his own independent research as well, getting drawn deeper and deeper into a shadowy world of domestic terrorism and anti-capitalist rebellion. The book contains an enlarged critique of big money and the faux surface “realities” of consumer culture and mass media. As with Super-Cannes, the plot plays with the idea that violence leads to a truer engagement with life, an idea that Ballard has returned to for decades. See, for example, Crash (1973), where characters stage car accidents for sexual pleasure. I found Millennium People to be the least satisfying of the four Ballard novels I read in this sequence. Some of the ideas felt recycled. The protagonists were starting to blur together. But the insights about an outer shell of mass media images obscuring and inner crust of essential “being” expressed what I felt to be intuitively true in my post-grief blurriness.

Being in a “liminal” world, is something Kate spoke about, as she lived with terminal cancer. Liminal = in between, life and death, here and there, fear and hope. And so on. I often felt in that space, too. Outside the main flow of life. And as I watched her die I felt as close as you can get to the other side without slipping into the void. Kate had spoken to a friend about the writing of Stephen Jenkinson, a palliative care specialist. She seemed to like what he had to say, but we didn’t talk about it much. She didn’t like to talk about dying, at least with me. She wanted us to just life, stay in our groove. But one of the things Jenkinson focuses on is fear, confronting fear, specifically. One story he tells is how most people when they confront death, aren’t actually confronting death; they’re too lost in the fear. He says that meeting death is like meeting love. You meet a new lover and at first you confront feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. Is this going to work out? Can I actually connect with that person? And you go through those emotions, and then you connect with love. Connecting with death is the same, he says. And that describes what I felt, waiting, watching Kate get sicker, knowing that death would come soon, but never really sure when. Months, then weeks, then days. Imminently.

Five days before she died we were at the hospital for the last time, and her bloodwork was terrible. The numbers were not good, and she knew what that meant. She said, “I guess this is it.” Later, she asked me what my biggest fear was. I said it wasn’t that she was going to die. I wasn’t afraid about that. Now, reflecting on then, I’m stunned. We were there with death and we were both, “Oh, well. I guess it’s really going to happen.” The fears I had were about what would happen after she died. I told her that, but I also told her that I knew she didn’t want to discuss any of that with me. She didn’t. We sat in the sun outside the hospital, and I told her I wished we could just stay there forever. It wasn’t the disease that was the problem; it was time. We said some other things to each other also. It was really beautiful. Then we had to go home and re-enter reality and play the drama out. Three days later she was no longer speaking. She died two days after that.

Have I made it clear how Ballard’s multiple levels of reality felt just right to me? I hope so.

Just recently I recounted Jenkinson’s story about going through fear to get to death to my psychologist. I wanted to make the point to him that nobody told me I would have to go back through the ring of fear to get back into ordinary life. For a long time, I didn’t want anything to do with ordinary life. I liked being in the liminal space. I wanted to just stay there. It was a place full of insight, and a level of quiet peace that was sustaining, even if not fully real. But you can’t stay there. At least, I couldn’t. It’s that infernal engine of time again (another of Ballard’s obsessions, also; there’s some fantastic short stories that attack time savagely, but that’s for another…well…). Time wouldn’t let me drift in a void-like space for long, and getting back to a sense of normalcy was very, very painful. Ballard didn’t help with that. Levi, not so much, either.

I didn’t seek out novels about grief. I tried to read Murakami’s nonfiction about the sarin gas attack. I couldn’t get into it. I thought I would feel an “after the end” connection to it, but I didn’t.

On the first Valentine’s Day after Kate’s death, I bought Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000). God, I hated this book when it came out. Everyone who told me about it made it sound horrible. I found the title unforgiveable. I had tried to read a number of different Eggers titles and found them unwelcoming to my tastes. But Kate liked his stuff. And this was a novel about grief and moving through it and past it, and in a moment of perversity I bought it, then devoured it quickly. I then put it on the shelf with Kate’s other Eggers titles (her books are still separate from mine). I felt, in a way, that I had read it for her. I know that sounds weird. There was more than a little magical thinking going on. I really hated the “Dave” character, pretty much all the way through, but I also got what he was doing, and I knew that I only got it because I was going through something so, so similar. I felt that I was in a place that only I could understand, and I was having visions that were like x-rays, but I knew none of this was because of genius, and also that it was heartbreaking in a quotidian way. It was pretty simple. My wife had died when I was 43. I had been 38 when we married. Eggers was in his early twenties when both of his parents had died from cancer in short succession, leaving him with custody of his much younger brother. Holy fuck, I thought. Now that’s a raw deal. And the novel is often raw, and sometimes it’s just plain stupid, but it is a song of pain that is staggering, heartbreaking, and even, yes, at times, genius. But it still left me trapped in Jenkinson’s wall of fear.

levels-of-life

Julian Barnes lost is wife in 2008, suddenly to cancer. In 2013, he published Levels of Life, a memoir of his grief. In 2011, he published The Sense of an Ending, a novel deeply reflective of the mysteries that haunt our lives. I read both of these books in close succession in the past year, and they are each remarkable and each marked, I believe, with the sharp pain and clarity of vision that grief can bring. Levels of Life is specifically about Barnes’ own grief and he tells of hard, hurting moments, but he also gives us a magical story about balloons. It’s really amazing, how he grounds the reader with enormous weight, and also makes us feel lighter than air. This is an incredible book, and it lifted my heart. The Sense of an Ending is also an incredible book, and now that I think about it it has grief at its core also. The protagonist is an older man, reflecting on the death of a close friend when he was young. Recent events draw him back into the past, and he discovers that things he thought were so, weren’t at all. He wonders if he has made a mess of his life, but he is not without opportunities to correct it, at least partly. I bought this book at Heathrow on a visit to London, and read it in the lounge and on the plane, completing it before landing in Toronto. Both of these Barnes titles are about transition, and in the past two-and-a-half years that has been my life, over and over. Will this bloody transition ever end?

I was already feeling a new sense of something when I went to “Camp Widow,” but that experience broke open emotions I hadn’t felt in a long time. It made me realize and articulate, finally, that Kate would never leave me and that I would also move on past her, and that these two facts weren’t in contradiction. She will always be with me, but I can’t stay here, in the now, which is the past. What is that thing, that sense of an ending? Is it a different level of life? I will have my own, new future, and she will be part of it, but she also won’t be part of it. Is that what happens when you get old? You realize that the past is always with you, and nothing ever really ends?

I said to my psychologist, “Returning to ordinary life is fucking horrible. Ordinary life is fucking horrible.” I meant this in an Angel of History way, but also just: my magical powers are fading. Grief is an extraordinary emotion, and living deep in grief is an extraordinary experience. At “Camp Widow” I heard of others who had contemplated suicide, others who had succeeded. Going back through the ring of fear and re-entering ordinary life is a risky period of “time.” To let go of the magic of the grief: hard. To let go of the dreams of being with the loved one: hard. To accept the new reality of here/not here: hard. Some don’t make it. Eggers’s older sister didn’t make it. Barnes muses about suicide as an option. Levi either killed himself or died in an accidental fall. Ballard’s vision includes violence as a kind of release. I was never suicidal, but one question pounded in centre of my mind: why should I go on? Why, without her? As I have gone on, I’ve realized again and again that I’m not without her. I don’t know how to explain that, except I have a glowing certainty that it’s so. And my PTSD pain, the memories of her suffering, etc., fades, too. The soul is lighter than air, it rises like a balloon.

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CODA

Okay, the PTSD pain. Yes, it fades, but it also comes and goes. The concept of “trigger warnings” is growing in common usage, and I was initially skeptical. I’m naturally skeptical. But the first week of November, the date I’m writing this, is the week Kate had her first chemotherapy. I’m self-conscious of anniversaries, and careful. Better to anticipate feeling crappy than to have it sneak up on you. Well, this week snuck up on me. Yesterday I felt like utter crap. Not as bad as I have often in the past, but worse than I’ve felt in a while. What happened at this time? I asked myself, and then I knew.

Here’s the thing about that first chemotherapy. We took a video camera. I have about a dozen video files of Kate from that day after various stages of the process. I had forgotten that entirely and then a while back found these files. We must have been crazy. We were crazy. Kate was adamant, however, that the disease wasn’t going to change her. She is seen plugged up to the machine and laughing. She is seen at home in bed, towel on her head, complaining of a headache and laughing. In one video she has the camera and she points it at me. I make a funny face. Looking at her doesn’t automatically make me sad any more. Looking at myself, was shocking.

I want to be that guy again, but I cannot. Nor can I tell him, buddy, hold on. You are in for a wild ride. If there was one thing I could tell him (me), it would be that the strategy of laughing your way through cancer will fall apart. You may think, dude, that cancer was bad; and it was; but losing her, this will be worse. (You will not laugh your way through grief, though your step-daughter will expect it of you. So like her mother, she will say, “I don’t like to see you cry.”) To put it in terms of this essay, I read and wrote through the cancer period. I clung to my reading (as did Kate) like a life raft. I read in many hospital waiting rooms. I wrote a book review weeks before she died. All of that fell apart in the tunnel of grief. This essay has been about putting my reading life back together. I have piles of books scattered all over the house, as I did before she died. I am reading widely and randomly, as I have always liked to do. On this good news, I will end.

— Michael Bryson [1]

Link to Kate’s Photos: http://kateorourkephotos.blogspot.ca/

 

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Michael Bryson has been reviewing books for twenty years and publishing short stories almost as long. His latest publication is a story “Survival” at Found Press. In 2011, he published an e-version of his novella Only A Lower Paradise: A Story About Fallen Angels and Confusion on Planet Earth. His other books are Thirteen Shades of Black and White (1999), The Lizard (2009) and How Many Girlfriends (2010). In 1999, he founded the online literary magazine, The Danforth Review, and published 26 issues of fiction, etcetera, before taking a break in 2009. TDR resumed publication in 2011. He blogs at the Underground Book Club.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Here’s a short list of some books I’ve read recently that I’m enthusiastic about:
    Mad Hope, Heather Birrell
    How Should a Person Be?, Sheila Heti
    Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson
    Nothing Looks Familiar, Shawn Syms
    Interference, Michelle Berry
    Polyamorous Love Song, Jacab Wren
    Bourgeois Empire, Evie Christie
    The Desperates, Greg Kearney
    You Must Work Harder to Write Poetry of Excellence, Donato Mancini
    The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven, Sherman Alexi
    Conversations with a Dead Man: The Legacy of Duncan Cambell Scott, Mark Abley

    Here’s some books I hope to get to soon:
    Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon
    What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, Lynne Tillman
    Come Back, Sky Gilbert
    Stories in a New Skin, Keavy Martin
    All the Broken Things, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
    I know you are but what am I?, Heather Birrell
    Ellen in Pieces, Caroline Adderson
    The Outer Harbour, Wayne Compton
    Girl Runner, Carrie Snyder
    Life is about losing everything, Lynn Crosbie
    Sad Peninsula, Mark Sampson
    Gender Failure, Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote
    In the Language of Love, Diane Schoemperlen
    Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
    Boundary Problems, Greg Bechtel
    All My Puny Sorrows, Miriam Toews
    The Incomparables, Alexandra Leggat
    Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed, Jacob Wren
    Professor Borges, Borges
    Rap, Race, and Reality, Chuck D
    The Collected Stories of Stephan Zweig
    Tobacco Wars
    , Paul Seesequasis
    Voluptuous Pleasure, Marianne Apostolides
    Sophrosyne, Marianne Apostolides
    Consumed, David Cronenberg

    Read on.

Jan 092015
 

Photo by Egle Oddo, 2013.

‘This is a flag about unspoken voices”:
Nathalie Bikoro at the Pitt Rivers Museum

 

Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro chooses a place in Pitt Rivers Museum (Oxford, England) to sew a flag. She constructs this object from pieces of Dutch Wax fabric, of various colours and designs, sewn together with needle and thread. The meaning of the Dutch Wax fabric Bikoro selects (deliberately and carefully) has already been made visible in the work of Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA).  The cloth, a colonial invention, that came to be equated with Africanness, calls into question the authenticity of objects, and their historical, political and cultural entanglements. First produced in Dutch Indonesia, and then later manufactured in Britain, Dutch Wax was sold in West Africa and came to be equated with African identities (both within the African continent and in Britain). In Bikoro’s performance, the cloth also has personal importance and invokes family memories and narratives, particularly those of her grandmother:  “This kind of cloth made in the Netherlands and India were given as a gift to African countries. My grandmother used to say: ‘What gift? They are asking us to wear what they want us to look like.’ She was excluded from her village in Gabon because she burned the dress that she was given.”[1]Bikoro’s grandmother gave her the cloths used in the performance at Pitt Rivers. She speaks of how her grandmother told her to burn them: “I like the metaphorical idea of burning the archive. Burning is a form of cannibalism. You are eating something, projecting something new, digesting something that is given to you and creating something else with it, to then state the voices that are untold and unheard.”[2]

IMG_2482Photo: Jonathan Eccles, Pitt Rivers Museum

Bikoro is a French-Gabonese contemporary artist currently based in Berlin. Her interdisciplinary practice explores the possibilities of international dialogues across continents and communities. A ten-year battle with Leukaemia during her childhood in Gabon, the Netherlands, and France informs the narratives and methods that underpin her work and her interest in developing educational collaborative community projects. Her PhD work encompasses philosophy, cultural politics, the arts in Africa and networks between Europe, Brazil and the African continent (including Nigeria, Kenya, Cameroon, South Africa, Senegal and Gabon). Bikoro’s work and her performance and live art practices have appeared internationally, including most recently, in November, at the 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art (2014) in Toronto.

IMG_2519Photo: Jonathan Eccles, Pitt Rivers Museum

In the Pitt Rivers Museum, in Oxford, Bikoro makes a flag, not for the purposes of a specific country, geography or political affiliation but rather for the sake of her own memories, those of her ancestors, and those who wish to enter into a dialogue with her: “I am creating a flag to contest the idea of freedom. What gives you the freedom to say how I must look, how I should speak, what my voice is? What gives you the freedom to represent me as a flag with these colours?”[3] She places herself not in the centre of the museum but rather in an unassuming spot in one of the upper galleries where visitors might choose to engage with her or not. Bikoro’s action of sewing occurs not as spectacle but rather as though an ordinary, everyday activity. She rests the fabric with which she works on a glass cabinet filled with objects and their labels: these things are obscured as she assembles her flag from segments of cloth (some of which lie on the floor at her feet).

IMG_2569Photo: Jonathan Eccles, Pitt Rivers Museum

Visiting the Pitt Rivers Museum is like time traveling: objects from weapons to jewellery are densely packed into cabinets of wood and glass or, in the absence of space, larger objects such as boat paddles are suspended from above. The museum was founded in 1884 to house in excess of 26,000 archaeological, ethnological and antiquarian objects which were given to the University of Oxford by Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers (1827-1900).[4] The collection also includes objects transferred from Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History and the Ashmolean Museum, and was added to by its curators beginning with Henry Balfour: there are now thought to be about 50,000 objects on display and the collection, as a whole, consists of more than 300,000 objects (as well as a comparable number of field photographs, manuscripts and sound recordings).[5]

IMG_2486Photo: Jonathan Eccles, Pitt Rivers Museum

The reverence with which museum objects are handled, conserved and displayed is obstructed as the artist re-imagines the museum cabinet as a surface upon which to sew. Her action appears as a private ritual performed within a public space. People, including myself, gather around her. As we watch her thread needle and cotton, and stitch the cloths together, deliberately disregarding precision and allowing for asymmetries and imperfections, we ask her questions which turn into conversations. There is no barrier between us and the artist as she works: we are invited into the space she produces and we stand around and talk and look.  Her performance animates the space of the museum and the objects in the glass cabinets the immobility of which render the lives which brought them into being opaque: “This comes from India. This comes from Africa. Africa is an invention. You can’t say this comes from Africa. It comes from a specific family, a specific place. These objects are also about colonial encounters and came about because of exchanges between different countries and people.”[6] Notions of invention, the fictive and the mythical are alive in the narratives embedded within the Dutch Wax fabric, and its circulation as commodity and locus of identity. The idea of invention is brought to life in the spoken exchanges with Bikoro which complicate the meanings of the objects in the cabinets, and the labels and systems which attempt to structure and contain how it is we experience them.

IMG_2515Photo: Jonathan Eccles, Pitt Rivers Museum

Bikoro’s action of sewing a flag enters into a dialogue with Pitt Rivers Museum from the perspective of her own history and subjectivity which she brings to its atmosphere, its aesthetic, and its curatorial approach. Across from her performance is an installation of film and sound. The event as a whole is titled Les Statues Meurent Aussi II a direct reference to the 1953 film Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Statues Also Die), directed by Chris Marker,  Alain Resnais and Ghislain Cloquet. This film places the idea of the colonial collection, and the display of historical African art, under scrutiny and its opening credits acknowledge the support of institutions and individuals which include ‘Mr. le Colonel Pitt Rivers’.[7] Bikoro’s film installation (composed of two films projected onto two separate screens) appropriates footage from Les Statues Meurent Aussi aspects of which were filmed in General Pitt-Rivers’s’ private collection held at Farnham in Dorset.  The film was first screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1953 and subsequently banned by the Centre National de la Cinématographie from 1953 to 1963 (despite being awarded the Prix Jean Vigo in 1954).[8] It was commissioned by Présence Africaine, a literary review and publishing house founded by the Senegalese writer and editor Alioune Diop, established in 1947.[9] Many of the most significant Francophone thinkers and writers on négritude  – including Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor – are associated with Présence Africaine. James Clifford reflects on Césaire’s négritude which, situated in relation to Caribbean history, presents the possibility of an ambiguity that ‘keeps the planet’s local futures uncertain and open’.[10] Clifford asserts that: The “Caribbean history from which Césaire derives an inventive and tactical “negritude” is a history of degradation, mimicry, violence and blocked possibilities.”[11] It is also he adds “rebellious, syncretic, and creative.”[12] He concludes: “There is no master narrative that can reconcile the tragic and comic plots of global cultural history.”[13] Bikoro’s practice is cogniscent of histories and discourses of colonial violence (and her own ancestral links to these) and she works to open up dialogues, with those who encounter her work, in a manner that is neither didactic nor oppositional. Her film installation deploys the devices of avant-garde film encompassing montage and multiple (apparently incongruous) narratives staged simultaneously. She deliberately disrupts linear, causal narration and an unfaltering faith in objectivity and empirical evidence: historical events are deliberately muddled and obscured and merged with the artist’s own memories and experiences (sound includes that of her baby’s beating heart).

IMG_2503Photo: Jonathan Eccles, Pitt Rivers Museum

Despite appearing frozen in time the museum embodies, albeit on the surface largely opaque, a number of museological approaches and histories. Jeremy Coote (Curator and Joint Head of Collections) narrates:  “It is not simple, unilinear history. The museum, the way it is now, has not just developed in a single line.”[14] The glass cases were manufactured and brought in at different times from the nineteenth through to the twentieth-first century, and until the 1960s the roof was glass: ‘The museum was full of light because it was all about rationality and enlightenment. This was about the scientific approach to understanding human technology’.[15] In the 1960s the glass roof was replaced because of the damage caused to organic objects by light. Also in the ‘60s the displays were considered old-fashioned and irrelevant to anthropology (the university wanted to move the museum out to another place). In the 1980s anthropologists again began working on art and material culture, and museums and representation: ‘People began to find positive value in the way the museum was. It preserved certain aspects of museological practice. It had a certain atmosphere. Gradually we have become aware that it is in part an aesthetic that we are preserving.’ [16]

To animate the objects in the museum, and to breathe life into them, requires acts of dialogue and performance. No object is ever really frozen in time or space, no museum display of glass, or descriptive label can immobilise meaning or the narratives, contingencies of time and history, and acts of imagination people bring to things. This is the importance of Bikoro’s performance, which is a political strategy alert to dialogue, conversation and the affective and subjective significance of sites of historical and cultural memory and exchange. As viewers, we see the film, hear the sound and watch the performance only for a short time and then it is over. It exists only in our memories fashioned by what we choose to remember or forget:  “I am sewing a wound, an old wound. This is a flag about unspoken voices.”

—Yvette Greslé

nathalie bikoro performanceNathalie Bikoro, ‘The Uncomfortable Truth’, live performance, November 2011, duration: 40 minutes. Curated by European Performance Art Festival, Warsaw (Poland). Documentation: courtesy of EPAF Warsaw and the artist.

 

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Yvette Greslé

Yvette Greslé is an art historian and writer. She was born in Johannesburg, grew up in the Indian Ocean archipelago of Seychelles, and now lives and works in London. She is an editor at Minor Literature[s] founded by Fernando Sdrigotti and her blog ‘writing in relation’ represents the political issues and questions that propel her work forward as a whole. Yvette’s PhD research, based in History of Art at University College London, explores traumatic memory, historical events and video art by South African women artists. She is a Research Associate at the University of Johannesburg and has written about contemporary art for publications in the UK, Europe and South Africa.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Interview (Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro and Yvette Greslé) Pitt Rivers Museum, 11 October 2014.
  2. Interview (Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro and Yvette Greslé) Pitt Rivers Museum, 11 October 2014.
  3. Interview (Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro and Yvette Greslé) Pitt Rivers Museum, 11 October 2014.
  4. Cootes, J. ‘Speaking for themselves’, www.ahi.org.uk, Pushing Boundaries, Spring 2011, Volume 16, Number 1, 22-23.
  5. Ibid. 22-23. I have also drawn from email conversations with Salma Caller (Education Officer, Adults, Secondary Schools and Communities at Pitt Rivers Museum), 10 and 28 November and 1 December 2014.
  6. Interview (Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro and Yvette Greslé) Pitt Rivers Museum, 11 October 2014.
  7. Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Ghislain Cloquet, Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, 1953) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzFeuiZKHcg
  8. Les Statues Meurent Aussi http://sensesofcinema.com/2009/cteq/les-statues-meurent-aussi/
  9. Les Statues Meurent Aussi http://sensesofcinema.com/2009/cteq/les-statues-meurent-aussi/
  10. Clifford, J. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge: Massachusetts and London: England, 1988), p.15.
  11. Ibid.p.15.
  12. Ibid.p.15.
  13. Ibid. p.15.
  14. Interview (Jeremy Coote and Yvette Greslé) Pitt Rivers Museum, 11 October 2014.
  15. Interview (Jeremy Coote and Yvette Greslé) Pitt Rivers Museum, 11 October 2014.
  16. Interview (Jeremy Coote and Yvette Greslé) Pitt Rivers Museum, 11 October 2014.
Jan 032015
 

michel-de-montaigne-006

 

Each summer and into the early fall, my wife, the painter Kathryn Jankus Day, and I take up residence at L’Étang, a 16th-century farmhouse on the estate of Michel de Montaigne just outside the village of St. Michel de Montaigne. The farmhouse sits in a valley near a pond below the Montaigne castle—a huge Disney-like 19th-century Loire valley imitation built after a maid set fire to the original castle in order to steal some jewelry. Or so the local story goes. Montaigne would be skeptical.

Montaigne’s tower (where he wrote his essays) did not burn, and to this day you can take a narrow, circular stone stairway up to his round study where there sits a full-sized cloth mannequin of Montaigne himself. He is arranged as if reading the facsimile of the Bordeaux edition of his essays on the table in front of him.

Above this faux Montaigne are carved into the ceiling beams his beloved quotations from the ancients: I don’t understand, I am in doubt, (both from Sextus Empiricus) among more than 50 others. The judgments of the Lord are a vast abyss (Psalm 35); There is much to be said on all matters, both for and against (Homer, The Iliad).

montaignes-tower-13

It will bring you luck (again, according to local lore) if, during your visit to Montaigne’s tower, you see on the stairs—or in the study itself—a black and white cat. The cat’s name is Balzac. He was once our cat, a lost-and-found kitty we rescued from a poplar woods near St. Michel de Montaigne, a woods we have since named Bois de Balzac. My wife and I not only have our patois, we are the ones who started the story about spotting Balzac in Montaigne’s tower bringing good luck. We believe in local lore.

Montaigne’s famous inquiry is persistent: What do we know? As is its modern corollary: How do we know? The first question was Montaigne’s motto: Que sais-je? The second concerns our age of “expanding information,” superhighways of information that race in an infinite number of lanes around the earth on cosmic beltways, complete with cloverleafs and exits—Paris, Rome, Athens, Bombay, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, St. Michel de Montaigne, Bly, Kansas—all going faster by far than “break-neck speed,” a phrase my mother would use to describe cars that passed our two-door Champion Studebaker as my father drove the R&P speed limit (Reasonable and Proper) on the roads of rural Kansas. Where are they going at “break-neck speed?” my mother would wonder. What madness is it? my father would reply.

Where are we all going at our 21st-century cosmic pace?—a pace that is not only to be contrasted with the R&P limits of 1950s Kansas roads, but with the walk-along rate of the Dordogne River that flows in the valley below Montaigne’s tower: past the village of Lamothe, Montravel, then west to Castillon, Branne, Libourne and Fronsac—after which it joins the Gironde near Bourg. Then to sea. Where is the strong brown god of the river going? At what speed? Are we flowing with it? What do we know?

montaigne_towerMontaigne’s Tower

Does it mean something to how we know that it would have taken Montaigne four days on horseback to follow the Dordogne to Bourg and back in order to learn—and return with—the news that the grape harvest along the Côte de Bourg was just as bad as it had been for the Côte de Castillon? Does it make a difference to what we know that my father had to drive to see my uncle (who had no phone) to tell him of a death in the family? And to return with my uncle who wanted to stay with us that night because, as my mother said, he was feeling “mortal,”—and that that was the first time I had heard that word and was afraid to ask its meaning. Is there a ratio of speed to knowledge? Of information to knowledge? Of information to ignorance? Which of these ratios are literal? Which are inverse, ironic? What do we ever know? Seeing Balzac brings you good luck. If you say so.

I like Montaigne’s way of thinking. In college I came to study him—as perhaps we all did—as the père of the essay. He was a master of “form.” There were forms of literature in those days: novels, poems, short stories, essays. We were taught that the French word essai meant “to try,” “to attempt.” I don’t remember any of us asking what we were to “attempt” when we took to writing our own essays; but over the years, it has occurred to me that in main we are to try to think. Not so much to “reason”—as if an essay were a pudgy syllogism—but to think in a contemplative way, a tentative way. An essay as a walk along a road taken in search of a discovered thought provoked by a singular image: the black bird in the cedar limbs just as it is beginning to snow—and is going to snow.

In this way we let our words discover our reason. Is it a way of knowing? Maybe. Is it a way of knowing everything? Maybe. It is a way of knowing yourself, then, to wit Montaigne: “There is nothing so contrary to my style as continuous narrative.” Walks with stops as digressions. Not a four-day, but a six-day trip to Bourg and back if on the way you ride your horse up the steep hill to St. Emillon and consider what there is to see. The Dordogne in the valley below. Someone on horseback riding toward Bourg. An essay on the move. The essay as a form of life. A way of knowing as a way of life.

—Robert Day

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Robert Day

Robert Day’s new novel Let Us Imagine Lost Love premiered here on Numéro Cinq in its entirety as a serial novel and will be published in fall 2014 by Mammoth Publications. Prior to that, his most recent book was Where I Am Now, a collection of short fiction published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press. Booklist wrote: “Day’s smart and lovely writing effortlessly animates his characters, hinting at their secrets and coyly dangling a glimpse of rich and story-filled lives in front of his readers.” And Publisher’s Weekly observed: “Day’s prose feels fresh and compelling making for warmly appealing stories.”

Dec 052014
 

Shambhavi Roy2Shambhavi Roy

Fiction writers often struggle with various questions related to subplots: How should I structure my subplots? How much space should my subplots consume? What kind of relationship should the subplot bear to the main plot? Should the subplot be congruent or opposed to the main plot? Let’s consider the novels Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen and The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler as an entry point into the study of subplots in general and the related techniques of character grouping and gradation.

Aristotle taught that the best plots proceed through a series of reversals and recognitions. John Dufresne is his book The Lie That Tells a Truth tells us that episodes do not necessarily make a plot. He says, “Plot is the writer’s arrangement of events to achieve a desired effect. It is the magnet to which all other narrative elements attach.”

Plot is something, I believe, that can be coaxed into being. John Dufresne says that “a plot begins to form as soon as you ask yourself the appropriate questions: what does my central character want? What is preventing her from getting it? What does she do about the various obstacles in her way? What is the outcome of what she does? What climax does this all lead to? Does she get what she wants in the end? Plot, then, is the element of fiction that shapes the other elements—character, theme, point of view, language, and so on—into a story.”

JDJohn Dufresne

Now let’s turn our attention to subplots, the main topic of this essay. In The Enamoured Knight, Douglas Glover says this about subplots: “In its simplest and most direct form the subplot is another plot, involving another set of characters, weaving through the novel.” Subplots can vary in size but every novel must have at least one to achieve the resonating or echoing effect that a novelist tries to achieve by modulating or reduplicating situations and characters, by having several people falling in love or dying or praying in different ways—dissimilar people solving the same problem or similar people confronted with dissimilar problems.

In his essay “Emotion of Multitude,” W. B. Yeats says that “the Shakespearean drama gets the emotion of multitude out of the subplot which copies the main plot, much as a shadow upon the wall copies one’s body in the firelight. We think of King Lear less as the history of one man and his sorrows than as the history of one man and a whole evil time. Lear’s shadow is in Gloucester, who also has ungrateful children, and the mind goes on imagining other shadows, shadow beyond shadow, till it has pictured the world. In nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays the subplot is the main plot working itself out in more ordinary men and women, and so doubly calling up before us the image of multitude.” Yeats seems to imply that if we read the experiences of one man, we may imagine it rooted in his own unique personality or providential in nature or the result of unprecedented or uncommon play of events. But if we notice similar dramas unraveling in several individuals’ lives we may be forced to look beyond the characters and we may end up understanding the thematic issues the authors wants to highlight.

Usually, subplots have graded characters closely related to the main characters. On the topic of graded characters, Glover offers us this: “Graded characters are characters in narrative who share, in a more or less exaggerated or more or less attenuated fashion, thematically crucial experiences in such a way as to create structural parallels” (The Enamoured Knight). A group of friends or schoolmates or army buddies make good subplot characters. “The advantage of the near relations between characters on plot and subplot lines is that they can interact with and observe one another naturally” (The Enamoured Knight). However, we must keep in mind that the different character groups we see in novels often—class, family, working groups—are options we see frequently, but they are not the only possibilities for running subplots.

EK

All right, now let’s turn to Sense and Sensibility to better comprehend what might have led Jane Austen to make use of a plot-subplot structure with graded characters. In this novel, after Henry Dashwood dies, his three daughters and his wife inherit a small and insufficient sum, so the Dashwood girls must marry to find respectability and secure their futures. Although their stepbrother, John Dashwood, promised his dying father he’d take care of his stepmother and sisters, he decides to offer them nothing under the influence of his greedy wife, Fanny. Then, a pleasant unassuming man, Edward Ferrars, Fanny’s brother, visits Norland and Elinor, the prudent Dashwood girl, gets attached to him. Fanny disapproves of the match and complains to Mrs Dashwood, Elinor’s mother, which results in the hasty departure of Elinor, her sisters and mother from Norland to a small rental cottage they’ve found for themselves in Devonshire. Marianne, the younger sister, full of fine sensibilities—which is a euphemism indicating her excessively emotional and impetuous temperament—disregards Brandon, an older, mellow, reserved man and finds her soul mate in a dashing young man named Willoughby, who, not surprisingly, resembles Marianne. Demonstrative and passionate, Willoughby and Marianne never leave each other’s side, leading to much public speculation about their relationship. Then, all of a sudden, Willoughby leaves. Marianne, a romantic, suffers a “violent oppression of spirits” while waiting for him to return. Soon she learns of Willoughby’s engagement with someone else for monetary reasons and falls sick and nearly loses her life as a result of the heartbreak. Like Marianne, even Brandon is wronged by Willoughby: Willoughby flirted with and impregnated a girl-child, Eliza, under Brandon’s guardianship. Even Elinor faces ill-luck in love—Edward is secretly engaged to Lucy, a girl who suffers from a want of delicacy and integrity of mind. But Elinor does not share the news of Edward’s engagement with her family for a long time and bears hardship with a sense of forbearance. In the end, Elinor turns out to be the fortunate one, although just by chance: Edward’s fiancé, Lucy, breaks her engagement with Edward so he can unite with Elinor; however Marianne must content herself to be with Brandon, although she didn’t care for him before.

Sense and Sensibility, published in 1811, anonymously, brought its writer no fame during her lifetime, although it was an instant success. With a recent surge of interest in Jane Austen, the novel is more widely read and proclaimed today than it ever was. Written in third person from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, the novel explores the problem of finding a life partner and whether sense or sensibility leads to a better match.

In this novel the plot and the subplot occupy nearly equal space and are accorded equal consideration, forming parallel plot-subplot structure. Right in the beginning, on page three, Jane Austen sets the stage for parallel plots with graded characters.

Jane_Austen_coloured_versionJane Austen

Elinor, this eldest daughter whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counselor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must generally have led to imprudence. She had an excellent heart; her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn, and which one of her sisters had resolved never to learn. (3)

Note the way Elinor’s character is described in relation to that of her mother and her sister. In the next paragraph, the author offers us this about the younger sister, Marianne.

Marianne’s abilities were, in many respects, quite equal to Elinor’s. She was sensible and clever; but eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent. The resemblance between her and her mother was strikingly great. (3)

Throughout the novel, the author uses the words “prudence” in reference to Elinor and “eagerness” and “imprudence” in reference to Marianne and her mother, Mrs Dashwood. Elinor and Marianne—sisters, young, unmarried, constrained by their financial situation, the fact they are women, and the fact they must marry to secure a future for themselves—belong to the same character group, even though they are temperamentally apart. They are both well brought-up girls, who enjoy books and are fond of arts, although Marianne’s fondness for arts is more vehement in nature. Elinor draws and Marianne plays piano. They love their mother and each other. But to illuminate the theme of the novel the author must draw out the differences in the outlook of the two Dashwood girls. So to accentuate their heterogeneity, the sisters form pairs with men who reflect their personalities. Like Elinor, Edward has a quietness of manner and is amiable, warm and affectionate. Willoughby is frank and vivacious and as passionate about music and dancing as Marianne. Not just Elinor but even Edward and Brandon represent sense and the pair, Marianne and Willoughby, sensibility and indiscreetness. Edward and Willoughby mirror the dispositions of the women they are with, though not entirely. Elinor is not as shy as Edward, and Edward doesn’t have the same interest in arts as Elinor. The narrator tells us this about Willoughby and Marianne: “The same books, the same passages were idolized by each—or if any objection arose, it lasted no longer than till the force of her arguments and the brightness of her eyes could be displayed.” Jane Austen takes time to define the spectrum of her characters’ beliefs and their propensities, and then these graded characters will trudge along parallel plot lines to explore the central theme of the novel: when looking for a life partner, is it better to follow reason or sensibility? Whether sense or sensibility is the winner in the end?

Both sisters fall in love; they are presented with obstacles and find resolutions. The novel unfolds in a pattern. We see some event bear down upon one of the sisters and observe her reaction to the life event and then we see a similar occurrence in the other sister’s life and witness her response and learn what others think of the whole business. “In fiction,” E. K. Brown tells us, “the rhythmic arrangements that move us most are those where repetition is enveloped in variations, but never so enveloped that it appears subordinate.” That is exactly what Jane Austen seems to want to accomplish. Although the arcs of the two parallel plots cover the same points and are a bit repetitive on the surface, they are designed to achieve the opposite effect: highlight differences and illuminate the theme.

Compare Elinor’s gentle anguish, when she discovers Edward is engaged to Lucy, to Marianne’s finding Willoughby with a woman at a party.

Elinor for a few moments remained silent. Her astonishment at what she heard was at first too great for words; but at length forcing herself to speak, and to speak cautiously, she said with a calmness of manner, which tolerably well concealed her surprise and solicitude—‘May I ask if your engagement is of long standing?’ (87)

Here’s Marianne’s comportment in a somewhat similar predicament.

Marianne, now looking dreadfully white, and unable to stand, sunk into her chair, and Elinor, expecting every moment to see her faint, tried to screen her from the observation of others, while reviving her with lavender water.

‘Go to him, Elinor,’ she cried, as soon as she could speak, ‘and force him to come to me. Tell him I must see him again—must speak to him instantly.—I cannot rest—I shall not have a moment’s peace till this is explained—some dreadful misapprehension or other.—Oh go to him this moment.’ (119)

When the sisters are about to leave their childhood home in Norland, Marianne sheds tears, but Elinor finds the decision to move prudent and refuses to dissuade her mother, even though her love-interest is in Norland.

A romantic, Marianne says, “What have wealth or grandeur to do with happiness?” “Grandeur has but little,” says Elinor, “but wealth has much to do with it.” Elinor falls for Edward who is not handsome, and his manners require intimacy to make them pleasing. Marianne, who doesn’t approve of her sister’s beau entirely because Edward has no spirit and is not striking enough, falls in love with Willoughby, a charming personality in everyone’s opinion. Even Mrs. Dashwood commends Marianne’s choice and finds Willoughby faultless, although Elinor can clearly see a problematic propensity, in which Willoughby strongly resembles Marianne, of saying too much what he thought on every occasion, without attention to person or circumstances.

I counted seventeen different occasions when Jane Austen brings out the striking diversity in the conduct of these two sisters. The sisters form two parallel mountain ranges reflecting sound off each other so the echo reverberates in the reader’s mind. The author seems to pitch antithetical ideas because, I believe, human beings do not understand in a vacuum but in relation to one another. In E. K. Brown’s terms, the two sisters “irradiate each other and become clearer by irradiation.” By offering contrasts and similarities the author is according greater depth to these characters and the social milieu, while trying to get at the hidden truth.

In the end, Elinor, although prudent, selfless, calm, hardly fairs better than Marianne, even though Marianne is eager and imprudent. Elinor’s cautiousness is not entirely a helpful trait, given that she cannot discuss her feelings openly and is unsure how Edward feels for her. Ultimately, she unites with Edward only because of happenstance. So, in a way, the author declares “sense” as the winner somewhat grudgingly. We see the same pattern reappear in the cast of characters supporting the two parallel plots: Willoughby, Brandon, and Edward Ferrars. Shy and sensible, Edward loves Elinor but gets engaged to Lucy because of a past commitment. If Lucy didn’t abandon him, he could count on a miserable life ahead of him. Brandon, another calm, rational, caring man, never marries his first love, fails to protect the child, Eliza, under his guardianship, and finally unites with Marianne only after Willoughby deserts Marianne. True, Willoughby finds himself in a frightful place toward the end of the novel, but then, he has abandoned sense and even sensibility for that matter—he has lived a life of extreme indiscretion: rejected Marianne, flirted with and impregnated a young girl, and married solely for monetary reasons. The author has placed Willoughby near the edge of the spectrum of her characters, but with the help of her other characters, she argues for and against her ideas imparting depth to the discourse.

It is clear that the main benefit of having closely related characters and a tightly interwoven plot-subplot structure is to act as the glue holding and unifying the story and bestowing a direction and a sense of purpose. The author shows several characters struggling to find life partners so we get a flavor of the emotion of multitudes. The plots and the subplots point in the same direction so the theme is emphasized and we get a sense of the larger world. How else would we recognize the complexities inherent in identifying a life partner, and the fact that it is so hard for anyone to be right in this matter?

So what other benefits Jane Austen reaps by having parallel plots with graded characters. As I read Sense and Sensibility and considered the topic of graded characters, I also realized that having two sisters driving parallel plots was also serving as a subtle memory rehearsal device by reinforcing and comparing constantly. When Elinor expresses her thoughts on the subject of move from Norland and then Marianne wails over the same issue, the reader knows for sure the family is moving. Let’s take a moment to appreciate the role this repetition plays. The more a bit of information or an idea is repeated or used, the more likely it is to eventually end up in long-term memory, to be “retained.” People tend to more easily store material on subjects that they already know something about, since the information has more meaning to them and can be mentally connected to related information. So if you want your readers to retain bits from your novel in their long term memories you may want to consider closely related characters and an interlaced plot-subplot structure so these characters can frequently cross each other’s paths and reflect on each other.

In the end, we must recognize that narrating Marianne’s story, along with Elinor’s, doubles the length and makes the novel more interesting. Far more engrossing, Marianne and Willoughby serve as a balance against Elinor and Edward, who are shy, reserved and not so amusing. Does that mean if a protagonist is ill-tempered or morose, we should consider a lively and more engaging character driving a subplot to relieve the strain off a difficult topic? Definitely something we should keep in mind.

Now let’s turn to The Accidental Tourist to see the plot-subplot structure in that novel. After Macon Leary’s twelve-year-old son gets shot and killed, Macon and his wife Sarah separate, because Sarah cannot find any comfort in her husband.

Left alone with just an unruly dog for company, Macon has difficulty sleeping and wishes his wife would return. Then he breaks his leg and is forced to move to his sister Rose’s house where Rose and Macon’s two brothers, Charles and Porter, live. To help train his dog, whose violent tendencies have increased as a result of the move, Macon hires Muriel Pritchett. She is a divorced woman and the mother of a seven-year-old reclusive boy with medical problems from the time of his premature birth. At first Macon refuses to get involved with Muriel, but, ultimately, her eccentricities and her problems draw him out of his shell. He cohabits with her in her house, which is in a slummy neighborhood, and teaches her son math and plumbing techniques, even though he is not in love with her or even entirely comfortable with her, for that matter. Disorganized, unsettling and unpredictable, Muriel has a “nasty temper, a shrewish tongue and a tendency to fall into spells of self-disgust.” Not surprisingly, Macon’s siblings disapprove of the relationship and try to convince him she is not the right woman by reminding him she is much younger and just out there to catch a man so he could provide for her. At this point, Macon’s ex-wife, aware of Macon’s live-in relationship, tries to woo him back. As Macon has never really gotten over Sarah, he cannot help but move back with Sarah; but Muriel, unwilling to give up on Macon, follows him around when he goes on a business trip to Paris. Finally, after an argument with Sarah, Macon realizes that he and Sarah “have used each other up.” He realizes he must embrace his new life with Muriel and leave the memories of his dead son and his ex-wife behind.

SS

Anne Tyler’s tenth novel, written in 1985, The Accidental Tourist was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. With a clear plot-subplot structure, the main story has Macon Leary as its lead character, and the subplot features his sister Rose. The minor subplots are about Macon’s two older brothers, Porter and Charles.

Just as in Sense and Sensibility, the subplots in The Accidental Tourist are driven by close relatives, the sister and brothers of the protagonist. As if the fact that Rose and Macon are siblings isn’t enough to bring them together often, Rose has a relationship with Macon’s boss, Julian, and this gives the author an opportunity to talk about Rose every time Macon meets Julian. Even Macon’s estranged wife, Sarah, is close to Rose and when Macon and Sarah reconcile they discuss Rose’s situation in life. The relationships form a tightly woven pattern so the characters can observe each other and compare and contrast.

Just as the two sisters in Sense and Sensibility are both similar and different, Macon and his sister and his two brothers resemble each other and have traits that establish their distinctness as human beings. All of the Leary children are grammar fanatics, orderly, somewhat socially stunted, and idiosyncratic. They even look alike: “Their hair had an ashy cast and their eyes were a steely gray. They all had that distinct center groove from nose to upper lip. And never in a million years would Alicia [their mother] have worn an expression so guarded and suspicious.”

Rose has her kitchen so alphabetized that she keeps allspice next to ant poison and considers it perfectly normal to live with her brothers. Macon sleeps in a body bag, does not use a dishwasher, and stalks around in circles while showering, sloshing the day’s dirty clothes underfoot. Even though the details differ, the siblings have the same strange quirky feel about them, as if they are different shades of each other. But the siblings wouldn’t become real in our eyes if the author didn’t list their unique characteristics to round them up as human beings.

Books Anne TylerAnne Tyler

So Anne Tyler lets us know that Rose is the only social Leary, who helps out neighbors and old relatives; Porter is the best looking Leary kid, talkative, and able to run finances and plan taxes; Charles, a sweet-faced man who never seems to move; and Macon, even though he shares several character traits with his siblings, is not always comfortable with the idea of abiding with Rose and his brothers. He experiences moments of anxiety when he wonders if has gone any further in life since his childhood days. And he is also the only one who considers the fact that that they might be unconventional. When Julian visits Rose’s home, Macon tells Rose that Julian was there just because “he hopes we’ll do something eccentric.” Macon wishes none of his siblings would say or do anything awkward around Julian.

Unlike her three brothers, Rose wants to experience love. Rose says, “Love is what it’s all about. On soap operas everything revolves around love.” But Charles and Porter, after their failed marriages, seem content in Rose’s house with Rose overseeing the housekeeping for them. Even Macon does not seek romantic associations actively, although he can get entangled into them. To a certain extent, Macon and Rose share the desire to be in romantic relationships, and therefore, their lives evolve in a similar fashion, creating a congruent plot-subplot structure. After Rose marries Julian and lives with him for a while, she begins to get disoriented with the newness of her life and moves back with her brothers. Similarly, Macon abides with Muriel for some time and then moves back with his estranged wife. In the end, both Macon and Rose unite with their lovers, although in variant ways—Macon leaves his estranged wife and goes back to Muriel and Julian begins to live with Rose and her brothers. .

Now let’s focus for a minute on the textual space devoted to Macon versus that devoted to Rose. As this novel has a clear plot-subplot structure, Macon enjoys the lion’s share of space. Rose does not appear in the first chapter—there is not even a mention of her. She appears for the first time in the second chapter and then disappears till the end of the fourth. The fifth chapter is dedicated to describing Macon’s siblings, particularly Rose. And from then on, Rose is mentioned in every chapter, even if it is just to let us know that she drove Macon to Julian’s place. In the last chapter, although we don’t get to see Rose, Macon’s ex-wife, Sarah, informs Macon that Julian has moved in with Rose and the brothers. Of the twenty chapters in this book, Rose occupies significant space in just four and the brothers are given much less consideration.

So why have Rose and the brothers? What purpose do they serve? Several, in my opinion. First, with the help of these subplots, the author highlights the theme of the novel—the nature of love and the fact that for successful love relationships one has to reach a point of wisdom or a compromise between the desire for order and chaos. As we see Macon and Rose struggling to understand what they want and where they belong, we get the “emotion of multitudes,” a feeling that even though we are reading a novel with a simple structure and few characters we are in a large and teeming world where everyone is trying to fathom the meaning of love, marriage, and compromise in an ever changing world.

Note how all the Leary kids seem to drift back to their place of origin. After Macon breaks his legs, he moves in with Rose and his brothers and experiences quiet contentment. Macon gets involved with Muriel only because his dog, Edward, is unsettled in unfamiliar surroundings and begins to attack everyone. Even though Macon misses some aspects of his life at Rose’s place, he is lulled by the ease and simplicity of his childhood routines and hardly seems to desire new relationships. Even though he says his lack of interest in sex is a result of his son Ethan’s death, one cannot help notice that he has always shunned newness and unfamiliarity. Even when he was young, it was Sarah who initiated and drove the relationship forward, not Macon. Anne Tyler sheds light on the same appeal for one’s native environment through Rose. Rose, fascinated by the concept of love because she’s never been in a relationship before, falls for Julian and marries hastily, but within a few days of her wedding, she leaves her marital home and comes back to live with her brothers. She unites with Julian only because he sheds his traditional idea of a marital home and moves in with her brothers. Julian says, “She’d worn herself a groove or something in that house of hers, and she couldn’t help swerving back into it.” Even Charles and Porter have the same regard for familiarity as Macon and Rose. And all the Leary children love and deeply care for each other. Rose ministered to the needs of her ailing grandfather and cooks and cleans for her brothers, and they, in turn, care for her in a subtle, heartwarming way. Looking at Macon, Rose, Porter and Charles, readers may begin to wonder if, at some level, we all have the same affinity and weakness for our first homes. We do not know if this is the effect Anne Tyler wanted to achieve but nevertheless with the help of her subplots and graded characters, she underscores the human tendency to value familiarity—the sense of well-being we associate with our childhood home—and the intimacy we share with our siblings and other blood relations.

What other purpose do the subplots serve? What other “emotion of multitudes” does the author hope to evince? Let’s consider the partners the Leary kids are attracted to. Rose, a sober, prim woman, who “folds her hair unobtrusively at the fact of her neck where it wouldn’t be a bother” and wears “spinsterly and concealing” clothes, finds love in Julian, a playboy, living in a Singles apartment. Rose’s brothers try their best to dissuade her from getting involved with Julian but for some reason she cannot resist. Even Porter and Charles were married to women unlike them, who made fun of them. Macon, a man in his forties, obsessively organized, grammar fanatic, has a strange attraction for Muriel, a talkative, neurotic, disorganized woman. Every one of Macon’s siblings thinks Macon and Muriel are unsuitable for each other. But when Macon moves back with his ex-wife, he misses Muriel’s eccentricities and her misusages. Even though Macon and his sister and brothers have a fondness for the familiar, they are also enthralled by the unfamiliar, and the same can be said about their spouses. We, the readers of The Accidental Tourist, wonder if most of us “in a more or less exaggerated or more or less attenuated fashion” exist in a confused state, drawn toward and repelled by the familiar.

Accidental Tourist

Now let’s turn our attention to the two married couples in The Accidental Tourist. Even though Macon and Sarah have been together for decades, even though he loves her dearly, the only comfort they seem to accord each other is the comfort of routine. When Muriel tells Macon she wants to marry him, he says, “I don’t think marriage ought to be as common as it is; I really believe it ought to be the exception to the rule; oh, perfect couples could marry, maybe, but who’s a perfect couple?” And then later, thinking about a conversation Macon had with his wife, we learn this: “Thinking back on that conversation now, he [Macon] began to believe that people could, in fact, be used up—could use each other up, could be of no further help to each other and maybe even do harm to each other.”

On the other hand, Macon enjoys the cozy, sloppy presence of Muriel, a woman he does not love. At times he is ashamed of Muriel but still ends up making a home with her. And Rose loses her fascination for marriage soon after she gets married and returns to her childhood home. Although she is attracted to Julian, a traditional wedding and a married life provide no comfort to her. Ultimately, her marriage survives because Julian moves back with her forming an unconventional arrangement. So is there some truth that the author wants to shed light on here? Is it possible to live and find comfort in unorthodox relationships and arrangements outside of marriage with people we do not even love? Is marriage as an institution worthy of the respect we accord to it, given that people and their conditions change so frequently?

After studying these two novels, Sense and Sensibility and The Accidental Tourist, it is clear that their subplot structures are different in key ways. Rose occupies far less space than Marianne, probably because Jane Austen wants to initiate a dialogue with her readers, but Anne Tyler seems to open our minds to a new idea, one that may not have too many takers in the middle class. The key thing to note is the fact that subplots must parallel or reflect the main plot, otherwise the various elements of a novel fly apart and the text lacks rhythm and unity of thought.

—Shambhavi Roy

 

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Shambhavi Roy, a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, lives in Saratoga, CA, with her husband and two kids.

Dec 012014
 

Chaulky-WhiteChaulky White is the pen name given to the combined effort of Derek (R) & Kevin White (L) in creating ‘SSES” ‘SSES” “SSEY’, a book that is forthcoming from Calamari Archive in 2015.

The following is an excerpt from SSES” ‘SSES” “SSEY’—a book that is based/extrapolates on an MFA thesis my brother Kevin White wrote in 1990 entitled ‘SSES” ‘SSES” wherein he recapitulated Joyce’s Ulysses‘ recapitulation of Homer’s Odyssey to a trip he took across Asia in search of our father (who committed suicide a few years before). ‘SSES” ‘SSES” “SSEY’ takes his recapitulation 1 step further, folding in his journals, unpublished stories + artwork he made before himself dying of a drug overdose. ‘SSES” ‘SSES” “SSEY’ is also a literary work that reflexively interrogates the very transcription processes used to produce/copy it, mobilizing reflexive loops between original imagined intent + editorial deterritorialization … a «gift of tongues rendering visible not the lay sense but the first entelechy, the structural rhythm»—as Stephen Dedalus says in Ulysses.

This is episode 1 (the 2nd episode—episode 0 is up on Sleepingfish if are interested in seeing the continuity/more background on the project: http://sleepingfish.net/13/000_SSES.htm).

Chaulky White is the pen name given to our combined effort.

Derek White

SSEY 01-1Click on the individual pages for larger views.

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Chaulky White is the pen name given to the combined effort of Derek (R) & Kevin White (L) in creating ‘SSES” ‘SSES” “SSEY’, a book that is forthcoming from Calamari Archive in 2015.

Nov 132014
 

CaptureNarcissus by Caravaggio via Wikipedia

In pre-revolutionary Cuba, they used to tell the story of an hidalgo who had emigrated from Spain as a very young man, and who had amassed a huge fortune in the sugarcane industry. Old and ill, he gathered his many children around him in order to give them his final instructions. “If I should die here in Havana,” he told them, “promise me that you will send me back to Spain to be buried there.” One after the other, all of his children swore that they would carry out his will to the letter. “However, if for some reason I should die in Spain,” he added, “I want you to bring me back here to Havana to be buried.” “Of course, Father,” his eldest son assured him, “That too we shall do. But tell me: why do you wish this?” “Oh, I don’t know,” replied the old man, “Just to fuck around.”

It is in such a spirit that I would like to propose a brief meditation on mirror scenes in contemporary Scandinavian detective fiction. Gratuitously in other words, in a largely unfettered and fundamentally playful perspective, one not driven by the prospect of immediate utility, but rather by simple (and very nearly idle) curiosity.

The burgeoning of the detective novel in Nordic countries during the last couple of decades is a remarkable phenomenon, comparable in many ways to the Latin American “boom” of the 1960s. Working in the wake of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, whose ten-volume Martin Beck series (1965-75) set the terms of the trend, an impressive diversity of writers has broadened the genre’s horizon of possibility in significant ways. I’m thinking here of figures such as Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, Åsa Larsson, Kristina Ohlsson, Kjell Eriksson, Åke Edwardson, and Håkan Nesser (Sweden); Karin Fossum and Jo Nesbø (Norway); Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Arnaldur Indriðason (Iceland); Peter Høeg and Jussi Adler-Olsen (Denmark). Among the many intriguing features one may find in this body of work, it abounds in mirror scenes, that is, moments when a subject comes face to face with her or his reflection in the mirror.

That the detective novel should deploy a topos such as this one makes a great deal of sense. For that literary genre is all about discovery after all; and perhaps, as much as anything else, it is about the prospect of self-discovery. Think for instance of Oedipus, an excellent example of an early detective, and consider especially the way he solved the riddle of the Sphinx. When asked what creature walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the afternoon, he replied “Man,” and that answer of course did the trick. Yet the real answer to the Sphinx’s question is “Me”—as the rest of Oedipus’s tale clearly demonstrates, to his doom. The moral is clear enough: no riddle can be solved if the subject cannot first come to terms with himself or herself. And in certain cases, the subject need look no further than that. Such is the lesson of the gnothi seauton, the imperative of self-knowledge that has animated Western culture from its very beginnings. And such, too, is the impulse that subtends the mirror scene wherever we may find it these days, in our increasingly specular culture.

CaptureOedipus and the Sphinx (detail) by Gustave Moreau

The other key figure in the tradition of mirror gazing is of course Narcissus. There are many versions of his myth, and the lessons they put on display are varied. The most harrowing among them is the version that Ovid recounts. Asked if Narcissus will live to a ripe old age, a seer remarks, “Yes, if he does not come to know himself.” It’s a sly answer, and a very perverse one, too, cutting across the grain of cultural commonplace as it does. Its moral is more immediate than that of the Oedipus myth, and less equivocal with regard to the gnothi seauton. Both tales, it must be recognized, paint a dark picture of the encounter with the self, one where deliberate, uncompromising introspection leads to catastrophe for the subject. All of this is to say that the mirror scene is a cultural topos more than passingly vexed, and more than usually fraught with contradictory messages. When contemporary literature turns to that topos and puts it to use, even in offhanded ways, its trappings come along with it, which may help to explain why even the most apparently innocent mirror scene typically creates a disturbing moment in a text, a moment of exceptional reflection.

In what follows, I would like to consider the different shapes those moments assume in the Scandinavian detective novel, proposing along the way a loose, heuristic typology that may help us to think about them more efficiently. My own sense is that those scenes are deeply involved with the poetics of the gaze in literature, with the representation of the self, with the way the human subject grapples with his or her humanity, and with what we may hope to find when we look into the mirror of the text.

CaptureKarin Fossum

Before we leap into those moments, it is important to point out what is not a mirror scene; and in doing so it is best to be both draconian and exhaustive. First, it should be noted that the mere mention of the object does not suffice. When Karin Fossum writes, “I got up every morning and went out to the bathroom, and there was his toothbrush below the mirror” (Don’t Look Back 255), there is indeed a mirror in the scene, but the subject fails to encounter herself therein. Fossum is particularly fond of events like that, sometimes wagering upon pure (and from the devotee’s point of view, purely otiose) analogy: “A mirror-like tarn, no bigger than a large pond, lying among the spruce trees like a secret space” (Don’t Look Back 26). One gets the same sense of missed opportunity when the mirror is invoked in a figural, metaphorical manner. “The same questions. Again and again,” complains Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren, as he grapples with a particularly thorny problem, “Over and over again. Reflecting themselves in the mirror” (Mind’s Eye 19). Those questions may reflect themselves till the cows come home; they are not human beings, and their specularity has no psychological or moral depth. More cruelly still, Åsa Larsson insists upon the absence of the mirror, and we benighted readers are left to muse upon what the moment might have been like if only a mirror had been present: “‘What gorgeous clothes,’ smiled Sanna, her cheeks flushed with pleasure. ‘Look at this jumper! Pity there isn’t a mirror in here'” (Sun Storm 26).

One must also dismiss a category that I would like to call the mirror scene manqué. “He was in such a hurry,” remarks Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, “that for once he didn’t stop to admire himself in the little mirror hanging beside the coat rack by the door. If he had, he would have seen that his aura was heavy and dark. Almost black” (My Soul to Take 131). Here, the subject’s encounter with the mirror is conjectural, rather than actual, and thus unsatisfactory. A more literal example of that species presents itself when Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole finds himself nose to nose with a great white shark at the Sydney Aquarium: “At first he thought it was his own reflection he could see, then his eyes became accustomed to the light and he felt his heart register a last pounding beat before it froze. The Great White was beside him, watching him with cold, lifeless eyes” (The Bat 168). Though this is not a mirror scene, it should be noted that there is an ironically specular dimension to it, for as he gazes in horror at the shark Harry Hole realizes that he, too, may have something of the coldblooded predator about him.

Jo nesboJo Nesbø

We must also agree to turn aside from scenes of simple introspection, moments of self-appraisal undertaken without the mediation of the mirror. Consider this passage from Henning Mankell’s The Man Who Smiled: “He sat at his desk, feeling that he could now examine himself at arm’s length: the man staggering around in the West Indies, the miserable trip to Thailand, all those days and nights when everything seemed to have ground to a halt apart from his bodily functions. He was looking at himself, but he realized that that person was somebody he no longer knew. He had been somebody else” (57). Perhaps he was indeed “looking at himself,” but not in the literal sense; and in a rigorous consideration of mirror scenes, we owe it to ourselves to be as literalist as we possibly can.

When one character in Mankell’s The Pyramid asks another, “Have you even seen what you look like?” and that latter individual testily retorts, “I don’t spend my time looking at myself in the mirror” (9-10), the suggestion is that looking at oneself in the mirror is something that vain, lazy people do, something that is unfit for people of a more active, engaged, and robust constitution. And perhaps it is for reasons such as those that Inspector Kurt Wallander upon occasion deliberately eschews the mirror: “He splashed cold water on his face and took a long leak. He avoided looking at his face in the mirror” (Henning Mankell, One Step Behind 333). Other passages in Mankell’s writing are a bit more difficult to dismiss, because while the mirror therein is virtual rather than literal, the subject’s encounter with himself has a great deal of flesh on its bones: “Sometimes he imagined himself as an image in a mirror that was both concave and convex at the same time. No-one had ever seen anything but the surface: the eminent jurist, the respected minister of justice, the kindly retiree strolling along the beach in Skäne. No-one would have guessed his double-sided self” (Sidetracked 14). I realize that I have been relying heavily upon Henning Mankell here. Having read him so attentively, and with so much pleasure, over so many years, I feel now that he is a close personal friend. I’d like to go to IKEA with him. More pertinently, his writing provides a very rich vein of classic mirror scenes, as we shall see in a moment, undoubtedly the mother lode insofar as Scandinavian detective fiction is concerned.

Before we get there however, and having now plucked most of the low-hanging fruit in the non-mirror scene orchard, let me invoke a few examples of passages that hover right on the threshold of mirror scenedom. Consider this passage from Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back: “Each time he looked at the picture of his father, his own old age seemed to advance uncomfortably on him” (35). Clearly, the subject sees something of himself when he gazes at the picture of his father; but to call this a mirror scene is to reach too far. It offers, in a sense, a negative image of a mirror scene, a notion that can be confirmed by comparing it to a positive image of the same topos, such as this passage in Henning Mankell’s The Dogs of Riga: “He examined his face in the mirror and saw that he was getting more and more like his father” (201). Yet when the subject gazes at a photograph of himself, rather than one of his father, the elements of a full-blown mirror scene fall easily into place, as Åke Edwardson understands: “He removed the cloth and stared at a photograph of himself, taken shortly before high school graduation” (Death Angels).

Then there are textual moments when the encounter with the mirror is implicit, rather than actual. “She sat anesthetized at the kitchen table,” writes Åsa Larsson, “and recalled the joy she had felt earlier; the bike ride to the city and back, how she already felt more fit, the feeling of putting on the black skirt and the neat blouse, her new appearance that the hairstyle and her more conscious application of makeup gave her” (Sun Storm 329). Any reasonable person would infer that the subject had put her makeup on while looking in the mirror; yet the narrative elides that moment maddeningly.

As much as it pains me, it must be said that in certain mirror scenes nothing happens—or nothing of real interest. “Gullberg was completely exhausted after all his efforts on Monday,” writes Stieg Larsson. “He did not wake until 9:00 on Tuesday morning, four hours later than usual. He went to the bathroom to shower and brush his teeth. He stood for a long time looking at his face in the mirror before he turned off the light and went to get dressed. He chose the only clean shirt he had left in the brown briefcase and put on a brown-patterned tie” (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest 124). The moment is flatly constative; it provides nothing beyond the simple fact of the encounter; it has no depth. A passage in Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Terrorists is similar: “They returned to their own base, where there was no one but the chief of the Stockholm Police. He was standing in front of the mirror combing his hair with great care. Then he eyed his tie, which as usual was of plain colored silk. Today it was pale yellow” (226). In both cases, alas, we learn more about the tie than we do about the subject. Certain other passages of this sort set up the encounter with the self, and then shy away from it, as it were: “While she was putting on her coat, Thóra looked at herself in the large mirror. She knew it was important to make a good impression at the first meeting, especially if the client was well-off” (Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Last Rituals 12-13).

When the devil holds the candle

Still other instances put mirror substitutes into play, and I think we can agree that they clear the bar when those proxies are functional. Here are two examples of that ilk, the first borrowed from Karin Fossum, the second from Åsa Larsson: “Zipp could see the outline of his own face in the black of the television screen: a cowardly, wavering thing” (When the Devil Holds the Candle 222); “She looked at her reflection in the mirror that the roll of aluminum foil attached to the wall provided and where her face appeared cracked in a thousand wrinkles, before she tore off a sheet and handed it to Johnny” (Sun  Storm 172). Sometimes those proxies are human. Arnaldur Indriðason is especially fond of moments like that: “Looking at Steve, she saw her own anxiety reflected in his face” (Operation Napoleon 237); “Marion Briem’s eyes revealed clear pity and a sad certainty that they were looking at their own reflection” (Jar City 121). Other people’s faces can serve as very efficient mirror substitutes, often reflecting an image of the subject that is no less faithful than one that a more literal mirror might provide, if one is willing to embrace the phenomenon of projection that such scenes put on stage, that is. For this specular relation between the self and the other is patently a matter of projection, as Henning Mankell points out: “Wallander looked at Martinsson’s and Hanson’s tired faces and wondered what his own face must be like” (Firewall 68). In other instances of the same effect, Mankell underscores the fidelity of that projection for our benefit, confirming the information that the other’s gaze conveys by a more literal encounter with the mirror: “‘At your age you shouldn’t stay up all night,’ she said. Wallander looked at her with surprise. ‘Is it so obvious?’ She bent down and got her bag from behind the counter, then fished out a make-up mirror and handed it over to him. She was right. He was pale and had dark circles under his eyes. His hair was a mess” (One Step Behind 239).

Capture

As we move beyond these dubious, hybrid, or limit cases toward sturdier and more compelling examples of mirror scenes, it should be noted that their fundamental discursive mode is interrogative. That is, whatever else they may put on offer, mirror scenes portray a questioning subject; and the vector of that questioning points directly toward the subject herself. Gazing at his own reflection, a character in Kjell Eriksson’s The Cruel Stars of the Night articulates the question that quickens any mirror scene at all, be it overtly or more subtly: “‘Who is Stig Franklin?’ he asked the mirror” (275). We are squarely in the orbit of the gnothi seauton here, of course, and that’s just where we’ll remain as we trace the subject’s fate through three types of encounters with the mirror. The first type involves simple recognition, a moment wherein the subject comes across a mirror and recognizes himself or herself unproblematically. In the second type of scene, such recognition is not immediate, but progressive, and it involves a process that runs the gamut from the mildly difficult to the outright traumatic. In the third type, finally, the subject fails utterly and definitively to recognize himself—and I hereby promise not to dwell upon that morbid eventuality more than is strictly necessary.

Having postulated those categories so very categorically, allow me to temper their terms just a bit. For it must be said that the scenes of simple recognition one finds in contemporary Scandinavian detective fiction are very rarely simple. One does come upon scenes of that sort—”As the coffee was brewing, Wallander went into the bathroom. He noticed with pleasure that he looked healthy and energetic” (Mankell, The Fifth Woman 20)—, but they are few and far between. Most of the time, scenes of this first type involve something beyond the subject’s mere recognition of himself. In The White Lioness, for instance, Wallander’s recognition may be immediate, but it is problematized by the recognition of far broader truths about himself and about his manner of being in the world: “When he got back to his apartment, he stripped and stood naked in front of the hall mirror. ‘Kurt Wallander,’ he said aloud. ‘This is your life'” (182). He reads himself in the mirror in this moment of naked truth—and of course we read him reading himself, recognizing as we do so that what is fundamentally at stake in scenes like this is interpretation itself. Obviously, the principle of self-knowledge is deeply imbricated in scenes such as this one. Yet upon occasion the promise of unique identity that is implicit therein is put into question by the encounter: “He saw himself in the mirror and realized that he looked like thousands of other young people” (Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Cop Killer 274). In that instance, the subject recognizes himself without difficulty, but he fails to recognize his particularity, and by virtue of that the encounter has gone badly awry.

CaptureSjöwall and Wahlöö

For it is almost always the other who vexes the encounter with the mirror, whether that other be real or virtual. Sometimes, it’s a matter of checking one’s appearance in order to appreciate how other people will see us. That sort of moment can be relatively uncomplicated, like in this passage from Håkan Nesser: “She checked how she looked in the mirror. It’ll do” (Borkmann’s Point 131). Or this one, from Sjöwall and Wahlöo: “It was now eight o’clock on Monday morning and she was standing in front of her large mirror in her bedroom, admiring her suntan and thinking how envious her friends at work would be” (The Fire Engine That Disappeared 144). Alternatively, the moment can be significantly more fraught: “Carl took a step toward the mirror and ran one finger along his temple where the bullet had grazed his head. The wound had healed, but the scar was clearly visible under his hair, if anyone cared to look. But who the hell would want to do that? he thought as he studied his face” (Jussi Adler-Olsen, The Keeper of Lost Causes 3). Who indeed? But that’s just the point, of course, because whoever else may choose to look at Carl, we readers are looking at him, and in that sense we constitute one of the others that lurk on the edges of these scenes.

But we’re not the only ones, I think. For even if there are no other flesh-and-blood witnesses to these events in the fictional world, mirror scenes always suggest a doubling of the subject. That effect can be more or less pronounced. Sometimes it is merely a question of a subject seeing himself in an unexpected way, projecting an image of himself that he had not anticipated: “In the mirror behind her he saw himself sitting with an idiotic grin on his face” (Jo Nesbø, The Bat 80). Other cases suggest a deeper alienation of the subject from himself, as if I really were an other: “The mechanic stands next to me, gazing at his own reflection as if it belonged to some stranger” (Peter Høeg, Smilla’s Sense of Snow 213). Who is that stranger one sees in the mirror? Is he merely a pretext, a figment, a convenient and temporary construction enabling us to see ourselves objectively? Or is it really someone else, someone with whom we are largely unacquainted? If it is true, as Peter Høeg’s Smilla argues, that “you see yourself clearly only when you see yourself as a stranger” (Smilla’s Sense of Snow 395), are we to take that assertion literally or figuratively? For if it is indeed the case that mirror scenes put the act of interpretation itself in play, the manner in which we choose to interpret them must be deeply involved in the success or failure of the wager they stake.

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Consider for example this passage from Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman: “He had looked in the mirror as recently as the evening before and seen a tall, sinister figure with a lean face, wide forehead, heavy jaws and mournful gray-blue eyes” (55). One may choose to read that passage in a literal sense, in which case the moment becomes a very strange one indeed, and in some respects the reading experience is enriched thereby. Or one can read it more figuratively, imagining that the subject is impressed by the alterity of the image he sees, but not duped thereby. Those choices are conditioned by a wide variety of factors—and not least by extremely thorny questions of readerly desire. Like the White Queen, we can easily believe six impossible things before breakfast in the looking-glass world of fiction. And we may well seek the thrill of the uncanny while simultaneously attempting to normalize and rationalize a given narrative event. Faced with a passage such as the one I just quoted, most readers would opt for a figural interpretation, I imagine. And all the more so insofar as they are acquainted with the supremely rational Martin Beck. For he is a man who never forgets who he is, and no matter how unrecognizable his reflection may seem, he is always able to bring himself back to himself: “While he hung up his coat he glanced at his face in the mirror. He was pale and looked sallow and he had dark circles under his eyes. This was no longer due to the flu but to the fact that he had gone without much sleep” (Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Roseanna 61).

Other subjects are not as lucky. Karin Fossum’s Zipp Skorpe, for instance, is a badly broken man: “He stopped in front of a store that sold mirrors and looked at the dozens of tiny Zipps. It suited the way he was feeling: shattered into thousands of pieces” (When the Devil Holds the Candle 175-76). Still other individuals embrace that estrangement effect, putting it to use in an effort to get outside of themselves. Such is the case of a teenager in Henning Mankell’s Sidetracked, who makes himself up as an Indian warrior before committing the first in a series of murders: “The first strokes on his forehead had to be black. It was as if he slicing two deep cuts, opening his brain, and emptying the memories and thoughts that had haunted him all his life, tormenting him and humiliating him. Then the red and white stripes, the circles, the squares, and at last the snake-like designs on his cheeks. None of his white skin should be visible. Then the transformation would be complete. What was inside him would be gone. He would be born again in the guise of an animal, and he would never speak as a human being again” (12). In other cases, the recognition of one’s image in the mirror is a fundamentally unhappy event, because it triggers a sense of self-loathing. “She was 16, and had gone to stay with her mother in Malmö,” writes Henning Mankell. “It was a time of crushing defeats, the kind only a teenager can experience. She hated herself and her body, shunning the image she saw in the mirror while strangely enough also welcoming the changes she was undergoing” (Before the Frost 24). At least this character comes by her self-loathing honestly, for she is none other than Linda Wallander, the daughter of Kurt Wallander. And he is someone who has honed self-loathing to an art: “You flabby piece of shit,” he tells his reflection in the mirror, “Do you really want to look like a pitiful old man?” (Mankell, Faceless Killers 27).

Henning-Mankell-007Henning Mankell

In order not to end my discussion of recognition scenes on that sour note, let me point out a final topos that they commonly exploit. I have argued that the recognition of one’s image in the mirror is typically accompanied by the perception of broad truths about oneself. It is useful to imagine those truths as significantly mobile ones. That is, they shift over time, and that process of shifting leaves perceptible traces upon the face. “When he looked at his face in the rearview mirror, he thought that every scratch, every lump, every discolouration from purple to black was a memento of the week’s events” (Mankell, Faceless Killers 217). The cultural cliché upon which this passage plays is a familiar one, of course, but it bears special scrutiny in the present context. For if the face is indeed a kind of text in which a person’s experience may be read, two considerations follow. First, the situation of a subject gazing at her face in the mirror and reading the story of her experience thereupon is very much like the situation that we are in, as gazers and readers. Second, each of these scenes, whatever else it may seek to put on display, is not simply specular, but rather doubly so: that is, the mirror function is itself mirrored in a reflection upon representation and its possibilities.

Scenes of difficult recognition are fewer in Scandinavian detective fiction than in certain other regional traditions one might name, though I hesitate to draw sweeping cultural conclusions from that fact. As to the shapes they assume, I mentioned a moment ago that difficult recognition scenes run the gamut from incidents that are mildly disturbing for the subject to events that are far more traumatic. On the former end of that horizon, one finds scenes where it is merely a question of momentary hesitation before recognition sets in. By way of example, consider this scene from Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye, where Inspector Van Veeteren gazes absently into a mirror as he makes a phone call: “While he was waiting for a reply he observed the grotesque face glaring at him from the shiny surface above the telephone. It was a few seconds before it dawned on him that he was looking at his own reflection” (68). Those “few seconds” are readily dismissed, and the uncanniness of the moment can easily be rationalized by appealing to Van Veeteren’s distracted state, the fact that the “shiny surface” was not obviously a mirror, and so forth. Yet the face that confronts him is nonetheless “grotesque,” and its expression is “glaring.” Both of those features serve to heighten the strangeness of this encounter, and to broaden the distance between the subject and his image. Moreover, rather than dismissing the incident out of hand, Van Veeteren continues to reflect upon it, gazing upon his face as another person might do, or even as if it belonged to another person. “He was smiling,” he notes. “The corners of his mouth were raised to form a generous curve and gave his face an expression suggesting a touch of lunacy” (68). That coldly phenomenological description of a smile, and the conjecture of lunacy (rather than a more reassuring and conventional interpretation of a smile as a sure sign of happiness) testify to the difficulty Van Veeteren finds in coming to terms with his reflection. That impression of difficulty is further underscored by the comparison that Van Veeteren next invokes. “Like a posturing male gorilla,” he muses (68), and the analogy seems so apt to him that he pursues it: “he stood there glowering at the gorilla” (69). In other terms, what we find in this incident is an apparently trivial scene that opens onto an event far more disturbing, a conversation of self with self wherein the interlocutors stray ever further one from the other. Without wishing to belabor the point, it should be noted that, just as “simple” recognition is never really simple, so “difficult” recognition is actually difficult, in every case.

the-minds-eye

If time is at issue in that scene from Nesser, it is only a brief moment in time, those “few seconds” that it takes for Van Veeteren to recognize himself. More consequential stretches of time are often at stake in scenes of difficult recognition, however. Most characteristically, these occur when the subject finds it hard to accept that she or he has grown old. These scenes are highly variable, to be sure, but they tend toward the latter end of the spectrum I described, that is, toward trauma. “The face I saw in the mirror terrified me,” remarks Fredrik Welin in the final moments of the story he tells. “I had become old” (Henning Mankell, Italian Shoes 240). On the one hand, Mankell is playing on a cultural commonplace here, the one that holds that as we age, our sense of ourselves does not age at the same rate, so that we are often unconscious of how old we have actually become. On the other hand, when we do come face to face with our aged selves (and whatever the particular vehicle of that encounter may be), it is most often an occasion for mild surprise, rather than outright terror. Yet clearly mild surprise pays fewer dividends than does terror, when it is a matter of storytelling; and just as clearly, Mankell has chosen to accentuate the strangeness of this moment in his novel in order to heighten its narrative effect.

A similar phenomenon can be noted in Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Abominable Man, when Lennart Kollberg confronts himself in the mirror after having shot someone in the line of duty: “That person there has killed a man” (108). It is not that Kollberg cannot recognize himself; instead, that recognition is “difficult,” because it entails the acceptance of a harsh truth about himself. The estrangement effect is very pronounced when he designates himself as “That person,” and the effect is further amplified when he muses about other killers he has known: “During his years on the force he’d stood face to face with more murderers that he cared to think about” (108). What distinguishes him now from those others? And, more disturbingly still, what distinguishes the self he has always believed himself to be from the self he has now so unmistakably become? In other words, has he become someone else entirely?

Questions of that ilk can make the encounter with one’s reflection in the mirror a very painful experience indeed. “Every morning he looked into the little mirror on the wall and asked himself if he was staring into the eyes of a madman,” Mankell says of a character in Before the Frost (246). And of course that’s one way to rationalize the estrangement effect: I look unfamiliar to myself and thus I must be going crazy, because otherwise I would recognize myself easily. Yet such a gesture obviously creates a kind of feedback loop whereby alienation is accentuated rather than attenuated, and it thus points tantalizingly toward catastrophe. For pushed relentlessly to their limits—and why would we readers wish it to be any otherwise?—such moments can have only one outcome: the utter failure of the subject to recognize herself.

Throughout my discussion of mirror scenes, I have argued more or less stridently that the way they function is closely bound up in questions of readerly choice and semiotic desire. That is especially true of this third and final type of scene, which puts on offer an I who has in fact become an other. Now, whether we read that metamorphosis in a literal or a figural manner is entirely (or mostly, rather) up to us. For my own part, speaking as a mirror scene fundamentalist, I would argue that we must take mirror gazers at their word whenever possible. I am forced to concede, however, that some cases strain our credulity more than others. Consider the moment when Stieg Larsson places Lisbeth Salander in front of the mirror in The Girl Who Played with Fire: “She studied herself in the mirror and decided that Irene Nesser looked a little bit like Lisbeth Salander, but was still a completely different person” (68). It is very difficult to imagine that Salander fails to recognize herself here. For one thing, she is an exceptionally astute individual. For another (and more compellingly), she has just disguised herself as this “completely different person,” Irene Nesser, and she is checking the effect of her disguise in the mirror. In other terms, she is assessing the effect her disguise will produce when other people look at her. We have already discussed gestures like that one, of course, and I think it is prudent to dismiss this moment, reluctantly, from our catalogue of failed recognition scenes.

CaptureNoomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Another moment, again involving Lisbeth Salander, occurs in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and it is far more difficult to dismiss: “She had a dazzling view of Lake Zürich, which didn’t interest her in the least. But she did spend close to five minutes examining herself in the mirror. She saw a total stranger” (442-43). The encounter is far more uncanny than the one in The Girl Who Played with Fire. The abyss between the self and the reflection of the self yawns more broadly, and the language is more uncompromising. Reason tells us to interpret this figuratively, but desire urges us to read it literally. In this instance, one can really go either way; it is a shining example, I think, of a passage that teeters in precarious equilibrium right on the brink of this third and final type of mirror scene. Sort of like a funambulist, in other words. And what is it about funambulists that fascinates us, other than the possibility that they might fall off the wire? It is the very precariousness of their situation that keeps us breathless, and the danger that awaits them, below. Insofar as mirror scenes are concerned, that danger is defined precisely by the possibility that the subject might fail to recognize herself. It is a fear that haunts many of us, notably including those people who inhabit the worlds of Scandinavian detective novels: “What she feared most of all was to walk down the street and not exist, to step into the elevator at work and discover that the mirror reflected someone else, to exit the elevator and hear the poisonous tongues gabbing behind her back” (Kjell Eriksson, The Cruel Stars of the Night 110).

Jo Nesbo

It is that kind of fear, and the fascination it provokes in us, that fuels our reading of passages such as this one: “Harry went to the lavatory, splashed some cold water over his face and confronted his reflection in the mirror. Beneath his wet, closely cropped fair hair he saw a pair of bloodshot eyes with dark bags under them and drawn, hollow cheeks. He tried a smile. Yellowing teeth grinned back at him. He didn’t recognize himself” (Jo Nesbø, The Devil’s Star 40). And this one: “Kristín closed the door. A mirror hung in the hall and when she caught sight of her reflection in the glass on her way back to the living room, she did not recognize the figure in it: a gaunt-faced stranger with dark circles under her eyes and dirty hair, matted around her ear which was now red with fresh blood where the wound had reopened. She was wearing the thick snowsuit which was still stained with Steve’s blood. She did not know this woman. Did not know where she had come from. She stared at her, shaking her head with incomprehension” (Arnaldur Indriðason, Operation Napoleon 307-08). And this one, too: “He turned on the cold tap and tried to rinse the blood off his face. He did not recognize his reflection in the broken mirror. His eyes were staring, bloodshot, shifting” (Henning Mankell, The White Lioness 293). Each moment creeps closer to the moment of no return, to the moment of absolute catastrophe. Because if the subject can no longer recognize himself, what in the world will become of him? And what will become of us, granted that we have willingly suspended our disbelief in order to dwell in these fictional worlds?

For it is largely a question of suspense, I think. Moreover, in that very perspective it is we readers who are the funambulists, suspended vertiginously between what we know and what we wish, between experience and imagination, the real and the virtual, recognition and bewilderment. In such a parlous, tensive state, with all of our senses on the alert, we can learn a great deal about who we are and how we read literary texts. For each of these mirror scenes reflects us, too, and the gestures we sketch as we interpret them. They are eminently welcoming, integrationist tropes, in other words, pointing toward the permeability of the boundaries between the fictional world and the phenomenological world. They suggest that even the most committed rationalist among us has a role to play in an imaginary drama, whether that drama be bound up in the struggle of crime and punishment or in the dynamic of writing and reading, whether it be staged on the foggy plains of Skåne or on the comfortable hillocks of one’s own couch.

—Warren Motte

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Works Cited

Adler-Olsen, Jussi.  The Keeper of Lost Causes.  Trans. Lisa Hartford.  New York: Plume, 2012.

Edwardson, Åke.  Death Angels.  Trans. Ken Schubert.  New York: Penguin, 2009.

Eriksson, Kjell.  The Cruel Stars of the Night.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007.

Fossum, Karin.  Don’t Look Back.  Trans. Felicity David.  New York: Harcourt, 2005.

—.  When the Devil Holds the Candle.  Trans. Felicity David.  New York: Harcourt, 2007.

Høeg, Peter.  Smilla’s Sense of Snow.  Trans. Tiina Nunnally.  New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1993.

Indriðason, Arnaldur.  Jar City.  Trans. Bernard Scudder.  New York: Picador, 2005.

—.  Operation Napoleon.  Trans. Victoria Cribb.  New York: Picador, 2012.

Larsson, Åsa.  Sun Storm.  Trans. Marlaine Delargy.  New York: Delta, 2007.

Larsson, Stieg.  The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.  Trans. Reg Keeland.  New York: Knopf, 2010.

—.  The Girl Who Played with Fire.  Trans. Reg Keeland.  New York: Knopf, 2009.

—.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Trans. Reg Keeland.  New York: Knopf, 2008.

Mankell, Henning.  Before the Frost.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: Vintage, 2006.

—.  The Dogs of Riga.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2004.

—.  Faceless Killers.  Trans. Steven Murray.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  The Fifth Woman.  Trans. Steven Murray.  New York: Vintage, 2004.

—.  Firewall.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  Italian Shoes.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2010.

—.  The Man Who Smiled.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: New Press, 2006.

—.  One Step Behind.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  The Pyramid.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg with Laurie Thompson.  New York: Random House, 2009.

—.  Sidetracked.  Trans. Steven Murray.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  The White Lioness.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

Nesbø, Jo.  The Bat.  Trans. Don Bartlett.  New York: Vintage, 2013.

—.  The Devil’s Star.  Trans. Don Bartlett.  New York: Harper, 2011.

Nesser, Håkan.  Borkmann’s Point.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2006.

—.  Mind’s Eye.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2008.

Ohlsson, Kristina. Unwanted.  Trans. Sarah Death.  New York: Atria, 2012

Sigurðardóttir, Yrsa.  Last Rituals.  Trans. Bernard Scutter.  New York: Harper, 2009.

—.  My Soul to Take.  Trans. Anna Yates.  New York: Harper, 2010.

Sjöwall, Maj, and Per Wahlöö.  The Abominable Man.  Trans. Thomas Teal.  New York: Bantam, 1974

—.  Cop Killer.  Trans. Thomas Teal.  New York: Vintage, 1978.

—.  The Fire Engine That Disappeared.  Trans. Joan Tate.  New York: Vintage, 1977.

—.  The Laughing Policeman.  Trans. Alan Blair.  New York: Vintage, 1976.

—. Roseanna.  Trans. Lois Roth.  New York: Bantam, 1971.

—.  The Terrorists.  Trans. Joan Tate.  New York: Vintage, 1978.

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Warren Motte

Warren Motte is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Colorado. He specializes in contemporary writing, with particular focus upon experimentalist works that put accepted notions of literary form into question. His most recent books include Fables of the Novel: French Fiction since 1990 (2003) Fiction Now: The French Novel in the Twenty-First Century (2008), and Mirror Gazing (2014). He lives in Boulder with a wife, two sons, and a couple of dogs, in a house full of books.

Nov 122014
 

MooreLisa Moore

Alligator teaches us to embark on an absolute concentration on what the eye receives. Like hyperrealist painting, it alters our sensory perceptions of objects around us; we start noticing them and pausing on them once we are out of the novel. She [Moore] concentrates on the defocalizing power of a random element that does not fit within the machinery of life. —María Jesús Hernáez Lerena

Alligator

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The philosopher apparently meets our expectations by spelling out what the “reverie” of the refined poets and the commitment of the contemporary artist have in common: the link between the solitude of the artwork and human community is a matter of transformed “sensation.” What the artist does is to weave together a new sensory fabric by wresting percepts and affects from the perceptions and affections that make up the fabric of ordinary experience. […] What is common is “sensation.” Human beings are tied together by a certain sensory fabric, a certain distribution of the sensible, which defines their way of being together; and politics is about the transformation of the sensory fabric of “being together.” (Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator 2009, 56)

I am similarly ensnared by consumer products and culture, especially “junk foods” such as chocolate bars: I like to celebrate their blaring colours and slogans, and I like the noisy, chance juxtapositions of everyday things: the newsagent’s sweet counter, the magazine rack, the stall of souvenir t-shirts.” (Cynthia Poole “Exactitude IV” 2008, 1)

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Lisa Moore’s novel Alligator is fashioned by conferring the still life —the depiction of inanimate objects— primacy over other kinds of discourse. The narrative opens itself up to another medium in order to imitate methods of composition that would be otherwise fully realized in painting, thus resisting the naturalized impulse of narrative to become a transition or temporal process. By this transfer of the still life from one medium to another, I do not only mean that there are abundant descriptions of place and objects in the novel, since all novels depend on this explanatory apparatus [1], but that the mere sight of objects —a view the reader shares with the characters at all times—, becomes the center of gravity in their lives. Novelistic and biographical discourse is thus counteracted and transformed into a mode of understanding which does not depend on the disclosure of meaning through time but on the peculiarities of shape, color, and brightness that objects possess.

In this article I will attempt to describe Lisa Moore’s method of composition in Alligator and relate it to an analogous form of composition in the visual arts, particularly an artistic movement called hyperrealism, in order to throw some light on the epistemological implications of their common strategies. I will then discuss whether this perspective in the novel —a besetting representation of external reality— addresses or contests certain ideas of cultural distinction and community which are ever-present within the cultural context Lisa Moore belongs to, Newfoundland [2]. “Burning Rock” is the name of the writers’ collective where Lisa Moore began her career as a writer in St. John’s. The phrase refers to an unidentified burning object which fell into the sea off the Newfoundland coast. With this name, its members wish to point to the emergent incandescent energy coming from Newfoundland, The Rock, which until relatively recently was seen as marginal to or lagging behind Canada. They wish to conjure up “images of isolation and extreme subject matter”:

Geographically, we have always been an extremity: on the edge of a new, unknown world, the cusp of the Atlantic Ocean and the North American continent, our topsoil scraped by glaciers and dumped into the Grand Banks. An island on which, for centuries, it was forbidden to settle. And now, economically and culturally we have drifted to a state of emergency. The ball of lightning has burned past us and we stand stunned, dumbfounded by the experience. […] We live in a bruised landscape which cultivates extreme people with extreme stories. (Michael Winter Extremities 1994, xi-xii)

I will address two different but interrelated questions: first, how to think critically about our response to Lisa Moore’s particular invocation of reality in fiction; and second, does Moore’s particular depiction in Alligator of a group of characters in St. John’s constitute some kind of statement about sense of community in Newfoundland? [3]

My approach is conducted by a basic idea that underlies much of the theories of Susan Sontag, John Berger, and Jacques Rancière: the belief in the dichotomy between seeing and understanding. John Berger’s quote “Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight” (1972, 7) points at this basic premise: an awareness of the mismatch between what we perceive through our sense of sight and the elaborations of discourse. The idea that the image does not make you understand, that it only activates your sensory system, also runs through much of Susan Sontag’s interpretation of the photograph (1977, 110). For her, photography is the opposite of understanding, “which starts from not accepting the world as it looks” (1977, 23). How the world functions must be explained in time. “Only that which narrates can make us understand” (1977, 23; 2003, 89). According to her, muteness in a photograph is an attraction, a provocation; it “makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is” (1977, 24). The art of photography makes no invitation to understanding the world, but to collecting it (1977, 82). For Jacques Rancière, viewing is also the opposite of knowing: “The spectator is held before an appearance in a state of ignorance about the process of production of this appearance and about the reality it conceals” (2009, 2). Additionally, he believes that viewing is also the opposite of being active, “to be a spectator is to be separated both from the capacity to know and the power to act” (2009, 2).

Both critics agree that the photograph, the image in general, is a moral anesthetic, in spite of the fact that it may produce distress (Sontag 1977, 109-110). Our impression that we have come into possession of the essence of tragedy, for example, neutralizes horror, it distances us from it. As a result, history is transformed into spectacle because it possesses the qualities of beauty and eternity (Sontag 1977, 109-110; 2003, 99-103). “Despite the illusion of giving understanding, what seeing through a photograph really invites is an acquisitive relation to the world that nourishes aesthetic awareness and promotes emotional detachment” (Sontag 1977, 111). [4]

This idea of the binary image/word is supported, on a different front, by critics who could be termed sociologists of identity: Nicholas Rose (1997, 244), Charles Taylor (1996, 51), or Anthony Giddens (1991, 54), for example. For them, the self cannot be constructed outside words, it requires verbalization and narration: it requires the story of how things happened. There can be no such thing as instant identity. [5] For Rose “Language is one of the keys to our assembly as psychological beings. Only through lexicons, grammars, syntax and semantics can we organize our thoughts and formulate our intentions” (1997, 234). Psychological language is, for him, the main key to the modern soul (1997, 238).

In Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor (1996 18, 48) rejects the value of the immediate experience or the sudden rupture by explaining that our notion of ourselves only comes through the story of how we have become, the unfolding of how we have travelled to get here. According to him, not to use this framework for one’s life is to fall into a life which is spiritually senseless. “The sense of the good has to be woven into my understanding as an unfolding story” (1996, 47). The self cannot be punctual or instantaneous. Self-understanding necessarily has temporal depth and sense of direction, and incorporates narrative. If we think that we become different persons each time we are in a different situation or if we fail to meet the full challenge of making sense of our lives we destroy our chances for a meaningful life. When analyzing confessional narrative, Dennis Forster remarks that “[n]o matter how one’s experiences may be present in memory, the events of these narratives are understandable only when they are transformed into objects of consciousness, into histories rather than sensations” (1987, 10). His argument clarifies the dilemma of our considering images as mere stimuli that cannot substantiate “real” knowledge, which is only to be accessed through a contextualized historicity. [6] Thus, we seem to be immersed in a battleground where the warring forces are the dissociated images —objects which belong to the realm of suspended temporality— and articulated plots sustained by informed rationalizations. [7]

One paradox inherent in Alligator is that, although the novel’s plot is action-packed, it is structured around the perception of a few objects whose presence becomes overpowering. A jar, a metal Christmas tree, the walls of an elevator, the arrangement of objects on a restaurant’s table, a plastic bag that contains food, reflections of the city in a car door. The visual qualities of these objects are a magnet around which events and thoughts seem to rotate. Due to the intensity of gaze these objects are given, the novel’s plot, events, even the thoughts of the characters, seem to be beside the point. The characters’ past also appears to them in a clear and crystalline form: like light falling on surfaces.

In a narrative, a description does not materialize into a still life merely because an object is being described; the description resembles a pictorial still life when the reader feels that a frame has been put around a small section of static material reality and the surrounding area remains out of sight. The same object may be shown again but, contrary to common poetic strategies which turn the object into a symbol once it has appeared several times in the narrative —and it has become interwoven with events and feelings—, the still life retains its specific characteristics in isolation, impervious to the meaning-making processes that narratives per se impose. Alligator opens with a young woman, Colleen, watching some footage where a man surrounded by a crowd is taming an alligator. For some time the narrator focuses on a helium balloon tied to a little girl’s wrist:

The balloon looks like a hole burned through the sky. There’s no wind, but the balloon jerks when the little girl shifts her weight. It jerks to the side and bobs and then settles, becomes still. There isn’t a cloud. The little girl’s blond hair is spread over her shoulders and bits of sunlight come through it and some of her hair is full of static and it stands up and the sun makes it buzz with light. (1)

A spellbinding fascination arrests the pull of the narrative. We are clinging to a sort of tableaux vivant whose mise-en-scène leaves the temporal processes of the plot without a sense of purpose. Both character and reader are given the position of a stunned viewer, what we see is sharply outlined but slowed down and torn from context. This ocularcentric approach presides over Alligator; the reader is put inside metaphorical bubbles which somehow prevent a rationale. The impression that characters are in a bubble returns many times:

On the street the boy from next door was playing with a bubble wand. He pressed a lever in the handle and the wand opened out into a large diamond shape and bubble liquid shot up from the clear handle and coated the plastic diamond when he tipped it into the breeze and a giant bubble wobbled into the air and lifted from the wand, and it caught the reflection of the landlord’s Jaguar, which was parked outside the bed-sit and the black streaky gleaming car slithered on the curve of the oversized bubble. (225)

Slavoj Žižek claimed that repetition turns an element into a symbol, that it ascribes a metaphorical import to an event due to our need for transcendence. “The crucial point here is the changed symbolic status of an event: when it erupts for the first time it is experienced as a contingent trauma, as an intrusion of a certain nonsymbolized Real; only through repetition is this event recognized in its symbolic necessity” (1989, 61). However, this direction of meaning is at odds with the dynamics of our understanding in Alligator: the objects depicted do not become symbols. What we perceive is the intensity with which the narrator or the characters look at them. Once an object becomes a reference for something else, the still life somehow loses its force. This is because the reader’s pleasure originally lay in the actual physicality of the thing, not in its evocative or allusive power. This is contrary to painting, where still lifes have historically gone hand in hand with fixed metaphorical traditions. Whether or not we wish objects to become metaphors, the actual achievement in a medium formed by words is to be found in the materiality they seem to bring to life, in their rotund visibility.

Thus, the usual methods of characterization in novels are somehow put on hold in Alligator; there is no panoramic setting that may hold or explain characters. Readers encounter mainly the exigent presence of objects. The first time we meet Frank, a street hot dog vendor in St. John’s, we read:

FRANK’S GOT THE windows open and the warm night breeze jostles the handful forget-me-nots sitting in a Mason jar of yellowish water on the windowsill. A few petals move on the surface of the water like tiny boats on a still lake. The glass jar and the submerged flower stems are coated with silvery beads of air. There’s a housefly near the jar, bluish and iridescent, lying on the crackled paint of the windowsill, since Frank moved in a few months before Christmas, two days after his nineteenth birthday. (10)

After this still life we are informed of the string of events in Frank’s past that the narrator recollects for him: Frank’s mother died of cancer, he sold her furniture, he was evicted and moved to a bed-sit, he became a hot dog vendor in a sleazy street in St. John’s, an Inuit man hanged himself in an apartment above his, the police came and removed the body. But all these chunks of experience are related as if in haste, while Frank himself is standing, having a shower, thinking. There is no analysis, no comment: meanwhile the way objects stand before Frank’s eyes while he is thinking acquires a full dimension. The objects are explored as if with a magnifying glass: minimal spaces which the narrator makes conspicuous by describing the way the light makes them appear. These descriptions are not ornamental or explanatory, they form the very substance of the tale.

At this early point in the narrative the reader may not yet suspect that the overwhelming presence of objects may in fact not be there for the sake of our understanding of the characters, their moods, or their plights. After all, we could agree that the image of a preserve jar and a dead fly on an old window sill may evoke the emptiness, the silence, the vacuity of a life. As has been previously mentioned, having objects as projections of the character’s situation is indeed a common literary device. However, at the end of this chapter, Frank leaves the room and we read:

Inside Frank’s empty bed-sit, water drops travelled in hesitant, zigzagging paths down the plastic shower curtain, and in the window several air bubbles on the stems of the flowers in the Mason jar floated to the surface and broke soundlessly. The breeze nudged the flowers into one another and the stems tippytoed across the bottom of the jar. (17)

Then we realize that objects, this object here, is not a thing which irradiates emotion coming from a human source. The relevance given to the physicality of the jar, its inner workings —so to speak— alters our idea of Story itself, story defined as sequence of events or a flow of emotion. Alligator becomes a medium to render life as externality attached to trivial, inconsequential objects we do not normally care to perceive in their full essence. At the end of the chapter we have been given a glimpse of Frank’s life but after he leaves, the object (the Mason Jar) is the element that remains there to give a sense of closure to the chapter. The attention paid to the jar seems to reduce everything else to insignificance, to diminish the pull of narration by having us stare at a random element when the room is empty. What stays is the solidity of the object, the little changes in its appearance; the rest seems to be ephemeral, pure silence. Narrative as such evaporates and the way an object impacts our retina remains. The personality of the object becomes the priority.

The abundance of examples of the previous strategy in Alligator implies that the novel articulates our dependence on the visual mode as a mode of conscience. This affects the reading experience structurally: all fiction strives to make the reader visualize but some fictions, such as this one, engage in the visual as a literal index to reality, even when the image itself is outside the drama of the story. That does not make its “reality” less urgent. When we experience a moment of intensified perception, we put continuity and sequence on hold. And this is the way suspense is created here: it defines experience as visibility in a strictly physical sense and stops short at that, without offering reasoning in transitions. The author refuses to provide the consolations often implied in novelistic, biographical, or historical narrative. These explanatory structures often assure us that life is a journey which can be explained by the author, that we have access to the characters’ minds and understand them, and that we can morally assess their decisions.

The presence of objects through their materiality of glass, metal, clothing, plastic, skin, is insistent (Fig. 1). Their solidity is sometimes offputting, even fierce, and it upsets the fluidity that events, feelings, and thoughts are supposed to be given in a narrative. To focus on the way objects are depicted in stories leads us to the question of narrativity and narrative resistance, that is, to the questions: Is reality amenable to storytelling? and, can we translate reality into a continuous and coherent temporal sequence? Any story is the abstraction of a temporal trajectory, a humanized sequence of events or emotions, of accomplishments and frustrations, or psychological deepening and sometimes of healing. Objects, on the contrary signal an impasse, an impenetrability, the indifference of the inanimate world.

Fig.1-StevenSmulka-SolarSystemFigure 1. Steven Smulka. “Solar System.” 2011, Oil on Linen, 76.2 x 116.8 cm.

Other explanations of the function of objects in literature have run against the above-mentioned interpretation of objects as repository of absence and of aloofness. The latter interpretation of the role of objects in narrative has been given, for example, by genre theory. The short story as a genre does not seem to depend on the rendering of temporality in the degree that the novel does, and one recurrent strategy to enhance meaning is to use objects to which characters become emotionally attached in order to express, through them, the characters’ ordeal. [8] This paradigm for understanding the characters’ dilemmas is a model usually called “feeling behind the surface,” that is, trivial objects embodying conflicts. The objects contain a quality of latent lyricism and speak on behalf of the characters. They signal turning points in their lives, they implement a revelation or show the manifestation of something hidden. The effect is usually of tragic awareness: a detail, an object from the past, emits significance without explicative intrusion; it discloses the character’s essence. [9] Our associations may be false but they show us the mechanism of our thinking: we like to believe our actions and feelings do have an effect on our environment, on the objects around us.

However, the objects we find in Alligator are not so obviously there for the sake of the distillation of meaning. If they are disturbing and their presence cannot be shaken away it is because of the fetishized relationship characters have with them and also because of the author’s frantic attention to visual compositions of objects and light: they are not peripheral, they always remain sharply focused in a close-up mode. Lisa Moore creates a certain kind of bond between words and things, a certain responsibility within language to render ocular arrangements. A focus sharper than you’d thought possible, as a fellow writer said. [10]

Madeleine is another character whose experiences we trace and whose life is patterned through vivid perceptions of a number of objects. She is an aging film director, obsessed by making a film with iconic images from Newfoundland: a priest, a cliff, the foaming sea, the rocks, horses running wild. She tries to put together this scenario for the film, she gets into trouble because of the transportation of horses, she has imaginary conversations with the archbishop whose letters she found in the Roman Catholic Archives. But her obsession with capturing the essence of Newfoundland becomes somehow secondary when, almost at the end of the novel, she gets inexplicably, almost pathetically, fascinated by a metal Christmas tree in the middle of the summer. The narrator says on her behalf:

It was as though she had unleashed all of her loneliness. Her loneliness had been imprisoned in a tree, which happens all the time: and she had been forced by some evil spell to walk up and down the aisles of Canadian Tire, forgetting why she was there (clothespins), until she found the tree. When she got it home, the tree leapt out of the box, screaming absurd loneliness in eight different languages. A burning bush of shame, how old she is and weak-feeling lately and the film is lost and how profoundly alone with a ball and chain of a film around her neck. (180) (My emphasis)

This passage may be interpreted as a parody of one the best known revelations or epiphanies in the history of English literature, the one rendered in Katherine Mansfield’s story “Bliss”: an upper class woman looks at a tree in her garden and comprehends how mistaken she was about her life and achievements. When looking at a tree in full bloom, she realizes she has lost her husband and her best friend. Madeleine wants to uplift the idea of Newfoundland through images but instead finds herself attached to a cheap commercial object. Moore is responding here to the often trotted-out western tradition which unites objects and feelings. This becomes even more conspicuous when Madeleine says in addition to the previous comments: “There is no need to question the rightness of the tree. She wanted some stone stupid objects in her life that are irrevocably themselves” (181) (my emphasis). Clearly, objects do not have to stand for emotions. Moore is explicitly defining objects outside our need to turn them into bearers of significance. Their solidity may be the only source of comfort.

Thus, in Alligator, Madeleine makes her final, important point: objects are, after all, just objects, and not any other thing or idea, and she claims their validity as such. But although objects are that, just commonplace things, even if we need to attach to them some psychological import, the very juxtaposition of objects and feelings hints at the monstrous separation between inanimateness and the continuity of ordinary life, at the abyss between life and non-life. The act of looking at something and the way Alligator is studded with these images increases this very distance. No quantity of words can make up for life’s opacity. There are no doors for in-depth revelations. However, the final issue in this novel does not seem to be the encounter with the untameable inhospitality of reality; Moore’s novel conveys a recognition of its impenetrability as well as an offer of a certain kind of pleasure, a call to pause on the objects’ idiosyncrasy. Experience is both blazing and numb, as one character in the novel says about love (263). By inflating the status of the sense of sight, Lisa Moore offers us narrative as bondage: this term, taken from dictionaries of fantasy —so concerned with alteration in narrative– means: “an engagement with story not as process but as bondage, that is, being trapped by a particular place or physical shape that keeps you immobile, under a spell” (Clute & Grant 339).

Alligator does not only represent the case of one medium (narrative) and a genre (novel) taking on the nature of another medium (painting or photograph) and genre (the still life): it contains an explicit dialogue with a painting style, a certain method of rendering external reality that an artistic movement, hyperrealism, has made well-known in the last few decades. [11] Lisa Moore’s interest in genre hybridity may have to do with the fact that she is an art critic. She studied Art at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and is an art journalist for a variety of Canadian newspapers and magazines. In Alligator, a meeting between two characters takes on the iconic quality of the paintings of photorealists and hyperrealists: a shaltshaker is foregrounded, “It was ordinary, with a stainless-steel screw on perforated lid and a fluted glass bottom. The salt looked very white” (83). Two friends meet at a restaurant: “There were white truffles in small jars under lock and key. The ceiling was stucco with bits of mirror and the tablecloths were checked and the balsamic vinegar and olive oil were poured into a saucer that must have a matching teacup in the back” (174).

Frank visits Kevin, another poor child who, like him, had to be kept in a home as a child. Both have been beaten down by life and they meet at Kevin’s run-down flat many years later:

The rain came down hard, drilling the metal garbage tin, rising up like white fur from the slabs of the concrete that made up the patio, spiking off the arm of the plastic lawn chair. Kevin unwrapped the bologna and, peeling off the wax rind, dropped each slice in the sizzling margarine. (259)

The embarrassment they feel at the uneasiness of being together is replaced by a concentration on objects (their conversation revolves around a frying pan). These are all very clear cases of ekphrases, literary representations of visual art. Ekphrasis is a mode of narrative which speaks to and for works of art, not only about them (Heffernan 1993, 7): it is the “art of describing works of art, the verbal representation of visual representation” (1-2). Its difference from pictorialism is that the latter “represents natural objects and artefacts, not art.” Ekphrasis represents pictures. And in this case, pictures which represent photographs, which look like photographs, as is the case with hyperrealism.

Whenever there is a shock experienced by the characters it is associated with a certain kind of brightness, a colour, a piece of clothing that assaults the characters’ memories persistently after seeing it. Scenes in Alligator are transformed into “metal experiences,” also plastic and glass: electrified fences, coins, saltshakers, plastic nozzles, meat in fridges, sun striking the doors of cars, the remains of food on a dish, bottles: precisely the icons that hyperrealist writers have painted over and over again. There are too many coincidences to be overlooked. Coincidences in subject-matter, method and purpose, even ethics. One could even say that Lisa Moore is establishing an open dialogue between her strategies of written composition and the pictorial approach to reality that has become the trademark of hyperrealism. She has gone beyond fiction to converse with visual art.

Hyperrealism is a style of painting, although some painters and critics consider it a proper artistic movement, which seeks a perfection of resolution above all other painterly interests (Head 2009, 16). [12] Hyperrealists seek to achieve a hypnotic sense of objective presence. They want to make the real and the illusory indiscernible: reality in their paintings looks like a photograph. The photograph is indeed their technical starting point and from that primal source, they enrich its photographic reality, they make it more palpable, larger, impossible to obviate. The real is translated onto the canvas through the camera and then it is “photographed” by painting it. They make of minimal spaces and objects magnificent feats of physicality. Some say their work is more realistic than photography. They do not leave marks of brush strokes on the canvas; functionality is emphasized. They are said to be an outgrowth of the photorealist movement which started in the 1960’s especially in America, whose subject-matter was mainly cars, motorcycles, diners, fast-food emporiums, etc. They believed that their work should adhere strictly to the information found in the photo, as the photo was the object to imitate because in their time it was the supreme reality. They zoomed in on shop windows and through doorways. Most of the time they approached a culturally charged subject matter (American everyday objects) while retaining the objective stance: their aim to reveal banality and beauty, but also address the industrial wastelands of our civilization. Some well-known photorealists are Richard Estes, Ralph Goings, Charles Bells, John Baeder, Tom Blackwell, et al. [13] (Fig. 2 and 3)

Then again, at the beginning of the 21st century painters from a number of nationalities mainly exhibiting in One Plus Gallery in London, England, formed a movement called “Exactitude.” They showed a similar approach to reality to that of the photorealists, but this time they expanded their techniques and their range of subjects. They abandoned their fidelity to the photograph too. They added more detail than any photo would ever show and from the emphasis on urban wastelands and American cultural icons, they would move on to other less panoramic views in order to bring the contemporary commonplace to our attention. A certain amount of explicative literature has been gathered by them and about them. Certainly, the language painters and visual critics have used to describe their hyperrealistic methods and philosophy helps us to understand better the artistic qualities displayed by Lisa Moore in Alligator.

Figure 2-Ralph GoingsFigure 2. Ralph Goings. “Double Ketchup.” 2006, Pigmented Inkjet on rag paper. 22×32.75 in. Edition of 30.

Figure 3.- Randy Dudley, Coney Island Creek at Corpse Ave, 1988Figure 3. Randy Dudley. “Coney Island Creek at Corpse Ave.” 1988, Oil on Canvas. 28 1/2 x 54 in.

One of their maxims is that things deprived of their functions and of their context reveal their real status: “A thing stripped of its real function […] revealed to me the poetry of reflection, distortion and light!” says Dutch painter Tjalf Sparnaay (2002, 34). For him, the object is explored and discovered down to the smallest detail: “Under the realistic surface of this painting is the soul of the object, and essence we were never aware of before” (Introduction). He usually paints fried eggs, banana peels, half-eaten food, dishwashers, packaged meat, etc. He tries to find beauty in ordinariness and is fascinated by banal subjects unrelated to mainstream aesthetic traditions, the question being “is this thing really so ordinary?”:

Clean Crockery! A fresh start, gleaming as if nothing has happened, ready to be dirtied again. But then that is the whole point of crockery —and of the dishwasher. We are happy with it, although we never take the trouble to see how nice it really is. So I’ve done that for you. Our domestic and eating tools shine in all their clean-lined stupidity. (2002, 56). (Fig. 4)

Fig. 4-Sparnaay-DishwasherFigure 4. Tjalf Sparnaay. “Vaatwasser” (“Dishwasher”). 1998, oil on canvas, 185 x125 cm.

When trivial objects are contemplated in their timelessness, we obtain a renewed sense of reality:

Time stands still when I place these objects in a classical arrangement, removed from the context of their day-to-day surroundings. Ideally, this sense of timelessness is the way in which my technique is close to the 17th century Dutch tradition” (http://www.tjalfsparnaay.nl/index_eng.html)

Sparnaay talks back to classical painters by having their iconography transformed into a consumerist product, his most famous painting being that of “Meisje Van Vermeer in Plastic”, a version of Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” wrapped in plastic and with a price tag (Fig. 5) (see http://www.tjalfsparnaay.nl /overview/meisje_vermeer.html).

Figure 5-Tjalf-Sparnaay-MeisjeVanVermeerInPlasticFigure 5. Tjalf Sparnaay. “Girl with a Pearl Earring in Plastic”. 2002, oil on canvas, 75 x 60 cm.

These painters share an acute awareness of the visual overload in our contemporary society, but they accept the ubiquity of consumer products and attempt to create new relationships with them: “The visual overload we are exposed to day in, day out, has deprived us of the ability to look “purely”, in the same pure way a child, for instance, looks at reality. The visual harmony of things is dictated not, as consumer society would have us believe, by perfection, but by imperfection, idiosyncrasy and unpredictability.” (Sparnaay 2002, 46).

Another hyperrealist, Cynthia Poole, says:

Many of the pictures are of chocolate bars and crisp packets, either in newsagents’ displays or in vending machines. I like their vivid colour and strident competitiveness. These objects are normally only perceived as signage, their actual visual qualities, particularly in combination, are invisible —yet they make up much of the visual fabric of contemporary life. […] Again, that captivating combination of ordinary objects, vivid colours, and strong signage. Still close-cropped, taking still life outside into the larger urban context. [14]

Cynthia Poole is interested in the surfaces and signage of everyday things, mass-market, consumer items, so that she can rescue them from our familiarity with them. She thinks of her work as “contemporary still life.” (Fig. 6)

Figure 6-Cynthia Poole -DisplacedMintsIIFigure 6. Cynthia Poole. “Displaced Mints II.”2011. Acrylic on canvas. 100 x 120 cm.

Thus, they promote a sense of seeing anew through an intense gaze at objects that are otherwise background and meaningless. Their aim is to activate a sense of visual excitement with our immediate environment (Clive Head 2009, 12). They share a common optimism “which asserts humanity’s ability to create beautiful objects” (10). Sometimes they represent reality in an almost forensic way, like Vania Comoretti; [15]  their purpose being to bring clarity and focus to our lives, suspend disbelief, realize meaning in the mundane. Sparnaay claims that: “As a painter I seek my personal reality in almost trivial subjects. […] even a till receipt offers a voyage of discovery.” (2002, 102).

They also like to experiment with the borderline of meaning: how close does a close-up have to be before becoming blurred and decontextualized?:

I like to arrange the objects in a ‘modern’ way: thanks to the camera, we are overwhelmed by images; we are used to seeing multiple views of the same thing. […] I am also interested in the close crop: how close can you go before the composition becomes entirely abstract, or the context incomprehensible? (Cynthia Poole at http://www.plusonegallery.com/Artist-Info.cfm?ArtistsID= 382&Object=#Bio)

They sometimes openly manifest that theirs is not an art of social illustration or comment (Head 2009, 10-12), it is not an art which raises issues, or cultivates irony. [16]  Their dedication is to a world that has already shaped its identity; that is, there is no troubled relationship with “objective reality.” They say, we see what others miss and then make it compelling (Fig. 7).

Most of these painters are interested in a corner and not in the big picture, not in the architectonics of place and the archways of biography or feeling but, like Lisa Moore, only in that restricted visual space (or object) our eyes can apprehend with intensity. [17] They wish to possess the world and remove it from chaos (Head 2009, 12), or what is the same, from time. The world, or better, certain parts of the world are presented in a state of permanence, their object apparently, as Jean Baudrillard (1976, 1018) had claimed, “to enclose the real in a vacuum, to extirpate all psychology and subjectivity in order to represent pristine objectivity.” This project was common, for example, to the Nouveau Roman. It was an attempt to elide meaning by exhibiting the attrezzo of a meticulous reality.

Figure 7- TomMartin-OneofFiveFigure 7. Tom Martin. “One of Five.” 2009, Acrylic on panel, 90 x 90 cm.

Hyperrealism has sometimes been harshly criticized for being an art without soul, without a transformational end, that is, it has been regarded as unable to awaken consciences. Hyperrealist ethics, an extreme commitment to the reproduction of reality, seems not to be enough. After all, so-called “objective realism” has been downgraded from the early 20th century. Is this just art for art’s sake and therefore just barren aesthetics? Perhaps we are still clinging to a very limited definition of aesthetics, forgetting its capacity of awakening us into the qualities of the world. Or, could we say that hyperrealism represents the aggressive triviality of modern life and that therefore, Lisa Moore´s method liberates her portrait of contemporary St. John’s from all duty to depict inner states or to raise social issues?

Is the effect “glacial”, as some have said? Hyperrealists have been accused of not trying to depict inner states, to eliminate the presence and the interpretation of the painter. These questions about artistic positioning, as well as about method and subject-matter, bear on the impulse which generates Lisa Moore´s novel: her penchant for the still life, her close-ups of objects from kitchens and restaurant tables, her insistence on the city reflections on cars and windows, her habit of rendering people (characters) as patches of colours. The prominence of the surfaces of everyday consumer products turns her novel into a hybrid form: “The meticulous investigation of the events in a minimal space” as Vania Comoretti says of her work.

The way the biographies of the characters shape up in the novel is inextricably linked to their perceptions of a world made of glass, of metal. But do we perceive it as lacking in depth? Indeed, as in the case of Madeleine, there is a hitch between the character’s aims and their actual experiences; their sensorial input sends them off their tracks. Colleen, a young woman who wishes to act against the environmental destruction of developers in Newfoundland is caught out when she pours sugar into the fuel tanks of some bulldozers which belong to a business man in St. John’s. She wanted to save the Newfoundland pine marten from extinction. Her meeting with the judge is put in these terms:

THE ELEVATOR DOORS fling open and Colleen sees a judge heading toward her from the end of a long hallway. He’s in full stride, forehead first, the arms of his black robes billowing. The reflection from a tube of fluorescent ceiling light runs over his oily bald head like a charging train […] Colleen looks at the judge’s reflection in the brass panels of the elevator. His eyebrows hang down into his watery eyes. His face is warped in the polished metal. (18-9)

Just after this view, a whiff of perfume hits her and she immediately remembers a gift package of four bottles of Aqua Velva that she gave to David, her stepfather, for Christmas. The relationship of Colleen with her stepfather —the most important familial tie she’s ever had— will be told from now on through this object.

The Aqua Velva was the first gift Colleen had ever picked out by herself. A tower of boxes ingeniously piled one on top of the other, each with a corner slightly off-kilter so the stack rose like a spiral staircase. There were giant Christmas bulbs hanging from the rafters, carols bubbling wordlessly through the overhead speakers, shoppers in bright coats rushing forward and away like the bits of coloured glass in a kaleidoscope (20).

Before and after this passage, people seen at the supermarket are described within a dynamics of visual pyrotechnics. They become shreds of colours, the buttons on their clothes blinking: suddenly a close-up shows us the head of an obese woman in a wheelchair. “The grooves made by her comb were still visible and the pink of her scalp showed through.” (21)

How can Colleen remember the past in such a visual literality? Narrative is supposed to be the main medium to transform reality into psychological information, i.e., useful, therapeutic, but here narrative becomes a static medium more akin to a certain style of painting. Also, characters only remember themselves seeing something, their past only becoming remembrance through the visibility of objects. This approach gives a certain vision of identity. The self is defined as more punctual and instantaneous than narrative oriented; it is not given real agency. The cologne is the last agent in the chapter which tells about Colleen’s relationship with her stepfather:

The cologne eventually made its way up to the cupboard under the sink in the guest bathroom, behind the pipes, containers of Comet, cleaning rags. It remained there, even after David died, the plastic window of the box covered in a fur of dust (31).

The presence of this object permeates at least three chapters, but it does not crown an important episode in Colleen’s life. The cologne is placed outside a gigantic mechanism of causes and effects, rescued from a then-and-then narrative, from any kind of purposeful biographical arrangement. As a consequence of the high status given to the sense of sight, the narrative becomes the story of how objects put their imprint on us, how they assail us: in fact, everything else is defocalized by the spell that a banal element casts on us. It definitely blocks our reading habit of uniting objects and symbols: although the bottles of cologne can indeed be considered to stand for disappointment and forgetfulness, that dusty box that is waiting for our look there in the bathroom is not totally subservient to the character’s mental summary of her past. The visuality of the package challenges the passing of time, it refuses to be made absent, it makes the reality of feelings, the crazy turmoil of experience, recede, become tangential. It is as if the narrative proper, with its incertitude and all too human mistakes, would lie far away, muted.

An art critic said: “Stories may be told about animals, or even inanimate objects, but most Western narrative art depicts the vicissitudes of individuals in human form: men, women, children and the gods who take on their semblance” (Langmuir 2003, 11). Certainly here, humans seem to be more absent than objects, their burning wishes and fulfilments swallowed by a whirlpool, sent back in another direction, inapprehensible, unmanageable. In contrast, the permanence of everyday, commonplace objects becomes too familiar, almost threatening. And this method of composing a novel certainly reflects the way characters think of themselves. Beverly, Colleen´s mother, says:

She had come to think of life not as a progression of days full of minor dramas, some tragedy, small joys, and carefully won accomplishments, as she figures most people think of life —but rather a stillness that would occasionally be interrupted with blasts of chaos. (46) (my emphasis)

Alligator takes on the nature of the still life as a painting genre, and when it moves beyond it into a temporal dimension, the world of the characters explodes with grief and physical pain, like Frank, who is literally burned alive, one of the most horrifying sights we are made to look at in the novel. We see how his skin is transformed by the effects of fire; it is one of the climaxes of the novel rendered in descriptive slow down. The acts of perception of each character seem to originate in different dimensions of existence, there seems to be no thread that connects their personal circumstance so that we can reach a common platform for social analysis. The very idea of cruelty embodied in the dehumanized Russian exile Valentine, who sets a house and Frank himself on fire, is put in the background in view of the narrator’s fascination with the transformations of Frank’s body in the flames.

As in hyperrealism painting, in Alligator we have an altered state of reality through a meticulous depiction, taking human observation of the visible to an almost impossible realm. [18] But does this heightening of visibility inevitably provoke a trivialization of humanity? Is it a flat, clean, and thrilling art where the image is liberated from all metaphysical troubles?

Conclusions
Characters in Alligator are dissociated from large-scale setting and attached to common-place “universal” objects: crockery, cars, gifts, consumer items. These objects seem to bulge out of the page and they are presented to us at critical moments for the characters. They become pivotal and replace the role that psychological discourse often plays in fiction. The characters’ bond to the appearance of objects intensifies their isolation, trapped as they are by their overinflated visual perceptions. As a consequence of their fascination with the “outwardness” of objects, the idea of collective —of a common experiential space— is difficult to assemble or imagine in a novel where characters are given a more sensorial than social existence.

This narrative environment close to ekphrasis prevents the past from being memorialized. It cannot be passed to others as a legacy because it creates situations that are outside time. It precludes the possibility of offering a regional representational continuum made up of images that could be regarded as the epitome of Newfoundland, powerful as its iconicity has been historically in the literature of the province. In Alligator we find recognizable geographical and cultural facts of St. John’s, its streets, institutions, businesses, tourism, although the overall impression readers assimilate is that of the bleak realities of a city overridden by greed and short-sighted development practices. However, close attention to the dynamics of the novel prevent us from giving primordial importance to an interpretation revolving around loss or dilution of cultural identity. This is a fact at the start of the novel and the tone is not elegiac. Life is not seen as a collective enterprise and the transmission of information between individuals is not effected through storytelling; [19] there is either the isolation of intense perceptions, often happening in miniature domestic spaces, or an exposure to the violent realities of the world through the internet. The novel opens with a teenager, Colleen, watching an accident during a stunt performance with alligators in Louisiana; she then watches a man’s beheading on the internet while she eats a sandwich. In the unobserved intimacy of her room she can view the world’s detritus.

Rancière defined aesthetic and political communities in the quotation that opened this article. Through tactics similar to those of hyperrealist painters, Alligator shows us that the “sensory fabric” (Rancière 56) that characters share is personal and untransferable and if there is to be a community of sensations, it lies in those objects that everyone shares nowadays, objects that accompany us when we eat, watch TV, or shop at a mall. The second quote opening this article by hyperrealist painter Cynthia Poole attests the validity of that idea. This is the collective enterprise, “the distribution of the sensible” that Rancière alluded to, a globalized reality wedged into little worlds that, like Newfoundland, not so long ago were very different.

Another strategy which overrides the evocation of the uniqueness of geography —and the notion of connectedness among individuals in a community—, consists of forcing the reader to reconsider the status of narrative as process or plot by creating suspense through images unaided by any rationalization. Lacerating memories retain their physicality and cannot be appeased by the comforts of narrative: narratives are therapeutic, they tie things up. In a different kind of adventure —closer to the ecstatic nature of visual art—, Moore, like the hyperrealist painters, brings clarity of vision into focus by the isolation of detail. Moore makes us look at objects purely, as was Tjalf Sparnaay’s desire. There seems to be a resistance to take a step further than the impact caused by an assailing stimulus. Alligator teaches us to embark on an absolute concentration on what the eye receives. Like hyperrealist painting, it alters our sensory perceptions of objects around us; we start noticing them and pausing on them once we are out of the novel. She concentrates on the defocalizing power of a random element that does not fit within the machinery of life. The power of sight dismisses the significance of plot. By doing this, Moore makes problematic the conventional bond between image and message in narrations by showing us that the power of sight may reduce everything else to insignificance, to fuzziness. The paradoxes of hyperrealist art are the same paradoxes implicit in Moore’s style: does it give an intimate or a detached vision? Is her rendering of reality matter-of-fact or hallucinatory? Are objects reliable or menacing? This is a kind of psychic ambush, but it certainly does not foster a sedate or stultifying approach to reality, as some critics have claimed about hyperrealism.

The novel does show some concern with the modern overexposure to images, a problem which deeply troubled Sontag and Rancière, disturbed as they were by our “chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events” (Sontag 1977, 11, 28 and 30; Rancière 2009, 87). Photography negates the ephemeral quality of an event and once it makes everything permanent, the fact of considering one thing important and another trivial becomes arbitrary; discrimination is often beside the point. These critics have sensed the moral problems resulting from our saturation with the image, with the photograph; the analgesic effect of living in a world made up of overpowering visual display. At one point in the novel, Madeleine, the film maker, comes across a digital photograph of a naked man with his cuffed hands over his genitals. She is deeply shocked:

She brought the picture close to her face to see if she could see pixels, how the colour had been reproduced; she tried to understand the image. A blooming horror made her skin prickle; what was this photograph? It was a homemade joke about torture, folksy and kitsch, full of abject glee and hatred. She had left the egg boiling. The egg was boiling over. She went back to the kitchen and put the paper on the table. The shock of the photograph receded; shock smacks and recedes. She would not let herself think the word evil. The egg was rubbery. The photograph was evil. (170-71)

In this excerpt and the text that follows, we realize that extreme cruelty is unavoidably implicated and overridden by the little urgencies in our daily life. Madeleine soon forgets about the Iraqi prisoner, even after she notices his broken shoulder.

Although characters are occasionally allowed brief glimpses of the pain of others, Moore does not bear in the novel any representational burden, neither from the icons that may represent Newfoundland’s culture nor from an overly exhibitionist capitalist system. Thus, she somehow questions Sontag’s negative ethical interpretations of the overexposure to photographs that citizens in the first world are inevitably subjected to. Like hyperrealist painters, she has turned this overload of images of commercial items into a visual gift which can work toward creativity in art. There is celebration rather than rejection: of shapes and colours, also an impulse to foster a capacity for acute visual focus. Time and again in her novel we realize she does not show impatience with the image, that her approach is not fatigued or mournful, nostalgic for a time where the world was not so imaged-choked.

In Alligator people are defined for what they are, a portable kit of images. With them we try to possess the past and grapple with the present (Sontag 1977, 8). This definition of humankind rooted in the sensory does not mean that the novel’s final statement is to opt for visual entertainment removed from social discord. [20] There is deep reverberation beyond the sensorial. The emotionally neutral temperature of the still life in its coolness and detachment in fact intensifies the heated chaotic state of discomposure that the characters are experiencing. The intractability of reality, the resistance of objects and circumstances to bend to the characters’ purposes or understanding is a basic factor in realizing that the relationship between characters and objects is not one-way road.

There is another dimension added to this celebratory mode: all the characters seem to be spectators rather than actors. They do try to become agents in their own lives but cannot help behaving only as viewers. They build private spaces within which to be able to build protection against aging, failure, poverty, loneliness. Walter Benjamin (1936) and Susan Buck-Morss (1992) described a mental state where the individual, by looking at something other than himself, lets this otherness, usually inhospitable, invade his senses. As a result of this saturation of the senses, the powers for thought are paralysed. This understanding of reality as shock was explored by Benjamin to explain how modern society has created artistic mechanisms and commodities (phantasmagoria) that protect people from the excessive energies of external stimuli and from the harshness of industrial societies. The creation of cushioned spaces in the professions and in art is further developed by Buck-Morss, who located the threat of bewilderment and pain in the relationship between humans and the image. According to her, we possess a synaesthetic system through which the images we store in our memory get connected with external stimuli, thus creating an internal language that cannot be conceived of in conceptual terms (see Sarikartal 2005, 106). This language threatens to betray the language of reason, endangering its philosophic sovereignty. What is absorbed unintentionally resists intellectual comprehension, it baffles notions of knowledge as comprehension and confers instead climactic status on states of bewilderment. As Susan Buck-Morss explains, “all of the senses can be acculturated […]. But however strictly the senses are trained […] all of this is a posteriori. The senses maintain an uncivilized trace, a core resistance to cultural domestication […] they remain part of the biological apparatus” (1992, 6).

This existential stance undermines the polarity used against hyperrealist painting: the accusation that there is a prioritizing of aesthetic creation over reflexive criticality. Moore shows us in her novel pop-up images and the fascinating labyrinths of the mundane. Yes, she portrays characters as spectators, however, she shows the dangers of spectatorship. Characters keep trying to make cushioned versions of their reality that would fit their purposes, yet they live in a world of digitality which inhibits metaphor and transcendence. The digitalization of reality itself troubles definitions of what is real. Moore shows a world that is itemized through the image (see Sontag 1977, 22-3) and novelizes what to expect after humanity has gone through the saturation point, the image-choked world Sontag referred to. The consequences were diagnosed by Sontag (1977, 28): “The arbitrariness of considering some elements as trivial and some as important has been superceded long ago.” When all events are levelled, the result is lack of empathy: the world in Alligator has withdrawn the lines between the extreme and the trivial, between the relevant and the inconsequential or frivolous, the cruel and the desirable.

If we bring to mind how the notion of “Newfoundlandness” is usually codified, we perceive a marked contrast between Lisa Moore’s literary practices in Alligator and some manifestoes of national or regional identity, such as the one previously quoted, Extremities, which explained shared objectives by writers bearing witness to the same landscape and history. This declaration revolved around notions of extreme geography and extreme experiences, however, Alligator is constructed upon a foregrounding of globalized consumer objects.

Certainly Alligator’s message is not that geography is destiny, an idea which permeates much of the literature by Newfoundland writers and others writing about Newfoundland; the novel is almost a visual treatise on the materiality of new capitalist spaces. Alligator also runs against the idea of constructions of Newfoundland as a therapeutic space, where victims of capitalist modernity can pull themselves together and recover meaning. [21] Characters are not cultural artefacts and the plot is not contaminated by the stitches of historicity because the arbitrary intersections of emotions and circumstance provoke not so much a meditation on cultural heritage as an engagement in a densely displayed net of affective intensities. Moore’s technique prevents the past from being memorialized: she works on a common contemporaneous fabric of sensation that is often unnoticed but that nevertheless reaches everywhere.

How do we describe place now? Lisa Moore has shifted our ocular bondage to place from an evocation of landscape or cityscape to the hypnosis produced by readymade objects which do not transmit transcendental meaning or collective memory but a common sensory fabric, a certain quality of palpability devoid of conciliatory epilogues. [22]

—María Jesús Hernáez Lerena

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References

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Hyper-realism of Simulation” (1976). Art in Theory 1900-2000. An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Eds. Harrison, Charles and Paul Wood. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2010: 1019-1020.

Benjamin, Walter (1936). “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Illuminations. Ed. with an introduction by Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. London: Fontana Press, 1992: 211-243.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: BBC and Penguin Books, 1972.

Bowen, Elizabeth (1994). “The Faber Book of Modern Short Stories” (1937). The New Short Story Theories. Ed. Charles May. Athens: Ohio University Press. 256-262.

Buck-Morss, Susan. “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered.” October: Art, Theory, Criticism, Politics. 62, Autumn 1992: 3-42.

Clute, John and John Grant (eds.). The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. London: Orbit, 1997.

Comoretti, Vania. http://www.vaniacomoretti.com (Last retrieved April 2, 2012).

Demos, T. J. “Storytelling in/as Contemporary Art.” The Storyteller. Eds. Claire Gilman and Margaret Sundell. Independent Curator’s International. Zurich: JRP/Ringier, 2010. 83-107.

Fernández Prieto, Celia. “La verdad de la autobiografía.” Revista de Occidente, 154, 1994: 116-130.

Forster, Dennis A. (1987). Confession and Complicity in Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fowler, Adrian. “The Literature of Newfoundland: A Roundabout Return to Elemental Matters.” Essays on Canadian Writing, 1985: 118-141.

Fuller, Danielle. “Strange Terrain: Reproducing and Resisting Place-Myths in Two Contemporary Fictions of Newfoundland.” Essays on Canadian Writing. The Literature of Newfoundland, 82, Spring 2004: 21- 50.

Giddens, Anthony. Modernity and Self-Identity. Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991.

Head, Clive. “Foreword.” Exactitude: Hyperrealist Art Today. Ed. Maggie Bollaert. Plus One Publishing. London: Thames & Hudson, 2009: 8-19.

Heffernan, James A. W. Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashberry. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Hennessey, Simon. “Simon Hennessey.” In Exactitude, 2009: 144-153.

Joyce, James. “The Dead.” (1914). Dubliners. London: Penguin. 1992: 199-256.

Langmuir, Erika. Narrative. London: National Gallery Company London, 2003.

Mansfield, Katherine. “Bliss” (1920). The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield. New York: Penguin, 1981: 91-105.

McKay, Ian. “Helen Creighton and the Politics of Antimodernism.” In Myth and Milieu: Atlantic Literature and Culture 1918-1939. Frederictown, NB.: Acadiensis Press, 1993: 1-16.

Meisel, Louis K. Photorealism at the Millennium. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. Publishers, 2002.

Melnyk, George (2003). Poetics of Naming. Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press.

MacLeod, Alexander. “History Versus Geography in Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams.” Canadian Literature: The Literature of Atlantic Canada, 189, Summer 2006: 69-83.

Moore, Lisa. Alligator, A Novel. Toronto, Anansi, 2005.

O’Flaherty, Patrick. The Rock Observed: Studies in the Literature of Newfoundland. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979.

Poole, Cynthia. 2008. “Exactitude IV” http://plusonegallery.com/Shows-Detail.cfm? ShowsID=195 (last retrieved April 2, 2012).

Proulx, Annie. The Shipping News. New York: Scribner, 1994.

Rancière, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. Trans. Gregory Elliott. London, New York: Verso, 2009.

Rose, Nikolas.“Assembling the Modern Self.” Rewriting the Self: Histories from the Renaissance to the Present. Ed. Roy Porter. London and New York: Routledge, 1997: 224-248.

Russell Taylor, John. “Introduction.” In Exactitude, 2009:20-53.

Sarikartal, Cetin (2005). “Shock, mirada y mímesis: La posibilidad de un enfoque performativo sobre la visualidad.” Estudios visuales: La epistemología de la visualidad en la era de la globalización. Ed. Jose Luis Brea. Madrid: Ediciones Akal. 105-114.

Seifert, Martina. Rewriting Newfoundland Mythology: The Works of Tom Dawe. Berlin: Galda + Wilch Verlag, 2002.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. London: Penguin, 2008 (1977).

Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.

Sparnaay, Tjalf. Mega-Realism. Tjalf Sparnaay. Oilpaintings. Shilderijen. Amsterdam: Paul Baars Design BNO, 2002.

Takacs, Narayana. “The Ecstasy of Hyperrealism.” 14th International Symposium on Electronic Art. http://www.isea-webarchive.org/content.jsp?id=115442 (Last retrieved April 2011).

Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Trussler, Michael. “Suspended Narratives: The Short Story and Temporality.” Studies in Short Fiction, 33 (4), 1996: 557-577.

Žižek , Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989.

Whalen, Tracy. “′Camping′ with Annie Proulx: The Shipping News and Tourist Desire.” Essays on Canadian Writing. The Literature of Newfoundland, 82, Spring 2004: 51-70.

Whalen, Tracy. “An Aesthetics of Intensity: Lisa Moore’s Sublime Worlds.” Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, 23 (1), 2008: 1-20.

Winter, Michael (ed.). “Introduction.” Extremities: Fiction from the Burning Rock. St. John’s, NL: Killick Press, 1994. xi-xii.

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San Sebastian-2014
María Jesús Hernáez Lerena is an Associate Professor of American and Canadian literatures at the University of La Rioja (Spain). She is author of the books Exploración de un Género Literario: Los Relatos Breves de Alice Munro (1998), Short Story World: The Nineteenth-Century American Masters (2003), and co-author of Story Time: Exercises in the Study of American Literature for Advanced Students of English (1999) with Julieta Ojeda and James Sullivan. She co-edited the volume Canon Disorders: Gendered perspectives on Literature and Film in Canada and the United States (2007) with Eva Darias Beautell. She is the former editor of Journal of English Studies (University of La Rioja) and teaches graduate courses on Canadian literature within a doctoral program awarded a quality distinction by the Spanish Ministry of Education. She has published essays on English, American and Canadian writers such as Wyndham Lewis, Sarah Orne Jewett, Alice Munro, Carol Shields, Douglas Glover, Katherine Govier, Barbara Gowdy, Michael Crummey, etc. Some of her articles and interviews can be found in the journals Toronto University Quarterly, Canadian Literature, British Journal of Canadian Studies, Arc Poetry Magazine, Wyndham Lewis Annual, Atlantis, Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change, etc., and in the books Visions of Canada Approaching the Millennium (1999); Wyndham Lewis the Radical: Essays on Literature and Modernity (2007); Canada Exposed/ Le Canada à découvert (2009); Unruly Penelopes and the Ghosts: Narratives of English Canada (2011); Short Story Theories: A Twenty-First-Century Perspective (2012). Forthcoming is her edited book: Pathways of Creativity in Contemporary Newfoundland and Labrador.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Description and narration are not clear‐cut categories, there is usually instability of their boundaries. Nevertheless, some texts show a marked tendency to one or the other direction. See Heffernan (1993, 6).
  2. Some of the recurrent topics in Newfoundland literature have been the idea of extreme geography, rugged individuals, fraternal communities in the outports, a tradition of orality, and loss of nationhood. See O´Flaherty (1979), Adrian Fowler (1985), Seifert (2002), or MacLeod (2006).
  3. Lisa Moore belongs to a young established generation of Newfoundland writers who, after Wayne Johnston, have become well‐known beyond their region. Together with other writers such as Michael Winter, Michael Crummey, Kenneth Harvey, Ed Riche, Jessica Grant, Joel Thomas Hynes, etc., they represent the literary present and future in Newfoundland.
  4. Rancière poses that the intolerable image, the image which shows pain or infliction of pain does not necessarily imply or call for action or engagement, since we live “a single regime of universal exhibition”: “the mere fact of viewing images that denounce the reality of a system already emerges as complicity with this system” (2009, 85).
  5. Fernández Prieto (1994, 124‐25) claims that there is no identity previous to the act of narration. In order to achieve a sense of the self, we have to become a narrator and construct a plot in which we fashion some of our pasts as characters. Giddens (1991, 54) asserts that we are not to find a person’s identity in behavior, or in the others’ reactions, but in his or her ability to keep a particular narrative going. The self is no longer a list of qualities, but a narrator in search of coherence.
  6. Melnyk (2003, x) is another author who has reflected on this dilemma: “We know that reality is separate from language and beyond language, although language claims to offer us the truth of reality. At the same time we are not comfortable in a reality beyond the explanations of our language. If we find ourselves in a situation that is unexplainable we become either fearful or we struggle to find within our language some explanation. Trapped in the discourse created by our culture and our time, we are lost without it.”
  7. Photographs make us confuse beauty with truth, according to Sontag (1977, 112): “the truths that can be rendered in a dissociated moment, however significant or decisive, have a very narrow relationship with the needs of understanding.”
  8. See Elizabeth Bowen (1994, 262) and Michael Trussler (1996, 558).
  9. Well‐known examples are the pear tree in Katherine Mansfield’s story “Bliss” (1920) or the snow in Joyces’ story “The Dead” (1914).
  10. See Tracy Whalen’s (2008) view on the scope of Lisa Moore’s rendition of hyper‐sensory details.
  11. See Takacs for a definition of the hyperreal in the context of digital art and the contemporary indiscernibility between the actual and the virtual.
  12. See Clive Head (2009, 8‐19) and John Russell Taylor (2009, 20‐53) for a manifesto of hyperrealist principles. Some hyperrealist painters of a variety of nationalities are Tom Martin, Tjalf Sparnaay, Cynthia Poole, Pedro Campos, Ben Schonzeit, Paul Bèliveau, Cesar Santander, Steve Smulka (Fig. 1), etc. Literature on and reproductions of hyperrealist paintings can be found at the following websites: http://www.justart‐e.com/; http://www.meiselgallery.com/; http://www.tjalfsparnaay.nl/home.html; http://hyper‐tom.deviantart.com/. Apart from Bèliveau, there are other Canadian hyperrealists who use the photograph as their starting point: Robert Potvin, Wayne Mondock, Merv Brandel, Olaf Schneider, Brandi Deziel, Evan Penny (sculptor), etc. however, not all their work would be closely related to the hyperrealist impulse. In Newfoundland we can also find paintings by Helen Parsons Shepherd and Mary Pratt. Lisa Moore’s iconicity in Alligator, however, does not seem to be related to the Canadian painters but to less panoramic artists who obsessively represent certain kinds of objects mainly related to an urban American tradition.
  13. See Louis K. Meisel (2002) for an introduction by Linda Chase and for excellent reproductions of paintings by most photorealists.
  14. In http://www.plusonegallery.com/Artist‐Info.cfm?ArtistsID=382&InTheNews=1&Object= #Press (Last retrieved April 2, 2012).
  15. See her pictures at http://www.vaniacomoretti.com (Last retrieved April 2, 2012).
  16. An exception would be Denis Peterson, whose astonishing paintings of poverty and marginality pose as call‐to‐action photographs. See, for example, “A Tombstone Hand and a Graveyard Mind” in his exhibition “Don’t Shed No Tears” at http://www.denispe terson.com/.
  17. These painters had a hostile or rather indifferent critical response. According to Clive Head, the brainchild of Exactitude in Europe, “The art world is predominantly a place for political or social pronouncement, not a forum for aesthetic development” (2009, 14). After so much conceptual art, they think of their realism today in terms of avant‐garde. There are websites devoted to them which engage in making this kind of art known to the public. See, for example, “Deviant Art” (http://hyper‐tom.deviantart.com/gallery/#). Clive Head (2009, 18) claims that “Exactitude occupies a very particular stance within the contemporary scene. Undeniably rooted in their own personal creativity, these artists nevertheless present a collective position against the philosophical underpinnings of the mainstream. What might be seen as a conventional pursuit in another era could be regarded as radical in today’s context. The failure of the media and large art institutions to embrace this art only intensifies its outsider status, consolidating it as an avant‐garde movement.” A return to representation was seen as a retrograde step. See also Russell Taylor (2009, 33‐45) for a discussion on the criticism to this art and a meditation on the use of photography in painting.
  18. “There are certain qualities produced by the camera that do not exist in reality; they are only present in the hyper‐realist world of photography”, says Simon Hennessey, a hyperrealist painter who exaggerates the qualities in conventional photographic portraits of people. (Bollaert 2009, 144).
  19. This is somehow surprising for an author coming from Newfoundland, an island who has historically possessed an acute sense of independence based on a distinctive cultural legacy and a political past separate from Canada. Moore’s style is at odds with usual modes of transmission of cultural memory, namely storytelling, usually revolving around episodes of the national past, sense of place, the rural idyll (or tragedy), and on a reassuring sense of human connectedness in small communities.
  20. See T. J. Demos (2010) for a meditation of the status of storytelling in contemporary art and cultural industry.
  21. See Danielle Fuller (2004) and Ian McKay (1993) for the ideological dangers of romantic constructions of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. A notorious case is Annie Proulx’s novel The Shipping News, harshly criticized in Newfoundland for its inaccurate and stereotyped representations of the place (see Tracy Whalen 2004).
  22. An earlier version of this paper was published as “Still Lifes: The Extreme and the Trivial in Lisa Moore’s Novel Alligator” in the electronic journal Canada and Beyond 1, 1‐2 (2011). http://www.canada‐and‐beyond.com.
Nov 082014
 

Frank Richardson bio pict 2The author outside a bakery in Bamberg, Germany

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For a long time, as I read, I paid no more attention to the length of sentences than I did to their grammar or syntax. It wasn’t until I discovered Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu that I learned to appreciate how long and short sentences can be juxtaposed for emphasis and how syntax can mimic the flow of thought and action. Of course, Proust is famous for his long sentences, some of which extend well beyond 200 words; these sentences intrigued me the most. The closest analogy I can imagine is that discovering Proust’s long sentences was like discovering a new genre of music, as if I had lived my life without knowing there existed such things as symphonies. If prose is like music, then some types of writing must resonate with particular people just as we have different musical tastes, and Proust’s swirling syntax certainly resonated with me. Eyes opened, I pursued the subject and discovered the rich variety of ways other writers employ long sentences to dramatize the actions and thoughts of characters.

But why labor to construct a 200-word-long sentence when a dozen shorter sentences can communicate the same information and not task the reader’s attention and patience? A sentence is greater than the sum of its propositions. A sentence’s syntax – the order in which the words of the sentence are arranged – affects its emotional impact, e.g. placing a proposition at the end of a sentence engenders suspense. But the possibilities extend far beyond this simple example. In Artful Sentences Virginia Tufte limns an incredible range of syntactic arrangements that function symbolically. She describes “syntactic symbolism” as when “syntax as style has moved beyond the arbitrary, the sufficient, and is made so appropriate to content that, sharing the very qualities of the content, it is carried to that point where it seems not only right but inevitable” (271). In the following excerpt from the novel Correction, Thomas Bernhard uses repetitive syntax to symbolically represent the protagonist’s mania for perfection, viz. he corrects himself while explaining the process of correction:

We’re constantly correcting, and correcting ourselves, most rigorously, because we recognize at every moment that we did it all wrong (wrote it, thought it, made it all wrong), acted all wrong, how we acted all wrong, that everything to this point in time is a falsification, so we correct this falsification, and then we again correct the correction of this falsification . . . (242)

Tufte cites many examples to illustrate the diversity of emotional and mimetic effects of syntactic symbolism. What Tufte calls syntactic symbolism, David Jauss calls “rhythmic mimesis” and notes that “sometimes the syntax does more than convey the appropriate emotion; sometimes it also rhythmically imitates the very experience it is describing . . .” (70-71).[1] The rhythm of the syntax in Bernhard’s prose conveys the protagonist’s exasperation while simultaneously informs on his character. But the “experience” Jauss refers to can mean movement, whether physical action or the more nebulous movement of human thought. I’ve found these types of motion mimesis to be particularly effective applications of the extended syntax of long sentences.

Thomas.BernhardThomas Bernhard

It is important to note that neither Tufte nor Jauss restrict their examples to long sentences; rhythmic mimesis can be conveyed by sentences of all lengths. But given my penchant for longer sentences, I began looking for how they might be used in the manner Jauss and Tufte describe. After surveying a wide range of fiction (different time periods, genres, narrative modes, etc.), I noticed a pattern whereby authors applied long sentences effectively to create a rhythmic mimesis of motion, speech, consciousness, and even character. In the last category a long list can be used to communicate a fictional character’s character, as exemplified by Nicholson Baker’s obsessive memoirist in The Mezzanine. Motion mimesis – using prose to imitate actions – is an excellent use of long sentences with stunning examples found in such diverse works as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, many of Faulkner’s stories, and the fiction of David Foster Wallace. Spoken language is no less rhythmic than written, and the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal demonstrates that long sentences can be used to capture the personality and style of a teller of tall tales in his 1964 Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age. In the depiction of the conscious mind in fiction, James Joyce’s achievement in Ulysses still exemplifies how the syntax of long sentences can mimic the rhythm of thought. Two contemporary writers who answered the challenge of capturing the mind’s stream of consciousness include: David Foster Wallace, who in Infinite Jest takes the reader into the realm of the subliminal, of dreams and drug-induced states; and the French writer Mathias Énard, who pushes the boundaries of what we call a sentence even further than Joyce, with his book-length sentence in his 2008 novel Zone.

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The List

The most obvious reason to add propositional content to a sentence is to increase the amount of descriptive detail, and long sentence constructions often contain lists. But the point isn’t to string together a random catalogue of items just to fill the page: lists can elucidate character.

Nicholson Baker’s novel The Mezzanine is a daydream, a meditation on life, on questions large and small. The story, presented as a memoir, is told in first-person point of view by Howie, a thirty-year-old factotum obsessed by his childhood. The novel is short, 135 pages, composed of fifteen chapters, many of which have long, detailed footnotes wherein the narrator indulges his love for digression. Howie’s conflict is with himself. He wants to achieve what he calls a “majority,” that is, a moment when he will have “amassed enough miscellaneous new mature thoughts to outweigh and outvote all of those childish ones” – the age of forty, by his calculations – but his obsessive recollections, his seeing the world through the screen of childhood memories, remains his primary obstacle (Baker 58). The novel’s plot is built around a single event – an escalator ride – during an ordinary day five years prior to the novel’s present (its fictional time of writing). At that time, Howie worked at an unnamed corporation and takes us from his lunch break back to his office on the building’s mezzanine, with the escalator ride serving as the focal point. In a narrative where there are more tangents than forward motion, a reader might become overwhelmed with the apparently superfluous anecdotes, but these memories, meditations, and observations – and Baker’s seamless segues between them – are the real magic of The Mezzanine.

Nicholson_BakerNicholson Baker

The story begins as the Howie’s lunch hour is ending and he is approaching the escalator leading to the mezzanine of his office building. Howie is an obsessive, voracious observer of the world around him and delights in sharing his observations in this “memoir.” Mid-way through the second paragraph he digresses to inform us about his activities during his lunch hour, including a two-page-long footnote on the history of drinking straws. Thus, it becomes clear early that this escalator ride is going to take some time to complete; indeed, it will take the remainder of this engaging and richly imagined novel. By chapter five Howie hasn’t even stepped onto the escalator; the story has focused on his past. The first paragraph of chapter five is composed of three short sentences and one long cumulative sentence (341 words) that enumerates Howie’s favorite “systems of local transport” as a child, including rotisseries, rotating watch displays, hot dog cookers, and, of course, escalators:

Other people remember liking boats, cars, trains, or planes when they were children – and I liked them too – but I was more interested in systems of local transport: airport luggage-handling systems (those overlapping new moons of hard rubber that allowed the moving track to turn a corner, neatly drawing its freight of compressed clothing with it; and the fringe of rubber strips that marked the transition between the bright inside world of baggage claim and the outside world of low-clearance vehicles and men in blue outfits); supermarket checkout conveyor belts, turned on and off like sewing machines by a foot pedal, with a seam like a zipper that kept reappearing; and supermarket roller coasters made of rows of vertical rollers arranged in a U curve over which the gray plastic numbered containers that held your bagged and paid-for groceries would slide out a flapped gateway to the outside; milk-bottling machines we saw on field trips that hurried the queueing [sic] bottles on curved tracks with rubber-edged side-rollers toward the machine that socked milk into them and clamped them with a paper cap; marble chutes; Olympic luge and bobsled tracks; the hanger-management systems at the dry cleaner’s – sinuous circuits of rustling plastics (NOT A TOY! NOT A TOY! NOT A TOY!) and dimly visible clothing that looped from the customer counter way back to the pressing machines in the rear of the store, fanning sideways as they slalomed around old men at antique sewing machines who were making sense of the heap of random pairs of pants pinned with little notes; laundry lines that cranked clothes out over empty space and cranked them back in when the laundry was dry; the barbecue-chicken display at Woolworth’s that rotated whole orange-golden chickens on pivoting skewers; and the rotating Timex watch displays, each watch box open like a clam; the cylindrical roller-cookers on which hot dogs slowly turned in the opposite direction to the rollers, blistering; gears that (as my father explained it) in their greased intersection modified forces and sent them on their way. (35-36)

Howie follows this long catalogue with a short sentence, telling us that the escalator shared qualities with these systems with one notable exception: he could ride the escalator. This telescopes his childhood obsession into adulthood – he can, after all, still ride escalators – where the escalators stimulate Proustian involuntary memories of childhood including, he tells us, memories of his and his father’s shared “mechanical enthusiasms” and of the specific memory of his mother taking him and his sister to department stores and instructing them on escalator safety. This memory, in turn, stirs his concern that he spends too much time (in the present of his writing, not the time of his riding the escalator) thinking of things exclusively in terms of his childhood memories, an epiphany that sets up the last paragraph, a précis for the novel:

I want . . . to set the escalator to the mezzanine against a clean mental background as something fine and worth my adult time to think about . . . I will try not to glide on the reminiscential tone, as if only children had the capacity for wonderment at this great contrivance.[2] (39-40)

True to his digressive tendencies, however, the escalator won’t be mentioned again until chapter eight, and it is not until the midpoint in the novel that Howie actually boards the escalator.

Baker’s long list sentence adds character detail to this dense tale. First, note his eye for specifics: the “blistering” of the hot dogs, the “men in blue” at the airport. Second, he uses metaphor and simile: the “new moons of hard rubber” and watch boxes “like open clams.” Thus, the list not only informs on Howie’s whimsical, yet poetic and reflective nature, but also shows us, by example, his obsessive behavior. Howie acknowledges he likes the things other children liked, only he liked something else more, something odd, something unusual; and then he shows us how much it all meant to him with his detailed recollection. Once Howie begins his recollection, he becomes lost in it; his list goes on and on and he can hardly break free from its hold on him as new things are added and elaborated in fractal-like digressions. Howie spirals into many such lavishly detailed memories and the long sentences convey his sense of being lost in contemplation. Despite his continuing attempts to escape the gravitational pull of his childhood, Howie keeps being drawn deep into memory. A convincing stylistic choice, this long list sentence adds detail while simultaneously revealing character through syntactic symbolism – the long, uninterrupted flow of Howie’s list shows us his obsession with his childhood.

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Motion Mimesis

Syntagmatic extension of a sentence always has one consequence: it keeps the reader in the moment. Except for perhaps sentences that run for pages, most readers will read to the end of a long sentence before making a full stop at the period. Dwelling on the action can have several effects depending on the subject, including heightening the emotional impact of the moment, whether that is grief or joy, ecstasy or terror. When actions are depicted by the sentence, the rhythm of the prose can lend itself to mimicking the character’s movement. An excellent example of such motion mimesis is found in the climax of William Faulkner’s 1939 short story “Barn Burning.”

“Barn Burning” is a coming-of-age story set in the post-Civil War American South. The 23-page story has a linear timeline, is written in the past tense, and covers six days, from a Monday through a Saturday. The third-person limited point of view focuses on the thoughts of the protagonist, the ten-year-old Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes, youngest of the four Snopes children. The paterfamilias, Abner Snopes, is a violent sociopath, and at the beginning of the story he is a suspect in the burning of a barn. After being found not guilty, he loads up his family for the twelfth time in ten years and moves to the next hamlet to find a work on a farm. The day they arrive Snopes indulges his hatred and jealousy by going to the house of the landowner Major de Spain and deliberately soiling an expensive carpet with horse manure. When asked to clean the rug, Snopes destroys it in the process. In court for the second time within a week, Snopes is fined ten bushels of corn; enraged, that night he sets out to burn de Spain’s barn. When he sees that Sarty is shocked, he becomes worried that his son will thwart his plans and has him held back by his mother. After Snopes and the older son leave, Sarty breaks loose and runs to the de Spain mansion where he bursts in and warns them of the imminent arson. Sarty flees down the road toward the barn and is soon passed by de Spain on horseback. Hearing three shots, Sarty believes his father dead and runs away, leaving his family forever. The primary image of “Barn Burning” is “blood,” which Faulkner uses eight times and always in the context of Sarty and his father or family. In the climax Sarty must choose between his father, his blood, and what he feels is the moral, right choice of warning de Spain.

lg-portrait-of-william-faulkner-896William Faulkner

Young Sartoris has an apparently instinctive sense of right and wrong that jars with his father’s violent, malicious behavior. In the opening scene when his father is before “the Justice,” the boy knows his father is guilty: “He aims for me to lie, he thought, again with that frantic grief and despair. And I will have to do hit” (Faulkner 4); and two days later, after his father is told by Major de Spain that he’ll have to pay twenty bushels of corn for destroying the rug, Sarty, working in the field, hopes that this will mark the end of his father’s reign of terror; he thinks: “Maybe it will all add up and balance and vanish – corn, rug, fire; the terror and grief, the being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses – gone, done with for ever and ever” (17). He can’t believe it when his father tells him to get the oil; he knows what his father intends to do. As Sarty is fleeing down the road after warning de Spain, his “blood and breath roaring,” he is in a semi-fugue state:

He could not hear either: the galloping mare was almost upon him before he heard her, and even then he held his course, as if the very urgency of his wild grief and need must in a moment more find him wings, waiting until the ultimate instant to hurl himself aside and into the weed-choked roadside ditch as the horse thundered past and on, for an instant in furious silhouette against the stars, the tranquil early summer night sky which, even before the shape of the horse and rider vanished, stained abruptly and violently upward: a long, swirling roar incredible and soundless, blotting the stars, and he springing up and into the road again, running again, knowing it was too late yet still running even after he heard the shot and, an instant later, two shots, pausing now without knowing he had ceased to run, crying “Pap! Pap!”, running again before he knew he had begun to run, stumbling, tripping over something and scrabbling up again without ceasing to run, looking backward over his shoulder at the glare as he got up, running on among the invisible trees, panting, sobbing, “Father! Father!” (24)

The motion described by the sentence begins with de Spain’s galloping mare gaining on Sarty and continues with him flinging himself into the ditch. After the stunning pause with the juxtaposition of “furious silhouette” and “tranquil . . . night sky (“stained” as blood stains), the motion then gathers momentum as Sarty resumes his sprint. What follows are sixteen more verbs, mostly action verbs, expressed as present participles[3] (as opposed to the past definite). This creates a sense of simultaneity and continuous motion. Faulkner repeats “running” four times and “run” twice within the second half of the sentence; this emphasis extends beyond the motion it is describing to become a metaphor for Sarty and his future. Following the gunshots, he pauses briefly crying the familiar “Pap! Pap!” – his blood; his blood now severed he resumes his run but now he is running away as he had imagined when his father asked him to get the oil: “I could run on and on and never look back . . .” (21). This horrible moment, the defining moment of Sarty’s life, when the choice he made results in the death (at least as far as he can tell) of his father, this desperate race, is captured wonderfully by the Faulkner’s long sentence. The reader is held in suspense as the Sarty runs toward his father and as de Spain rushes to defend his property and is finally swept along with the boy as he runs and runs, never to look back.

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The Never-ending Story

As anyone who has ever listened to a speech knows, there is a rhythm to the spoken word. A speaker may drone on and on and put the audience to sleep, or he can be dynamic, lyrical, and modulate his tone to keep the audience’s attention. Generally we need pauses in a speech; they are necessary moments of reflection and break the monotony of an unchanging cadence. Aside from soliloquy, fictional characters rarely have unmitigated speech; otherwise the writer, like the droning speaker, might lose his audience. So it is intriguing to find a writer who is willing to take up the challenge of writing a continuous monologue without chapters, without section breaks or line breaks; indeed a monologue as a single sentence that captures the rhythm of language while still entertaining the reader. Such is Bohumil Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age.

First published in Czechoslovakia in 1964 and in an English translation by Michael Henry Heim in 2011, Hrabal’s single-sentence book defies categorization. His friend and reviewer Josef Sǩvorecký called it a “long short story” (Sǩvorecký 7). Adam Thirlwell, who wrote the introduction for the 2011 edition, called it a “novel in one monologue” (Hrabal viii). Semantics aside, this unique story, or collection of tall tales, is a wonderful example of how a writer can sculpt a very long, yet engaging sentence that mimics the spoken word. Hrabal developed his style of story-telling, what he called páblitelé – which Sǩvorecký translates as “tellers of tall tales” and which Thirlwell translates as “palavering” – based on the free-association rambling of oral story-tellers in his life. But this is not a form of automatic writing or free writing – genuine craft is expressed in Hrabal’s prose; the narrator’s monologue (it isn’t really a speech – speeches are organized logically and are intended to communicate specific information – neither of which applies here) is by degrees whimsical, ribald, lyrical, poignant, and profound.

Bohumil-HrabalBohumil Hrabal

Superficially, the book represents the uninterrupted speech of a septuagenarian shoemaker named Jirka who is regaling a group of sunbathing women with his stories of being a soldier during the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, his sexual exploits, his opinions on the church and religion, and his humorous digressions of tall tales. It is told in the first-person, mostly in the past tense, and follows real time in that the amount of time it takes to read the 117 pages approximates the time it would take to actually listen to the narrative. Jirka’s desire is to be listened to, to flirt with the ladies; his conflict is keeping his listeners’ attention. But unlike a random, garrulous old man droning on and on, one who won’t let you go until you hear every variation of the same big fish story, Jirka keeps us listening:

neither Havlíček nor Christ ever laughed, if anything they wept, because when you stand for a great idea you can’t horse around, Havlíček had a brain like a diamond, the professors went gaga over him, they tried to make him a bishop, but no, he chose justice, a little coffee, a little wine, and a life for the people, stamping out illiteracy, only perverse people dream of rolling in manure (better days ahead) or of chamber pots (your future is assured) because the thing is, dear ladies, you’ve got to rely on yourselves, take Manouch, who thought he had it made because his father was a jailer and all he did was drink and pick up bad habits, which leads to fights like the quarrel in the days of the monarchy between the social democrats and the freethinkers and clerics over whether the world comes from a monkey or God slapped Adam together out of mud and fashioned Eve from his insides, now He could have made her out of mud too, it would have been cheaper, though nobody really knows what went on, the world was as deserted as a star, but people twitter away like magpies and don’t really care, I could set my sights on a charmer, a prime minister’s daughter, but what’s not to be is not to be and could even take a bad turn, Mother of God! the crown prince had syphilis and that Vetsera woman shot him, but then she got shot by the coachman, though any young lady will tell you you might as well be buried alive if the man in your life has a faulty fandangle, when I was serving in the most elegant army in the world I told our medical officer, Doctor, I said, I’ve got a weak heart, but all he said was, So have I, boy, and if we had a hundred thousand like you we could conquer the world, and he put me into the highest category, so I was a hero . . . (3-5)

For the purposes of this essay I’ve selected this 340-word excerpt of the 117-page long sentence so that a sense of the rhythm can be appreciated. In the book as a whole, after the comma, the most common punctuation mark Hrabal uses is the question mark, then the dash, then the exclamation point; there are no colons or periods (even at the end) and only one semicolon.

In this relatively short passage there is an astonishing variety of subjects. He begins with philosophizing about the writer Havlíček and Christ (a favorite subject); then makes an aphoristic statement (a common habit); he reflects on Havlíček’s history with clear parallels to his own (Jirka’s) values; he quotes ironic entries from his favorite book of dream interpretations, refers to his audience, and then drops another aphorism. He interrupts himself at one point with the exclamation “Mother of God!” (another habit) indicating that he has just remembered something that he absolutely must tell the ladies right away. Note that Hrabal doesn’t let us forget the scene: more than a dozen times in the book Jirka refers directly to the women he is speaking to, but here he also says “though any young lady will tell you,” an indirect nod in their direction and a preface to his flirting. He concludes this part of his never-ending sentence with a tale of the absurd, a lampoon of his time in the military (another favorite subject).

Sǩvorecký writes that Hrabal’s importance “lies predominantly in this language, in how his stories are told” (8). The book’s forward momentum is carried by Jirka’s engaging voice and the bizarre, often humorous tales he tells. Narrative voice isn’t carried by subject matter and diction alone, but by the order of words, i.e. the syntax with which those words are arranged.

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The Persistence of Thought: Mind Mimesis

One of the most elusive subjects in fiction, as in life, is the nature of human consciousness. Philosophers have been arguing about how we know (or think we know) what we know and how we know what others know since the emergence of language. Epistemological questions aside, how can a writer convey – or attempt to convey – the nature of human thought?

Methods for representing a character’s thought span the range of narrative modes. Consider first-person. It seems straightforward enough: have the character simply tell us what he is thinking. When addressing another character, this is dialogue, or if alone, a soliloquy. Soliloquy typically follows the rules of grammar and is logically organized. And soliloquy, although spoken alone, is presented as if to an audience, which requires it to be more coherent (Humphrey 35). But what if the language is internal self-address, i.e. the language we “speak” only to ourselves? The narrative mode used to describe this is variously called free direct thought, internal monologue, or autonomous monologue. Interior monologue, in contrast to soliloquy (or dialogue) is more associative; prone to spontaneous, illogical shifts; and is rich in imagery (Cohn 12). The acme of internal monologue in literature is found in the “Penelope” chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

James Joyce’s 1922 Ulysses is the ur-text for modernism. Published in 1922, this canonical “stream of consciousness” novel is the story of the lives of three principal characters, Leopold Bloom (who works in advertising), his wife Molly (a professional singer), and a family friend Stephen Dedalus (an aspiring poet) on a single day: June 16, 1904. The book is divided into eighteen sections and is organized according to Homer’s Odyssey, with Bloom in the role of Odysseus (Ulysses in Roman myths). Bloom’s journey takes him from home, through his day in Dublin, and then back again; along the way he is joined by Stephen. Almost all of the chapters focus on Bloom, but the last chapter, commonly referred to as “Penelope” in reference to Odysseus’s wife, takes place in the mind of Molly while she tosses and turns, unable to fall asleep after her husband returns home and joins her in bed at approximately two in the morning. “Penelope” is divided into eight “sentences,” although the only reason for designating them thusly are line breaks with indentation; the chapter has no punctuation except for two periods, one at the end of the fourth sentence; one at the end. The run-on nature of the chapter is the point, that thought doesn’t stop; it keeps flowing in an endless stream until you either fall asleep (except for dreaming) or die, i.e. you can’t turn thought off.

james-joyceJames Joyce

Molly has had a singular day: she has had an affair with her manager Hugh “Blazes” Boylan. Lying awake in bed, her thoughts roam: she thinks about Boylan and compares his sexuality with Bloom’s; she thinks about her marriage and that she and “Poldy” (whom she suspects has had an affair too that day) haven’t have sex since their son Rudy died shortly after he was born eleven years prior; she thinks about the future and is worried about their finances, she fantasizes about the twenty-something Stephen; and she thinks about her past, including the men she has known, her childhood in Gibraltar, and (famously) when Bloom asked her to marry him and she said yes. The only indication of an external world is a train whistle she hears; the only action, when she gets out of bed to use the chamber pot. Molly’s character is highly nuanced and through her unedited stream of consciousness the reader empathizes with the conflicts she faces in her life. After her fantasy of seducing Stephen concludes, her thoughts turn back to Boylan, then to Bloom as the last sentence of the chapter begins. She is annoyed with Bloom for having kissed her bottom after he crawled into bed. Her annoyance leads to sexual fantasies with other men until she is distracted by Bloom crowding her on the bed; she thinks:

O move over your big carcass out of that for the love of Mike listen to him the winds that waft my sighs to thee[4] so well he may sleep and sigh the great Suggester Don Poldo de la Flora if he knew how he came out on the cards this morning hed have something to sigh for a dark man in some perplexity between 2 7s too in prison for Lord knows what he does that I dont know and Im to be slooching around down in the kitchen to get his lordship his breakfast while hes rolled up like a mummy will I indeed did you ever see me running Id just like to see myself at it show them attention and they treat you like dirt I dont care what anybody says itd be much better for the world to be governed by the women in it you wouldnt see women going and killing one another and slaughtering when do you ever see women rolling around drunk like they do or gambling every penny they have and losing it on horses yes because a woman whatever she does she knows where to stop sure they wouldn’t be in the world at all only for us they dont know what it is to be a woman and a mother how could they where would they all of them be if they hadnt all a mother to look after them what I never had thats why I suppose hes running wild now out at night away from his books and studies and not living at home on account of the usual rowy house I suppose well its a poor case that those that have a fine son like that theyre not satisfied and I none was he not able to make one it wasnt my fault we came together when I was watching the two dogs up in her behind in the middle of the naked street that disheartened me altogether I suppose I oughtnt to have buried him in that little woolly jacket I knitted crying as I was but give it to some poor child but I knew well Id never have another our 1st death too it was we were never the same since O Im not going to think myself into the glooms about that any more . . . (778)

This 392-word excerpt depicts the silent, unmediated self-communication of a fictional mind saturated with thoughts that transition associatively with dizzying speed. She is annoyed at Bloom for hogging the bed; she compares his wheezing (or perhaps snoring) with a song called “The Winds That Waft My Sighs to Thee” (remember, she is a professional singer; she doesn’t “say” to herself “His snoring sounds like X, rather the association pops into her consciousness as she listens to him breathe); she invents an epithet for Bloom; she thinks about the card reading she did for him; she’s aggravated about agreeing to fix him breakfast; she philosophizes about what a better world it would be if “governed by the women”; she reflects that men are ungrateful and then thinks of Stephen, whom she worries about in a maternal way; she speculates that Stephen’s parents don’t appreciate him and that they are ungrateful which leads to her thoughts of her dead son Rudy and that she should have given the coat she knitted for him to a needy child; and she reflects that she and Bloom haven’t been intimate since Rudy’s death, which she then resolves not to be depressed about. She uses the imperative (“O move over”), indicative (“I dont care what anybody says”), and subjunctive (“if he knew”) mood. She uses the past, present, and future tense. And all of these grammatical forms are switched between with the fluid rhythmicity of thought.

The first and most obvious feature of this excerpt that adds to its verisimilitude as internal monologue is the fact that it is uninterrupted; there are no gaps in the text as there are no gaps in our thoughts. Another feature of “pure” internal monologue that makes this example (and the entire “Penelope” chapter) successful as speech-for-oneself is the use of non-referential pronouns, i.e. “he” refers to Bloom, Stephen, and Rudy at different places in the stream of thought, and, significantly, there is no immediate reference to whom of the three she is thinking about. After all, Molly knows who she is thinking about and doesn’t need to explain it to anyone – this isn’t a soliloquy, this isn’t a speech, and this isn’t dialogue. Finally, the thought mimesis isn’t disrupted by Molly reporting her actions using action verbs and the first-person pronoun. This last quality doesn’t apply particularly to this passage, but it is important to the success of the chapter as a whole. The only action she takes is to use the chamber pot and Joyce is careful to address her kinetic perceptions without action verbs (q.v. sub).

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Mathias Énard’s Zone, published in France in 2008 and in an English translation by Charlotte Mandell in 2010, is a novel that parallels Ulysses in many ways. Like Joyce, Énard borrowed his structure from Homer, this time: The Iliad. Also like Joyce, Énard explores consciousness with internal monologue. With Zone Énard follows the tradition of novel-length sentences such as those by Bohumil Hrabal, Jerzy Andrzejewski, and Camilo José Cela. Zone is presented as a single-sentence internal monologue by the protagonist Francis Servain Mirković, a former spy for French Intelligence, now fleeing to a new life aboard a train from Milan to Rome. However, the sentence is interrupted by twenty-four, numbered chapter divisions (loosely reflecting Homer’s epic), and three chapters are devoted to a tale-within-the-tale (a book Francis is reading in which the plot parallels his own). Neither the parallel story, nor the chapter breaks detract significantly from the continuity of Francis’s roaming thoughts, and the stylistic choice of an internal monologue allows Énard great freedom in creating an intricate network of associated images.

The novel begins in media mentum in Francis’s mind as the train is leaving the Milan station: “everything is harder once you reach man’s estate, everything rings falser a little metallic like the sound of two bronze weapons clashing . . .” (Énard 5). Two bronze weapons clashing. Énard’s war imagery begins immediately and doesn’t relent. Francis, Croatian veteran of the Bosnian War, amateur historian, spy, has fled France with a suitcase full of war crimes information. He plans to sell the documents to the Vatican for $300,000, his nest egg for retirement under an assumed identity. The story of a man trying to escape his past, Zone is told from Francis’s point of view in internal monologue, but with the psychic distance shifted toward autobiography and reportage, i.e. with thoughts organized more logically than Joyce presents Molly’s meditations. Francis, in his recollections, tells a story, or many stories, during his trip. Francis never leaves the train, although the locations he passes serve as segues for his mental peregrinations through history (personal and otherwise), especially of wars in the Mediterranean region.

Dorrit Cohn, in her 1978 seminal work Transparent Minds, notes that “unity of place . . . creates the conditions for a monologue in which the mind is its own place . . .” (222) and compliments Joyce on his decision to place Molly in bed where she doesn’t need to address her kinetic perceptions. Of course, that isn’t entirely accurate since Molly does get out of bed to use the chamber pot. Énard also places his character in a position of stasis, the train seat he occupies for the trip, and, like Molly, Francis will get up and move about only briefly. However, Énard gets to have it both ways: yes, Francis is static (most of the time) but he is also on a moving train passing through the Italian countryside and through Italian cities – opportunities for Francis’s thoughts to segue between subjects. Sometimes Francis only notes the city without comment, such as when he passes through Parma and Reggio Emilia, but other times he uses the location as a platform to digress about history, or to facilitate his meditations. As the train pulls out of Florence, Francis thinks:

I’m facing my destination, Rome is in front of me, Florence streams past, noble Florence scattered with cupolas where they blithely tortured Savonarola and Machiavelli, torture for the pleasure of it strappado water the thumb-screw and flaying, the politician-monk was too virtuous, Savonarola the austere forbade whores books pleasures drink games which especially annoyed Pope Alexander VI Borgia the fornicator from Xàtiva with his countless descendants, ah those were the days, today the Polish pontiff trembling immortal and infallible has just finished his speech on the Piazza di Spagna, I doubt he has children, I doubt it, my neighbors the crossword-loving musicians are also talking about Florence, I hear Firenze Firenze one of the few Italian words I know, in my Venetian solitude I didn’t learn much of the language of Dante the hook-nosed eschatologist, Ghassan and I spoke French, Marianne too of course, in my long solitary wanderings as a depressed warrior I didn’t talk with anyone, aside from asking for a red or white wine according to my mood at the time, ombra rossa or bianca, a red or white shadow, the name the Venetians give the little glass of wine you drink from five o’clock onwards, I don’t know the explanation for this pretty poetic expression, go have a shadow, as opposed to going to take some sun I suppose at the time I abused the shadow and night in solitude, after burning my uniforms and trying to forget Andi Vlaho Croatia Bosnia bodies wounds the smell of death I was in a pointless airlock between two worlds, in a city without a city, without cars, without noise, veined with dark water traveled by tourists eaten away by the history of its greatness . . . (330-331) [Énard’s italics]

 One of the first things to note is that the internal monologue is more conversational, more dialogic than Molly’s internal speech. Joyce’s style eschews active verbs and punctuation, giving it a less edited and more organic feel. But such a style would be difficult to maintain for the 517-page journey Zone follows; “Penelope” is just over 40 pages. Énard’s more coherent syntax is more readable and more forgiving. Nevertheless, the sentence (fragment) succeeds in capturing the flowing thoughts of the character using many of the same techniques used by Joyce including: omitting punctuation (in places), rapid and spontaneous free association, staccato rhythms, and poetic imagery.

Francis’s thoughts flow in free association when the thought of torture triggers a list of torture techniques including strappado, the use of water, and thumb-screws; here the absence of commas, definite articles, or other grammatical devices helps create the stream of consciousness effect. In this 286-word excerpt Francis then: generalizes ironically about the past (“those were the days”), has doubts, observes his fellow travelers, thinks of the languages he knows and once spoke with a friend and his ex-girlfriend, reflects on the present in generalizations, and finally returns to his past where the names of his fellow soldiers and friends run together with locations, trailing off in poetic imagery.

menardMathias Énard

There are three notable differences between this monologue and the type of pure internal monologue seen in the Joyce example. First, it is broken up with punctuation. Second, Énard uses referential pronouns, e.g. Xàtiva/his and pontiff/his, and people have proper names. Third, the thought mimesis is interrupted by Francis’s declaring his perceptions using action verbs and the first-person pronoun, e.g. “I hear Firenze Firenze” – Molly hears a train, but she never tells the reader. This last difference is significant for action depiction as well.

Both Molly and Francis act in their memories, whether it is Molly musing about her first sexual encounter in Gibraltar or Francis reliving the horror of watching his friend get shot in Bosnia. But for movement in the narrative’s present, internal monologue can be difficult to manage without disturbing the reader’s perception, i.e. if the reader has accepted that they are “listening in” to someone’s thoughts then describing external events can be as jarring as changing the point of view. For example: one of the distinctive features of pure internal monologue is that thought isn’t disrupted by characters reporting their actions using action verbs and the first-person pronoun. In the following excerpt, Molly gets out of bed to urinate and find a sanitary napkin, but we only read her impressions:

O Jamesy let me up out of this pooh sweets of sin whoever suggested that business for women what between clothes and cooking and children this damned old bed too jingling like the dickens I suppose they could hear us away over the other side of the park till I suggested to put the quilt on the floor with the pillow under my bottom I wonder is it nicer in the day I think it is easy I think Ill cut all this hair off me there scalding me I might look like a young girl wouldnt he get the great suckin the next time he turned up my clothes on me Id give anything to see his face wheres the chamber gone easy Ive a holy horror of its breaking under me after that old commode I wonder was I too heavy . . . (769)

In the first line, where we expect the word “bed,” we find the interjection “pooh” – a word that has spontaneously popped into her consciousness. There is a missing copula in “this damned old bed too jingling.” She never “thinks” she is walking to the chamber pot, only wonders where it has gone. Compare this with the following passage from Zone where Francis describes going to the toilet:

I’d like to go have a drink at the bar, I’m thirsty, it’s too early, at this rate if I begin drinking now I’ll arrive in Rome dead drunk, my body is weighing me down I shift it on the seat I get up hesitate for an instant head for the toilet it’s good to move a little and even better to run warm non-potable water over your face, the john is like the train, modern, brushed grey steel and black plastic, elegant like some handheld weapon, more water on my face and now I’m perked up, I go back to my seat . . . (54)

Note the first-person pronoun and action verb use: “I shift it,” “I get up,” and “I go back.” There are three constructions using copulas (or implied copulas): “it’s too early,” “it’s good,” and “the john is.” As a result of the action verbs and copulas, what should be internal monologue feels like reportage.

Nevertheless, Énard demonstrates the versatility of a long sentence internal monologue. I agree with Mary Stein, who wrote in her 2011 review of Zone: “Énard’s ambitious prose functions as a structure necessary to and inseparable from Mirković’s narrative identity.” The stream of consciousness fluidity of the long run-on sentence mimics Francis Mirković’s disturbed mind, and if some verisimilitude of consciousness mimesis is sacrificed, his narrative identity still supports a web of imagery that rises to the level of great art.

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Altered States

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s sprawling 1996 novel, opens during the Year of Glad (ca. 2008) in an imagined future where the U.S., Canada, and Mexico have been combined into the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.) and corporations purchase naming rights to each calendar year. Three interwoven plots follow separate groups of characters, including: the protagonist Hal Incandenza and his schoolmates at the Enfield Tennis Academy in Boston, a group of men and women in a drug rehabilitation house nearby, and a Québécois terrorist group.

Most of the action of the novel takes place one year prior to the opening scene and is narrated in the past tense by, arguably, Hal. The novel, told primarily from a third-person point of view, has numerous examples of first-person intrusion, and it is always Hal. Hal is a linguistic prodigy, and his way of interpreting the world is revealed in a stylistic manner consistent with his consciousness, i.e. with elevated diction and complex syntax. Hal is also a drug addict. In fact, many of the characters have substance abuse issues and Infinite Jest is in many regards the epic of addiction. During Hal’s senior year at his private high school he struggles with marijuana addiction while, simultaneously, Joelle Van Dyne struggles with cocaine. Joelle is the ex-girlfriend of Hal’s older brother Orin and, after her near-fatal overdose, becomes a resident of the rehab house near Hal’s school.

dfwDavid Foster Wallace

Although Wallace depicts the consciousness of his characters almost exclusively using third-person narration, he still achieves a stream of consciousness effect in many scenes. The problem with first-person presentation of characters in drug-induced states of altered consciousness is that, as readers, we neither expect them to speak in coherent language, nor can we imagine any coherence to their thoughts at all. Thus, Cohn writes that “the novelist who wishes to portray the least conscious strata of psychic life is forced to do so by way of the most indirect and the most traditional of the available modes” (56), what she terms “psycho-narration” (or third-person narration). Wallace makes effective use of long sentences to depict altered conscious states in the scenes of Joelle’s overdose and Hal’s nightmare.

Joelle, who has a late-night radio show, was disfigured some years before when acid was thrown in her face. She now wears a veil and is a member of the “Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed.” Early in the primary timeline, Joelle[5] returns to the apartment she shares with Molly (who is throwing a massive party), locks herself in the bathroom, and proceeds to commit suicide by smoking freebase cocaine. The following 449-word long sentence is from her point of view and takes place after her second dose from her homemade pipe:

The voice is the young post-New Formalist from Pittsburgh who affects Continental and wears an ascot that won’t stay tight, with that hesitant knocking of when you know perfectly well someone’s in there, the bathroom door composed of thirty-six that’s three times a lengthwise twelve recessed two-bevelled squares in a warped rectangle of steam-softened wood, not quite white, the bottom outside corner right here raw wood and mangled from hitting the cabinets’ bottom drawer’s wicked metal knob, through the door and offset ‘Red’ and glowering actors and calendar and very crowded scene and pubic spiral of pale blue smoke from the elephant-colored rubble of ash and little blackened chunks in the foil funnel’s cone, the smoke’s baby-blanket blue that’s sent her sliding down along the wall past knotted washcloth, towel rack, blood-flower wallpaper and intricately grimed electrical outlet, the light sharp bitter tint of a heated sky’s blue that’s left her uprightly fetal with chin on knees in yet another North American bathroom, deveiled, too pretty for words, maybe the Prettiest Girl Of All Time (Prettiest G.O.A.T.), knees to chest, slew-footed by the radiant chill of the claw-footed tub’s porcelain, Molly’s had somebody lacquer the tub in blue, lacquer, she’s holding the bottle, recalling vividly its slogan for the last generation was The Choice of a Nude Generation, when she was of back-pocket height and prettier by far than any of the peach-colored titans they’d gazed up at, his hand in her lap her hand in the box and rooting down past candy for the Prize, more fun way too much fun inside her veil on the counter above her, the stuff in the funnel exhausted though it’s still smoking thinly, its graph reaching its highest spiked prick, peak, the arrow’s best descent, so good she can’t stand it and reaches out for the cold tub’s rim’s cold edge to pull herself up as the white-party-noise reaches, for her, the sort of stereophonic precipice of volume to teeter on just before the speakers blow, people barely twitching and conversations strettoing against a ghastly old pre-Carter thing saying ‘We’ve Only Just Begun,’ Joelle’s limbs have been removed to a distance where their acknowledgment of her commands seems like magic, both clogs simply gone, nowhere in sight, and socks oddly wet, pulls her face up to face the unclean medicine-cabinet mirror, twin roses of flame still hanging in the glass’s corner, hair of the flame she’s eaten now trailing like the legs of wasps through the air of the glass she uses to locate the de-faced veil and what’s inside it, loading up the cone again, the ashes from the last load make the world’s best filter: this is a fact. (239-240)

Joelle’s overdose results in an altered state of consciousness. Wallace begins the descent into her mind with a complete sentence of indirect internal monologue: she hears someone asking if the bathroom is occupied The voice . . . in there”). Rather than ending this sentence with a period, Wallace creates a run-on sentence with several clauses that describe her perceptions using vivid imagery (e.g. adjectives like beveled, warped, steam-softened, raw, and mangled). About halfway through the sentence she thinks of the nickname Orin gave her. The next clause is a complete sentence and internal monologue: “Molly’s had somebody lacquer the tub in blue,” followed by a single-word thought (“lacquer”), and then the narration shifts back to third-person (or perhaps indirect internal monologue) with “she’s holding the bottle.” There are memories, then more sensory descriptions (sound is now white noise); she regards her limbs as distant, has lost her shoes, is lost in hallucination (“twin roses of flame still hanging in the glass’s corner”), and finally reloads her pipe for another dose. The long, run-on nature of this sentence; the free associations; the irrational switching between perceptions, actions, and thoughts; and the poetic imagery all contribute to creating a stream of consciousness effect in this passage.

Conveying a dream state presents the writer with the same problem of drug-induced states: it is subliminal thought. Hal’s nightmare of finding “Evil” in his dorm room is a tour de force of long-sentence syntax engendering suspense and depicting the process that takes place in a dreaming mind.

A subchapter begins with first-person narration during an indeterminate time, i.e. it could be outside the narrative while the implied author is writing. The narrator feels he is coming to a realization about nightmares. After letting this thought trail off in ellipsis, the narration resumes in second-person (heightening our identification with the character) as Hal (“you”) dreams that he is lying in bed in his pitch-dark dorm room. In the dream, Hal pans the room with a flashlight, listing what he sees:

The flashlight your mother name-tagged with masking tape and packed for you special pans around the institutional room: the drop-ceiling, the gray striped mattress and bulged grid of bunksprings above you, the two other bunkbeds another matte gray that won’t return light, the piles of books and compact disks and tapes and tennis gear; your disk of white light trembling like the moon on water as it plays over the identical bureaus, the recessions of closet and room’s front door, door’s frame’s bolections; the cone of light pans over fixtures, the lumpy jumbles of sleeping boys’ shadows on the snuff-white walls, the two rag throw-rugs’ ovals on the hardwood floor, black lines of baseboards’ reglets, the cracks in the venetian blinds that ooze the violet nonlight of a night with snow and just a hook of moon; the flashlight with your name in maternal cursive plays over every cm. of the walls, the rheostats, CD, InterLace poster of Tawni Kondo, phone console, desks’ TPs, the face in the floor, posters of pros, the onionskin yellow of the desklamps’ shades, the ceiling-panels’ patterns of pinholes, the grid of upper bunk’s springs, recession of closet and door, boys wrapped in blankets, slight crack like a creek’s course in the eastward ceiling discernible now, maple reglet border at seam of ceiling and walls north and south no floor has a face your flashlight showed but didn’t no never did see its eyes’ pupils set sideways and tapered like a cat’s its eyebrows’ \ / and horrid toothy smile leering right at your light all the time you’ve been scanning oh mother a face in the floor mother oh and your flashlight’s beam stabs jaggedly back for the overlooked face misses it overcorrects then centers on what you’d felt but had seen without seeing, just now, as you’d so carefully panned the light and looked, a face in the floor there all the time but unfelt by all others and unseen by you until you knew just as you felt it didn’t belong and was evil: Evil. (62) [Wallace’s italics]

The five words “the face in the floor” (following “TPs”) are embedded 26 items into the list of things Hal sees in his flashlight beam. The reader is bored when they reach “the face in the floor,” i.e. they pass right by it – as Hal does – only for it to dawn on them later (at word 224, the italicized “no”) that floors don’t have faces. Just as Hal “sees without seeing,” we read without reading. When it dawns on Hal that he has seen something that doesn’t belong, the narration shifts to a fast, frantic pace using polysyndeton and no commas (in stark contrast to the long list of comma-delineated items) as Hal searches the room for what he thinks he saw, and when he finds it, he recognizes it as “Evil.” A pictorial representation of the cat’s eyebrows adds to the subliminal quality of this part of the sentence. A short, eight-word sentence set off as a separate paragraph follows: “And then its mouth opens at your light.” The emphasis placed on this short sentence mimics the shock of being attacked in a nightmare; it is the climactic moment when dread finally becomes acute horror. Again, Cohn reminds us:

the language of . . . psycho-narration is meant to elucidate rather than to emulate the figural psyche. The narrator builds a symbolic landscape as a kind of theoretical correlative for a subliminal stratum that can never emerge on the conscious level or the verbal surface of the figural mind. (55)

Wallace shows that either the third-person or the second-person narrative mode is effective for depicting consciousness; perhaps even more so than first-person, for those modes can stretch to subconscious altered states.

***

Are long sentences necessary for every work of fiction? Absolutely not. There are many examples of beautifully written stories containing only short, simple sentences; however, the power of long sentences is undeniable when you consider the numerous ways they can be effectively applied. Capturing the rhythm of motion – whether of actions or thought or speech – using linear prose presents a challenge for every writer. Virginia Tufte and David Jauss describe an elegant solution: use syntax symbolically; allow the syntax to mimic the rhythm. Faulkner, Hrabal, Joyce, Énard, and Wallace, achieve subtle and poetic effects through the syntax of their long sentences. But their achievements with long sentences, and those of writers like Nicholson Baker, also extend to character elucidation and conveying emotional content.

In my search for examples of long sentences, I found sentences greater than 150 words in the work of over fifty authors. Some of them stay within conventional grammar (like Baker and Faulkner), while others depart from those conventions radically. The standard rules of grammar are followed for a reason, they bring coherence to our prose; too severe a departure from these rules and the text’s meaning is lost. Nevertheless, there are justifiable reasons for coloring outside the lines; especially if, in the end, you can create sentences as effective and poetic as those by the writers I’ve surveyed. Jauss counsels that “the more we concentrate on altering our syntax, the more we free ourselves to discover other modes of thought” (68), and building long sentences is certainly a dramatic way to alter our syntax.

Looking back on my meditation on the long sentence, I find it remarkable that I didn’t find a place for the writer who set me on this path, M. Proust. Turning the pages of the volume of À la recherche I’m currently rereading, Proust’s narrator describes the musician Vinteuil as:

drawing from the colours as he found them a wild joy which gave him the power to press on, to discover those [sounds] which they seemed to summon up next, ecstatic, trembling as if at a spark when sublimity sprang spontaneously from the clash of brass, panting, intoxicated, dizzy, half-madly painting his great musical fresco . . . (Proust 233)

A fitting description for the wild exuberance some writers seem to have for their long, “panting,” “intoxicated,” “dizzy,” and sometimes fully-mad sentences – writers like Proust. Too bad I didn’t have more space to write about him. Perhaps next time.

—Frank Richardson

Works Cited

Baker, Nicholson. The Mezzanine. New York: Grove Press, 1988. Print.

Bernhard, Thomas. Correction. New York: Vintage-Random, 2010. Print.

Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton: Princeton UP., 1978. Print.

Énard, Mathias. Zone. Trans. Charlotte Mandell. Rochester: Open Letter, 2010. Print.

Faulkner, William. Collected Stories of William Faulkner. New York: Vintage-Random, 1995. Print

Hrabal, Bohumil. Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age. Trans. Michael Henry Heim. New York: New York Review of Books, 2011. Print.

Humphrey, Robert. Stream of Consciousness in the Modern Novel. Berkeley: U of California P, 1959. Print

Jauss, David. On Writing Fiction. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2011. Print.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Random House, 1961. Print.

Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time: The Prisoner and The Fugitive. Ed. Christopher Prendergast. Trans. Carol Clark and Peter Collier. Vol. 5. London: Lane-Penguin, 2002. Print.

Sǩvorecký, Josef. “Some Contemporary Czech Prose Writers.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 4:1 (1970): 5-13. Print.

Stein, Mary. “This Ancient World, A Review of Mathias Énard’s Zone.” Numéro Cinq 2.18 (2011): n. pg. Web.

Tufte, Virginia. Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. Cheshire: Graphics Press, 2006. Print.

Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996. Print.

/

Frank Richardson lives in Houston and is pursuing his MFA in Fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Montucky Review, and Do Not Look At The Sun

 /

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Jauss’s italics.
  2. Despite wanting to divest himself of childhood memories, he never does; even the last page includes a reference to “when I was little.”
  3. Q.v. The Mezzanine excerpt wherein eleven present participle action verbs describe the motion of the various systems of local transport.
  4. Reference to a song: “The Winds that Waft My Sighs to Thee,” by W. V. Wallace.
  5. She is known also by the epithet “The Prettiest Girl of All Time” or “P.G.O.A.T.,” a nickname given her by Orin.
Nov 012014
 

Gonzalez Park

 

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The season of scrambled eggs came upon us on January 6, Three Kings Day. Perhaps it was the holiday spirit–the gifts, the piñata, the candy–that reminded my mother’s younger sisters that it was time to start planning for Holy Week, only three months away. Their appeal, made just when the day’s excitement quieted down over dinner, made my body stiffened because it was an announcement of the labor to come.

“Don’t forget everybody,” tía Luz said. “Start saving eggshells.”

“Please,” tía Chata added.

A few heads nodded in acknowledgment and this seemed to satisfy my aunts. The evening’s meal progressed as if nothing had changed, but in fact it had changed breakfast every morning. No more hard-boiled eggs or eggs served sunny side up until enough shells had been collected for the cascarón sale. My fingers twitched because they still carried the memory of the times the sharp edges pricked their tips.

On the way home I held my bag of candy, too distracted to eat any of it. My mother walked in front of me with a plastic bag over her shoulder, my toys inside. I pictured her standing at the stove, tapping the end of the egg in order to make an opening large enough to coax the contents out yet small enough to insure that the egg preserved its oval shape. Once we had enough of them, my aunts would come over with the art supplies: scissors and construction paper to make the confetti that would be stuffed inside the shell; tissue thin paper to glue over the opening; and food coloring to paint the shells pink or blue or green. Each of the tasks demanded patience and skill that I was too young to handle, but my aunts insisted–cascarones were an Alcalá family tradition, and although I was actually a González first, I was the only grandchild on the Alcalá side so far. My father had objected in the beginning, on the grounds that this was woman’s labor, but my mother didn’t take long to remind him that until I became a man I was under the care of the Alcalá women, who seemed to come around too often and stayed too long–so I heard my father mumble many times.

Making cascarones was just one of the Alcalá women enterprises. In the summers they made bolis–flavored ice, in August they made paper doves for the church’s celebration of the Virgin Mary, in the winters they made tamales and champurrado, a hot cornmeal drink. All of these items they sold at the town plaza, where citizens of Zacapu, Michoacán converged in the evenings, particularly before and after church. My aunts sometimes made commemorative keepsakes for birthday parties and weddings and brought over the materials to our house then too. I half listened to them giggling and gossiping with my mother while I played at their feet. They didn’t ask me to be part of the circle of bodies around the kitchen table and I didn’t miss it. I knew my time would come, and when it did, I wouldn’t like it.

What was more maddening than cutting paper into tiny little pieces to make confetti and then sticking them into the tiny little holes, which is how I hurt myself on the pointy edges, was adding the signature detail to the Alcalá cascarones: at the intact tip of the eggshell, I would have to dab a little drop of glue and then sprinkle just the smallest amount of glitter. Many of the clients who bought cascarones missed this detail because they were so anxious to break them on top of someone’s head–which is why they had been made in the first place. No one held the cascarón in his hand and admired the artistry, the tell-tale signs that this was an Alcalá cascarón, not just one of those sloppy ones that had obviously been made in a rush. I think this is what upset me most of all. That it took so long to make one of these and in one fell swoop it was gone–turned into trash in an instant.

I remember starting to color an eggshell once and tía Luz ordering me to stop doing so immediately.

“Why?” I asked.

“The opening is too large,” she explained. “Throw it away.”

“Who’s going to notice?” I said.

“We will. It’s going to look vulgar and cheap. We don’t make vulgar and cheap.”

I looked closer at the opening. Compared to all the others, this one looked like the egg had been cut in half, not carefully tapped open by my mother’s hands. The tissue covering would have to be wide. More glue would have to be used. She was right. It was going to look vulgar and cheap. I set it aside and moved on to another, which now looked elegant with its smaller opening.

I suppose that my aunts were also teaching me pride in my work. And although I still wasn’t looking forward to months of scrambled eggs, I was more comfortable with the idea. By the time my parents and I got home on Three Kings Day, I had all but convinced myself that I couldn’t wait to make cascarones.

/

A few weeks passed and the eggshells were accumulating in a small box next to the stove. I caught a glimpse of it once in awhile when I played near my mother when she was cooking. When my aunts arrived they always entered without knocking, so I was never caught off guard when the front door suddenly flew opened and they burst in with their art supplies.

“We’ve got a cute order, Avelina, wait until you see this,” tía Chata said.

“I’ll help you mop so that you can sit down with us,” tía Luz said.

And in no time the three sisters were sitting around the table, giggling and gossiping like usual.

This time, however, my mother brought the reverie to a halt when she made an announcement about my father that even made me stop to listen.

“Rigoberto’s going to the north to work,” my mother said.

“Really?” tía Chata said. “Leaving you and the babies all alone?”

I only became the baby when someone wanted to highlight my vulnerability. At seven years old with a bicycle that had no training wheels I hardly felt like a baby anymore. My little brother Alex, who still ate from a high chair, was the baby.

“Do you want one of us to move in with you to keep you company?” tía Luz suggested. But I knew even then that this would never happen. If my father tolerated the long visits by my mother’s family, he would definitely not tolerate any of them moving in. It wasn’t so much his objection but pressure from the González side of the family, who didn’t seem to take a liking to the Alcalás–they were too religious and too forthright. The Gonzálezes were drinkers and cussers.

“I’ll be fine,” my mother said. “It’s better this way.” And we all knew what she meant.

In the coming weeks, I didn’t really notice my father’s absence too much, perhaps because I rarely spent any time with him. Once in a while I would dream about him and I would casually ask my mother where he was and what he was doing.

“Working,” is all she would answer.

What I did notice was that my aunts stopped coming around. Suddenly the house did appear too empty and quiet without their laughter. When I asked about them, my mother would look away and make some dismissive remark. But most noticeable of all was that we had stopped having eggs for breakfast. My mother started feeding me farina, which I didn’t like much because it tasted gooey and grainy.

“I want eggs,” I said to her in protest one morning. And so my mother burst into tears.

I didn’t know how to respond. So I ate my farina without further complaints and each morning after that I was careful not to let her see how displeased I was with my breakfast. I caught a glimpse of the box of eggshells and thought longingly about those days when the dreaded scrambled eggs graced my plate. What I wouldn’t give to have them again.

And then the farina ran out and I longed for it as well because now my mother was feeding me tortillas and salsa.

I understood the word “poverty” but I had never experienced hunger. I didn’t realize they came hand in hand. At school, I recognized children who had less than I did. I could tell by their shoes, their notebooks, which were always smaller than mine. But so too I recognized children who had shinier shoes than I did and even thicker notebooks. Suddenly it made sense why my aunts and my mother would gather to make their arts and crafts–they were not just entertainment or excuses to socialize, they were economic necessities, proper ways for god-fearing women to make a little extra money. All those coins in the can they brought back from the plaza paid for staples like bread and milk and eggs. Now that my aunts were not coming around for some inexplicable reason, now that my father was gone, it was just my mother, my baby brother and me, consuming very little or nothing at all. And when something is gone it is eventually forgotten and no longer missed.

/

A group of boys started playing marbles in front of the house one afternoon after school and that was my cue to run into my room to grab my cache. I eased my way into the next round. I played with my lucky white cat’s eye, which other boys coveted. Half way into the game, one of them wanted it enough to cheat, so I called him on it.

“I’m not cheating,” he said. “The cat’s eye is mine now.”

“You leaned in too far,” I said. “You didn’t shoot behind the line.”

“Yes I did,” he insisted.

I picked up my cat’s eye and pocketed it. “I’m not letting it go.”

“Oh, now who’s the one cheating?”

The other boys didn’t step in to defend either one of us. This was the law of the game. Contentious calls had to be resolved by the two parties involved. I held my stance, remaining motionless until his next move, which seemed to be evidence enough of my accusation because the boy withdrew but not before letting out a cruel remark.

“I’m letting you have it,” he said. “Because your father left you.”

I looked around at the other boys’s faces. They seemed to be complicit in this knowledge that up until that moment I didn’t have. Red-faced I ran into the house. By the time I reached my mother, I was in tears.

“What happened?” she said. “Did someone hit you?”

“Where’s my father? Did he leave us? Did he really leave us?”

My mother’s eyes began to water immediately. She had this devastating ability to cry instantly and it bothered me because that excused her from verbalizing her pain. There was nowhere to go but into silence after that. I was seven years old. What did I have to know about our broken home except that it was now as empty as my stomach, something else to get used to.

/

And then my father reappeared. It could have been a few days later or a few weeks, maybe months, certainly long enough for me to push him out of my mind. But there he was, smiling down at me as if he had only gone to town for an errand. And just as easily as I had buried him I unburied him, pleased that his absence could not be used against me on the streets or at school. My mother must have felt the same because she paraded him down the block, their arms locked, for all the neighbors to see. Even the kitchen went back to normal. Even my breakfast plate because there, glorious as gold, were my scrambled eggs again.

No one mentioned my father’s disappearance or subsequent reappearance–not in front of me anyway, and I didn’t ask about it. The more it remained unsaid the more it became undone this painful period of my childhood. And cascarón season came to a close with a successful sale at the plaza during Holy Week. It seemed everything was back in its place, and I even set a few cascarones aside for myself, which I had never done before. I broke one on my father’s head and he laughed as the confetti rained over him. I gave him my second one and he broke it over my mother’s head. At the end of the night I remember my little brother sleeping over my father’s shoulder as I fought drowsiness to watch the highlight of the festivities–the burning of el Castillo de Chuchurumbé, an intricate fireworks structure with firewheels and sparklers that was all whistles and explosions, a castle that shrieked and cried on our behalf so that we didn’t have to.

If happiness had come back to our house it didn’t last longer than three years. Three years later the González family was living in California, squeezed into a single house with our grandparents, my uncle’s family, and my aunt’s–19 bodies in one tiny space–a complete shift from our household arrangement in Mexico, where the possibility of having tía Luz or tía Chata move in with us for a spell was not even an option. But as usual, there was no questioning the why or how of things, there was just surrender and moving forward with the decisions of the grown-ups.

Unlike my older cousins, I was having an easier time adapting, probably because I enjoyed school and learning English. One of my first friendships was with a girl named Eve. She was half-Panamanian, and her mother spoke fluent Spanish, but Eve was monolingual. She also had a little dog named Peanut, which they kept in her backyard.

One summer, Eve went on vacation with her family, so she enlisted me to feed Peanut once a day. All I had to do was unlatch the gate, scoop half a can of dog food into the plastic dish and fill the second dish with fresh water. I accepted the responsibility, not because I cared much for Peanut, who barked too much, but because I liked the idea of a pet. We had dogs in Mexico, but they had functions–to guard the house from the rooftop–Peanut was a fat little critter who couldn’t even guard her own dish. It was an entirely different relationship with animals that intrigued me, yet I had no fantasies that we would ever have a pet, and we never did.

Eve gave me two cans, and Eve’s father gave me money to buy more dog food later in the week. I waved at the family as they drove away and then I sauntered back home. I announced to everyone in the kitchen that I would be storing the dog food in the refrigerator and no one batted an eye.

A few days later, Abuelo opened the refrigerator and asked about the can. I explained my role as animal caretaker and he simply shrugged.

“What’s it made of?” he asked, inspecting the can.

I was surprised by the question. “Meat, I guess,” I said. I read the ingredients more closely and translated what little I could.

“Meat,” Abuelo repeated. He placed the can back into refrigerator and went about his day. As did I.

The next time I took a can over to Eve’s house, I became curious about the dog food. It didn’t smell like any meat I had ever tasted, but this was the U.S., there were foods here I had never smelled or eaten before. As Peanut ate her fill I dared to take a pinch of food out of the can and place it into my mouth. I didn’t swallow it, but the taste lingered. My curiosity satisfied, I knew I’d never do that again, yet I still blushed, embarrassed at my own bravado.

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Months later, as Christmas season approached, I recognized something familiar was happening in the kitchen. I knew that hollow sound of pots and pans ringing without purpose, of the refrigerator light glaring at its ribs, of the desperation in the voices of the grown-ups as they fought over supplies to feed their young. For dinner Abuelo cooked these greasy stews that filled us up with hot water, but later that night my mother called my brother and me into her bedroom and she sneaked a slice of Spam into our mouths. On those occasions, I only pretended to brush my teeth. I looked forward to going to bed with that taste locked in my mouth, swirling my tongue around and around until sleep defeated me.

School lunch was another reason to look forward to school days, and I don’t remember if we were coached or not but we didn’t reveal to anyone that we showed up without having breakfast. It was all temporary–that’s what we were told at home. No sense letting anyone else in on our shame. It was the same silence we had to keep about how many people were actually living at home. Since many of us were undocumented, we didn’t want to invite any scrutiny from neighbors, teachers, post office workers–any one of them was a phone call away from the immigration authorities. We allowed no one to look in and we certainly didn’t leak anything out.

At about this time Abuela started feeding us vitamins, huge red pills the size of a toy car–or so we joked. It was also a thing of humor to stand in a line with my brother and my eight cousins, each one of us taking our turn as Abuela shoved that monster pill down our throats. “Don’t choke, don’t choke!” the others chanted as Abuela made sure the pill was swallowed.

I can only imagine what the grown-ups went through to protect us children from really seeing what was happening in that household. If my older cousins understood they didn’t share it with us younger ones. And when I figured it out, I also went to lengths to keep my knowledge a secret from those younger than me. That moment happened when Abuelo prepared a casserole he called lasagna. It was an Italian dish, he bragged, and he was particularly proud of this because he used the oven, which was a feature of the stove none of the women in the family had occasion to operate.

As we gathered in the living room to watch TV the smell wafted among us and that made our mouths water. I thought that perhaps this might be the turning point we had all been waiting for, the sign of better times to come. It was customary for the children to eat first, so all ten of us squeezed around the table to receive a serving of this fancy lasagna dish Abuelo had made.

I didn’t admit it to myself at first but there was a familiar smell on my plate. I couldn’t quite place it so I thought that perhaps it was my mind reaching back to a flavor I had not had the pleasure of enjoying since the kitchen went bare. But when I took the first bite, I remembered: it was Peanut’s food from the can. The others didn’t know this. Their responses to the food were mixed. Some took a few bites and then started to eat around the meat, and others ate the meat willingly. It was lasagna, it was Italian food, it was supposed to taste funny. But the pasta was soft and the tomato sauce was tasty. It would do.

The sound of chewing around me was deafening, and it took me back to that moment I had experienced hunger once before, when my father disappeared. Suddenly it all came back to me–how it felt as if my guts were tying knots around each other, how I came across a candle on my mother’s bureau, the one that released the scent of cinnamon, and how I couldn’t figure out how those teeth marks had gotten there, but now I did. I had always heard the grown-ups say that I would never be able to tell when my body was stretching because it happened gradually. But something inside me grew in an instant and I felt like shattering.

Abuelo was standing at a distance. His face appeared pleased somehow, maybe curious about how effectively he had deceived us. I wanted to detect some cruelty in his gesture but I didn’t find any. Instead, I saw sadness in its pure form for the very first time. It was a look of defeat, as if he had wanted us to reject this food, to spit it out and cry foul, to accuse him with fits of anger that he had fed us dog food. It would be a moment of truth for all of us, to finally admit that this moving from one country to another had not solved our problems, had not delivered on a promise to lift us out of poverty, to satiate our hunger. And that would have meant that all this sacrifice, all this hope we had packed into our bags, all this hiding and secret-keeping, had been for nothing. I could either rip this whole theater apart and end the dream for all of us, or I could triumph over the test that had been set before me. Eat it or beat it back to Mexico.

“Are you going to eat your food?” one of my cousins asked.

I looked down at my plate. I had scarcely touched it. My fork was still buried in the entrails of the dog food lasagna. The moment of reckoning was in my hands. I was no longer the boy who belonged to the Alcalá women, I was now a young man who had joined the hardscrabble lives of the González family. Yet I knew that I had abandoned the stage of innocence even before I left Mexico, I just wasn’t ready to see the impoverished world as it really was, as it would continue to be. And so, without any further fear, I scooped out a generous portion of the lasagna and stuffed it into my mouth.

—Rigoberto González

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Rigoberto González is the author of fifteen books of poetry and prose, and the editor of Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing. He is the recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, winner of the American Book Award, The Poetry Center Book Award, The Shelley Memorial Award of The Poetry Society of America, and a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He won the 2014 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for his book Unpeopled Eden (Four Way Books, 2013). He is contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine, on the executive board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, and is professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey.

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