30 March 2006

Cather, Willa. Lucy Gayheart (1935). New York: Vintage Classics, 1995.

I have the blues. The semester is nearing completion, and the month of May—May! doesn’t everything incredible happen in May?—is coming up, the month when I can start reading the books I want and need to read, like, for instance, the new Leavitt biography of Turing, Vollman’s Europe Central, one hundred thousand other books scattered around my room, and but I can’t yet because I’ve still got books printed on syllabi to get through. Lucy Gayheart is such a book. I got through it. It wasn’t difficult, being all of 190 pages. Lucy is a girl from a small Nebraska town who leaves for Chicago to study the piano. Soon she begins accompanying for a world-class tenor, and they fall in love. Halfway through the book he drowns, and we spend the rest of the time looking at the small town looking at Lucy, who’s returned home but no one knows exactly why.

I think it was the single-threadedness of the plot that was unsatisfying. Also, I’m not sure what Willa is saying with this novel. Good people often die before their time? Love that is pure (for one’s art, for one’s artists) cannot last, is destined for doom? I think Cather’s career is a bell curve—are all writers’?—one that began strong with the first Nebraska novels and peaked gorgeously with The Professor’s House and (maybe) Archbishop, and then went south. I wonder what Cather scholars would think of such a claim. I wonder how terrible her last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, due next week, will be.

Finally, I’m a bit of a collector of failed drag names (Fellatia Sorejaws, Chlamydia Claptrap), and this novel’s got a pretty good one. Spelled Loosey, of course.

29 March 2006

Homes, A.M. "Georgica." Things You Should Know. New York: Perennial, 2002.

I reread this story last night to prepare myself for teaching it this afternoon, and it's rare that rereading stories for this purpose does much for me—that is, it's never as good as the initial experience of discovering the story for the first time. This time, though, it was. It was better, really. I wrote "yes" in the white space at the end of the story and underlined it twice.

Quick plot: a woman who was in a terrible car accident caused by her drunken fiancee ends the marriage and begins to want children. Rather than date men, she starts leaving condoms on lifeguard stands, then sneaking around the dunes at night watching them have sex with their girlfriends. The condoms she takes, then syringes (verb? "siphons"?) out the semen, and then implants it inside of her.

The story is immediately great in the way it establishes sympathies on the part of the reader and then keeps it up. I sort of love this woman, and I want to give her money and good food and all my best clothes, and I want to be able to climb into her womb and smash the sperm and egg together with my own bare hands. She deserves a child so much, and it's weird because I don't think anyone "deserves" children. I think the way the story makes me feel this has something to do with the point of view—third-person limited—or at least this is what I'm going to try to get past my students today.

Oh, here's a quote. A long one:
If he knew, would he think she was a crook, stealing him without his knowledge, or would he think it was nice to be desired, had from this strange distance?

Another boy, older, walks barefoot down the warm boards of the bathhouse, his feet moving fast and high, as if dancing on hot coals. She stays through the morning. He is not the only one, there are others. It is a constant low-key sex play, an ever-changing tableau.

This year they have new suits, their standard Speedos replaced with baggy red trunks. Beneath their trunks, they are naked, cocksure, tempting, threatening. It is always right there, the bulge, enjoying the rub of the fabric, the shrinking chill of the sea.

She watches how they work, how they sweep the deck of the bathhouse, set up umbrellas, how they respond to authority—taking direction from the man with the clipboard. Before settling on two or three of the strongest, most dominant, she watches them play with each other. She chooses the one with the smoothest chest, and another with white hair, like feathers fanning out, crawling up his stomach, a fern bleached blond.

They are becoming themsleves as she is losing herself.

24 March 2006

Cather, Willa. Shadows on the Rock (1931). New York: Vintage, 1971.

I'm tardy. Not only did I finish this book yesterday, but I also discussed it in class. It's over like my early twenties are and yet it's my duty to say something about it. How unfortunate that I don't even have my copy in front of me.

You probably shouldn't read this novel, I think, and we as a class kind of agreed. I mean you have only X number of reading hours in your life and there's no reason to read all of Cather's oeuvre so you'll of course have to skip over at least one of her novels and if it is only one (though really you could skip over several) this should be it. It takes place over the course of a year in Quebec City in 1697. Yes, that seventeenth century. So what happens from, like, November to, like, June, it seems, is that all waterways to Quebec City freeze up and make any kind of trading or news-bringing impossible for people living there in an age before the Internet and air travel.

This is nice to consider for a while, particularly if you read this novel when you are snowed in, as I did, this week. Imagine living in a tight-knit community (pop. 2000 ca. 1690) in which you get no news whatever from the outside world. Also, you're living on a large rock amid rivers that are frozen solid. Imagine the colors and the grey, diffused light of your already short day. If Cather does anything well, here, it's evoke such things. (This is the time I'd have a quote for you but let's just take my word for it.)

Oh, also medicine. The main character is an apothecary, and much of the fun of this book is watching him do things with pine branches to cure various characters who are "dropsiacal," or to prescribe "liquorice" for an infant's cough. He takes a stance against bloodletting, though. Also grinding up human skulls. People apparently once thought this healing, and without having tried tht cure myself who am I to say it wasn't?

22 March 2006

Marryat, Frederick. The King's Own (1830). Ithaca: McBooks P, 1999.

Look at this:
Congratulate me, reader, that, notwithstanding I have been beating against wind and tide, that is to say, writing this book, through all the rolling and pitching, headache and indigestion ... I have arrived at my last chapter. You may be surprised at this assertion, finding yourself in the middle of the third volume; but such is the fact.... Give me the bottle of wine—and, as [this book] rushes into the sea of public opinion ... I christen her "The King's Own."

And now that she is afloat, I must candidly acknowledge that I am not exactly pleased with her (334-35).
This is one of dozens such authorial intrustions and doubtings that fill this book, and be aware that later in the very chapter (no. 49 of 60) that opens with the above passage, a character hears a quick summary of what's gone on so far and says such a story would make a great novel. This book is more self-aware than John Barth's morning bathroom-mirror ministrations; sure makes postmodern fiction look like old hat. A 125-year-old hat.

This novel is a seafaring, swashbuckling story. It's got all the tropes and characters you'd associate with it. It's like Master & Commander, I guess, having not seen it. There's lots of romance and bloodshed and excitement and pathos and everything. And it's my favorite book I've read all year, with the possible exception of the new Didion. I think why it's my favorite has something to do with the high amounts of drama and tension and detail, but also with the narrator above, the way this very straightforward, plot-driven adventure novel is told to us by a very direct and near presence. It's like listening to a storyteller, and putting your faith in him to deliver the goods. A movie of this book would be awful because you can't film narration. You can't film authorial intrusion.

Or maybe you can. Maybe the pull behind auteur-theory and the films it embraces is the way these films create a single individual presence. The constanty moving camera of Magnolia. The pinks and poise of The Royal Tenenbaums. The self awareness of Godard. It's like your hand's being held. No it's not like that, it's like you're sitting next to an amiable friend.

I'm rambling. I like the presence of other people. I'm amazed how imaginary people can feel so real and so close by words on a page. I welcome the illusion, John Barth. Stop writing stories that tell me I'm silly to do this.

15 March 2006

Coupland, Douglas. Hey, Nostradamus! New York: Bloomsbury, 2003.

Here’s my favorite part of this book (or at least what I noted as such, last night, just before finishing; this book was read sporatically, in bed, over the course of a few weeks, which is not an ideal reading approach, but anyway):
Autumn? Autumn was time of sorting out the daffodil bulbs with their malathion stink, brushing their onionskin coatings from overly thick sweaters knit by two grandmothers who refused to speak English while they carded wool. Winters were spent in the rain, grooming the fields—I was raised to believe that the opposite of labor is theft, not leisure. I remember my boots sinking in mud that tried to steal my knees, its sucking noise (222-32).
The voice here is artful, tender, and authentic. It comes at the end of a book structured in four parts, where each part allows a different character to narrate, and maybe because all the others are relatively young (compared to the sixty-something narrator above) they sound like boring young people either trying too clumsily to grab at something poignant or dodging poignancy all together in the name of style. “After I left Dad, my choice was to either become very drunk or write this. I chose to write this. It felt kind of now-or-never for me (101),” is an illustrative example found pretty much at random.

There’s a ton of this sort of thing throughout the book, and if I were more on top of my game I’d call it Couplandian. I’ve read his Microserfs, Generation X, Girlfriend in a Coma, and Life after God, and what’s lasted for me of those books (particularly the last two) is a vague spirituality or even supernaturalism that I think is supposed to be a path to revelation or redemption but for me has usually been an obstacle to same. I think I remember liking GenX best, but like with Microserfs there was something about its redemption-through-Legos story that I found a little too cute. Maybe that’s it. Maybe Coupland can’t resist the cute or the light. Maybe he doesn’t want to.

In Nostradamus, though, we get a number of characters that seem only to exist in order to die so that others can have things to think about. The effect of this is the first character/narrator, Cheryl (who is narrating as a dead person, we soon learn), is supposed to set up a backdrop or mood to the novel, but I ended up forgetting her easily. First off, she’s only a ghost, and second she’s so without flaw that she becomes even less real than a ghost. And then, as other characters narrate and either die (physically or emotionally) or otherwise disappear, we’re left only with survivors, namely Reg, who narrated that longish passage above. Reg has for most of the book been an unflinching fundamentalist in his faith, and his section operates mostly as an apology. It’s lovely in places. For so long, the book, for me, seemed to be equating pure faith in a god as purely evil—the way that, with people for whom their god is such an intrinsic part of their self, devotion to that god is little more than selfishness, self-obsession—and but actually I think by the end of the book this remains its message. Reg writes an extended apology, atoning for behavior that has left him lonely and miserable. Coupland’s saying that faith is only good in the service of the self as citizen. Or simply that faith should be a way to come toward others, not pull yourself apart from them.

I have no idea whence the title, though it too is Couplandian. 'Sup, Buddha? would be another obvious choice.

Schlosser, Eric. Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market. Audiocassette. Simon & Schuster, 2003.

This was a book on tape, listened to on a 12-hour drive home from Austin, Tex. (very enjoyable, thanks for asking). I read Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation years ago, and was impressed by the thoroughness of his research and the compellingness of his argument that eating fast food regularly isn’t just dangerous to the self, but dangerous to the society as well.

This book isn’t as cohesive as its predecessor; Schlosser (or, probably, his publisher) seems to be riding the wave of his book’s success by culling three pieces of prior journalism and research into one volume. There’s a connection—marijuana, migrant labor, and pornography are things we Americans want very badly and yet because of their relative “naughtiness” are forced into the underground, where their effect on our national economy is hard to measure—but this connection is set up in the opening and not really developed in the individual pieces. Sure, you get to know a lot about pot and porn and illegal immigrants, lots of it historical, but the economic side of things wasn’t explored as much as I was hoping for. I know now what would happen to our criminal justice system if marijuana possession and use was legalized tomorrow (which, I’m convinced, it should be), but what would happen if the money made from the selling of pot were to, I dunno, stop being made? Who would it hurt, and how much? And does this tie into porno in any way?

My pal T. read from the book a distaste toward trial attorneys and criminal prosecutors. “They’re so many of them in this country,” he said. “Of course they’re going after soft, harmless criminals. Otherwise they’d get bored.” And I had to agree, after listening to examples of prosecutors (named and nameless) gaining life sentences for people who merely introduced sellers to buyers, or corporate lawyers organizing and funding dummy citizens’ groups in order to stave off unions. I think in the end, the book is a paean to the individual, and the rights of the individual. It is extremely critical of the idea of a free market. “Freedom for whom?” it asks. Schlosser does a good job of showing, um, listeners, in this instance, that freedom for corporations rarely, if ever, means freedom for consumers.

And also: freedom from what? I want that word to be dropped like lint from the fabric of our contemporary discourse. And no, I’m not happy with that simile, either.

02 March 2006

Cather, Willa. Death Comes for the Archbishop (1827). New York: Vintage, 1971.

Though this book gets the award for Cather’s best title ever, I think it’s my least favorite of hers, of those I’ve read of course. I’m not quite sure what my thoughts are on the book, so I’ve waited until after class to write this annotation. I noticed this was a big departure for Willa, being not at all about the Plains (not at all, in no way do they enter into this novel), and also not featuring a central character who is observed through another. This novel is set up with a single situation—the U.S. has annexed New Mexico, and the Americans, Mexicans, and Indians who are there need to be assimilated as both Americans and American Catholics, and so Father Latour is sent by the Vatican to be bishop to this land and unite its peoples—and then the action is all episodic. A chapter starts, we meet some people and know their situation, the whole thing is resolved with ease, and the chapter wraps up and those people/situations never come back in the novel.

I thought it was the book’s main flaw. Not only is causality removed from the book, but obstacles and any form of suspense are as well. There are really no complications whatever in the book. But then, after class, I see this as a design of Cather’s, and it’s actually quite brilliant. Well.... Okay so you have a book called what this is called and so you know before turning past the cover what’s happening at the end. The bishop will die. Considering that most narratives end before their protagonist’s death (how early before that death, of course, is what makes ending a novel so tricky), the novel can’t be driven by the reader’s interest in how it will end. Even if we’re curious how he’ll die, we know it will end with his death. And so what your narrative frame becomes, then, is the life of the character. The whole life. This book follows Father Latour until his death, which makes his general life drive the plot, and if we look realistically at our own lives, we’ll see that life is episodic, not incremental. We have a span of years. Key people enter into our lives during this time. We live through this situation until it ends. We persevere until the next big thing comes along. We die, eventually. We try our best to read cause-effect relationships, but they usually aren’t there. This book, I think, says such a thing is okay.

So it’s a good book for putting your own life into perspective. I can think of my life right now as The Chapter in Which I Go to Graduate School. And while it will affect what is to come afterward, I don’t have to worry so much about causality. This chapter will end one day, and I’ll turn the page and simply start the next one.